London Korean Film Festival 2019: Yoo Soon-mi and Park Chan Kyong respond to Korea’s DMZ

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Still from Songs from the North (2014) by Yoo Soon-mi, Courtesy of the artist

The 14th London Korean Film Festival (LKFF) is set to take place from 1st-14th November in London before embarking on the annual tour 18th-24th November. The Special Focus, and much of this year’s festival programme, will highlight the historic milestone of 100-years of Korean cinema along with an exciting mix of UK and International premieres, guests and events across a diverse set of strands; Cinema Now, Women’s Voices, Documentary, Hidden Figures: Ha Gil-jong, Artist Video, Animation and Mise-en-scène Shorts.

This year’s Artist Video strand comes in direct response to an exhibition ‘Negotiating Borders’ at the Korean Cultural Centre UK focused on the DMZ – the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. In collaboration with LUX | Artists’ Moving Image, this film programme focuses on two distinctive voices in experimental video work, director and cinematographer Yoo Soon-mi and visual artist Park Chan Kyong.

Artist filmmaker Yoo Soon-mi’s non-fiction work incorporates avant-grade and essayistic forms to address repressed and forgotten periods of her country’s modern history. Here we present a pair of these essay films beginning with Dangerous Supplement (2005), which incorporates footage from American fighter planes bombing the North used to powerful effect. An insightful early work, the film reflects on the theme of memory that comes to inform her later pieces. In the film,  Songs from the North (2014, UK Premiere), Yoo’s acclaimed follow-up, is a visually dazzling documentary portrait of North Korea which interrogates the shared memory and collective history of North and South Korean people. The filmmaker captured her footage on three separate, tightly controlled, visits to the North and it is interwoven with material from North Korean television, films, and propaganda. The resultant work seeks to capture an image of the nation and an idea of its people.

Park Chan Kyong, whose varied work as art critic, multimedia artist and curator of large-scale exhibitions, has often revealed an engagement with recent Korean history and an ongoing interest in the division of his country. The brother of acclaimed director Park Chan-wook (The Handmaiden, Oldboy) with whom he sometimes collaborates, here three formally different works are presented from the visual artist, all of which explore the relationship between North and South Korea. Sets (2000) examining the North’s perception of South Korea by looking at the constructed sets of South Korean streets and buildings housed at the National Film Studio of North Korea. Flying (2005) examines the North-South divide by documenting the historic 2000 summit between the country’s leaders, layering news footage, controversial music and his own text to create an ambiguous work for a complex event. Finally, Believe It or Not (2018) (produced by Park Chan-wook) is a short narrative piece following a North Korean woman who makes the dangerous trip to the South and then returns back across the border. The reason for the woman’s journey, and why government officials from both sides allow her passage, is left unclear.

For further insight into the effects of the Korean War and the way in which the country’s people deal with the resultant division and trauma, the Special Focus strand, A Century of Korean Cinema features some key retrospective works that put such issues into context. Lee Kang-cheon’s Piagol (1955) finds a group of communist fighters waging war among mountain villages under the harsh leadership of a zealous commander. With its nuanced depiction of communists the controversial film was originally banned for a perceived pro-communist message. Aimless Bullet (1961) from Yu Hyun-mok, one of Korea’s most respected filmmakers and a key figure of the period, presents a powerful, downbeat view of postwar struggle as a low-level clerk attempts to earn money for his family, including a war veteran brother, a traumatised mother and a sister who is sliding into prostitution. Set in the immediate post-war period, Kim Soo-yong’s Bloodline (1963) finds societal conflict is generational, as three sets of parents find their children demanding the freedom to choose their own path as they look ahead to a brighter future unscarred by war. Based on the accounts of a real-life war correspondent and set during the war itself, Chung Ji-young’s epic drama North Korean Partisan in South Korea (Nambugun) (1990) humanises characters on both sides of the divide.

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