Mandala (曼陀羅 / 만다라, Im Kwon-taek, 1981)

Mandala posterIn a world defined by suffering, does one have the right to retreat into the self and engage in a personal quest for enlightenment or is true enlightenment to be found in the confluence of human consciousness? Im Kwon-taek has some profound questions to ask about human spirituality, the futility of existence, and the transcendence of the self in his 1981 masterpiece, Mandala (曼陀羅 / 만다라). Two monks with very different ideas of spiritual fulfilment meet, part, argue, and perhaps finally understand each other as they walk solitary, individual paths towards Nirvana, each also doubting the purpose of their quest and its ultimate resolution.

Beob-wun (Ahn Sung-ki) dropped out of university and broke-up with his girlfriend in order to become a monk. Consumed with nihilistic thoughts about the futility of existence, he could not go on living a meaningless life. Six years later, Beob-wun is on a bus which is stopped at a checkpoint. Another man in monk’s robes fails to furnish an official monk’s ID card to the authorities and is unceremoniously ejected. Beob-wun gets off the bus too out of a sense of professional courtesy and a desire to help, but Jisan (Jeon Moo-song) is not exactly the kind of monk a serious minded man like Beob-wun would usually want to associate with. Nevertheless, he is oddly fascinated by him, conflicted yet drawn.

Jisan has a sad history of his own. After an indiscretion with a girl at a mountain temple, he was falsely accused of rape and subsequently defrocked. Nevertheless, he continues to practice as a wandering monk, seeking enlightenment in his own way and at his own pace. Jisan’s Buddhas are buried at the bottom of bottles of soju and in the hearts of women – most especially that of the girl from the temple, Ok-sun (Bang Hee), to whom he often returns and is unable to forget. Beob-wun retreats when tested, he doesn’t look at the things which tempt him. Jisan runs headlong towards his demons and defeats them by satiation, but the relief is only temporary – the old emptiness soon returns and the cycle of spiritual deaths and rebirths begins itself again.

When Beob-wun’s former girlfriend, Young-ju, tracks him town to a mountain retreat and confronts him over his “selfish” decision to run away from all his problems by hiding in a temple, he tells her that temples aren’t places for the defeated but to lead one’s life and save the lives of others. She quite fairly asks why he can’t save her life by returning to the world, but Beob-wun looks away. Beob-wun is in denial. He can’t forget Young-ju and has come to resent her as an obstacle to his path towards enlightenment, blaming her for existing rather than himself for his failure to “overcome” her.

There is something dark and dangerous in Beob-wun’s wilful negation of his desires which later manifests as violence, first in a memory or perhaps a fantasy of rape, and then more directly against a woman who was attempting to tempt him into breaking his self affirmed vows of chastity. Jisan’s philosophy is melancholy and perhaps hopeless in its own way, but brighter and free from artifice or malice. Having separated from Jisan, Beob-wun reunites with a fellow monk who has taken their mentor’s instructions to “burn away” the fetters of the mind literally by setting fire to his fingers in order to transcend himself through conquering physical pain. His friend tells him of a funny monk he met on an island who was the only one to rush in and help when the islanders were struck down by a mysterious plague. Jisan fulfilled his duty to others. The other monk sat in the woods on his own praying for his personal enlightenment while the islanders continued to suffer alone.

Jisan, and later Beob-wun’s friend Sugwan, have chosen to look for themselves as reflected in the souls of others, but Beob-wun remains trapped within his own solipsistic belief that he can only overcome his suffering and find an answer to his existential crisis through entirely negating the outside world. Beob-wun is the kind that keeps his head down and avoids getting involved with other people’s troubles – the reminders of an authoritarian regime are everywhere, but a part of him knows that Jisan, for all his faults, is the most “enlightened” man he’s ever known, if only for being the least like himself. The quest for “enlightenment” might be an intensely selfish act of self harm, but the need to create meaning from meaningless persists, for good or ill, and Beob-wun remains lost on the never-ending road to Nirvana, a solitary traveller without hope or expectation.


