Kim Jong-boon of Wangshimni (왕십리 김종분, Kim Jin-yeol, 2021)

“I’m lucky” elderly market vendor Kim Jong-boon finally explains to director Kim Jin-yeol, having endured a long life filled with hardship and sadness but having learned to see the best in it in gaining experiences others might not have the opportunity to and thankful that her circumstances while certainly not luxurious are comfortable enough and her surviving children and their spouses are healthy and happy. Titled simply Kim Jong-boon of Wangshimni (왕십리 김종분, Wangshimni Kim Jong-boon), Kim’s documentary is testimony to the extraordinary stories of ordinary people and the heartwarming resilience of those who’ve known tragedy but have resolved to remain honest and kind to all those around them. 

Born in 1939 and now in her 80s, Jong-boon is still a regular fixture running a small night stall in the lower-class district of Wangshimni in Seoul where she has lived for the last 50 years. Wind and snow, she runs her business enjoying a gentle camaraderie with a group of fellow market sellers of around the same age with whom she often goes for dinner or plays cards in her small apartment where they also come together to make kimchi. Jong-boon isn’t forced to work into her 80s because of financial penury, but because she’s become a kind of symbol with people glad and reassured to see her stall where it always is. She lends money or extends a tab to those who need it whether she thinks they’ll pay her back or not. In the closing scenes a man arrives to return some money she’d lent him 30 years previously, he nervously arriving laden with pumpkins and quinces uncertain if she’d be alive but feeling relieved to finally unburden himself of this spiritual and literal debt. 

Part of this is as we later discover an extension of her private tragedy in having lost her daughter, the middle of three children, during the democracy protests of the early ‘90s. Though the climactic events of 1987 had led to the introduction of a democratic system, the left-wing, pro-democracy vote had been spilt by infighting which allowed the protege of former dictator Chun Doo-hwan, Roh Tae-woo, to become the first elected leader of a “democratic” Korea leading to an intensification of political protests led by the student movement. In university at the time, Jong-boon’s daughter Gwi-jung became involved in democratic and labour activism and was killed during a protest in which police kettled protestors with no provided exit route (as had previously been the norm) leading to a crush in which Gwi-jung was suffocated. Despite the depths of her grief, Jong-boon became a prominent figure in the movement in her daughter’s memory campaigning for justice and recognition along with others who had lost family members to police violence during the protest. Though over 30 years have now passed since Gwi-jung’s death, as many as 300 mourners still come to her annual memorial service which Jong-boon and her family cater themselves. 

Though she and her husband had actually voted for Roh, Jong-boon continues to support the causes her daughter had given her life fighting for in the hope of a better world while discovering a new community not only with the other bereaved relatives but in the students themselves many of whom continue to look in on Jong-boon and accompany her as she travels to universities around the country to give talks in Gwi-jung’s memory. Despite her grief and sorrow, we later see her collapsing in tears on visiting Gwi-jung’s grave in a small area dedicated to those who died in the protests, she’s also thankful for the new opportunities Gwi-jung has given her in travelling all around the country and meeting new people. One of the reasons she continues to run her stall is for the former student protesters, so they’ll always know where to find Kim Jong-boon of Wangshimni. Having endured crushing poverty in her youth, working several jobs from construction to domestic service and then running her stall at night, Jong-boon can declare herself happy to have lived so much experiencing things others might never get the chance to even if they’re things no-one really wants to experience like getting tricked out of a house or having all your money stolen by a credit union. A portrait of a truly extraordinary woman living an ostensibly very ordinary life, Kim’s quietly moving documentary is testament both to the hidden stories of those all around us and to the enduring resilience of a mother’s love.


Kim Jong-boon of Wangshimni screened as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hostage: Missing Celebrity (인질, Pil Gam-seong, 2021)

“This is real, birdbrain”. If you’re a famous actor, it might take a while to dawn on you that you’re in real trouble rather than the subject of an admittedly dark candid camera skit or variety show stunt. Real life and the movies begin to blur for top Korean actor Hwang Jung-min playing a fictionalised version of himself when he’s kidnapped by a gang of ruthless petty criminals in Pil Gam-seong’s meta take on Chinese thriller Saving Mr Wu, Hostage: Missing Celebrity (인질, Injil). 

Indeed the film opens with a montage of Hwang’s career to date including a degree of self-deprecation in which he describes himself as “just a petty actor” reminding the journalist interviewing him that film is a collaborative medium of which he is only a part. This version of himself that we see is modest and wholesome, going home early after an afterparty while his wife and son are away planning to relax alone. He seems to live a very lowkey life living in a fairly ordinary suburban house without domestic help or other signs of obvious wealth aside perhaps from an expensive car. Hwang is also on fairly friendly terms with the clerk at the local convenience store which he evidently visits frequently just like any other ordinary person rather than sending an underling to fetch him things or walking around with a massive entourage to remind people that he’s a movie star. Even while trying to escape his kidnappers he takes his shoes off before entering an old man’s home to use his landline telephone. 

