26 Years (26년, Cho Geun-hyun, 2012)

26 Years posterA society says a lot about itself in the way it treats its villains. Chun Doo-hwan was a brutal dictator who came to power as a result of a violent counter coup which encompassed the now notorious murder of ordinary citizens by agents of the state in Gwangju in May 1980. Chun’s reign eventually came to an end with the successful conclusion of the democratisation movement which gave birth to the modern democratic state of South Korea that is, at present, in the aftermath of dealing with another unpopular leader deposed through peaceful, democratic means. Though originally sentenced to death Chun’s punishment was later commuted. He has never paid the massive fine that was imposed upon him as symbolic recompense for his acts of terror and vast web of corruption. .

The five men and women at the centre of 26 Years (26년, Nyeon) have not forgotten the face of Chun Doo-hwan (Jang Gwang), identified only as “that man”, and are among the many frustrated by his refusal to take responsibility for his actions. A former soldier remorseful for his role in the events (Lee Geung-young) recruits an olympic sharpshooter (Han Hye-jin) whose mother was killed by a stray bullet, a gangland thug (Jin Goo) whose father was tortured and murdered by security forces driving his mother into madness, and a policeman (Im Seulong) who lost his sister running away from a demonstration, as well as his son (Bae Soo-bin), to assist in a plan to force the former general to apologise for his crimes and, if he refuses, enact their own justice.

Spoilers aside, Chun Doo-hwan is still very much alive and the events of 26 Years are inspired by an entirely fictionalised webmanga though it is true that Chun lives in an L-shaped compound protected by perimeter walls and a small army of police and security forces presumably at great cost to the Korean tax payer. He has never apologised for his actions regarding the Gwangju massacre and continues to blame the “rioters” in insisting that the soldiers had no choice but to fire back in self defence. That such a politically sensitive film could be made about a figure who is still alive, let alone that it would become a major box office success and crowd funding phenomenon is a small miracle in itself but speaks to the deep rift this troubled period of recent history provokes in the minds of the contemporary society.

First time director Cho opens with the events of 1980 but in highly stylised animation rather than live action. There is something in the sketchy quality of the artwork that perfectly evokes the ambivalence of the entire enterprise, of not quite wanting to look at events which are so hard to see. See we do as bystanders are cruelly struck by stray bullets, soldiers panic and shoot, and the left behind search desperately for their missing loved ones but find only tragedy and pain. Reverting to live action for 1983 onwards, Cho then takes us through the next 20 years noting landmarks as he goes – the ever present terror of Chun on TV screens everywhere, his eventual fall and the restoration of democracy, Chun’s pardoning and eventual yet accidental house imprisonment for his own security.

The wounds remain unhealed, festering without resolution. While protestors make their voices heard, a room full of supporters fall to their knees before a resurgent Chun standing proud before them. Chun remains unrepentant, cruelly so in Cho’s dramatisation, shaking off the body of a fallen bodyguard like a slobbering dog, caring nothing for his people and thinking only of his own survival.

Cho keeps the tension high as the small band of traumatised youngsters attempts to confront their nation’s difficult history head on, finding both resistance and camaraderie yet fighting internal conflict all the way. Avoiding easy answers, 26 Years is among the most direct attempts Korean cinema has made to reckon with the traumatic recent past, mixing high octane action with a melancholy consideration of the effects of a national trauma but it also finds itself in a moment of indecision, refusing the ending narrative demands in favour of an intake of breath followed by a weary exhale of weighty resignation.


Currently available to stream via Netflix.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Seven People in the Cellar (지하실의 7인 / 地下室의 七人, Lee Seong-gu, 1969)

Seven People in the Cellar posterThe “literary film” was beginning to fall out of favour by 1969. The collapse of the quota system introduced under the 1962 Motion Picture Law, the exclusion of literary film from the “Domestic Films of Excellence” programme (which encouraged producers to produce high quality Korean films to qualify for distributing more lucrative foreign ones), and the rise of television all conspired to produce a shift towards the populist. Lee Seong-gu had made his name with a series of literary adaptations which enabled him to experiment with form in the comparatively more elevated “arthouse” arena but with horizons shrinking even he found himself with nowhere left turn. Seven People in the Cellar (지하실의 7인 / 地下室의 七人 *, Jihasil-ui Chil-in) is Lee’s last “literary film” and is adapted from a stage play by Yun Jo-byeong who was apparently unhappy with Lee’s adaptation in its abandonment of his carefully constructed ideological balance in favour of adhering to the typical rhetoric of the “anti-communist” film.

