Loser’s Adventure (튼튼이의 모험, Ko Bong-soo, 2018)

Three aimless young men attempt to shake off small-town despair through the medium of high school wrestling in Ko Bong-soo’s underdog indie sports comedy Loser’s Adventure (튼튼이의 모험, Teunteuniui Moheom). Unkind as it may be to say, the young men are or at least feel themselves to be “losers”, each battling a sense of hopelessness dealing with difficult family circumstances and desperate to escape “this pathetic life” as one terms it for the comparatively brighter lights of Seoul. 

In his last year of high school, Choon-gil (Kim Choong-gil) is now the only member of the wrestling club seeing as everyone else has long since drifted away and, in fact, the coach (Ko Sung-hwan) quit ages ago to drive a bus because he enjoys being able to earn a living. Choon-gil, however, refuses to give up and has been writing daily letters to the head of the wrestling federation in the hope that he’ll somehow be able to resurrect his sporting dreams while trying to convince his conflicted friend Jin-kwon (Baek Seung-hwan) to rejoin the team. While Choon-gil lives alone with his authoritarian, alcoholic father, Jin-kwan has a mild complex about his widowed Filipina mother and her relationship with the dance-loving boss at her job in a junk shop. Hyuk-jun (Shin Min-jae), meanwhile, is a tough guy dandy living with an older brother and and sister in the absence of parents. A petty delinquent and a member of the faintly ridiculous “Black Tiger” gang, Hyuk-jun thinks wrestling’s a bit naff and is offended when his brother tries to give him an ultimatum to start studying hairdressing at his sister’s salon or pick a sport to get good at with the hope of getting a scholarship to uni. 

None of our guys is particularly bright, they know they’re unlikely to make it out through their academic prowess and probably they don’t really think wrestling is going to take them anywhere either but it’s at least something. The most sceptical of the boys, Jin-kwan reminds Choon-gil that he isn’t even very good at the sport and the only reason they took it up in the first place was because the coach semi-adopted them as the surrogate father they each needed at the time. Nevertheless, he’s determined to do whatever it takes to make his wrestling dreams come true. He is however, in for a shock as it turns out that the building holding the wrestling gym is due to be demolished in the imminent future. For some reason moved by Choon-gil’s pleas, the coach calls in a few favours and manages to get the guys listed on an upcoming tournament with the hope that if they don’t lose too badly it will show that the moribund club has promise and is worth saving. 

The irony is that as hard as he trains Choon-gil just doesn’t have much of an aptitude for the sport. He adopts the position of a mentor to new recruit Hyuk-jun, but annoyingly enough he turns out to be something of a natural, while Jin-kwon, the skinniest of the boys though also the tallest, resents the coach’s constant pressure to lose more weight. They are each, as it turns out, at the mercy of their essential character flaws, Choon-gil the hardworking dreamer who just doesn’t have it, Jin-kwan timid and struggling against himself, and Hyuk-jun talented but hotheaded and self-sabotaging in allowing his emotions to get the better of him. 

Still, they do not give up. No one really rates their chances, Choon-gil’s violent, drunken father even attempts to disown him for his love of wrestling, insisting that he become a bus driver instead for the steady paycheque, while Jin-kwan is openly mocked by his sister and Hyun-juk’s dream of starting a business in Seoul is derided both by his brother and by the Black Tigers who continue to plague him even after he tells them that wrestling’s cool after all and they’re all just a bunch of small town losers. The jury’s out on whether the guys can wrestle themselves free of their sense of impossibility and despair, not to mention their sometimes unsupportive family members, but they have perhaps at least found an outlet for their frustration not to mention a surrogate fraternity as they continue on their “loser’s journey” together looking for an exit from the disappointing small town future. 


Loser’s Adventure streams in Poland until 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Dust and Ashes (축복의 집, Park Hee-kwon, 2019)

“People are property of the government from the cradle to the grave, since it’s all over they give it back to you” a corrupt policeman ironically explains handing over a dodgy document designed to help a desperate young woman subvert her tragedy. Stark in execution, Park Hee-kwon’s near wordless exploration of urban poverty Dust and Ashes (축복의 집, Chuk-bok-eui Jip) finds its heroine resorting to the unthinkable in a simple quest to survive while trapped in a world collapsing all around her. 

As we first meet Hae-su (Ahn So-yo), she’s leaving her factory job which evidently involves substances so toxic that she washes right away and scrubs her jacket clean ready for the next day before leaving for her other gig, scrubbing barbecue grills at a restaurant. She keeps trying to call someone who doesn’t pick up and walks home through the darkened streets, pausing so long outside the door we wonder if she’s gone to see whoever it is who won’t return her calls but eventually lets herself in with a key and walks quickly to the bathroom without turning on the light as if there’s something in there she doesn’t want to see.

Perhaps we begin to doubt Hae-su, somewhat uncertain of what has actually happened, but we can also see that she is griefstricken and nervous, driven to extremes in the depths of her despair. She must necessarily have known what was waiting for her at home, planned it, knowing exactly what it is she must do next. Her brother, Hae-jun (Lee Kang-ji), meanwhile is evidently not so much in favour, petulant and resentful but aware he has little choice in playing the role which has already been dealt him. Hae-su’s painful quest takes her on a journey through the corruptions of the modern society from a dodgy doctor taking cash for certificates to a corrupt policeman ‘helping” her alter the narrative circumstances to her advantage but only for a fee. 

