Randwick Ritz, Sydney:

Saturday May 25

Rating: Unclassified 15+
Duration: 108       minutes
Country: South Korea
Language: Korean (English Subtitles)
Cast: Ahn Sung-ki, Ahn Byeong-kyeong, Han Eun-ji, Oh Jeong-hae, Jeong Gyeong-sun, Park Seung-tae

Director: Im Kwon-taek


Acclaimed writer Lee Joon-seop (Im regular Ahn Sung-ki) has made his career out of retelling the stories of his extended family, especially of his mother (Han Eun-jin, a star of Korea films since the late 1930s). But literary celebrity, and the consumer wealth it brings has reshaped and distorted the relationships and social obligation within what would otherwise be his traditional Korean fishing village hometown. Mother is resilient (“Granma’s dead again”, a niece complains). But when she finally succumbs to dementia, writer Lee must come home, open his wallet, suppress the real grief, and fund the official, extended mourning party of family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, hangers-on, plus the whole thing of what a traditional Korean funeral now is in late 20th century South Korea. 4K restoration. Presented with the support of the Australia-Korea Foundation. Co-presented with the Korean Film Archive (KOFA).

Chukje / Festival is preserved and digitally restored in 4K in 2022 by the Korean Film Archive KOFA.

Please note that Festival now replaces Mandala in our Im Kwon-taek season, originally advertised in some places.

“Through the motif of the funeral, the most extensively scaled ceremony in life, I have tried to explore the meaning of death and its effects shadowing the bereaved. I have also tried to bring to light the sentiments of the survivors: their sorrow, egoism, solemnity and even frivolity.” (Im Kwon-taek)
“… Im's documents and presents how… traditions are still with us in hidden and visible forms, assimilating with and accommodating of the contemporary in order to survive along with us.”  (Adam Hartzell, Koreanfilm.org.)

Screens as a part of Cinema Reborn’s Korean Showcase: The Films of Im Kwon-Taek program. 


Korean director Im Kwon-taek (b. 1936) made over 100 features in a career made resonant with local box office hits, yet he still broke through local censorship taboos, gained break-out international film festival invitations and received western critical attention for Korean cinema, inspiring South Korea’s current generation of international arthouse film making superstars. 

Our 2024 festival screenings of Sopyonje (1993)  in Sydney and Melbourne begin a short, follow-up season (in Sydney only) showcasing some of Im’s other key films, Jagko Mismatched Nose (1980), Ticket (1986) and Festival (1996), as well as the dynamic cinema restoration program of the Korean national film archive KOFA (see Webinar below).   


Friday 3 May from 2:00 PM AET

Join with the Korean Cultural Centre Sydney for a webinar exploring Im Kwon-taek’s career and the Korean Film Archive (KOFA)’s acclaimed program to restore and give global access to Korean filmmaking heritage. Join us online via IM KWON-TAEK AND KOREAN FILM RESTORATION: WEBINAR WITH CINEMA REBORN FESTIVAL – Korean Cultural Centre AU , with guests including film critic, academic and Korean cinema expert Russell Edwards, critic and Parasite subtitler Darcy Parquet, Korean Film Archive head Kim Hong-joon, and academic and screenwriter Kyung Hyun Kim.

Webinar free, but bookings required. 

Webinar presented by the Korean Cultural Centre Sydney. 

Season presented with the support of the Australia-Korea Foundation. Co-presented with the Korean Film Archive (KOFA). Supported by the Korean Cultural Centre Sydney.

Im Kwon-Taek
By David E. James
Born on May 2, 1936, in Changsŏng, Chŏllanam-do, Im Kwon-taek is the most important and celebrated filmmaker in South Korea. Amid the poverty and chaos of the aftermath of the Korean War, he moved first to Busan and then to Seoul, where he found work as a production assistant in the embryonic film industry. Having directed his first feature, Farewell to the Duman River (Tuman’ganga Charitkŏra), in 1962 and his most recent, Revivre (Hwajang), in 2014, his career spans more than half a century. During this time he has produced an astonishing oeuvre of more than one hundred films that have made him popularly known as the ‘father of South Korean cinema.’ Many of these films, especially the earlier ones, were formulaic genre quickies for small, usually short-lived, studios that were dependent on immediate market returns. He had already made fifty popular entertainment features of this kind when, in 1973, a crisis of conscience that he has described in several interviews set him on the path to the art film. ‘One day I suddenly felt as though I’d been lying to the people for the past 12 years. I decided to compensate for my wrongdoings by making more honest films.’ Generally funded by the continuing popularity of his action films, these ‘more honest’ art films brought him international acclaim, earning him the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002. Of them, a dozen concern nativist, premodern Korean culture.