Yet one can’t escape the fact that he is fantastically rich and perhaps out of touch with “real” life, his kidnappers targeting him mainly on a whim born of chance coincidence but also in resentment for everything he represents. The leader of the gang, Choi Ki-wan (Kim Jae-beom), is a crazed psychopath whose primary motivations are most likely sadistic rather than purely financial even if his targets are those with fancy cars but those of his underlings are perhaps more prosaic. When one of the gang members is captured, it emerges that he had massive debts to a casino loanshark while the most sympathetic of the kidnappers appears to have learning difficulties and later explains that he’s only doing this to pay for medical treatment to remove a prominent facial birthmark and scarring so he could live a more normal life. Because of his naivety he remains strangely loyal to Ki-wan believing that he’s looking after him while refusing any responsibility for his crimes. The gang’s only female member (Lee Ho-jung), by contrast, seems to be a North Korean refugee in a romantic relationship with Ki-wan’s less psychotic but no less cruel partner Dong-hoon (Ryu Kyung-soo) who just wants the money. 

Having literally played through scenarios just like these in his films, Hwang Jung-min the actor has perhaps gained a degree of experience that allows him to process his situation with a surprising degree of rationality quickly realising that as the kidnappers have made no attempt to hide their identities they most likely plan to kill him, and a young woman, So-yeon (Lee Yoo-mi), abducted alongside a wealthy cafe owner they killed when he couldn’t come up with the cash fast enough, after they’ve got the ransom payments. It isn’t that Hwang’s stingy, it’s that he knows there’s no point giving them the money but his only chance for survival lies in making them think he might. Even so, he gets to literally play the hero engaging in a battle of wits with the kidnappers before attempting to make a dashing escape while the on the outside the a dogged policewoman and her partner do their best to track them down despite the unhelpful interventions of their more conservative boss. 

Ki-wan might well have a point in admitting he’s overreached by going for such a high profile target. The police probably wouldn’t be investigating so heavily if the victim weren’t a famous movie star whose face is splashed across the papers. After all, they hadn’t done much for So-yeon whose sister had had to go to social media to raise awareness about her kidnapping fearing the police weren’t doing enough to help. Bearing out the underlying economic anxiety, So-yeon had only got the cafe job a few days previously after 37 failed interviews. Hwang’s response that he failed a hundred auditions before getting a break, people laughing at his acting dreams because he was a guy with curly hair and red skin who spoke with a strong southern accent, is intended to be reassuring in implying that even if it takes time you get there in the end but is also a little insensitive in the circumstances in downplaying So-yeon’s struggles in the contemporary economy having gone from elation in finally finding employment to being locked in a shed by a gang of psychos because of her boss’ personal greed which seems like quite the metaphor for the inequalities of the modern society. In any case, Pil crafts an intense kidnap thriller given an additional layer of absurdity in its meta dimensions but ends on a note of poignancy which suggests that Hwang himself is also and perhaps always will be hostage to his own image. 


Hostage: Missing Celebrity screened as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Rainbow Trout (송어, Park Chong-won, 1999)

The hypocrisies of contemporary civility pass under the microscope in Park Chong-won’s creepingly intense drama, Rainbow Trout (송어, Song-o). As a collection of urbanites pile into a car and journey far into the mountains to rescue an old friend who’s dropped out and returned to the land as a fish farmer, they find themselves stepping into a world entirely contrary to their understanding but eventually expose themselves as petty, jealous, resentful and shockingly violent even in their disdain towards the “backwards” woodsmen they feel are harassing them.

The film both begins and ends with a tollbooth as the car carrying the urbanites first leaves and then returns to the “safety” of Seoul. Ominous signs pepper their journey, one of the men wondering if the pits on a mirror at a dangerous curve are bullet holes while his friend insists they’re more like pockmarks from small rocks swept up in a storm. Swept up in a storm might be one way to describe what later happens to the city dwellers, but it’s fair enough to say that they are fairly puffed up on the superiority of their urban civility over the earthy lives of the rural hunters. None of them can understand why their friend has made the choice to leave Seoul behind and live a primitive existence in a cabin in the woods. 

Chang (Hwang In-sung) even remarks that his fish sometimes commit suicide, Min (Yu In-chon) suggesting that being cooped up in a small space makes them feel anxious. The urbanites are not in a small space, they’re in the wide open countryside, but to them it is claustrophobic in its unfamiliarity. Though the trip starts off well enough as they reminisce with Chang and enjoy a night round the camp fire, the two men, bank clerk Min and his bbq restaurant owner friend Byung (Kim Se-dong), soon fall foul of a local hunter who doesn’t like where they’ve parked their car or possibly that they’ve parked it at all. Byung is forever performing his masculinity, making a show of chopping wood and lifting weights outside the cabin, but like Min otherwise unable to challenge the hunters and entering a mini vendetta of pettiness with them that is destined to end badly. Min meanwhile is preoccupied in knowing that his wife, Jun-hwa (Kang Soo-yeon), is still in love with Chang while Chang’s decision to leave the city seems in part to have been provoked by their marriage. Byung’s wife, on the other hand, ironically submits to her carnal desires after being caught stealing a rabbit from a trap by a lecherous hunter who later shows up with a gift of yet more meat which seems somehow like even more of a betrayal given that her husband runs a barbecue meat restaurant but is obviously not quite red-blooded enough for her. 

It’s the presence of Jun-hwa’s younger sister Se-hwa (Lee Eun-ju), however, that provokes further tensions in the group not least as she develops a fondness for Chang while local dog breeder Tae-joo (Kim In-kwon) develops a fascination for her. Tae-joo peeps on Se-hwa in the outhouse and creepily lurks around the cabin though he is perhaps just awkward if a little strange more than actively dangerous. Nevertheless he becomes the target for the husbands’ frustrated masculinity as they decide to exorcise some of their frustration on a mountain boy who is ill-equipped to resist them, unleashing uncivilised violence and barbarity that would bring them to the point of homicide. They assume Chang is like them, that he will side with the city, but Chang is now a mountain man and has shades of barbarity the husbands’ little suspect. As the crisis intensifies, the urbanites shift the blame and turn on each other, uncomfortably blaming Se-hwa as if it were her fault that the boy took a liking to her or that the men took it in the direction that they did. Se-hwa also finds herself a victim of male violence from an unexpected source but is again blamed for it less for her naivety than the simple fact of her existence as a young woman in this incredibly primal environment. 