Set towards the end of the Korean War, Seven in People in the Cellar presents itself as a conflict between the godless and hypocritical forces of communism and the good and righteous Catholic Church. Accordingly, our hero is a priest, Father Ahn (Heo Jang-gang), who has just returned to his church after being forced to flee by the encroaching “puppet army”. Accompanied by a nun, Lucia (Yun So-ra), and a new curate, Brother Jeong (Lee Soon-jae), Father Ahn is glad to be reunited with his flock but there are dark spectres even here – Maria (Yoon Jeong-hee), a young woman Ahn was forced to leave behind when he fled, runs away from the priest on catching sight of him, apparently out of shame. Meanwhile, while Ahn was away, three rogue Communists began squatting in his cellar waiting for the “reinforcements” which are supposedly going to retake the town. Taking Sister Lucia hostage, the Communists force Ahn to feed them while keeping their existence a secret. To Jeong’s consternation, Ahn agrees but out of Christian virtues rather than fear – he feels the Communists too are lost children of God and have been sent to him so that he may guide them back towards the light.

Not a natural fit for the world of the anti-communist film, Lee does his best to undermine the prevalent ideology even if he must in the end come down hard with Ahn’s essential moral goodness. Thus, Communists aside, the conflict becomes one of age and youth, male and female, as much as between “right” and “wrong” or “North” and “South”. Jeong, youthful and hotheaded, lacks Ahn’s Christian compassion – he bristles when Ahn immediately sets about feeding the starving villagers with their own rations, and disagrees with his decision to harbour the Communists even while knowing that Lucia’s life is at stake if they refuse. Twice he tries to kill the communist “enemy”, threatened by their ideological opposition to his own cause – once when he enters the cellar and misinterprets an altercation between Lucia and sympathetic soldier Park (Park Geun-hyeong), and secondly when the troop’s female commander, Ok (Kim Hye-jeong), attempts to seduce him.

Sexuality becomes spiritual battleground with Christian chastity winning out over Communist free love. Ok, as unsympathetic a communist as it’s possible to be, is sexually liberated and provocative. She suggestively loosens her shirt and fondles her breast in front of a confused junior officer, later taking him into the forest and more or less ordering him to make love to her (which he, eventually, does). However, it is to her simply a matter of a need satisfied. Ok describes the moment she has just shared with her comrade as no different than sharing a meal. She was “hungry”, she ate. When she’s hungry again she will eat again but there’s no more to it than that and there is no emotional or spiritual component in her act of “lovemaking”, only the elimination of a nagging hunger. 

Ok’s transgressive and “amoral” sexuality is contrasted with that of the abused Maria who was tortured and later raped by the Communists’ commanding officer. Forced to betray a nun, she was robbed not only of her innocence but also of her faith. Maria is the “pure woman” corrupted by Communist cruelty. Her chastity was removed from her by force, and she sees no other option than to continue to ruin herself in atonement for her “sin”. Unable to live with the consequences of her actions, she sees no way out other than madness or martyrdom.

The fact that Maria’s torturer is another woman, and such an atypical woman at that, is another facet of the Communist’s animalistic inhumanity. As in The General’s Mustache, the Communists are seen to use innocent children as bargaining chips when ordinary torture fails, even this time killing one to prevent him telling the village about their hiding place. Yet the height of their cruelty is perhaps in their indifference to each other – Park, touched by Sister Lucia’s refusal to leave when he tried to let her go fearing that he would face reprisals, announces his intention to defect to the South and is shot dead by his commander in cold and brutal fashion. Park’s defection is a minor “win” for Ahn who sought restore the Communists’ sense of humanity and bring their souls to God, but it’s also born of misogynistic pique in his intense resentment of the “bossy” Ok who turns out to be an undercover officer from HQ on a special mission to spy against him.

With the one redeemed Communist dead, all that remains is for the others is to slowly destroy themselves. Ahn, cool and composed in absolute faith, waits patiently certain that the friendly South Korean soldiers will shortly liberate them. A hero priest, Ahn is the saintly opposite of the Communists’ cruelty in his compassionate determination to save them even at the risk of his own life. Lee keeps the tension high, creating siege drama that feels real and human in contrast with the often didactic and heavily stylised narrative of the “anti-communist” film, subtly muddying the essential messages but allowing Ahn’s compassion (rather than his “faith”) to shine through as the best weapon against oppressive inhumanity.


