Ieodo (異魚島 / 이어도, Kim Ki-young, 1977)

Ieoh Island restoration posterIn the hyper-masculine and intensely patriarchal atmosphere of Korea under Park Chung-hee, Kim Ki-young spins a tale of male obsolescence in the mysterious Ieodo (異魚島 / 이어도, AKA Ieoh Island). The eponymous island, apparently a kind of paradise home to the lonely ghosts of fishermen lost at sea, becomes a symbol of the impossible life drive of its impotent protagonists who find themselves taken by the island before their time while the community of women asserts its primacy in rendering men “redundant” through finding new ways to procreate.

The hero, Hyun Seon-woo (Kim Jeong-cheol), is an executive at a tourism company who is struggling to conceive a child with his wife and undergoing the early stages of IVF treatment. Alarmed to realise that his wife could have a child without him thanks to his frozen sperm, he throws himself into his work, planning for a new hotel development to be called “Ieodo” after the mythical fisherman’s paradise. Organising a publicity stunt in which journalists and industry guests are asked to board a boat to an unknown destination backfires spectacularly when a reporter, Chun Nam-seok (Choi Yoon-seok), becomes extremely upset and insists on turning the boat around on learning they will be heading towards the mythical island. Nam-seok accuses of the hoteliers of appropriating local culture, while even the boat’s captain expresses dismay at the thought of breaking such a strong taboo. Seon-woo offers to settle the matter with a drinking contest, eventually passing out during which time Nam-seok “falls” off the boat, leaving him the prime suspect in the man’s death. Convinced that Nam-seok must have taken his own life, he determines to investigate the case himself with the help of Nam-seok’s editor (Park Am).

Seon-woo’s quest takes him to the nearby island where Nam-seok was born, Parang – a place inhabited solely by women which all men must leave on having a child. Parang is a place where tradition reigns and superstition is prevalent. Guided to the local shamaness (Park Jeong-ja) by a timid widow, Seon-woo and the editor are told that Nam-seok’s family were under an ancestral curse in which all the men of previous generations were eventually taken by the “Water Ghost” of Ieodo, including Nam-seok’s own father. After his mother died of grief, Nam-seok tried to escape, but now, the villagers seem to believe, he too has returned to embrace his fate proving that the Water Ghost will always take what is hers by right.

In order to get around the lack of menfolk, the women practice what a friend of Nam-seok’s calls “both the most primitive and the most modern” form of marriage in which they copulate with men of their choosing during a candlelight ritual. Having sworn off having children himself, at least on the island owing to the curse, Nam-seok takes up with the wealthy widow Mrs. Park (Kwon Mi-hye) who finances his unusual business venture – an abalone farm designed to bring prosperity back to the island where the traditional diving business has begun to flounder thanks to the corruption of the modern world.

The fish in the ocean are dying because of industrial pollution – itself a problem produced by the thoughtless capitalism of the Park Chung-hee’s authoritarian regime and its relentless drive forward into economic dynamism at all costs. Watching his seed fall on stony ground (literally and figuratively), Nam-seok becomes enlightened to environmentalism, bemoaning that the ancestors of humanity cared for the planet for thousands of years only for recent generations to destroy it. It’s the end of the world, he says, everything is rotting. Which might, after a fashion, explain why everyone seems to be finding it so difficult so have children.

Nam-seok’s attempts to artificially breed abalone link straight back to Seon-woo’s inability to father a child with his wife whom, we are told in the very beginning, eventually died without ever giving birth. We’re told that sperm survives its host, that the sperm of a man who froze to death on the mountains was found to be perfectly viable once defrosted and that, therefore, Seon-woo himself is a largely irrelevant presence in his his wife’s ongoing quest to have a child. The island women too who do things the “traditional” way, had also stumbled on a way to conceive children in the absence of men, or at least in the absence of “living” men in realising that sperm could often be harvested from the dead and applied by means of ritual.