The urbanites thought the hunters to be savage, but in reality were savage themselves only to convince themselves that they had done nothing wrong pleading with Chang to cover up their violence because Tae-joo is only a mountain boy while they are civilised people from the cities who could not have acted in anything other than a civilised way. They are in a sense like the rainbow trout, raised within a narrow frame and little understanding how to live outside of it, driven out of their minds by the removal of the guardrails of civility. On returning to the city they may convince themselves that the dark shadows within have disappeared but the fragility of their sophistication has already been exposed rendering them at least less honest than the huntsmen who made no pretence of their carnality. 


Rainbow Trout screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

The Road to the Racetrack (경마장 가는 길, Jang Sun-woo, 1991)

A pompous scholar returning home after five years living abroad in France struggles to adapt himself to a changed Korea in Jang Sun-woo’s literary drama, Road to the Racetrack (경마장 가는 길, Gyeongmajang Ganeun Kil). Hoping to rekindle an affair with a fellow student with whom he lived for three and a half years, the man known only as R (Moon Sung-Keun) finds himself frustrated by the same patriarchal norms which he manipulates in an attempt to dominate and control his former lover while little realising that it is she who truly has the upper hand as he pathetically follows and entreats while begging her to sleep with him. 

J (강수연), as the woman is known, shows little desire to pick up where they left off and roundly refuses to sleep with R who can speak of little else. She tells him that things are different in Korea and hints that the cause of her reluctance is that R is still married and in fact has two children. While J had (seemingly) been content to live with R as his “wife” in France, in Korea she feels a need to be married herself and obviously cannot marry R as his wife will not divorce him. Old-fashioned in her thinking, R’s wife (Kim Bo-yeon) assumes the cause of the discord in their marriage is that she was not a virgin when they married though it seems clear that since obtaining his PhD in France, R has begun to look down on his humble family and no longer wishes to associate with his uneducated spouse. An ironic soap opera scene precedes one of their conversations in which a husband cooly tells his wife that he will do as he pleases and has no intention of granting her a divorce fully highlighting R’s hypocrisy though his own wife is depicted more or less like the one on screen eventually screaming at him and refusing his demands to end their marriage. 

Though R had told his wife that the fact she had lovers before they married is not a factor in his desire for a legal separation, discovering that J has met someone else and is thinking of marrying him sends R into a tailspin of jealously. Badgering J into sex, he is ultimately unable to perform and complains that the “shadow” of the other man is putting him off his stride. He demands that she makes a choice and encourages her to tell her new man all about their time in France whereupon he might like R abruptly dump her for being an impure woman. Meanwhile, R complains that she’s treating him “like a rapist”, which is ironic because that is exactly how he is behaving. She cries and refuses, asking him if they “really have to” and still he pushes on violently pulling at her clothes until she gives in. He can’t seem to understand why it’s “different in Korea” when they lived together for three years in France, as if a single instance of consent has eternal permanence. 

J always returns to him if for unclear reasons in the increasing toxicity of their relationship. She addresses him as “doctor”, while he repeatedly insults her and calls her stupid, mocks her middle-class background in an attempt to deflect the class difference between them, implies she’s useless without him and that all her achievements are really his own. He claims to have written her PhD thesis for her, and is irritated that she’s had some success since returning to Korea having completed her studies a year before him. He reads an essay she’s written and while he may have a point about an ambiguous turn of phrase, further insults her by claiming that the only good bits are the bits she ripped from an old essay of his, but is clearly annoyed that she’s managed to get an essay published after showing it to another man who further edited it for her. Suddenly he explodes in rage and claims he feels exploited, insisting that J pay him monetary compensation for his emotional pain. 

The relationship only begins to work again once it becomes transactional perhaps hinting at a societal change in an increasingly capitalistic society. As J is unable to pay the sum he asked for, R insists she work off the amount by becoming his personal prostitute. Though effectively constrained by his wife’s refusal to divorce him, he thinks that he controls J and is reasserting his patriarchal authority. But then he is clearly the one in thrall to J following her around and refusing to let her go while her decision to continue meeting with him seems like it may partly be born of fear and a sense of inadequacy if also a delight in wielding her power. His contribution to J’s PhD leaves her feeling underconfident and a fraud, fearing he’s right and she’s not much of a scholar just a girl with rich parents who could send her France to study. But she’s also tied to him in service to outdated patriarchal social codes that were not in play in France in which he is both husband and not. When he strikes her, she immediately apologises.

The contrast between the two cultures is clear on R’s arrival as he wonders at the thousands of neon crosses that now colour the nighttime skyline of Seoul, remarking that’s as if he’d found himself in a European war cemetery. Both he and J seem to be adrift in a new society, aimless and with no particular place to go. Hoping to rekindle their love, R tries to force J to go abroad again but she refuses and declines to give an explanation. Incredibly frank in its sexual language, the file presents an otherwise bleak view of the toxic relationship between the former lovers who inhabit a series of seedy motels and are seemingly unable to escape the destructive cycle of their love while the pompous hero can only comment on his inability to orient himself in a changing city by recording the number of steps from each direction to the racetrack as if trying to reassure himself of the geographical integrity of the landscape of his memory.


