I've made no secret of my admiration for Korea's wonderful film schools, which are responsible for some of the best professionals working in the industry today. One such institution is the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA), a government-sponsored school affiliated with the Korean Film Council that sports such illustrious alumni as Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, Snowpiercer). A few years ago, KAFA began to make full-blown feature length films as graduation projects (with the support of industry giant CJ Entertainment) and the results have been formidable. 2010 featured the one-two punch of Bleak Night and End of Animal while 2011's crop included Choked and Mirage.
The major KAFA-produced films from 2012 were Your Time Is Up, which had its world premiere as part of the Busan International Film Festival's New Currents competition, and When Winter Screams, which premiered a few months earlier during the now defunct Cinema Digital Seoul festival (CinDi). I was lucky enough to see the latter during what would be the last edition of a great little film festival. A brooding and violent mystery film that takes place far away from Korea's bustling urban spaces, When Winter Screams is an inventive debut from yet another young talent whose future work we should keep our eyes peeled for.
Yeon-soo is having a hard time, he's been made redundant and has also discovered that his unborn child has deformities. To get his mind off his current woes, he takes a trip to a motel far out in the countryside that he visited with his friend during their college years. The place is almost abandoned but he soon finds himself getting entangled with the current guests: a pair of violent, apathetic youths and a young girl looking for her father.
Whether it be far-flung islands, remote villages or in this case semi-abandoned motels, Korean cinema has a habit of using rural spaces as a site of horror. The countryside becomes a place fit for the expurgation of personal, social or historical trauma. Lee Samuel follows in the footsteps of the great island horror-dramas such as Kim Ki-young's Iodo (1977) and Kim Soo-young's Splendid Outing (1978) or more recent genre fare like Bestseller and Moss (both 2010), not to mention the previous KAFA feature End of Animal by Jo Seung-hee. Here the secrets lie in the snow-capped mountains that some of the characters escape to when things take a turn for the worse.
When Winter Screams is an atmospheric production that comes together with a carefully constructed mise-en-scene that has plenty of tricks up its sleeve but wisely eschews show-boating, a common ailment of student productions (I know, I used to make them). The narrative doesn't always make a lot of sense and I'm not sure it's trying to but the initial mystery elements are strong enough to see the film through to its conclusion even if its lack of resolution robs it of any real catharsis.
Similarly, the characters, who are well-played by a cast of vaguely recognizable performers (including lead Kim Tae-hoon, brother of Kim Tae-woo), rarely rise above the level of ciphers. There's just too much mystery for us to connect with any of them and as enjoyable as this is to begin with, when it becomes clear that the film is going to remain an exercise in style over anything else, it's up to the viewer to decide whether they're on board with this approach.
As student features go this is still great stuff but then again I suppose KAFA has spoiled us these last few years. Engaging and well-made, Lee Samuel's debut boasts beautiful location photography, as well as an eerie and evocative mise-en-scene but ultimately When Winter Screams frustrates due to its lack of character development.