A Distant Place (정말 먼 곳, Park Kun-young, 2020)

A gay couple searching for a far off land of love and acceptance find their rural dream crumbling in Park Kun-young’s melancholy autumn drama, A Distant Place (정말 먼 곳, Jeongmal Meon Gos). As it turns out, you can’t outrun yourself nor an internalised sense of shame and if you can’t find a way to root yourself firmly in the ground you risk losing those close to you lashing out in anger towards a needlessly judgemental society. 

Jin-woo (Kang Gil-woo) is indeed a man on the run, chased out of Seoul by his internalised homophobia and seeking a quieter life in a small mountain town with fewer people around to feel rejected by. Having studied fine art, he now works as a hired hand on a sheep farm where he’s bringing up his daughter Seol (Kim Si-ha) while waiting for his partner, Hyun-min (Hong Kyung), a poet, to join him. Once he arrives, everything goes well for them living a discreet life in the mountains where no one it seems has noticed that they are a couple though as we later realise the farmer, Mr Choi (Ki Joo-bong), and his daughter Moon-kyung (Ki Do-young) have figured it out and little care choosing to say nothing. The real drama begins, however, with another arrival in that of Jin-woo’s estranged twin-sister Eun-young (Lee Sang-hee) who as we discover is actually Seol’s birth mother having abandoned her to Jin-woo only to come back to try and reclaim her having married and opened a cafe. 

Jin-woo’s conflict lies partly in wondering if he’s being selfish in his desire not to return Seol to Eun-young while genuinely believing that a life of isolation in the mountains is better for her longterm future. His ideal is undercut when Seol upsets another child at a formal occasion by snatching his toy away from him, hinting at the costs of her lack of socialisation spending almost all of her time on the farm helping with the sheep or talking with Mr. Choi’s elderly mother (Choi Geum-Soon) who is suffering with advanced dementia. In a certain sense, each of them is trapped by their environment, the elderly grandma seeking escape in her small moments of lucidity. Moon-Kyung is beginning to fear her dreams of escaping small-town life will not come to pass while she has perhaps also missed the boat for becoming a wife or a mother snapped at by her grandmother in a moment of frustration. Her realisation that her crush on Jin-woo is misplaced on finding him in bed with Hyun-min is then a double moment of disillusionment leaving her only the vicarious position of becoming a surrogate mother to Seol who continues to refer to Jin-woo as “mama” rather than father. 

This framing in itself foregrounds the primacy of the traditional family in highlighting both the absence of a female caregiver and then by implication a father while simultaneously feminising Jin-woo as a man who is raising a child as we later find out with another man, if secretly. When the pair are accidentally outed, it not only strains the relationship between the two men but implodes Jin-woo’s dream of discreet country living. Though the townspeople had previously been friendly towards them, they find themselves shunned in town, figures of gossip and ridicule. Having been essentially run out of Seoul by his internalised homophobia, Jin-woo begins to fear he has nowhere left to run. Hyun-min tries to convince him that he’s asking for too much, that they should live quietly and keep the peace, but his shame gets the better of him lashing out that he’s never felt comfortable with Hyun-min around always self-conscious and paranoid about what others may be thinking of him. 

As Hyun-min puts it in a poem, only the hope of a “distant place” keeps them going even as the road ahead crumbles at a rapid pace with the abyss creeping ever closer. While there are small rays of hope in the quiet acceptance of Mr Choi who has come to think of Seol as his own granddaughter, Jin-woo begins to fear that his distant place is beyond his reach and that no matter how far he runs he will never reach a point of comfort or happiness where he can live openly with the man he loves and the little girl he has raised since birth as his daughter. Figures of loneliness and disappointment haunt the otherwise idyllic landscape shattering the nurturing image of a simple life in the country but even as the film opened with an ominous death it ends in new life promising perhaps a new if uncertain dawn. 


A Distant Place screens at Genesis Cinema on 26th May as part of this year’s Queer East.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Take Me Home (담쟁이, Han Jay, 2020)

A schoolteacher is confronted with the multilevel prejudices of her society in Han Jay’s pointed social drama Take Me Home (담쟁이, Damjaengi). Examining the changing concept of family in contemporary Korea, the film not only addresses deep seated prejudices towards both the LGBTQ+ community and those with disabilities but also an exploitative and unfeeling working environment in which employers adopt the language of family while continually undermining their employees’ interpersonal relationships and always ready to casually discard them should their circumstances change. 

Middle-aged high school teacher Eunsu (Woo Mi-hwa) is in a happy relationship with a much younger woman, Yewon (Lee Yeon), who uncomfortably enough was once one of her students. Though the pair live together, they are not completely out keeping their relationship vague with coworkers and family members Yewon explaining to her colleague that Eunsu is her cousin while Eunsu describes Yewon as a roommate to the sister she barely sees on returning home for her mother’s annual memorial service. Yewon it seems is less cautious, but Eunsu quickly bats away her hand as they walk home together from the local baths worried that someone might see even as they poignantly walk past an elderly couple with no such fear sitting quietly on a park bench. 