The Road to the Racetrack screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

The Surrogate Woman (씨받이, Im Kwon-taek, 1986)

“They seem to live for honouring the dead” the bemused heroine of Im Kwon-taek’s Surrogate Woman (씨받이, Ssibaji) explains to her visiting mother of the noble society she has been unwittingly plunged into but still struggles to understand. A condemnation both of a society which continues to value sons over daughters and of the absurdity of ancestral rites along with the hierarchies of the feudal order, Kwon’s impassioned historical drama speaks directly to the contemporary era in which in many ways nothing has changed.

In any case, Ok-nyeo (Kang Soo-yeon) is fated to become a surrogate woman. As the woman who seems to be in charge in a small community ensconced in a valley which from a certain vantage point seems to resemble female genitalia explains, surrogate mothers who bear daughters are expected to raise them themselves but the children are considered undesirable for marriage and generally end up becoming surrogate mothers themselves. Ok-nyeo’s mother had not wanted such a fate for her daughter, but is in the end powerless to prevent it especially given the allure of the generous payment promised on the birth of a male child. Ok-nyeo thinks she can endure anything for the promise of a comfortable life afterwards but is simply too young and naive to understand the emotional consequences of her decision, that her child will be removed from her seconds after birth and handed to another woman to raise. 

The situation is not much better for the wife who is made to feel as if she has failed in not having conceived a child during her 12 years of marriage. Both she and the grandmother who is so insistent on ensuring the existence of a male heir now that her husband has died and their only son is childless, express anxiety about Ok-nyeo’s youth, as did the women in the village, fearing that at 17 she is not yet physically or emotionally mature enough to bear a healthy child. The man they sent to select her seems to have done so out of personal preference, explaining that of all the women he picked a virgin though this raises several practical issues given the nature of surrogacy. Even so there is something quite perverse in the fact that it is the grandmother, the wife of a noble family of Confucianist scholars, who is actively participating in this system that renders women little more than wandering wombs now that she has the only real power that she will ever experience in her life as a widow turned head of household. 

On the other hand, it’s clear that this isn’t an ideal arrangement for the man either. The husband, Sang-kyu, is reluctant. He thinks it’s morally wrong and against his Confucianist philosophy while he is also attached to his wife and has no desire to sleep with other women. Nevertheless, he becomes attached to Ok-nyeo to a degree that is regarded as inappropriate by his family members and advisors, sneaking out to sleep with her for reasons other than conceiving an heir. When Ok-nyeo becomes pregnant they send him away to a temple in an attempt to sever their emotional connection, though he immediately sleeps with her again on his return despite the fact that she is already pregnant. For this transgression, Ok-nyeo’s mother is beaten while Ok-nyeo herself had earlier been punished for seducing him though she is completely confined to a single room for the entirety of her stay at the house lest anyone find out the embarrassing secret that the family have hired a surrogate. 

While Ok-nyeo and Sang-kyu make love in the bushes, drunken men from the party he’d been attending have a dull conversation about the nature of ancestral rites which is in its own way transgressive as they ask themselves where these ancestral spirits actually are, trying to make sense of what the rituals are for and what they mean but emerging with only confusion for they are largely meaningless. They praise women for rescuing the ancestral tablets at the expense of their children and constantly incur vast expense sacrificing food for those who can no longer eat. As someone remarks, the dead dislike their world and long to stay in ours but the living hardly live at all and spend all their time in service of those who are no longer here. All of it, this vast system that traps women like Ok-nyeo along with men like Sang-kyu the Confucian scholar, stems from this desire to placate departed souls at the expense of those still breathing. 

Yet Ok-nyeo is almost like a ghost herself, an invisible presence locked up in a backroom concealed as a dirty secret. Her mother reminds her that Sang-kyu is an aristocrat and she is not, they do not really regard her as human and what she is is stabled like a horse brought for mating to be taken home once the foal is born. They snuck her in by night and will insist that she leaves in darkness mere hours after her son’s birth. Meanwhile, she will be tortured by her captors who burn her stomach and force her to drink strange potions in the name of having a son. Sang-kyu too is forced to drink deer blood to improve his manliness while Ok-nyeo is advised to stare at the moon to the point of dizziness. She perhaps falls for Sang-kyu because he is her only real human contact though it appears they never actually speak to each other, while he discovers a kind of liberation in the permission to dispense with the sublimation of his sexual desire normally demanded by his Confucianist teachings. 

But few of them acknowledge the cruelty with which Ok-nyeo and the surrogate women are treated, the pain and despair her mother had tried to warn her of. Ok-nyeo had said anything was worth the price of 10 fields, but soon cries out that she’d give them all up for her son unable to accept that the boy will never be hers for to be a surrogate woman is to be denied one’s own existence. Caught in the night, she can only stare back through the fog as the carriage departs forever separating her from her child and the man she had unwisely come to love. As the closing titles explain, returning to the funereal scenes with which the film had opened, Ok-nyeo has become a victim of a society that prizes sons over daughters as have so many women like her even centuries later in which enlightenment has brought little freedom for those oppressed by class and patriarchy.


