Soseongri (소성리, Park Bae-il, 2017)

Soseongri posterElderly people are often assumed to be of a conservative disposition, steadfastly clinging to the values of a world rapidly slipping away, but many have also experienced things they sincerely hope no further generations will be forced to experience. The grannies of Soseongri lived through the Korean War and so they remember just how terrible life in wartime can be. Even so, despite living close to the North Korean border, they’d put those days of fear and anxiety long behind them – that is until it was announced that the peaceful village of Soseongri would be the site for a bank of US military THAAD missile systems intended to act as a deterrent/defensive measure against aggression from the North.

Director Park Bae-il opens with lengthy shot of an old woman’s hands carefully placing seedlings into the earth. The first part of the film immerses us in village life, and in the lives of the old ladies who make up the bulk of the population now that most of the youngsters have moved into the cities. In fact, other than the police officers and right wingers who turn up later, there are only two men ever captured on screen – one very elderly, and the other a cheerful toddler ironically dressed in a T-shirt which reads “let’s go red”. Most of the women arrived in Soseongri to marry and their lives have been defined by farming and family. One particularly feisty old woman proudly tells us how she and her friends have managed to strike a small blow against their restrictive society in reclaiming their own names. When they came to Soseongri, they came as “the new bride” or “so-and-so’s wife”, later becoming “so-and-so’s mother” but now that they’re old they’ve all started to call each other by their given names and insisted everyone else, even the local post service, do the same. Even so, the same woman laments that she feels she was not a good wife to her husband because of her defiant attitude and worries that she made her family unhappy in being unwilling to just go along with the way of things.

Meanwhile, life on the border holds its own share of anxieties. The memories of the war are still vivid for these older women who remember the threat and violence, the horrifying deaths of friends and the constant ideological conflicts. Anti-communist sentiments are still prevalent among the older generation – one woman describes certain villagers as having been “contaminated” by communist ideas, but admits that when the communists came to Soseongri they came in peace. Everyone got a free cow, the villagers ate meat, and the communist cadre treated them well while building infrastructure and protecting village life. When the communists were forced back North, however, it was the South Korean army which marched “collaborators” off to the cliffs never to seen again.

Nevertheless, one of the things that bothers the women the most in their protests is being accused of being “communists” by the right wing counter protestors. In a shocking display of extreme political rhetoric, the arrival of the THAAD missile system is greeted by loud patriotic songs from the authoritarian era which are explicit in their violence, wishing for the bloody deaths of all communists. The defenders of THAAD claim that it will maintain peace through deterrence, but the old ladies fear it will only antagonise an old enemy and prolong the already protracted peace process. They don’t want “peace” through mutually assured destruction, they want an end to the conflict once and for all. In truth they don’t want the THAAD anywhere, but they particularly don’t want it in their village which will after all become a major target, ensuring they will be the first to feel the fire if the missiles fly.

As it stands the old women are already worried about the planes flying constantly overhead, bringing back bad memories of a past they hoped was already far behind them. Now they find themselves facing violence once again as the police act to protect the right wing protest groups and think nothing of using their superior strength against little old ladies who are just trying to make their voices heard. THAAD or not, the peace in this tiny village has already been ruptured and serious questions raised about the rights of local people vs the national government, a difference in attitudes between young and old when it comes to the North, and possible government hypocrisy in the face of rising tensions coupled with geopolitical concerns. Park, immersing himself in village life, allows the ladies to speak for themselves as they offer both their histories and their wisdom, but most of all their fortitude as they refuse to stop fighting for a peaceful existence.


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

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Interview with director Park Bae-il from the 2017 Busan Film Festival

Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days (신과함께-인과 연,Kim Yong-hwa, 2018)

Along with the gods 2 posterKarma is a bitch, and Korean hell is apparently full of it. You don’t have to be guilty to work here, but it certainly seems to help. Picking up straight after the conclusion of the first film, Kim Yong-hwa’s Along with the Gods sequel, The Last 49 Days (신과함께-인과 연, Singwa Hamgge: Ingwa Yeon) sees stern grim reaper/celestial defence lawyer Gang-lim (Ha Jung-woo) make good on his promise to clear the name of a once vengeful spirit now cheerfully deceased, but willingly or otherwise it’s himself he’s putting on trial as the facts of his client’s case veer eerily close to his own. King Yeomra (Lee Jung-jae) is up to his old tricks once again.

