Heart (하트, Jeong Ga-young, 2019)

Heart Still 2Director Jeong Ga-young has begun to make a name for herself as the female Hong Sang-soo since her indie breakout debut Bitch on the Beach. Unlike Hong, Jeong also stars, taking her meta concepts to a whole new level in her leading role as a typically Hongian feckless filmmaker on the prowl. Where Bitch on the Beach, a monochrome two-hander, found her toying with an ex, Hit the Night saw her experiment with role reversal as a skeevy director “interviewing” her crush about inappropriate topics under the guise of research for a screenplay. In Heart (하트), her latest awkward self-confession, she neatly brings the two together as a conflicted movie director turns to a married man she once had a short affair with to get advice about her crush on another man who is also married.

Ga-young, a 30-ish film director, suddenly shows up at the studio of artist Seong-bum after six months looking for a shoulder to cry on. Some time previously, the pair had a short affair in which Seong-bum slept with Ga-young on the very day that his wife gave birth to their son. Now Ga-young has come looking for someone to talk to about her ambiguous relationship with another married man who has just become a father. Seong-bum is not particularly happy to be consulted on this topic as if he were some sort of expert, but finds himself going along with Ga-young’s whims until they eventually end up having sex on the studio couch.

Ga-young (like the protagonists of Jeong’s previous films) essentially regards men as pathetic and faithless, willing to betray their wives and girlfriends with another woman with nary a second thought. Manipulating them is, partly, a kind of revenge though one that often seems to backfire. Later, talking to an actor about her script which forms the basis of the conversational scenes with Seong-bum, Ga-young outlines her desire to destigmatise affairs with married men. Taking an obvious soap opera scenario but lending it realism and relatability she hopes to open a dialogue for people to talk seriously and without judgement about something that really happens every day. The dialogue is, however, immediately hijacked by the actor who judges her on realising the screenplay is partly (well, largely?) autobiographical in that Ga-young herself has really had relationships with married men. After all, married men Ga-young says, like the Cannes film festival, are apparently something you do so you can tell people that you tried it and it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Ga-young seems to have fallen into the same trap as the director in Hit the Night in assuming the hot young actor would be an idiot but quickly finding herself out of her depth when he begins turning the tables and asking her awkward questions about her screenplay. Talking to Seong-bum about her relationship with the other married man, she tells him that her attraction is largely based on her perception of him as the sexiest man alive along with his persistent vanity in constantly asking Ga-young to tell him that she likes him. Seong-bum thinks the other guy is a jerk for cheating on his wife while they have a newborn baby, conveniently forgetting that he did exactly the same thing himself, later offering only the excuse that his circumstances were “different” when Ga-young reminds him.

In an odd relationship analogy, Ga-young outlines a scenario in which couples are cosmically paired off on separate islands but professes admiration for those who actively defy their romantic destiny to chase love of their own choosing. Probed, however, she proclaims that she herself is waiting on her island for her lover to arrive. Lamenting to Seong-bum that her heart hurts because of all the leftover feelings she doesn’t know what to do with, Ga-young remains passive, allowing herself to be dominated by the judgemental actor while casting herself in the opposite role wilfully manipulating Seong-bum in her screenplay. Yet even within the constructed narrative of the conversations, she undercuts herself by inserting a Korean drama-esque sequence of herself and her married crush accompanied by a swooning K-pop power ballad. The actor sniffily tells her that he doesn’t get the point of making a film like this, that he simply doesn’t see the meaning. That he doesn’t get it might in itself be the point. Ga-young lets her heart lead her where it may and despite herself there is a kind of truth in that, even if its meaning is hard to discern.


Heart was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Clip (Englis subtitles)

The House of Us (우리집, Yoon Ga-eun, 2019)

The world of us poster 2“People should eat with their families” a little girl points out dutifully declining an invitation to dinner, only to return home and dine alone. Hana (Kim Na-yeon), the heroine of Yoon Ga-eun’s The House of Us (우리집, Ulijib), is still young enough to think she can bend the world to her will but is about to discover that some things can’t, or perhaps shouldn’t, be changed only accepted. Meditating on the meaning of family in a changing society, Yoon’s World of Us followup finds its earnest heroine trying to escape familial disappointment through forging a home of her own but eventually realising home is not a house.