The Surrogate Woman screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Trailer (no subtitles)

The Anchor (앵커, Jeong Ji-yeon, 2022)

A successful newsreader’s sense of reality begins to fracture when she ends up becoming part of the story in Jeong Ji-yeon’s twisty B-movie psychological thriller, The Anchor (앵커, Anchor). As much about mothers and maternal anxiety as it is about a patriarchal and conservative society, Jeong’s eerie journey through the psyche of a traumatised woman is also a quest for identity and a search for the self as the heroine rails against her role as a mere conduit for the thoughts and will of others. 

In her mid-30s, Sera (Chun Woo-hee) is a popular anchor helming the most important news report of the day. Yet she’s facing a challenge from a younger rival who is not a trained presenter but a respected reporter who can bring a degree of editorial authority to the desk which her polished delivery cannot. As one of her bosses puts it, it’s the way that things are going which Sera seems to know seeing as he also remarks that she’s been trying to gain experience as a reporter so that she can be a “real anchor”. As it stands, her job is mostly to look presentable and support the male lead reading out words other people have written presented to her by autocue. Her mother (Lee Hye-young) is always needling her, insisting that she can’t afford to let her guard down even for a moment if she wants to keep her spot while further fuelling her sense of futility in suggesting that even becoming a news anchor may not have been her decision in the first place so much as in service to her mother’s desire for vicarious success. 

When a strange woman, Mi-so (Park Se-hyeo), calls in to the station one day insisting on speaking with Sera directly it seems like the perfect opportunity to prove her credentials as an investigative reporter but her male colleague immediately shuts the conversation down writing off the woman’s claims that she’s being harassed by an unknown aggressor as a prank call from a crazed fan. Sera follows his lead and in any case has to read the news, but something about the woman’s story disturbed her so she decides to check out her address and is shocked to discover the woman’s daughter dead in the bath and the woman herself hanging in her closet with her phone still in her hand. Perhaps echoing her own fragile mental state, Sera is haunted by the image of the woman hanging but does not seem to feel particularly guilty or responsible for her death in not following up immediately in case she and her daughter could have been saved so much as determined to turn the case into her personal crusade to decrease the likelihood of them kicking her off the desk.

The desire to investigate the case herself is in part a desire to assert her own identity as distinct from that projected onto her by her overbearing mother and chauvinistic husband who insists that her mother is controlling her but in reality just wants to control her himself. Min (Cha Rae-hyung) keeps badgering her about starting family but seems oblivious to her wishes though the couple appear to have been separated for some time only keeping up appearances to avoid the possible fallout from the scandal of divorce. Becoming a mother is in a way to lose one’s own identity especially in a society such as a Korea’s in which women who bear children stop hearing their own name, addressed only as so and so’s mum rather in their own right. It may partly be this sense of erasure which drives the resentment which exists between mother and child along with a persistent social stigma against women raising children alone especially if born out of wedlock. The idea of a woman seeking fulfilment outside of the home is still to some taboo with a strong social pressure for women to abandon their own hopes and desires and devote themselves entirely to the role of “mother”. 

On trying to decide how to frame the case, the editorial board is torn between viewing Mi-so as a victim of unjust societal pressures and condemning her as an evil woman who murdered her daughter and then herself, the police having decided that there was no third party involved despite Mi-so’s claims of an intruder. Even with a more compassionate framing, the message is pity rather than a drive for social change in which women like Mi-so who appears to be incredibly young, little more than a child herself, could get the help they need. Sera becomes convinced that a creepy psychiatrist (Shin Ha-kyun) specialising in hypnotism is somehow responsible though he frames the mysterious intruder as a kind of phantom, a manifestation of buried trauma ratting the doors trying to get in or else a convenient “entity” that allows the hauntee to deny their responsibility or reality. In any case, Sera’s investigations take her to a dark place but eventually arrive in a kind of psychological wombscape in which she must finally kill the image of the mother in herself in order to escape her mother’s house in a symbolic vision of birthing a new self having reclaimed her individual identity. Elegantly lensed and filled with visions of refracting mirrors reflecting Sera’s identity crisis Jeong’s eerie psychodrama eventually allows its heroine to find her own way out of unresolved trauma if only ironically.


The Anchor screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Through My Midwinter (그 겨울, 나는, Oh Seong-ho, 2021)

The previously close relationship between a young couple hoping to win steady government jobs is gradually eroded by the strain of living in a hyper-capitalist society in Oh Seong-ho’s empathetic indie drama Through My Midwinter (그 겨울, 나는, Geu Gyeoul, Naneun). Another in a series of recent films exploring the pitfalls of living on the margins of an otherwise prosperous society, Oh’s debut feature explores the ways in which money, employment, security, and the changing natures of classism and patriarchy continue to disrupt human relationships in the simple desire to live in relative comfort or else just survive in one of the wealthiest cities in the world. 

Both approaching 30, Kyung-hak (Kwon Da-ham) and his girlfriend Hye-jin (Kwon So-hyun) are each studying for civil service exams he in the police force and she hoping for a job at the tourist board though it seems like even that wasn’t her first choice. Though they are each worried that their time is running out and they’ve left it too late to get settled, they appear to have a good relationship and are happy muddling through together. The crisis comes when Kyung-hak receives a call from a bank and discovers his mother has taken out a sizeable loan in his name on which she has defaulted and apparently disappeared leaving him liable for the entire amount plus interest. As a student it is not an expense he can afford, leaving him with no other option than to look for part-time work which disrupts his ability to study and further decreases the chances of his passing the upcoming police force exam.

