A Princess’ One-Sided Love (公主님의 짝사랑 / 공주님의 짝사랑, Choi Eun-hee, 1967)

“Those are the rules of the palace for a princess” the rebellious heroine of Choi Eun-hee’s second directorial feature A Princess’ One-Sided Love (公主님의 짝사랑 / 공주님의 짝사랑, Gongjunimui Jjaksarang) is told, though the “palace” is really the society and the “rules” those which all women are expected to “endure”. Quietly and perhaps subversively feminist, Choi’s humorous tale draws inspiration from Roman Holiday but unexpectedly engineers a happier ending for its lovelorn heroine who is permitted to transcend the constraints of her nobility if not quite of her womanhood. 

Tomboyish princess Suk-gyeong (Nam Jeong-im) is the youngest of six princesses and the last to remain at home in the palace yet to be married. Consequently, she is infinitely bored all the time and continually up to mischief in part because as a princess she is not permitted to leave the estate and has a natural curiosity about the outside world. That curiosity is further sparked when she lays eyes on handsome scholar Kim Seon-do (Kim Gwang-su) who picks up a shoe she had dropped while inappropriately running on the day of her mother’s birthday celebrations. Possibly the first young and handsome man she has even seen, Suk-gyeong cannot help but be captivated by him and manages to convince her sisters to help her escape the palace to venture in search of her probably impossible love under the pretext of visiting her grandparents whom she has apparently never visited before.  

Like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, what Suk-gyeong wants is a break from the “tedious and pathetic” life of a princess, but soon discovers herself to be entirely naive as to how the “real world” works. Her sisters agreed to help her in part because they acknowledge how difficult it was for them when they married and had to leave the palace with no understanding of how to live outside it. Having left in the clothes of a servant, the first thing that Suk-gyeong realises is that the outside world is governed by a different set of hierarchies and even if she’s a princess she is still a woman and therefore presumed to be “inferior” to men to whom she is expected to remain subservient. Her grandfather, who has never met her before, wastes no time exerting his patriarchal authority in his own, comparatively humble, home. “A woman, once married, must abide by the rules of her new family, the confucian ethics, and respect your father and husband and become a wise and obedient wife” he explains, striking her across the calves with a cane to teach her a lesson for her imperious tone in failing to pay him the proper respect. 

Failing to use appropriately polite language with those around her, forgetting that she should now be deferent both to men and to those who exceed her in age, gets her into constant trouble. Nevertheless, a trip to the marketplace gains her a further understanding of the extremes in her society firstly when she misunderstands a rice cake seller’s patter and assumes he intended to gift her some of his produce as he might to a princess, and secondly when she bumps into a woman with a baby on her back and breaks the pots she was hoping to sell to pay for her husband’s medical care. Introduced to such desperate poverty, the undercover princess knows not what to do but later gifts her a jade pin hoping perhaps to at least cure the husband’s malady, only to wander into another dangerous situation when she is mistaken for a sex worker by a trio of drunken noblemen who pull her into a drinking establishment which is in fact a brothel. Naively drinking with the men she mocks them for their attempts to play on their names each boasting of their famous fathers and personal connections to men she knows to be elderly cranks and obsequious fools. Shocked to discover what goes in establishments like these she tries to make her escape but is almost assaulted by one of the men, Shim, who is later posited as an ideal match by her unsuspecting mother laying bare another patriarchal double standard as Shim plays the part of the gentleman in order to effect his advancement. Luckily, she is saved by Seon-do who happens to be passing but mistakes her for a boy because of the disguise she is currently wearing. 

Selfish in her naivety, Suk-gyeong is warned that her impossible crush might end up harming Seon-do’s hopes of making it into the elite through success in the state exam while he, once made aware of the truth, immediately does the right thing by kindly rebuffing the princess’ inappropriate interest leaving her with a poetic love letter claiming he’s gone off to a temple for a spell of intensive study. Perhaps improbably it’s the love letter that eventually saves them, touching the king’s heart and convincing him to acquiesce to his sister’s wishes of escaping the gilded cage of nobility. Suk-gyeon’s pleas to renounce her royal title might also stand in for a desire to renounce womanhood in that it “stops us from doing anything we want. We are matched up with an unknown husband and we spend our youths in misery for our lives are tedious and pathetic”, reminding her brother that as a king but in truth as a man he cannot understand even while he reminds her that these are the “rules” endured by countless ancestors. The king is moved, he breaks with tradition and frees his sister yet he does so to allow her to become a wife even if he has also granted her the freedom to choose her husband and live in the outside world unconstrained by the strictures of nobility but nevertheless bound by oppressive patriarchal social codes. Nevertheless, it’s an unexpectedly progressive conclusion advocating for change and personal happiness over the primacy of duty and tradition. 