Yewon views their relationship as familial despite Eunsu’s occasional anxiety, yet when Eunsu is involved in a car crash which claims her sister’s life Yewon is reminded that she is not “family” and cannot act as Eunsu’s caregiver at the hospital. Even so she becomes temporarily responsible for Eunsu’s now orphaned niece Sumin (Kim Bo-min), her teacher apparently abandoning her with this woman she knows nothing about other than she is in someway connected to Eunsu. When Eunsu comes round and discovers that she has lost the use of her legs and may need to use a wheelchair for at least the next couple of years, it further destabilises her relationships firstly feeling as if she’d be overburdening Yewon and secondly uncertain that she is able to take care of her niece while simultaneously withdrawing into herself wary of her emotional bonds with others. 

Yewon tries to point out that they are family and family knows no burden, compassionately caring both for Eunsu and Sumin as they each try to adjust to their change in circumstances though she too suffers at work unable to explain to her boss that she needed to take time out because her partner had been involved in an accident even as he coldly tells her that time off is only given for a “family matter” while cancelling an opportunity for promotion he’d recently presented to her. Eunsu meanwhile encounters something similar, returning to the school where she works only for her boss to tell her he’ll be letting her go, the implication being that parents will object to a teacher using a wheelchair. He suggests another job in a much more rural location in a school with fewer than 10 children as if hiding her away or suggesting that her disability makes her ineligible for all but the least desirable of positions. Further fuelling her sense of resentment, she’s also subject to a series of sexist remarks to the effect that it’s a shame such a pretty woman met with an accident, as if on the one hand she is no longer desirable and on the other that she’s somehow lost more than someone considered unattractive while continuing to struggle with a unaccommodating society. 

Having begun to accept her new circumstances, Eunsu begins to warm to the idea of herself, Sumin, and Yewon as a family but her hopes for the future are crushed when her attempt to file formal adoption documentation is blocked. On consulting a series of lawyers, she is given the irrational advice that she might be able to win custody but only if she eliminates one of the two bars against her those being a same-sex relationship and her disability. Adoptions she is told are generally only approved for married couples, same-sex marriages currently not recognised under Korean law which also lacks anti-discrimination legislation on the grounds of sexuality, though the lawyer seems to think that the court could be convinced to allow a lesbian or a disabled woman to adopt but apparently not a disabled lesbian which obviously makes no sense at all. The sinister social worker who approaches Sumin alone in a park and asks her inappropriate questions about the nature of the relationship between her aunt and Yewon, which Sumin sees as nothing other than warm and loving like any other couple gay or straight, claims to have her well-being in mind but later snatches her from the back of a taxi depriving her of the loving family home she continues to yearn for while asking Eunsu to make a series of choices and compromises that leave no one happy. 

The villain is clearly the unsympathetic state which places its own idealogical concerns above a child’s happiness though the film’s conclusion cannot help but seem manipulative while leaving aside the more generalised examination of what the word family means in contemporary Korea, the persistent discrimination levelled at the LGBTQ+ community, and the barriers placed in front of those living with disability who find themselves infantilised by a society all too often refusing to accommodate their needs. In any case, the film argues for a world in which no one would have to choose between love and family because they truly would be one and the same. 


Take Me Home screens at Catford Mews on 21st May as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Boundary: Flaming Feminist Action (바운더리, Yun Ga-hyun, 2021)

Over the last few years it had seemed that feminism was beginning to take root in Korea with mass protests against the use of spy cams leading to a broader discussion of women’s rights in the still patriarchal nation with further social movements such as Escape the Corset highlighting persistent societal misogyny. Yet with the recent election of conservative president Yoon Suk-yeol who had run on an explicitly anti-feminist ticket hopes for real progress have been dashed. In her documentary filmed before Yoon’s victory, Boundary: Flaming Feminist Action (바운더리, Boundary), director Yun Ga-hyun looks back at the last four years as she and her friends reflect on the nature of their activism, what they’ve achieved and what they hope to in the future. 

As Yun and her fellow activists relate, Flaming Feminist Action came together as an extension of the labour movement formed the wake of the 2016 Gangnam Station Toilet Murder Case in which a woman was killed by a male stranger who claimed he did it because women had rejected him. Female solidarity is indeed central to the movement, the first Reclaim the Night-style protest which we witness insistent that a safe space for women is a safe space for everyone while reminding each other that they are not alone but stand together in pursuit of change. 

