Our Love Story (연애담, Lee Hyun-ju, 2016)

cyaykwjucaav5frThe history of LGBT cinema in Korea is admittedly thin though recent years have seen an increase in big screen representation with an interest in exploring the reality rather than indulging in stereotypes. The debut feature from Lee Hyun-ju, Our Love Story (연애담, Yeonaedam), is among the first to chart the course of an ordinary romance between two women with all of the everyday drama that modern love entails. A beautiful, bittersweet tale of frustrated connection, Our Love Story is a realistic look at messy first love taking place under the snowy skies of Seoul.

Yoon-ju (Lee Sang-hee) is a busy fine arts graduate student working on her final project. Busy as she is, none of Yoon-ju’s friends can get their heads around her lack of interest in dating, but Yoon-ju is happy enough on her own and doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. Whilst perusing a local junk yard looking for interesting things for her art project, something unexpected catches her eye in the form of a young woman delivering magazines but after the woman completes her business she leaves Yoon-ju’s slightly stunned field of vision, presumably forever.

Because these things happen in a city, Yoon-ju runs into the same woman again in a convenience store where she is having trouble buying cigarettes because she’s forgotten her ID and the cashier is being pedantic about the rules. Coming to the rescue, Yoon-ju buys the cigarettes for her with her ID, which leads to the opportunity of sharing one outside. The mysterious woman is named Ji-soo (Ryu Sun-young) and works part-time at a nearby bar to which she invites Yoon-ju if she happens to fancy a drink of an evening. Yoon-ju doesn’t drink, particularly, but convinces some friends to accompany her to to Ji-soo’s bar – a plan which backfires when they drink too much and argue with each other causing a scene. The two women don’t get much of an opportunity to chat and it all seems like it might end there with Yoon-ju heading home to bed only to receive an unexpected phone call from Ji-soo inviting her over for a late night drinking session.

So begins Yoon-ju’s first romance, and Ji-soo’s 78th as she later jokes. The first night slips into the first day and before long the pair have established a happy domesticity but their original euphoria is short lived as Ji-soo is due to be moving back to her hometown to live with her recently widowed father for a while. The relationship also has adverse effects on Yoon-ju’s life as she begins to neglect her art project and lets her colleagues down by forgetting important meetings, while other events leave her questioning if Ji-soo is really as committed to Yoon-ju as Yoon-ju is to her.

After Ji-soo moves back home, the pair make sure to meet up every so often either in Ji-soo’s hometown of Incheon or in Seoul but there’s an undeniable change in their relationship aside from the distance. In the city, Ji-soo had been outgoing and unafraid but in Incheon she’s a completely different person, closed off and permanently anxious. Ji-soo’s father is a more conservative and religious type who has no idea that his daughter is gay and still expecting her to get married, preferably as soon as possible. Worried that Ji-soo “does not date” he sets her up with a family friend and she has little choice but to play along even if she’s not intending to let it get anywhere. Yoon-ju’s first visit occurs while Ji-soo’s father is away, but even so Ji-soo is uncomfortable with having her in the house. When her father turns up unexpectedly one day while Yoon-ju is there, Ji-soo describes her as “a friend” and makes a point of answering all of Yoon-ju’s questions for her in case she lets something slip.

Hurt and confused, spending time in Incheon becomes a painful experience for Yoon-ju considering the permanently jumpy Ji-soo doesn’t even want her father to know she smokes, let alone anything else he might not approve of. Earlier on the relationship, Yoon-ju made the decision to confide in an old friend from her hometown and found him broadly supportive, once he got over the surprise. Ji-soo, more experienced, warns Yoon-ju that she’ll lose friends if she isn’t careful. This Yoon-ju finds out to her cost when she decides to try talking to her roommate about her troubles with Ji-soo as even someone she felt close to and had trusted suddenly rejects her. Realising you’ve placed your trust in someone who wasn’t worthy of it is a terrible feeling, but it isn’t just familial opposition the two women will be facing if they decide to make a go of things together, even in the big city.