A Princess’ One-Sided Love streamed as part of the Korean Cultural Centre UK’s Korean Film NightsFilming Against the Odds 

Action Dongja (액션동자, Yongminne, 2020)

Four little monks discover brotherhood in their shared sadnesses as they valiantly chase down a gang of evil robbers specialising in thieving ancient relics from Buddhist temples in Yongminne’s slapstick kids adventure movie Action Dongja (액션동자). Exposing a societal prejudice against orphans along while upending a few stereotypical notions about monks, Yongminne’s warmhearted drama is equal parts a coming-of-age tale for each of the pint-sized monastics and Home Alone-style heist movie as the kids plot how to take down the crooks using their unique skillsets.

Little Jingu has had it tough. He lost his parents at a young age and has been separated from his younger sister. Now his grandmother who was raising him has died and another woman whom the grandma had apparently asked to take care of him has decided to dump him at the temple instead. Apparently Christian, the woman planned to leave him at an orphanage but thought the temple might be better because he’ll be near his grandmother’s resting place. As might be expected, Jingu does not take well to his new life. Not only is he overcome with grief having lost all of his family members, his home, and everything he knew but he didn’t ask for this very regimented existence and it’s obviously an extreme adjustment which might explain why he’s become mute, sullen, and withdrawn. Nevertheless, one very cheerful and friendly boy nicknamed “piggy” because of his bottomless stomach, extra sensitive nose, and obsession with food keeps trying to make friends with him even coming to his aid when he’s hazed by a couple of local kids at school and later bailed out by two top martial artists, the kind and sensitive Jeongbeop and the exceedingly mean and authoritarian Gajin. 

Jeongbeop explains to the bullies that it’s not right to bully those weaker than yourself and so they had no choice other than to defend themselves, asking for forgiveness as they leave. That doesn’t make much difference to the monks, however, when the boys’ parents turn up to throw their weight around insisting that they don’t want kids like these at their sons’ school virtually accusing the temple of training up little thugs. “Kids without parents are the ones who lie” one fires back, unwilling to believe her good little son could have misrepresented himself while reflecting a societal prejudice towards those who have no family. The younger of the two monks tries to defend the boys, insisting that it’s hardly their fault they’re orphans, but the chief monk is quick to placate the parents while perhaps sending mixed messages punishing Jingu and the other boys but later taking them out for Korean barbecue. Though many Buddhist monks are vegetarian, it is not strictly required and in any case the boys are too young to be expected to adhere entirely to asceticism yet the group’s presence once again arouses a degree of suspicion and resentment as opposed to mere surprise in an irrationally annoyed couple on a nearby table. 

Meanwhile, the boys are also rejected by their peers who unfairly blame them when their temple is robbed, the chief monk stabbed, and a precious picture scroll stolen. Jingu happened to see the face of the man who did the stabbing, but is unable to say anything later telling his new friends when they hatch a plan to catch the thieves themselves as a way of regaining the respect of the other boys and getting justice for the chief monk. In true heist movie style, Jingu who has not yet had his ordination takes the other kids shopping so they can better blend in, the gang even becoming temporary street performers Piggy rapping sutras while the other two do a martial arts display, to pick up extra cash after getting pickpocketed in the big bad city. Unexpectedly it’s Piggy who saves the day with his famously well-attuned sense of smell, picking up the scent of incense on a suspicious man at the port. Bonding during their mission, the boys come to an understanding of their various traumas and the ways in which they inform some of their behaviour generating a sense of brotherhood as they band together to take down the robbers. An old-fashioned kids adventure with a monastic twist, Action Dongja is a charming tale of unconventional found family in which the lonely hero learns to find his place while chasing bad guys and solving crime.


Action Dongja streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

The Basement (지하실, Choi Yang-hyun, 2021)

Two weeks doesn’t seem like a very long time. You might think you can stick anything out for two weeks if you know it will definitely be over in 14 days, but what if you don’t know when or if it’ll end and 14 days turns into 28 with no sign it might not turn into 42? In some ways that might seem like a familiar situation at the present moment, but it’s one that comes to define the lives of an affluent upper-middle class family in Choi Yang-hyun’s pandemic allegory The Basement (지하실, Jihasil). 

When the alert goes out that South Korea is under attack with a nuclear missile apparently on its way the Choi family dutifully obey the emergency text on their phone and take refuge in the basement intending to stay the advised two weeks until the radiation will have decreased to acceptable levels. Unfortunately, however, once down there they realise their preparations have not been thorough enough, the power is out and they’ve left the suitcase containing clothing and emergency supplies upstairs. With phone lines jammed, no radio reception, and no way of keeping in contact with the outside world they have no idea if the strike actually took place or if their friends and family members made it to safety. 