Meanwhile, she’s about to be evicted, the entire area she lives in earmarked for “redevelopment”, a wasteland of deconstruction strewn with dust and rubble. We see her suffer the ignominy of a funeral with no flowers where she and her brother are the only mourners, a sight which seems to raise eyebrows not least with the insensitive policeman. Opening with darkness and the sounds of machinery, Park situates us in an industrial hellscape as if our entire lives took place on a gurney, trapped inside a wooden box being slowly pushed towards the fire. Showing the entirety of the funeral process in painful detail from the tender yet efficient embalming to the eventual cremation, grieving becomes something impossibly cold and clinical, no fancy curtains here merely an LCD screen reminiscent of that above a baggage claim carousel to let you know your loved one’s ashes (or more accurately bone dust ground in an industrial blender) are now ready for collection neatly packaged inside another, smaller wooden box. 

Yet Hae-su has no choice but to put up with these indignities. There appears to have been some level of male failure involved in the family, an absent or estranged father figure apparently no help, while we can also infer that the shadowy presence bothering her that she takes such care to avoid is an agent of the loan sharks in part responsible for her financial predicament. We can only imagine the desperation that must have forced this small group of people to take such a dreadful decision, and the anxiety of those left behind as they wonder if it will all come to nothing. Yet even if it works out, we get the impression Hae-su is running to stand still. Victory only means the continuance of the status quo, there seems precious little sign Hae-su or her brother will be able to escape their penury especially after everyone, including the loan sharks and dodgy policeman, exacts their cut. 

In the end all there is is dust and ashes. Hae-su evermore encumbered, wearing a mask to stave off the inevitable but still breathing in the corruption of the world around her as it too collapses into dust, a deconstructed wasteland of economic hubris. Necessarily bleak, Park’s spare, numbed photography finds only emptiness in Hae-su’s rain-drenched streets even as she strides off into the distance determined to survive no matter what it takes. 


Dust and Ashes streams in Poland until 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Forbidden Dream (천문: 하늘에 묻는다, Hur Jin-ho, 2019)

Technology is a great motivator for social change, which is one reason why there are those who would prefer to shut it down before it exists, afraid of the threat it poses to their own power and status. Best known for tearjerking romantic melodrama, Hur Jin-ho follows historical epic The Last Princess with a quietly nationalistic journey back to the Joseon era in which calls for greater sovereignty perhaps incongruously go hand in hand with progressive politics which see the good king Sejong (Han Suk-kyu) agitate for greater social equality through the democratisation of knowledge. This is his “Forbidden Dream” (천문: 하늘에 묻는다, Cheonmun: haneul-e mudneunda), the existence of a “fair” society in which anyone can read, write and learn regardless of the social class into which they were born.

Apparently inspired by the mysterious disappearance of legendary court inventor Jang Yeong-sil (Choi Min-sik) from the annals despite his close friendship with the king, Hur sets his tale in the 1440s during which time Korea is a tributary of the Ming. The problem with that is that though Korea remains a sovreign nation and Sejong its king, the Ming have positioned themselves as the culturally superior arbiters of knowledge. Facing persistent famines, Sejong is convinced that the key to agricultural prosperity lies in getting rid of the Ming almanac and using their own time zone which is better suited to the Korean Peninsula and will allow their farmers to make the best use of their land. The Ming, predictably, do not like his idea and are forever sending envoys to tell him to stop trying to “improve” on their technology. Nevertheless, he persists which is how he comes to meet Jang Yeong-sil, a technological genius whose innate talent has brought him to the palace despite the fact that he was born a slave. 

In Yeong-sil, the perhaps lonely king Sejong discovers a kindred spirit, the two men quickly, and transgressively, speaking as equals when it comes to developing their new technology. Giddy as schoolboys, they work on their inventions together for the betterment of the people, beginning with building a water clock to better indicate the time when the sun goes down. Sejong frees Yeong-sil and makes him a “5th rank scientist”, gifting him the clothes of a gentleman, but his open hearted egalitarianism sets him at odds with his ambitious courtiers who resent being forced to share their space with a former slave, puffed up on their feudal privileges that convince them advancement is a matter of name and intrigue. 

Just as Hur suggested in The Last Princess that the courtiers sold their country out because of an internalised sense that Korea was small and backward and could not stand alone, so Sejong’s ministers begin to abandon him and turn their fealty to the Ming. Sejong believes in Korean independence, certain that only by standing free can the country prosper and the people be happy. Others however fear Sejong’s “forbidden dream” of a more equal society knowing that it necessarily means a lessening of their own power and the privilege they feel themselves entitled to. Besides timekeeping, Sejong has also been working on a new alphabet which will further set them apart from the culture of the Ming. The ability to read and write using Chinese characters which Sejong feels are not perhaps well suited to Korean has hitherto been reserved for the elite. Sejong’s alphabet which will eventually become the Hangul still in use today removes the barriers to knowledge which ensure the rule of the few can never be challenged while also reinforcing the idea of a cultural Koreanness which is valid in its own right, equal to that of the Ming, and obviously a better fit for his people who will then be able to create glorious inventions of their own. 