Post Incheon, awkwardness grows and the distance deepens prompting one to fight back and the other to retreat but eventually Ji-soo appears to make her choice in way which seems cuttingly final in its coldness. Later trying to fix what she broke, Ji-soo again goes about things in an inadvisable way, still only superficially committed and unable to fully connect on a deeper level. Ending on an ambiguous, bittersweet note which seems to offer either hope or the despairing vision of an ever repeating cycle of pain, Our Love Story is a beautifully nuanced and interestingly composed addition to the Korean indie scene finally bringing a very ordinary romance to the cinema screen in all of its everyday melodrama.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Clip from halfway through the film (English subtitles)

The Fireflies (螢火, 1958, Heinosuke Gosho)

bxbnzqmccaa5-cg-jpg-largeHistory marches on, and humanity keeps pace with it. Life on the periphery is no less important than at the centre, but those on the edges are often eclipsed when “great” men and women come along. So it is for the long suffering Tose (Chikage Awashima), the put upon heroine of Heinosuke Gosho’s jidaigeki The Fireflies (螢火, Hotarubi). An inn keeper in the turbulent period marking the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and with it centuries of self imposed isolation, Tose is just one of the ordinary people living through extraordinary times but unlike most her independent spirit sparks brightly even through her continuing strife.

Beginning in the “present” – the late 1860s, Tose is the de facto manager of Teradaya, a successful inn in Kyoto. Japanese history buffs will instantly recognise the name of the establishment, as well as that of Tose’s 18 year old adopted daughter, Oryo (Ayako Wakao). Nevertheless, that story can wait as we flashback with Tose as she gazes blankly at a stretch of water, remembering the time she first came to Teradaya as a young bride. The daughter of peasant farmers, Tose was not welcomed by her mother-in-law, Sada, both because of the class differences, and because the man she’s married is not Sada’s son but that of a concubine and she would prefer her biological daughter, Sugi, to inherit. Tose’s husband Isuke, though by no means unpleasant towards her, is a feckless man obsessed with cleaning and singing folk songs, leaving the bulk of the work to his wife.

Tose bears all, taking on the running of Teradaya and making it the most popular inn in town thanks to her friendliness, efficiency, and discretion. However, her position is threatened when she is almost ruined by a bizarre scam involving dummies and ventriloquism. Vindicated, Tose’s position is strengthened but there is more trouble in store when Sugi runs off with the conman leaving her infant illegitimate daughter in Tose’s care. Becoming a mother as she’s always wanted, Tose begins to find a little more fulfilment in her life only to have her dreams cruelly dashed once again. In an act of kindness she later adopts another orphaned girl, Oryo, who arrives at the inn starving and in the care of an older man who’d been looking after her since her doctor father was murdered for supposedly collaborating with the rebel ronin trying to over throw the shogunate.

This is the first mention of the ongoing political instability present in the country at large but largely unseen in the peaceful world of a small inn in Kyoto. Of course, you can’t say Teradaya and Oryo without eventually saying Sakamoto Ryoma (Miki Mori). Ryoma does eventually arrive in all his revolutionary glory albeit in an appropriately humanised form and proceeds to turn Tose’s life upside down in more ways than one. Locked into her loveless, but far from cruel, marriage Tose’s spirited nature is reignited by Ryoma’s fervour. Falling in love with him for his commitment to creating a better world for all, Tose’s dreams drift a little but are dashed again when she realises he and Oryo are the more natural pair.

Though Tose reacts badly to the discovery that Oryo is also in love with Ryoma, she is later able to patch things up, entrusting the man she loves to her daughter in an act of maternal sacrifice. Tose talks about her admiration for those who sacrifice all of themselves for other people but this is exactly what she has done with her own life, only in a much quieter way. Where Ryoma was a father to a movement, Tose is a mother to the world. Denied a child of her own through her husband’s indifference, Tose first adopts her niece and then an orphaned girl but consistently acts in the best interests of others rather than herself. Hearing the cries of betrayed revolutionaries, she describes them as sounding like howling babies – an idea she repeats several times including when describing Oryo’s famous naked dash from the bath to warn Ryoma of the impending arrival of the Shinsengumi. Tose’s only instinct is to silence those cries through maternal warmth, even if it ultimately causes her pain.

Tose, for Gosho at least, is no less a heroic figure than Ryoma as her everyday acts of kindness and strength contribute to an ongoing social change. Where other inn owners turn in the rebels either for material gain, active opposition, or desire to avoid the hassle, Tose stands firm and allows Teradaya to become known as a safe haven for the revolutionary movement. Ryoma shone brighter but for a short time, whereas Tose’s life goes on and Teradaya continues to be the favourite stop for beleaguered travellers passing through the old capital in these difficult times. Reconciling with her husband who finally offers the possibility of having a child of their own to inherit the inn, there is a glimmer of hope for Tose once again even if it’s clear that Isuke hasn’t really changed. It may seem that Tose’s firefly has blinked out as she takes her dull and self centred husband back, vowing to spend less time on the inn as she does so, but there is a glint of light in her few final words which are followed by putting her apron straight back on to meet the first boat, shouting the virtues of her beloved Teradaya all the way.