Placed under such strain, it’s understandable that small grievances and tensions in the family are quick to arise. Wife Hayeon seems particularly irritated by her practically minded husband Dongbaek, describing him as “immature” and complaining that he’s never really put his family first preferring to spend his weekends playing golf with the boys. Not helping matters, Dongbaek sadly reflects that he “probably” won’t be able to go on that work jolly golfing in Thailand the following week which whatever way you look at it is not a primary concern in the present moment. She also complains that he made such a fuss buying all this expensive camping equipment that he hardly ever used but at least it’s paying off now during their accidental holiday in the dank and depressing basement of their well-appointed detached home in the suburbs of an area described as “Korea’s Silicon Valley”. Dongbaek meanwhile reflects that he’s glad they sold their Gangnam flat for a spacious house (even if they’re trapped in one room of it) because even if they’d probably have made a bundle on the housing market if this hadn’t happened, they’d be gonners as inner-city apartment dwellers. 

Nevertheless, the first crisis occurs when the family begin hearing the sound of a neighbour frantically calling to them from outside apparently unable to reach her husband or son and looking for some kind of human support. Teenage daughter Jiseon wants to open the door, but her mother is conflicted and Dongbaek dead against it. The woman’s distress clues them in to the fact that something bad really has happened on the surface, but they’ve only so many resources and Dongbaek apparently doesn’t want to share while Jiseon can’t understand how he could be so heartless as to listen to someone screaming for help and not open his door. 

He meanwhile is more invested in finding practical solutions, trying to solve the bathroom problem they neglected to think of previously while setting up a water still to catch moisture from the wooden ceiling beams, repeatedly making reference to his time in the army and disaster preparedness training. Yet the problem they can’t solve is the anxiety, how will they ever know if it’s really safe to come out especially as the radio, once it’s working, gives contradictory messages either suggesting everything’s fine or that North Korea has occupied Seoul. Practically speaking, they can’t stay down here forever, there’s only so much food and some of them are already beginning to experience ill-effects from staying so long in the dark and damp. Sooner or later they’ll have to overcome their growing sense of anxiety for the unknown outside and brave the new reality. A claustrophobic chamber drama starring only three actors with occasional outside voices, Choi’s pandemic adjacent drama explores how one family attempt to come to terms with impending apocalypse while combatting boredom in equal measure to fear and despair but discovers that togetherness and endurance are perhaps the key skills for survival. 


The Basement streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Ten Months (십개월의 미래, Sun Namkoong, 2020)

“I’m still the same person, exactly the same one as a few months ago, and everyone’s suddenly mad at me like something’s wrong” the heroine of Sun Namkoong’s Ten Months (십개월의 미래, Sib Gaewolui Milae) complains as an unexpected pregnancy sees fit to cause untold “chaos” in her personal and professional lives. Mirae’s (Choi Sung-eun) predicament exposes a host of double standards in a still conservative, patriarchal society in which both giving birth and not is somehow “selfish” while a pregnant woman, especially an unmarried one, is almost a taboo expected to hide herself away until she emerges from her chrysalis as a “mother” having entirely shed her old identity. 

The reason Mirae’s pregnancy comes as such a surprise to her is that, presumably in part in order to avoid exactly this sort of situation, she can’t remember having been intimate with her diffident boyfriend Yoonho (Seo Young-joo) for the past few months. After a little thinking he realises it probably happened during a drunken fumble after a friend’s birthday party Mirae had clean forgotten. In any case, Mirae is not the sort of woman who’d ever harboured an intense desire to become a mother, it just wasn’t something particularly on her radar, and in many ways it couldn’t have come at worse time. While Yoonho is unexpectedly excited by the news of his impending fatherhood and immediately proposes, Mirae isn’t so sure. 

The problem is, in the Korea of 2018, she doesn’t have a lot of options. In shock at the doctor’s office she asks about an abortion but is reminded it’s illegal outside of a few mitigating circumstances such as rape or incest (abortion was finally decriminalised only in 2021), and while there are apparently “safe” places where it’s possible to have the procedure done illicitly they are extortionately expensive not to mention carrying a hefty fine if you get caught. Mirae is unconvinced she wants to keep the baby, but she’s not the sort of person who finds it easy to contemplate breaking the law and continues to vacillate even while reminded that even the illegal clinics have a cut off point at which it would become unethical to perform a termination. 

Meanwhile, she’s also worrying what effect her pregnancy may have on her career. Her father, who somewhat stereotypically opened a friend chicken shop after retiring, didn’t approve of her decision to leave a well-paying job at a major company to join a start up even if Mirae believes they’re “going to change the world”. It doesn’t help that Yoonho is technically unemployed as an aspiring entrepreneur trying to sell his prototype handsfree smartphone accessory in the shape of a cute dragon meaning her income is all they have to live on. When she’s told the company is relocating to Shanghai it throws her dilemma into stark relief while also exposing Yoonho’s latent conservatism as he reacts with extreme negativity to the idea of going with her, pathetically attacking Mirae for not supporting his project while eventually reminding her she’s about to be a “mother” as if implying she no longer has the right to make such subjective decisions. By the look on his face he knows he’s gone too far and said the wrong thing, but it’s too late. 