11-year-old Hana has just won the best classmate prize, but no one at home seems to be very excited for her, nor (perhaps strangely) does she seem to have many friends. In fact, despite her caring nature, she’s feeling intensely insecure because her family life is in disarray. Mum and dad are both busy and rarely home, but when they are they’re having blazing rows about how dissatisfying they each are as spouses while even going so far as to have retroactive arguments about the decision to have children while their kids are still in earshot. Hana can see her mum’s busy and she wants to help so she offers to do some of the cooking as part of her summer holiday “recipe book” project, but is flatly refused. Fearing that her parents are on the brink of divorce and longing to return to happier days, she pesters them about going on a trip, believing that would be enough to repair her fracturing family.

Wistfully staring at happy families wherever she goes, Hana ends up running into two little girls, nine-year-old Yoo-mi (Kim Shi-a) and her sister seven-year-old Yoo-jin (Joo Ye-rim), who are living more or less on their own while their parents are working away (an uncle checks in on them every now and then). Lonely as she is, Hana starts hanging out with the equally lonely sisters but takes on an oddly maternal rather than sisterly role, delighting in cooking for them the way her mother rarely does for her and would not allow her to do for their family. Generating an easy bond, the girls decide to build “the house of us” out of discarded cardboard boxes, declaring they’ll build it as high as they can.

Yet Hana, still a child herself, struggles with what it means to assume a parental role. She does to Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin the exact things that she most resented about her own parents – withholding information and making decisions which affect everyone without consulting anyone. Having moved around a lot, Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin are most anxious that their landlady says they’ll be moving but their parents haven’t told them anything. Hana vows to help them save their house while protecting her own home, but in reality she can do neither. The girls resort to a series of childish tricks to prevent prospective tenants from choosing to rent Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin’s apartment in the belief that that they could stay if no one wanted to move in, approaching the problem with innocent logic that makes perfect sense to a child but is little more than silliness to an adult.

Meanwhile, Hana struggles with twin discoveries of parental betrayal in finding her mother’s application for a transfer to Germany, and accidentally answering a call from a woman on her father’s phone that perhaps embarrasses her as she realises despite her young age that he has done something potentially destructive to their family. The less control she has in her family home, the more time she spends with Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin making a new one and trying to do it better. The sisters begin to look up to her as a little more than a big sister figure, allowing her to lead and expecting that she will know what to do even when she fails them.

Through her own failures, Hana begins to realise that her parents aren’t perfect and adults don’t always know what to do either. The girls accept that they belong to different families and can’t stay together, but discover that the “house” wasn’t what was important and that they’ll always be connected even if they’re far apart. No longer so insecure, Hana steps into herself and understands that her parents’ marriage is something they’ll sort out for themselves and if the family is scattered it’ll still be her family. A warm and empathetic, if melancholy, exploration of coming to terms with life’s disappointments, The House of Us finds serenity in the act of letting go as its heroine finds the strength to look forward rather than back towards a happy independence supported but not constrained by imperfect family.


The House of Us was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Burning Mountain (山불 / 산불, Kim Soo-yong, 1967)

Burning Mountain still 1In his 1965 film The Seashore Village, Kim Soo-yong had presented a broadly positive vision of a community of women who had learned to survive without men by supporting each other. 1967’s Burning Mountain (山불 / 산불, Sanbul, AKA Flame in the Valley) revisits a similar theme but with much less positivity. This time around, the women have been deprived of their men not because of nature’s cruelty, but because of man-made corruption. Set during the Korean War, Burning Mountain finds a collection of wounded, lonely women condemned by patriarchal social codes and hemmed in by political strife not of their making struggling against their baser instincts as they determine to survive in an often hostile environment.

A small village near Jirisan has lost all of its men. Pressed by communist guerrillas for food, the lone women are hungry and afraid. Consequently, they are often at each other’s throats and united only in a shared futility of waiting for men they are almost certain will never return, either because the war has taken them or they have taken the opportunity to seek a better kind of life. The drama begins when Jum-rye (Ju Jeung-ryu) discovers a communist deserter, Kyu-bok (Shin Young-kyun), hiding in the bamboo grove and is seduced by him, satisfying her long repressed desire and escaping her loneliness through a transient bond with a captive man.