Kim returns to his favourite themes of sex and death as two literally become one. “All fears disappear when men and women unite”, the mysterious barmaid (Lee Hwa-si) tells an increasingly confused Seon-woo who has come to embody for her the soul of the lost Nam-seok whom she believes to be her spiritual husband. “Everything is only momentary”, he answers her, “eternity is a word which deceives us”. Seon-woo admires “the incredible energy of women who risk their lives to have children”, but if the island is to survive it can only be in the absence of his destructive male energy. Like countless men before him, he must leave, not for the paradise of Ieodo, but for the rapidly declining modern society, while a woman remains behind alone – the sole guardian of a child who is also, of course, the future.


Ieodo was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival. It is also available on English subtitled blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive in a set which also includes a complete script (Korean only) bilingual booklet, commentary by critic & director Chung Sung-ill, commentary featuring critic Kim Young-jin and director Oh Seung-uk (not subtitled), an interview with actress Lee Hwa-si, and clips of Lee Hwa-si with Jeong Beom-sik, and Park Jeong-ja with Lee Yoon-ho (no subtitles).

A Single Spark (아름다운 청년 전태일, Park Kwang-su, 1995)

In the present day, South Korea has become a prosperous society and leading world economy, but the miracle of its modernisation came at a heavy price. Socially committed filmmaker Park Kwang-su’s A Single Spark (아름다운 청년 전태일, Areumdaun cheongnyeon Jeon Tae-il) takes a trip back to the “truly dark days” of the Park Chung-hee dictatorship to expose the exploitation on which the modern society was, and in fact still is, founded, enabled largely by the wilful misuse of a fear of “communism” as manifested in the problematic presence of threat from “the North”.

Park filters his true life tale through the figure of a fictionalised author and activist, Kim (Moon Sung-Keun), who finds himself on the run from the authorities in 1975. Hiding out in a small town in a backroom rented by his pregnant factory worker girlfriend Jung-soon (Kim Sunjae), Kim is working on a biography of a labour rights activist, Jeon Tae-il, who self-immolated in order to protest the failure to properly enforce existing workers’ rights five years’ earlier in 1970.

Switching to crisp black and white, Park paints a bleak picture of working class life in the late 1960s as the oppressive Park Chung-hee regime imposed extreme export goals designed to boost the local economy. We first meet Jeon (Hong Kyeong-in), who was only 22 at the time of his death, selling umbrellas on the street before he is “lucky” enough to get a job in a tailoring factory. Committing himself to working hard and getting on, he is quickly disillusioned with conditions at the plant which has little light or ventilation and often forces its employees to work through the night without adequate breaks for food. When the young woman next to him begins vomiting blood and is sent home but subsequently fired, Jeon becomes radicalised. Told that there are no laws which protect workers, he is surprised to discover that there are but their existence has been wilfully kept from him. The law is written in a language which is almost impossible for him to understand, in highly formal text using Chinese characters which most ordinary Koreans, never mind those like Jeon denied a proper education, struggle to read.

Jeon begins agitating. He takes a copy of the statutes and a series of violations at the factory to those in charge, but no one is interested. Even when he convinces some of the other workers to come with him, the boss is eventually forced to make a token concession of listening to them but ultimately rolls his eyes and says it’s all very well but not good for business. Jeon isn’t asking for anything radical (save the later addition of provision for menstrual leave), only for better ventilation and for the existing laws to be obeyed.

Meanwhile, Kim meditates on his legacy in the dark days of 1975 where anti-communist sentiment runs high in the wake of the end of the Vietnam War. “Anti-communism” and the demonisation of the North were a central part of Park Chung-hee’s right-wing, nationalist military dictatorship and any attempts to form things like unions or left-leaning political associations were quickly decried as “communist”. Kim’s girlfriend Jung-soon is currently involved in trying to set up a union at her factory to combat many of the same kinds of issues that Jeon was fighting five years’ earlier, but she too is under a lot of pressure. Afraid of the authorities and of losing their jobs, many workers refuse to join and even after she reaches her quota the request for recognition is denied. She and the other activists are harassed by factory management beginning with a “friendly” meeting outside her home in which they try to bribe her with money and expensive fruits, and ending with a raid on the building in which some of the workers are holding a protest during which a woman falls ill and the others are badly beaten when they try to get her to a hospital.

