The Last Witness (최후의 증인, Lee Doo-yong, 1980)

Last Witness Restoration posterThe Last Witness (최후의 증인, Choehuui jeungin), a pregnant title if there ever was one, begins with a melancholy voice over by way of a warning. It tells us that the path we are about to embark on will be a dark one but strikes a more optimistic note in affirming that 1980 was the year old evils were cleared away and, the narrator hopes, such darkness will have been left behind in the approaching new decade. Sadly this will not come to pass. The Last Witness is adapted from a novel by Kim Seong-jong which was published in 1974 but Lee Doo-yong filmed his adaptation in 1979 during the brief surge of hope for a brighter future following the assassination of dictator Park Chung-hee which ended with the military coup staged by general Chun Doo-hwan placing the country under martial law. A detective is assigned a case, but his investigation takes him on a long, soul searching journey into the recent past in which he finds countless crimes, betrayals, and proofs of human cruelty which ultimately destroy his ability to believe in the better, brighter future which has been promised yet denied.

Oh (Hah Myung-joong), a recently widowed, strung out police detective is handed a case by his sympathetic boss which seems to have been buried. A brewery owner, Young Dalsoo (Lee Dae-keun), has been murdered whilst fishing at a river and there appear to be few clues save that the woman he was living with was apparently not his legal wife. Oh’s preliminary enquiries all point back to an incident 20 years previously when Young was the youth leader in the village and supposedly helped to capture/kill a squad of rebel communist guerrilla fighters who had been hiding on Mt. Jirisan. 

Lee structures the tale to mimic Oh’s investigation; we follow him as he follows leads, jumping back to the 1950s and then forward again the world of 1980. The war becomes a corrupting and dividing line but Lee is bold in his tenet that the wounds did not heal after the truce. The villainy and greed continued, women were used and abused, men were cheated and betrayed. Justice no longer existed and the system continued to be bent to the will of the powerful rather than used for the defence of the weak.

It’s no surprise that Lee had such trouble with the censors. The version of the film restored by the Korean Film Archive runs 154 minutes (the first cut apparently ran 158) but for its original release the mandated cuts took it down to 120, leaving an already complex narrative near incomprehensible. Aside from the scenes of rape and violence, the censors took issue with the depiction of judicial corruption and particularly with its manipulation to facilitate sexual coercion of a defenceless young woman.

The woman at the centre of the storm is Son Jihye (Jeong Yun-hui) – the daughter of a wealthy man who nevertheless became a commander of a communist guerrilla unit during the war. When General Son went into the mountains he took his daughter with him, but realising he was on the losing side, and resenting orders he believed would result in nothing more than martyrdom, Son lost faith in “communism” and was murdered by his own men in an act of mutiny. Before he died he entrusted a treasure map marking the spot he buried his ancestral wealth to a fellow officer with the instruction to look after his daughter and make sure she gets her inheritance. The soldier failed to keep his promise. Jihye is raped and then gang raped, rescued by a sweet and simple man, Bau (Choi Bool-am), whom she later marries, and then forced to become the mistress of an official who also raped her. Jihye and Bau are the innocents chewed up by the system, good people pushed into a corner by the politics of others and then let down by a society so riddled with corruption that it can no longer command any degree of faith from its continually oppressed people.

The Korea of 1980 is being attacked through the legacy of 1950 but whether in concession to the censors or no, the communists do not come off well either. Son, described as an eccentric, is clearly a misguided madman who has betrayed his class on a superficial level, saving his own wealth for a rainy day, but he is allowed a semi-noble death in finally renouncing communism as a cruel, ambitious underlying has him brutally executed by bloody, violent bayonets while his daughter watches from behind a nearby bush. Once Son is dead the madness sets in as the guerrillas hide out beneath a primary school, listening to small children sing happy songs while they tie up and rape a terrified teenage girl having abandoned all concessions to morality and their supposedly noble cause.

If the communists were bad what came later was worse. Interviewing a witness, Oh is keenly aware that the man is telling him only a part of the truth, leaving out a painful detail but leaving in just enough for a skilled investigator to understand. It is this act of selective silence that Oh has come to challenge, exposing the whole sordid story of his nation across two decades of war, trauma, economic recovery and political oppression. Oh cannot resist meting out a little justice of his own in reciting the man’s hidden truth back to him, forcing him to confront the ugliness of his of youth and the guilt that he has long been repressing. Unable to prosecute him for his crimes, Oh hopes that the man will be punished “emotionally” by his words but his actions have far more severe consequences than he ever could have anticipated.