Unlike the fishwives of The Seashore Village, the women of Burning Mountain are a more conservative bunch though they too are largely unafraid to talk plainly of their unanswered desire in the absence of men. Rather than embracing each other as the fishwives had, the mountain women allow their sexual frustrations to make them bitter and irritable, forever at each other’s throats and unable to let go of past grievances. They dwell on the possibility of escape, but do not believe it to be real. One of the younger, unmarried women, talks of going to the city to find work as a maid but is confronted by a world of checkpoints and soldiers which restricts both her movement and her freedom in ways she is ill-equipped to understand.

The village stands as a tiny enclave, caught between North and South, part of both and neither as if lost in some eternal netherland. The bamboo grove represents the innocent natural freedoms which have been taken from the villagers by civilisation and by later by the folly of men and war. It’s in the bamboo grove that Jum-rye first encounters Kyu-bok in a meeting which begins as rape but ends in seduction as Jum-rye surrenders herself to a rough stranger in desperation and loneliness. The affair continues and relations between herself and the other women improve until Sawol (Do Kum-bong), a woman with whom she’d been on bad terms because their absent husbands had been on different sides, discovers Kyu-bok’s existence and blackmails the pair into allowing her to make sexual use of him in order to ease her own frustration.

Roles interestingly reversed, Kyu-bok takes exception to his new status as a kept man, resenting the feeling that he is nothing more than a pet, breeding stock kept to scratch an itch. Nevertheless, he stays while the women, increasingly conflicted, urge him to turn himself in to the authorities sure that if he explains himself they will not treat him harshly. Already emasculated in having been forced into the mountains against his will, Kyu-bok remains impotent in all ways other than the sexual, pleading with Jum-rye that she let him stay in the bamboo grove “until the world gets better”.

Sadly, the world shows little sign of doing that, though thanks to their shared transgression a strange kind of camaraderie arises between former enemies Jum-rye and Sawol, now disposed towards female solidarity having eased their own frustrations. They want to trap Kyu-bok and keep him for themselves, but at the same time they dwell on the idea of the unseen woman waiting somewhere for him just as they are waiting for their menfolk and know they cannot have him for long. Where the constant refrains of “we are all the same” had rung somewhat hollow, they ring true now in the two women’s commitment to a woman they don’t know who is, in some senses, their rival.

Yet, the liminal space of the bamboo grove cannot be allowed to stand in the increasingly straitened future. Already subversive in his frank depiction of female desire, Kim subtly undercuts the austerity of the times in making accidental villains of the South Korean army who arrive to burn the bamboo grove down to smoke out the guerrilla fighters, taking from these women the symbol of their freedom in the natural pleasure of the forest. The cowardly communist, while fulfilling the demands of the censors’ board, is both passive victim of his times and a representative of the frustrated masculinity which has caused them in the first place. The corruption of the war has come to the bamboo grove and set light to the last vestiges of hope in taking from these already impoverished women their very source of life. A sorry tale of despair and futility, Burning Mountain spins a tale of weak men and resilient women whose solidarity is bought through a mutual satisfaction cruelly ended by an austere and unforgiving regime.


Burning Mountain is available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

London Korean Film Festival Announces Full Programme for 2019

The Seashore Village - Opening Gala (1st Nov)The London Korean Film Festival kicks off its 14th edition in London on 1st November and runs until the 14th at venues across the city before touring to Edinburgh Film House, Watershed Cinema Bristol, Belfast Queen’s Film Theatre, Glasgow Film Theatre, Manchester HOME, and Nottingham Broadway Cinema from 18th to 24th. This year’s special focus is dedicated to Korean cinema history in celebration of its centenary and will feature a series of classics many of them making their UK cinema premieres. 

Opening

The Seashore Village poster 2

  • The Seashore Village – Opening for the first time with a retrospective title, the festival will pay tribute to veteran director Kim Soo-yong with his 1965 literary adaptation The Seashore Village in which a community of women left largely alone after losing husbands at sea have learned to support each other in the absence of men. Review. Director Kim will be present in person to discuss the film as well as his long career in the Korean cinema industry.

Closing

Scattered Night - Closing Gala (14th Nov)

  • Scattered Night – the festival will close on Nov. 14 with Kim Sol’s 2019 drama chronicling the dissolution of a family seen through the eyes of the children.