Brother of the first film’s “paragon” Ja-hong, Kim Su-hong (Kim Dong-wook) is headed nowhere good – after being accidentally shot by one friend and then buried alive by another to cover it up, Su-hong became a vengeful spirit creating havoc in the mortal and underworlds. Gang-lim, however, is convinced that Su-hong’s death was “wrongful”, that he died as a deliberate act of murder rather than simply by a tragic accident, and commits himself to clearing Su-hong’s name so that he can be reincarnated immediately. He manages to win King Yeomra over, but there is one condition – an old man, Hur Choon-sam (Nam Il-Woo), is an overstayer in the mortal world and should have been “ascended” long ago but his household god, Sung-ju (Ma Dong-Seok), keeps despatching the Guardians to keep the old man safe. If Gang-lim and his assistants Hewonmak (Ju Ji-Hoon) and Deok-choon (Kim Hyang-Gi) can clear Su-hong’s name and ascend Choon-sam within 49 Days King Yeomra will at last set them free and allow them to be reincarnated.

Having dealt so thoroughly with the mechanics of hell in The Two Worlds, Kim expands and deepens his canvas to delve into the lives of our various Guardians. As it turns out Sung-ju was once a Guardian himself and so he knows a thing or two about our two underlings – Hewonmak and Deok-choon, whose memories were wiped when they became employees of King Yeomra. As Sung-ju spins a yarn, it becomes clear that the fates of the three Guardians were closely linked in life and death, bound by a series of traumatic events over a thousand years ago during the Goryeo dynasty.

As in the Two Worlds it all comes down to family. Gang-lim’s memories are fractured and confused, he’s convinced himself he’s a righteous man and wilfully misremembered his death (or at least misrepresented it to his cohorts). Stiff and lacking in compassion, Gang-lim was at odds with his gentle hearted father who, he thought, had found a better son in a boy orphaned by the cruelty of his own troops. These broken familial connections become a karmic circle of resentment and betrayal, enduring across millennia in the knowledge that even to ask for forgiveness may itself be another cruel and selfish act of violence. The circle cannot be closed without cosmic justice, but justice requires process and process requires a victim.

Gang-lim plays a bait and switch, he walks the strangely cheerful Su-hong through the various trials but it’s himself he’s testing, working towards a resolution of his own centuries old burdens of guilt and regret. There are, however, unintended victims in everything and the fate of orphans becomes a persistent theme from the orphaned foster brother Gang-lim feared so much, to those who lost their families in the wars of Goryeo, and a little boy who will be left all alone if Hewonmak and Deok-choon decide to ascend Choon-sam. Choon-sam’s adorable grandson is only young but he’s already been badly let down – his mother sadly passed away, but his father ran up gambling debts and then ran off to the Philippines never to be seen again. He didn’t ask for any of this, but there’s no cosmic justice waiting for him, only “uncle” Sang-ju who has taken the bold step of assuming human form to help the boy and his granddad out while trying to come up with a more permanent solution.

Nevertheless, compassion and forgiveness eventually triumph over the rigid business of the law, finally closing the circle through force of will. Kim doubles down on The Two Worlds’ carefully crafted aesthetic but perhaps indulges himself with a series of random digressions involving psychic dinosaur attacks and lengthy laments about stock market fluctuations and failing investments. Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days may lack the narrative focus of its predecessor but is undoubtedly lighter in tone and filled with the sense of fun the first film lacked, which is just as well because it seems as if hell is not done with our three Guardians just yet.


Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days is currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Repatriation (송환, Kim Dong-won, 2004)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

London Korean Film Festival 2018: Documentary Fortnight

Another World We Are Making

The London Korean Film Festival has always made a space for documentary in its packed out programme but for this year’s edition they’ve decided to go a little further and give it a spotlight of its own with two weekends dedicated to the art. On August 11/12, and 18/19, six short and feature lengths films will be screened with directors Kim Dong-won and Song Yun-hyeok making an appearance to present their work.

11th August – Birkbeck Cinema

11.30am: A Slice Room

slice room still 1

Song Yun-hyeok examines the social reality behind the prosperous facade of contemporary Korean society through the lives of those living in “slice rooms”. Director Song Yun-hyeok will also be in conversation with Nam In Young following the screening.