Jeon and the others are lectured by management that they should try to feel more “patriotic” and be willing to suffer in order to raise the economy, bribed with false promises that they’ll all be driving luxury cars in 10 years’ time. Meanwhile, a woman coming to collect money from Jeon’s mother angrily exclaims that debtors should take rat poison and die (which seems counterproductive when they owe you money), and the managers dismiss workers’ concerns with the rationale that they obviously “aren’t hungry enough” to put up with starvation wages and poor working conditions. From the vantage point of 1975, Kim meditates on Jeon’s sacrifice as he witnesses the suicide of another young man, Kim Sang-jin – a student who quoted Thomas Jefferson’s words that democracy is an outcome of struggle at a rally at Seoul National University in April 1975 before publicly slashing his belly. He sees the tragedy of Jeon’s death as the “single spark” which lit a fire under the democracy movement, a torch he wants to pick up and keep aflame to guide them towards a better future.

20 years later, Park may be acknowledging that some battles have been won in a newly democratised Korea as Kim looks on with satisfaction in a peaceful marketplace while a student carries the book he has written about Jeon Tae-il under his arm, but implicitly suggests that not enough has changed and the same battles Jeon was fighting are still being fought. A melancholy meditation on political martyrdom, art, and legacy, A Single Spark pays tribute to those who gave their lives for a fairer world but is equally intent that their sacrifice must not be forgotten.


A Single Spark was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

The Age of Success (성공시대, Jang Sun-woo, 1988)

Age of Success still 3“Love only matters when you can sell it” in the nihilistic world of Jang Sun-woo’s The Age of Success (성공시대, Seonggong shidae). The Korea of 1988 was one of increasingly prosperity in which the recently democratised nation looked forward to a new era of freedom, hosting the Olympic Games as a calling card to the world stage. Like everywhere else in the ‘80s however it was also a time in which greed was good, time was money, and compassion was for suckers. Jang’s narcissistic hero worships Hitler and offers a nazi salute to a mockup of a high value note with his own face on it as he leaves for work every morning, but his relentless pursuit of “success” is destined to leave him empty handed when he realises the only commodity he can’t sell is sincerity.

The executives of Yumi Foods, a subsidiary of Mack Gang (Mighty) corporation, are looking for a bright new face through a series of individual interviews. The panel asks each of the prospective new hires to prove their sales ability by convincing them to buy something inconsequential they happen to have in their pockets. Each of the young men fails, until the sharply suited Kim Pan-chok (Ahn Sung-ki), whose name literally means “sales promotion”, dazzles them with a show of intense charisma. He simply offers to sell them whatever is inside his clenched fist. Such is his conviction, the CEO finds himself emptying his wallet, pouring out his credit cards, and eventually borrowing from his friends until Pan-chok is satisfied he’s getting all he could possibly get at point which he opens his fingers and reveals his empty palm. The bosses are annoyed, but quickly convinced by Pan-chok’s explanation that what he’s sold them is “sales spirit” which is, after all, the most valuable thing of all (not to mention exactly what they were looking for). Pan-chok is hired.

Later, we find out that Pan-chok’s routine is an ironic inversion of his childhood trauma. A poor boy abandoned by a mother who became fed up with his father’s fecklessness, he waited alone every day for his dad to come home with something to eat. But his dad was an irresponsible drunkard who could never hold down a job. Like Pan-chok, he held out his fist and told the boy to open his fingers but he was always empty-handed. Hating his father’s incompetence, laziness, alcoholism, and violence, Pan-chok decided that he had to be strong. “Poverty makes you low and pathetic”, he insists. Love, pity, and mercy are for people with no power. “The important thing is to be strong, to win, succeed, possess, and to dominate. Only then will I be happy”.

Pan-chok is a corporate fascist wedded to ultra capitalist ideology in which the only thing that matters is strength and the ability to dominate. He lies, and cheats, and misrepresents himself to pull every underhanded trick in the book to try and get ahead. He goes to war, quite literally, with industry rival Gammi, intent on completely destroying them in order to dominate the market by whatever means possible. Coming up with signature product Agma, he irritably tells his development team that none of their work really matters because the quality of the product is largely irrelevant. Just as in his interview, all Pan-chok is selling is false promise wrapped up in marketing spin. His rival goes on TV to talk the value of tradition to defend himself against a smear campaign Pan-chok has engineered to suggest his products are a health risk, but eventually gets the better of him by playing him at his own game and making a late swing towards ultra modernity.