Mandala was screened as part of the Korean Cultural Centre’s Korean Film Nights 2018: Rebels With a Cause screening series. It is also available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Im Kwon-taek box set, as well as online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel.

Miracles of the Namiya General Store (ナミヤ雑貨店の奇蹟, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2017)

Miracles of the Namiya General Store posterKeigo Higashino is probably best known for his murder mysteries, most particularly the international best seller The Devotion of Suspect X. His literary output is however a little broader than one might assume and fantastical hypotheticals are very much a part of his work as in the bizarre The Secret in which a mother wakes up in her daughter’s body after a fatal accident. Miracles of the Namiya General Store (ナミヤ雑貨店の奇蹟, Namiya Zakkaten no Kiseki) is indeed one of his warmer stories even if it occasionally veers towards the author’s usual taste for moral conservatism in its yearning for a more innocent, pre-bubble Japan that is rapidly being forgotten.

Back in 1980, Mr. Namiya (Toshiyuki Nishida) runs the local store and is a much loved member of the community. As an older man with plenty of life experience, he also offers an agony uncle service. People with problems can simply write him a letter and drop it through his box. He’ll have a bit of a think about it and then either paste up a response on the village noticeboard outside or, if the question is a little more delicate, place his reply in an envelope in the milk box.

32 years later, a trio of delinquent boys end up taking refuge in the disused store after committing some kind of crime. While they’re poking around, what should pop through the letter box but a letter, direct from 1980. Freaked out the boys try to leave but find themselves trapped in some kind of timeslip town. Eventually they decide to answer the letter just to pass the time and then quickly find themselves conversing with an earlier generation by means of some strange magic.

At the end of his life, what Mr. Namiya is keen to know is if his advice really mattered, and if it did, did it help or hinder? His introspection is caused in part by a news report that someone he advised on a particularly tricky issue may have committed suicide. Mr. Namiya isn’t now so sure he gave them the right advice and worries what he told them may have contributed to the way they died. This itself is a difficult question and if it sounds like a moral justification to point out that no one was forced to follow Mr. Namiya’s “advice” and everyone is ultimately responsible for their own decisions, that’s because it is but then it doesn’t make it any less true. Then again, Mr. Namiya’s advice, by his own admission, was not really about telling people what to do – most have already made a decision, they just want someone to help them feel better about it. What he tries to do is read between the lines and then tell them what they want to hear – the decision was always theirs he just helped them find a way to accommodate it.

The boys have quite different attitudes. Kohei (Kanichiro), who takes the initial decision to write back, is compassionate but pragmatic. As we later find out, the three boys are all orphans and Kohei counsels a melancholy musician who wants to know if he should give up on his Tokyo music career and come home to run the family fish shop that he should count himself lucky to have a place to come back to and that if he was going to get anywhere in music he’d have got there already. Mr. Namiya’s philosophy proves apt – the musician writes back and argues his case, he wants to carry on with music but feels guilty and hopes Mr. Namiya will tell him it’s OK to follow his dreams. For the boys however, “dreams” are an unaffordable luxury and like a trio of cynical old men they tell the musician to grow up and get a real job. That is, until he decides to play them a tune and they realise it’s all too familiar.

Similarly, a conflicted young woman drops them a letter wanting advice on whether to become the mistress of a wealthy man who claims he will help her set up in business. The boys say no, do not debase yourself, work hard and be honest – that’s the best way to repay a debt to the people that raised you. Again she writes back, she wants her shot but it is a high price. That’s where hindsight comes in, as does advance knowledge about Japan’s impending economic boom and subsequent bust.