Hangul is the “something eternal that no country can take away” that Sejong dreamed of as his legacy, but it’s also the thing that costs him his transgressive friendship with Yeong-sil as his courtiers reject his internal challenge to the social order, favouring the feudal certainties of the Ming over his revolutionary kingship. Undeniably homoerotic in the depths of its sincerity, the attachment of the two men, a slave and a king, is embodiment of Sejong’s forbidden dream as a symbol of a better world where all are free to innovate. “Class does not matter” he tells Yeong-sil as they stare up at the stars, “what matters is that we look at the same sky and share the same dream”. That better world, however, will be a long time coming, Yeong-sil a martyr punished for his class transgression but making a personal sacrifice on behalf of the king who was also his friend so he can bring about his forbidden dream of an independent Korea powered by cutting edge technology created by men like him with fine minds from all walks of life. Well, perhaps there’s still some work to do, but you get there in the end. Anchored by the magnetic performances of its two veteran leads, Forbidden Dream does not entirely escape the pitfalls of the Joseon-era drama with its palace intrigue and complex interpersonal politics, but is at its best when celebrating the intense friendship of two men united by the desire to innovate even if that innovation is not always convenient for the world in which they live.


Forbidden Dream streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 2020 LOTTE ENTERTAINMENT All Rights Reserved.

Juvenile Offender (범죄소년, Kang Yi-kwan, 2012)

“Can you forgive me just this once?” the protagonist(s) of Kang Yi-kwan’s Juvenile Offender (범죄소년, Beomjoe Sonyeon) sheepishly ask hoping to be pardoned for their transgressions, only to be met with the cynical, disappointed frown of those who’ve heard it all before. An empathetic character study, Kang’s steely drama lays bare the various ways in which patterns of behaviour ironically repeat themselves despite the best intentions of all involved while even those who earnestly do their best to break the cycle find themselves sabotaged by a rigid and unforgiving society. 

At 16, Ji-gu (Seo Young-joo) lives with his elderly grandfather who is bedridden and seemingly in terrible pain. Falling in with a bad crowd, he finds himself breaking into a wealthy home, reassured by one of the other boys that it’s fine because it belongs to a relative. Unfortunately, however, they’re caught when the lady of the house returns home unexpectedly, Ji-gu accidentally pushing her as he tries to escape. This is particularly bad news as, we discover, Ji-gu is already on probation for a previous assault charge after fighting with some other kids who made fun of him because of his poverty. Arrested, he’s the only one of the teens to have no representation in the room and the judge, trying to be sympathetic, eventually decides that in the absence of effective parenting some time in an institution might be the most beneficial option despite the fact that there will be no one left to look after grandpa. 

His grandfather’s eventual death while he is inside is one of many things adding to Ji-gu’s sense of guilty frustration, but it also allows a well-meaning guidance counsellor at the detention centre to realise that Ji-gu’s long absent mother who he’d assumed to be dead is in fact very much alive. Surprisingly, she agrees to see him but alarm bells should perhaps be ringing when she fails to turn up to sign for his release only to arrive a day late just as he’s about to be given into the custody of a social worker. Hyo-seung (Lee Jung-hyun) is evidently excited to take on this new challenge of becoming a mother to a 16-year-old boy, but it’s not long before you realise she hasn’t quite thought this through. 

As she outlines to Ji-gu by way of an explanation, she was only 17 when she gave birth to him. Overwhelmed by the responsibility and shame of being an unwed teenage mother she left him with her parents intending to commit suicide. There is something in her that is permanently arrested at the age she was she when became pregnant, forever relying on the kindness of (virtual) strangers but more often than not pushing her luck and outstaying her welcome. For the moment, she’s working as a trainee hairdresser and rooming with her wealthy boss in a fancy Gangnam apartment. Ji-gu will have to bunk with her, taking the bed while she throws some pillows on the floor. It’s less than ideal, but nevertheless mother and son begin to rebuild their relationship through a continual exchange of roles as Hyo-seung figures out the kinds of things she’s now responsible for such as getting Ji-gu re-enrolled in school, while he perhaps starts to allow himself to be looked after while realising that his mother really needs looking after too. 

The trouble is the past won’t let them go. Hyo-seung’s well-meaning attempt to get Ji-gu into an elite Gangnam school backfires when the snooty teacher refuses to take a boy from juvie, advising him to explore “alternative education” or sit the exams privately. He meanwhile ends up re-encountering an old friend, an act in itself which threatens his probation, but also brings additional complication in the revelation that his former girlfriend Sae-rom (Jun Ye-jin) gave birth to his child while he was inside but was disowned by her family who forced her to give the baby up for adoption and has become a melancholy exile living in a shelter for girls in a similar position. 

The ironic symmetry with his own life is not lost on him, his mother sadly explaining that his conception was no grand romance but a momentary lapse of teenage judgement with a boy who gave her a fake name and was never heard from again. Tracking Sae-rom down she wants nothing to do with him, though he is struck by the self harm scars on her arm neatly mirroring those on Hyo-seung’s wrists, his mother wailing that her life was ruined in an instant by his father whose mistake he has just unwittingly repeated. He vows to take responsibility, cruelly snapping back that he doesn’t want Sae-rom to turn out like Hyo-seung making plain he knows all about her life of petty grifting, but realistically how can he when he’s only 16 and on the run from himself frightened of making a mistake and ending up back inside. 

Each outcasts in their own way, consumed by the social stigma of being an unwed teenage mother (still an unpardonable offence even in 21st century Korea) or of being a juvenile offender, the trio attempt to move on with their lives but find themselves continually blocked either by an unforgiving, often wilfully exploitative society or by their own sense of hopeless inertia. “Can you forgive me just this once?” Ji-gu repeatedly asks, really meaning to do better this time only for his anger and frustration to ruin everything he’s worked so hard to acheive. Still, perhaps it’s not him that needs forgiving so much as the unforgiving society that needs to regain a sense of compassion for those who transgress against its unfair and arbitrary sense of moral righteousness. 