Special Focus: 100 Years of Korean Cinema

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  • A Hometown in Heart – touching drama from 1949 in which an orphaned child monk bonds with a widow.
  • Piagol – Lee Kang-cheon’s 1955 drama was originally banned for its sympathetic depiction of Communist soldiers as they wage war under a severe commander.
  • The Flower in Hell – Shin Sang-ok classic from 1958 in which a sex worker tries to find escape by seducing the younger brother of her boyfriend who makes a living stealing from the US military.
  • Aimless Bullet – bleak portrait of post-war life from Yu Hyun-mok. Review.
  • A Coachman – a single father struggles to provide for his family in Kang Dae-jin’s 1961 drama.
  • A Woman Judge – Moon Jeong-suk stars as a young woman determined to become a judge in the face of fierce social opposition. Review.
  • Bloodline – Another literary adaptation from Kim Soo-yong, Bloodline revolves around three families in a small courtyard in which the young long for freedom and a brighter future only for their parents to lament their declining authority. Review.
  • Goryeojang – 1963 drama from Kim Ki-young revolving around the ancient practice of abandoning the old in times of famine.
  • Ieoh Island – Kim Ki-young drama from 1977 in which a murder is committed on an island inhabited only by women.
  • The Devil’s Stairway – Hitchcockian drama with shades of Les Diaboliques from Lee Man-hee in which a doctor (Kim Jin-kyu) offs his inconvenient mistress (Moon Jeong-suk) to marry the boss’ daughter only to be haunted (or not?) by the memory of his transgression. Review.
  • Homebound – Moon Jeong-suk, the director’s then muse, stars again for Lee Man-hee as a middle-aged woman finds herself trapped between personal desire and social convention when she falls for a young reporter (Kim Jeong-cheol) and considers leaving her embittered, bedridden war veteran husband (Kim Jin-gyu). Review.
  • A Day Off – legendary, long believed lost drama from Lee Man-hui originally banned for its bleakness in which a young couple find themselves in an impossible situation. Review.
  • Ticket – ’80s drama from Im Kwon-taek exploring the lives of three young women working in a “ticket” bar “coffee delivery” shop. Review.
  • The Man with Three Coffins – 1987 drama from Lee Jang-ho in which a man wanders the country looking for a place to scatter his wife’s ashes.
  • A Pillar of Mist – a young couple grow apart over time in Park Chul-soo’s 1986 drama.
  • The Age of Success – Ahn Sung-ki stars as a salesman at a sweetner company who falls ill after battling a competitor and comes up with a genius idea to get back at them while in the hospital.
  • Why Has Bodhi-Darma Left for the East? – drama exploring the lives of three monks shot over seven years.
  • North Korean Partisan in South Korea (Nambugun) – 1990 drama inspired by the life of war correspondent Lee Tae.
  • A Single Spark – biographical drama about a Jeon Tae-il, a worker who self-immolated to protest unfair working conditions.
  • The Day a Pig Fell into a Well – debut from Hong Sang-soo in which a married man on a business trip gets stranded and ends up having a weird encounter with a sex worker.
  • Three Friends – debut from Lim Soon-rye in which three misfits report for military service.
  • The Contact – romance in which love blossoms over the airways.
  • Peppermint Candy – modern masterpiece from Lee Chang-dong in which a disappointed man looks back over his life.

Hidden Figures: Ha Gil-jong

Pollen of Flowers banner

  • The Pollen of Flowers – Ha Gil-jong’s debut makes a subtle jab at the repressive Park Chung-hee regime as a businessman introduces his male secretary into the home he shares with his mistress.
  • The March of Fools – 1975 drama which begins as campus comedy and then gets progressively melancholic and reflective. Review.
  • The Ascension of Han-ne – in the 19th century a woman is saved from suicide but ostracised by her community after a shaman pronounces her bad luck.

Cinema Now

birthday still 1

  • Grass – Hong Sang-soo drama starring Kim Min-hee as a writer eavesdropping in a coffee shop.
  • Birthday – powerful drama following a family bereaved by the Sewol ferry tragedy. Review.
  • A Resistance – historical drama inspired by the life of a teenage independence activist. Review.
  • Idol – neo-noir in which a bereaved father tries to expose the true facts surrounding the death of his son while a politician attempts to maintain his squeaky clean image. Review.
  • Extreme Job – broad comedy in which bumbling policemen open a fried chicken joint as part of a stakeout only for the place to take off. Review.
  • The Odd Family: Zombie on Sale – a weird family adopts a zombie after discovering his bite has healing qualities in Lee Min-jae’s hilariously surreal comedy. Review.
  • Height of the Wave – latest from Park Jung-bum following a policewoman transferred to a remote island.