The group also takes part in symposia in which they attempt to educate each other offering the kind of sex education not found in schools in order to give women back the agency over their own bodies in the knowledge that to exercise it can in itself become a political act. As such, we also see the group challenging traditional gender norms by symbolically shaving their heads and holding a body hair competition in challenging traditional beauty standards. One of the women reveals that her brother was so scandalised by her decision to cut her hair that he refused, perhaps jokingly, to let her back into the house. Meanwhile they also take aim at more widely held traditional values such as in their “Free the Nipple” event in which they went bare chested protesting the restrictive and discriminatory policies of social media platforms such as Facebook which routinely block imagery featuring female nudity tagging it as pornography. Similarly the women’s public protest is frustrated by the police force who immediately move in with blankets when they remove their shirts citing public obscenity laws while the women argue that the law is absurd while men aren’t challenged for walking around shirtless. 

As Yun herself reveals in her own to camera interview, some members of the group have been arrested several times while she has also been threatened with violence and one commentator on the Blue House website petitioned to have them all rounded up and executed. At the street safety protest, she also revealed that she’d received violent and misogynistic messages online and had reported them to police but they refused to do anything because the messenger had then blocked her meaning she could not ascertain his identity while he went on to troll other other feminist activists in the same way. Then again, there is also division within the movement, Yun explaining that she’d also been criticised for giving an individual interview at a protest which was against the movement’s policy while her support for gender fluid and non-binary people as well as trans women and other members of the LGBTQ+ community joining the protests was also a source of conflict.  

Nevertheless, the women also draw strength for all that they’ve achieved even if acknowledging there is a long way to go. Yun herself attempts to run for political office working with a new party dedicated to the advancement of women’s rights having given up on the idea of influencing mainstream parties from the inside. Others come to the conclusion that the clearest path to societal change lies in education while generating a sense of female solidarity that offers support to women facing deeper social issues such as domestic and/or sexualised violence along with workplace harassment and discrimination. “The way to win is just to endure” one of the women reflects while Yun too echoes that at the very least she never gave up even in the most difficult of moments as she prepares to move into a new stage of her life in activism. 


Boundary: Flaming Feminist Action screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Special Delivery (특송, Park Dae-min, 2022)

“Why is it so hard to live?” a little boy asks after finding himself on the run with a strange woman who seems to be the only person interested in helping him. Situating itself in an upside-down world of backstreet crime, Park Dae-min’s high octane thriller Special Delivery (특송, Teuksong) is in part about how hard it is to live amid constant moral compromise as the heroine finds herself torn between her better judgement and human feelings in trying to rescue her human cargo not only from the bad guys chasing him but from a duplicitous society. 

Technically speaking, Eun-ha (Park So-dam) is a delivery driver yet the services her firm provides are highly specialised promising to deliver anything anywhere by whatever means possible. In practice this often seems to mean transporting gangsters on the run from their hideouts to the nearest port before rival gangs can catch up with them as we see Eun-ha do with spectacular skill in the opening sequence. Other than the practice of frequently switching out license plates, what she’s doing in itself isn’t really illegal but is definitely crime adjacent and potentially dangerous. She is however well paid, arguing with her boss/mentor/father figure for a pay rate increase to an unprecedented 50/50 split in proceeds, though she lives a fairly modest life in a cosy apartment with her beloved cat Chubby whom she watches via security cam while waiting around for a fare. When her boss agrees to do a rush job for a Chinese gangster she tells him it’s a bad idea but ends up going along with it only to get drawn into the big news story of the day when a former pro-baseball player turned match fixing underworld figure blows the whistle and runs off with all the gang’s money. Eun-ha was supposed to drive him and his son Seo-won (Jung Hyeon-jun) to a port to leave the country but the bad guys who turn out to be corrupt police officers get there first and Eun-ha ends up with the kid and a bag full of money but no plan B. 

Drawing inspiration from John Cassavetes’ Gloria, the film develops into something of a buddy comedy as Eun-ha finds herself on the run with Seo-won having gone back for him after her boss suggested handing him off to an associate “who deals with children”. As we discover the child reminds her of her younger self being all alone with no other relatives or friends who could take care of him. Even when he reveals he might have a mother after all, it turns out to be a dead end because no one wants to get involved in this dangerously escalating underworld crisis. Yet the found family of the marginalised at the Busan junkyard where Eun-ha is based have more moral integrity than the world around them even if her boss’ solution for what to do about Seo-won isn’t ideal either. “Life is going alone” the corrupt police officer later sneers having repeatedly stated the necessity of staking one’s life to win such a big payout, but what Eun-ha is discovering is that it’s about going together trying to save the boy not only from the dangerously out of control corrupt police officers but from the moral bankruptcy of the contemporary society in which money is the only thing that matters. 

Overcoming both persistent sexism and societal discrimination Eun-ha proves herself a top operator in her field, Park choreographing a series of genuinely impressive car chases and visceral fight scenes as Eun-ha has to think her way through to take out the tougher, stronger bad guys while trying to protect Seo-won from danger on all sides. Her crime-adjacent existence tells her he’s not her responsibility but still she wants to complete her mission and deliver him somewhere safe much as she was rescued as a child by someone who might have felt much the same but chose to take her in anyway. With its neon lighting and retro score, Special Delivery harks back to an age of classic car chase thrillers with a stand-out performance from Parasite’s Park So-dam as a tough as nails getaway driver with nerves of steel fighting for humanity in an increasingly inhumane world. 