Juvenile Offender streamed as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Bori (나는보리, Kim Jin-yu, 2018)

Perhaps it’s not unusual for a soon-to-be teenage girl to feel out of place at home, but for young Bori the sense of alienation is all the greater because she is the only hearing member of her family. Set in a charmingly tranquil seaside town during a serene summer holiday, Bori (나는보리, Na-neun-bo-ri) touches on themes of identity and belonging, disability and discrimination, communication and connection, but is at heart a beautifully drawn coming-of-age tale in which the heroine learns to feel at home in herself and her family while fully accepting that difference need not be a barrier. 

Though her home life appears to be blissfully happy, Bori (Kim Ah-song) can’t help feeling a little pushed out in being necessarily othered as she acts as a speaking interpreter for her family members. She mildly resents her younger brother Jeongwoo (Lee Lyn-ha), who like her parents is deaf, because he’s allowed to mess around just being a kid while she has to take on a more mature responsibility, telephoning for take away food, buying train tickets at the station, talking to bank tellers, giving taxi drivers directions etc. Though she obviously understands sign language, she does not always use it, often falling back on note writing to get across exactly what she wanted to say, and sometimes feels excluded from the happy bubble of her parents and brother as they continue to communicate in ways which still elude her. 

For these reasons, she’s taken to stopping off at the local shrine on her way to school to pray that she somehow loses her hearing. Bori’s best friend, Eun-jeong (Hwang Yoo-rim), is confused why she would actively like to deafen herself but nevertheless supportive, lending her her earphones to listen to white noise at unhealthy decibel levels but it’s not until the first day of summer holiday when she copies an elderly diver on TV and tries to implode her eardrums by jumping in the sea that she almost gets her wish, waking up in hospital and telling everyone that she too is now deaf. To Bori, all she’s done is make herself the same as everyone else in her family so she can’t understand why people seem upset. After all there’s nothing wrong with being deaf, so why is everyone acting as if she’s met with some kind of tragedy?

Then again, being “deaf” doesn’t seem to make the difference she thought it would. Her father (Kwak Jin-seok) cheerfully tells her it makes no difference at all to him whether she’s deaf or not, she’s just his lovely little girl while her mother (Hur Ji-na) who was understandably upset at the hospital quickly adapts. Jeongwoo meanwhile begins to confide in her a little more, temporarily becoming the big brother as he explains to her how difficult it can be for him as a deaf child in a hearing school. “I’m difficult for him too” Jeongwoo generously concludes telling his sister that he mostly doodles or sleeps in class because he finds it difficult to lipread and the teacher doesn’t seem to have made much of an effort to be inclusive. Bori realises that the reason her brother’s so football crazy isn’t just that he enjoys the sport, but that it’s the only time the other kids interact with him. He doesn’t really have any “friends” and even though he’s the best player for his age he’s only a substitute on the team because the coach is wary of his disability even though it can’t be said to make much difference on the pitch.

Eun-jeong, while suspecting Bori might be faking, treats her pretty much the same making an effort to communicate in whatever manner works, though the girls were used to talking through notes in class anyway. Some of the other kids at school, however, are far less understanding, unaware she can of course hear their barbed comments, and while out shopping with her mother she becomes more aware of the direct discrimination she faces as two rude cashiers in a boutique talk openly of their disdain for the “mute” in their store, whacking an extra 5000 won on the price thinking she won’t notice. Bori is outraged, but can’t say anything without blowing her cover. 

The worst occurs however when her aunt takes her and her brother for a checkup at the local hospital where the doctor suggests possible surgery and a cochlear implant for Jeongwoo. Bori hears him say that after the operation Jeongwoo would be unable to play sports or go swimming because of the dizziness meaning he’d have to give up football, his only outlet. Conflicted over whether to warn him, she is also a little offended that everyone seems to consider deafness as a problem to be fixed, not even bothering to enquire if that’s actually something that Jeongwoo might want. She repeatedly asks him, but is conflicted when he tells her that he would or at least he doesn’t necessarily want a “cure” for his deafness but would desperately love to be able to talk to his friends. Nevertheless, she’s annoyed with her aunt for railroading them towards “normality” without properly discussing it with them. 

Talking with her father he tells her of the discrimination he faced as a child, that the reason he can’t write is because he was badly bullied and prevented from attending school. He’s glad things are better for Jeongwoo, though they are obviously not perfect. What Bori realises is that her difference doesn’t matter and neither does anyone else’s, the people who love her would still love her no matter what and the ones that wouldn’t aren’t worth worrying about, while she also resolves to stand up to discrimination and injustice on behalf of those who might not be able to. A charmingly wholesome coming-of-age drama set in a sunny seaside town, Bori is a gentle plea for a more inclusive world fulled by empathy and openness. 


Bori streams in the UK on 12th November as the closing gala of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Woman Who Ran (도망친 여자, Hong Sang-soo, 2020)

“He keeps saying the same thing. It’s absurd how he repeats himself”, an exasperated wife complains. “If he just repeats himself how can he be sincere?”. Perhaps another meta self own from master of the form Hong Sang-soo, but one that has additional bite in indirectly targeting a potentially duplicitous heroine who may or may not be “The Woman Who Ran” (도망친 여자, Domangchin Yeoja). Ran from what, one might ask though there is something clearly fugitive in the brief sojourns of Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee) whose casually profound conversations with a trio of old friends once again probe into the complicated nature of the relationships between men and women as if she were on a quest to find out what else is out there for a woman of a certain age than a, as she intentionally or otherwise characterises it, dull and unfulfilling marriage. 