As expected, everything is connected. Higashino maybe romanticising an earlier time in which community still mattered and the wisest man you knew ran the corner store, but then there’s a mild inconsistency between the idealised picture of small town life and the orphanage which links it all together – these kids are after all removed, even perhaps exiled, from that same idea of “community” even if they are able to create their own familial bonds thanks to the place that has raised them. The most cynical of the boys once wanted to be a doctor, but as another boy points out it takes more than just brains to get there. While it’s a nice message to say that there are no limits and nothing is impossible, it is rather optimistic and perhaps glosses over many of the issues the kids face after “graduating” from the group home and having nowhere else to go. Nevertheless, seeing everything come together in the end through the power of human goodness and the resurgence of personal agency is an inspirational sight indeed. The world could use a few more miracles, but as long as there are kind hearted people with a desire for understanding, there will perhaps be hope.


Original trailer (English/simplified Chinese subtitles)

Okayo’s Preparedness (お加代の覚悟, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1939)

Okayo's Preparedness title cardYasujiro Shimazu had been the pioneer of the “shomingeki” and a fierce chronicler of the lives of ordinary lower middle class people. The growing presence of the militarist regime, however, demanded a slight shift of focus. 1939’s Okayo’s Preparedness (お加代の覚悟, Okayo no Kakugo) has its share of propaganda content, but it’s also mildly subversive. In the conventional narrative, a woman must get married and a man must find a purpose. Shimazu turns this upside-down – a man becomes a husband and a woman finds artistic fulfilment in the midst of heartbreak.

In the contemporary era, Osumi’s (Kuniko Miyake) husband has been drafted and is away fighting at the front leaving her alone at home where she makes ends meet running a traditional dance school while looking after their small daughter Mitsuko (Kazue Hayashi). Okayo (Kinuyo Tanaka) is the star pupil at school and also a live-in apprentice, functioning almost as a servant but regarded as a member of the family. The trouble begins when a Osumi gets a visit from her brother-in-law who has received a letter from her husband in which he requests some photographs of his wife and family going about their daily lives while he is unable to be with them. The amateur photographer he’s brought along is a young man of quality and the older brother of one of the school’s pupils. Okayo has developed a fondness for Shunsaku (Ken Uehara) during her time walking his little sister home and secretly hopes he returns her affections. Shy and nervous, she is nevertheless overjoyed when he takes her for tea while they wait for the photographs to be developed. Shunsaku, however, was just being kind. He actually has his eye on another pupil at the school (someone more of his social class) and Okayo is destined to experience her first real heartbreak.

Shimazu gets his propaganda obligations out of the way fairly quickly. We cut to a picture of a man in uniform proudly hanging on the wall whom we later realise to be Osumi’s absent husband. Though Osumi worries about him, his enlistment was regarded as a cause for celebration – Okayo felt obliged to have a rare cup of sake, and it’s clear Osumi is proud to be married to a man defending the nation. Nevertheless, it is also clear that he is experiencing suffering – Okayo and Osumi wonder if he too can enjoy the simple pleasures of warm sake and boiled tofu so far away from home, and Osumi also makes sure to send him a pair of of geta in her care package fearing that he may be missing the small but essential facets of his Japaneseness. Though this is only 1939 and the situation is not yet “serious” there is the betrayal of a mild anxiety in Osumi’s fears as well as in her husband’s letter which states the anxiety he feels after learning that a friend was told of trouble at home only after the fact. After all, it’s hard to put unpleasant news in a letter to someone you know to be already experiencing hardship. Hence the request for the photographs – real visual evidence that his wife and daughter are healthy and happy, rather than mere words which may be offered in the interests of comfort.

Meanwhile, Shimazu is secretly building a second argument behind the scenes. We expect the simple love story of Okayo and Shunsaku will proceed along the usual lines. He will come to appreciate her and they will marry despite the class difference and the difficulty of the times. That is not, however, what happens. Okayo’s attraction is apparently one-sided. Osumi’s brother-in-law warns her that Shunsaku is popular with the ladies, even if he also points out his rather stiff, respectable nature. Shunsaku’s mother has apparently had difficulty finding a suitable match for him which increases Okayo’s hopes, but the reason turns out to be that he has developed at attraction for another pupil at the school, as Okayo finds out listening at the door when Shunsaku’s mother comes to Osumi for an additional character reference. All at once Okayo’s world collapses. She remembers that she is a servant, forever separated from the “nice young ladies” who take classes at the school, and that her youthful romance has been little more than a distracting fantasy.