What Oh finds when he solves the crime is a long history of rape, secrecy, betrayal, selfishness, and the misappropriation of law by the powerful to oppress the powerless. It all goes back to the mountain and the war, a young woman robbed and violated, her protector imprisoned, and a legacy of pain which will come back to haunt those responsible but bring only ruin and anguish to its original victims. The question of the “last witness” remains unsolved – will these be the last witnesses to an era of fear and impotence now that the bright future is on its way, or is Oh the last witness, deciding to take his terrible knowledge with him to a better place? Then again the film itself stands as a testament to its times, butchered by censors but carrying forth its own hidden truths only to deliver them 30 years later than expected. Lee’s powerful murder mystery is an investigation into the death of a nation about to be reborn which makes its grim yet inevitable conclusion all the more painful in its brutal negation of a long buried hope.


Screening as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2017 at Regent Street Cinema on November 4th, 2pm.

The Last Witness is also available on all regions dual format DVD & blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive. In addition to English subtitles on the main feature, the blu-ray disc also includes subtitles for the commentary track by Park Chan-wook and film critic Kim Young-jin, while The DVD includes subtitles for the commentary track by Kim and Lee Doo-yong as well as an additional commentary by director of Kilimanjaro/The Shameless Oh Seung-uk and journalist Ju Sung-chul.

The accompanying booklet is fully bilingual and includes essays by Kim Young-jin, Ju Sungchul (Editor of Korean film magazine Cine 21), and Inuhiko Yomota (film critic – the booklet also includes the original, untranslated essay in Japanese), as well as a note on the restoration from the KOFA conservation centre.

(Not currently available on the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel)

Original trailer (Restored, English subtitles)

People in the Slum (꼬방동네 사람들, Bae Chang-ho, 1982)

People in the slum still 2The Korea of the early ‘80s was not an altogether happy place. One dictator fell in 1979, but hopes of returning to democracy were dashed when general Chun Doo-hwan staged a coup and instigated martial law, brutally suppressing a large scale democracy protest in Gwangju in 1980 (though the news of the incident was also suppressed at the time it took place). People in the Slums (꼬방동네 사람들, Kkobangdongne Salamdeul), adapted from the best selling novel by Lee Dong-cheol, is not an overtly political film but takes as its heroes those who have lost out in the nation’s bold forward march into the capitalist future. Opening with a voice over from the author himself, the film dedicates itself to “the memory of neighbours of bygone days”, remembering both the hardships but also the fierce sense of community and warmth to be found among those living at the bottom of the heap.

Myeong-suk (Kim Bo-yeon), a still young-ish woman with a young son, lives in a slum outside of the city with her second husband, Tae-sub (kim Hee-ra). Nicknamed “Black Glove” because of the glove she always wears on her right hand, Myeong-suk is about to open her own business – a small grocery store serving the local residents, but her happiness is tempered with anxiety. Tae-sub, despite his promises, steals money from Myeong-suk to go drinking and gambling, is occasionally violent, and does not get on with her son, Jun-il, who refers to him as Mr. Piggy. Jun-il is also a constant worry because he’s picked up a habit of stealing things and generally causing trouble around the neighbourhood. When Myeong-suk’s former husband and the father of Jun-il, Ju-seok (Ahn Sung-ki), catches sight of her by chance one day, the past threatens to eclipse the small hope of her future.

Life in the slums is not easy. There are few resources, few people are working and there are lots of children with no money to feed and clothe them. Fights are frequent but often unserious. The community pull together to support each other, turning out in force for the grand opening of Myeong-suk’s shop or the 60th birthday celebration of a fellow resident. Besides Myeong-suk, her second husband, and son, the slum is home to a collection of unusual characters from a widow who dresses in white and does strange dances to entertain the locals, to the pastor who does his best to help where he can. A poor drunken woman makes a fool of herself all over town, nursing a crush on the pastor but seemingly unable to move past her dependency on alcohol and whatever it is that caused it and landed her in the slum.