Pan-chok’s main gambit is seducing a local bar hostess, Song Sobi (Lee Hye-young), lit. “sexual consumption”, and using her as a spy to get info on Gammi’s latest products, but Sobi falls in love with him only to have her heart broken when she realises Pan-chok will discard her when he decides she is no longer useful. He tells her that love is only worth something when you can sell it, but is confounded when she later turns the same logic back on him after selling her charm to seduce the son and heir of the Gammi corporation as a kind of revenge.

Proving that he never learns, Pan-chok’s last big idea is that the only way to beat Gammi’s technological solution is to commodify nature, to repackage and sell back to the people the very things he previously rejected in human sensation. By this point, however, he is so thoroughly discredited that few will listen. His new boss has an MBA from an American university and no time for Pan-chok’s scrappy post-war snake oil salesman tactics. “Only success can set you free”, Pan-chok was fond of saying, but it belied a desperation to escape post-war penury. What he wanted was freedom from hunger, anxiety, and subjugation. He wanted to be a big man, not a small one like his father who always came home empty-handed, so that no one could push him around. What he became was a man without a soul, empty-hearted, consuming himself in pursuit of the consumerist dream. Korea, Jang seems to say, should take note of his lesson.


The Age of Success was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Height of the Wave (파고, Park Jung-bum, 2019)

Height of the Wave poster“The suspects are all the residents” says the world weary police chief at the end of Park Jung-bum’s uncharacteristically forgiving island drama Height of the Wave (파고, Pago). Island communities are often thought of as innocent idylls, the city’s corruption lying far off over the horizon, but where there are people there is suffering and perhaps there’s nowhere completely free of human cruelty.

Recently divorced maritime police woman Yeon-su (Lee Seung-yeon) has been seconded to a remote island to act as its police chief for two years. She’s brought her deeply resentful teenage daughter with her, and is currently struggling with a “panic disorder” she’s keen to keep a secret. Meanwhile, island’s sleazy foreman, handsy and making inappropriate comments about the scent of Yeon-su’s hair, is hard at work to a get a designation as a “desirable destination” and attract much needed funding. His plans are disrupted, however, when Yeon-su overhears some worrying comments from the island’s only young woman, Yae-eun (Lee Yeon), which suggest she is indulging in sex work (which is illegal). Yeon-su investigates, becoming worried for Yae-eun who is an orphan and seems to be a little different than you might expect for a woman of her age, and contacts the mainland for support. As you might expect, this does not go down well with the foreman who worries that his precious designation might be denied if word got out about the base immorality lurking in his town.

Traumatised by her career as a policewoman on the mainland which mainly involved retrieving the bodies of those who’d committed suicide by drowning, Yeon-su might have come, or been sent, to the island as quiet place to recover. The island is after all a liminal space, between one state and another, where one might pause for reflection before preparing to move forward. Yae-eun, who lost her parents at sea, is trapped because of her fear of water and terror that someday a great wave will swallow everything and everyone. Yeon-su fears something similar, unable to sleep on thinking about all the bodies she never managed to save that sunk to the bottom of the ocean never to be seen again.

Yeon-su’s daughter Sangyi (Choi Eun-seo) recognises the similarities in the anxieties of the two women, bonding with Yae-eun out of a shared sense of betrayal and abandonment but finding it more difficult to forgive her mother for her increasingly strange behaviour, the breakdown of her parents’ marriage, and for bringing her to this barren place. Early on, Sangyi tries to join in with some of the other children, but finds them playing a cruel game in which they’re trying to kill off the sleepy ants on the grounds that they will soon invade and destroy all their houses. Sangyi, perhaps identifying with the “alien” bugs, tries to stop the kids crushing the ants before they’ve even done anything but is then othered herself, ironically put in “jail” with the chickens as a hostile element. “It’s your fault” a boy tells her, “we wanted to be friends”.