Earlier on, while taking tea with Shunsaku, Okayo had remarked on how important Osumi had told her her dancing training was as a means of achieving independence and self-sufficiency. The ability to dance well enough to teach (and acquire such well regarded pupils) is after all how Osumi has been able to support herself with a husband away in the army. Osumi’s brother-in-law also tells her something similar when he reminds her that it’s important for her to concentrate on her art rather than getting lost in a romantic daydream. Osumi, realising how hurt Okayo has become after overhearing her conversation with Shunsaku’s mother tries to comfort her with the same logic, convincing her that her infatuation in an entirely normal part of being young and that it will pass. Encouraging her to concentrate on her dancing so that she can turn it into a valid career, Osumi provides both a shoulder to cry on and a valid plan for the future, remaining both sympathetic and supportive in witnessing her pupil’s suffering.

Making a bold formal switch, Shimazu dramatises Okayo’s moment of self-actualisation as a dance sequence taking place in parallel to Shunsaku’s wedding. Sadly picking up a bow she slowly moves to the stage and begins to sing, eventually moving into dance before the scene dissolves and Okayo is in full costume, mid-performance playing the part of a brokenhearted woman watching her beloved marry another. Having danced through her pain and doubly experienced the suffering of her romantic disillusionment, Okayo collapses in exhaustion on the bare stage of the studio, gazing out at the windows and weeping once again as they remain empty yet perhaps open.


Let Me Eat Your Pancreas (君の膵臓をたべたい, Sho Tsukikawa, 2017)

Let me eat your pancreas posterBack around the turn of the century, a new kind of melodrama was taking the Japanese box office by storm. “junai” or “pure love” was not exactly new in terms of genre but began to grow in popularity in the early 2000s thanks to growing interest in Korean television drama, finally hitting its zenith in 2004 with Crying Out Love in the Centre of the World. The junai boom lasted only a couple of years, but Japanese cinema has never been able to get enough of tragic stories of first love destroyed by cruel fate and, ironically enough, returns with the improbably titled Let Me Eat Your Pancreas (君の膵臓をたべたい, Kimi no Suizo wo Tabetai) which sets its fictional past in 2003 – exactly the same time as the contemporary presents of the junai classics.

In 2012, Haruki Shiga (Shun Oguri) is a melancholy high school teacher who can’t decide if teaching is really his vocation and has a resignation letter sitting in his desk. Meanwhile, he is handed a slightly upsetting task by his boss – the school library has become too rundown to consider renovating and so it’s going to have to close. When Shiga was a high school student at this very school, he also ran the library club (he now has a qualification in librarianship) and so he seems to be the perfect person to ensure everything gets packed up and dealt with in the proper fashion. The library, however, holds some painful memories for him – of a girl he grew close to for only a few months while she battled a terminal illness and changed his life forever.

12 years previously, Sakura (Minami Hamabe), a popular young woman, drops her sickness diary on leaving the hospital, whereupon Shiga picks it up and unwittingly becomes the only person outside of Sakura’s family to know that she is suffering from a degenerative pancreatic illness and has only a couple of years at most to live. She knows her case her is hopeless and the treatment she receives will only prolong her life temporarily while easing her symptoms, but is determined to live out the rest of her days to the fullest.

