The Journals of Musan (무산일기, Park Jung-bum, 2011)

Journals of Musan posterIf you’ve made it out of North Korea, travelled all the way through China, and finally arrived in the promised land of the South, you might expect to find yourself in a kind of paradise free of violence, fear, and oppression, where opportunity and freedom rule. The reality, however, is rarely so pleasant. Those arriving from the North do so with little support, face constant stigma and the threat of exploitation, and may end up just as hungry and alone as before. The hero of Park Jung-bum’s Journals of Musan (무산일기, Musanilgi) is one such lonely soul who finds himself tested and betrayed until cheated even out of his own innocence.

After months in a resettlement centre, Seung-chul (Park Jung-bum) is living with a friend in a rundown flat next to a village knocked down to pave the way for yet another batch of swanky middle-class homes on the periphery of an ever expanding city. Assisted by a friendly policeman who urges him not to tell his prospective employers that he’s come from the North, only that he’ll work hard, Seung-chul looks for honest work but finds it difficult to come by, not only thanks to the mild stigma attached to being a defector but his relative lack of equivalent qualifications, and restrictions on his movements. Meanwhile his roommate, Kyung-chul (Jin Yong-ok), has decided the best buck’s a fast buck and started an individual enterprise “assisting” his fellow North Koreans sending money home via his uncle in China for a “small fee”. The only job Seung-chul can get is pasting up fliers for clubs and bars often over those for other establishments at the behest of an exploitative gang leader who rarely pays him and threatens to take the work away altogether if Seung-chul continues to refuse the less legal jobs he’s often “offered”.

Seung-chul is an innocent, godly soul who truly believes it should be possible to live honestly and with kindness in a land of freedom. His only refuge is the local church of which he is a devout member, but even here he is an invisible outsider who sits and eats alone only just brave enough to venture in in the first place. Developing a fondness for a pretty woman in the choir gives Seung-chul another reason to attend, and eventually a hope of a job too when he silently follows her to the karaoke bar she works in where they happen to be in need of another pair of hands.

The church, however, is just one of the many institutions to renege on their promises, offering relatively little in terms of real support to suffering men like Seung-chul who are granted only superficial welcome. Sook-young (Kang Eun-jin), the young woman Seung-chul idolises, is ashamed of her job in the karaoke bar which she feels to be immoral and in conflict with her otherwise intense religiosity, taking against Seung-chul on spotting him at church in fear that he will spill the beans and out her as an impure woman among her flock. Seung-chul would never do such a thing, though as he points out he doesn’t have any friends there to spill the beans to anyway.

In any case he continues to admire her from afar while she remains oblivious though slightly irritated to think he may have formed an attachment to a “helper” girl after he gets into a fight with a drunken patron who was touching her inappropriately. “Why do you care about people like that?” she asks him, tellingly, exposing her religiosity as the puritanical kind all about rules and oppression and not at all about compassion or kindness. Sook-young looks down on the helper girls as fallen women, advising Seung-chul that a godly man like himself has no business falling for “that sort of girl” before firing him when she catches him singing hymns in the karaoke booth, convinced that his excuse of not knowing any other songs must be a lie.

Sook-young seems to have no idea Seung-chul is from the North. True enough he speaks little but no one picks up on his accent and he’s been trained not to volunteer the information for fear of rejection. Once she finds out, Sook-young is full of remorse, actively inducting Seung-chul into the church and making him her good deed for the day. It’s not only the social stigma that plagues Seung-chul, but a kind of exoticisation. Kyung-chul’s other sideline is earning money through lectures to anti-communist organisations to whom he parrots the accepted line on North Korea – the violence, the oppression, the famine, though stopping short of the full horror. Seung-chul, unwillingly dragged to a church support group, reveals the full extent of what it cost him to survive and discovers no one quite wanted that level of honesty or is willing to help him in the depths of his despair. All anyone wants of a defector is to say what it is they want to hear, any deviation from the accepted line will not be tolerated in an eerie echo of all they’ve escaped.