 

Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned (가려진 시간, Um Tae-hwa, 2016)

vanishing-timeWhen no time passes, does anything change? Yes, and then again, no, if Um Tae-hwa’s Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned (가려진 시간, Garyeojin Shigan) is to be believed. Dealing with the nature of time, connection, and faith Um’s film is a supernaturally tinged fairytale which never seriously entertains the more rational explanation offered by the naysayers, but is filled with the innocence of childhood and the essential naivety of adolescence. Melancholy, though somehow uplifting, Vanishing Time neatly avoids the pitfalls of romantic melodrama for a genuinely affecting coming of age story as its heroine is forced to make peace with her traumatic past through accepting the loss and sacrifice of her present.

Thirteen year old Su-rin (Shin Eun-soo) is an orphan, living with her step-father who has just moved to a small island where he is engaged in the construction work on a new tunnel. Sullen and lonely, Su-rin does not get on with her step-father whom she holds responsible for the death of her mother in a car accident. All Su-rin wants is to disappear into another world. In fact, she even has her own blog dedicated to exploring possible portals to alternate dimensions and the best methods for provoking an out of body experience. Needless to say, Su-rin does not fit in at school and has immense trouble making friends, especially when they stumble across her online activity and brand her a weirdo.

Su-rin does, however, bond with another boy, Sung-min (Lee Hyo-je), who (though not actually an orphan) lives at the orphanage. Sung-min seems to have some success with the methods Su-rin suggests for out of body experiences and the pair gradually build a up friendship complete with a secret written code and strange rituals. Though Sung-min’s friends Tae-sik (Kim Dan-yool) and Jae-wook (Jeong Woo-jin) don’t want any girls around, Sung-min convinces them to let her come when they sneak into the cordoned off construction area to witness the tunnel blasting. Whilst there, they discover a secret cavern in which there is a strange glowing egg at the bottom of a pool. The boys steal the egg and ponder over what it is until Tae-sik remembers a story his grandfather told about a time stealing goblin that turns children into adults and adults into old people by means of an egg found in a mysterious cave which only exists at a time of a full moon.

When Su-rin emerges from the cavern after nearly being buried by an explosion, the boys have vanished. The community begins to fear the worst – everything from child abduction to an industry conspiracy to cover up a blast related accident, but some time later Su-rin is approached by an older man who claims to be Sung-min.

Um begins the film with the lens cap of a camera as a woman gives a perfunctory voice over explaining that this is the record of her three month psychiatric evaluation of the teenager Su-rin which she hereby offers to us in the hope that we will understand her. When the lens cap comes off, a black and white montage sequence follows detailing the police investigation into the disappearance of the three boys before flashing back to Su-rin seated in front of the camera. It’s clear that Su-rin is sticking to her story, but also that she hasn’t been believed, has not managed to save any of her friends, and is, in some way, suspected of collusion in the events which have engulfed her.

Filmed with earthy browns and greens, the overall atmosphere is one of fairy tale with its supernatural rituals and stories of goblins which feast on time and misery. Obviously very affected by the death of her mother and by her resultant loneliness in having only the step-father she refuses to bond with, Su-rin has already retreated into a fantasy world despite being unable to actively cross over through any of the possible methods she explores in her blog. Bonding with Sung-min through their shared experimentation, the pair attempt a summoning ritual in which they each leave messages for a possible visitor – hers a question about her mother, his a wish that he grow tall and make enough money to retire by thirty. Su-rin’s question goes unanswered, but in the best fairy tale tradition Sung-min is going to get what he asked for, only in the most terrible of ways.

When the boys stop time it first seems like a paradise. They can do whatever they like, running round town stealing slices of pizza and peeking up ladies’ skirts but the novelty quickly wears off when they realise they’re stuck in this ever unchanging world with no means of escape. Thinking ahead, the boys study hard soaking up all the available knowledge in this completely silent universe whilst also stockpiling cash so they’ll be prepared if the hands on the clock ever start turning again. Trapped inside this bubble for more than a decade, the boys have grown into men but in body only. The lack of ongoing experience has also trapped them inside their fourteen year old minds rendering them adrift in either place. Some of them find escape in other ways yet tellingly, time comes only when despair reaches its critical mass.