Seven People in the Cellar is the fourth and final film included in the Korean Film Archive’s Lee Seong-gu box set. Not currently available to stream online.

* In rendering the Hanja title, the landscape poster uses the arabic numeral 7 while the portrait version uses the Chinese character 七.

The General’s Mustache (장군의 수염 / 將軍의 수염, Lee Seong-gu, 1968)

General's Mustache posterBroken dreams of the post-war society prove too much for one man to bear in Lee Seong-gu’s masterpiece of Korean Modernism – The General’s Mustache (장군의 수염 / 將軍의 수염, Janggun-ui Suyeom). Adapted from the novel by Lee O-young, Lee’s film co-opts the procedural but subtly subverts it, taking a cue from the film noir to turn it in on itself and ask if we can truly ever know another person, or if we simply conjure an image of everyone we know based on a collection of external observations gathered by ourselves and others. Our hero, Cheol-hun (Shin Seong-il), is a melancholy man who has chosen to live in a world of his own creation but when his shield of artifice is pierced by a spear of reality he can endure it no longer. Cheol-hun is dead, but who, if anyone, killed him and can we ever really understand why he died without his words to guide us?

Lee opens with a scream as Cheol-hun’s landlady discovers his body, draped half naked over his bed next to a stove with the safety cover removed. Concluding that carbon monoxide poisoning is likely the cause of death, the police find the panicked landlady suspicious but leave with three clues – a ladies’ stocking, a missing camera, and the scar on Cheol-hun’s forehead. The stocking takes them to Cheol-hun’s ex, who tells them that Cheol-hun gave his camera to a “nude model” which was perhaps a point of tension between the two, but not apparently the reason they decided to separate. The scar, ruining the detective’s (Kim Seung-ho) theory, turns out to be an old one – received in infancy when his exhausted mother (Han Eun-jin) dropped an iron on his head after a long day at the press.

After the testimony from Cheol-hun’s mother, the scar seems incidental but turns out to be anything but. Cheol-hun’s mother blames herself for his childhood injury (as any mother would) and has spent her life worrying about him, believing that the scar itself has been the cause of all his misfortune and sent him off on an unlucky path. From Cheol-hun’s sister (Kim Sin-jae) we learn that the family was once wealthy – local landowners who valued their “aristocratic” blood. After the war all that ended. The land was given back to the people, and Cheol-hun’s family were stripped of not only of their prestige but of their means of living. Nevertheless, Cheol-hun’s austere father refused to let his children play with the “commoners”, and so little Cheol-hun’s loneliness was born.

The testimony of Cheol-hun’s former boss reinforces the view that Cheol-hun was an eccentric loner, ill equipped for life in the “real” world. A former photojournalist, Cheol-hun lost his job as a result of a disastrous interview with a recently returned scholar who had enjoyed some minor success in America. The scholar, having been abroad five years, peppers his speech with random English and puts up a pretence of having forgotten his Korean. He complains that Korean kimchee is too spicy, and suggests that the key to improving the “backward” nation lies in “reforming” the cuisine. Cheol-hun, becoming ever more irritated, offers a few barbed comments but cannot contain himself when the kids, “John” and “Mary” who do not speak any Korean, arrive. American names, he points out, are usually associated with dogs and sex workers – why would you give them to your children if you plan to live in Korea? Needless to say, the interview is over.

Cheol-hun has now been characterised as a man who cannot read the air, but it’s time to hear from him too though it will have to be second hand. Shin-hye (Yoon Jeong-hee), the girlfriend, radically changing under testimony broadly agrees with this view of the man she loved but could no longer live with. Cheol-hun told her that he’d never been good with people and had no real friends save one in the army – interestingly enough a man descended from royalty, but that he died leaving Cheol-hun alone again with the lingering guilt that he was unable to save his only friend. His tragedy is that he yearns for true connection, to truly become one with another person, but he cannot achieve it. His life with Shin-hye crumbles not because of “reality” but because Shin-hye craves the real – to live in the real world where people bleed and hurt. She cannot live with Cheol-hun in his escapist paradise, but he cannot bear to leave it.