Though various in their narrative strategies, The Genealogy (Chokpo, 1978), Mandala (Mandara, 1981), Surrogate Mother (Ssibaji, 1986), Adada (1987), Come Come Come Upward (Aje Aje Para Aje, 1989), Sopyonje (Sŏp’yŏnje, 1993), Festival (Ch’ukche, 1996), Ch’unhyang (Ch’unhyangdyŏn, 2000), Chihwaseon (Ch’wihwasŏn, 2002), Beyond the Years (Ch’ŏnnyŏnhak, 2007), and Hanji (Talbin kirŏolligi, 2011), all dramatise with ethnographic detail and accuracy ancient customs or art forms, and several also explore their precarious survival into the present. Mandala, for example, very beautifully dramatises the traditional customs and art of Korean Sŏn (Ch’an or Zen) Buddhism as it narrates the stories of two monks who differently attempt to reconcile their religious faith and insight with their desire to live in the modern world. These films sometimes include quasi-documentary interludes that interrupt the diegesis [the fictional world] and pedagogically elaborate the elements of the nativist culture in question, but more frequently they dramatise such material in popularly accessible and often spectacular narrative forms that exploit the conventions of film melodrama that Im had mastered during his earlier work as a journeyman director.

Their resistance to global capitalist culture’s homogenising erasure of the past and cultural difference in its promotion of a totalised corporate postmodernism marks the overall importance of these historical retrievals. But, beyond this, their specifically Korean significance can hardly be overemphasised, given the devastation inflicted on the nation and nativist culture in the twentieth century: the Japanese annexation that lasted until the end of World War II; the brief “day of freedom” before the division of the country between the subsequent U.S. neocolonial occupation of the South and the communist dictatorship in the North; the civil war; and then in the South the series of U.S.-maintained military dictatorships that endured until the free election of a civilian president in 1992. This history of trauma and chaos jeopardised the continuity of much of Korea’s unique cultural heritage as it had coalesced during the half millennium of the Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1897), when, instead of being divided and ravaged by foreign intruders, Korea was unified, largely in isolation from the outside world. The rituals and customs of this period, its forms of civic organisation and judicial administration, and its architecture, pottery, music, painting, and dress matured into distinctive, integrated forms, a unique cultural economy. Preeminent within it was Han’gungmal, the singular Korean language that many linguists believe has no genetic relationship to any other, and Han’gŭl, the writing system designed exclusively for it – a unique visual language.

In respect to the renewal and reassertion of specifically Korean culture, Im’s ethnographically oriented features had three main functions. First, their dramatisation of neglected and endangered cultural traditions pedagogically displayed their aesthetic value and affirmed their social function, reeducating a population on whom, for a century, the presumptive superiority of Japanese and then US capitalist culture had been imposed. Second, the domestic box office success of some of them (especially Sopyonje, whose acclaim ignited an extraordinary revival of popular interest in the traditional folk opera, p’ansori). The recognition they achieved in festivals abroad fostered the growth and international prestige of Korean cinema generally, opening the way for the younger filmmakers of the New Korean Cinema and for a revival of interest in neglected older ones. Third and most important, the narrative focus on art and artists provided the basis for Im’s allegorical exploration of the present state of Korean culture and especially of his own filmmaking. The representation of a specific traditional artist, art form, or cultural practice in any given film generated reflexive patterns of similarity and difference between it and Im’s film about it, providing him with a vocabulary through which the possibilities of his own art could be explored. (1) The possibilities and limitations of the artists he depicted, their artwork, and its social existence provided a model in respect to which Im himself, his films, and their social function could be imagined. He made them into allegories of cinema.

