Beauty Water (기기괴괴 성형수, Cho Kyung-hun, 2020)

“Nothing matters more than being beautiful” according to an ironic statement made by a crazed revenger apparently both consumed by and resentful of South Korea’s obsession with conventional “beauty” standards. Beauty may well be in the eye of the beholder, but in this case the beholder has a noticeably conformist eye which is why it’s become something of a running joke that every manufactured pop star, model, or actress, has the same face. Not to be considered “beautiful” is to be relegated to a kind of underclass in which one’s thoughts and achievements are not accounted credible to the extent that employment prospects and class status are often dependent on meeting closely controlled constructs of physical beauty. Though it is true that men are also increasingly subject to these same definitions of attractiveness, they are not usually faced with the same kind of “invisible wall”, as the heroine of Cho Kyung-hun’s animation Beauty Water (기기괴괴 성형수, Gigigoegoe Seonghyeongsu) later puts it, which so limits a woman’s prospects in the fiercely patriarchal society. 

Yaeji (Moon Nam-sook) is a case in point. Ironically working as a makeup artist, she is regularly insulted by those around her including diva of the moment Miri (Kim Bo-young) who has her banished from the room, not wanting to see such an “ugly pig” so early in the morning. Only new recruit actor Ji-hoon (Jang Min-hyeok) treats her with any kind of kindness, remarking on the peculiar beauty of her eyes and later suggesting they do his makeup in a quiet corridor so she won’t be subject to Miri’s green room tantrums. Unexpectedly asked to fill-in for an absent extra sitting at a table laden with food, she later finds herself going viral, branded a “greedy fatty” online while journalists start bothering her at home trying to get her side of the story. She locks herself away in her room and refuses to come out. It’s then that she receives a mysterious text message followed by a parcel containing “Beauty Water”, an experimental substance which claims it can make even the least attractive of people “beautiful”.

“I just want to be loved” Yaeji plaintively claims, fully believing love is something you cannot have when you are not beautiful. Tragically she later realises that she was loved after all in recalling her parents’ reassurances during a traumatic childhood episode in which she came second in a ballet competition convinced that she danced better than the other girl but lost out because of her “ugliness”, but rather than learning to love herself in rejection of socially defined notions of conventional attractiveness Yaeji goes down the dark path of the quick fix entrusting her future to Beauty Water. She rebrands herself as Sul-hye and embarks on the cynical life of a vacuous influencer, dating various wealthy men but dismissing them all in her caustic interior monologue now confident enough to feel she can do better but leveraging only her looks in order to catch a useful man rather than trying to forge a life of independence. She is now fully a prisoner of the oppressive and tightly regimented gender-based social codes of a fiercely patriarchal society. 

Nevertheless, in the grand tradition of experimental serums, Beauty Water changes her soul as well as her face. Obsessed with the pursuit of perfection in beauty, Sul-hye becomes increasingly violent and aggressive, bullying her parents into lending her money for extra treatment by holding them responsible for giving birth to an unattractive child. We hear TV reports of young women in their 20s going missing and half-wonder if Sul-hye herself or someone like her, another victim of Beauty Water, may be responsible, but equally we see that the entire entertainment industry which Sul-hye is now trying to enter as another means of attaining success and fulfilment is entirely built on the exploitation of female “beauty” which is itself used as a means of control. Ji-hoon, apparently kind and sensitive, retires from showbiz because he can’t live with its manipulative cruelty and warns Sul-hye about Miri’s manager whom he believes bought Miri her career through pimping her out to “powerful” men and then embezzled all her money. Miri has since gone mysteriously missing. 

Finally we’re shown that appearances can be deceptive, that the “beautiful” are not always nice, nor exceptional in any other way than their physical appearance, and are unfairly prized by a superficial society. Judged for her purchases at the convenience store Yaeji stumbles on the way home while her building’s security guard offers no help, only the rude instruction that she should lose some weight then she’d be able to walk better. Meeting Sul-hye, the same guard reacts quite differently. Suddenly nothing is too much trouble, which might just be a problem of the opposite order in its vaguely threatening creepiness but just goes to show the extent to which a woman like Yaeji is held in contempt while those like Sul-hye are placed on a pedestal. 

