Korean Film Festival in Australia 2023 (Melbourne) – Festival Review

Ever since 2019, the Korean Film Festival in Australia has grown to become one of my favourite annual events on the calendar.

In collaboration with the Consulate of the Republic of Korea in Melbourne and the Korean Cultural Centre AU, the 2023 Korean Film Festival celebrated its 14th anniversary during its Melbourne season at ACMI, with no less than 12 excellent films across five days from September 7 to 11.

I had the wonderful honour of attending the opening reception hosted by the Consul-General of the Republic of Korean in Melbourne, Mr Changhoon Yi. His passionate speech proudly acknowledged the talents that South Koreans have showcased globally in the arts, including cinema. With Bong Joon-ho cleaning up the 2019 Academy Awards taking home Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film for ‘Parasite (기생충, Gisaengchung)’, as well as the buzz around Park Chan-wook’s ‘Decision To Leave (헤어질 결심, Heeojil gyeolsim)’ only last year, I couldn’t agree more. It is evident that Korean cinema keeps getting better, which is why attending this year’s Korean Film Festival was so exciting.

This speech was followed by Mr Peter Casey AM’s beautiful speech about not only his love for South Korea, but specifically his involvement in the original stage production of ‘Hero (영웅, Yeong-ung)’. I had chosen a handful of films to watch at this year’s festival and ‘Hero’ was one of them. Surprisingly, I had decided to see the film not even knowing that it was a musical movie adapted from the original Korean stage musical of the same name that Mr Casey had orchestrated and won awards for; ‘Best Orchestration’ at both the 2010 16th Korea Musical Awards and the 4th Korea Musical Theatre Awards. After hearing this speech, not only was I stoked to have unintentionally chosen to see a Korean musical movie, but as someone who is a fan of both theatre and film, I was so pleased that my two greatest loves had come together and I already had a ticket for it!

During the opening reception, there was a lovely string quartet performance of music from the film ‘Life Is Beautiful (인생은 아름다워, Insaeng-eun Aleumdawo)’, but there was also a massive table of brochures on tourism of South Korea and I took as many as I could carry! Although I have long followed K-Pop before it was cool, have a deep love for Korean cinema, and had watched K-dramas for many years before streaming services were even a thing, I must confess I have never been to South Korea. It’s something that I need and hope to do in the not-too-distant future.

This large table with tourism books was available and accessible throughout the entire Melbourne season of the festival, placed in the corner of the cinema, clearly visible before turning to take your seat. Throughout the sessions I attended, I witnessed many patrons eagerly plucked brochures to take home with them. Every film session also had the KOFFIA team do a little pop-quiz before the film to give away boxes of delicious Atomy Apple Crisps. I managed to obtain my own during the opening night and let me tell you, I’ve been munching on them ever since!

Despite the Melbourne season having 12 films, I could sadly only make it to 4 this year. Although it’s still an improvement from my attendance last year with seeing only 3! This year I caught ‘The Night Owl’, ‘Confession’, ‘Nothing Serious’, and ‘Hero’.

‘The Night Owl (올빼미, Olbbaemi)’ is an excellent period drama-thriller and was perfectly fitting for opening night. Starring Ryu Jun-yeol as Kyung-soo, the blind acupuncturist, takes upon a job at the royal clinic so that he can make enough money to help provide a better life for his sick younger brother that he is the sole carer for. Unfortunately, Kyung-soo finds himself caught in the middle of political chaos. With death, secrets, and power-hungry fiends surrounding him, Kyung-soo finds himself conflicted on whether he should speak the truth or stay silent to survive.

Directed by Ahn Tae-jin, I found this movie to be gripping with excellent pacing and full of suspense. The costuming and filming locations in this movie were also very stunning and I had wondered where the filming locations were. The entire cinema audience, including myself, were gasping and hanging off the edge of our seats in the fear and anticipation of what was going to happen next to our protagonist. The twist and turns in ‘The Night Owl’ alone thoroughly impressed me and it is hands down one of the best films I have seen all year. Seeing this film on opening night also had me very excited for the rest of the festival.

‘Confession (자백, Jabaek), with its screenplay and direction by Yoon Jong-seok, starring So Ji-sub as Yoo Min-ho, Kim Yunjin as Yang Shin-ae, and Nana as Kim-Se-hee, provided viewers with a unique take on the mystery-drama genre. Based on the 2016 Spanish film ‘The Invisible Guest’, while I had not seen the original film, and although I did find the characters all very frustrating, I appreciated the way the story unfolded. The story follows Yoo Min-ho who is explaining his situation to his potential attorney Yang Shin-ae. Reluctant at first, Yoo Min-ho tale differs the more he trusts Yang Shin-ae, who insists he must tell her everything and the whole truth in order for her to thoroughly represent him in court to the best of her abilities.