Kyung-hak’s naivety is obvious when it’s clear he’s being ripped off by a friend who sells him a motorcycle for cheap claiming that he recently had it serviced though it sounds and looks like it’s seen better days. Accepting a job as a delivery driver he is resigned to taking the jobs no one else wants as the rookie new recruit, but is quickly frustrated by the way in which he is treated by his customers. The guard at one swanky building won’t let him use the lift in case the take away he’s carrying leaves a smell, forcing him to walk up 19 floors and possibly incur a customer complaint when the food is cold or damaged from its journey up the stairs. He is encouraged to be reckless in order to earn more money, putting his life and those of others in danger while his lack of sleep also makes him irritable and difficult to be around especially with Hye-jin who is experiencing problems of her own after deciding to give up on the government exam and take a job at a tech company. 

Mirroring the final scenes of Kyung-hak operating a machine at a factory, the work Hye-jin is originally assigned is on a production line assembling USB sticks which is most likely not the kind of job she envisioned for herself as someone with a post-graduate degree. A further strain is placed on their relationship by the obvious disapproval of Hye-jin’s mother who thinks Hye-jin is wasting her time with a man like Kyung-hak who is “just” a delivery driver at age 30 and most likely is never going to pass the police exam. “Who marries for love these days” she exclaims in exasperation, simultaneously admitting that it was different for her generation who could make a lot of money together while young and save for the future, and resenting her daughter for not being smart and looking to hook up with someone “on her level”. Hye-jin appears to resent this, but deep down perhaps feels something similar, drawn to her boss at her new job who seems nice enough and like her speaks Japanese having spent some time living in Kyoto. When her new coworkers ask about her boyfriend she’s evasive, finally conceding that he’s studying for the police exam but clearly uncomfortable when they ask if they’ll be getting married once he finally passes.

The cracks may have already been there, Hye-jin accusing Kyung-hak of only using her for sex rather than committing to the relationship, while he is increasingly sullen and uncommunicative unwilling to accept help financial or otherwise humiliated in having his masculinity undermined by not being able to support himself independently. Eventually he’s forced to compromise himself morally, behaving like the colleague he resented in picking up the better jobs first and then resorting to criminality in agreeing to drive sex workers around for the money to fix his bike after an accident. When he realises the girl he’s driving is probably underage he tries to do something about it, but she needs the money as much as he does and asks him what “responsibility” he’s going to take. Will he give her the money so she can go home tonight? Even if he does, what about tomorrow and all the nights after that? She’s just as powerless as he is and at even more risk.  

The film’s English-language tagline presumably referring to Hye-jin as “a woman who falls prey to money” may have its share of misogyny in suggesting that Hye-jin has somehow sold out in choosing to pursue a more middle-class life at the expense of her relationship with Kyung-hak, as if Kyung-hak has not also fallen prey to money in that it is the force which has destroyed his life and hopes for the future as it has for pretty much everyone. When he almost loses a hand at his factory job, his boss just asks if the machine’s alright not really caring that it’s Kyung-hak who might be broken by the inhumanity of rampant capitalism. It’s difficult to tell if the closing scenes are intended as hopeful or otherwise as Kyung-hak once again studies for the police exam hoping to escape his life of crushing poverty but also perhaps complying with the system that sent him there and may never grant him the right the better life he dreams of. Oftentimes bleak, depicting a society in which all relationships are transactional and friendship or romance luxuries most are unable to afford, Oh does at least suggest that this is only an extended midwinter and spring will eventually come for Kyung-hak even if he has to wait until he’s 49.


Through My Midwinter screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

Kingmaker (킹메이커, Byun Sung-hyun, 2022)

It’s the political paradox. You can’t do anything without getting elected but to get elected you might have to abandon whatever it was you wanted to do in the first place. Loosely based on the real life figures of Kim Dae-jung and his political strategist Eom Chang-rok, the heroes of Byun Sung-hyun’s Kingmaker (킹메이커) are obsessed with the question of whether the ends justify the means and if it’s possible to maintain integrity in politics when the game itself is crooked while the film suggests that in the end you will have to live with your choices and your compromises either way and if it’s a better world you want to build perhaps you can’t get there by cheating your way to paradise.

The son of a North Korean migrant, Seo Chang-dae (Lee Sun-kyun) is an embittered and frustrated pharmacist with a talent for spin. When his friend complains about a neighbour stealing his eggs from his chicken coop and denying all knowledge because he’s well connected and knows he can get away with it, Chang-dae’s advice is to plant one of his own chickens in the other guy’s coop and catch him red handed. Impressed by the impassioned political speechmaking of labour activist Kim Woon-bum (Sol Kyung-gu), he writes him a letter offering his services and then marches down to his office to convince him that he is the guy to break his losing streak and finally get him elected so they can “change the damned world”. 

The problem is that all of Chang-dae’s ideas are like the chicken scam, built on the manipulation of the truth, but you can’t deny that they work. He plays the other side, the increasingly authoritarian regime of Park Chung-hee, at their own game, getting some of their guys to dress up as the opposing party and then set about offending a bunch of farmers by being generally condescending and entitled. They stage fights and perform thuggish violence to leave the impression that Park’s guys are oppressive fascists while asking for the “gifts” the Park regime had given out to curry favour back to further infuriate potential voters. Later some of their own guys turn up with the same gifts to send the message that they’re making up for all Park’s mistakes. At one point, Chang-dae even suggests staging an attack on Woon-bum’s person to gain voter sympathy, an idea which is met with total disdain by Woon-bum and his team many of whom are at least conflicted with Chang-dae’s underhanded tactics. 