Um’s painterly vision of the time stopped universe is a beautifully constructed one in which the suspended forward momentum of objects is depicted as a kind of anti-gravity where manga and crisp packets hover in the air while even the heaviest furniture can be trailed on a string like a balloon. Repeated motifs of Su-rin looking at her shadow and the occasionally strange angles give the picture an off kilter atmosphere which further brings out the creepy fairy tale quality of the abandoned Western-style cottage in the woods and its European gothic aesthetics.

Only Su-rin is prepared to believe Sung-min, convinced both by her gut instinct driven by the recognition of their original connection and the hard evidence of their unique code and the scar on Sung-min’s arm. The film never seriously entertains the “rational” explanation offered by the police, but focuses on Su-rin’s desire to restore her friend to his rightful place in society by ensuring he is recognised as Sung-min, the boy who disappeared and has returned as a man. Gang Dong-won, pale and gaunt, gives off just the right level of eerie uncanniness as this strangely innocent man-boy, desperately wanting to go home but having no home to go to other than Su-rin. A tale of innocent, selfless love, Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned is a melancholy, often dark exploration of the journey into adolescence captured with a beautiful, surrealist eye and a beating human heart.


Original trailer (English subtitles – select from settings menu)

La Maison de Himiko (メゾン・ド・ヒミコ, Isshin Inudo, 2005)

la-maison-de-himikoIn Japan’s rapidly ageing society, there are many older people who find themselves left alone without the safety net traditionally provided by the extended family. This problem is compounded for those who’ve lived their lives outside of the mainstream which is so deeply rooted in the “traditional” familial system. La Maison de Himiko (メゾン・ド・ヒミコ) is the name of an old people’s home with a difference – it caters exclusively to older gay men who have often become estranged from their families because of their sexuality. The proprietoress, Himiko (Min Tanaka), formerly ran an upscale gay bar in Ginza before retiring to open the home but the future of the Maison is threatened now that Himiko has contracted a terminal illness and their long term patron seems set to withdraw his support.

Haruhiko (Joe Odagiri), Himiko’s much younger lover and the manager of the home, is determined to reunite his boss with his estranged daughter, Saori (Kou Shibasaki), before it’s too late. Saori is a rather sour faced and sullen woman carrying a decades long grudge against the father who abandoned her as a child and consigned her mother to a life of misery and heartbreak, so Haruhiko’s invitations are not warmly received. Haruhiko is not the giving up type and manages to sweet talk Saori’s colleague into revealing her desperate financial situation which has her already working two jobs with a part-time stint in a combini on top of her regular work during which she finds herself looking at lucrative ads for work on sex lines. When Haruhiko offers her a well paying gig helping out at the home, she has no choice but to put her pride aside.

The exclusively male residents of La Maison de Himiko lived their lives during a time when it was almost impossible to be openly gay. Consequently many of them have been married and had children but later left their families to live a more authentic life. Unfortunately, times being what they were, this often meant that they lost contact with their sons or daughters, even if they were able to keep in touch with their ex-wives or other family members for updates. For these reasons, La Maison de Himiko provides an invaluable refuge for older men who have nowhere else to go as they enter the later stages of their lives. The home provides not only a safe space where everybody is free to be themselves but also a sense of community and interdependence.

Though the situation is much improved, it is still imperfect as the home and its residents continue to face prejudice from the outside world. Saori, still carrying the pain of her father’s rejection, views his choice as a selfish one which placed his own desires above the duty he should have felt towards his wife and child. Partly driven by her resentment, Saori has a somewhat negative view of homosexuality on arriving at the home, offering up a selection of homophobic slurs, and is slow to warm to the residents. Gradually getting to know her father again and through her experiences at the home, her attitude slowly changes until she finds herself physically defending her new found friend when he’s set upon by a drunken former colleague who publicly shames him in a nightclub.

The home is also plagued by a gang of bratty kids who often leave homophobic graffiti scrawled across the front wall. One of their early tricks involves throwing a bunch of firecrackers under a parked car to stun Saori so they can hold her captive for a bit because they have really a lot of questions about lesbians and they wondered if she was one, though one wonders what they’d do if someone answered them seriously. Predictably, the leader of the bratty kids may be engaging in these kinds of behaviours because he’s confused himself. Thankfully La Maison de Himiko is an open and forgiving place, welcoming the boy inside to offer support to a young man still trying to figure himself out.