Unlike Sakura, Shiga (Takumi Kitamura) describes himself as a loner who isn’t good with people. He spends his days with a book in his hand and is thought of by most of his classmates (if they think of him at all) as the creepy silent boy. Thus his unexpected friendship with Sakura raises more than a few eyebrows with the other kids, especially Sakura’s best friend Kyoko (Karen Otomo) who is both jealous and confused as to why her friend has suddenly started hanging out with the loser boy. Then again it’s precisely because of this aloofness that Sakura first believes she can entrust her final days to Shiga – as virtual strangers it’s much easier to process the idea of an ending, if Sakura had tried to confide in Kyoko about her illness it would only have marred the end of their friendship. Shiga is detached, he doesn’t get emotionally involved, but despite himself still cares which makes him the ideal point of support for a girl longing to escape a carefully ordered life to get a taste of everything she knows she will miss.

Let Me Eat Your Pancreas may situate itself in the junai era of the early 2000s, but owes an undeniable debt to Shunji Iwai’s seminal 1995 romantic melodrama Love Letter and even borrows its central library conceit with a hidden message which eventually reaches its destination much later than intended. Like Love Letter, in which one of the heroines is perpetually worried about the possible repercussions of minor illnesses, Pancreas is keen to remind us that the truth is we are all dying and illness or not today might be our last day – it’s best to make the most of it without sitting around worrying about what the future might hold.

Sakura, dying yet so full of life and energy, is keen to impart her life philosophy to the introverted Shiga. For Sakura life is about connection, sharing experiences with others be they joy or pain. Shiga, though loathed to admit it, is in his own way desperately lonely but has resolved himself to surviving alone, believing that he lacks the ability connect meaningfully with other people. His nascent connection with Sakura is destined to end in tragedy but does at least begin to release something in him which had long been suppressed. Even so, as an adult he’s just as withdrawn and isolated as he’d been as a teen and it’s not until he’s forced to revisit this traumatic incident in his early life that he learns the full value of its lessons. Let Me Eat Your Pancreas, though wilfully embracing some of the genre’s more problematic elements, is a beautifully affecting return to the world of junai which manages to turn a story of death and tragedy into a celebration of life and love as its isolationist hero begins to find the strength to embrace the art of being alive no matter how painful it may turn out to be.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Asian Pop-Up Cinema Returns for Season Seven

DearEx

Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema returns for its seventh season from 12th September to 14th November with eight film screenings to take place at AMC River East 21 plus an additional nine films screening for free at various venues around the city.

Sept. 12, 7pm: Adulthood

Introduction and Q&A with Director Kim In-seon and Actress Lee Jae-in.

Adulthood

14-year-old Kyung-un meets her uncle Jae-min for the first time at her father’s funeral. Jae-min is, as it turns out, a conman and even cons his bereaved niece out of her inheritance. To get her money back, Kyung-un agrees to pose as Jae-min’s daughter so he can woo his next mark lonely pharmacist Jum-hee, but not everything goes to plan…

Sept. 19, 7pm: Smaller and Smaller Circles

Introduction and Q&A with Director Raya Martin

SmallerAndSmallerCirclesRaya Martin adapts the novel by F.H. Batacan in which two priests investigate a series of killings targeting young boys in the slums of Manila.

Sept. 25, 6.30pm: Namiya

Free screening at Claudia Cassidy Theater at the Chicago Cultural Center

Namiya banner

Three orphans hole up in a disused shop which used to belong to an agony uncle (played by Jacki Chan!) in Han Jie’s adaptation of the Keigo Higashino novel. Review.

Sept. 26, 7pm: Sad Beauty

Introduction and Q&A with Director Bongkod Bencharongkul

Sad Beauty

Actress Bongkod Bencharongkul steps behind the camera for her second directorial outing in which the friendship of two women is tested by the need to dispose of a body.

Sept.28: Singing with Angry Bird

Free screening at Illinois Institute of Technology. Time TBC.

SingingWithAngryBird

Korean Kim Jae-chang runs a children’s choir in Pune, India and has earned the nickname “Angry Bird” thanks to his fiery temper. Though the choir has had a positive effect on the children’s lives, some of the parents have yet to see the value and so Angry Bird has decided to train the parents alongside the children for a joint concert.