The title of the film comes from the book that Cheol-hun wanted to write. In the story, a victorious general fighting for “independence” returns to his “liberated” country. The general is dashing and brave and he has on his face the most magnificent mustache. A weedy reporter giddily asks him if he too might dare to grow such a wonderful mustache to which the general cooly assents. Before long a mustache craze sweeps the nation. Even those who cannot grow a mustache of their own have taken to wearing wigs, but our protagonist says no. He doesn’t want a moustache and refuses to wear one. He loses his job, but it remains open whether the fact of his not having a mustache (which no one forces him to have) or his melancholy loneliness in not wanting to have one and not understanding why everyone else does is the cause of all his suffering. 

The quote at the film’s beginning, painted on Cheol-hun’s maddeningly crowded walls, reads “I refuse to, That’s why I’m alive”. Yet it isn’t quite a refusal so much as a lack of capacity. Cheol-hun’s boss had a point when he said that Cheol-hun was fundamentally unsuited to living in human society, as did Shin-hye when she described him as a lonely child in need of a guardian. If anything killed Cheol-hun, it was loneliness – a revelation which profoundly shakes the conviction of the veteran detective. After all, you can’t put handcuffs on spiritual isolation. The detective thinks of his family, and decides to take a watermelon home to share with them as means of reinforcing his own shallow connections but it’s clear that his conception of the world, of his abilities as a detective and the entire framework of his existence have been irreparably compromised by his investigation into the life and death of Kim Cheol-hun.

Partly a satirical swipe at post-war conformity, Lee’s film also subtly subverts a popular trope from the anti-communist genre in its apparent sympathy for landlords. Cheol-hun’s loneliness is posited as a direct result of his “fall” from his rightful position – the only friend he ever makes is also a fallen nobleman, and he struggles to adapt himself to the “classless” society of the “democratic” era. Yet it’s precisely these outdated ideas of “class” that have ruined his life in his father’s refusal to let him play with the other children. Cheol-hun retreats to a fantasy childhood world to avoid the harshness of modern life, but cannot escape his loneliness or his longing and when he realises Shin-hye is not the soulmate with whom he thought he could forge a new, perfectly isolated paradise, his entire existence becomes impossible.

Lee conjures a mosaic of Cheol-hun composed of the memories of those around him, gradually thickening in texture and finally coming into focus but always only a simulacrum of a man and not the man himself. Adopting a standard procedural narrative, Lee adds in extensive flashback and hypothetical dramatisations as the police investigate, switching to black and white for raw hypotheses and even breaking into elegantly drawn animation to recreate the surreal world of Cheol-hun’s putative novel. Dark and sad, The General’s Mustache seems to imply that there is no answer for solitude, that you can never really know another person fully, and that the loneliest man of all is the one born without a “mustache”, already naked of face in having no final mask to expose but finding that no one wants to see his true self only the one which is demanded he wear to appear just like everyone else.


The General’s Mustache is the third film included in the Korean Film Archive’s Lee Seong-gu box set. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

When the Buckwheat Blooms (메밀꽃 필 무렵, Lee Seong-gu, 1967)

When the Buckwheat Flowers Bloom posterLife’s little ironies conspire against an ordinary pedlar in Lee Seong-gu’s adaptation of the Lee Hyo-seok short story When the Buckwheat Blooms (메밀꽃 필 무렵, Memilkkot Pil Muryeop). Set in the colonial period, the film tracks the long sad story of an unlucky man and his impossible love as he finds himself continually pushed to the edges of a world which is already disappearing. Yet as bad as things are for the heartbroken pedlar, they’re far worse for his long lost lady who finds herself continually handed from one man to another, abused, and exploited with no possibility of escape.

The story begins with three pedlars – Heo (Park No-sik) who hawks fabric, Jo (Kim Hee-gab) who sells paper, and Yun (Heo Jang-gang) who peddles “medicine”. Heo gets into an altercation with another, younger man, Dong-i (Lee Soon-jae), who he accuses of cutting in on his business. Unable to let the matter drop, Heo starts arguing with Dong-i again at an inn at which point he departs and leaves the old men to it. Heading back on the road, Heo entertains his friends with a familiar story – the one about his night in the buckwheat fields with his one true love.

