Thursday, 31 October 2019

A Century of Korean Cinema, from Bologna to London

A slightly longer version of a note written for the catalogue of London Korean Film Festival 2019.

"There is a grave and learned air about the city, and a pleasant gloom upon it," wrote Charles Dickens of the city of Bologna, "that would leave [a] distinct and separate impression in the mind, among a crowd of cities." Grave and learned? Maybe. Gloom? Never, or shall we say Mr Dickens didn't get there in time for Il Cinema Ritrovato's evening screening in Piazza Maggiore? He would have loved Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados which was seen this year by some 4,000 viewers.

Il Cinema Ritrovato, in Bologna, is our festival of discoveries and rediscoveries, restorations and revivals, retrospectives and repertory tributes. Thirty-three years of age, it has become a global gathering point for cinephiles, film historians, scholars and film archivists.

The juxtaposition of films from different directors, continents and decades always brings elements of surprise to the festival. This year, alongside the Egyptian Youssef Chahine, the Frenchman Jean Gabin and the American Henry King, we had the pleasure of focusing on South Korean cinema of the '60s, a period in which modernist ideas, combined with artistic rigour, created some of the most dazzling films, laying the foundation for all the great things to come in South Korean cinema.

We at Il Cinema Ritrovato love film festivals of all sizes and purposes, and it was a great honour to be able to collaborate with the London Korean Film Festival's Hyun Jin Cho as one of the two curators of a seven-film retrospective titled Under the Skies of Seoul: The Golden Age of South Korean Cinema.

The Bologna retrospective was an enormous success. Almost every single screening was packed; those enthusiasts who couldn't find a seat occupied the aisles, watching the whole film while standing or sitting on the floor. In the middle of the European heatwave, which hit Bologna hardest, that was both a test of endurance and a sign of the greatness of the films shown, justifying such physical sacrifice.

Great films aside, there arose the rare chance of meeting one of the masters of Korean cinema, and the director of over a hundred features, in person: Kim Soo-yong introduced the screenings of two of his classics, Bloodline (1963) and Mist (1967). The sharply dressed maestro, now in his early nineties, amazed the festival audience with his candid remarks, lucidity and wit.

Starting from Korean cinema's centenary celebrations and retrospective in London in early 2019, to Parasite's Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Festival (a film which owes a great deal to the key works of the '60s Korean cinema, a fact the director acknowledged in his Cannes press conference) and the programme in Bologna, this has been a great year of wonderful encounters with one of Asia's richest film cultures.

We return the gesture of our London-based Korean friends', by proudly announcing that four of the titles screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato will be shown during this edition of the London Korean Film Festival: Aimless Bullet, Goryeojang, Bloodline and A Day Off.

I can imagine Mr Dickens being not only impressed with these Korean films' portrayal of class conflict, poverty and hardship in trying to make a living in the big city, but also admiring the way they give a universal appeal to a unique, national experience.

Ehsan Khoshbakht

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