When she tells her boss that she’d like to take the job but also needs him to be aware she’s pregnant, he too becomes indignant. Firstly confused because Mirae is not married, her boss then withdraws the offer and declares himself hurt, “betrayed”, seemingly annoyed that Mirae doesn’t even seem “sorry” for all the inconvenience she’s causing him. When she calls him on his sexism, he blames her for making him out to be the bad guy when he’s doing nothing illegal because shockingly it’s not illegal in Korea to fire someone for being pregnant even if he seems to know it’s not a good look. She begins to feel foolish that she invested so much emotionally in what she saw as a shared endeavour only to be pushed out as if she’s being punished for some kind of transgression just for the audacity of having a child sending a clear signal that motherhood is still deemed incompatible with the workplace.  

Yoonho’s overbearing father seems to be of much the same opinion, her soon-to-be mother-in-law unironically gifting her a frumpy apron while the conservative couple begin to pressure her to move in with them at their pig farm where they’ve already managed to pressgang the largely emasculated and previously vegetarian Yoonho into working. Unsure about the baby, Mirae was even less convinced by the necessity of a shotgun marriage especially as the emotionally immature Yoonho for all of his latching on to the idea of fatherhood to escape the reach of his own father grows ever more resentful towards his overbearing parents while entirely unable to stand up to them. 

And then, there’s all the other stuff that no one really wants to talk about like the possibility of dying in childbirth which is not so much a thing of the past as most people assume even if much less likely, while Mirae’s previously 100% together friend seems to be displaying the signs of post-natal depression or at least infinite exhaustion with her husband apparently having skipped town on a business trip leaving her all alone with their newborn baby. Mirae couldn’t see why some people were so desperate to have children, but gradually comes round to the idea transgressively choosing to raise her child alone no matter the “chaos” the unplanned pregnancy has caused to her life as she knew it. She may have feared being “erased”, instructed by Yoonho’s father that her life is no longer her own and she now exists solely in service of her child, but chooses to see the birth as a new beginning not least for herself as she embarks on this new phase of her life very much on her own terms and of her own free will. 


Ten Months screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Foul King (반칙왕, Kim Jee-woon, 2000)

A dejected office worker seeks release from a mundane life of constant degradation as a masked wrestler but finds himself ultimately unable to escape the headlock of the corporate society in Kim Jee-woon’s pro wrestling farce The Foul King (반칙왕, Banchikwang). As the title may suggest, you might have to play a little dirty in order to claw back some dignity but then perhaps everyone’s struggling to free themselves from something be it old debts, middle-aged disappointment, or complicity with the dubious business practices of turn of the century capitalism. 

Even before he enters the ring, Dae-ho (Song Kang-ho) is wrestling, fighting his way onto and out of a packed rush hour train only to arrive at work a few minutes late to be given a passive aggressive dressing down from his boss (Song Young-chang) during the morning pep talk. His boss then in absurd fashion corners him in the gents and places him in a headlock while telling him off some more just to ram the message home. Poor Dae-ho finds this so humiliating that all he really thinks of is a short term solution of learning how to evade his boss’ control while mooning over his attractive desk mate Miss Jo and further berating himself for being too shy to ask her out. His other problem is that he’s not very good at his job as a low-level bank cashier. He and his work friend Doo-sik (Jung Woong-in) are bottom in the office rankings for failing to secure any new accounts.

Trapped between his abusive boss and dismissive father (Shin Goo) with whom he still lives, Dae-ho finds himself both emasculated and infantilised while continuing to indulge childhood fantasies drifting off into a dream sequence in which he is Elvis in the wrestling ring trying to impress Miss Jo but still defeated by his giant bug of a boss. He first turns to a friend who teaches Taekwondo to children but he tells him Taekwondo is a “mental discipline” while a real martial artist would never end up in a headlock anyway. But then as if by magic he wanders past a moribund wrestling gym and ventures inside only for the coach, Jang (Jang Jin-young), to throw him out for being a bit odd. Threatened by a gangster into training up a comic relief character specialising in cheating to bolster the profile of another wrestler, Yubiho (Kim Su-ro), hoping to drum up publicity for a Japan tour, Jang relents remembering Dae-ho’s manic rank about his love for classic heel Ultra Tiger Mask as seen on TV decades earlier. 

Being a heel is not quite what Dae-ho had in mind, after all what he wants is to figure out how to escape a headlock yet he finds himself bizarrely in his element if a little clumsily rejoicing in moustache twirling villainy, cartoonish pranks, and comic pratfalls. He begins to grow in confidence but also overreaches, managing to teach a gang of youths (amusingly standing under a huge mural ironically reading “Korea! Fighting!”) a lesson and redeeming his sense of masculine pride after a defeat while making a total drunken fool of himself in his unrequited love for Miss Jo at the office karaoke party once again getting pummelled by his boss. While Dae-ho turns to wrestling in search of freedom and personal fulfilment, Doo-sik tries to regain his self-respect by doing the right thing refusing to be a part of his boss’ obviously dodgy business practices while threatening to blow the whistle if like Dae-ho perhaps realising that there is no way to beat this system while remaining inside it. 