Women’s Voices

A Bedsore (Women's Voices)

  • Youngju – a young woman looking after her brother becomes involved with the man who killed their parents.
  • A Boy and Sungreen – a schoolboy and his friend attempt to track down his absent dad.
  • A Bedsore – grandma’s bedsore exposes the cracks in an ordinary family.
  • Yukiko – chronicle of a family scarred by war.

Documentary

night before the strike

  • Water Utilization Tax – documentary from 1984 following the four month struggle of farmers in Gurye.
  • Blue Bird – 1986 doc interviewing farmers about their working conditions.
  • The Night Before the Strike – 1990 doc following factory workers’ attempts to unionise.

Animation

astro garnder

  • A Story of Hong Gil-dong – 1967 classic adapting the traditional folktale.
  • Astro Gardener – fantasy adventure with an ecological message.

Mise-en-scène Shorts

Yuwol

  • Freckles – bittersweet tale of first love.
  • To Each Your Sarah – a woman rebuilds her life after leaving her husband.
  • Goodbye Bushman – brothers discover a “bushman” in the woods.
  • Milk – a hotel maid commits a crime to pay for baby food.
  • Yuwol: The Boy Who Made the World Dance – musical following a young boy with an urge to dance.
  • Camping – a woman is kidnapped from a campsite.
  • The Stars Whisperer – a young girl with hearing difficulties makes a new friend.
  • The Lambs – a pastor and a member of his congregation share an obsession with a dead woman.

Artist Video

Songs from the North (Artist Video)

  • Songs from the North – Yoo Soon-mi’s documentary portrait of the North.
  • Dangerous Supplement – early work from Yoo Soon-mi showcasing the theme of memory.
  • Sets – Park Chan-kyong’s examination of the North’s vision of the South.
  • Flying – Park Chan-kyong explores the North/South divide.
  • Believe it or Not – Park Chan-kyong narrative piece inspired by those who have crossed the border.

The London Korean Film Festival runs 1st – 14th November in London before touring the country until 24th. Full details for all the films as well as screening times and ticketing information will be available shortly via the official website and you can keep up with all the latest news by following the festival on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Swing Kids (스윙키즈, Kang Hyeong-cheol, 2018)

Swing Kids poster 2“Fuck Ideology” the embittered hero of Kang Hyeong-cheol’s Swing Kids (스윙키즈) exclaims, pushing back against his casually cruel commanding officer from the comparative safety of the stage on which he decides to cast off his frustration through a natural love of dance. It may be too much of a truism to suggest you can dance your way to freedom while a very literal prisoner of war, but in any case Kang eventually shows us that sooner or later someone will be along to crush even the smallest of dreams and it may not be the people you’d most expect.

The film opens with a propaganda newsreel that eventually skews pro-North in lamenting the poor conditions at the Koje POW camp where a small civil war recently broke out between those who remain fiercely loyal and those who have been seduced by American freedoms and no longer wish to return. Unfavourably comparing Koje with a camp in the North which is run under strict adherence to the Geneva convention so you’d hardly even think there was a war on at all, the film ends by casting shade on the American forces’ casual cruelty and inability to keep their house in order. The old commander having been sacked, newbie General Roberts (Ross Kettle) is keen to reform the camp’s image and so he hatches on the idea of getting Sergeant Jackson (Jared Grimes), who used to be a Broadway tap dancer, to teach the “commies” the American dance of freedom which seems tailor-made for front page photo sensation.

Jackson is reluctant to take the job but is persuaded when Roberts attempts to threaten him over his complicated personal life which has seen him breaking regulations to earn extra bucks in the hope of getting transferred back to Okinawa where he apparently had a woman he wanted to marry and a child he needed to make legitimate. Time and again we’re told that getting sent to the Korean War is something that happens to soldiers who’ve made mistakes, which might explain why the camp appears to be staffed by a collection of thoroughly unpleasant, incompetent foot soldiers while Roberts himself is mostly interested in raising its profile to save his own reputation.