Oct. 2, 7pm: Concerto of the Bully

Introduction and Q&A with Director Fung Chih-chiang and Art Director Chet Chan 

ConcertoOfTheBully

Chow, a singersongwriter popular on the internet, has been captured and is being held against her will on a raft while waiting for her pop-star boyfriend to pay the ransom. Gifted with extremely good aural memory, she decides to offer “musical therapy” to the kidnapper in order to facilitate her escape…

Oct. 3, 7pm: When the Sun Meets the Moon

WhenSunMeetsMoon

Astrology fans Sun and Moon meet during a power cut following a freak rainstorm in 1992. They fall in love but Sun is sent away to boarding school and eventually leaves the country. Their love, however, endures…

Oct. 6: Any Way the Wind Blows

Free screening. Time/location TBC

AnyWayTheWindBlows

A civil servant accidentally invites the Tokyo Wind Orchestra to Yakushima by mistake having intended to invite a more prestigious organisation. Realising they weren’t wanted, the musicians attempt to leave the island but find themselves trapped by the civil servant who is desperate to cover up her error…

Oct. 24, 7pm: Walking Past the Future

Introduction and Q&A with director Lee Rui-jin and producer Zhang Min

Walking past the future still 1

Yang Yao-ting’s parents have been forced to return to their home village in Gansu after losing their jobs in Shenzhen but after 25 years pretty much everything has changed. Hoping to get her family a home in the city, Yang Yao-ting finds herself returning to Gansu as a volunteer in a series of high risk medical tests…

Oct. 26, 2pm: Ritoma

Free screening at Flashpoint Chicago

Ritoma

Ruby Yang’s documentary focuses on the unlikely popularity of basketball among nomadic tribes in Tibet.

Oct. 27, 2pm: Made in Vietnam

Free Screening at Chinese-American Museum of Chicago

MadeInVietnam

Thi Vo left Vietnam for Hong Kong as a child after the war, later emigrating to Canada when he was four years old. Thirty years later he attempts to find his father and discover the secrets of his past.

Nov. 8, 7pm: Dear Ex

Introduction and Q&A with Director Hsu Chih-yen.

Dear Ex still 1Chengxi’s dad has just died. He’d left the family sometime before and despite the best efforts of Chengxi’s mum, Chengxi knew perfectly well that it was to be with another man. The problem now is Chengxi’s dad has left everything to his new partner Jay and Chengxi’s mum is not at all happy about it…  Review.

Nov. 3: Asian Three-Fold Mirror 2016: Reflections

Free Screening at Illinois Institute of Technology. Time TBC.

A co-production between the Tokyo International Film Festival and Japan Foundation Asia Center, Asian Three Fold Mirror: Reflections features three short films – one from Japan, one from the Philippines and another from Cambodia.

Shiniuma – Filipino director Brillante Ma Mendoza tells the story of Marcial who is forced to return to the Philippines after years living in Japan.

SHINIUMA-AsianThreeFold

Pigeon – Isao Yukisada follows a Japanese man living in Penang who raises pigeons on his roof.

PIGEON-AsianThreeFold

Beyond the Bridge – a Japanese man building a bridge in Phnom Penh falls in love with a local girl and vows to marry her, but…

Beyond The Bridge

Nov. 11, 1pm: Happy Hour

Free Screening at The Screening Room at the Ambassador Hotel

HappyHour

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s five hour exploration of the everyday lives of a group of middle-aged women living in Kobe.

Nov. 14, 7pm: One Cut of the Dead

Introduction and Q&A with Actor Takayuki Hamatsu

One Cut of the Dead still 1

A horror shoot is invaded by real zombies in Shinichiro Ueda’s anarchic comedy! Review.