From the perspective of the foreman and perhaps others in the village, Yeon-su is a burrowing termite intent on undermining their foundations. This is an island, after all, and they do things a bit differently. What’s normal here, might not be appropriate on the mainland. It seems that Yae-eun has been accepting money in exchange for sex, and that she might not be fully capable of understanding the implications of her actions, but if she’s making a free choice to sell her body and is not in that sense being exploited by a third party then perhaps some might say that is her own business. The situation is complicated, however, when Yae-eun reveals she may have been doing this as young as 17, which means she was underage. Yeon-su wants to protect the young woman, all alone on an island full of possibly predatory old men and cared for only by an “uncle” (Park Jung-bum) and a “grandpa”, but has to accept that her desire to do so may involve short-term harm in that Yae-eun is terrified of getting on boats which means she is unable to escape her present environment even if she wanted to.

Yae-eun immediately recognises something in the other woman. “You look so lonely, chief”, she tells her placing artificial flowers on the altar of a disused church reassured by the fact they never change, “I thought I was the only lonely one”. The foreman tries to get the others on board by referring to Yae-eun as everybody’s child, literally raised by a village, but he wants to forcibly export her to the mainland so that she won’t mess up his desirable island plan by embarrassing him when the inspection committees arrive. Yae-eun’s uncle apologises for not being better able to protect her, complaining that the villagers are “blinded by money”, and have decided to sacrifice her rather than risk destroying their chances of financial gain. Yeon-su’s attempts to help have merely created a different, perhaps more dangerous, set of problems that expose but do not intend to heal a painful hypocrisy. Tellingly, it is Sangyi who eventually proposes the only positive solution in her desire to help Yae-eun overcome her fear of water but even this has its darkness because it is also a path to exiling her from the island possibly against her will to cover up the “scandal” of her existence. The wave may not be so high that it drowns us all, but it’s as well to learn to swim.


Height of the Wave was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Short clip (dialogue free)

The Flower in Hell (地獄花 / 지옥화, Shin Sang-ok, 1958)

Flower in Hell newspaper 1Five years after the end of the Korean War, Korea was still a poor country in which hope for the future seemed all but impossible. Shin Sang-ok’s The Flower in Hell (地獄花 / 지옥화, Ji-oghwa), borrowing incongruously from both European neorealism and American film noir, situates itself directly within the “hell” of the modern city, a lawless and loveless place where life is cheap and an honest buck hard to come by. The corrupting influence of the American military has come to dominate the local economy with complicity the only option for survival.

“Country bumpkin” Dong-sik (Cho Hae-won) knows nothing of this when he arrives in Seoul in search of his missing brother. Pure of heart, he tries to intervene when he spots someone being robbed, only to be beaten up and fleeced himself. Unable to find trace of his brother Yeong-sik (Kim Hak) who apparently came to the city on business some time ago and hasn’t been heard of since, he roams the streets looking for clues. Unbeknownst to him, Yeong-sik has fallen into a life of crime and avoided contacting his family out of shame. Currently in a relationship with brassy “Western Princess” Sonya* (Choi Eun-hee), he has no intention of going back to a life of honest hardship.

“We live in a world of confusion” a street pedlar tells a melancholy Dong-sik, but that was perhaps something he’d never quite realised in his apparently happy life in the country. Dong-sik, just demobbed from the army, has come to bring his brother home because his mother is worried about her missing son. What Dong-sik comes to represent is a kind of village utopia that embodies the spirit of an uncorrupted Korea where the people are honest and happy, not wealthy but not starving either. Seducing him, Yeong-sik’s girlfriend Sonya ruffles Dong-sik’s hair and remarks that it smells like corn – the scent of pastoral innocence and the dream of a simpler life that she is now chasing.

A “Western Princess” – the slightly derogatory name given to sex workers catering largely to American servicemen, Sonya is an intensely corrupted figure. Brazenly chewing gum and unafraid to use her sex appeal as a weapon, she bewitches Yeong-sik and then breaks the ultimate taboo of seducing his brother. Yeong-sik, meanwhile, has been confronted with the dishonestly of his city life and considers returning to the country, asking Sonya to marry him but finding her unresponsive. Aside from her practical questions about the money they would need to start a new life, Sonya currently enjoys an unusual amount of independence for a contemporary woman and is unlikely to want to surrender that to become a conservative wife to Yeong-sik in his quiet country town even if he really could learn to accept and ignore her past as a sex worker.