“Communism, Capitalism. If nobody knew what they were, no one will kill or be killed” a young woman points out, quite reasonably before awkwardly wading into an ill-advised debate over who is more oppressed – ethnic minorities or women in a time of war. Sgt. Jackson who hails from the land of the free had to abandon his dream of the stage because of racism and continues to experience persistent micro aggressions from junior soldiers who refuse to follow his orders. The Korean internees are often no better, throwing up their own racial slurs and parading their cultural ignorance by reserving a special layer of scorn just for him in addition to that they feel for the Americans who have, after all, wandered onto their land and decided to have a war on it while making them join in. Communism and Capitalism, another soldier intones, are concepts made by and for the Russians and Americans, they have precious little to do with him so why are he and his loved ones supposed to die over an ideological disagreement?

Hero of the North Ki-soo (Do Kyung-soo) remains conflicted. He was loyal and truly believed in his cause, but secretly has the heart of a dancer and longs for the freedom of physical movement. He can’t talk to Jackson, or to another of the Swing Kids who is a lonely Chinese soldier who can only speak Mandarin (Kim Min-Ho), but discovers that they do have a shared language in dance and are able to communicate on an elemental level that makes culture an irrelevance. Feisty young woman Yang Pallae (Park Hye-su), who, out of necessity, has learned to speak three additional languages (English, Mandarin, and Japanese), discovers something much the same as she reluctantly begins dancing even though there’s no money it, while lovelorn Kang Byung-sam (Oh Jung-se) wants to dance to become famous because he’s become separated from his wife and thinks that then she’d be able to find him again. 

As Pallae puts it, when she puts the tap shoes on all the awful things go away. Pointedly introducing the big dance number, Jackson describes the Swing Kids as longing for freedom and liberalism while fighting for their rights, speaking as much for himself thoroughly fed up with the manipulative Roberts who seems set to hang the bunch of them out to dry as he is for the disparate collection of dancers whose young lives have been ruined by the chaos of war. “Fuck ideology” indeed, all they want to do is dance but repressive regimes aren’t good with people having fun expressing themselves and so even this small dream seems to grow ever more distant. What started off as a cheerful musical comedy undergoes a decidedly Brechtian tonal shift in its final moments, neatly underlining the terror and unpredictability of life in war but nevertheless extremely hard to reconcile with the inspirational cheerfulness of all that’s gone before. Still for the vast majority of its running time, Swing Kids is a joyful celebration of the universal language of movement and an ode to the power of escapist fantasy in a cruel and confusing world.


Swing Kids screens for free in Chicago on Sept. 14 as part of the ninth season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema where actor Jared Grimes is expected to appear for a Q&A. It is also available on US blu-ray courtesy of Well Go USA.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Juror 8 (배심원들, Hong Seung-wan, 2019)

Juror 8 poster 1What is the role of the law in a free and democratic society? In an effort to democratise justice, Korea held its first jury trial in 2008 giving “the people” a voice in the courts. As might be expected the judiciary had its doubts. Where judges and lawyers are best placed to assess the evidence and draw their conclusions, might not ordinary citizens be swayed by emotion or argument? Then again, compassion might be a force sorely lacking in a legal process some might feel to have become too efficient in its keenness to see justice is done speedily, losing all important scrutiny and allowing corruption and complacency to sneak their way in.

Juror 8 (배심원들, Baesimwondeul), a courtroom comedy drama, subtly puts the nation on trial as it asks what the point of the law is if it’s wielded like a blunt object. The case in hand concerns a middle-aged man, Kang Du-sik (Seo Hyun-woo), accused of hitting his elderly mother (Lee Yong-yi) on the head with a hammer and then throwing her off the balcony to disguise the crime. Though the defendant made a confession to police shortly after the incident, he did so vaguely from a hospital bed after being knocked out and now claims he can’t remember the events in question. This presents a problem for the judiciary who had chosen this case for the first jury trial precisely because it seemed so open and shut, all the jury was supposed to do was consider sentencing. Now they’re being asked to consider guilt or innocence and asking lots of awkward questions in what was supposed to be a token effort on behalf of law enforcement to demonstrate that it is listening.