But then as he points out, if they want to create a better, freer Korea in which people can speak their minds without fear then they have to get elected first. It may be naive to assume that you can behave like this and then give it all up when finally in office, but Chang-dae at least is committed to the idea that the ends justify the means. Woon-bum meanwhile is worried that Chang-dae has lost sight of what the ends are and is solely focussed on winning at any cost. He has an opposing number in slimy intelligence agent Lee (Jo Woo-Jin) who serves Park in much the same way Chang-dae serves Woon-bum, but Chang-dae fatally misunderstands him, failing to appreciate that for Lee Park’s “revolution” is also a just cause for which he is fighting just as Chang-dae is fighting for freedom and democracy. In an uncomfortable touch, Lee seems to be coded as gay with his slightly effeminate manner and tendency towards intimate physical contact adding an additional layer to his gradual seduction of Chang-dae whose friendship with Woon-bum also has its homoerotoic qualities in its quiet intensity. 

The final dilemma lies in asking whether or not Woon-bum could have won the pivotal election of 1971, preventing Park from further altering the constitution to cement his dictatorship and eventually declaring himself president for life, if he had not parted ways with Chang-dae and tried to win more “honestly”. If so, would they have set Korea on a path towards the better world they envisaged or would they have proved little different, their integrity already compromised by everything they did to get there poisoning their vision for the future? The fact that history repeats itself, Woon-bum and his former rival Young-ho (Yoo Jae-myung) splitting the vote during the first “democratic” presidential election and allowing Chun Doo-hwan’s chosen successor to win, perhaps suggests the latter. In any case, it’s Chang-dae who has to live with his choices in having betrayed himself, as Woon-bum had feared too obsessed with winning to remember why he was playing in the first place. “All my ideas about justice were brought down by my own hand” he’s forced to admit, left only with self-loathing defeat in his supposed victory. Some things don’t change, there is intrigue in the court, but “putting ambition before integrity will get you nowhere” as Chang-dae learns to his cost. 


Kingmaker screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Hill of Secrets (비밀의 언덕, Lee Ji-eun, 2022)

A little girl contends with the boundaries of social responsibility, the nature of the contemporary family, classism, and a deep desire to be accepted while confronted by the ambivalent “honesty” of adulthood in Lee Ji-eun’s charming coming-of-age tale, The Hill of Secrets (비밀의 언덕, Bimileui Eondeok). Set in 1996 and filled with nostalgia for simpler times, Lee’s tale of the painful lessons of adolescence is in its own way timeless as the heroine begins to reprocess her complicated relationships with her family while simultaneously preparing to step away from it. 

12-year-old Myeung-eun’s (Moon Seung-ah) problem is that she’s a bit of a snob. Surrounded by children from wealthier families at her school, she feels ashamed of her background and looks down on her working class parents whom she brands “terrible people” for their every man for himself philosophy. When her brother asks their father what their family motto is for a homework assignment, he looks confused and answers that they don’t have one, but her mother jumps in with “give nothing, take nothing” having experienced a moment of outrage when Myeung-eun wanted to donate some money to a struggling family on the television. Her father had insisted that the family is only struggling because they’re lazy and aren’t trying hard enough, reminding her that their lives are hard too but they’ve made their way through buckling down and working without complaint. Myung-eun resents his explanation in part because she thinks he’s selfish and unkind, but also finds it hypocritical in that she sees her father as lazy and irresponsible while her mother is a workaholic who only cares about money and is indifferent to the suffering of those around her. 

To demonstrate that she’s different from her family, Myung-eun has developed conservative social values with a strong aspiration to achieve conventional middle class success as symbolised by the incredibly prim dress she’s forever trying to get her mother to buy for her while she opts for something a little less particular that Myung-eun won’t grow out of too quickly. So ashamed of her family is she, that Myung-eun lies at school telling her teacher that her dad’s an office worker and her mum a housewife while making constant excuses as to why they can’t come to parents’ days. Challenged by her rival, rich kid Kyung-soo, she even goes so far as to bamboozle an executive at a nearby company into an “interview” for her “homework” taking a series of fake photographs while getting a friend’s mother to pose as her own as they cheerfully bake cookies together at home. 

Wanting to knock Kyung-soo off her perch Myung-eun runs for class president and pulls off a shock victory but soon becomes drunk on her power and driven further into a narcissistic drive for approval from her harried teacher. She sets up a secret letterbox so her classmates can make anonymous suggestions, but is actually writing them all herself sometimes using her left hand, different coloured pens, and weird handwriting to cover up her crime. When she fears her brother is about to blow her cover, she gets into a physical fight with a friend accusing her of disrespecting the office of class president, and struggles to accept herself at her new status because of her internalised shame over her class background. 

Yet confronted with the incredible cynicism of transfer student Hye-jin who matter of factly answers the teacher’s question about workers making people happy that her mum makes loads of people happy because she runs a brothel which is why Hye-jin has had to change schools so often, Myung-eun begins to reconsider her notions of honesty and deceit. Hye-jin is tired of hiding her background and really doesn’t care what anyone thinks anymore, while Myung-eun is desperate to keep up an image of conventional respectability rather than admit that her parents sell salted fish at the market. As her teacher later tells her, honesty is not necessarily the best policy and sometimes you might have to lie to protect someone’s feelings but that’s really the opposite of what Myung-eun has been doing. Her lies are all about protecting herself and told out of fear of rejection ironically because she feels rejected by her family who appear disinterested in her successes and indifferent to her feelings. 