Despite her original aversion to Yeong-sik’s offer, the idea begins to appeal to Sonya when captivated by Dong-sik’s innocence. Aware that she is also corrupting him, Dong-sik now dressing in a garish gangster-style Hawaiian shirt, Sonya convinces herself that what she wants is to return with him to his rural paradise while he agonises that perhaps he himself has lost the right to go back there because of his transgressions in the city. Meanwhile, another sex worker, Julie* (Kang Seon-hee), has also taken a liking to Dong-sik because of his simple hearted country ways. A war orphan, she is far less comfortable with her life as a Western Princess, her dependence on the Americans, and her lack of opportunities for a better life as a woman who most likely can no longer marry. Putting this to Dong-sik she finds him superficially sympathetic, telling her that she is good and kind and therefore could easily find a nice man to settle down with. When she asks him if he would consider marrying someone like her, all she gets is silence while he later cruelly answers her that he is not convinced she has the right to live in his idealised pastoral paradise.

Yeong-sik tells Sonya that the world won’t always be out of control, he too now yearning for the purity Dong-sik’s idealised hometown represents, but finds himself sinking deeper into the morass of the modern society in order to get there. Aside from pimping out the Western Princesses, the other main line of business for Yeong-sik’s gang is robbing American military bases, striking while the women distract the soldiers with salacious dance routines. Sonya and Yeong-sik are already too far gone, trapped in the purgatorial hellscape of the modern city, unable to go either forward or back. For the pure of heart like Dong-sik and Julie, there may be hope yet but if there is it lies only in the imaginary utopia of an idealised “hometown” free of American corruption and existing in another, purer Korea perhaps now inaccessible to those whose hearts are already blackened by the fetid air of the contemporary capital.


The Flower in Hell was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival. It is also available on English subtitled DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Landscape After the War box set.

*Names are as they appear in the subtitles for the Landscape after the War box set. In the screened 35mm print of the film the two women are named as “Sonia” and “Judy”.

Scattered Night (흩어진 밤, Kim Sol & Lee Ji-hyoung, 2019)

Scattered night still 2Familial collapse has become a major theme in recent Korean indie cinema. Caught in a moment of societal flux, the family itself has come in for question with the young in particular looking for new models and new ways forward. Where Yoon Ga-eun’s The House of Us found an anxious little girl alternately trying to force her warring parents back together and forming a new family of her own as a maternal figure to two neglected sisters, Kim Sol & Lee Jihyoung’s Scattered Night (흩어진 밤, Heuteojin Bam) finds another little girl processing familial failures and pondering her own place in the world unanchored from parental security.

9-year-old Su-min (Moon Seung-a) hasn’t seen her dad in a month, so she’s put out that all he’s done while he’s been home is show some people round their apartment and complain it isn’t clean enough. Unlike her slightly more savvy brother Jin-ho (Choi Junwoo), Su-min hasn’t quite understood that her parents are splitting up and that’s why her dad doesn’t live with them anymore. Perhaps jumping the gun, the parents sit the kids down and try to explain that they’re not getting “divorced” and will still be a “family”, but that mum Yoon-hee (Kim Hyeyoung) and dad Seung-won (Lim Hojun) can’t live together anymore. Quite reasonably asking what’s going to happen to them, the kids get no real reply. Su-min quickly realises that she will definitely be separated from one of her parents, but begins to worry that she may also lose her brother if it ends up that mum and dad are taking one child each.

Already somewhat anxious, Su-min seems to feel disconnected from her mum who is at best undemonstrative, sometimes perhaps resentful of her role as a wife and mother and everything she has been asked to sacrifice in order to fulfil it. Declaring herself bored at home and throwing herself into her career as a teacher at a cram school, Yoon-hee has little time for her daughter but bonds with her son through their shared interest in studying. Too young to join in, Su-min too tries picking up some books to spend “quality time” with her mother only to be dismissed once again and left feeling as if she’s failed some sort of test.