Gazing at an expensive tailored suit, Seung-chul chases dreams of success but finds only exploitation and abandonment. His only real attachment is to a little dog brought in off the street to whom he shows the tenderness no one has yet shown him but even this small comfort is not enough to sustain him in the fiercely capitalist environment of modern day Seoul. Seung-chul is presented with a choice, one which strains the fragile innocence he’d been careful to preserve for his new life, and finds himself no better than the world which surrounds him. North or South, survival has a price but you can damn yourself by paying it even in the knowledge that those around you sold out long ago.


The Journals of Musan was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Possible Faces (얼굴들, Lee Kang-hyun, 2017)

possible faces posterLee Kang-hyun becomes the latest Korean director to question the nature of reality in a rapidly modernising society in the oblique, deliberately confusing Possible Faces (얼굴들, Eolguldeul). Ironically enough, the film’s original Korean title is simply “Faces” and in a nod to the 1968 Cassavetes classic with which it shares its name, takes the breakdown of a relationship as its starting point to examine the parallel lives of former lovers. Circular logic predominates as the simulacrum begins to chew away at the authentic, but even if anyone notices the teeth marks at the edges of reality they may no longer care.

Dejected high school administrator Kisun (Park Jonghwan) has been kicked out of his girlfriend Hyejin’s (Kim Saebyeok) house after three years of cohabitation. It’s really not his area, but handed an incomplete scholarship application form from a soccer team member who routinely dodges classes, he finds himself becoming increasingly invested in the boy’s life. Meanwhile, Hyejin has resigned from her corporate office job to take over her mother’s cheap eats restaurant which she hopes to renovate and turn into a cute little boutique diner. The pair are accidentally connected by the circular motion of Hyunsu, a freelance delivery driver with a romantic heart.

Nothing is quite as it seems. One of Hyun-su’s early deliveries is collecting artificial flowers from a nearby garden centre for a magazine shoot. The regular guy has been moved on, so Hyunsu is the new contact but, as he points out to the saleswoman, though he may be wearing a uniform he is not technically speaking an “employee”. Hyunsu further reinforces his point by asking why none of the other stalls are open – they belong to wholesalers of “real” flowers so they keep specific hours. Sellers of artificial flowers, by contrast, can open 24/7, because their flowers require no maintenance and will never wither, eternally unchanging while the real thing fades. Meanwhile, museums stage reenactments of martial arts performances for tourists, display “replica” artefacts, and boast of the restorations on their “ancient” walls.

The world becomes increasingly “faceless”, as if time is beginning to wear away the surface of reality. Kisun, stuck in a depressive rut, laments that he could stick with his boring admin job for the next 20 years during which time nothing would change except the faces of the kids, as indistinct as they already seem to be. Hyejin walks past the Google Mapping van with a giddy sort of glee as if she’s just spotted a celebrity of whom she is a big fan, calling her friend to share her amazement but lamenting that they will probably blur her face and thereby neuter her newfound immortality. That may not be an altogether bad thing, as Hyunsu learns on reading a mysterious diary in which a woman makes cheerful fun of her husband for mildly resembling a wanted poster on the way out of the park.

The more things change, the more we want them to stay the same, only “better”. Hyejin quits her job to take over the family restaurant despite her mother’s misgivings, but she remakes it in her own image, giving it an upscale makeover in the process. She walks through run down shopping arcades and becomes a tourist in her own city, admiring the old world charm of narrow winding streets untouched by the neon lights of chain stores and comes home to plug in a dull LED lamp to write in her notebook with an old-fashioned fountain pen as if by candlelight.

Hyejin is moving backwards to move forwards, but Kisun is struggling to move at all. He jacks in his boring admin job to join a magazine dedicated to selling the charms of everyday life repackaged as marketable luxuries, complete with Kisun’s own poetic copy gracing the front cover. He finds himself on a kafkaesque quest chasing Schrödinger’s executive who always seems to be away from his desk before eventually tracking him down to a strange cultural event only to realise it isn’t him at all only after he’s been given the portentous advice to ditch his special issue feature for one on the soccer kid from the beginning, Jinsu. While Kisun meanders, Jinsu seems to have made something of himself. Years seem to have passed, but according to Hyejin’s diary it’s only been a few months – months of industry for some perhaps, if only slow months of drudgery for others. The world of Lee’s Possible Faces is one spiralling away from itself in which the nature of reality, identity, and objective truth has become indistinct, to the degree that it has become a mere simulacrum of itself in which the uncanniness of the real provokes only discomfort in its natural imperfections.