This is not a coming out story, but it is a plea for tolerance and acceptance through which Saori herself begins to blossom, easing her anger and resentment and sending her trademark scowl away with them. One of her closest friends at the home is a shy man who lived most of his life in the closet but makes the most beautiful embroidered clothes and elegant dresses. Sadly, the most lovely of them is reserved for his funeral – he’s too ashamed to wear it alive because he doesn’t like the way he looks in the mirror. Eventually he and Saori end up having an unconventional fancy dress party in which they both break out of their self imposed prisons culminating in a joyous group dance routine in a local nightclub.

Joe Odagiri turns in another nuanced, conflicted performance as the increasingly confused Haruhiko who finds himself oddly drawn to Saori’s sullen charms though the film thankfully avoids “turning” its male lead for an uncomfortable romantic conclusion. A young man among old ones, Haruhiko is somewhat out of place but has his own empty spaces. Revealing to Saori that he lives only for desire he betrays a nagging fear of his own emptiness and journey into a possibly lonely old age. Nevertheless, La Maison de Himiko is generally bright and cheerful despite some of the pain and sadness which also reside there. A warm and friendly tribute to the power of community, La Maison de Himiko is a hymn in praise of tolerance and inclusivity which, as it makes plain, bloom from the inside out.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And the fantastic dance sequence from the film

Plus the original version of the song (Mata Au Hi Made) by Kiyohiko Ozaki

Miss Ex (비치온더비치, AKA Bitch on the Beach, Jeong Ga-young, 2016)

bitch-on-the-beachDo you know Hong Sang-soo? So asks the heroine of Miss Ex (비치온더비치, Bitch on the Beach) as part of her nefarious mission to win back her childhood sweetheart. Unfortunately, his reply is to ask if he directed The Host, so Ga-young (Jeong Ga-young) is out of luck with her Dark Knight loving former love, but possibly in luck with us as her movie obsessed ramblings and strange stories about accidental AIDS tests during wisdom tooth extractions continue to dominate the screen for the next 90 minutes. Divided into three chapters and filmed in an oddly colourful black and white, director and leading actress’ Jeong Ga-young’s debut feature channels Hong Sang-soo by way of Woody Allen and the French New Wave but may prove funnier than all three put together.

Drunken Ga-young has invited herself over to her ex’s flat with the express intention of seducing him. Jeong-hoon (Kim-Choi Yong-joon) is sort of fed up with this kind of thing, in fact he has Ga-young listed in his phone under the name “do not answer” but she manages to bamboozle him into opening the door anyway. Ga-young has quit her job to pursue a career in the movies, though it seems she’s not having much success. Jeong-hoon knows she only calls him for a shoulder to cry on when she’s fed up but falls for it anyway. He has a girlfriend and makes it clear he’s not up for any funny business, but Ga-young is quite determined – only time will tell if Ga-young will get what she came for, or if she even really even knows what that is.

Miss Ex was originally titled “Bitch on the Beach” in Korean which, seeing as there are no beaches in this film, seems to be an obvious reference to the Hong Sang-soo movie Woman on the Beach – a similarly reflexive exercise about a film director and his relationships with a number of women who only really become fodder for his screenplay. Filming in black and white with simple, static camera set ups and concentrating on the amusing banter between its two leading characters credited only as “woman” and “man”, Hong’s influence is palpable. Ga-young is, however, a true cinephile who, after finding time to express her boredom with The Dark Knight, goes on to detail her strange dreams about other famous directors such as Bong Joon-ho (who really did direct The Host) and arguably Korea’s greatest living filmmaker Lee Chang-dong whom she asks to be her assistant director(!).

It’s fair to say the banter is more or less one sided as Jeong-hoon is forced to listen to Ga-young’s increasingly bizarre stories. Surprisingly frank and forthright in talking to her ex-boyfriend, Ga-young proceeds to tell him about various other men in her life, her sexual desires and preferences, and even those of her friends. Jeong-hoon listens patiently with occasional bemusement, but their relationship is close enough to be totally open without causing too much of a problem. Despite his protestations it’s clear Jeong-hoon is still on the hook for Ga-young, which she clearly knows, but it’s a little less clear whether she’s just keeping him there for convenience’s sake or is actively trying to win him back.