Internalising a sense of shame and inadequacy in “failing” to meet these “arbitrary” standards, Yaeji is content to destroy in order to remake herself. “Say goodbye to the face you know”, Beauty Water’s instructional video teases before descending into surreal gore as a woman literally slices away her ugly facade to expose the beauty hidden beneath. Reminiscent of Perfect Blue, Beauty Water’s B-movie sensibilities send Yaeji/Sul-hye into increasingly paranoid and uncertain territory, desperate to remain “beautiful” so that she might be loved but never learning to love herself while quietly murdering her essential self to attain a soulless image of idealised beauty. A late swerve into an unintended transphobia nevertheless undermines the central messages of the dangers inherent in society’s obsession with aesthetic perfection as the heroine struggles to escape her internalised shame only in an extreme act of self-destructive masking. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Underdog (언더독, Oh Sung-yoon & Lee Choon-baek, 2018)

“If you want freedom, you need to know how to survive” according to a wise old hound in Korean animation Underdog (언더독), produced by the team behind Leafie: A Hen into the Wild. A somewhat subversive tale of an individualistic desire for total freedom outside the walls of an indifferent society, Underdog also celebrates the power of friendship and family while following our oppressed canines all the way into the ironic paradise of the DMZ, a literal cage but one guarded on either side and guaranteed free of human cruelty. 

Our hero, Moong-chi (Do Kyung-soo), is a loyal family dog who has been raised as a domestic pet and knows nothing of life outside his apartment. Unfortunately, however, his owners bought a cute and tiny puppy without considering that he would eventually grow into a sizeable dog and so they no longer want to look after him. Heartless and irresponsible, Moong-chi’s owner drives him out into the forrest and leaves him there with a bag of kibble, seemingly aware that a domestic dog lacks the knowledge to survive in the wild. Pining and naive, Moong-chi fully expects his owner will be back to fetch him but eventually realises he’s been abandoned after meeting up with a small pack of other dogs in the same position and witnessing another car pull up and push a sick dog out of the passenger side before driving off. 

Trying to survive together while taking refuge in a derelict house in an abandoned part of town, the dogs lament their dependency on humans who have after all broken their hearts and then betrayed them. As they weren’t born wild, they’ve been deprived of their natural way of life, corrupted by a false civility that leaves them totally at the mercy of humans for the sustenance they need to survive while lacking the skills to hunt or forage for food other than that already discarded by the townspeople. Opinions within the group are divided with some fully accepting that they have no other option than to depend on humans despite the danger and duplicity they present, and others longing to find a place that’s free of humankind where they can truly be free to live as nature intended. 

For a children’s film, Underdog is entirely unafraid to be explicit in exploring exactly what “as nature intended” means, the ultimate goal of the dogs being to shift away from anonymous kibble towards tearing apart other kinds of wildlife with their bare teeth including cute bunnies and strangely scary deer. An early conflict arises between the abandoned domestic strays from the town and the true wild dogs from the mountain who complain that their hunting grounds and living environment are forever shrinking thanks to urban encroachment of which the strays are a minor symptom. The strays fear the mountain dogs for their ferocity, while the mountain dogs resent the strays for their neutered domesticity. Yet if they want to find freedom and a place free from human cruelty they’ll need to work together to get there. 

Meanwhile, the gang find themselves continually stalked by a psychotic dog catcher (Lee Jun-hyuk) who, paradoxically, relies on the exploitation of dogs for his livelihood yet vows to wipe them all out, particularly keen on bagging Moong-chi’s potential love interest mountain dog Ba-mi (Park So-dam) with whom he has a history. Bringing in the full horror of puppy farms and questionable ethics of a commercialised pet industry, not to mention dog fights and the meat trade, Underdog asks some uncomfortable questions about the unequal co-dependencies of animals and humans which will probably fly over the heads of the younger audience, but in any case insists on the right of wild animals to run free while simultaneously acknowledging the ability to choose to remain at the side of humans when the gang run into a kindly couple running a small animal sanctuary way out in the country living a more “natural” way of life free of the petty oppressions which mark urbanity. 

Nevertheless, the gang have an extremely ironic destination in mind in heading for the one place on Earth where human violence is not permitted, a buffer zone against the folly of war. Apparently seven years in the making Underdog boasts beautifully drawn backgrounds and an unusual 2D aesthetic that falls somewhere between cute and realistic while featuring scenes and themes that will undoubtedly prove distressing to sensitive younger viewers. Nevertheless, it presents a universal message of freedom and independence as well as solidarity among the oppressed as the abandoned dogs band together to find their path to paradise where they can live the lives they want to live free of human interference. 


Underdog streams in the UK 6th – 9th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (Korean with English subtitles)

The Shaman Sorceress (무녀도, Ahn Jae-hun, 2018)

Inspired by a well known short story first published in 1936, Ahn Jae-hun’s painterly animation The Shaman Sorceress (무녀도, munyeodo) situates itself in a Korea at a moment of acute crisis, presented with images of “modernity” which are inevitably bound with those of Westernisation though the conflicts we are presented with are largely ideological and spiritual rather social or political. Nevertheless, there is an unavoidable lament for a lost Koreanness and infinite sadness for those undone by their own inability to find accommodation with changing times. 