Myeong-suk’s early life would not have suggested her current trajectory, as Bae reveals in Ju-seok’s flashbacks of his courtship to the woman who would become his wife. Ju-seok, a pickpocket, spotted Myeong-suk on a bus and it was love at first sight. Eventually he married her but never revealed his illicit occupation until he was finally arrested. For the sake of his wife and child, Ju-seok attempts to go straight but his efforts are frustrated by bad luck, temptation, and unforgiving policemen. No matter how hard Ju-seok tries to be a decent, hardworking, family man, the economic instability of late ‘70s Korea will not allow him to do it.

Myeong-suk waits for him, but there comes a point she cannot wait anymore. Her second husband is no better than her first and, just like Ju-seok, is hiding something from her. Tae-sub is a bully and a bruiser who is only using Myeong-suk as a convenient place to hide. She cannot rely on him for affection, protection, or financial stability. Ju-seok, at least, did love Myeong-suk even if that love was the very thing which kept leading him back into a life of crime which then took him away from her. Once again love is a luxury the poor cannot afford .

Where the general atmosphere may seem destined for a tragedy for the resilient, suffering Myeong-suk, her damaged son, and reformed taxi-driver former husband, Bae gives them hope for a warmer, if not a better, future. As Myeong-suk prepares to leave the slum, the pastor, encircled by the residents, reads out a passage reminding the locals that a neighbour’s suffering is one’s own suffering while the drunken woman who previously hated children appears to have sobered up and happily hugs a child. Myeong-suk makes a selfless gesture of atonement and solidarity in giving the money from selling her shop to another single mother whose youngest three all have different fathers, perhaps indicating the difficulty of her life since the father of her eldest passed away. Tae-sub too reforms, decides to face the past he’s been running from and make amends for his former life, facilitating a possible reunion for the star-crossed lovers Myeong-suk and Ju-seok. The future suddenly looks brighter, but it remains uncertain and who knows if love and a taxi-driver’s salary will be enough to keep Ju-seok on the straight and narrow as a responsible husband and father in turbulent ‘80s Korea.


People in the Slum screens as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2017 which is hosting a mini Bae Chang-ho retrospective of three films at each of which the director will be present for a Q&A.

The film was also recently released on all regions blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive. In addition to English subtitles on the main feature, the blu-ray also includes English subtitles for the commentary track by Bae Chang-ho and film critic Kim Sungwook, and comes with a bilingual booklet featuring essays by Jang Byung-won (programmer for Jeonju International Film Festival), Lee Yong-cheol (film critic), and Chris Berry (King’s College London).

You can also watch the entirety of the film legally and for free courtesy of the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Fine, with Occasional Murders (晴れ、ときどき殺人, Kazuyuki Izutsu, 1984)

fine with occasional murders posterIn Japan’s ailing late ‘70s cinema market, studios were taking extreme decisions to get the public away from their TV sets and back into movie houses, yet one enterprising would-be media mogul had another idea. Haruki Kadokawa, a man with a publishing house and cinematic ambitions hit on a then innovative marketing strategy which amounted to a perfect storm for his own particular capabilities. Amassing a small stable of idols, he resurrected the studio system to produce a steady stream of youth movies adapting novels he also published and featuring title songs which his idols sang and he released on his record label. Hitting their heyday in the early to mid-1980s, Kadokawa’s idol films are a perfect time capsule of their pre-bubble setting in which, unlike the “seishun eiga” of twenty years before, upperclass young girls solved crimes and defied authority all whilst remaining prim, elegant and innocent. Fine, with Occasional Murders (晴れ、ときどき殺人, Hare, Tokidoki Satsujin) is a prime example of this gentle yet somehow dangerous world as its heroine returns home from studying abroad only to become embroiled in a conspiracy lodged firmly within her own home.

As the film opens, a middle-aged man and woman pay a nighttime visit to the site of a new factory, reminiscing about their youth and the small soap business they started thirty years ago which is now a full scale plastics film. The woman catches sight of someone leaving and stops to wish him goodnight only to suddenly wonder why he’s there in the first place. The reason becomes apparent when she steps forward a little and discovers the body of a young woman lying against her fence post. As if that weren’t worrying enough, factory owner Mrs. Kitazato (Mitsuyo Asaka) then starts getting threatening letters telling her she must go to the police and confirm that an innocent man is the killer or her daughter, Kanako (Noriko Watanabe), studying overseas, will be in danger. Mrs. Kitazato frets and worries but goes along with the killer’s demands to save her daughter only to be confronted with the dead body of the patsy as it lands right at her feet after being thrown from a police station window.