Full details for all the films are available via Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s official website. You can also keep up with all the latest news by following Asian Pop-up Cinema on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Repatriation (송환, Kim Dong-won, 2004)

Repatriation posterIt is sometimes said that citizens of a divided nation suffer more from the manipulation of the division than from the division itself. Kim Dong-won’s landmark 2004 documentary Repatriation (송환, Songhwan) tackles this issue from the side in examining the lives of “unconverted” political prisoners – spies from the North who endured years of torture yet never abandoned their core ideology. Kim tells their stories with warmth and empathy, but cannot avoid the various ways they have been used and misused as proxies in a long dormant war, sometimes willingly but sometimes not. Personal friendships aside, Kim’s view of the ex-prisoners is coloured by the political attitudes of his times in which the left, deeply wounded following the subversion of the hard won fight for democracy, longs to see the right’s claims of the North as mere propaganda and perhaps idealises the positive qualities of life North of the border only to have their illusions shattered and their hopes once again dashed

Back in 1992, a priest asked director Kim Dong-won for the use of his car. He was bringing a pair of “unconverted” long term prisoners to the village and needed help. Despite his reservations Kim agreed and against the odds, Choi and Kim were warmly welcomed into the small community who came together to look after the two old men regardless of their controversial beliefs and pasts as spies sent down from the North more than 30 years previously.

“Unconverted” is, strictly speaking, the preferred language of the North. The South refers to the same prisoners as “converts-to-be”, which is to say that the normal practice for captured spies is a period of lengthy torture designed to force the captives to “convert” from North Korean communism to regularised South Korean anti-communism. The language in itself is telling, and Kim frames his tale as one of faith and martyrdom with the Unconverted painted as true believers who never wavered even in the face of extreme suffering and persecution. Indeed, the suffering itself only strengthened their resolve and legitimised their struggle – if they are prepared to go this far to obliterate your ideas, then your ideas must after all have power.

This idea of an almost religious belief in the righteousness of North Korean “socialism” seems to have caught Kim’s attention, but he is not blind to the darker sides of their continued indoctrination. Kim and Choi have frequent get togethers with others in the same position, singing North Korean folksongs and communist anthems while they extol the virtues of a land they’ve not set foot in since they were young men, pining for a homeland that might not exist anymore. The Unconverted want to go home, but those of a more practical mindset might wonder what would happen to them if they could – will they be welcomed with open arms as they seem to think, or be treated with suspicion as returnees who’ve lived freely in the South which has, after all, released them willingly?

Meanwhile, belief in the “goodness” of the North begins to crumble with increasing improvement in relations which gradually lays bare the truth of the Communist state, suffering heavily thanks to the fall of the Soviet Union and ongoing economic reforms in China. Pervasive governmental corruption had encouraged many to feel that any and all information regarding the evils of North Korea must be lies created to spread fear as part of a vast propaganda machine and so when much of it turned out to be the truth it was a double blow to an already wounded left whose revolution had been betrayed when a newly democratic Korea went ahead and elected the dictator’s chosen successor. The Unconverted become a political pinball – if the South lets them go home some will praise their compassion, but many more will read it as a defeat while the North may well make full capital out of their returned heroes’ unbreakable resolve while also using them to attack the “cruel” South for treating them so badly and refusing to allow those still imprisoned to return.

Yet Kim’s concerns are human before they’re ideological – these are men who want to go home and someone is telling them that they can’t. The Uncoverted are mere pawns in an ongoing ideological game being played by two sides of a never-ending civil war. The division itself remains weaponised by both sides, each seeking to use it to demonise the other and no matter your personal ideology the inhumanity of making political capital of ordinary people ought to be disturbing. What Kim proves, however, is that a kind of “reunification” is possible – that friendships can be formed across ideological lines and that a peaceful coexistence can be won over common ground so long as there is the will to find it.


Screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2018: Documentary Fortnight.