Like many similar tales from Korea, Shaman Sorceress opens with a framing sequence which is never closed in which the narrator reflects on what is technically the film’s present from some point in the future. He reveals that he is from a noble family and that his grandfather was once known as a connoisseur of art and antiques, but the world is changing and the age of the aristocracy is coming to a close. Faced with declining fortunes, the family has sold off most of its collection and so they rarely receive so many visitors as they once did but are keen to receive those they do which is why his grandfather gives temporary lodging to a prodigious young painter, Nang-Yi, the 17-year-old orphaned daughter of a shamaness who lost her hearing in childhood illness. 

The narrator then goes on to relate Nang-Yi’s story which was related to him by his grandfather who heard it from the man with whom Nang-Yi was travelling. This is not actually about Nang-Yi, who becomes something like the protector of traditional Korean culture through her survival and her art, but her mother, an usual woman of the Joseon era who found herself surviving alone on the margins of society. Mohwa (So Nya) never marries but has two children by different men and resolves to raise both of them alone. Aware that her bright son Wook-Yi (Kim Da-hyun) lacks male influence, she decides to send him to the temple at 9 years old to further his education and increase his future prospects. His younger sister Nang-Yi, however, falls into such a depression in his absence that she becomes ill and loses her hearing further adding to Mohwa’s sense of maternal guilt. When she too falls ill and begins having visions, Mohwa awakens as a shamaness ministering to the townspeople who account her a powerful interceder with the supernatural able to cure the most serious of ills. 

The crisis occurs when 15-year-old Wook-Yi leaves the temple for the city where he is “corrupted” by modernity in the form of Western Christianity as preached by American missionaries. Disillusioned with Buddhism, he is converted by the idea of a single loving God and hopes to save the souls of those around him but is insensitive to his mother’s beliefs as a shamaness while she in turn is intolerant of his new faith, believing he has been possessed by “that Jesus ghost”. What transpires between them as perhaps any parent and child is a tussle over the future, but their tragedy is that their ideology is so mutually exclusive that they can find no way to co-exist while Nang-Yi is trapped between them as a representative of the chaotic present neither allied with past or future. 

The film, however, leans heavily towards a defence of Christianity even as it criticises both mother and son for their rigid dogmatism, neither able to accept that their way is not the only way. Mohwa faces existential threat as a shamaness who is no longer feared or respected, her noisy rituals seen as backward while the townspeople increasingly flock towards the subdued power of prayer while edging towards a moral austerity which condemns her for living outside of socially conservative patriarchal social codes as an unmarried mother of two allowed greater freedom in her spiritual authority. “Life’s supposed to be lonely” she explains to a departed soul she’s trying to convince to move on, but might as well be talking to herself as she tries to accommodate her grief and maternal guilt but finds herself prevented from moving on into a new modernity of which Christianity is only a part. 

The overriding sentiment is one of futility in an acceptance that progress will always win in the end, as reflected in the narrator’s wistful lament of his noble family’s gradual decline. Seemingly aimed at a wide audience not exclusively adult, Ahn tackles some difficult themes from alcoholism to incestuous desire not to mention the more complex meditation on the loss of the feudal past and the costs of modernity while continuing to express the conflict musically in his use of traditional singing styles in Mohwa’s rituals and a more conventional broadway register in Wook-Yi’s passionate defences of his faith. While the frequent flights into song may seem incongruous, they are perhaps more common in Korean animation of this kind than they might be in that from other cultures, particularly in films not expressly aimed at younger children who are unlikely to engage with the weighty themes despite the simplistic yet often beautiful aesthetics which present a less complicated view of the feudal past as one of idyllic pastoralism. 


Festival trailer (dialogue free)

Princess Aya (프린세스 아야, Lee Sung-gang, 2019)

Animation made for children can often be a subversive affair, offering surprisingly progressive messages sometimes at odds with an otherwise conservative industry. Though quite obviously taking its cues from Frozen in terms of aesthetics and atmosphere despite its desert setting while drawing inspiration from classic fairytales, Princess Aya (프린세스 아야) is a sterling example, keen to sell the message that it’s OK to be different while emphasising that it’s prejudice and social exclusion which are the real enemy, creating only pain and resentment while those rejected by an intolerant society may eventually be consumed by their sense of betrayal. 

Long ago in a feudal society, a strange curse begins to affect children born in the small kingdom of Yeonliji which causes them to turn into animals after coming into contact with animal blood. Some believe that the curse is the revenge of animals hunted for sport, while the cursed children are, ironically enough, abandoned to live as beasts in the forest or perish. The Queen, however, cannot bear to part with her child, Princess Aya (Baek A-yeon), and sacrifices some of her own life force in return for a magical bracelet from a tree god that will prevent the curse from manifesting. Years later, Aya grows up into a feisty teenage girl, while the kingdom is threatened by an oncoming incursion from desert nation Vartar who want its water. The Vartan prince, Bari (Park Jin-young), has proposed a dynastic marriage with one of Aya’s younger sisters to broker peace, but Aya has no intention of letting her sisters face such an uncertain fate and insists on going herself. 