Possible Faces was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Interview with director Lee Kang-hyun from the 2017 Busan Film Festival.

Love+Sling (레슬러, Kim Dae-woong, 2018)

Love+Sling poster“Free yourself!” cries the oblivious father at the centre of Kim Dae-woong’s wrestling themed family comedy, Love+Sling (레슬러, Lesseulleo). In truth, this is wrestling of the emotional rather than the physical kind as the closeness of a father and son comes under pressure not only from advancing maturity but the unexpected intervention of the girl next door. Vicarious dreams, generational resentments, unusual sensitivity, unaddressed trauma, and self-imposed limitations all come into play when age and youth lock horns, each hoping to come out on top but eventually being knocked back to a healthier place of personal equality born of mutual understanding.

Cheerful widower Gui-bo (Yoo Hae-jin) and his son Sung-woong (Kim Min-jae) have an extremely close relationship seeing as it’s just been the two of them since Gui-bo’s wife passed away from illness when Sung-woong was small. By way of support, they are also extremely friendly with their upstairs neighbours whom they think of as extended family. In his youth, Gui-bo was a champion wrestler with Olympic dreams which he gave up to become a family man but has now passed on to Sung-woong whom he is training to become a national athlete. Meanwhile, Sung-woong is nursing a small crush on girl next door Ga-young (Lee Sung-kyung) but his plans of confessing his love after winning the big contest are dashed when she makes a big confession of her own. She’s long been carrying a torch for Gui-bo and wants Sung-woong to help her win him over.

Ga-young’s awkward confession sets off a series of uncomfortable reactions in Sung-woong. First of all he’s understandably shocked, jealous, and resentful yet also forced to realise that Ga-young’s having a crush on him is not really his father’s fault. The extremely close relationship they’d always enjoyed becomes strained for reasons that Gui-bo is unable to understand, believing that his son is just at a difficult age and under a lot of pressure thanks to his training. Gui-bo still thinks of Ga-young as the little girl from next door and is in no way romantically interested in her though when he finally learns of her intentions, he tries to do his best not to hurt her feelings, letting her down gently in the knowledge that this kind of misplaced love is just a part of growing up that she will someday likely be very embarrassed about.

Nevertheless, Sung-woong does not enjoy thinking of his own father as a romantic rival and is forced is to reassess the rest of their relationship in the face of this disturbing fact. Sung-woong can’t remember if he wrestles because he likes it, or he only did it to make his dad happy. Gui-bo insists he only encouraged his son to wrestle because he enjoyed it, but there is an unavoidable implication that he’s forced his own failed dreams onto the shoulders of his son who risks disappointing him if he is unable to achieve them. Sung-woong can’t help but resent the unfair parental expectations he’s lived under his all life, not least because they leave him uncertain, never really knowing if he has a dream of his own or has been prevented from forming one in having lived such a blinkered existence.

The burden of parental expectation is not one that can be easily shaken off. Middle-aged father Gui-bo is still under constant pressure from his own mother to remarry despite his frequent protestations. In a painful conversation after an argument with Sung-woong, Gui-bo turns to his mother to muse on the difficulties of raising a child only for her turn his words back on him in another veiled criticism of his refusal to conform to her vision of a successful future. Lamenting that his mother never listens, Gui-bo attempts to talk to his son but makes exactly the same mistake and gets his own words thrown back at him, finally realising he is no better and is incapable of allowing Sung-woong a safe space to voice his concerns without launching into a mini lecture of self-centred and unsolicited life advice.

Sung-woong’s increasing resentment threatens to tank not only his relationship with his father but also Ga-young’s with her family and the easiness that had existed between the two houses. Father and son had been all too close, locked in a mutually dependent cycle of filial responsibilities that threatened to prevent either of them ever moving forward. Like a wrestler trapped on the mat, each man has to free himself by accepting his own individual identity while allowing others to do the same. Only by a literal grappling can each man find the strength to release the other so that they might both regain the freedom to become the most authentic versions of themselves. A gentle, empathetic take on family mores and the pains of growing up no matter what age you are, Love+Sling finds space for the changing nature of a paternal bond which does not so much break as bend under the weight of mutual recognition.


