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A look back at the year's breakout films

In 2011, Korean films brought attention to the individuals and issues that have otherwise remained unaddressed, underrepresented, or simply unexplored. While the questions posed by these films varied, provoking responses ranging from angry shock to laughter and sympathy, all called for a collective reconsideration of the social dynamics and relationships that can be found in Korean society today.

Scenes from Dogani (Photos courtesy of CJ E&M)

The film Dogani, also known as The Crucible, is based on actual events that took place at a Gwangju school for the hearing-impaired, where young students were the victims of repeated sexual assaults by faculty members over a period of five years. Depicting both the crimes and the court proceedings that let the teachers off with minimal punishment, the film sparked public outrage upon its September release, which eventually resulted in a reopening of the investigations into the incidents. With over 4 million people in Korea having watched the film, the demand for legislative reform reached all the way to the National Assembly, where a revised bill, dubbed the Dogani Bill, was passed in late October to abolish the statute of limitations for sex crimes against minors and the disabled.

After Dogani’s release, the bestselling book of the same name by author Gong Ji-young, which first recounted the crimes and provided the bulk of the film’s content, topped national bestseller lists for the first time in two years. The film also played in 15 theatres in the United States under a new English title, Silenced. Conversations about the film and its impact reemerged when the Samsung Economic Research Institute (SERI) released its annual survey of the year’s top ten consumer favorites on December 7. Based on a poll of market analysts and nearly 8,000 consumers, SERI’s “Korea’s Top Ten Hits of 2011” ranked Dogani among the year’s top events.

Yoo Ah-in (left), Kim Yoon-seok (right) star in the film Punch (Photos courtesy of CJ Entertainment)

The film Punch, which opened in October, surpassed the 5-million-viewer mark and cast its light on the pockets of diversity that are coming to shape Korea’s society. Starring Yoo Ah-in and Kim Yoon-suk, the film follows the budding mentor-mentee relationship forged between a rebellious high school student from a poor household and his meddlesome homeroom teacher who moves in next door. In addition to the comedic antics of the eccentric duo, the story brought to the forefront several of the less recognized features of a changing Korean cultural landscape: intercultural marriage and multicultural households, a growing population of migrant workers, an education system narrowly focused on preparation for university entrance examinations, and the economic vulnerability of the disabled.

The film’s popularity grew through word of mouth, with an unprecedented number of schools, government offices, and private companies arranging for group viewings. Commenting on the positive reception, director Lee Han told Yonhap News that the seemingly eclectic ensemble of characters who appear in Punch, though they rarely receive the limelight, are present and active as members of Korean society. Lee spoke of how the warmth and honesty with which he tried to portray these characters and introduce their daily lives has resonated with viewers.

Since the film’s release, Filipina actress Jasmine Lee, a naturalized Korean, has become well-known for playing the mother of the young protagonist. The recognition of her performance as an actress has also brought publicity to her social activities as the secretary general of Waterdrop, a charity she formed for migrant women, and as one of the first non-Korean civil servants at the Seoul Global Center. Her connection to the film has increased recognition of the variety of services available for foreigners living in Korea.

2011 was also a year of achievements for Korea’s independent films. Early in the year, Re-encounter, Bleak Night, and The Journals of Musan, all feature-film debuts for up-and-coming directors, opened to overwhelmingly positive popular and critical reception.

Scenes from Re-encounter (Photos courtesy of Indiestory)

Re-encounter tells the story of a young 23-year-old veterinarian’s assistant, who, carrying unhealed wounds of young motherhood and young love, looks for meaning in her life. The film won director Min Yong-geun the award for best director in the Korean Cinema Today: Vision category at the 15th annual Busan International Film Festival, and also received the Best Film Prize at the 36th Seoul Independent Film Festival.

Director Yoon Seung-hyeon’s Bleak Night, which sounds out the tragic pains and joys of youth and friendship, begins with the death of a high-school student and invites viewers into the complicated and conflicted world of three impressionable young boys. After receiving the New Currents Award at Busan, Bleak Night, which was Yoon’s film academy graduation project, gained acclaim in the international arena as one of the most admired Tiger Award candidates at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The film later won the Young Judge Award at the Geneva Black Movie Film Festival and the International Critics’ Association Award at the 35th Hong Kong International Film Festival.

The Journals of Musan, written and directed by and starring by Park Jung-bum premiered alongside Bleak Night as a New Currents Award winner at the Busan International Film Festival. The buzz surrounding Journals of Musan spread soon after, and the film went on to receive 16 honors at various film festivals worldwide, including the Marrakech International Film Festival in Morocco, the Deauville Asian Film Festival in France, Russia’s Andrei Tarkovsky Film Festival, the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, and most recently, the Tokyo FilmEX. Based on the actual experiences of a young North Korean defector that Park befriended in college, the film and its unsentimental depictions of the hardships that North Korean defectors face in South Korean society have continued to collect the commendations of international critics.

A still from the film Bleak Night (Photo courtesy of the Korean Academy of Film Arts)

The realistic views offered by these films, in lieu of superficial or overly tidy presentations, regarding issues such as teen pregnancy, the angst of youth, and social marginalization, appear to have resonated not only with film critics but also filmgoers. During their respective runs, the films each attracted over 10,000 viewers, a number that is widely regarded as an indicator of exceptional commercial success in Korea’s indie film world.

Despite minimal promotion, Re-encounter and The Journals of Musan sold tickets amounting to 10,939 and 10,828 viewers, respectively. Over 20,000 people attended showings of Bleak Night. Both Re-encounter and Bleak Night were sponsored in part by the Korean Film Council and the Seoul Film Commission, who covered half of the films’ production costs. The production team for Re-encounter later made headlines for donating all of the proceeds from ticket sales to film and arts organizations such as the Seoul Independent Film Festival and MediACT.

Filmgoers will have a final opportunity to go to the cinema to watch the year’s critically acclaimed movies, including Re-encounter, The Journals of Musan, and Bleak Night, at the screening event, “Last Propose at Cinecode Sonje” (www.artsonje.org/asc/kor/cinecodesonje.asp, Korean). The annual year-end event, which has been held since 2000 at a Daehangno venue, will run this year from December 22 to January 11 in the Jongno district.
By Kwon Jungyun
Korea.net Staff Writer

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