Dae-ho discovers that he gains confidence by putting on a mask, specially the Ultra Tiger Mask worn by his childhood hero, while “winning” in the ring through “cheating” getting audience laughs with zany cartoon stunts. Only when the mask is torn by an unnecessarily aggressive Yubiho does he enter full on rage mode attempting to take revenge for his constant belittlement by ignoring the script to teach Yubiho a lesson as the pair of them brawl all over the stadium making weapons of random chairs and even at one point the session bell itself. Yet in a real sense Dae-ho never really achieves much of anything, scoring a symbolic victory in provoking a tie but never figuring out how to escape the corporate headlock while continuing to be bullied by his boss, rendered entirely powerless within the hierarchal corporatised society of early 2000s Korea. A darkly comic take on existential futility, Foul King meditates on the compromises inherent in playing the game Dae-ho ironically finding confidence in wilful humiliation as a dishonourable heel while unable to escape his constant degradation wrestling for agency within the confines of his regular office worker life. 


The Foul King streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Not in This World (이 세상에 없는, Park Jung-bum, 2019)

“What is love? Have you seen it?” a dejected young man asks, wondering how if he can’t even afford a ticket to the movies he’s supposed to find the energy to feel love. Love may be the substance the title of Park Jung-bum’s nearly three hour epic of human misery Not in this World (이 세상에 없는, I Sesange Oebsneun) refers to, each of its wandering youngsters deprived of a sense of hope or of emotional fulfilment by the cruelties of contemporary capitalism. Unable to feel their own pain, they inflict it on others, their despair leading to nothing other than violence and cruelty in a mistaken effort to exert control over their lives. 

Despair colours the lyrics that aspiring rapper Ji-su (Moon Ye-ji) performs in a courtyard by day detailing her insecurity and longing for “a warm spring to melt my frozen heart”. Seemingly no one is very interested in listening to her, least of all her father in whose tiny workshop she also toils. With his business strained, Ji-su’s father is an exploitative employer berating his daughter for not working hard enough while otherwise telling her that she is free to do something else with her life but only if it makes money. After smashing her microphone in a mistaken attempt to make her come around, he later burns her sheet music and recklessly tells her to find somewhere else to live while she in turn points out that he unfairly projects his resentment onto her knowing that his dream of owning a family home will never become a reality seeing as the business barely makes enough money to pay the interest on the mortgage he will never be able to pay off. 

This sense of despair born of failure passing from one generation to the next leaves Ji-su and her similarly troubled friends with an even greater sense of futility. She discovers a temporary source of hope after accidentally bonding with a strange middle-aged man, a kind of holy fool living all alone in the forest in a house he calls a “spaceship” seeing as it’s surrounded by complete darkness with only he aboard as if existing in an entirely different dimension. Jeong-cheol (Park Jung-bum) is Ji-su’s only “fan”, encouraging her with her music but also infinitely naive advising her to share it with her friends and family in the conviction that they would then begin to understand her but the result is quite the reverse. Ji-su’s few friends, all of whom have become sex workers, simply laugh at her while apparently offended by what they perceive as “hypocrisy”, an attempt to exploit their pain for her gain. 

Forced at knife point to witness the reality of sex work, Ji-su’s illusions are shattered while her only other source of hope in her relationship with intense childhood friend Won-ho (Park Young-Duk) also begins to crumble. Won-ho too had a dream, working as a delivery driver while saving up to buy a taxi license he hopes will enable him to earn a steady living leading to a traditional middle-class sense of stability with a wife and family home. Yet he too is eventually forced to acknowledge his dream won’t come true, again projecting his sense of resentment onto Ji-su in unfairly blaming her for a bike accident that brought them both into contact with a source of infinite corruption that is a remote sex work campsite hidden in the woods where a gang of obnoxious rich kid students get their kicks humiliating those they perceive as their social inferiors. 

Pushed to breaking point, Ji-su commits a transgression of her own and embarks on a path of self-destruction aiming to become what she hates and burn her world to the ground. Becoming the campsite’s bookkeeper she terrorises the former friends who laughed at her song and left her with lasting trauma while taking an indirect revenge against Won-ho for his indifference towards her. While she decides to become an oppressor in order not to be oppressed, Jeong-cheol wrestles with himself believing that he cannot abandon Ji-su because to do so would mean she had been abandoned by the world, while also realising that the world has many Ji-sus and he can’t help them all. Jeong-cheol believes himself alone, conversing only with the ghost of his late father who seems to represent his inner goodness something which he alternately feels he should bury along with his father’s ashes yet is unwilling to part with. 

Unlike Park’s previous films of similar length and bleakness, Not in This World swaps crushing naturalism for a touch of magical realist imagery as Park’s holy fool tries to repair the world around him armed only with his own inner goodness which simultaneously makes him an exile of contemporary society. Even as Ji-su continues to destroy herself, Jeong-cheol continues to believe she can be saved, his conviction perhaps borne out as the traumatic events of the film’s conclusion appear to break the spell she’s cast over herself though whether she will ever be able to accept everything that led her there is far less easy to discern. Once again an attack on an inhuman, ultra capitalist society defined by class conflict and petty humiliation, Park’s latest epic of human misery is also in its closing minutes at least quietly hopeful in the innocent power of a newborn baby’s cries. 


