Hye-soo isn’t daunted, even though she faces the impossible, organizing a local cultural festival despite ongoing bureaucratic interference, last minute cancellations, lackluster entertainment and no audience. That’s not to say the character, played by Kim Jae-hwa, isn’t worried. Her start-up is in charge of organizing the festivities and the failure of the festival could derail her fledgeling business. There’s nothing to do but persevere. Her drive in the face of a seemingly hopeless situation is what propels the Korean film Extreme Festival.
Hye-soo does what she can with help from a one-time author still milking his fame, played by Jo Min-jae, and a writer, played by Park Kang-sub, who is obsessed with a Japanese rockstar. They are soon joined by an overly enthusiastic intern played by Jang Se-rim. Efforts to run the festival are sabotaged at every step, sometimes by forces outside of the staff and sometimes by turmoil within. Yet they persist. While the film’s writer-director Kim Hong-ki, had no experience organizing a real local cultural festival, he has been on staff at several events and such experiences helped shape this film.
“And then in the process of making the film I realized that this is almost a metaphor for the life of an artist and also for life itself,” said Kim Hong-ki.
The film, shown at the 2023 New York Asian Festival is the first feature film for the director. His debut short film as writer-director, Desex, was nominated for the Comedy King category at the Mise-en-scène Short Film Festival, where he also won the Best of Moving Self Portrait award.
“My short films that I’ve made in Korea, a lot of them have black comedy elements” he said.
Extreme Festival is darkly funny and also a lighthearted commentary on the ways bureaucracy can hinder rather than help.
“If you’re dealing with a film that has quite a large ensemble cast, you usually, inevitably go into some sort of systemic injustices,” said Kim Hong-ki. “Not that I intended to make this into some sort of scathing commentary, but I do want to emphasize that everyone is just trying their best in this. In that kind of situation, some unjust situations may come up, especially in small local government, bureaucracy. With bureaucracies, these kinds of things just tend to happen.”
Kim Jae-hwa has appeared in a host of popular films and TV dramas, including the recent films Kill Boksoon and Honest Candidate 2 and the dramas Why Her? And Kiss Sixth Sense. She chose to appear in Kim Hong-ki’s debut film because they’d worked together before on one of his short films.
“That was such a fun process and I think I learned so much from him in his screenwriting process,” said Kim Jae-hwa. “I really trusted what he was doing with his work. I really felt that he was doing interesting things. And once he told me that he was writing this script with me in mind, as the lead role, I immediately wanted to do it. Once I read the script, I thought it was such a fun script, and I was bragging to my friends that I was going to start doing such a really fun film.”
Her character Hye-soo keeps trying to make the festival a success, encouraging a budding emcee, cajoling the actors who are earnestly working on their reenactment, even helping with displays such as the ability to “really experience torture,” the way it happened in the era of the historical reenactment. Setting up an authentic experience makes for a pretty funny scene. Who would actually want to experience torture?
“There’s actually historical villages throughout Korea that have these kinds of programs to experience torture, but usually just the look of it” said Kim Hong-ki with a laugh. “Of course, they’re not giving you the actual torture part. But, you know, I feel like as a local festival organizer, you tend to have these sort of like offbeat ideas where you’re like, oh, what if we could like actually make people feel torture.”
There’s also a great scene where the chief festival organizers get into a heated argument about personal issues. The argument is so involving it would make a better stage performance than the festival’s actual presentations.
“That definitely sticks out in my mind, because that was the scene that we had most takes for,” said Kim Jae-hwa. “I think it’s because the director thought it was an important scene. It might sound surprising, but no lines were improvised in that scene. They were all from the script.
The film’s schedule was not helped by the weather.
“We were on a very tight sketch schedule just because it’s an independent film and we had a limited budget,” said Jo Min-jae. ‘But everyone was just so collaborative, especially our senior actors, our fellow senior actors. They really participated with such joy, so that I remember every moment on set was such a joyful, joyful experience for me personally.”
Rain almost prevented the filming of a crucial scene.
“There was two days before we finished filming when the weather really wasn’t going our way,” said Jang Se-rim who plays the eager intern. “It just kept raining, and so we couldn’t film the scenes that we needed to film. And we couldn’t even find an alternate day because the next day was the end of our schedule and we had to strike down all the sets, so we couldn’t, wouldn’t be able to do anything after that.”
There was a window of about 20 minutes when it stopped raining. Cast and crew rushed out and shot the pivotal scene, where the festival’s performing actors group was leaving.
“The entire movie wouldn’t make sense if we didn’t film that scene,” said Jang. “During that 20 to 30 minute window every crew and every staff member just rushed out, cleaned the chairs to make it look like it wasn’t raining. And then we finally shot that.”
It was a real life scene that evoked the feeling of the film’s festival. The show must go on, it implied. And there’s no art without a struggle.
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