Flashing back almost 20 years, the pedlars are all young men and only Jo is already married with a pregnant wife (Do Geum-bong) he takes with him on the road. In the marketplace one day, Heo catches sight of Bun-i (Kim Ji-mi), a noblewoman fallen on hard times whose father apparently plans to sell her to pay for his gambling debts. Crestfallen, Heo goes back to his business but catches sight of Bun-i once again and “enjoys” a spot of not exactly consensual sex in the middle of a beautiful buckwheat field. Heo asks Bun-i to wait for him, insisting that he will find the money to buy her from her father before he sells her to someone less nice. After trying several madcap schemes to get the requisite funds (including wrestling to win a bull), Heo sells his beloved donkey but is too late – Bun-i’s dad left in a hurry and sold her off somewhere or other but no one knows where. Heo sets off on a five year quest to find her but remains perpetually too late, only a little way behind but always arriving just after Bun-i and the son which is presumably Heo’s have been sold on to their next “owners.”

When the Buckwheat Blooms is very much Heo’s “depressing” (as he later describes it) life story. We see Bun-i on the periphery of his flashback, but he never finds her and so does not know of all she’s suffered since they parted, nor even that she has a child. Much of his melancholia is born of being old and of being poor. It is clear that his life has been ruined through poverty and lack of prospects – no one chooses to be a pedlar (as the pedlars keep pointing out), it’s what you do when you can’t do anything else. An itinerant existence has deprived each of them of a traditional family life. Jo had a wife in the flashback, but she and her children now live in a permanent home which Jo only rarely visits. Meanwhile Yun’s wife left him after the first time he took off for the road, unable to bear the loneliness and lack of stability involved in being a pedlar’s wife. Heo had remained single because of his lack of financial stability, but meeting Bun-i gave him hope for a different kind of life. He planned to give up peddling and set up as a farmer but, of course, it was not to be.

If that weren’t all the times are changing. The pedlars’ business is disrupted by the arrival of a band of fiddlers, but they haven’t just come to make merry – they’re advertising the “future”. They come to sing the virtues of the newfangled “department store” which is apparently a “foreign” invention and stocks “everything” – it has everything the market has and more, only cheaper and better quality. Dong-i, a young man, plans to give up peddling and try his luck in the gold mine, but there’s precious little hope for old men like Heo who have spent their lives living hand to mouth day by day and are now ill-equipped for anything else.

Heo is, at least, an “honest” man – he drinks but not to excess, and is frugal rather than throwing his money away on sex or gambling. Nevertheless, it’s hard to get away from his quasi-rape of Bun-i as she tries to run from him in the forest. The violence of the initial encounter undermines the romance of Heo’s ongoing tale as he hunts down his missing woman, apparently wanting to save her by buying her back from whoever it is “owns” her at the current time.

Told from Heo’s perspective, Bun-i’s feelings do not much factor in to his narrative but her life has been just as miserable as his, if not more so. A once noble lady, she suffers the humiliation of being “sold” by her father, and then sold on numerous times to other men each of whom abuse and mistreat her. By this time she also has a young son on whose behalf she resolves to suffer, even as her various “husbands” threaten to separate them. Bun-i has no freedom or possibility of escape. She is as chained as Heo’s donkey and treated with far less kindness.

Yet it is Heo to whom the central tragedy to ascribed – he yearns, searches, is frustrated and then forced to give up on his dreams while continuing to harbour enough of a spark of hope as to prevent him from moving forward with his life. He is condemned to grow old walking in circles burdened by an unrealisable dream. Once again shooting entirely on location, Lee aims for a more “sophisticated” aesthetic than many of his contemporaries, co-opting a shooting style much closer to European or Japanese film than is usual in ‘60s Korean cinema. A melancholy tale with an ironic, perhaps “happy” ending, Lee’s sad story of missed opportunities and ruined hopes is an oddly apt one for the post-war world but one which finds its share of cheerfulness even in abject misery.


When the Buckwheat Blooms is the second film included in the Korean Film Archive’s Lee Seong-gu box set. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Ilwol: The Sun and the Moon (일월 / 日月, Lee Seong-gu, 1967)

Sun and Moon posterOld habits die hard in Lee Seong-gu’s Ilwol: The Sun and the Moon (일월 / 日月). The feudal past refuses to ease its icy grip even in the new “democratic” era in which freedom and prosperity are promised to all. Lee Seong-gu, closely associated with the Western Modernist movement, flexes his Literary Film muscles with an adaptation of Hwang Sun-won’s novel. Mixing a standard melodrama narrative with an exploration of “outdated” social prejudices and the gradually fracturing psyche of a man who learns a “dark secret” regarding his personal family history, Lee isolates the individual within a changing society as an ordinary man finds himself unable to move forward despite his own desire to be free of the superstitious past.