Love+Sling was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Power of Kangwon Province (강원도의 힘, Hong Sang-soo, 1998)

Power of Kangwon province posterTogether, but separate, could serve as a thematic guide to the work of Hong Sang-soo for whom time is malleable and place even more so. The Power of Kangwon Province (강원도의 힘, Gangwon-do ui him), his second feature, is as playful as one might expect, employing the dual structure familiar from Hong’s later work to set a pair of lovers against each other as they endure the same holiday without ever crossing paths in an attempt to forget their doomed romance.

Jisook (Oh Yun-hong) takes a train to the titular Kangwon province – a popular holiday destination just far enough from the city to make it an attractive place to bury one’s sorrows. Together (but sort of separate) with two university friends she wanders around doing all the regular tourist stuff. For some reason the girls attract the attention of a local policeman (Kim Yu-seok) who starts hanging out with them. Over a tense dinner, Ji-sook argues with her friend over her failed affair with a married man, after which she ends up in an odd encounter with the policeman who is also married.

Meanwhile, married professor Sangkwon (Baek Jong-hak) is in a state of lovelorn depression over the end of an affair with a much younger woman who he claims is the only one he’s ever truly loved. Underappreciated at his current place of work, he spends some time sucking up to his sumo-loving boss but eventually comes to the conclusion it’s all been pointless and he’s never going to get tenure from this rigid old man. Still, despite his wife’s encouragement, he drags his feet applying to another university and continues to mope. Relief comes when his friend (Chun Jae-hyun) invites to him Kangwon for a few days to forget his troubles, but time away only seems to reinforce his sense of emptiness and inability to let go of a lost love.

In truth, we have little implication that the stories of Jisook and Sangkwon are connected at all until they finally intersect save that their movements mirror each other as they each attempt to erase the memory of their failed romance through a sad vacation. Jisook and Sangkwon are on the same train, going to the same place, where they do very similar things but their paths do not cross again – they are out of step with one another, unable to repair the rhythm of their romance but bound by an awkward togetherness just the same.

Meanwhile, a dark spectre haunts them in the form of a mysterious woman and her “fall” from a cliff. Jisook’s disappointing relationship with the married policeman is at least a natural connection, however ill advised it may turn out to be, whereas Sangkwon spends his time irritatedly chasing a lonely woman who got fed up of waiting for him and later walked into the path of another jealous and impatient man. Though in no particular hurry, both Jisook and Sangkwon are constantly annoyed by being forced to waste time hanging around. Jisook’s ballistic attack on the policeman who arrived late to collect her on a return visit to Kangwon is probably misdirected anger at Sangkwon and the illicit nature of her visit, but Sangkwon’s is a kind of arrogance – as if he believes the world exists at his leisure and that he is free to put it down and pick it back up again at his own choosing. Jisook wouldn’t wait for him any longer, but Sangkwon can’t quite accept the relationship is over. He never truly considers abandoning his wife and family to pursue a supposedly “true” love, but won’t give up on the romantic ideal.

Hong positions both lovers as lost, chasing distant ghosts of each other through the spooky environs of the picturesque holiday town, attempting to bury their loneliness in other bodies but emerging with only sadness and resentment. Connection is fleeting, and perhaps unsatisfying in itself. The power of Kangwon province may lie in making a grave for the impossible dream of enduring of love. Jisook buries the smoking embers of her romance even whilst still alight, leaving Sangkwon sadly gazing into a goldfish bowl made for two but now home to only one. Destined never to understand each other, we are all trapped in our own fishbowls sadly gazing out at an incomprehensible world where the only reward of longing is existential sadness. Sound familiar?