Special Delivery screened as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Perhaps Love (장르만 로맨스, Cho Eun-ji, 2021)

A blocked writer finds himself growing as a person after mentoring a young protégé but is also forced to meditate on his own romantic cowardice and tendency to treat others badly because of his inner insecurity in the directorial debut from actress Cho Eun-ji, Perhaps Love (장르만 로맨스, Jangleuman Lomaenseu). Caught in a complicated web of romantic intrigue between himself, his ex-wife, current wife, publisher, son, the woman across the road, and the young protégé, the writer is forced to reflect on the varying natures of love which may sometimes be misdirected or unreciprocated but no less real or important. 

Hyun’s (Ryu Seung-ryong) problem is that he had a big hit and became a literary phenomenon while relatively young but hasn’t written anything of note in the last seven years and is currently supporting himself as a professor of creative writing. His old university friend and publisher Soon-mo (Kim Hee-won) is becoming thoroughly fed up with increasing pressure from above to deliver the manuscript knowing that if he really can’t turn anything in Hyun risks being plunged into inescapable debt in having to repay his generous advance. After being pranked by a friend who invited him to his old teacher’s “funeral” which turned out to be a birthday party, Hyun goes to visit another old friend, Nam-jin (Oh Jeong-se), with whom as it transpires he had fallen out. Possibly out of jealously, Hyun had not only panned Nam-jin’s book in a review but thoughtlessly outed him by complaining that his writing was full of “cheap gay sentiment”, a comment which Nam-jin took to be essentially homophobic and on a personal level unnecessarily cruel. Hyun of course disputes this and doesn’t quite see why Nam-jin is so upset. 

Nam-jin’s short-term boyfriend Yu Jin (Mu Jin-sung) has point when he tells Hyun that the reason he can’t write is because he’s too afraid of losing what he has, unprepared to risk vulnerability in the service of his art. Then again, all Hyun really has is the faded glory of his former success, his present life is a mess. His second wife (Ryu Hyun-kyung) has been living in Canada with their daughter, while he ends up ruining his relationship with his angst-ridden teenage son Sung-kyung (Sung Yoo-bin) when he’s caught in the middle of a drunken fumble with feisty ex-wife Mi-ae (Oh Na-ra) who has secretly been dating Soon-mo. Sung-kyung meanwhile is in the middle of his first breakup after being dumped by his high school girlfriend who is carrying someone else’s child. Disillusioned by his adulterous parents he develops a not entirely appropriate relationship with an eccentric actress (Lee Yoo-young) who lives across the road. Meanwhile, Yu Jin suddenly reappears in Hyun’s life and reveals he’s been in love with him for years. 

All of these loves are in someway incomplete, hesitant or uncertain each of the lovers lacking the confidence to claim the word. A terrible holiday forces Mi-ae and Soon-mo to realise that they’ve been keeping their romance secret less because of the potential awkwardness in their shared history with Hyun than because they themselves are romantically insecure. Sung-kyung thinks he’s in love with the older lady from across the road and completely misses all of her attempts to avoid his romantic overtures, while she is perhaps just lonely and unfulfilled in both her marriage and her career. Hyun meanwhile is confronted with his own romantic cowardice in cheating on both of his wives, continually self-sabotaging in his insecure inability to commit. Having ruined his friendship with Nam-jin he threatens to do the same to a younger female writer joining the university who has eclipsed him in literary success in having been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. 

It’s the arrival Yu Jin that shakes him up, seeing something in the young writer that reawakens his creative spirit as he offers to become a mentor co-authoring a novel with him, but it also disturbs Hyun in confronting him with his latent homophobia and later his complicated feelings for the young man which might extend to a kind of love he cannot quite put a name to. Where Hyun is too afraid to risk losing the comfortable life he currently has, Yu Jin has no such worries because as he later says he’s used to getting hurt and having to get over it. As gay man in a conservative society he’s familiar with a constant sense of casual rejection, a fellow student in Hyun’s writing class shouting out “the gay guy” in mocking tones when Hyun asks who’s missing during roll call while the pair are later the subject of a media frenzy when Nam-jin goes to the press accusing them of being lovers. Yet Yu Jin is willing to state his feelings plainly with no expectation that they will be reciprocated leaving Hyun floundering as to the proper way to react.