Everything might have gone to plan if it hadn’t been for problematic “Juror 8” Nam-woo (Park Hyung-sik ) who, despite giving some worryingly conservative answers in his interview, instantly sympathises with the suspect and worries that there are too many unanswered questions in the evidence presented. His conviction only strengthens when he wanders off trying to get to the patent office to file sample of a self-defence device he was trying to launch as a business and accidentally meets Kang who seems despondent and frightened, worried he really might be guilty but fundamentally unable to remember.

More cynical minds might ask if Kang’s memory lapse is merely convenient and he hopes to exploit the jury trial to win acquittal through sympathy. Having noticed that Kang has no fingers, Nam-woo insists on a test to see if he is able to swing a hammer only for others to point out that there is no real way to know if he is not physically able to do it or chooses not to to aid his case. Meanwhile, Kang sits sullenly like a defeated ball of pent-up rage, eventually exploding when the jury is handed a letter he claims he was forced to write expressing frustration with his mother’s refusal to sign a legal separation form so that he would be eligible to receive welfare payments.

As his lawyer later puts it, the real villain here is poverty. Kang was raised by a single-mother, something still frowned upon, who had to leave him alone to go out to work. She locked the door from the outside to keep him safe, but that also meant he was unable to escape a house fire and was badly burned at only five years old sustaining prominent facial scarring and the loss of the fingers on both hands which means he is unable to work and cannot easily write. According to the testimony, Kang and his mother argued constantly over money, especially since her job washing dishes at a restaurant came to an end. As her son and dependent, he was unable to claim benefits and wanted, the prosecution claims, to legally sever ties. When his mother refused, they allege that he lost his temper, killed her, and tried to make it look like an accident.

Nam-woo is unconvinced as is another juror whose 30 years as an embalmer tell him that the head wound was unlikely to have been caused by a hammer. Juror 6 is dismissed for speaking out in court, his exuberance held up as an example of teething problems in the jury system, but his words strike a chord with some of the other jurors who wonder if the smug expression on the forensic scientist is there to mask the fact that he didn’t really bother to investigate because there had already been a confession and all he needed to do was “confirm” the police’s findings. Time and again, the jurors accidentally uncover the failings of justice in a system geared towards efficiency. Kang was pushed to confess by police keen to meet their targets, the confession then became basis for deprioritising his case. Or as some of the legal minds put it, they got “sloppy” because there was no sense in devoting time and energy to a matter already closed.

The same thing happens in the jury room. The jurors are ordinary people. They have lives waiting for them. Nam-woo wants to file his paperwork for the business loan, another juror has a child to get back to, one is a salaryman with an angry boss on the phone. Everyone has a vested interest in getting this over with as quickly as possible so they can all go home, but they also take their responsibilities seriously – much more seriously than they were intended to. Korea is a conservative society in which it is natural to follow the guidance of the authorities and the collective will, and so it seems natural to everyone that you simply rubber-stamp whatever the judge says. Nam-woo is a bit different, he notices details and he asks awkward questions. “Just go with the flow” the other jurors urge him, “when in doubt follow their lead”, but he wants to do what feels right. The exasperated businessman orders him to fall in with the boss, in this case the judge, but crumbles when another juror asks for his own opinion. He doesn’t have one, because he’s corporate drone and he’s been conditioned to do whatever the boss says without really thinking about it.

In any case, the jury system itself is a bit of a sham. The jury’s opinion is not legally binding, the judge only has to take it under advisement and can overrule. Sympathetic judge Kim (Moon So-ri), defended in her appointment as “strong and resolute like a man”, is fighting her own battles in a male-dominated arena, hoping for a long overdue promotion following the successful handling of this high profile case she only got through lottery. She begins to notice things she might not have when it was just a formality of sentencing a man who had confessed, but she is under pressure to maintain control and authority while demonstrating the magnanimity of the state. The jurors’ deliberations expose their pettiness and snobbery, some taking against Kang just because he lives in the poor part of town, but also their keenness to ensure the law is fair and exists to protect and not to oppress. Genial and humorous, Juror 8 addresses a serious subject with a lightness of touch and a subtlety that gently exposes the shortcomings of its society while placing its faith in “the people” to make a compassionate choice in the face of a fierce pressure to conform.