The Power of Kangwon Province was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Home video release trailer (no subtitles)

Hotel by the River (강변 호텔, Hong Sang-soo, 2018)

Hotel by the river posterTaking an extended sojourn in the melancholy world of European gothic, Hong Sang-soo takes Death to task in the Bergmanesque Hotel by the River (강변 호텔, Gangbyun Hotel). Shifting away from formal experimentation to something much more straightforward, even traditional, Hong maintains his love of dualities and unexpected symmetry as he places an elderly poet in the grip of his own mortality side by side with a young woman dealing with the emotional fallout of having been involved with a man whose heart had frozen. Beautiful but barren, the snowbound landscape points to an inner winter where hope of an invincible summer has long since passed, leaving only regret and futility in its place.

Our hero, Younghwan (Ki Joo-bong), is about to do “something foolish” once again. Feeling the icy fingers of Death on his shoulders, he’s invited his two estranged adult sons to visit him in a small hotel where he has been staying at the grace of the management. Meanwhile, he spends his days composing a last poem and gazing idly at the snow-covered vista below which is where he catches sight of a beautiful young woman with a visible wound on her hand. Like Younghwan, the young woman, Sanghee (Kim Min-hee), is here in retreat though hers is of a more immediate kind. Broken hearted over lost love, she’s invited a close friend, Yeonju (Song Seon-mi), to help her through, making a sad vacation of a trying time.

Feeling his mortality, Younghwan’s desire to see his sons is born more of a poetic sensibility and a need to put his affairs in order than it is of any great paternal affection. “Men are incapable of grasping love”, Yeonju intones from two tables over after she and Sanghee accidentally become the only other diners in a quiet eatery not far enough from the depressing hotel. Meanwhile, Younghwan is trying to excuse his decision to walk out on his family when his sons were small through love as a life philosophy, that real love must be pursued at all costs even if it fails. He claims he left the boys’ mother because it would be wrong to stay out of a sense of “guilt” alone, but his lack of remorse for the hurt his individualised actions have wrought makes his justifications hollow.

Hurt is where we find Sanghee whose internalised suffering is neatly externalised in her wounded hand. Literally “burned” in love, she is one woman among many misused by a weak willed and insensitive man much like Younghwan himself. Yet where Younghwan wallows, superficially rejects his responsibility, and frostily tries to reconnect with his sons, Sanghee heals herself with the warmth of friendship, hibernating her way towards wholeness as if waiting for the winter sun. Younghwan sees beauty in the inviolability of snow, but Sanghee sees life even here and she values it. If the magpies can make a nest even in the depths of winter, there must be hope for her too.

Younghwan has no hope, for he knows his days are over. An aesthete, he is captivated by the beauty of the two young women, repeatedly complementing them on their attractiveness and eventually deciding to dedicate his final poem only to them after doubling back on his distant sons to return for more drinks with softer companionship. The poem is harsh and self lacerating, a confession of sorts but one made to a neutral audience and lamenting the oppressive forces of futility he subconsciously blames for an inability to pursue emotional authenticity.

Even Younghwan’s sons are mere echoes of himself – Byungsoo (Yu Jun-sang), the melancholy artist too afraid to pursue female companionship, and Kyungsoo (Kwon Hae-hyo), a dejected middle-aged salaryman too ashamed to tell his father that his marriage has failed. In a piece of parting advice, Younghwa expounds on the meaning behind Byungsoo’s name – “byung” as in “side by side”, intended not only as a literal hope that the brothers would always be close (something which does not seem to have come to pass), but also to echo Younghwa’s two minds life philosophy. One mind capable of conceiving of heaven, and the other to walk the ground. One mind will try to conquer the other but, Younghwan councils, you mustn’t let it. His advocacy for balance in all things only further reinforces his failure to achieve it. Younghwan’s former wife describes him as an “absolute monster with no redeeming human features” which seems like a stretch given the broken, lonely old man before us but might well have been true in his youth full of a poet’s fire untempered by age’s regret.

The ironically named “Heimat” hotel is of course a temporary refuge, existing almost out of time with its old fashioned decor and atmosphere of faded grandeur. Younghwan is staying here for free on the invitation of a fan whose ardor eventually fades. A guest who’s outstayed his welcome, Younghwan is resolved to the coming end of his world, anticipating release if not redemption but lingering on until his day is done filled only with regret for life’s futility and its many disappointments. Hotel by the River finds Hong at his most poetic, but also at his most melancholy in a fatalistic reckoning which finds no escape from its eerie snowbound beauty.