Not in This World streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Finding Angel (천사는 바이러스, Kim Seong-joon, 2021)

Every Christmas, a box full of money is left in a small village in Jeonju by a well-wishing philanthropist the villagers have taken to calling the “faceless angel”. The phenomenon is in someways a double-edged sword seeing as the anticipation often attracts the attention of the press with various reporters descending on the village hoping to unmask the unknown benefactor’s identity while the villagers have their own ideas who it might be though in practice perhaps it doesn’t really matter. 

As Kim Seong-joon’s warmhearted seasonal comedy Finding Angel (천사는 바이러스, Cheonjaneun Baileosu) makes plain, however, motives are not always pure when there’s money involved and so to some the Angel’s identify matters a great deal. Jihoon (Park Sung-Il) arrives claiming to be a reporter charged with unmasking the mysterious benefactor but on discovering no one is keen to help him, makes up another cover story that he’s a writer researching a novel about small town life while drawing inspiration from the fascinating local legend. As junkyard owner Cheon-ji (Lee Young-ah) instantly realises, there is something a little suspicious about Jihoon that suggests neither of his cover stories is genuine while his true motives remain obscure as he sets about investigating the townspeople trying to figure out if one of them may be the mystery donor. 

As might be expected, the majority of the local residents are elderly though most of them are still working earning a mere pittance at the junkyard despite as Jihoon discovers being fairly well off. Though severe and aloof, many regard Cheonji, who shares the first syllable of her name with the word, as a kind of angel herself having adopted a little boy she’s raising as a single mother while generally being around to settle minor neighbourhood disputes and providing a place for the community to gather which they don’t currently have because the local council leader still hasn’t got round to building the promised old persons’ community centre though he apparently has time to show up for unarranged photo-ops delivering charcoal briquettes to the needy. A running gag sees Jihoon, having got a job at the junkyard to better investigate, struggle with the physical nature of the work while the elderly villagers just seem to get on with it if engaging in the occasional spat along the way. 

Shifting from one “suspect” to another, Jihoon begins to uncover the small secrets of village life learning something new about each of his new friends from bitter regrets to frustrated hopes for the future but his past soon catches up with him threatening to blow his cover as the timer counts down to the Angel’s arrival. What remains is a sad story of perpetual orphanhood and the healing power of the community, the villagers somehow believing that the Angel must be a boy they took in for a brief period 25 years previously who has since made good and wants to give something back though as they later discover the boy was largely betrayed by the world he returned to, encountering only indifference and exploitation away from the kind and watchful eyes of the villagers. 

The identity of the Angel may be beside the point, but what Jihoon discovers is a path back towards redemption through bonding with the villagers if feeling increasingly guilty in not having been entirely honest about his intentions. He is sometimes tempted to betray his new friends, but in the end also helps them to sort out various community problems such as the long held grudge between two elderly former lovers or the inner conflict of Cheonji’s young son who has been secretly siphoning off the best bits of junk while saving money to become “independent” because the junkyard is not an altogether cheerful environment. A warmhearted seasonal mystery, Finding Angel is full of the Christmas spirit as the community come together to protect their local legend aided by Jihoon who becomes ironically enough the fiercest believer in Faceless Angels as he too begins to deal with his childhood traumas, experiencing a Christmas miracle of his own as he learns to let go of his cynicism thanks to the gentle support of the Jeonju villagers. 


Finding Angel is released in UK cinemas on 26th November courtesy of The Media Pioneers.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Clytaemnestra (Ougie Pak, 2021)

Art and life begin to blur for an indie theatre troupe rehearsing a Greek tragedy in Ougie Pak’s meta take on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon tellingly retitled Clytaemnestra. Filmed at speed during an acting workshop in Greece, Pak’s indie drama is part exploration of a hothouse backstage environment and part meditation on power dynamics which are, the film seems to suggest, more or less unchanged in the intervening 2500 years since the play was first performed. 

Successful actress Hye Bin (Kim Haru) has taken time out from her busy schedule to work with a famous director on the production of an ancient Greek play to be staged at the Theatre of Dionysus itself. The mostly female cast, the only male actor on hand to play the part of Agamemnon, will all stay together in a large rental house throughout the rehearsal process which aside from anything else is an extremely claustrophobic environment. The director (Kim Jongman), meanwhile, seems to be of the break them down school but isn’t so fussed on building them back up. Behaving more like an authoritarian school teacher than a creative collaborator, he operates through shame and humiliation. Showing the cast a video of traditional production, he attempts to workshop through asking each of them for their immediate takeaways on having just seen the play performed but treats each of the answers with condescension instantly shutting down one young actress’ assertion that she saw “Han” in Aeschylus’ script as if directly preventing her from finding common ground between her own culture and a Greek play from thousands of years ago. 