2.30pm: The Sanggyedong Olympics / The 6 Day Struggle at the Myeongdong

6 day struggle

Kim Dong-won’s 1988 documentary Sanggyedong Olympics follows the resistance movement towards urban regeneration amongst a community north of Seoul who had been unfairly evicted from their homes without proper compensation or adequate time to find new accommodation. Kim planned to stay only one day but ended up living amongst the community for three years.

The 6 Day Struggle at the Myeongdong Cathedral, completed during 1996-7, looks back at the pivotal 1987 sit-in which became a catalyst for the June democracy movement.

Following the two short docs, Kim Dong-won will also be in conversation with Nam In Young.

12th August – Birkbeck Cinema 

1.30pm: Repatriation 

repatriation still 1

In what many consider his masterpiece, Kim Dong-won examines the lives of the “unconverted” – North Korean “spies” who refuse to renounce their communist beliefs despite longterm imprisonment in the South. Refused the possibility of returning to the North on release, most were left without support in South Korea facing economic hardship and social stigma, dependent on solidarity networks to help them integrate into society. Kim follows two such men over a decade as they try to rebuild their lives in the fluctuating political climate of the ’90s.

The film will be followed by a conversation with Kim Dong-won chaired by Chris Berry.

4.45pm: Roundtable 

A roundtable panel discussion chaired by Professor Chris Berry discussing the Korean independent documentary scene from the late ’80s to the present. Nam In Young of Dongseo University will provide an overview of filmmaking collectives within the sociopolitical history of South Korea while directors Kim Dong-won and Song Yun-hyeok will be on hand to offer their personal experiences.

18th August – Korean Cultural Centre

3pm: Soseongri 

SKOREA-FILM-DIPLOMACY-DEFENCEPark Bae-il’s Soseongri follows a community of elderly farmers facing rural depopulation problems who find themselves in conflict with the police when the decision is taken to place the THAAD anti-aircraft system in their village.

19th August – Korean Cultural Centre

3pm: Jung Il-woo, My Friend 

Jung Il-woo, My Friend 

Kim Dong-won’s most recent film pays tribute to North American Jesuit priest, Jung Il-woo, who dedicated his life to improving the lives of the poor in South Korea.

All the events are free to attend but tickets must be booked in advance via the links above. Full details for all the films are available via the official website, and you can keep up with all the latest news via the festival’s  TwitterFacebookFlickrInstagram and YouTube channels

A Woman Judge (여판사, Hong Eun-won, 1962)

woman judge posterThe 1960s were a time of great social change the world over, but while Doris Day was showing the world how to have it all (to a point, at least), not everywhere found the idea of women’s liberation quite so aspirational. In the comparatively more liberal period before the Motion Picture Law brought in by Park Chung-hee there had indeed been a fair few films challenging persistent misogyny and advancing the cause of equality, but there had also been those which ran the other way and pushed an intensely conservative message. Han Hyung-mo’s A Female Boss from 1959, for example, centres around a seemingly successful female editor of a woman’s magazine whose business is in trouble. Eventually she ends up marrying an employee and becomes a housewife, neatly reinforcing the idea that women do not belong in the work force. Three years later and just just before the advent of a more stringent censorship environment, Hong Eun-won’s A Woman Judge (여판사, Yeopansa) takes a much more positive attitude to the idea of women having the right to personal fulfilment outside of the home but again only to a point and only partially.

Jin-suk (Moon Jeong-suk), a youngish woman from a humble home, is studying for the judges’ exams. Though her father is supportive and encourages her to study, Jin-suk’s mother (Hwang Jung-seun) worries – she cannot envisage a life for a woman who does not marry and doesn’t want her daughter to end up alone, unhappy, and isolated. Jin-suk also finds unexpected resistance from her childhood sweetheart, Dong-hoon (Park Am), who makes a motion to solidify a long held but never spoken promise that the pair would marry but only on the condition that Jin-suk give up her intentions of becoming a judge and agree to be solely his wife. Jin-suk, of course, refuses. Meanwhile, a construction magnate who caught sight of her on the road has taken a liking to her which is only deepened when he reads of her success in the papers. He becomes determined to get Jin-suk to marry his son, Gyu-sik (Kim Seok-hun), and add some sophisticated modernity to his otherwise soulless home.