It’s the first of her hosts, Young-soon (Seo Young-hwa), who perhaps signals Gam-hee’s desire for change in pointing out that her hair is much shorter than it had been the last time she saw her or ever before, Gam-hee apparently having attempted to hack it off herself in the bathroom in a fit of despair before deciding to get a professional to fix it. Young-soon thinks it makes her look like a “flighty high school student”, and in a sense it does in her slightly nervous giddiness even as she cuts the figure of a typically elegant, upper-middle class lady of leisure. As she tells each of her friends, Gam-hee claims that she and her husband have never spent a day apart in their five years of marriage, his idea apparently in a romantic conviction that those who love each other should stick together, but now he’s apparently gone off on a “business trip” so she’s travelling around visiting friends. Repeated ad infinitum in more or less the same words, Gam-hee’s story can’t help but feel overly rehearsed and less “sincere” with each iteration, leading us to wonder what the real reason for her excursion might be along with her true feelings about her marriage. 

As we find out, Young-soon is recently divorced from a self-absorbed playwright/director and has used the settlement money to move out to the semi-rural fringes of the suburbs where she has a small patch of land farming her own produce. She now lives with another woman, Young-jin (Lee Eun-mi), described only as a “roommate” but the atmosphere is domestic and settled, an ostensibly harmonious home. It is nevertheless disrupted by an irritating man (Shin Seok-ho), a new neighbour come to issue a complaint about the couple’s habit of feeding the local strays whom he maligns as “robber cats”, politely suggesting they stop because his wife is apparently so afraid of them that she can no longer leave her new home. Young-jin is polite but firm, describing their relationship to the cats as like their children, dismissing the man’s insistence that his wife’s ability to enjoy her garden is an “important matter” with the affirmation that the cats’ right to life is also an “important matter” and so they’re at an impasse. The comically passive aggressive conversation ends in a stalemate with the man admitting a momentary defeat, annoyed that the two women refused to acknowledge his authority, but pettily vowing to appeal to a higher power by reporting them to a residents’ association no better than the local rooster who likes to peck the feathers off hens to show them who’s boss. 

A man turns up to annoy Gam-hee’s second friend too, a 26-year-old unsuccessful poet (Ha Seong-guk) she apparently slept with on a whim only to see him become overly attached. Like Young-soon, Su-young (Song Seon-mi) has achieved a degree of financial independence and has recently bought a long term lease on her own home. She is apparently happily single, or at least convinced that good men are hard to find and most particularly in Korea. Nevertheless, she has something tentative going with a soon-to-be divorced architect who lives on the floor above, which is one reason why she’s keen to be rid of the annoyingly clingy poet. Su-young tries to ask Gam-hee about her marriage, if she’s really in love, but she can only answer unconvincingly that she feels a little bit of love everyday, accidentally or otherwise positioning herself as the loved and not the lover. She tells the final of her friends, Woo-jin (Kim Sae-byuk), that her husband is a part-time teacher and translator of historical texts and novels prompting the question of what sort of business trip he might have needed to go on, alone, for the first time in five years, but also signalling something of her boredom with her overly conventional life, complaining to Su-young that she’s fed up with her hobbyist sideline running an unsuccessful florists. 

Her meeting with Woo-jin is, if she’s to be beleived, serendipitous, the fact she’s brought no gift as she had for the other two women (meat for Young-soon that as it turns out was really for Young-jin, and a designer coat for fashionable Su-young) supporting her case, but does perhaps lead her towards her endgame as the protagonist in a final encounter with a problematic man, as it turns out an old flame who is the cause of the initial awkwardness between the two women whose former closeness we can infer from small, intimate gestures, Woo-jin placing her hand over Gam-hee’s by means of apology, and Gam-hee later clasping her friend’s knee. Curiously enough, the two women are also dressed more or less the same, and later seem to have patched up their old friendship, conspiratorially slagging off Woo-jin’s husband Seong-gu (Kwon Hae-hyo), now a famous author she fears has become an “insincere” narcissist who’s let fame go to his head. 

Apparently having seen him on TV, Gam-hee too agrees he’s “changed”, wondering if he’s really the same man she once knew, endlessly prattling on self-importantly for the cameras. Woo-jin can’t bear to listen to him anymore, fed up with his well rehearsed quips and affected persona. In seeing him again is Gam-hee confronted by the “reality” of her romantic fantasy of the failed love of her youth, or merely presented with an uncomfortable mirror of artifice that, like her meetings with her three friends prompts her into reconsideration of who she is and what it is she wants out of life? “I’d like to live somewhere this” she says to both Young-soon and Su-young, partly out of politeness but also re-imagining herself as a new age cottager or fancy free bachelorette, hearing the scandalous story of a woman who really did run disappearing in the night from her crushingly disappointing existence. Nevertheless, like many of Hong’s heroes Gam-hee remains a fugitive, retreating to the temporary refuge of the familiar trapped somewhere between past and future without clear direction but perhaps a little more alive. 


The Woman Who Ran streamed as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Family Ties (가족의 탄생, Kim Tae-yong, 2006)

What is it that binds a “family”, bonds or blood, and do you really have a choice when it comes to being in one? Those are all questions which might have greater import in societies in which the concept of family is clearly defined and deeply entrenched, but even so the answers may be in a state of flux in the face of rapid social change which perhaps dangles the possibilities of greater personal freedom while in other ways remaining rigidly conservative. 

