Spotlight on South Korea at the Glasgow Film Festival

Glasgow Film Festival spotlights South Korean cinema

One of 2020s highlights was the success South Korean cinema had on the world stage. With that success, many are eager to watch more great South Korean movies. Something that was very much in focus at this year’s digital Glasgow Film Festival.

The online festival hosted five movies produced in South Korea as part of its Country Focus program. Which draws attention to the works of a specific part of the world. Today we will quickly run down each movie shown in this program from worst to best. We will provide a basic plot synopsis of each movie and summarise whether you should watch them.

The Swordsman

In this story, royal guard Tae-yul has gone into hiding with his daughter Tae-ok, and is slowly going blind. Nonetheless, he is forced to take up the sword again when his daughter is captured by slaver Gurutai.

This was the program’s most disappointing entry. Unlike other acclaimed modern South Korean action films, such as A Bittersweet Life and The Villainess which had great senses of style and strong characterisation, The Swordsman feels very inert. With the choreography being flat and most of the characters feeling like stock archetypes. Unfortunately, though the actors try their best, The Swordsman doesn’t cut the mustard. Rating: 2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5).

South Korean film The Swordsman
Action in The Swordsman // Credit: Opus Pictures

Da Capo

Described as a treat for fans of Sing Street and School of Rock, Da Capo follows musician Tae-Il who returns to his hometown and helps his former bandmate Ji-Won by training a young band at her music school to enter a competition.

Those looking for something new may be disappointed by Da Capo. The story is fairly cliché, being all about a struggling musician who comes to find fulfilment in just playing music rather than being successful. The film works best if seen as a love letter to making music. Watching the main characters explore their passion is intoxicating. Also, it’s helped along by a stellar soundtrack and some creative camerawork that gets across the otherworldly wonder of creating something. It may be a familiar tune but it’s still an enjoyable listen. Rating: 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5).

Da Capo is a love letter to music
Da Capo is a love letter to music // Credits: Only One Movie and Green Tree Pictures

Voice of Silence

An oddball crime film where Tae-in, a mute man who provides clean-up services for organised crime, is forced to care for a young child while his boss waits for her ransom to be paid. But things soon go awry. And both he and his partner, Chang-bok, must find a way out for them and the child.

Voice of Silence is an unpredictable experience. Beginning as a mildly violent crime film, with the two main characters having to take care of bodies for their mob boss, it then transitions into a lightly comedic caper as they look after the kidnapped girl, before delving into some unsettling territory in the last third. While the fluctuating tone may put some viewers off and most of the characters do lack depth it’s worth viewing for the excitement of watching the story unfold. Rating: 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5).

Voice of Silence
Voice of Silence is an interesting ride // Credit: Acemaker Movieworks

Our Midnight

Struggling actor Ji-hoon takes up a job patrolling the bridge over the Han River to stop people from jumping. One night he meets Eun-yeung who is struggling at work and they begin to form a bond as they drift through the city of Seoul.

Our Midnight is a beautiful meditative piece about the hardship of living in an uncaring modern world. Despite its problems, such as one scene’s random inclusion of fantastical elements, the narrative being a bit loose and sometimes hard to follow and relying a bit too much on dialogue to make its point, the story’s sheer power, the beautiful black and white cinematography and the emotionally resonant performances from the leads make it worthwhile. Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5).

Our Midnight explores South Korea's capital
Our Midnight is a beautiful South Korean mood piece // Credit: Burning Tree Pictures

The Man Standing Next

When the KCIA’s former head, Park Yong-gak, offers to give information against South Korea’s President Park to the US, Kim Gyu-pyeong, the current KCIA head, must “solve” the problem. But as President Park becomes more dangerously paranoid thanks to corrupting influences in his inner circle and protests threatening to erupt, how can Kim “solve” this situation?

Undoubtedly this thriller was the Country Focus program’s highlight. The writing is riveting. With great dialogue and captivating character work that effectively explores the relationships and drives of the central players. Its direction and music create a tense atmosphere. And finally, the actors are all fantastic. Particularly Lee Byung-hun who invests Kim with a good deal of humanity masked by an outwardly stoic manor. No wonder this was South Korea’s submission for Best International Feature at the 2021 Oscars. Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5).

The Man Standing Next
Lee Byung-hun gives a fantastic performance in The Man Standing Next // Credit: Showbox

This ends my recap of the 2021 Glasgow Film Festival South Korean Country Focus program. If any of these films piqued your interest be sure to track them down and let us know what you think of them.

Also Read: Netflix and The Success of South Korea

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Posted by
Josh Greally

Writer and filmmaker. I have a masters in directing film and television and have written film reviews for several smaller sites in the past. Films are my life, but I also enjoy writing, reading, listening to music and debating.