Of course, what she discovers, in true Korean period drama fashion, is that there’s intrigue in the court. Bari is not, as she feared, a hideous monster but a kind and handsome young man who is actively trying to prevent a war and protect Yeonliji (which is obviously what she wants too), but his treacherous uncle is ruling as a regent and secretly working against him. Meanwhile, attempts have been made on Aya’s life, and she’s lost the precious bracelet which allows her to keep her true nature hidden. 

The curse appears to be a punishment manifested on mankind for its cruel treatment of animals, forcing Aya to feel the suffering of living creatures in pain and close to death. While Aya does her best to fight the darkness, another creature known as the “Beast” has allowed it to consume him, feeding on sorrow and determined to take revenge on the society which has abandoned and rejected him. It’s rejection that Aya too fears, as perhaps does everyone and most especially young women, but hers is a deeper seated anxiety in that she’s uncertain what will happen if her true nature is discovered. 

Nevertheless, she moves towards an acceptance that her curse could also be a gift while beginning to believe that “no matter who I am I can be loved”. Yet she also feels a sense of guilt in using her amulet, knowing she is deceiving the prince, whom she’s come to admire, while fearing his reaction if she tells him the truth. Bari, meanwhile, is not so much hiding a secret as a lone figure of traditional nobility in a court filled with scheming intrigue. While his uncle plans to subjugate Yeonliji, Bari has been secretly drilling in the desert looking for water, admiring the flowers where they bloom even in adversity. 

Bari refuses to make his men slaves of war, while Aya insists that they need to rebuild their society with a greater sense of compassion. She is afraid of her “difference” and her destiny, longing to be free but afraid of being seen. Eventually she realises that connection can be a strength and not a weakness as can authenticity and mutual understanding. She refuses to abandon the Beast as her society had done despite his wickedness, still hoping to save and bring him into her hopefully kinder world. Princess Aya shows kids that being “different” is nothing to be ashamed of, that no one is unloveable (even evil Beasts), and that the Princess is perfectly capable of saving herself but it’s no weakness to accept help when you need it or to give it when others are in need. A charming musical fairytale, Princess Aya wears its progressive values on its sleeve, always allowing its heroine to chart her own destiny while finding self-acceptance along the way.


Princess Aya screens in Amsterdam on March 7/8 as part of this year’s CinemAsia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Astro Gardener (별의 정원, Won Jong-shik, 2019)

Astro Gardener poster 1Korean cinema is sometimes criticised for its bleakness. Happy endings are indeed something of a rarity, though not entirely absent and, ironically, often rejected for their sentimentality. Cinema for children might be a notable exception with the desire to cushion young viewers from the world’s harshness as a high priority even if it never shies away from the fact that life is sometimes hard and there will be times when you are sad or afraid or lonely. Astro Gardener (별의 정원, byeol-eui jeongwon), a colourful tale of strange creatures making sure the stars still shine, is a film about just those times which makes the very important and always relevant point that there is no light without darkness and that it’s OK to feel sad, or afraid, or alone because your darkness is also a part of you.

12-year-old Suha (Kim Yeon-woo) is excited that her parents are going to leave her alone in the apartment overnight for the first time while they go on a fishing trip. Before he leaves, Suha’s dad gives her a precious necklace which she is not very impressed with because all she wants is a dog. Suha’s dad is broadly in favour of the puppy idea, especially as grandma’s dog is currently pregnant so it would be very easy to adopt one once it’s born. Mum is less convinced, both fearing that she will end up looking after it and worrying that it will be sad when the dog inevitably passes away. While they’re busy discussing all that on the way to the campsite, the car swerves to avoid an oncoming truck and they get into an accident during which Suha’s dad is killed.

A year later, Suha’s mum takes her to stay with grandma during the holidays while she has to get back to work. Suha isn’t very happy about it, but the blow is softened by the fact she’s finally getting a little dog named “Night” who is the last of grandma’s puppies seeing as her own dog passed away shortly after giving birth. Playing on the beach, Suha is drawn to a strange stone and takes it home only for a weird little man with a star on his head to break into her room and steal it. The man, who turns out to be called Om (Jeon Tae-yeol), is an “Astro Gardener” charged with looking after the darkness to ensure that the stars can stay in the sky. It turns out that the planet Pluto (Shin Yong-woo) has gone rogue and left its orbit to become a space pirate hellbent on destroying the darkness to create a universe of light born of the destruction of hundreds of stars.