But then as her brother tried to remind her, her mother works hard to support their family while crafting a sketchbook of the ideal home she’ll probably never be able to afford. Myung-eun decamps to stay with her mother’s step father and brother who are much more stereotypically respectable than her parents, living in a nicer flat which belonged to her grandmother and outwardly religious. But then again her uncle has the same internalised shame as she does, a failed artist working part-time in construction but putting on a suit and carrying a briefcase when he picks her up from school so that people will assume he’s a middle-class office worker. Her grandfather berates her uncle for not having a proper job while he later reveals that Myung-eun’s rmother’s resentment stems from the fact she’s been supporting both families financially even though her mother has passed away and they aren’t related by blood. Myung-eun’s father complains about his domineering wife, but as his friend points out he’d be lost without her. 

An exercise in rigorous honesty confronts Myung-eun with her true feelings surrounding her family but also with the consequences of her actions as she realises an autobiographically-themed prize-winning essay may end up hurting their feelings while she herself would not necessarily come out of it looking very good. Through her friendship with Hye-jin and her sister, Myung-eun comes to a better understanding of emotional authenticity edging away from her snooty social group who as Hye-jin points out enforce hierarchy by taking turns leaving each other out and beginning to accept herself no longer so desperately in need of external approval having understood a little of the way she fits in to her family. A gentle, nostalgic coming-of-age tale, Lee’s charming debut feature is both a mild critique of deeply ingrained classism and an empathetic contemplation of what it is that “family” really means.


The Hill of Secrets screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Clip (English subtitles)

Coming to You (너에게 가는 길, Byun Gyu-ri, 2021)

South Korea is one of the least progressive Asian nations when it comes to the rights of the LGBTQ+ community who often face social prejudice and outright hostility from the religious right. A counter protestor at a Pride rally in Byun Gyu-ri’s documentary Coming to You (너에게 가는 길, Neoege Ganeun Gil) loudly screams in the face of allies, claiming to love his nation which is why he’s bringing his kids up to be model Korean citizens while insisting, incorrectly, that homosexuality is “illegal” and the Pride goers all need to leave the country as soon as possible. 

The man is perhaps an extreme case, but it’s just this kind of aggressive hostility that led two mothers to fear for their children even as they struggled internally to accept their their coming out. Firefighter Nabi had no idea what to think when her only child Hangyeol told her that they hated their body so much it had led to them experiencing suicidal thoughts. Nabi simply thought it was a phase or else that it was born of the discrimination women face in society and told Hangyeol so directly which only added to their mounting depression and sense of impossibility. Air hostess Vivian meanwhile was stunned when her son Yejoon handed her a letter that began “I am a homosexual”. Though she was accustomed to meeting all kinds of people in her work, she couldn’t quite take in what her son had told her and was then fearful that his life would be difficult or lonely going so far as to apologise for having given birth to him. 

Both women have since become staunch defenders of their children’s right to happiness through their involvement with PFLAG, an organisation for parents of LGBTQ+ children yet they are still frustrated by their conservative nation and its slow progress towards equality. Hangyeol’s chief problem is that they are unable to find steady employment because of the mismatch between their identity documents and gender presentation. On trying to get their gender changed from female, which they were assigned at birth, to male, they face several hurdles including an arcane regulation that insists that even as adults those wishing to legally change their gender must have the permission of both parents (the law was abandoned only in 2019). This is obviously difficult for many transgender people who may have become estranged from their families or otherwise not wish to contact them, leaving aside the absurdity of needing to ask for permission for anything at all when over the age of majority. Meanwhile, Hangyeol also struggles because of the narrow criteria which insist that an applicant should have the matching genitalia for the gender they have requested be recognised on the form which is something they are not currently interested in pursuing. Another judge at the district level is however much more sympathetic and does not make the same demand, simply telling Hangyeol that along with their mother’s testimony all the evidence submitted makes it “obvious” that they are male, telling them to go out and live with pride while apologising for their “intolerant” nation.

Vivian’s son Yejoon meanwhile decided to escape the hostile environment in Korea to study abroad in Canada where he hoped he could live openly as a gay man but has discovered that though this is largely true he still feels somewhat out of place as a Korean living in a foreign culture. Vivian admits that she hoped he would stay in Canada though it meant him being apart from her because his life would be much easier there, though Yejoon eventually makes the decision to move home after falling in love with the friend of a friend he met on his last trip back. One of Vivian’s chief worries had been that Yejoon would be lonely. While thankful that he has found someone with whom he can share his life, she realises that being married isn’t the be all and end all yet continues to campaign for the legalisation of same sex marriage so her son can have the same legal rights as anyone else. Yejoon’s boyfriend Seongjun only recently came out to his mother who is obviously on a bit of a learning curve but quickly comes to accept the boys’ relationship and even attends a PFLAG meeting that gives her even more confidence in her decision. 

Still, it’s clear that there is still a lot of prejudice to be overcome. Nabi is at one point hit in the face by an angry protestor at Pride while the police do nothing, and is intensely worried about her child’s wellbeing especially after seeing a report on the news about radical feminists hounding a transgender student out of an all female university. Yejoon and Seongjung have decided that they don’t necessarily want to be flag wavers but are determined to live happily with the support of both their families in spite of whatever social prejudice they may face. As for Vivian and Nabi, they are committed to fighting for their children’s rights, but also breaking with tradition in abandoning the hierarchal nature of the traditional family to stand shoulder to shoulder with them as they do their best to push for social change in an all too conservative nation. 


Coming to You screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)