While there may be some latent conflict in Hyun, what he comes to realise is that love is more complicated than he thought and what he feels for Yu Jin may be a kind of it comprising the paternal, fraternal, that of a mentor for a pupil, and that simply for another human being. In an interview promoting the book they’ve written together, Hyun explains that he wanted to explore how people can change and grow with relationships having overcome his latent homophobia in advancing that no one should be judged for who they love while otherwise able to appreciate Yu Jin’s talent without jealousy or resentment having regained his own desire to write. Through their various experiences each of the lovers is confronted with a romantic reality accepting who it is they love or don’t while teenager Seung-kyung experiences his first real heartbreak in realising the extent to which he’d misinterpreted his relationship with the quirky neighbour. Always forgiving of its feckless hero’s flaws, Cho’s warm and empathetic dramedy is indeed about how people can grow and change through their interactions with others finding new equilibrium with themselves if not, perhaps, love. 


Perhaps Love screened as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English sutbtitles)

Tomb of the River (강릉, Yoon Young-bin, 2021)

“Why did you turn this place into hell?” a reformed gangster asks his defeated enemy only to be told that nobody made the world this way, it is just is. In any case, Yoon Young-bin’s purgatorial gangster epic Tomb of the River (강릉, Gangneung) finds itself in a world of conflicting moral values in which organised crime has become increasingly legitimised conducted by men in sharp suits sitting in elegant surroundings but no less thuggish, violent, and immoral than it ever was. 

The two opposing forces are hippyish middle-aged enforcer Gil-suk (Yu Oh-seong) whose boss has adopted an anti-violence philosophy, and the psychotic Min-suk (Jang Hyuk) whom we first meet as the only survivor of a smuggling boat massacre hiding in the hold eating the dead bodies of his comrades whom he may or may not have killed himself. The battle ground is a new casino resort in the previously peaceful rural backwater of Gangneung shortly to host the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics. Gil-suk’s ageing boss decides to hand him the reins of the business but he objects out of old-fashioned gangster etiquette because the complex is technically located in an area handled by his colleague Chung-sub (Lee Hyun-kyun) who is currently in the boss’ bad books after a group of young people were found passed out having taken drugs in one of the karaoke rooms he manages. 

Gil-suk is perhaps a representative of disingenuous contemporary corporatised gangsters who still operate like thugs but do so with a veneer of elegance, his now elderly boss having achieved a state of zen in giving him small pieces of wisdom such as “don’t fight. If you fight you suffer whether you win or lose”. Gil-suk later echoes him when he tells his friend to leave Min-suk alone and that rather than fighting they should share a meal with him sometime instead acknowledging that his gang members’ lives seem to have been hard. But his compassion is as it turns out, misplaced, Min-suk is not the sort of man who can be befriended or softened with kindness for he is the personification of humanity’s baser instincts in unbridled selfishness and destructive desire. 

“I did it to survive” his underlings often justify themselves, believing they have no other option than to behave the way they do while Min-suk exploits the venality and misfortune of others as a kind of get out of jail free card promising to wipe their debts if they take the fall for his crimes. Sooner or later everyone betrays everyone else for reasons of greed or self-preservation, even Gil-suk eventually pulled towards the dark side while his policeman friend (Park Sung-geun) attempts to save him from himself. “What other choice did I have?”, he asks, but to conform to the dubious morality of the world around him. He criticises the police for a lack of action, but watches and does nothing as Min-suk carves up his entire squad of foot soldiers while patiently making his way towards him. 

The irony is that Gil-suk had been the good gangster, never wanting more than he needed and always happy to share. He is confused by the betrayal of his closest friends because he cannot understand their motivation. He had always thought of the resort as “ours” never considering that it could be “mine” while his friend tells him he should take it all because if he doesn’t someone else will. To prove his point Gil-suk tries to broker a peaceful solution by offering to share control with Min-suk in a process of appeasement, suggesting he take the club while he keeps the casino and they split the profits between them before eventually deciding to surrender it entirely in order to curry favour with an even shadier corporate gangster whose polite interest in the resort he’d previously rebuffed. 

Taking on spiritual dimensions in its gloomy backgrounds, battles fought under the light of a full moon, and the snow falling over the living and the dead in the melancholy final sequence Yoon’s hellish tale seems to take place in a gangster purgatory in which as Gil-suk finally announces romance really is dead, in its place only internecine violence and the intense desire to survive by any means possible mortal anxiety provoking only preemptive greed and cruelty. As Min-suk suggests “only death will end things” but everyone here is in a sense already dead only trapped in the eternal limbo of the gangster mentality. 


Tomb of the River streamed/screened as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Nothing Serious (연애 빠진 로맨스, Jeong Ga-young, 2021)

Through her first three features in which she also played the lead, Jeong Ga-young had established herself as a provocative indie voice casting herself as an often unsympathetic if transgressively frank heroine contending with the vagaries of the modern society. Nothing Serious (연애 빠진 로맨스, Yeonae Bbajin Romance), by contrast, marks her debut as a commercial film director and perhaps softens some of her harsher edges but nevertheless maintains her characteristic saltiness and often witty dialogue in what is otherwise closer to Nora Ephron than Hong Sang-soo. 