Lee opens with a scene more in keeping with a romantic comedy. Aspiring architect In-cheol (Shin Seong-il) meets drama student Na-mi (Nam Jeong-im) at an upscale ski resort and is instantly smitten. After spending time with her, In-cheol goes home and visits a childhood friend, Da-hye (Moon Hee). Da-hye is quite obviously in love with In-cheol – a fact of which he is obviously unaware or just completely insensitive since his purpose in coming is to tell her about Na-mi. Despite her personal pain, Da-hye is a good friend and gives In-cheol the appropriate advice regarding his romantic endeavour, reminding him that many of his previous relationships have failed because he was too diffident and he let them drift away.

Meanwhile, In-cheol is called into his father’s study to meet his dad’s new business contact who, it happens, wants a house designed. In a piece of near dynastic finagling, In-cheol gets a new job and, surprise surprise, the house turns out to be for Na-mi who is the daughter of the bank manager In-cheol’s dad wants a loan from. Everything is working out just fine, but then In-cheol’s brother – the Mayor of Gwanju (Jang Min-ho), turns up in a state of agitation and tells them he’s being blackmailed. Someone has discovered their dark family secret – In-cheol’s dad ran away from his family because they were butchers, a near “untouchable” class even in the Korean society of 1967. In-cheol thinks this is all very silly, who cares about things like that anymore? But on another level the discovery profoundly disturbs him in what it says about him as a person and about the society in which he lives.

It does seem ridiculous to stigmatise such commonplace occupation in a supposedly modern society, but In-cheol can’t seem to move past it. He pays a visit to a slaughter house which is just as awful as he’d expected it to be as he watches a once powerful cow twitching helplessly on the floor while other workers dismember the corpses of animals, pulling out entrails and severing heads ready for keener butchery. Still, In-cheol reminds himself it’s just a job and resolves to meet his cousin, but his cousin, insisting that he has no relatives, won’t talk to him. In-cheol takes this for rudeness or rejection, but really his cousin is attempting to protect him. In having internalised the constant abuse he suffers – even once being arrested by the police when a murder took place nearby solely because he is a butcher and had no alibi, In-cheol’s cousin avoids contact with those outside of his group and does not want to taint him with the butcher brush. Yet In-cheol keeps pushing, only for his cousin to roundly tell him to leave it alone unless he has the courage to accept his butcher blood fully for all it is.

The problems are manifold. In-cheol’s father’s first engagement was broken when the bride found out he came from a butcher family, while his wife (who married him without knowing) became a religious obsessive after learning of her husband’s origins. In-cheol’s marriage prospects are almost certainly off the table if anyone finds out, but even if someone agrees to marry him knowing the truth should he really invite them to do so knowing that they (and their children) will share his shame?

Unable to speak, unable to move forward or back, In-cheol spirals into a depressive cycle of inertia and suffering. Da-hye tries to talk to Na-mi to get him to wake up, but Na-mi tells her she’s not much bothered about In-cheol’s mental state and has only been messing around. Nevertheless, she finally draws closer to him as means both of assuming the leading role in her relationship, and as a way of annoying her father whilst potentially getting herself involved in a small scale scandal. Meanwhile, Da-hye who had pointed out that In-cheol’s problem was his passivity, ironically reveals that she too has been waiting for him to wake up and realise her feelings for him, only now realising she has probably missed her chance. The melodramatic device of the love triangle becomes a symbol of In-cheol’s ongoing psychological fracturing as he finds himself caught between two women and realising he can choose neither of them because his “ancestral curse” has effectively disqualified him from living in the modern world.

Using innovative editing techniques, Lee dramatises the tragedy of an isolated generation, supposedly living in a “modern” society but unable to escape the outdated social codes of the past. Rather than attempt to free themselves from irrational and superstitious ways of thinking, they choose self-exile and willingly accept their unhappiness in an otherwise altruistic intention of preventing the spread of a contagion. Melancholy yet urgent, Ilwol: The Sun and the Moon uses the ridiculous survival of an ancient prejudice to lay bare a dark secret at the centre of its own society but finds only tragedy without sense of an escape.


Ilwol: The Sun and the Moon is the first film included in the Korean Film Archive’s Lee Seong-gu box set. (Not currently available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel).