A universe of light in which there is no more loneliness or pain might sound very attractive, but where there’s no sorrow there can be no joy. Since her father’s death, Suha has been deathly afraid of “the dark”, sleeping with the light on and only venturing out in the middle of the night when her dog chases out after Om, which is how she winds up discovering the Astro Garden. She isn’t terribly invested in the quest to save the darkness but finds herself swept into it when Pluto’s minions show up and kidnap Night’s shadow which means she has to go and get it back or risk loosing him because, as the repeated metaphor points out, you can’t live as light alone. 

Om warns Suha that Pluto is a no-good rebel out to destroy the universe but because she loses a lot of her memory on his ship, Suha is instantly smitten seeing as it just so happens that Pluto looks exactly like the handsome K-pop idol we see on the poster in her bedroom. Realising that the necklace Suha received from her father is the All-Energy capable of controlling all the darkness in the universe (what teenage girl doesn’t think she can do the same?), Pluto sets out to take it but the snag is that the power can only be transmitted to someone you truly love which is the real gift her father was trying to give her.

Learning to remember her father’s love rather than his loss, Suha rediscovers her sense of confidence and is no longer so afraid of “the dark”. Resolving to be kinder to her mother, she can appreciate life’s light and shade but makes sure to keep in touch with her old friends at the Astro Garden to go tend to her darkness to make sure she can still see the stars. A cheerfully animated tale of a little girl figuring out how to live with grief while becoming embroiled in an interstellar battle to save the universe, Astro Gardner is a surprisingly deep meditation on depression and anxiety in which the heroine rediscovers her sense of self while finding the will to fight for others.


Astro Gardener screens on 2nd November as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Moon in the Hidden Woods (숲에 숨은 달, Takahiro Umehara, 2018) [Fantasia 2019]

The Moon in the Hidden Woods posterNight is dark, but when you have the moon to light the way there is always the hope of a better tomorrow. When all hope is gone, how are you supposed go on? For a small group of villagers, the answer is to do the best they can, staving off the darkness with determination and guile. Directed by Japan’s Takahiro Umehara making his directorial debut, The Moon in the Hidden Woods (숲에 숨은 달, sup-e sum-eun dal) is a story about learning how to survive the darkness but also an oblique allegory about authoritarian corruption and the power that comes with embracing your essential identity. 

As the wise old granny tells us at the beginning, long ago the Moon watched over the villagers, protecting them from the terror of night, but then it suddenly disappeared. A terrifying monster, Muju, wrapped the night sky in red, devouring misfortunes and sending fearsome minions to plague mankind. Warriors set out to look for the Moon, but none returned. Meanwhile others learned how to profit from the new world and saw no need for a return to the past until gradually people forgot there had ever been a Moon to begin with.

One such profiteer was the evil Count Tar, who is determined to marry the Princess Navillera very much against her will. Escaping to the city, Navillera finds herself coming to the rescue of a musical trio caught up in an unfair competition to win some mystic water to use in their harvest festival, and making use of her telepathic super powers and natural musical ability at the same time. The Nova Folk Band are a small group of illegal meteor hunters from the village who are more interested in survival than they are in intrigue, but are nevertheless some of the only people still looking for the Moon. In any case, they end up taking Navillera with them as they flee, not quite believing that she is a princess and the intended bride of their tyrannical ruler.

While in the village, Navillera gets a crash course in class conflict, never having left the palace before and spent her entire life in a lavish comfort she assumed was available to all. This quickly puts her into conflict with musician Janggu who deeply resents the “spoiled” entitlement that sees her asking for extravagant luxuries like meat, fruit, and honey, while being entirely unused to farm work. She does, however, try her best even mucking in with the other villagers where she can but is obviously unable to contribute to the same degree given that she has never had to do a day’s work in all her life. Meanwhile, as Janggu points out, the gang have gone out hunting meteors full in the knowledge that it’s illegal because they need them to survive. The princess objects to their reckless lawbreaking, affirming that the kingdom will protect them with ore only for Janggu to point out an ore is worth half the year’s harvest and the only reason you’re not allowed to hunt meteors is so that the unscrupulous powers that be can sell you an alternative and thereby keep a grip on their power by keeping the poor in their place. Suddenly, Muju isn’t looking so much like a scary red monster but an eerie metaphor for late stage capitalism.

Meanwhile, the Navillera is also busy trying to escape an oppression she wasn’t even quite aware of in her attempt to reject the intentions of Tar. Through her time in the village, Navillera begins to lose heart, fearing that her cosseted life has left her powerless without skills or talents. What she discovers, however, is that she has a natural ability for dance that finds a perfect home in the cheerful village where such things are praised and becomes the key both to restoring her essential identity and defeating Muju to rediscover the Moon.

