Interview: Jungyeob Ji; program director of Korean Film Festival in Australia

Interview: Jungyeob Ji; program director of Korean Film Festival in Australia. By Simon Miraudo.

Korean cinema has undergone something of a renaissance in the past ten years. After decades of political turbulence and stifling governmental censorship, a batch of exciting filmmakers have emerged eager to share their occasionally-shocking, often-hilarious, and always-passionate art. Some of the best films of the naughties came from South Korea: Bong Joon-ho‘s Memories of Murder, Na Hong-jin‘s The Chaser, and Park Chan-wook‘s Vengeance Trilogy, which includes Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Side Note: I wrote my Honours thesis on this very trilogy – yes, I too have fallen under the spell of Korean cinema).

On October 1st 2010, The First Korean Film Festival in Australia will debut at Dendy Opera Quays in Sydney. The five-day fest will highlight some of the best recent releases from Korea, as well as panels featuring a number of esteemed special guests, including notable producers, directors and scholars. KOFFIA will open with Bong Joon-ho’s acclaimed Mother, and close with the offbeat dramedy Castaway on the Moon (the producer and director of which will also be in attendance). Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid (which recently played in competition for the Palme d’Or at Cannes) will also screen at the festival.

KOFFIA‘s Program Director Jungyeob Ji offered to answer some questions about this year’s selection of films – and Korean cinema in general – via email. (You can find out more about the festival here.)

SM: Tell me a little bit about your relationship with Korean cinema?

JJ: Well, I have to say that I am Korean-Australian, and love movies. Korean films happen to be something that I am very familiar with. I also worked in Korea as an assistant director for few years.

SM: Can you tell me about the formation of KOFFIA? What was the inspiration for starting up a Korean Film Festival in Australia?

JJ: The Consulate-General of the Republic of Korea in Sydney approached us at first, and to be precise, there have been various Korean film festivals in Australia, organised by various institutions. When we took on the job, we really felt we needed to break away from all the Korean film festivals held previously in Australia, because we didn’t exactly feel the presence of Korean film festivals and Korean cinema were very strong in Australia. We really wanted to create a durable image for the future of Korean film festivals in Australia. I am not sure our staff for this year will be part of the next year’s KOFFIA, but I hope our efforts will not go wasted. Obviously a good film festival does not happen in one year.

SM: You’ve lined up an impressive number of guests and panelists for the festival. Were most receptive to the idea of being involved with KOFFIA?

JJ: Yes, I say, all of them were excited, and happy to be involved with KOFFIA. In fact, even if they were not able to come to Sydney, they have all contributed to KOFFIA in their own ways. They gave us advice, and recommendations when they were not able to come as a guest.

SM: Is there a running theme that you wanted to capture with this year’s selection of movies?

JJ: Well, most of all what we really tried is to create a sense of diversity in our selection. I can’t really say that if there is a consistent running theme. However, some of our films definitely do have something in common. In fact, I think a sense of history and society is usually very prominent in Korean cinema.

SM: Films like Castaway on the Moon and Mother (as well as much of Bong Joon-ho’s back catalogue) feature a combination of confronting drama with occasional-slapstick comedy. The tone of these films is very much unique to Korean cinema. Why do you think that is?

JJ: Firstly, I think these films and their tone reflect Korean society and its history; for example, a sense of violent historical past, and traces of rapid modernisation at that. Korean films capitalize on this really well. Often the conflict between these two turns out to be an absurd and comical one. Characters must survive in a flux of these two waves. Secondly, I think, both Hey-Jun Lee and Bong-Joon Ho, they are profoundly interested in the behaviour of individuals living in a rigid and very structured society such as Korea. In fact, I believe a lot of Korean film directors more or less share this same interest although their approach might be completely different. However, what really strikes me about directors such as Bong Joon Ho and Hey-Jun Lee is that they are really interested in mixing genres, and expanding their film beyond the usual scope of one particular genre. You might say a lot of film directors do this, and that’s true. But not many directors succeed in this, and injecting a slapstick comedy into a serious drama is especially hard.

SM: Are there any other elements of Korean cinema that you feel are unique, especially in contrast to American or British films?

JJ: Well, I guess in a way this goes back to the previous question. In my opinion, British films and American films tend to be rather generic. Of course, Korean cinema does have its own share of fairly generic films, and I am certainly not talking about every American and British film. Overall, I think Korean audiences are a lot more tolerant toward hybrid genre films than American, British and Australian audiences. Thus, in Korea, many filmmakers are able to or at least try to do something different, and subsequently those films broaden the audiences’ cinematic sensibilities.

SM: Which film at the festival are you most looking forward to sharing with audiences?

JJ: All of them! Please do come along. We play only 8 films, and each film was a tough choice to make when we were selecting.

SM: Are there any films that aren’t playing at the festival that you would recommend Australians should keep an eye out for?

JJ: Really, there are a lot of Korean films. I wouldn’t really know where to start. So I will just talk about films made in 2010. Poetry, director of Secret Sunshine, Lee Chang-dong’s latest. It won the award at this year’s Cannes film festival. I haven’t seen it myself yet, but I am sure Lee Chang-dong will not disappoint you. Paju may be a film for you or not. It really divides the audience although the film is hardly controversial. Any recent film from very prolific Hong Sang-soo. He’s been making one or two films per every year. I don’t even know the title of his latest film, but I always catch up with his films. Moss, Invincible and Late Autumn… the list is truly endless.

The Korean Film Festival in Australia runs from October 1 to October 5 at Dendy Opera Quays.

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