For one reason or another, Hye Bin becomes a particular target for his disdain. When he brings in another actress fresh from Seoul, Ian (Kim Taehee) who arrives with her own assistant, the tensions only rise. Perhaps spotting her rival, Ian encourages the low level bullying of Hye Bin while she becomes irritated and confused on noticing the inappropriate intimacy between the actress and her director. The other members of cast meanwhile find themselves conflicted, often bullied themselves into going along with Ian and the director seemingly too panicked to resist as male actor Jung Hwan (Kim Junghwan) later claims not quite apologising for not having stood up for Hye Bin but apparently embarrassed to have been bamboozled into saying something he didn’t really think was true. 

In the ongoing meta drama, the director is an Agamemnon behaving like a tyrannical king bullying his actors in order, he claims, to get the performances he wants. Attacked by Ian, both verbally and physically, Hye Bin accuses her of using her sexuality to improve her career prospects and thereby indirectly the director of abusing his position to take advantage of potentially vulnerable actresses, provoking a hugely inappropriate confrontation which leads only to threats, violence, and eventual exile. We already know how this play ends, though the director is perhaps so secure in his status, his patriarchal authority, and the “respect” he inspires as a renowned practitioner that it doesn’t occur to him he will have to answer for his behaviour even as he threatens to have Hye Bin blacklisted ensuring she’ll never work in this town or any other ever again and all for the crime of some harsh but true words along with an insistence on maintaining her self-respect through gaining a mutual apology. 

“As soon as we see ego we stop seeing the story” the director barks, denying Hye Bin even her personhood in demanding she disappear into the role in which he casts her. Hye Bin meanwhile has begun having ominous visions perhaps linked to the fluidity of her personae, caught between the mad prophetess and the murderous wife, or else the intensity of the rehearsal process with its myriad petty humiliations. Set mainly within the liminal space of the rented villa where the cast drink Greek beer and are forced to “express themselves” with “feedback” offered in the form of self criticism, Pak’s claustrophobic if occasionally ethereal drama is, as Hye Bin puts it in her original verdict, to some a tale of “justice” as much as “vengeance”, the takedown of a tyrant whose dismissive snarling of the word “feminism” in Hye Bin’s reading of the play may have told us all about him that we needed to know. 


Clytaemnestra screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Kim Min-young of the Report Card (성적표의 김민영, Lee Jae-eun & Lim Ji-sun, 2021)

Does surviving in the modern society necessarily mean sacrificing your essential self? The eponymous Kim Min-young of the Report Card (성적표의 김민영, Seongjeongpyoui Kim Min-young) says she wants to transfer from her regional uni to one in Seoul because her classmates are “too Korean” and she finds them tedious, but is simultaneously mean to and dismissive of the film’s heroine, Junghee (Kim Ju-a), who has defiantly decided to follow her own path rather than the one society lays in front of her. 

As the film opens, Junghee is one of three members of the “acrostic poetry club” along with her high school roommate Min-young (Yoon Seo-young), and a girl from down the hall Sanna (Son Da-hyun). Sadly, they’ve decided to wind the club up because they’re only 100 days out from the college entrance exams and need the extra time to study. We never find out exactly how well Junghee fared or whether her decision to lend her watch to an anxious boy (who does not pass) affected her grade, but in any case she does not attend university deciding instead to look for work while Min-young leaves to study nursing in Daegu. 

The third girl, Sanna, as we later discover did the best of the three and went all the way to Harvard. The trio had vowed to carry on the poetry club via Skype, Sanna making time for her friends even though the time difference makes it inconvenient while Min-young seemingly can’t be bothered to turn up. Nor can she really take time out for Junghee’s calls, her friend a little put out to hear loud party music in the background while trying to share important news. Even so, she’s delighted when Min-young suddenly invites her to visit her staying at her brother’s vacant apartment in Seoul during the summer holidays especially as she’d just been let go from the random job she’d managed to get manning the desk at a moribund tennis club. 

It’s in the Seoul apartment, a messy and chaotic place, that the differences between the two formerly close friends come to the surface. Despite having expressly invited her friend to come, Min-young isn’t really interested hanging out and is in the middle of some kind of crisis obsessing over a single bad grade on her end of term report card. Together they try to formulate a letter of complaint to the professor, Junghee doing her best to be supportive while privately wondering if Min-young isn’t being a little childish and that if she wanted a better grade she should have studied harder. Meanwhile, Min-young runs down all of Junghee’s life choices, constantly telling her she needs to be “realistic” and that she probably won’t get anywhere with her artwork in terms of financial viability. 