The great surprise (or perhaps it is in its own way unsurprising) is that Jin-suk’s greatest supporters are two middle-aged men – literally her patriarchal elders in the form of her own father and her father-in-law. Each of the two men is impressed by Jin-suk’s fortitude and intelligence, they believe in her want her to succeed. The women, however, feel quite differently. Jin-suk’s mother is caring and supportive but locked into the social codes of her youth, unable to envisage a successful life for a woman which does not involve marriage or children. Jin-suk’s mother-in-law by contrast is harsher, actively resenting Jin-suk’s insistence on maintaining her career and seeing it as a rejection of the idea of the good wife. The most surprising enemy, however, is Jin-suk’s new sister-law, Geum-won, who, despite being a modern woman exhibits extremely conservative values even at one point berating Jin-suk for not showing the proper respect to her husband and failing in her wifely duties. Women oppress other women, making it almost impossible to break free of the conspiratorial forces of a conservative social order even when there are women as brave and determined as Jin-suk willing to pave the way.

That said, Jin-suk is only prepared to go half the distance. She marries and then resigns herself to double duties, insisting that she can manage both a career and a home with no support. There is no suggestion of a rebalancing of the domestic world, no one asks anything of Jin-suk’s petulant husband Gyu-sik other than he do what he’s told. Gyu-sik married Jin-suk knowing she would prioritise her career, but it’s less the fact that she works that begins to irritate him than her growing “celebrity” as “the woman judge” coupled with the paternal oppression he too feels as his father’s son. Even though he is head of accounts, his secretary won’t cash his checks without his dad’s signature – he’s not “in charge” at home or at work and feels himself increasingly emasculated. Which is perhaps why he lets his sister manipulate him into an affair with his mousy secretary who conforms much more strongly to the feminine ideal and therefore allows him to feel like “a man”.

The affair between Gyu-sik, and his lonely secretary, Miss Oh, eventually turns dark and leads the pair to consider double suicide. Gyu-sik, a coward, is unwilling to leave his “unhappy” marriage but Miss Oh does not want to end up a perpetual mistress. The first case Jin-suk presides over is a divorce in which a man has cited his own adultery to divorce his wife because she works too much. Obviously, Jin-suk does not approve of his reasoning but it’s the accomplice who becomes unexpectedly sympathetic. Jin-suk asks her if she knew her lover was married to which says she did not and that had she known she would never have become involved with him. When the woman affirms that she only slept with the man because she believed they would be married, Jin-suk asks her perhaps a cruel question with a wry smile – if she thought the same thing with each and every man she had ever slept with (implying there must have been many in an unintentional act of slut shaming). Rather sadly, the woman replies that yes she did – she may be naive, but she loved them all and firmly believed they would marry her only to be let down just as she’s being let down now.

Such is the difficult position women find themselves in in a liberalising but not liberal society. One of Gyu-sik’s friends even petitions him to get Jin-suk to help him get rid of a paternity suit filed by a girl he’s got into trouble while engaged to marry someone else and has now disowned. In fact one of the frustrations fuelling Gyu-sik’s resentment is that he has become a mini conduit to Jin-suk as just about everyone attempts to make use of the familial connection to ease their legal woes, little knowing that Jin-suk is not that kind of judge. She entered the law to heal society like a doctor heals the sick, but begins to doubt herself when the disorder in her own home threatens to boil over.

Disorder shifts into murder. A surprising second act twist puts us back in the realms of the courtroom drama as Jin-suk finds herself first a suspect and then presumed an intended victim before being forced to interrogate, literally, her own family and prove her devotion to it in the process. Though it’s Jin-suk determination, perseverance and legal skill coupled with compassion and emotional intelligence that eventually save “the family”, the jury is still out on whether she will be allowed to continue her legal career or be forced to give it up to fully repair the fracturing family home. While Jin-suk is committed to the idea that all women have the right to fulfil their potential, she too is wedded to the patriarchal ideas of the home and family and never truly considers living outside of them, only insisting on being allowed to continue working as a wife if not, ultimately, as a mother (though it is also interesting that she never suggests her career necessitates a rejection of those things or that there is an active choice available to her). A Woman Judge provides a fascinating insight into the prevailing social codes of Korean society in the early 1960s, even if taking only small steps towards a larger goal.


A Woman Judge was screened as part of the Rebels With a Cause season of free film screenings at the Korean Cultural Centre London. You can also stream the film for free via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.