Even if Hong Sang-soo is the obvious reference point, he is after all referenced in the text, Miss Ex also owes a debt to the breeziness of the French New Wave and its freewheeling absurdity. Cutting between amusing silliness and understated emotional drama Miss Ex is perfectly posed to examine the various trials and tribulations of romance among contemporary young people. Ga-young is, perhaps, too modern for the slightly more conservative Jeong-hoon who tells her that her problems with men mostly stem from being too quick to take the lead and also constantly picks her up on her “unladylike” colourful language. One gets the impression Ga-young might not be very good for Jeong-hoon who eventually jeopardises his relationship with his current girlfriend to keep her happy, but whatever anyone else thinks about it, it seems as if he won’t be giving up on her any time soon. Cute, quirky and extremely smart, Miss Ex is an accomplished debut from director and leading lady Jeong Ga-young who marks herself out as an interesting new indie voice in Korean cinema.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Mere Life (벌거숭이, Park Sang-hun, 2012)

%e1%84%87%e1%85%a5%e1%86%af%e1%84%80%e1%85%a5%e1%84%89%e1%85%ae%e1%86%bc%e1%84%8b%e1%85%b5_%e1%84%91%e1%85%a9%e1%84%89%e1%85%b3%e1%84%90%e1%85%a5Anyone who follows Korean cinema will have noticed that Korean films often have a much bleaker point of view than those of other countries. Nevertheless it would be difficult to find one quite as unrelentingly dismal as A Mere Life (벌거숭이, Beolgeosungi). Encompassing all of human misery from the false support of family, marital discord, money worries, and the heartlessness of con men, A Mere Life throws just about everything it can at its everyman protagonist who finds himself trapped in a well of despair that not even death can save him from.

Park Il-rae (Kin Min-hyuk) and his wife Yurim (Jang Liu) own a small supermarket which isn’t doing so well. After approaching both of their parents for help and getting a flat no from both directions, the couple decide to throw all of their savings into buying a delivery van to increase their business potential. Il-rae excitedly travels into the city to sign the paperwork but gradually realises something is wrong when the salesman suddenly disappears. Having lost all of the family’s money, Il-rae travels home dejected and hits on a drastic solution – a family suicide. Poisoning his wife and son, Il-rae means to die too but survives even more burdened by guilt and regret than before. More failed suicide attempts follow as Il-rae attempts to come to terms with his actions, somehow surviving yet all but dead inside.

There really is no hope for Park Il-rae. At the very beginning of the film, the family visit a park in which his wife urges their son to make a wish by adding a stone to the top of a cairn, only to see the whole thing suddenly collapse in front of them like a grim harbinger of the way their lives are about to implode. Il-rae tries to repair the pile, but all to no avail. This quite awkward family trip in which Il-rae moodily strides on ahead will actually be the happiest they ever are, away from the destructive domestic environment where money troubles and male pride cast a shadow over an otherwise ordinary family life.

Both Il-rae and his wife seem to have strained relationships with their parents. Il-rae tries his own father first in the quest for help only for him to angrily tell his son to man up. When his wife visits her parents (alone with the couple’s little boy) it’s the first time she’s seen them in a decade and they are fairly nonplussed that it’s money she’s come for. After Yurim delicately states her predicament, her father tells her that he can’t help because he now has lots of hobbies which all require money. Offering perhaps the worst piece of fatherly advice ever uttered, he suggests she take up something fun herself and not worry about money so much.

The worse things get the more the family fragments. Il-rae drinks while the couple’s son seems to be addicted to video games. Faced with an obnoxious man who thoughtlessly parks his expensive car directly in the doorway of their store yet refuses to move because “he’ll only be a few minutes”, Il-rae is only saved from doing something stupid by his wife physically pushing him out of the way, but her physical dominance only worsens his sense of impotence. After making his drastic and irreversible decision, Il-rae is left alone and reeling from the worst kind of failure and regret. From this point on he’s marooned in his very own limboland, hovering on the brink of life and death.

