Rich in ideas and oddly whimsical at times, given the solemnity of its subject, prolific South Korean veteran Im Kwon-taek's "Festival" recounts events that take place during a traditional three-day funeral ritual. The director's three distinct approaches combine a detailed guide to the elaborate ceremony, a child's fairy-tale view of death and a lively ensemble drama in which a reporter gets to the bottom of a family feud. The contrasting styles mesh surprisingly well in this captivating, if perhaps overextended, film, which should win admirers in fests and Asian cinema forums. The death of his 87-year-old mother brings successful writer Lee Jun-sub (Ahn Sung-kee) and his family to their coastal hometown for the funeral. Jun-sub's sister-in-law (Park Seung-tae) wastes no time broadcasting her resentment over having been left to care for the deceased alone during her extended illness and senility. Family tension increases with the unexpected arrival of flashy city girl Yong-soon (Oh Jung-hae), the illegitimate daughter of Jun-sub's older brother. Cold-shouldered by the entire family, she left home 13 years earlier with the household cash and has not been heard from since.
While relatives and villagers get drunk, gamble, gossip and reminisce, Jang Hae-lim (Chung Kyung-soon), a reporter doing a story on Jun-sub, discreetly uncovers the history behind Yong-soon’s self-imposed exile. During the course of the funeral, the black sheep, who genuinely loved her late grandmother, slams the supposedly bereaved family for their coldness and hypocrisy, saving her harshest criticism for her wealthy uncle Jun-sub.
Together with the family saga, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Robert Altman’s “A Wedding” in its unraveling of interwoven relationships during a momentous social gathering, Im looks at death, reincarnation and the legacy left by aged family members through a dramatization of a children’s book being published by Jun-sub. The story recounts his daughter’s perception of Grandmother shrinking away to nothing as she passes on her strength and knowledge while preparing to be born into a new life.
This charming fairy-tale conceit works well enough, but becomes a little saccharine with its pastel-colored, picture-book backdrops and idyllic depiction of family. More seamlessly integrated is the reverential, almost documentary account of the funeral rites, with exhaustive subtitles explaining the significance of the ceremony’s many steps.
“Festival” is one of two features in the past year focusing on Korean Buddhist funeral traditions, the other being Park Chul-soo’s “Farewell My Darling,” which bowed internationally in the Berlin festival’s Panorama section. Im’s film is his second collaboration with novelist Lee Chung-joon, following “Sopyonje,” which broke Korean B.O. records in 1993. The director and writer’s shared interest in the subject reportedly stems from the death of Lee’s mother from Alzheimer’s disease and the deteriorating mental health of Im’s own elderly mother.
The handsome production employs an appealing variation of moods and considerable humor. Best of the strong cast are Ahn as the well-meaning writer and Oh as the feisty niece who forces him to acknowledge his personal failings.