Though played by Jeon Jong-seo rather than the director herself, 29-year-old Ja-young is a classic Jeong heroine transgressively frank in terms of her sexuality and finding herself in something of a tailspin as she approaches her 30th birthday as a single young woman drowning in debt with neither career nor relationship success to boast of. Meanwhile across town nerdy magazine staff writer Woo-ri (Son Suk-ku) finds himself having to write almost all of the magazine himself in part he suspects as punishment for having helped a friend leave to start up their own online publication. His particular problem is that his boss has asked him to take over his friend’s sex column which is really not his thing especially as he’s in an on again off again non-relationship with colleague Yeon-hee (Lim Sun-woo) who has just informed him she’s getting engaged to her old boyfriend. 

Inevitably the pair end up meeting through dating app Love Bridge to begin with just for a no strings New Year one night stand only to inconveniently realise they quite like each. Even so, their personal issues continue to overshadow the relationship, those being Ja-young’s hurt and anxiety on hearing that an old boyfriend who treated her badly and broke her heart is getting married, and the fact Woori signed up to Love Bridge mainly to find inspiration for his column which becomes an unexpected hit with readers who prefer the slow-burn tease of their romance to the X-rated content of Woo-ri’s predecessor. 

While not really “dating” the couple continue to share their relationship woes with each other, Ja-young continually fed up with her attempts to meet “normal” men who don’t invite their mother on dates, turn out to be married, or are just plain odd. Her previous boyfriend branded her an insanely jealous “alcoholic nymphomaniac” while she simply tells it like it is as a sexually liberated young woman who refuses to feel ashamed for feeling desire but is also in her own way lonely and looking for companionship as perhaps is Woo-ri while conflicted in his betrayal of her even if he is careful not to use any identifying details in his column. 

Along with their romantic woes, the pair also share a sense of hopelessness about the future, Woo-ri disappointed in himself for his lack of success as a serious writer and Ja-young staking her hopes on a career in podcasting after being forced to leave a job at a radio station because of the awkwardness between herself and a colleague she’d previously dated. Interviewing her grandmother and a series of other women she fears were denied the right to become the protagonist of their own lives, always someone’s wife or mother looking after children or in-laws, she wonders if she’s managed it herself or if things are really as different now as she had thought them to be while she continues to struggle drowning in debt and loneliness with very little hope for the future. 

Jeong’s prognosis is, however, a little more hopeful than in her previous films Ja-young and Woo-ri each flawed but basically good falling in love despite themselves only to see their connection undermined by its superficial inauthenticity. If nowhere near as caustic, she retains her sense of playfulness, even throwing in a reference to her first film Bitch on the Beach not to mention the tiny animated heads emerging from the pair’s phones, through sophisticated dialogue instantly capturing a sense of the everyday life of the average 20-something in the contemporary society longing to overcome their sense of cynicism and believe in a genuine romantic connection. Strangely charming in its breeziness, Jeong’s commercial debut loses none of her wit but gains a little in warmth as these crazy kids learn to put their anxieties aside and give love a chance even if it turns out to be nothing serious after all. 


Nothing Serious screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley, San Diego April 23 as part of this year’s SDAFF Spring Showcase.

International trailer (English subtitles)

On the Line (보이스, Kim Gok & Kim Sun, 2021)

“Voice phishing is all about empathy” according to the sociopathic villain at the centre of Kim Gok & Kim Sun’s crime thriller On the Line (보이스, Voice), ironically hinting at his heartless greed leveraging as he admits people’s fear and hope against them and actively revelling in their misery. The Korean title, Voice, hints at the nebulous quality of the scam that in the end a reassuring voice is all people fall for but at the same time there is indeed a lot on the line not least for the embattled hero fighting back against the corruptions of contemporary capitalism.

Former policeman Seo-joon (Byun Yo-han) is currently working a job in construction after being forced out of the police when one of his investigations implicated the son of a prominent person. Finally starting to get back on his feet, he’s offered a big promotion by his supportive boss and is about to buy a house with his wife Miyeon (Won Jin-A) but then everything starts to go wrong. A potential accident threatens Seo-joon’s new sense of success while unbeknownst to him, Miyeon is currently on the phone with a man claiming to be a lawyer friend of his who tells her that he’s been arrested because of a fatality on site but if she sends the lawyer money for a “settlement” Seo-joon will be released with no further consequences. Unable to get in touch with her husband and fooled by number spoofing when she tries to call the site, Miyeon takes out the money intended to pay the deposit on the house and hands it over only realising her mistake when the scammers turn off the jammers they’d hidden at the construction site and Seo-joon rings her back to find out what’s wrong. So shocked is she that gets hit by a car and is in hospital in a coma when Seo-joon learns that his boss got scammed too and has taken his own life in shame in having lost so much money meant for his employees. 