In opposition to the “nothingness” that Muju represents, Navillera draws strength from the camaraderie of the villagers as they adopt her as one of their own, urging her not to give in and marry the evil Tar but to join them in their rebellion, choosing the “path of life” as the joyous music of the villagers finally breaks the stronghold of Muju’s austerity. Finally seeing the light of a better tomorrow, the villagers look back on the past with stoical eyes, recognising that mankind’s greed gave rise to Muju and resolving to forgive those who were merely weak rather than actively evil in order to live on in the light of a new world. A perfect blend of Korean fantasy and Nausicaa-esque steampunk, The Moon in the Hidden Woods is a cheerful ode to the importance of hope and the pure joy of musical expression in a sometimes harsh existence.


The Moon in the Hidden Woods was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English/korean/Japanese captions)

Franky and Friends: A Tree of Life (극장판 프랭키와 친구들: 생명의 나무, Park Jung-oh, 2016)

Franky and Friends tree of life posterChildren’s films are full of messages and advice about how to grow up into a fine, upstanding person. Franky and Friends began life as a TV series in which the titular polar bear, Franky, and his friends live in a world of self sufficiency in which everything they consume they must grow for themselves in their kitchen garden. The problem is Franky is essentially still a child which means he wants everything all at once and doesn’t know the reasoning behind his way of life. In other words, he’s just like the target audience and is about to learn what every parent wants to teach their child – to eat what they’re given and be grateful.

Franky, Kwon, and Pong live in a small cottage with the more mature Doo who cooks all their meals and tends to the house and garden. The boys, however (is it interesting that they’re so obviously male and Doo so obviously female even though they’re all fantasy creatures?), don’t want her sensible, wholesome food. They want everything else but *especially* fried sweet potatoes. Doo gives in and agrees to make some if the boys promise to eat everything all up. Of course, they do, but they’re full long before the pot of potatoes is even half empty. While Doo gets up to answer the door, Franky and Kwon scrape the food into a basket and take it outside to bury in the woods. They keep this up for a few days but weird mushrooms start growing everywhere and when the local insects eat them they grow to giant size and become ravenous, destroying the market garden!

As it turns out there is black magic at play in the strange land in which Franky lives. The only way to save everyone is to safeguard the Tree of Life from the clutches of an evil witch. The Fairytale Kingdom is home to a strange selection of creatures from abstract creations like Kwon, Pong, and Doo to guest appearances from Pinocchio, Santa, and The Monkey King. Later, Franky teams up with another friend, Misa, who seems to be something between the classic Snow Queen (only nice) and Elsa from Frozen but she doesn’t really do very much other than freeze things. Kids film this maybe but the references are retro beginning with a visit from a Godzilla-like creature to a large scale battle with skeletons resembling Harryhausen’s from Jason and the Argonauts.

The jokes, however, are considerably less highbrow with genuinely childish toilet humour providing the bulk of the comedy. Franky and his friends set off on their quest recklessly – not a good message for children, despite the positive reinforcement of Franky acknowledging his responsibility and pledging to correct his mistake, and appear not to have learned very much at the end of their quest. Still, the target audience probably won’t be thinking too hard about all of this and are most likely to pick up on the intended messages of the evils of wastefulness and lying to your mum about eating your vegetables. Hopefully they won’t remember the bit about magic mushrooms and life sucking aphids, but will remember that the Earth is everyone’s responsibility and if we don’t all agree to look after it together the tree will die and the witch will win.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Trailer (no subtitles)

Lost in the Moonlight (달빛궁궐, Kim Hyun-Joo, 2016)

Lost in the Moonlight posterGirl gets lost in a fantasy land and has to find herself to find the way out – it’s a familiar enough tale but then perhaps Lost in the Moonlight (달빛궁궐, Dalbitkungkwol) is mostly about that kind of familiarity. The debut feature from Korean director Kim Hyun-joo, Lost in the Moonlight was plagued with widespread internet controversy on release of the movie’s trailer and publicity material which heavily echoed Studio Ghibli classic, Spirited Away. Though this is, in some ways, unfair – you can’t escape the fact that fantasy mythical Korea shares some aesthetic similarities with that of Japan or China, or the fact that girls slipping into fantasy realms is the nature of the genre, it’s hard to get past the presence of the tiny helpers and their resemblance to Dust Bunnies, or the poster which puts the flying dragon front and centre. Nevertheless, Lost in the Moonlight’s intentions are less intense than Spirited Away’s and focus more keenly on a particular notion of learning to shine in the role you’ve been given rather than desperately chasing an external spotlight.

Hyunjunli (Kim Seo-young) is an ordinary thirteen year old girl who is set to participate in the performance of a musical at Changdeok Palace. Her parents, remaining off screen, sound supportive and are excited about seeing their little girl in such a big show even if Hyunjunli is a typical teenager who’s mortified at the idea of her parents showing up and embarrassing her, or she them with her minimal involvement in the action. Though shy and dreamy, Hyunjunli longs for the spotlight and feels silly stuck at the back of the chorus playing the very uninspiring part of a tree while her friends get to play animal gods and all manner of other exciting things.

