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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (no subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (Mandarin and Korean with Korean subtitles only)

Old Love (재회, Park Ki-yong, 2017)

Old Love posterSome might say, it’s best to learn the lesson that life is disappointing as early as possible but there can be few who meet encroaching old age without a sense of regret and failure. The couple at the centre of Park Ki-yong’s Old Love (재회, Jaehoe) seem to have little else as they unexpectedly reunite at differing points of reunion and abandonment, longing for an unreachable past where their youthful dreams of a happier future were still possible and they could, at least, live with a false sense of hope. All that’s left for them now is to find resignation in the remaining days of loneliness and futility.

Yoon-hee (Yoo Jung-ah), who has been living in Canada for the past 30 years, returns to Korea for the Lunar New Year holiday in order to confer with her remaining family members and decide what’s best for her elderly mother now suffering with dementia. Already conflicted, Yoon-hee’s homebound holiday gets off to the worst of starts when she realises her suitcase is broken and gets caught up in an inescapable cycle of airport bureaucracy. Her exit is further delayed by a brief cigarette break during which she hears a familiar voice. Jung-soo (Kim Tae-hoon), her college boyfriend, is also at the airport dropping off his 17-year-old daughter who is on her way to study abroad in Australia. Not quite knowing why, Yoon-hee calls out to him and the former lovers engage in awkward conversation, eventually swapping (temporary) phone numbers and agreeing to meet up while Yoon-hee is in the country. 

Neither Yoon-hee nor Jung-soo give much indication of the nature of their college era relationship or why it eventually ended. They’ve obviously not stayed in touch, though there is relatively little animosity between them and no desire to argue about or dig up the past. Together once again they walk the no longer familiar streets, exchanging vague memories – a taste for octopus, forgotten left handedness, shops which have long since closed down. Their world has already disappeared and left them behind with only the burden of nostalgia to sustain them.

Long ago, Yoon-hee and Jung-soo were members of a theatre troupe. Jung-soo once said that theatre was more precious than life, yet at some point he gave it up. Now broken and dejected, he is a lonely widower whose daughter has abandoned him in resentment to look for her better future somewhere else. Yoon-hee left the theatre behind to go to Canada where she married, it seems mostly for convenience, and had a son who is now 27 years old and about to be married himself. Yoon-hee’s son returned to Korea but the pair are estranged and she won’t be seeing him on this visit. In fact she isn’t even invited to the wedding.

Yoon-hee and Jung-soo may be lonely and full of regret, but according to Jung-soo all but two of their former company fellows abandoned their dreams of the stage for more conventional lives. Mun-hee (Kim Moonhee) and Yong-guk were the two who stayed true, but Yong-guk is now seriously ill and will leave his family behind with no means of support. Later at an inn, Yoon-hee and Jung-soo run into another young group of actors eagerly debating The Seagull. Jung-soo can’t help butting in, a sad old man with some words for the hopeful youngsters. Increasingly drunk, he tells them to follow their dreams no matter what or else you’ll end up regretting your life choices. If you follow your dreams and it doesn’t work out, at least you can say you tried but if you sell out and that fails too what will you have then? Jung-soo has nothing and the emptiness is crushing him.

A lonely walk brings Yoon-hee straight into the present day when she blends into the candlelight protests, perhaps further recalling the tumultuous days of her own youth lived in the early days of a new democracy filled with a hope and promise that now seems to have retreated far into the distance. Caught at points of transit – airports, train stations, resort towns, neither Yoon-hee nor Jung-soo can find the strength to move forward. He asks her to stay, to find a home with him, as he should have done all those years ago but the moment is already gone and no amount of regret can ever bring it back. Broken by life’s disappointments, the failure of their dreams, and the emptiness of their loveless lives, Yoon-hee and Jung-soo remain trapped by the inertia of their times, just two lonely people for whom the train will never arrive.


Old Love was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Berlinale trailer (no subtitles)

Camel(s) (낙타(들), Park Ki-yong, 2001)

Camel(s) posterFour years after his breakthrough Motel Cactus, Park Ki-yong returned to narrative filmmaking with the comparatively subdued Camel(s) (낙타(들), nagta(deul)). Like Cactus, Camel(s) adopts a thirsty, desert-bound title in its titular dromedaries, casting its two lonely heroes as a pair of solitary travellers in search of an oasis in an otherwise barren existence. An adulterous couple in early middle-age, these wandering souls are destined to connect only briefly before returning to their unsatisfying lives filled only with a defeated sense of relief intended to see them through until the next stream appears on the horizon.

40-something Man-sup (Lee Dae-yeon) arrives to collect 30-something Myeong-hui (Park Myeong-shin) from an airport. She’s a little put out because he’s late and she didn’t quite see him because he’s driving a different car. Evidently not a married couple, the pair must have met before but their conversation is awkward – they exchange superficial pleasantries and discuss name Hanja which suggests they don’t know each other terribly well. They were supposed to be going to an island, but it’s too late now and so they’ll have to make do with the nearby tourist resort of Sorae.

Lest it be forgotten, adultery was technically illegal in Korea until 2015. Man-sup and Myeong-hui have been careful enough to venture a long way from home in order to minimise the chances of being caught out on what has every likelihood of becoming an illicit one night stand between two desperately lonely people trapped in unfulfilling marriages and seemingly boring lives. They chat over dinner, discuss their failed hopes, sing their hearts out at karaoke and then, once the ice is broken, make their way to a love hotel for the true purpose of their visit.

Before they get there, over an awkward dinner, both Man-sup and Myeong-hui relate tales of friends who live lives of freedom and travel. Unmarried and fancy free, they go where they please and live without restraint. Myeong-hui, perhaps part in resentment, decries these lives as mere egotism, as if the desire to enjoy life in itself is an act of unforgivable selfishness. Man-sup partially disagrees. He doesn’t see too much wrong with the concept of “egotism”. After all, isn’t it alright to look after yourself as long as you consider how your actions might affect others? Man-sup is honest at least about his envy. He’d like to be free too, but doesn’t have the courage. This small digression from the everyday sameness of his life is his minor rebellion, isolated within a tiny bubble of artificial “freedom” set to burst and be forgotten.

Despite the strangeness of the situation, the awkwardness dissipates after they reach the hotel, allowing for deeper conversation and a tentative, temporary sense of connection. Though some years apart in age, Myeong-hui and Man-sup attended college in the same town and visited the same market but apparently never met. Their lives since have followed similar trajectories. Myeong-hui wanted to marry her college sweetheart but her family didn’t approve and she didn’t have the strength to fight them. It ended, and she eventually submitted herself to an arranged marriage. Man-sup too failed in romance and ended up married to a woman he was introduced to, though they dated for a year first so perhaps it amounts to the same thing. Superficially “happy” with their conventional relationships each resents the unfairness of lost love, regretting their failure to fight for their own futures and capitulation in accepting that merely presented to them.

Futility continues to define their lives. The easiness between them passes, and the old emptiness returns. Bearing their sadnesses separately they return to feigning politeness, biding their time until it’s time for them to part. The idea of reuniting is floated, but gathers only a mute response. Each of them knows they won’t meet again. Wounds given and received are smoothed over with money as a kind of salve to cure a sense of mutual responsibility. Park’s melancholy meditation on the impossibility of true connection and the enduring loneliness of existential longing finds only increasing despair in its middle-aged anti-romantics who find themselves alone in the desert, travelling onwards in silence but encountering only an ever distant horizon with no oasis in sight.


Camel(s) was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.