Juror 8 screens in Chicago on Sept. 12 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema season 9 where director Hong Seung-wan will be in attendance for an introduction and Q&A moderated by Korean cinema expert Darcy Paquet.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

No Regret (후회하지 않아, Leesong Hee-il, 2006)

No Regret poster“Why do we have to be so miserable?” a frustrated cabaret bar owner exclaims part-way through a harebrained scheme to get both money and revenge against a lover’s betrayal and a relentlessly unfair society. The debut feature from Leesong Hee-il, No Regret (후회하지 않아, Huhoehaji Anha) is regarded as Korea’s first explicitly gay film from an out gay director but is as interested in social disparity and multiple oppressions as it is in contemporary gay life in a sometimes unforgiving Seoul.

Our hero, Su-min (Lee Yeong-hoon), is an orphan recently ejected from the orphanage after turning 18 and leaving high school. Like many young men in his position, Su-min has been effectively hung out to dry and has very little chance of making much of a life for himself. Quietly angry, he works hard in a factory by day, and studies at a cram school at night, hoping to make enough money to apply for college and ensure a better life for himself. He also has another part-time job as a “designated driver”, getting drunk people and their cars back home in one piece. One particular job, however, changes his life forever when he arrives to meet Jae-min (Kim Nam-gil) who, apparently, seems to fall in love with him at first sight. Despite perhaps being flattered, Su-min hesitates but turns down Jae-min’s overtures, either simply afraid and still uncomfortable with his sexuality or resentful of the awkward power dynamic between them.

The problematic power differential raises its head again when Su-min realises that Jae-min is the factory boss’ spoilt chaebol son seconds after learning he and his friend, both of whom are “casual” rather than “regular” employees, have been let go in a mass layoff. Jae-min, still smitten, pulls strings and makes sure Su-min keeps his job, but Su-min isn’t comfortable with being indebted in that way or of taking another man’s place just because the boss has taken a fancy to him so he quits in anger and does his best to shake Jae-min off his trail. Jobs are hard to come by for uneducated poor boys, and after a spell washing dishes proves unsuccessful he finds himself giving in and taking a job in a host bar karaoke box offering illicit sexual services to select clientele.

Su-min, as he later suggests to Jae-min, is perhaps freer than most to embrace his sexuality given that he has no family to disapprove of him. He is, in a sense, dependent on the feeling of solidarity he has with the other orphans, like his ladies’ man roommate who despite offering to take Su-min to a brothel so he’ll realise what he’s missing out on is actually broadly supportive of Su-min’s sexuality, but is afraid more of them discovering his “fall” into sex work than of them realising he is gay which most of them seem to have done already. In any case, it’s perhaps unsurprising that he personally continues to struggle with his sexuality given his extreme youth even after becoming used to life at the club and the financial benefits it can bring.

As the “madame” tells him, though he’s gay himself he doesn’t hire “gay” guys and it remains true that most of the other sex workers are straight men who are only in the business because they have no other way of making money. Jae-min, meanwhile, feels himself at least a prisoner of his privilege as he repeatedly fails to standup to his domineering mother who has arranged a marriage with a suitable young woman despite knowing that her son is gay. Well educated and wealthy, Jae-min has accepted his sexuality but is unable to embrace it or to break free of the patriarchal social codes which insist that, especially considering he is an only child, he has a responsibility to obey his parents’ wishes by living up to their conservative values, marrying a woman, providing an heir, and taking over the company. Jae-min’s mother even later tells him that she doesn’t care if he continues to sleep with men, but that he must marry the woman she’s chosen for appearance’s sake, little caring for the emotional wellbeing of the oblivious fiancée she is about to condemn to a loveless marriage.

Jae-min continues to chase Su-min who continues to rebuff him until finally seduced, but a note of darkness remains at the centre of their relationship in Jae-min’s self loathing and Su-min’s resentful sense of inferiority. An accidental betrayal born of momentary weakness and followed by an eventual breakthrough leads to a very dark place indeed as the wounded parties decide to take misplaced revenge, against an oppressive society as much as against those who have wronged them. Nevertheless, a kind of “equality” is perhaps achieved through wounds given and received giving way to a more openhearted connection albeit one with a dark genesis. An important step forward in representation, Leesong Hee-il’s indie drama is an oddly hopeful romance in which the heroes eventually succeed in becoming themselves in defiance of the societal oppression all around them.


US trailer (English subtitles)