As the open intertitles relate, voice phishing telephone fraud is a rising problem which aside from landing its victims in inescapable debt can ruin lives and relationships not to mention cause intense feelings of humiliation which lead those affected to consider harming themselves. Using vast data sets often fraudulently obtained, the scammers are able to perfectly profile their victims who as the villainous Gwak (Kim Mu-yeol) points out are already living in the “hell” of the contemporary society amid employment and financial crises that leave them feeling desperate enough for help that they don’t ask too many questions of a friendly voice on the phone. The workers at the vast call centre in China operated by gangster Cheon (Park Myung-hoon) are all Korean and many of them pressed by debts some of them even scam victims themselves so damaged by the internecine assault of contemporary capitalism as to have given in and agreed to ruin others just as they have already been ruined.

Seo-joon’s primary goal is to get his money back with a little revenge on the side as he takes the police to task and then leads them by the nose to the gang’s base in China, all that time in construction standing him in good stead as he climbs through lift shafts and ventilation ducts trying to expose the scammers and bring them to justice. The police force is first seen to be hamstrung by the high-tech nature of the case while their hands are tied because the gang is operating out of a foreign sovereign nation but are then kicked into gear by super cop Seo-joon who ironically can act with less restraint for no longer being an official law enforcement officer. 

Even so, it becomes clear this kind of crime isn’t going away even if this particular gang is taken down because the most valuable commodity in the world of today is personal data and there’s more and more of that available with every passing second. There is indeed a lot on the line not least the nature of the contemporary society dragged ever further into a spiralling race to the bottom, the effects of an exploitative social system from the abuse of migrant workers to the anxiety of high unemployment rates and poor working conditions simply more tools to be manipulated by scammers promising a helping hand with a reassuring voice on the phone telling you they have the solution to all your problems but this too involves a small fee, just a tiny investment in your future you’d be foolish not to make. A timely condemnation of the amoral venality of contemporary capitalism, Kim & Kim’s steely thriller sends its hero on a quest for justice both personal and societal while pursuing the duplicitous voices all the way to the end of the line. 


On the Line screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley, San Diego April 22 & 25 as part of this year’s SDAFF Spring Showcase.

International trailer (English subtitles)

In the Name of the Son (아들의 이름으로, Lee Jung-gook, 2021)

Partway through Lee Jung-gook’s raw exploration of the radiating effects of historical trauma In the Name of the Son (아들의 이름으로, Adeurui ireumeuro), the conflicted hero quotes a line from In Search of Lost Time which his son had recommended to him, “pain is only healed by thoroughly experiencing it”. The quote in itself reflects the hero’s wounded state in having failed to reckon with the sins of the past, a failing which has cost him dearly on a personal level, while simultaneously hinting at a national trauma which has never been fully addressed by the contemporary society. 

When we first meet ageing designated driver Chae-gun (Ahn Sung-ki) he’s preparing to hang himself in a forest before noticing a stray parakeet, presumably an escaped family pet, chirping nearby in desperation. Taking pity on the bird knowing it cannot survive on its own he gives up on his plans and takes it home. We can see that Chae-gun is a compassionate man, softly spoken, perhaps a little shy and distant yet caring deeply for those around him such as the ladies from Gwangju who run a cafe where he is a regular, while he’s frequently seen making phone calls to his son in America. Yet as we later discover he is also a man of violence with an old-fashioned, authoritarian mindset, ominously sliding off his belt to beat up a gang of kids who tried to dine and dash before making them come back to apologise and pay their bill and later doing the same to bullying classmates of the cafe owner’s son, Min-woo (Kim Hee-chan). 

He does these things less out of an old man’s disapproval of the younger generation’s lack of moral fibre than a genuine desire to help and most particularly the ladies at the cafe, but simultaneously takes Min-woo to task for a lack of manliness berating him in front of his bullies for not standing up for himself. These flashes of violence hark back to the hyper-masculine patriarchal attitudes that defined the years of dictatorship while also hinting at the buried self Chae-gun struggles to accept which so contrasts with his innate kindness and sense of justice. He too is angry and confused that those who ordered acts of atrocity such as the 1980 Gwangju Massacre have never been brought to justice and are living comfortable lives often still ensconced in country’s ruling elite such as former general Chairman Park whom he often drives home from a local Japanese restaurant to his mansion in a traditional village in the middle of Seoul. 

As we discover, Chae-gun has his own reasons for being preoccupied with Gwangju in particular, yet it’s the failure to reckon with the buried past that he fears erodes future possibility. In a metaphor that in truth is a little overworked, one of the new assistants at the cafe, also from Gwangju, is mute, literally without a voice until the buried truths of the massacre are symbolically unearthed allowing her to speak. Meanwhile, many of Chae-gun’s generation are succumbing to dementia, an elderly man constantly escaping from his nursing home to wander a local park looking for his teenage son who went missing during the uprising and was never seen again. Chairman Park remains unrepentant, blaming everything then and now on “commies” while explaining to Chae-gun that they were “patriots” not “murderers” bravely defending the Korean state and in any case God forgives all so they’ve no need to blame themselves. 