This Charming Girl (여자, 정혜, Lee Yoon-ki, 2004)

This Charming GirlIt’s strange how, even in this increasingly interconnected world, our relationships with those around us are often wilfully superficial. Trapped within our own self-obsessed perspectives, we often fail to see beneath the surface of social conformity to realise that others are also lonely or troubled, wishing someone would see them but also afraid to make plain the various ways they don’t measure up to a social ideal. The heroine of Lee Yoon-ki’s This Charming Girl (여자, 정혜, Yeoja, Jeong-hye) is just such a woman – “charming” in her perfectly composed exterior, in many ways an embodiment of traditional femininity in her near invisibility as she gets on with her life and work quietly and with efficiency. There are however tiny cracks in the surface of her ordered existence that betray an ongoing, perhaps incurable anxiety.

Jeong-hae (Kim Ji-soo), a young woman in her late twenties, has an ordinary job working on the counter in the local post-office. As we later find out, she was once married but walked out on her new husband on their wedding night and, following the death of her mother, lives alone in the same apartment she has lived in all her life. Despite being well liked at work and taking lunch with the office ladies, Jeong-hae is perhaps not quite part of the group and finds it hard to relate to her noisy colleagues who gossip about her behind her back and when all is said and done probably regard her as a fellow employee rather than friend. Jeong-hae’s days are mostly spent alone, her interactions with others outside of work extend only to awkward telephone conversations with an unkind aunt, and an angry neighbour complaining about her extremely loud alarm clock.

Despite her shyness and self-imposed isolation, Jeong-hae is a kind and caring person with a gentle, nurturing personality. In the absence of human connection, she lovingly tends to her plants but is wary of taking on responsibility for more complex creatures and it’s only after a few mornings of noticing a melancholy, mewling kitten on her way to the bus stop that she decides to pick it up and take it to a vet. Suddenly being a cat owner has a profound impact on Jeong-hae’s way of life even if the skittish creature echoes her own sense of mistrust born of previous trauma in insisting on hiding under the sofa. Bonding with a living creature brings back painful memories of her traumatic past which threaten to impede her new sense of forward motion even as she attempts to outrun them.

The kitten isn’t the only stray Jong-hae picks up, later she takes pity on a sad young man who became involved in a drunken bar fight and alienated all his friends. Generally speaking, for reasons we later come to understand, Jeong-hae is wary of men and of male physicality. A rare visit to a shoe shop provoked by an unpleasant meeting with her ex-husband who has only got back in touch to express how much she hurt him by walking out without explanation, makes plain her distress even with perhaps “ordinary” everyday interactions. Though she does her best to endure it, Jeong-hae’s discomfort with the salesman’s hard sell tactics as he uses overfamiliar language and roughly manhandles her feet into a pair of sandals (which do not really suit her) eventually results in an extremely rare instance of self-assertion as she tells the assistant off, politely, before stopping to advise the woman behind the counter that perhaps men should not be selling women’s shoes or at any rate they should treat their customers as “people” rather than sales targets. Nevertheless, something about the drunken young man tells her that he is not a threat, only another person who seems to be in a dark place and probably in need of a stranger’s ear.

It’s perhaps this same sense of “recognition” that prompts her into making an extremely forward and uncharacteristically bold overture towards a shy young writer (Hwang Jung-min) who comes to the post office regularly to send off his manuscripts. If we get the sense that Jeong-hae is a mostly invisible person, then the writer is much the same. We catch sight of him often in the background, shopping in convenience stores, sitting at outdoor tables, waiting to cross the road. He’s the kind of person that perhaps only someone like Jeong-hae, equally invisible, a supernumerary even within her own world, might recognise. The tragedy is that Jeong-hae has a lot of love to give but has been robbed of the knowledge of how to give it safely thanks a traumatic incident in her past in which her innocence and naivety were abused by a person of trust who left her with no one to turn to for protection and a deeply internalised sense of shame and rage.

Her traumatic memories surround her like living beings, occupying the same space, occasionally poking their heads into her everyday life to remind her of an unpleasant association she couldn’t forget if she tried. Jeong-hae no longer sleeps, she naps fitfully on the sofa or wanders around all night at markets and cafes; she craves connection, but cannot access it. Thanks to the cat, the ex, the writer, even the overbearing shoe shop assistant and drunk man, she begins to find a way forward even if it pushes her towards an equally dangerous conclusion, and suddenly perhaps it’s not quite all so hopeless as it seemed.


