By Paolo Bertolin
UDINE, Italy ㅡ With 13 recent films mostly unreeled in their international and European premiere, Korean cinema is once again under media spotlight at the Far East Film Festival (FEFF) taking place in Udine, a North East Italian city.
"Rules of Dating (Yonaeui Mokjok)"
Now in its eighth edition, the fast-growing event claims primacy among Western film festivals concerned with Asian cinema. Certainly a one-of-a-kind format among film festivals that commonly tend to focus on art-movies, FEFF proves the global appeal of mainstream Asian productions, as press officials stress record-breaking figures in international accredited press and report screenings continuously playing to full capacity.
Among the seventy films from East Asia blending into the enticing FEFF menu, the Korean ones retain a prominent spot indeed, as both opening and closing soirees happen to showcase Chungmuro productions. On Friday, April 21, Han Jae-rim’s unflinching debut "Rules of Dating (Yonaeui Mokjok)” played as curtain raiser, whereas on Saturday, April 29 Park Kwang-hyun’s huge domestic hit "Welcome to Dongmakgol” will perform wrapping up honours in its European premiere.
Apart from the strategic slots allotted the two titles, Korean films were no doubt the talk of the town in Udine. At the moment of writing, only four, less than half of the total, had actually screened, yet for various reasons, three of them were amidst the centre of debate. Sparking controversy was first and foremost the depiction of a sex battle and gender politics sketched by Han in "Rules of Dating.”
To most viewers in Udine, the storyline and the unexpected twists in its plot _ involving teaching practitioner Hong (played by Gang Hye-jung) and her supervisor Yu-rim (Park Hae-il), who forcibly attempts to bed her _ raised questions of plausibility and moral relativism.
At first many were baffled and startled by Hong not denouncing Yu-rim’s unpleasant and escalating molestation. Not resorting to action even when she becomes a victim of rape, Hong left audiences in wonder about Korean standards of tolerance towards sexual harassment and sexual abuse of women.
Yet, even more disconcerting is Hong finally surrendering to Yu-rim’s proposals and fuelling a steamy relationship with him. Although some resented the cunning manipulations in scriptwriting, betraying a visible underlying streak of misogyny, the film’s slick ability to engage audiences into a provocative take on sexual inequality was universally acknowledged and mirrored in lively post-screening disputes.
Albeit very diverse in tone and style, "See You After School (Panggwahu Oksang)” by Lee Seok-hoon and "The Art of Fighting (Ssaumui Kisul)” by Shin Ha-sol, perhaps because both wisely screened last Sunday, elicited similar pondering and queries over schooling in Korea and on the ever-popular issue of the representation of violence in Korean films.
Italian viewers find it hard to believe and accept that school instructors in Korea are seemingly allowed a quotient of physical punishment towards their pupils, in as much as they gathered from Lee and Shin’s films, notwithstanding a related and congruent sequence in "Rules of Dating.”
To Westerners’ eyes, prevarications of hoodlums and school fights in "Art of Fighting” and "See You After School” also appear over-the-top, inducing suspicions of self-complaisance. Despite such remarks, both films garnered applause, with "See You after School” scoring more than a sporadic open scene ovation to Bong Tae-kyu’s comedic prowess.
Screening in a matinee, the fourth Korean film already presented in Udine, Oh Seok-geun’s "Love Is a Crazy Thing (Yonae),” a sensitive drama portraying a woman’s sad descent into prostitution, met a polite yet unenthusiastic response.
Beside "Welcome to Dongmakgol,” Korean titles coming up in the next few days include Jang Jin’s tight thriller "Murder, Take One (aka "The Big Scene,” Paksuchil Ttae Ttonara),” Min Kyu-dong’s ensemble piece "All for Love (Nae Saengae Kajang Arumdaun Iljuil)” and Choi Equan’s subdued horror "Voice (Yogogoedam 4: Moksori),” plus a fourteenth addition, the 1956 "Double-Curve of Youth” by Han Yeong-mo, featured in a retrospective sidebar devoted to musicals and aptly named "Asia Sings!”