Park may feel no remorse but the unresolved trauma of Gwangju continues to echo not only through Chae-gun’s wounded soul but through society, a heated debate breaking out between a group young people of critical of the authoritarian past and a collection of older conservative nationalists who object to their criticism of President Park Chung-hee arguing that he rebuilt the economy and gave them the comfortable lives they live today. Yet what Chae-gun feels he owes to his son and implicitly to the younger generation is an honest reckoning with the past and his part in it while those who live with no remorse should not be allowed to prosper, guilt-free, as victims continue to suffer. What he’d say to those who thought that they bore no responsibility is that the greatest sin of all may have been in blindly following orders. Only by fully experiencing the pain of the national trauma can society hope to heal itself from the weeping wounds of the unresolved past.


In the Name of the Son streamed as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

My Big Mama’s Crazy Ride (큰엄마의 미친봉고, Paek Seung-hwan, 2021)

A veteran matriarch suddenly decides she’s had enough in Paek Seung-hwan’s indie comedy, My Big Mama’s Crazy Ride (큰엄마의 미친봉고, Keuneommaui michinbonggo). Taking aim not only at the deeply ingrained and hopelessly outdated patriarchal social codes of contemporary society, Paek also asks a series of questions about the concept of family with the wives and daughters-in-law repeatedly finding themselves described as “outsiders” yet expected to sacrifice their hopes and aspirations in dedicating themselves entirely to the “family” which more often than not treats them as unremunerated housekeepers. 

It’s easy enough to see why “Big Mama” Yeong-hui (Jung Young-joo) is fed up as her husband Han-il (Yu Seong-ju) barks orders from upstairs while she tries to sort out the food for the ancestral rites knowing the men are up there lounging around drinking just expecting everything to be done for them without needing to lift a finger to help. This year she’s choosing chaos, rounding up all of the other women in the family including Eun-seo (Kim Ga-eun) her nephew’s fiancée meeting the family for the first time and packing them into her minivan leaving the men to fend for themselves.  

This is a problem for them for several reasons the biggest being that it soon becomes clear they have no idea how to do anything for themselves, drill sergeant Han-il ordering his brother and sons to finish all the food prep within the hour while they search for YouTube videos to teach them basic cooking. They can barely even figure out how to make themselves some instant noodles while they wait, becoming progressively drunker to avoid facing the reality of their situation or accept that perhaps their treatment of their wives has been unfair or that they’ve taken all of their labour for granted. Old-fashioned authoritarian Han-il even approves of Yeong-hui’s flight in the beginning in the belief that she’s taken the other women out to teach them some discipline despite her having brought up the subject of divorce because of his own treatment of her. He doesn’t see his behaviour as essentially abusive because of the patriarchal social codes in which he operates believing this is simply the way that husbands are supposed to boss their wives. His brother and sons are little different though subordinate to him as head of the family, oldest song Hwang-sang (Song Dong-hwan) eventually kicking back but only after realising his mother may really leave profoundly shaking his foundations even as a grown man with a son of his own. 

Then again, aside from a potential divorce Yeong-hui is otherwise described as an “outsider” having married into the family most particularly when it comes to light that Han-il has sold some ancestral land and intended to keep the money for himself rather than share it amongst the other family members. When he sends the proceeds to Yeong-hui in a last ditch effort to get her to come home, it causes division on both sides with his brother Han-san (Yoo Byung-hoon) in particular objecting to the money leaving the family as Yeong-hui is technically a Lee and not a Yu while the women also think she should share the money with them rather than keep it for herself little knowing she was already planning to do so. Having serious doubts about marrying into this crazy family, Eun-seo, who is in any case Christian, isn’t sure why she was attending their ancestral rites anyway but if none of these women are actually “family” why is it they’re the ones expected to prepare the rites for the Yu ancestors? Yeong-hui sees the money in part as compensation for the unpaid labour she’s performed over the last 40 years while being shouted at and ordered around by her overbearing authoritarian husband. 

Thanks to YouTuber niece Hyo-jeong (Ha Jung-min) and sleazy tabloid journalist nephew Jae-sang (Cho Dal-hwan) the women’s flight ends up going viral and even making the evening news where they find mass support from other women in similar situations along with unexpected male solidarity though a big thumbs up from a series of male policemen seems a little unlikely given the threat they present to the entrenched social order in rebelling against the same kind of patriarchal male authority the police force itself represents. In any case, it becomes clear that Yeong-hui has simply chosen to celebrate her own ancestral rights in paying tribute to another woman whose name she only belatedly found out, the other women also revealing that they don’t even quite know each other’s given names because they’re so used to addressing each other only as daughter/sister-in-law or else as X’s mum to the extent that they’ve been robbed of an individual identity. Nevertheless through their transgressive road trip the women rediscover a sense of female solidarity while the men are forced to reckon with the way they treat their wives realising that if they want to keep their family together they’ll have to move with the times. 


My Big Mama’s Crazy Ride streamed as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)