Beginning with POV shots of a car dutifully following the only path laid out for it, A Mere Life states its bleak indie intentions right away as the gloomy lyrics of a folk tune run in the background constantly making reference to a despair which not even death could comfort. Recalling the great misery epics of the ‘70s, Park Sang-hun films with an anxious, unblinking camera save for the ominous shaky cam shots of a man facing the sea which begin and end the film. Il-rae may have made a decision as regards a future, but it remains unclear if there is any hope of salvation waiting for him. A Mere Life is never is never an easy watch thanks to its unshaking bleakness, but its strength of purpose and uneasy mix of morality play and character drama make for an unusual, interesting independent feature debut.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Underground Fragrance (地下・香, Pengfei, 2015)

underground_fragranceThe original Chinese title of recent Tsai Ming-liang collaborator (Song) Pengfei’s debut feature 地下・香 (dìxìa・xiāng) has an intriguing full stop in the middle which the English version loses, but nevertheless these two concepts “underground” and “fragance” become inextricably linked as the four similarly trapped protagonists desperately try to fight their way to better kind of life. Recalling Tsai’s dreamy symbolism, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s romantic melancholy, and Jia Zhangke’s lament for the working man lost in China’s rapidly changing landscape, Pengfei’s film is nevertheless resolutely his own as it chases the ever elusive Chinese dream all the way from dank basements and ruined villages to the shiny high rise cities which promise a tomorrow they may never be able to deliver.

Yong Le (Luo Wenjie) is just one such young man, trying to buy a future by raiding the past. He has a small van he uses to “reclaim” furniture and sell it second hand. One day he has an accident whilst working which costs him his sight. Finding it difficult to manage in the cramped, noisy corridors of the subterranean cavern he is currently living in, Yong Le strikes up a friendship with his kindly new next door neighbour, Xiao Yun (Ying Ze), who helps him with some of his everyday problems like telling the time and finding food. Xiao Yun is currently working as a pole dancer in a seedy club which she longs to quit and is hoping to bag a salesgirl position at a new development office.

Yong Le is also friends with an older man, Lao Jin (Zhao Fuyu), who lives above ground with his wife (Li Xiaohui) in a large, old fashioned courtyard style house. Lao Jin and his wife are the only remaining residents of the village, the rest of which has been knocked down already after the other homeowners settled with the development company for what they considered the best deal they could get. Lao Jin, however,  thinks it’s worth holding out and has been “in negotiations” for eight years. Dreaming of a mega payout he can use to by a fancy city flat and be a big shot at last, Lao Jin has already run through his savings and is dangerously close to losing everything.

In a rather pointed piece of symbolism, Xiao Yun walks past a large mural with the slogan “Run Towards Your Dreams” prominently displayed in the middle. Later, this same wall will be reduced to rubble, a handful of brightly coloured stones marking the spot where once a village stood. Xiao Yun and Yong Le have very different dreams to those of Lao Jin, reflecting the way that even aspiration has shifted with the generations. He wants the fancy penthouse life for himself and his wife, even if it means selling their furniture and sacrificing his wife’s beloved white rooster, but all Yong Le and Xiao Yun want is out of the dingy basement and into a cleaner sort of life.

Yong Le and Xiao Yun may begin to fall in love during his period of blindness, but it’s a luxury neither of them can afford. There’s a slight irony in the fact that Xiao Yun who’s come to hate the men who visit her bar, some of them trying to buy more than a show, becomes attached to a man who cannot see her, but her desperation to escape her dead end life before it’s too late means she can’t afford to hang around for romance to bloom. A heart stopping moment sees the sight restored Yong Le unexpectedly end up at the bar where Xiao Yun dances, but having been blind the entire time he knew her, he doesn’t recognise the woman on stage (though to his credit he does not particularly look). Pulled apart by the increasing harshness of the economic environment, romance is an unattainable dream for those like Yong Le and Xiao Yun, drifting around from one thing to the next barely able to touch the ground let alone live on it.

Pengfei’s camera operates with a formalist grace, putting architecture at the forefront of his storytelling. From the ruins of a village to lie of the as yet unfinished high-rise future and the dank, dangerous underground world of the casual drifters always aiming for something better, the landscape gives voice to the often despairing nature of life on edges of a society where the rate of change threatens to leave vast swathes of its citizens behind. Adding a touch of the surreal such as a supremely timed return of the electricity in which Lao Jin’s attempt to oust a noisy owl with fireworks lines up with his peking opera record, or the couple’s later attempt to woo the developers with a musical performance of their own (another demonstration of the way their old world customs have become obsolete), Pengfei undercuts the ever present melancholy with a dose of whimsical irony. Wistfully romantic, and dreaming of a better, fairer society Underground Fragrance is a snapshot of a world in flux in which even the most essential of human connections can become lost in the crowd of faces all running towards tomorrow.


Currently screening for free on Festival Scope as part of their Torino Film Lab selection.

Trailer from Venice (English subtitles)