Such a reflexive allegorical use of the past to investigate the possibilities of contemporary Korean culture was not without contradictions. While their aural and visual exoticism made the spectacular elements in Chosŏn culture well suited for cinematic reproduction, other aspects complicated allegorical use of it. Whether aristocratic or folk, Chosŏn’s almost entirely artisanal mode of cultural activity differed fundamentally from the industrial mode of production of capitalist cinema and the specific forms of alienation intrinsic to its consumption. Other difficulties appeared in two recurrent motifs by which Im elaborated the cultural past: images of women and images of the natural landscape, most often brilliantly photographed by Im’s virtuoso cinematographer, Chŏng Il-sŏng. (2) Many of them, Adada, Sopyonje, and Ch’unhyang most notably, were thematically and visually pivoted on images of the violation and exploitation of beautiful women, often set in the context of the Korean Peninsula’s mountains, valleys, and shores, variously enhanced by sunshine, mist, or snow. As figures for the nation, the women and their tragedies were offered as a vocabulary by which the suffering and the spirit – the han – of the distant past could frame, if not diagnose, the traumas of the present, while the beauty of the natural landscape conversely proposed an ideal to which the nation might be restored. Im has typically justified the cruelty inflicted on his heroines by pointing out that, in Confucian society, women were sequentially subjected to fathers, husbands, and sons, and so did indeed bear a disproportionate share of hardship and suffering. But in a period when feminists radically retheorised gendered visual codes, such representations, it was argued, also reproduced the conditions that allowed for the continued subjection of women. Similarly Im’s celebration of Korea’s uninhabited, unworked spaces mobilised an essentially touristic nostalgia that could hardly provide a generative metaphor for social renewal amid the rapid industrialisation of the late twentieth century and the state-enforced vicious exploitation of the working class. Severely hierarchical and without a middle class, the rural agricultural Chosŏn era could only vaguely parallel modern urbanised Korea, and the forms of resistance available to feudal peasantry bore little relation to the democratic mobilisations of the Minjung movement [Ed: the “common people’s movement” for democratisation and inclusion]. Intrinsic to the disparities between Im’s present and the received Confucian cultural heritage, such aporia in his project could never be fully resolved. But his great achievement was to work with and through them, setting them in different contexts and manipulating them in different permutations to make them the narrative, thematic, symbolic, and especially affective materials of his cinema.


[1] The possibility of Im’s critical cinema only emerged with the end of the military dictatorship. His nativist films began with The Genealogy, released the year before the assassination of Park Chung-hee and the end of the Yusin period. Mandala, the first film in which his new direction was widely recognised, and Surrogate Motherfollowed, separated by half a decade. The frequency of the new nativist films increased during the first years of the Sixth Republic, culminating in Sopyonje in 1993, the year after the election of the first civilian president. At the same time, the relaxation of censorship made possible the emergence of the Korean New Wave, including for the first time a radically contestatory political cinema, most importantly the work of Park Kwang-su; in the late 1980s and early 1990s his films’ releases virtually alternated year by year with Im’s: Chilsu and Mansu (Ch’ilsuwa Mansu, 1988), The Black Republic (Kŭdŭlto Urich’ŏrŏm, 1990), To the Starry Island (Kŭ Sŏme Kago Shipta, 1993), and A Single Spark (Arŭmdaun ch‘ŏngnyŏn Chŏn T‘ae-il, 1995). But in this period, Im maintained his distance from the new political radicalism: in Come Come Come Upward (1989), for example, one of the main protagonists, a Buddhist nun struggling to find redemptive meaning in her life, explicitly rejects association with the student activists of the Democracy Movement and with ‘poor farmers and city laborers.’ And, even though his own parents had joined the partisans after the liberation, Im’s lack of any discernable endorsement of the leftist guerillas of this period in The Taebaek Mountains (T’aebaeksanmaek, 1994) contrasted markedly with Park’s sympathy for them in the previous year’s To The Starry Island.

[3] Beginning to work with Im on Tears of the Idol (Usangŭi Nunmul) in 1981, Chŏng Il-sŏng shot Mandala, Adada, Fly High, Run Far: Kaebyok, Sopyonje,Ch’unhyang, Beyond the Years, and many others of his greatest films of the 1980s and 1990s, including the blockbusters The General’s Son I, II, and III (Changgunŭi Adŭl). Together with Im himself and his long-time producer at Taehung Pictures, Chŏng formed what was known as the ‘Troika of Korean Film’; see Chŏng Sŏng-il, Im Kwon-taek (Seoul: Korean Film Council, 2006), p. 44.

