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Dance Town: Review by Ed Buxton

On the 20th September 2012 I attended the free screening of Jeon Kyu-hwan’s Dance Town at the Korean Culture Centre in London. I’ve been wanted to watch this film for a very long time so was eager to watch it and my time had come on this evening to be able to see it. This article is a quick, basic review of the film and my thoughts, good and bad although picking out the bad bits is always the easiest part. This article does contain some spoilers, although for me it was obvious that they were going to happen in the film.

The premise of the film is actually very good, the idea of a North Korean fleeing to the South as a defector, a refugee. This is what made me interested in this film most. The film starts off in North Korea in Pyongyang, not that it felt like it was Pyongyang, seemed too artificial and it was for the main fact that the director couldn’t film in the North. A brick wall looked too perfect in one scene with perfectly laid bricks and neat and tidy mortar between the gaps and can’t imagine a wall like that in N.Korea exists. Anyway, the film is centred on a North Korean woman, called Jung-Nim Rhee and her husband. Her husband only played a very small role in the film, and only at the very beginning, so knowing his name is not important or memorable. And this is where I felt that the film didn’t explore the life in N.Korea enough. If only the film explored more of their lives in Pyongyang and the daily issues they face then maybe the first half would have been more believable as North Korea and Pyongyang, instead she didn’t feel very North Korean, and Pyongyang, well could have been Seoul. Also because the film didn’t explore N. Korea much before we knew it she had fled her house, her husband was arrested by the North Korean police/army, whoever, we don’t know and then all of a sudden she was on a boat and in S.Korea. We all know that type of trip is very risky and dangerous but it didn’t feel that at all, seemed rather easy.

Some good points on the film included the acting, the main characters did a very good job and also the locations in Seoul were very well sought out. The one part that I really liked was when Jung-Nim walked out around her local area for the first time on her own and was amazed at the shops and that people did whatever they wanted. I also liked the fact that the film was shot in winter, so it was cold and snow was everywhere and it fitted the type of film that it is, cold and miserable.
Some other bad points in the film was the ending. The main character Jung-Nim wants her husband to join her in Seoul, but he was arrested in the North. But towards the end of the film she learns that he was executed as a warning to others that fleeing or watching South Korean porn DVD’s was not allowed and you risk death if you do so. She bursts into tears, as one would do, but the film tries to make us feel upset and shocked aswell, but really I knew he was going to be shot right at the very start when he gets arrested and she herself warned her husband that other people in their Pyongyang block of flats got a bullet through the head for doing ‘naughty’ things, such as watching South Korean porn and using illegally smuggled in shampoo and face cream. So if we knew that he was already dead, because it was so obvious, why did the director make it all sad and depressing for no reason? But a good interesting point I like is the fact I think she knew he was already dead but actually hid her true thoughts, to make her a stronger person. And because of everything else that happened to her in the film, won’t go into details, it all becomes too much for her so the news of her husband’s death confirms her place in society as void, so ultimately commits suicide, although the film doesn’t show this, I believe this is what happens.

My other main issue was the ‘humour’ added in and I didn’t think was right for the type of film. People in the audience were laughing at a generally funny scene where she meets an American and asks if America is worse than Korea, I laughed aswell and so did the main character. The part that wasn’t so funny for me was her being drunk down the alleyway, but for others in the audience it was hilarious, but I knew what was going to happen as it was so obvious, drunken woman, dark alleyway and a man who she hardly knows, and then what was to happen, happens and then people stopped laughing. For a film such as this that tries to be realistic and dramatic laughing is not right. I think its ok to laugh at scenes such as that if it were a Takashi Miike film as his films are full of black humour so one is to expect that sort of stuff. Discussing the film on the London Korean Film Festival Facebook group, they replied to my thoughts:

‘I think you needed some of the humour firstly to displace the audience’s expectations and height the following dramatic moments and secondly so the viewer doesn’t slit their own wrist from an over exposure of complete bleakness the film could of easily have been. Kyu-hwan didn’t get it right everytime but very impressive for a third feature.’

Yes I agree that for a 3rd film he has done very well and must have been hard due to the subject matter. But my issue was that the humour didn’t displace any expectations because I felt it was clear of what was going to happen, so didn’t feel the need to. And yes ok the scenes in Takashi Miike films are very wrong he films in such a way that he wants you to laugh and cringe. Yes Dance Town was bleak and but I would never get over exposed to that bleakness, I’m a Takashi Miike and Royston Tan fan (Royston Tan’s film 15 features a 15 yr old boy actually, really, slitting his wrist) so I can watch pretty much anything. For me the film Silenced (The Crucible) was very bleak but I can’t recall anything funny about that, didn’t need humour to height the dramatic scenes in that. But then we have Lee-chang Dong’s Oasis, which again has bleak dramatic scenes, but actually I laughed numerous times but then the main character, played by Sol Kyung-gu, is a complete idiot, a mentally-retarded outcast with sociopathic inclinations, so it was hard not to laugh and actually that humour worked very well, and also makes us question how people view other people with mental issues and disabilities. As far as I can remember there wasn’t any mentally-retarded outcast’s with sociopathic inclinations in Dance Town.

As a whole though the film explores a subject that isn’t seen in cinema much and as a 3rd film the director has done very well. But although the basic story is fine and works there are areas that let the film down. Sadly i didn’t feel emotional at all, not once in the film, and films by directors such as Kim Ki-duk and Lee Chang-dong are more accomplished and emotional so to be on a par with these guys Jeon Kyu-hwan has a long way to go, but i am 100% certain that he will.