While Su-min agonises over a hypothetical choice of which parent might suit her best, her brother Jin-ho isn’t sure he wants very much to do with the family at all, already thinking of applying to a prestigious grammar school chiefly because it has a dormitory. He skips out on a family picnic to “study” on his own at home, but pushed for an answer always chooses his mother with whom he seems to share a greater affinity. Jin-ho’s clear taking of a side further unsettles his sister who wonders if that means that she will essentially be left with no choice other than to go with her father. Working out all the potential combinations, Su-min asks her brother which he thinks is most likely and gets the response that they will probably both stay with their mother because she will definitely want to stay with them, but remains unconvinced that is really the case. Looking for reassurance, she tells her mum that she’s worried she’ll simply disappear once they sell the apartment, but her mother offers no reply.

Literally displaced in her home environment, Su-min witnesses two children around her own age sitting cheerfully at her family table as if they already owned the place. When she hears her mother tell an estate agent she’s looking for somewhere with two rooms (though preferably one big enough to be divided in two) it fuels her anxiety that she’s being rejected, that her mother only wants one of them and it isn’t her. Meanwhile, her father remains distant, largely refusing to discuss anything but conceding that Su-min ought to have a say in her future and promising to respect her decision.

The sorry truth seems to be that neither parent really wants the kids. Failing to process the end of their marriage, they begin to view the last 15 or so years as a huge mistaken life choice, an embarrassing failure of which the kids are the most obvious proof. They want to start again, but the kids are in the way. Jin-ho overhears his father say that it would have been better if they’d never had him, while his mum regrets that they ever got together in the first place. Despite teaching the children that it’s bad to lie, they make them keep up the pretence of happy families when horrible grandma comes to visit from the US to avoid the disgrace of admitting the marriage has failed.

Neatly mirroring Su-min’s anxiety, Yoon-hee tells grandma that it’s a shame she doesn’t live closer so they could see each other more often, but of course she doesn’t really mean it. Grandma talks up her own faults and professes regret that Yoon-hee couldn’t study abroad because she had to look after her siblings after her father died, but she does so largely as a way of running her daughter down. In any other situation the fact that grandma lives abroad, separated from her daughter by oceans, ought to give Su-min reassurance that familial bonds can overcome geography but the relationship is so obviously toxic as to provide no comfort at all.

Su-min wants agency over her future, to be acknowledged and have some kind of control, but asking her to make such an emotionally difficult decision is an awfully cruel burden to place on a child and one that she is ultimately unwilling to carry. Though the siblings are able to patch up a kind of solidarity, pledging to minimise the “awkwardness” that may arise between them if they are only to see each other once a week, it’s clear that an unscalable wall exists between the generations and the “family” cannot ever be repaired. Su-min and her brother will have to find their own way out of the dark, while their parents remain hopelessly lost looking for the path back to possibility.


Scattered Night was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Short clip (English subtitles)

Interview with the directors from Jeonju International Film Festival (English subtitles)

A Coachman (馬夫 / 마부, Kang Dae-jin, 1961)

A coachman poster 1The Korea of 1961 was one of societal flux, mired in post-war poverty but striving towards a brighter economic future. The rising tides of affluence had given birth to a new middle-class with the old feudal attitudes while others were largely left behind on the shores of prosperity. Kang Dae-jin’s A Coachman (馬夫 /마부, Mabu), the first Korean film to win a major international award with the Silver Bear Extraordinary Jury Prize at the 1961 Berlin Film Festival, finds itself at just this juncture as an old man pulling a horse and cart is forced to face up the automobile age while worrying what is to become of his family in the perilous modern society.

Ageing patriarch Chun-sam (Kim Seung-ho) has been guiding a horse and cart since his father died in Manchuria when he was 14. Technically speaking, he is not the owner of his horse, Dragon, but operates it on behalf of the owner, the mistress of an upper middle-class salaryman. As business is slow, she is always threatening to sell the horses which would leave Chun-sam and the other coachmen without a means to support themselves. Meanwhile, Chun-sam’s four children whom he raised alone after his wife passed away at a young age are each looking for different ways out of their impoverished existence. Chun-sam married off his eldest daughter Ok-nyeo (Jo Mi-ryeong) who is deaf and mute to a man he saved during the Korean War but he is abusive and treats her like a servant while openly inviting his mistress into their home. Oldest son Su-eop (Shin Young-kyun) is currently studying to retake the bar exam for the third time, middle daughter Ok-hee (Um Aing-ran) has begun dating a shady salaryman, and youngest boy Soo-up has become a high school delinquent.