Meanwhile, a Rat God of time is feeling exactly the same, tired of just standing around in the back not really doing anything. He makes a break for it and ends up in the human world where he drops his magic tag. Hyunjunli, a helpful sort of person, picks it up and is whisked off to a fantasy land where she meets a new friend, Mr. Squirrel, and is taken to the Moonlight Palace by the mysterious Lady Blossom.

Hyunjunli in the land of Moonlight is story of a little girl lost that runs back through Alice in Wonderland among many others, though the stakes originally appear a little lower as Moonlight seems safe enough save for the talking animals and general unfamiliarity of the place. The setting is inspired by traditional Korean mythology with its bickering mountain gods and focus on the natural world but is also, of course, heavily influenced by Hyunjunli’s perception of it. Slightly confusingly, the film has a mild environmentalist message as the conspiracy Hyunjunli walks straight into revolves around the awakening of the juniper tree which allows all the trees which have apparently been arrested by the tyrannical rule of time to get up and exact revenge against humanity for its widespread destruction of the planet, meaning that Hyunjunli has to find a way to restore time and stop the murderous tree rampage to save the Earth (which is also what the trees want to do).

Predictably enough, the fantasy land situation echoes Hyunjunli’s own as the drama is revealed to have been caused by the Rat God who also felt bored and unloved working as part of a team rather than doing something flashier out in front. What Hyunjunli learns is that everyone has their place and that the system fails when the little guys don’t pull their weight. The message, that there are no small parts just small actors, is fair enough as Hyunjunli realises it’s wrong to try and steal a spotlight which does not belong to you but then it also reinforces a less palatable message about social conformity and the necessity of living only inside the box in which you were born. Nevertheless, even if it does not always make complete sense Lost in the Moonlight does manage to provide a family friendly fantasy that its target audience may well be far more forgiving of than the confused adults watching along with them.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kai (카이 : 거울 호수의 전설, Lee Sung-gang, 2016)

photo743471Review of Korean animation Kai (카이 : 거울 호수의 전설, Kai: Geowool Hosueui Jeonseol) first published by UK Anime Network.


Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale, The Snow Queen, has inspired a great number of animated classics with Disney’s Frozen not least among them. This Korean take shifts the action to the nomadic tribes of Mongolia and a young boy who failed to save his sister from a tragic accident only to see her fall into the clutches of an evil magician. Kai comes with a solid pedigree as it’s produced by one of the country’s leading animation lights in Yeon Sang-ho (King of Pigs, The Fake) and helmed by another successful director Lee Sung-gang (Yobi, The Five Tailed Fox), yet despite all of its advantages Kai still suffers from many of the same problems which continually plague Korean animation including noticeably low production values and an inability to move beyond children’s animation.

Beginning with a brief narrative voiceover detailing the origin story of the Snow Queen Hattan, the action then shifts to a convoy of nomads in Mongolia attempting to traverse a mountain in heavy snow. Youngster Kai is travelling with his family but quickly gets into trouble. Despite his mother’s desperate attempt to save both her children, only Kai is rescued with his sister Shamui falling into the snow below.

Years pass and Kai and his mother try to make a life for themselves, little knowing that Shamui is still alive but a prisoner of the Snow Queen Hatton. When Kai’s village begins to grow strangely cold, the villagers come to the realisation that the Snow Queen is back and trying to freeze the whole land. Kai, being the headstrong young man he is, decides to fight the supernatural threat all by himself entirely unaware that he is partly to blame for everything that’s going on.

Towards the end of his quest, Kai comes across a girl his sister’s age but fails to recognise his missing sibling owing to the intervening few years. Meeting again, she tells him her name is “Atta” which means “grudge” – a strange name to give a baby girl, still Kai is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and doesn’t even figure anything out when she tells him about her resentment towards the family she believes abandoned her. As in the original story, the Snow Queen seduces rather than bewitches Shamui through her emotional insecurity. Hurt and fearful, Shamui is easily taken in by the cold hearted witch who promises her protection and vengeance, even if rejecting familial warmth. The Snow Queen is not all ice as her loneliness dictates, though her inability to connect forces her to steal rather than earn loyalty as distinct from affection.

With younger audiences in mind Lee opts for a lighter tone than might be expected, moving away from the darker elements with cutesy forest folk complete with adorable spirit creatures and jovial childish rivalry between Kai and the woodland children. Though these episodes are enjoyable enough, they do detract from the overall narrative as Kai’s battle for the Snow Queen’s soul takes a back seat to the antics of a cheerful squirrel. Nevertheless, it all helps to lighten the mood even if it means that the story lacks depth as a consequence.