More literally translated as the birth of a family, Kim Tae-yong’s Family Ties (가족의 탄생, Gajokeui tansaeng) explores these changing connections through three interconnected stories, the first two occurring roughly contemporaneously and the third around a decade later. The heroine of the opening chapter, Mira (Moon So-ri), is a reserved young woman running a small cafe mostly catering to noisy teens. Originally excited to receive a phone call from her younger brother Hyung-chul (Uhm Tae-woong) whom she hasn’t seen for five years letting her know he’ll be coming home for a visit, Mira’s enthusiasm for the reunion dwindles when he turns up with a new wife, Mu-shin (Go Doo-shim), who appears to be much older than him. Mira is understandably put out. Firstly, he obviously didn’t invite her to his wedding, in fact he didn’t even bother to share the news he’d got married, and secondly it’s quite inconsiderate not to have warned her there would be an extra guest in tow especially as they’ve not met before. 

On the other hand, perhaps seeing him again merely reminds her of all the reasons they haven’t stayed in touch. In a quiet moment, Hyung-chul reveals he wants to open a shop selling traditional hanbok nearby, which is a surprise, but Mira instantly realises he’s probably come for money and repeatedly tells him she doesn’t have any. When everyone’s asleep, she makes a point of putting her bank book in a locked box inside the safe just to be sure he won’t abscond with it in the night. With Hyung-chul picking a fight with her fiancé and a random child turning up who turns out to be Mu-shin’s unwanted stepdaughter from several relationships ago, Mira’s patience begins to come to an end. She suggests that perhaps they’ve outstayed their welcome, but then evidently thinks better of it only to be let down once again by her irresponsible brother who claims he can take care of everyone, but predictably does not follow through. 

Family becomes a burden left to women to bear while acting as a safety net for men who view their role as protector yet largely can’t look after themselves. Sun-kyung (Gong Hyo-jin), the slightly younger protagonist of the second story, is frustrated by this same self sacrificing quality in her mother who has been continually deceived by useless lovers all her life including the most recent, a married man who won’t leave his wife and children. She also resents the presence of her much younger brother, still an elementary student doted on by the mother from whom she feels increasingly disconnected. Having run away from home to become a singer, Sun-kyung now has her sights set only on escaping abroad and is currently working as a guide for Japanese tourists only to end up bumping into her ex-boyfriend on a day out with his new partner. For her family is little more than a trap, her boyfriend apparently breaking up with her for being too selfish while she eventually pays a visit to the home of her mother’s lover to confront him and ask if “love” is really worth the price of sneaking around living a lie. Yet bonding with her brother and discovering what was in the mysterious suitcase her mother insisted on leaving at her apartment perhaps reconnects her with her childhood self and a more positive take on family bonds, even if that means in a sense regaining one dream only to abandon another. 

In any case, the anxieties of the first two sequences are visited in the third through the story of a young couple we first meet sitting next to each other on a train. So familiar with each other are they that we assume they are already involved, but they are in fact strangers meeting for the first time. Flashing forward a little, however, we can see their relationship is strained. Kyung-seok (Bong Tae-gyu), the young man, has inherited a sense of male insecurity, flying into jealous rages ostensibly because his girlfriend Chae-hyeon (Jung Yu-mi), is simply too nice or more to the point she’s nice to everyone and not just to him. He is frustrated by her because he feels she allows herself to be taken advantage of, often lending money to people who won’t see the need to pay her back because she’s too “nice” to bring it up. The last straw comes when he feels she’s embarrassed him by not showing up for a family dinner because she got involved in the search for a missing child. 

“When I’m with you I’m dying of loneliness” he somewhat dramatically announces as part of a breakup speech, annoyed that Chae-hyeon does not devote herself entirely to him as perhaps he expects a woman to do, but defiantly carries on being indiscriminately nice to everyone. He describes his mother as “pathetic” for having been overly attached to unreliable men, only to be corrected by his sister who reminds him that she merely had a big heart, something he’s perhaps lacking in his broody neediness. Yet through meeting Chae-hyeon’s family we get a sense of something different and new in which two women have raised a child unrelated to them by blood who came into their lives by chance as the result of a man’s irresponsible behaviour, an unnecessary throwaway reference to separate bedrooms perhaps undermining the boldly progressive introduction of Chae-hyeon’s two mothers to the extremely confused Kyung-seok. Nevertheless what we see in this last family, born as it was through a series of accidental meetings, is the first instance of a warm and loving home built on mutual support and affection rather than simply on blood or obligation. Having reclaimed the nature of family for themselves perhaps gives the women the courage and conviction to firmly close the door on those who might seek to misuse or corrupt it with their own sense of selfish entitlement, blood relation or not. 


Family Ties streamed as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Gull (갈매기, Kim Mi-jo, 2020)

“Equality before the law must be enjoyed not only by the rich but by everyone. We must not let them get away with trampling on our human rights and right to life”, the leader of a protest against the forced relocation of his fish market intones over a loudspeaker in Kim Mi-jo’s incendiary Gull (갈매기, Galmaegi), but his words have a very different connotation to a middle-aged woman quietly seething in her protest gear as she watches from an upper window. She knows when he says “everyone”, it’s not quite what he means and that to that extent he does not truly believe what he’s saying because to be a woman in this society is to know that your human rights and right to life have been trampled on daily since the day you were born and if you try to resist someone will tell you you’re making a scene. 