Junghee is visibly hurt by Min-young’s superior attitude, but in the interests of having a pleasant day chooses to let it go even while Min-young continues to ignore her. Even so the difference between them is perhaps at the heart of Min-young’s ironic “too Korean” comment about her new uni friends, criticising them for the conventionality to which she too aspires, singing the praises of Seoul but most particularly for its three floor claw game emporiums. A quick look at Min-young’s diary when she abruptly takes off leaving Junghee alone in the apartment reveals that in actuality she envies Junghee for her boundless imagination and willingness to be her true self rather than blindly trying to fit in while finding herself out of place among her new friends. Her opening poem hinted at low self-esteem and an insecurity about the future that perhaps leaves her a little self-involved, projecting her anxieties onto Junghee who is eventually forced to defend herself by pointing out that she has her own reality which is important to her no matter what those like Min-young may have to say about it. 

In the kindest of ways and with true generosity of spirit, Junghee writes the report card of the title praising her friend for her better qualities while pointing out her faults as supportively as she can. Giving her an “F” for “Koreanness” she advises her that she’s the one who is suffering because she worries too much about what other people think, searching for conventional “stability” rather than embracing her true self and ought to become “less Korean” in order to ease some of her anxiety. Offering a mild critique of a socially oppressive culture, Lee & Lim’s quirky drama with its random asides and flights of fancy makes a case for the right to dream positing the quiet yet free spirited Junghee as the more mature of the two women having embraced her true self and decided to follow her own path while being kind to those still trying to find their way. 


Kim Min-young of the Report Card screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Introduction (인트로덕션, Hong Sang-soo, 2021)

A young man struggles to define himself in the shadow of parental expectation in a minor departure from Hong Sang-soo, somehow warmhearted even its icy exteriors and wilful melancholia. As the title perhaps implies, the hero of Introduction (인트로덕션) finds himself in the midst of his life’s prologue while receiving sometimes unwelcome “introductions” from each of his parental figures including one to a prominent but ultimately pompous actor (Ki Joo-bong) apparently a family friend to his divorced parents though adopting only the unsympathetic authoritarianism of the traditional father rather than the empathy the young man seems to seek. 

Divided into three loose episodes in the life of Youngho (Shin Seokho), Hong’s tripartite tale opens with an almost comic scene of a middle-aged acupuncturist (Kim Young-ho) bargaining with God promising to become a better person if only He helps him get out of some kind of fix. This moment of crisis might be why he’s suddenly asked Youngho, his son with whom he seems to be semi-estranged, to visit him though in a repeated motif we never find out quite what it is he wanted to say because in this case an old friend and famous actor suddenly turns up. Youngho is kept waiting in the waiting room while his girlfriend ironically waits for him at another location. Meanwhile he’s fussed over by his father’s doting receptionist who gives him the sense of familial comfort he lacks with either his mother or father. Suddenly he hugs her, a moment bringing new import to his later argument with the actor in which he rejects the inauthenticity of acting claiming that when he embraces someone it ought to mean something because it would be “morally wrong” to fake that kind of connection. 

The old actor, however, assumes his discomfort is some kind of young person’s puritanism sure that it doesn’t matter if it’s just “acting” or playing around, when a man embraces a woman it’s all “love”. Youngho implies his decision to abandon acting because of its essential inauthenticity is partly romantic jealously on the part of his girlfriend, yet in reality we realise that he is no longer with the woman who waited for him outside the acupuncturist, Juwon (Park Miso), despite having made an impulsive and possibly ill-advised decision to follow her to Berlin after she left to study abroad. Just as Youngho has a series of unsatisfactory “introductions” from mum and dad, Juwon struggles to assert herself in the company of her mother (Seo Young-hwa) despite having travelled to another country where she will it seems be staying with her mother’s close friend (Kim Min-hee). Juwon’s mother fears her friend has changed with age, now in someway younger, immediately asking Juwon to drop the honorifics that instantly divide them as members of different generations while apparently having abandoned conventionality by divorcing to become a bohemian artist. 

During their brief meeting, Youngho also remarks that he thinks his father has “changed” while musing on the idea of asking him for money to come to Berlin as a foreign student to be with Juwon, unwittingly trampling on this small step of freedom Juwon has been able to take away from her mother if only towards an aunt. Hong structures each of his sequences around groups of three people that begin and end with two, the last somehow awkward in its evenness as Youngho invites a male friend (Ha Seong-guk) to dine with his mother (Cho Yoon-hee) and the actor, perhaps sensing that he may need some kind of moral support. He is always, in one sense or another, left out in the cold not quite alone but in his own way lonely, hugging the receptionist but only gazing up at his mother on her hotel balcony literally unreachable in their unbridgeable emotional distance. He waits for her to wave, but she does not. On the beach on an overcast afternoon and not quite alone except perhaps in spirit, Youngho begins to realise that he’ll have to make his own introduction, his parents can’t help him even if they wanted to because they are are also a little lost, confused, and filled with anxiety. “Don’t worry too much” Youngho tells a similarly troubled soul in what turns out to be a dream, but it’s advice he might as well be giving himself looking out over a boundless ocean in contemplation of his life still to come. 


Introduction screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Trailer (Korean subtitles only)