Kai is undoubtedly technically proficient and occasionally ambitious but also suffers from an obvious lack of production values. The TV quality animation will be turn off to those expecting a Studio Ghibli level of visual opulence but is of a fairly high standard given its limitations. Kai’s biggest problem lies in making its central battle engaging given its unwillingness to embrace the darker elements of its story in which unresolved negative emotions fester until they become infectious, forcing injured people to injure others in a mistaken attempt to heal themselves. Playing best to its target audience of younger viewers, Kai is likely to frustrate those watching with them but does offer a new take on a classic tale and enough cute characters to keep the little ones occupied.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

King of Pigs (UK Anime Network Review)

image-8-king-of-pigsFirst Published on UK Anime Network in May 2013


Korea has a long tradition of animation but is perhaps more famous overseas for providing technical services to higher profile productions from other countries. The King of Pigs is the first feature length Korean animation to be shown at Cannes and has been screened at several other film festivals worldwide, picking up a few awards along the way too. Korean live action cinema of recent times has earned itself a reputation for being unafraid of violence and difficult subject matters – an ethos which appears to have directly penetrated into King of Pigs which nothing if not extremely bleak.

As the film begins, failed businessman Kyung-min weeps naked in a shower while the contorted face of a strangled woman lingers hauntingly in the next room. He makes a phone call hoping to track down an old childhood friend – perhaps because he feels he’s the only one who can help him understand what he’s done or because he feels somehow as if this person represents a fracture point in his life where everything started to go wrong. This long lost friend, Jong-suk, seems to be in a similarly dismal situation – an under appreciated ghost writer who’s constantly berated for writing unemotional prose, he returns home to beat his wife after accusing her of having an affair (which turns out to be doubly wrong as she’d been meeting with a publisher about Jong-suk’s own novel). The two men meet and talk over a traumatic period in their childhood when their only protector was another boy, Chul – self titled King of Pigs.

The school system was divided rigidly along lines of economic/social status and academic prowess and neither Kyung-min nor Jong-suk found themselves in the elite camp. Beaten, humiliated and molested the boys appear to have no recourse except to grin and bear it – even the teachers and authorities appear complicit in this unofficial caste system. That is until Chul dares to fight back, violently, on behalf of not only himself but all the other ‘pigs’ too. The three end up becoming a team bound by mutual suffering much more than friendship or human emotion. It takes more than one boy to destroy a system though and circumstances conspire to ruin whatever headway they might have made. These times will affect each boy more than he could ever have guessed and these changes will not be for the better.

The King of Pigs is certainly not an optimistic film. Though it seeks to depict a corrupt system based on arbitrary and unfair principles, perpetuated by the adults in charge and those trapped inside it, it has to be said that by the time we meet the young counterparts none of them is especially sympathetic. It’s an unfortunate part of the film’s message but the fact that both the young boys are so passive and complicit in their own degradation makes it very difficult to build up a sense of sympathy for them. You might think then that Chul would be the natural hero of this piece as the self appointed ‘savior’ of the hopeless cases but his manifesto rapidly turns so repellant that you can’t get behind him either. What you’re left with is a group of misogynistic ‘little men’ who in turn transfer the frustration they feel with their own sense of inferiority on to those they believe to be even weaker than themselves. The film tries to imply that the grown up failures of these men are a direct consequence of a broken school system, yet as we meet them already in the system rather than as totally innocent children, it’s not possible to follow this line of reasoning as the boys appear deeply unpleasant from the offset.

Unfortunately, another thing the film isn’t is subtle. The director really wants to hammer home his message about the socio-economic unfairness that seems to penetrate every area of society and prevent any sort of social mobility, but often it’s akin to being hit over the head with the same idea repeatedly several times over the course of the film. It is extremely violent in a deeply uncomfortable way to the extent that you could call this a ‘nasty’ film – the scene of animal cruelty alone feels both like an underdeveloped cliché and a thinly veiled attempt at shock value. In short, the film constantly undermines itself by shooting straight for the extreme where a more nuanced approach may have made its subject matter all the more powerful.

As it stands, it’s quite difficult to recommend The King of Pigs either as an entertainment piece or as a serious art film seeking to examine Korea’s attitudes to social class. The film was made on an independent basis and some may find its aesthetic a little basic in terms of animation quality yet it does have some interesting directorial ideas and composition. Though it ultimately fails, the film does deserve some praise for tackling such a difficult subject matter – genuinely adult contemporary animation can often be difficult to find. However it’s partly its desire to be ‘adult’ that destroys its ability to be taken seriously – by skewing towards the ‘extreme’ audience who may only be interested in the violence rather the problems that underly it, The King of Pigs risks been seen as a schlocky horror story rather than a parable about some very real social issues.


Available now in the UK from Terracotta Distribution.

Review of Yeon Sang-ho’s second and much improved animated feature The Fake.