30 years running a stall selling raw fish, O-bok (Jeong Aehwa) is excited about the marriage of her oldest daughter, In-ae (Go Seo-hui), though also a little anxious seeing as she’s marrying up, her fiancé’s family are educated people with good government jobs. In-ae jokes that her mother has an inferiority complex, but it is in a sense true in a half-realised acceptance of her marginalised position as a working class woman along with the frustrated dreams of her youth. Chatting on the phone with her mother who has dementia, O-bok reveals she’s proud that despite having missed out on an education herself as was the thinking for girls in those days, she managed to send each of her three daughters to college. She wonders why her mother didn’t do the same, and mourns all the things she could have done with her life if only she hadn’t been bound by societal expectations. 

Staying behind one evening to have a drink with her colleagues, she is assaulted by Gi-taek (Kim Byeong-choon), the man with the loudspeaker and the de facto leader of the protest and solidarity movement trying to ensure they cannot be pressured into accepting less than they’re owed in compensation when the market is closed. Stumbling home the following morning clearly in pain and having difficulty walking, O-bok is alerted to blood on the back of her skirt by a fellow female pedestrian, stopping into a bath house to rinse out her underwear. Aside from visiting a doctor for “bleeding”, she tells no one and does not return to the market for several days. Gi-taek, meanwhile, has the audacity to turn up at her door with premium seafood to ask after her health. 

Eventually O-bok explains what’s happened to In-ae, laying bare a generation gap as the younger woman tries to persuade her mother that she should it report it to the police. O-bok, however, is reluctant to make herself the subject of gossip, mindful of the effect it may have on her daughter’s marriage, and tries the old-fashioned way first in asking Gi-taek for an apology through an intermediary, complicating the situation in obviously being unwilling to say what it’s for. When he refuses, she takes her daughter up on the offer and files a complaint though perhaps knowing it’s unlikely to go anywhere seeing as she no longer has access to any material evidence.  

What she could not have expected is the extent to which her simple desire to see justice done would make her a social pariah. Of course, the situation is complicated by the economic precariousness of the fish market workers who cannot afford to lose out on the compensation money and are depending on Gi-taek to help them get it. The men find the whole thing embarrassing, making muted comments about O-bok’s drinking as if she brought this on herself, something her daughter later echoes in a moment of anger only to be disappointed in herself for saying it. Not knowing who made the accusation, her husband chuckles that rape is all a big joke because you “can’t rape a girl who doesn’t want to”, while the women are largely no better reminding her that this is the sort of thing you keep to yourself and try to forget as if they don’t know how that feels. 

“I’m so sick of people mouthing off about rights and all” a genial female shopkeeper confesses to O-bok, admitting that she has no idea why the man on the roof across the way with the sign is protesting, “He says things are unfair or something. I don’t even care.” “He’s just torturing himself” she adds, O-bok perhaps wondering too if that’s all she’s really doing, if her quest for justice is really worth it when no one seems to care. She wonders if they’d care more if she weren’t a 61-year-old market fishmonger but an educated woman with a good government job. Maybe we’re not all so equal under the law after all, but she can’t let them get away with trampling on her dignity. Shot with naturalistic detachment shifting to a rattled handheld, Gull is a crushing condemnation of a misogynistic, classist society but one that finds strength in its heroine’s resilience and newfound determination make herself seen if only by those ought to feel ashamed. 


Gull streams in the UK until 11th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Daughter of Fire (불의 딸, Im Kwon-taek, 1983)

“Doctor, is it possible in our modern society for someone to suffer from that kind of illness?” the conflicted hero of Im Kwon-taek’s Daughter of Fire (불의 딸, Bul-ui ttal) asks his psychologist, plagued by nightmares of the mother who abandoned him at 11 and suffering what seems to him to be the call to shamanism, only what place could such a backward and superstitious practice have in “our modern society?”. In many ways, it’s exactly that question which Im seems to find so essential, implying in a sense that even in the politically repressive but increasingly prosperous Korea of the late ‘70s that they have perhaps lost something of their essential Koreanness in their abandonment of their ancestral beliefs in favour of modern “sophistication”.

Listening to his troubles, the disinterested psychiatrist reassures Hae-joon that it’s just a “minor neurosis” caused by “frustration” which can easily be cured. On his way home, however, Hae-joon is accosted by an older woman dressed in shaman’s clothing who addresses him as a son, reminding him that he has the blood of shamans running in his veins and try as he might he’ll never be able to escape it. Her intervention perhaps links back to an earlier encounter with the pastor at his wife’s church who explained to him that his wife is at the end of her tether, embarrassed by his lack of faith believing that it reflects badly on her as a religious woman hoping to lead others towards the lord if she cannot at least count her husband among the saved. So great is her distress that she has apparently even considered divorce. This is perhaps one reason Hae-joon is so keen to exorcise his shamanistic desires, though it’s also clear that his presence in his home is intensely resented, his wife later only warmly greeting him by hoping that he’ll be able to let go of his “dark and diabolical life” for something brighter and more cheerful, ie her religion though the grey uniformity and intense oppression of her practice only make her words seem more ironic. 

The pressing problem in his family is that his daughter is also sickly, seemingly with whatever it is which afflicts Hae-joon. She has begun sleepwalking and later suffers with fits and seizures which to a certain way of thinking imply the onset of her shamanistic consciousness. Hae-joon’s Christian family, in a touch of extreme irony, are convinced that an exorcism in the form of a laying on of hands will cure her, yet they like many others view the ritualised religious practice of the shaman as a backward relic of the superstitious past. The ironic juxtaposition is rammed home when Hae-joon is sent to cover a supposed miracle for his newspaper that his wife and her friends from church regard as the second act of Moses, standing ramrod straight and singing hymns while a noisy festival of shamanic song and dance occurs further along the beach apparently a rite to appease both the sea god and the vengeful spirit of an old woman accidentally left behind when her community migrated to another island to escape an onslaught of tigers. Stuck in the middle, Hae-joon exasperatedly explains to his photographer that this parting of the seas isn’t any kind of miracle at all, merely a natural result of low tide revealing that which would normally be hidden. 