While the film starts off really slow with very avoidable consequences, it is known that people do weird things under duress. The slow pacing eventually picks up into a run and soon enough, audiences are shown various scenarios, unsure and unable to guess which story is the truth! By the end, although I was initially frustrated, I was quite satisfied by the conclusion. But this is probably down more to the acting of the cast than the story alone.

Next up was ‘Nothing Serious (연애 빠진 로맨스, Yeonae Ppajin Romaenseu)’, a romance feature written and directed by Jeong Ga-young. Jeon Jong-seo stars as Ja-young, a woman in her late 20s that hates being alone, craves sex, and has anxiety about dating. Biting the bullet in the spirit of the new year, she decides to jump on the dating apps and finds Son Suk-ku‘s Woo-ri, a handsome man in his early 30s that claims he is on the same level as Ja-young, not after a serious relationship and seeking more a casual and sexual relationship. Little does Ja-young know, Woo-ri is a magazine writer for a sex column and ends up writing about all their escapades for his job. As their connection deepens the more Ja-Young and Woo-ri spend time together, the audience are left wondering whether these two will commit or will the bubble burst once Ja-young finds out that Woo-ri is writing about her without her knowledge and permission.

I loved the humour of ‘Nothing Serious’ and how confident Jeon Jong-seo’s character is, despite still looking for love. The chemistry between Jeon Jong-seo and Son Suk-ku, despite the obvious plotline, felt refreshing, raw, relatable, and incredibly honest. Their characters whether alone or with each other also remained very likable throughout the feature. After seeing this film, I realised that the romance genre usually caters to either teens or much older, none of which I can really relate to. But ‘Nothing Serious’ successfully provided us with a happy ‘in-between’ that I wholeheartedly want to see more of.

My final film for this year’s festival was ‘Hero (영웅, Yeong-ung). Directed by Yoon Je-kyoon with its screenplay written by both Yoon Je-kyoon and Han Ah-reum, the musical movie is the first even film adaptation of an original South Korean musical. Having already learnt this, I was extremely excited. Chung Sung Hwa plays the role of An Jung-geun, the Commander of the Korean Independence Army, who is famous for the assassination of Ito Hirobumi, the first Prime Minister of Japan. It was mind-blowing to learn this musical movie is based on a true story and the more the film played out, the more frustrated and angrier I became for our main characters.

I loved how the film held nothing back when it came to blood and violence, yet at the same time, it still successfully maintained a cheeky humour which was evident the main characters would interact or playfully bicker over food. The music direction and compositions by Oh Sang Joon are phenomenal. The standout performance of ‘Hero’ though would be Kim Go-eun as Seol-hee. Every moment when she would sing, especially during the two songs ‘Your Majesty, I Remember You (당신을 기억합니다 황후마마여)‘ and ‘My Dream For You (그대 향한 나의 꿈)‘, I found myself holding my breath. Even the filming style was super dramatic, playing excellent homage to its original stage counterpart and this was shown by having the characters sing into the camera, essentially looking upon the audience in the cinema and breaking the fourth wall. The score and the songs in ‘Hero’ are so beautiful, I quickly found the songs on Spotify and I have not stopped listening to them since.

I will also never forget the moment when the film played An Jung-geun‘s final number with Chung Sung Hwa serenading the audience one more time with ‘His Song (장부가)‘, I could hear almost everyone in the audience crying. I cried too! While I was crying, I couldn’t help but think how wonderful it would be to see the stage musical that this film is based on. I guess maybe one day when I go to South Korea?

It is hard to critique such a wonderful and enjoyable film festival, however, my only criticism is that I don’t believe a Monday is a good fit for the final day of any festival. I believe if the same number of days should apply, the film festival should begin on a Wednesday and end on a Sunday. I am also completely envious that the Sydney leg had many special guests but Melbourne did not. Hopefully this changes in future and we also get some special treatment with a director talk available for Melbourne patrons.

Of all the films that I was lucky to see, I would be hard pressed to pick a favourite. They were all impressive in their own way. I also regret not seeing the entire film schedule and hope that one day I can find a way to watch the ones I missed.

The 2023 Korean Film Festival in Australia is a true testament and reminder to how excellent Korean storytelling really is. I am grateful for KOFFIA, currently in its 14th year. If not for this festival, I would not have seen nor known the existence of any of these fantastic Korean films and would genuinely like to thank everyone involved who make this event possible and do so every year. I feel much more emotionally and creatively nourished from the magic of Korean cinema that I watched this year and I look forward to attending next year.

Having already visited Sydney in August and Canberra earlier this month. The Korean Film Festival in Australia Melbourne season ends tonight and the final leg of KOFFIA will end in Brisbane, beginning on September 14 and ending on the 17th.
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