Hotel by the River was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Dangan Runner (弾丸ランナー, SABU, 1996)

Dangan Runner posterIt’s not difficult to see what might send three young men running like stray bullets from a random gun in the Japan of the mid-90s, but each of the various protagonists of SABU’s debut feature Dangan Runner (弾丸ランナー, AKA Non-Stop) is reaching for a different target. Like much of the director’s later work, Dangan Runner pivots on random circumstance which somehow conspires to bring our three runners together as if bound by cosmic thread while they too are chased by an oncoming storm in the form of vengeful yakuza and the bumbling cops hot on their trail.

Kickstarting the whole affair, lowly restaurant worker Yasuda (Tomorowo Taguchi), fed up with the petty humiliations of his life, decides to rob a bank. He has everything planned, even rehearsed and choreographed down to the second, but when the time comes he makes a mistake. Having left his mask at home, he decides to buy one from a local combini but panics and accidentally shoplifts instead, attracting the attentions of bullet two – Aizawa (Diamond Yukai), who is wounded in the arm by Yasuda’s nervous shot when his gun accidentally goes off. A drug addict and former rockstar, Aizawa, intent on revenge for the disrespect he’s just been paid, retrieves the gun dropped by Yasuda and chases him through the streets of Tokyo. Aizawa in turn continues the chain reaction when he bumps into a yakuza, Takeda (Shinichi Tsutsumi), who is “triggered” by a deep seated trauma into chasing off after Aizawa, knife in hand. Meanwhile, a rival yakuza clan is also after Takeda because of gangland politics while they too are being monitored by the police who have gotten wind of a gang war in the offing.

Though SABU’s film is not in the least political, it is like much of his work a mild satire even if its sympathy lies firmly with its three central heroes each desperately trying and failing to outrun themselves. Yasuda, a small man with a slight frame, is the lowest of the low. He has a terrible job as a kitchen assistant in a small restaurant where he is constantly bullied by the head chef and belittled by the other kitchen staff who are all much taller and stronger than he is. It’s not difficult to see why he might bristle so much when one calls him “good for nothing”, yet he’s not the type to offer more than an angry stare in return. To make matters worse, he runs into an old girlfriend who appears to have moved on and up. Walking arm in arm with a wealthy salaryman, she has apparently jettisoned the “common” name of “Midori” for the relatively more sophisticated one of “Yasuko”, presumably hoping to hook someone who is indeed the polar opposite of a “loser” like Yasuda.

Aizawa also has his share of woman troubles though his are of an opposing dimension. A failed musician with a drug problem, Aizawa alienated his loving girlfriend while hoping his addiction would save him from his unattainable dreams. Of course, it’s an entirely different “shot in the arm” that starts him running, but like Yasuda in the end all he can think of is the girl and how he did everything wrong. Takeda, by contrast, is a yakuza through and through. His regrets are bound up with homosocial bonding and male loyalty, mourning the death of the trusted superior he failed to save in dodging the blows of a random assassin. Yet as his superior tells him, all living beings run towards the same thing. A yakuza cannot control his death but he can control his life and the effect he has on others. He urges Takeda to run and find life in the process, but perhaps Takeda’s destination is the run itself rather than where it will eventually take him.

Indeed, Yasuda, accidentally landing up in the middle of the yakuza gang war, affirms that he never felt so alive as when he was running for his life. All three men, running fast from failure, finally achieve the freedom they’d dreamed of through the intense exertion of their flight which later literally becomes orgasmic as all three fantasise about a pretty woman seen on the side of the road. Like bullets fired from a gun powered by social impossibility, each is destined to explode on reaching its chosen target. Like many of SABU’s later protagonists, these are men brought low by life and circumstance, driven slowly mad by a conspiracy of cosmic coincidence, mere playthings of fate without power or agency. Angry young men are a powder keg waiting to ignite, but in SABU’s whimsically surreal universe they usually sort things out amongst themselves. For the Dangan Runners, they only need to look in the mirror to figure out where it is they need to go.