Yet despite his unsatisfactory visit with the psychologist, Hae-joon becomes increasingly convinced that only by finding his mother can he come to understand what it is that afflicts him. Speaking to the various men who knew her from the step-father he later ran away from to escape his abuse after his mother disappeared, to a blacksmith who cared for him as an infant, and the men she knew after, Hae-joon begins to understand something of her elemental rage. Driven “mad” by the murder of her lover by the Japanese under the occupation, she wandered the land looking for fire to exorcise her suffering only later to lose that too when the oppressive Park Chung-hee regime outlawed shamanism entirely in his push towards modernity. Consumed by the fires of the times in which she lived, there was no place in which she could be at peace and nor will there be for Hae-joon or for his daughter until they embrace the legacy of shamanism within. 

“Shamanism will not disappear and die” Hae-joon later adds, now able to see that there is or at least could be a place for it in “our modern society” or perhaps that it’s the modern society which must change in order to accommodate it. Despite his long association with depictions of Buddhism, it is the shaman which Im considered the foundation of Korean culture, something he evidently thinks in danger to the perils of a false “modernity”, Hae-joon eventually professing his concerns that without it Korea will forever be oppressed by foreign influence. Only by accepting the shaman within himself can he hope to find freedom in an oppressive society. 


Daughter of Fire streams in the UK until 11th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Divine Bow (神弓 / 신궁, Im Kwon-taek, 1979)

“From now on we need think only of our children. We can’t pass on shamanism to them. Our children at least should have a bright future” insists a man whose horizons have in one sense been broadened but perhaps in another narrowed following forced immersion in the modern world. A classic “island” film, Im Kwon-taek’s Divine Bow (神弓 / 신궁, Singung) finds a conflicted modern day shamaness reassessing her place in a community which has systemically betrayed her while trying to find a path through the intensity of her grief and sorrow. 

Set almost entirely on the small fishing island of Naro, the film opens with a series of short, static shots of the rainy harbour where an old man sits and strokes his beard wearing traditional Korean dress while a group of seemingly unemployed young men look on listlessly from the boats. It seems the community is in crisis for a number of reasons, the most pressing being a non-existent harvest of fish which they are choosing to attribute to the local shamaness’ refusal to perform the customary rituals. Unmoved by their petitioning, Wangnyeon (Yoon Jeong-hee) advises them to hire her daughter-in-law instead, but for unexplained reasons they only want her, threatening to hire a shaman from a neighbouring island if she continues her policy of non-cooperation. As we will discover, Wangnyeon has her reasons beyond a simple desire for retirement from what is a fairly strenuous job for an ageing woman, but the return of her long absent son Yongban prompts her into a reconsideration of her past and future as well as her place in this community. 

Though the tale is set in the present day, the fishermen are convinced that Wangnyeon’s refusal to conduct the ritual is the reason their harvest has failed, apparently for the first time in 30 years ever since she “retired”. But then they also tell us themselves of more rational reasons they may no longer be able to fish including an oil leak in the surrounding seas and the corrupting influence of larger corporations for which many of them are now reluctantly working. It is precisely this incursion of modernity that has led to all the trouble. Taken off the island, presumably to fulfil his military service, Wangnyeon’s husband Oksu (Kim Hee-ra) observes the modern world during his time in the army and comes to the conclusion that his home culture is backward and superstitious. Hired to perform an important ritual on a neighbouring island for the first time, Wangneyon repeatedly delays the contract to align with her husband’s discharge so he can play drums for her as he always had before. His newfound sophisistication, however, has robbed him of the ability to play. He no longer believes in shamanism and eventually leaves once again to work on a ship in order to one day own a fishing boat of his own. 

“What does a shaman do if not rituals?” Wangnyeon irritatedly asks her husband, in her case the answer apparently being a defiant nothing. Her refusal is part of her resistance to a world that has repeatedly betrayed her. Yet suffering economically temporarily loses her her son who, perhaps unlike his father, returns after a year of travelling more convinced than ever by shamanism if resentful that his mother has not yet relented and resumed her ritual duties. What we realise is that Wangnyeon has grown weary of her complicated place in the island hierarchy, existing to one side of the rest of the community who view her both with mild disdain and fearful awe. A victim of petty island politics, she takes literal aim at the corruption in her society and purifies it with her “divine bow”, mindful of Yongban’s pleas that her rituals are not just for her but for the many people who need to see them performed. 

“Everything, everything, everything is a dream” Wangyeon sings, living perhaps in her own ethereal purgatory, her jagged life story revealed to us in a series of fragmentary flashbacks as she reflects on her present predicament while finally understanding what it is she must do, determining to pick up the divine bow once again and reassume her rightful role as the shamanness. Marking Im’s first collaboration with cinematographer Jung Il-sung, Divine Bow is rich with ethnographic detail exploring this small rock pool of traditional culture on an otherwise moribund island subject to the same petty authoritarian corruptions and ravages of an increasingly capitalistic society as anywhere else. 


Divine Bow streams in the UK until 11th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.