A Slice Room (사람이 산다, Song Yun-hyeok, 2016)

slice room still 1It’s easy to view a city like Seoul as a shining example of economic prosperity in which even ordinary people enjoy a high standard of living and perhaps no longer need to worry about extreme poverty or hunger. Of course, this is not the case and despite the aspirational image the city likes to project for itself, a long and complex history of political instability, authoritarian government, and the legacy of the 1997 Asian financial crisis have ensured the survival of an oppressed underclass unable to escape the roots of their poverty due to entrenched social issues which will not allow them to free themselves from the Slice Room existence.

Director Song Yun-hyeok first learned of the “jjok bang” or “Slice Room” phenomenon while working with the homeless and himself lived in one of the tiny tenement rooms for a year in order to make the documentary. He follows three groups of impoverished people who have each found themselves trapped in the slums for different reasons. 27-year-old Il-so was born in the jjok bang and has lived in the community all his life. He lives with his girlfriend, Sun-hee, who uses a wheelchair and finds it difficult to get around the makeshift world of the jjok bang without him. Meanwhile, 60-something Nam-sung lost his job after the Asian financial crisis and has been drifting aimlessly ever since as has Chun-hyun whose mental health issues prevent him from gaining secure employment.

Bad luck can happen to anybody, but the forces which conspire to keep someone in the jjok bang are no accident only a result of deliberate governmental failures. The reason many are unable to get off benefits and return to mainstream society is down to a law which mandates familial support – i.e. if a son gets a job his father loses his benefits even if the prospective job is not enough to support them both or if there are other dependents involved. Thus Nam-sung, by most standards an old man, finds himself in the humiliating position of having to reconnect with his estranged parents in order to get them to sign a consent form so that he can have access to government subsidy and take up a job his social worker has found for him. The family, whom he has not seen for 40 years, are also aware of the support legislation and are worried they will at some point be required to support Nam-sung and so they disown him and refuse to sign. Nam-sung is back at square one with no other options because of the say so of his father even though he is old enough to be a grandfather himself.

Meanwhile, Il-so and Sun-hee want to get married and start a family, but once they become a couple they will also receive a substantial benefits cut and seeing as they are also unable to work because of health issues and the support law, they have no real possibility of being able to support themselves without government help. Nevertheless they decide to try and fulfil their dream of building a family only to face a further dilemma when Sun-hee becomes pregnant.

Medical costs are another constant worry. Il-so, who has spent his entire life in the jjok bang, has long standing health issues from high blood pressure and diabetes to recurrent TB. Disease is rife in the jjok bang and mysterious deaths not uncommon, but the secondary problems are spiritual malaise and creeping depression as the hopelessness of the jjok bang world begins to sap the strength of those who live there, convincing them there is no way out of this world of crushing of poverty. For those like Chun-hyun the situation is even more precarious as they attempt to manage their conditions while living in the impossible jjok bang society, forced into exploitative, low paid and illegal labour simply to get by all while worrying about being caught out, losing their benefits and their homes.

Nam-sung, having found temporary relief outside of the city, is forced to return to the jjok bang but has resigned himself to wanting nothing more than to be allowed to live there until he dies. The jjok bang, however, has been scheduled for demolition which might be a good thing in many ways save that no provision has been made for where these people are supposed to go – rents everywhere else are simply too high and many will have no other option than being forced back onto the streets. With no address they’ll have no access to welfare or possibility of finding work and so the whole vicious cycle starts over again. Make no mistake, these problems are not exclusive to Korea but are the result of an uncaring and authoritarian government which continues to abnegate its responsibilities towards its most vulnerable citizens while social stigma and a belief that the poor have only themselves to blame continues to perpetuate a myth of othering which thinks the problem will eventually solve itself in the cruellest of ways. Director Song Yun-hyeok explores the lives of the jjok bang residents with empathy and understanding, demonstrating the extent to which they are rendered powerless by a needlessly arcane social welfare system in the hope that something might finally change.


Screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2018: Documentary Fortnight.