Editor’s note: this article uses the long-standing McCune-Reischer system for romanising original Korean characters into English. Since 2002 the South Korean government has officially adopted a new, Revised Romanisation system, but it is still not consistently used when translating from Korean (or used at all); other sources may use different spellings for the film titles referred to.

This article is an extract from David E. James, Power Misses II: Cinema, Asian and Modern. Indiana University Press, 2020. It is republished with permission and thanks to Prof. James.
The Film
By Russell Edwards
In a remote village, several hours south of Seoul, an aging woman (Han Eun-jin) is dying. Her eldest son, Jun-seop (Ahn Sung-ki), a Seoul-based novelist, who has made a comfortable life by writing about his family, returns to the rural backwater to act as coordinator for his mother’s funeral. Even in the most congenial of families, such events provoke tensions. Black sheep return and resentments arise between those who roamed and those who stayed. Accordingly, emotions canvassed by prolific South Korean director, Im Kwon-taek, in Festival (1996) will be painfully recognisable to some. Other elements depicted in this scenario will be familiar only to those who have ever attended a traditional Korean funeral. That is to say, known only to a dwindling minority, even within South Korea.

Many of Im Kwon-taek’s films aim to reacquaint Koreans with their own culture. Sopyonje (1992) and Chunhyang (1999) showcase the musical tradition of pansori, the latter by dramatising Korea’s most-loved folktale. Chihwaseon(Painted Fire, 2002) focuses on painting. Most blatantly, Hanji(2011) finds drama while investigating the ancient art of papermaking. This is not mere nostalgia, nor just ethnographic enthusiasm. With each film there is a sense of Im immersing himself in the traditional roots that feed and sustain his own creative work. Throughout Festival, cultural knowledge takes the form of several superimposed titles that identify particular funeral rites. For the Westerner, the intricacy of the detail is fascinating, but for a Korean audience it is both a reminder of centuries-long tradition and also an admonition that these things must never be forgotten: These are the things that make us Korean. Remember them well.

Some have suggested that Festival was inspired by the international success that Juzo Itami had a decade before with The Funeral (1984). But Festival is not irreverent like the Japanese director’s early work. True, there is a certain levity early on, with the ailing mother rallying after her first on-screen death, but overall Im’s film is a much slower burn. In fact, Festivaldoes not truly become comic, and even then sparingly, until after almost an hour’s running time has elapsed. Nor is this traditional Korean funeral atypical. While the family, particularly the women, must perform their grief, and the chief male mourner, in this case Jun-seop, must remain stoic, the funeral guests also have their own duties. The drinking, the gambling, the eating, the light-hearted festivity are all welcomed as they — theoretically — ease the burden of the grieving family. As an invited mourner, to join them in weeping and wailing will only increase the agony of the family, so please dutifully stick to the festive script.

At its most manic, Festival nods towards a key scene in Lee Man-hee’s revered Road to Sampo (1975) when a funeral is gate-crashed by that film’s three itinerant protagonists. From the perspective of the family, Festival raises the problem of who is legitimately performing their role as a supportive funeral guest and who is expediently taking advantage of the gratis booze, the delicious food and the free gambling money. And if it takes a village to raise a child, Festival certainly demonstrates that it takes a village – and then some – to bury an elder. As the mourners descend, Im’s frame becomes densely populated but, masterfully, the visuals never feel unduly cluttered or confusing. Grounded by deep sadness, Festival is thus prevented from spinning off into Rabelaisian chaos. Yes, people get drunk, fights break out over games of chance, but Im keeps faith with the aching loss of a matriarch who reared a family through crushing poverty before South Korea’s economic miracle arrived.

Holding that gravitas in place is not just the burning screen presence of Oh Jung-hae as Yong-sun, the resentful young glamour-puss from Seoul, but also the heartfelt performance by local film icon Ahn Sung-ki, who, as Jun-seop, gracefully creates a still centre within the funeral’s emotional storm. Like the white, raw hemp cloth worn by Korean mourners that itches skin and scalp, Joon-seop pensively wears the responsibility for the circus the funeral becomes. It is an uncomfortable fit, but the grieving process must be adhered to and, ultimately, it also offers unexpected rewards, as demonstrated by the modern fairy tale that Im intercuts with Festival’s main story.

Cinema Reborn acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land on which we live, learn and work. We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.