Kang opens with an exciting sequence following Soo-up who has attempted to steal a bicycle as he tries to escape from its owner chasing him. Returning home covered in mud, slowing to a walk and putting his student’s cap back on to avoid suspicion, he makes his way from the modern houses of the new city back through traditional Korean homes towards his rather makeshift family abode which they share with the horse stabled in a side room. Chun-sam is obviously not a wealthy man, but the family bear their struggles with fortitude, perhaps to some extent avoiding each other but rarely arguing directly. Even the news that Ok-hee has once again quit her latest job, working in a cafe, in record time is greeted with exasperated acceptance rather than anger or resentment.

Ok-hee quit the cafe to fall in with her ultramodern friend Mi-ja (Choi Ji Hee) who has arranged a double date with a pair of sleazy executives, telling them that Ok-hee is a university graduate and daughter of a wealthy CEO. Intensely ashamed of her working class background as a mere coachman’s daughter, Ok-hee tries to catapult herself into the middle classes by weaponising her sex appeal, too proud to take the long way round through honest work. She rejects the attentions of family friend Chung-soo (Hwang Hae) who is good and kind because he is only a driver, taking little notice of his earnest warning that nothing good ever comes of hanging around with shady types like her boyfriend. He keeps trying to persuade her to take a job in a nearby factory, but she still thinks she’s above that kind of life and is convinced she can get the executive to marry her.

Chang-soo’s interest is of course romantic, but the advice he gives her is honest and altruistic. Unlike his unsavoury money lender father, Chang-soo is a salt of the earth type, but good men are hard to find and trying to escape poverty through marriage is a road fraught with danger as Ok-nyeo discovers. Chun-sam thought he’d done the right thing in marrying her off, believing a match would be hard to come by because of her disability and worrying she’d be left alone with no-one to look after her, but she is forced to endure mistreatment and humiliation at the hands of her husband. Ok-nyeo repeatedly returns to her family home, only able to show them the bruises to explain what’s happening, but Chun-sam always sends her back unable to break with the old patriarchal rules which insist that once married she must forever remain this man’s wife.

Chun-sam faces a similar dilemma of his own when he strikes up a tentative relationship with the kindly maid at his boss’ mansion who often heats up rice wine for him and goes out of her way to give him little treats. The odious moneylender is also after Suwon (Hwang Jung-seun) who is considered “old” to be unmarried at 37, but she favours Chun-sam because, as she says, she has always known him to be a “good man”. The “courtship”, if you could call it that, is innocent in the extreme with Suwon largely taking the lead while Chun-sam lags bashfully behind, childishly excited but also embarrassed because he cannot afford a wife and would be ashamed to ask her to share his life of poverty.

Looked down on by everyone, Chun-sam is forced to go cap in hand to his employer where he is made to “know his place” and reminded he is “just a coachman” with no right to talk back. When Hwang, the boss’ lover, injures Chun-sam through reckless driving, Su-eop becomes fed up with persistent feudalism and intends to have a polite word but is quickly shut down, reminded that he is nothing more than coachman’s son and told that his dreams of becoming a lawyer are not only unrealistic but an offence to the social order.

Su-eop alone takes the conventional route out of poverty in pursuing education and a steady government job, but is repeatedly told that he’s getting above himself and should be content with becoming a coachman like his dad, despite the fact that being a coachman is already close to an obsolete profession given the increasing affordability of the motorcar. He alternates between guilt and despair, wondering if he’s being irresponsible in pinning all his hopes on the bar exam and worrying that he’s not doing enough to support the family.

Yet Chun-sam, forced to consider his own obsolescence, is keen for him to succeed, not only because the family needs him to make a success of himself but because he wants his son to have a better kind of life than he had taking full advantage of the possibilities of the new society. Though their lives are hard, Chun-sam and his family remain kind and honest (even Ok-hee and Suo-up eventually conclude that hard work is the way after all), bonding with others of the same mindset like the maid Suwon who eventually quits her job in protest, and Chang-soo who rejects his father’s underhanded venality for simple human decency. United by friendly solidarity, the family is repaired and resolves to live on as a tiny unit of cheerful resistance against the feudalistic greed and selfishness of the modern society.


A Coachman was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.