Dangan Runner is available on dual format DVD & blu-ray from Third Window Films. On disc extras include a video essay on the history of V Cinema from film scholar Tom Mes, and an expansive audio commentary by Jasper Sharp providing detailed background on SABU’s career and the Japanese cinema landscape of the mid-90s.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Witness (목격자, Cho Kyu-jang, 2018)

The Witness poster 2The murder of a young woman outside of her New York apartment block in 1964 became a psychology text book standard thanks to the fact no one had raised the alarm or come to help her. Later investigations more or less debunked the so called “bystander effect”, at least in this instance, but it remains broadly true that those who find themselves witnessing a distressing incident fully expect that “someone” will be dealing with it, conveniently forgetting that they too are “someone”. The hero of Cho Kyu-jang’s The Witness (목격자, Mokgyeokja) is only one of many to temporarily distance himself from his community when he fears he has locked eyes with a killer and inadvertently made his family a target for retribution.

Sang-hoon (Lee Sung-min), a middle-class lawyer, is riding high after buying a new apartment (with a hefty mortgage) for his wife and daughter. Rolling home drunk after an evening drinking with colleagues, he opens yet another beer and gazes out over the balcony of his new apartment musing on how great his life is only to be confronted with a screaming woman being chased by a violent man in the courtyard. She falls and the man strikes her. Sang-hoon struggles for his phone but drops it in drunken shock. His wife emerges from the bedroom and alerts the killer to their presence by turning the lights on. Sang-hoon snaps them off and goes back to the balcony where he is convinced the killer has seen him. Paranoid, he forgets all about the poor woman bleeding on the concrete below and spends the night in his hallway clutching a baseball bat just in case.

He doesn’t know it yet, but Sang-hoon has indeed made himself a target for a marauding “random” killer. Afraid and ashamed, he decides to keep quiet. It would be easy enough to read Sang-hoon’s unwillingness to get “involved” in other people’s business as a hangover from an upbringing in an authoritarian regime in which keeping your head down and your nose clean might be essential tools for survival, but it’s also fair to say that his attitude is defined as much by notions of middle-class respectability as it is by cowardice and selfishness. An old busybody in the apartment block is constantly banging on about the house prices, getting the residents to sign a legal waver promising not to cooperate with the police or the media to avoid the name of the community becoming linked with violent crime. Sang-hoon says he wants to protect not only his wife and daughter, but their home too. His hopes and dreams are bound up with conventional homeownership. This is the way he intended to fulfil his male obligations to protect his family, but now it’s being threatened in a way he never expected and he finds himself tested.

Despite himself, Sang-hoon does feel he ought to help those in need. He bristles when his wife wants him to help out a friend whose child was injured in a car accident that the police didn’t bother to investigate properly, because he knows it’s a lost cause and she’s better to settle. He feels sorry for her, but not enough to rock the boat. Being a lawyer he perhaps knows what a risk it can be when the wrong people know where you live, but he’s at constant battle with himself knowing that the killer is still out there and will likely kill again. If he’d only called an ambulance instead of cowering by the front door, the poor woman might have survived – her death is on his hands as much as the killer’s because he chose to do nothing. The body count will only rise all while Sang-hoon tries to hedge his bets, calculating whether he’s better off keeping quiet and hoping the killer appreciates his complicity or surrendering himself to the police in the hope that they can protect him by taking the killer out of the picture.

Sang-hoon’s desire not to get involved has left him very involved indeed. He hoped it would all go away if he turned a blind eye and kept himself out of it, but like it or not he is a member of a community and he has a responsibility which cannot be abnegated. It turns out the best way to protect your family is protecting other people’s, maintaining a herd immunity to the threat of violent crime. There is, however, a reason they tell you to shout “fire” and not “help” – people are selfish and if they hear fire they know they are in danger too so it’s in their interest to come running, if it’s only you in danger they may not put themselves out. Sang-hoon’s brush with the embodiment of random threat does at least release him from the ingrained isolationism of the aspirant middle-classes in which any kind of fellow feeling is distinctly frowned upon, allowing him free rein to embrace his natural tendency towards altruism safe in the knowledge that his desire to help is not a weakness but a strength that will keep his family safe through the interconnectedness of a compassionate community.


The Witness was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)