This Charming Girl was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Grain in Ear (芒种 / 망종, Zhang Lu, 2005)

Grain in Ear posterChinese-Korean director Zhang Lu has made a career of exploring the lives of those living on the margins of modern China and most particularly those of the ethnic Korean minority. 2005’s Grain in Ear (芒种, Máng zhòng, 망종, Mang Jong) brings this theme to the fore through the struggles of its stoic heroine who bears all her troubles with quiet fortitude until the weight of her despair threatens an already fragile sense of civility, consistently eroded by multiple betrayals, misuses, and an unforgettable othering. Yet she is not entirely alone in her outsider status even if there is precious little value in solidarity among the powerless in a world of circular oppressions.

32-year-old Cui Shun-ji (Liu Lianji) has moved to a small town with her young son Chang-ho (Jin Bo) following her husband’s conviction of a violent crime. Unable to find work, she ekes out a living illegally selling kimchi from a cart without a permit while Chang-ho busies himself playing with the neighbourhood kids in the rundown industrial town. Isolated not only as a newcomer but as a member of the ethnic Korean minority, Shun-ji keeps herself to herself but can’t help attracting the attentions of the locals some of whom are merely curious about her spicy side dishes while others are intent on helping themselves to things which aren’t actually on sale.

There is something peculiarly perverse about Shun-Ji’s decision to make her living selling kimchi. It is both an act of frustrated patriotism and a kind of commodification of her ethnicity though she seems to have intense pride in her ability to produce her national dish even if there is not often as much calling for it as she would like. Meanwhile, at home, Shun-ji virtually tortures little Chang-ho into trying to learn the Korean alphabet as a way of fastening him closely to his heritage and community, but Chang-ho is a Chinese boy to all intents and purposes. He may understand Korean, but he doesn’t want or need to speak it and resents his mother’s attempts to reinforce his Koreanness.

Meanwhile, despite her aloofness, Shun-ji eventually forms a kind of relationship with a lonely Korean-Chinese man, Mr. Kim (Zhu Guangxuan), who visits her cart. Brought together by a shared sense of loneliness and a connection born only of a mutual ethnicity, the pair drift into an affair but Shun-ji’s dreams of romantic rescue will be short lived. Her lover is a weak willed man married to a feisty Chinese woman who will stop at nothing to recapture her henpecked husband. Cornered, Kim tells his wife it’s not “an affair” because money changed hands, branding Shun-ji a prostitute and getting her arrested by the police to prove his point.

To be fair, Shun-ji’s married lover is another oppressed minority afraid of the consequences of non-compliance, but he’s also just one of the terrible men that Shun-ji will encounter in her quest towards independence and self sufficiency. Her husband killed a man for money and left his family to fend for themselves when he went to prison for it. Her lover called her a whore and left her at the mercy of the police. A man who offered to help with a lucrative kimchi contract turned out to be after another kind of spice, and the kindly policeman who stopped by her cart with tales of his impending marriage turned out not to be so nice after all.

In this fiercely patriarchal world, women like Shun-ji have no one to rely upon but each other. Marginalised by poverty, ethnicity, and unfamiliarity, Shun-ji and Chang-ho live in a small shack behind the railway next to the local sex workers. Chang-ho, too small to understand why everyone calls the women next-door “chickens”, treats them all like big sisters while a kind of solidarity emerges between Shun-ji and the melancholy youngsters from far away towns who’ve travelled to this remote place to ply their trade out of desperation, too ashamed to stay any closer to home. One of the sex workers tries to warn Shun-ji about Kim – men who buy their services are not especially good romantic material, but it’s advice that falls on deaf ears. Shun-ji wants to believe better of her compatriot, but her faith is not repaid.

Zhang, in a familiar motif, foregrounds Li Bai’s famous ode to homesickness, giving it additional weight in the mouth of little Chang-ho whose longing is for another kind of home in contrast to his mother’s continued need to believe in the solidarity of her community. Yet even she eventually loses faith, tearing up Chang-ho’s Hangul cards and finally allowing him to give up on his Koreanness. Having endured so much, Shun-Li’s broken spirit eventually leads her towards an inevitable explosion and a grim, strangely poetic revenge against the society which has so badly wronged her. Only in this final moment of transgression does Shun-ji begin to harvest her own freedom, but escape is still a long way off and her final act of defiance may only further condemn her in world of constant oppressions.


Grain in Ear was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (Mandarin and Korean with Korean subtitles only)