Suffering from a heart condition, Mrs. Kitazato remains unwell until Kanako comes home but then lasts only long enough to impart two important secrets – one being that the man Kanako assumed was her father may not have been, and secondly the whole story with the threatening letters and her belief that they were sent by someone in the family from whom she received a New Year card written in the same handwriting.

As usual Kanako is left to deal with all of this on her own, though slightly less usually remains within her own family home for the vast majority of the picture. Paid a visit by the police, Kanako comes into contact with their prime suspect in the first murder, Kamimura (Yosuke Tagawa) – a young man who had been a high school friend of the victim and had given her a place to stay while she was trying to escape her career as a hotel hooker. Kamimura becomes Kanako’s innocent love interest as she hides him in the secret room her mother had built behind a dresser in the dining room. Together the pair try to investigate the strange goings on in the Kitazato household whilst also exploring their very different backgrounds. 

Like many of Kadokawa’s idol movies (often adapted from the novels of Jiro Akagawa) the setting is both dark and hopefully innocent as Kanako is burdened with the knowledge that someone close to her is a murderer but faces her situation with cheerful resilience and determination. Whilst pursuing her spiky relationship with Kamimura, she’s also being haunted by the spectre of an arranged marriage to the dreadful son of a business associate, Masahiko (Akihiro Shimizu), who attempts to rape her with her mother’s body still still lying on the bed in the same room, and is also having an affair with their maid, Mari (Mariko Miike). Masahiko is also revealed as a prime suspect in the murders when another body is discovered in the living room with Masahiko standing red handed over it. The murder scenes (and there are more than you’d expect), are nasty, bloody and violent. Despite the innocence of Kanako’s wide open world, misogynistic killers lurk round every corner as do corrupt businessmen, untrustworthy servants, and enemies masquerading as friends.

As darks as it gets, the tone is always one of irony filled with bumbling policemen who form an odd double act in their humorous black and forth, running jokes about hard contact lenses and improbably large sandwiches, and the general whimsy of a young man’s dream of building a real flying bicycle. Despite being one of Kadokawa’s new “Sannin Musume” (alongside Hiroko Yakusushimaru and Tomoyo Harada), Noriko Watanabe played fewer leading roles than her two compatriots. Fine with Occasional Murders (released in the same year as Someday, Someone Will Be Killed), is her first big idol movie lead for which she also sings the theme song which has an almost identical title. She is, however, the archetypal Kadokawa heroine – steadfast, strong, confident, kind, and noble, calmly solving the mystery behind her own mother’s death mere days after losing her, figuring out that poor boys are probably OK, and that awful CEOs and their sons will always be awful. Valuable lessons indeed for increasingly wealthy 1980s teens. 


TV Commercial

And the song itself which has the same title as the movie only the last two characters are read differently – Hare, Tokidoki Kirumi

Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion (雪の断章 情熱, Shinji Somai, 1985)

Lost-Chapter-of-Snow-Passion dvd coverShinji Somai’s work is most closely identified with depictions of contemporary young people who meet their approaching adulthood with an almost nostalgic melancholy but in Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion (雪の断章 情熱, Yuki no Dansho: Jonetsu), he takes things one step further as his orphaned heroine moves through dependence to independence and finally assumes her own identity. Based on a novel by Marumi Sasaki, Lost Chapter also fits neatly into the idol movie subgenre, starring the then popular singer and actress Yuki Saito who sings frequently throughout the film and provides the end titles theme Jonetsu (Passion).

As the film opens, seven year old orphan Iori (Mami Nakazato) has been adopted by the wealthy but cruel Naba family who regard her as a slave, to be beaten, humiliated and pressed into service. One day, an employee of Naba’s, Yuichi (Takaaki Enoki), visits and witnesses Iori’s cruel treatment at the hands of oldest sister Sachiko (Kyoko Fujimoto), immediately taking her home to live with him. The situation is difficult, especially as Iori’s past has led her to be wary of new connections, and her sudden arrival has also placed a strain on Yuichi’s engagement to a girl still living in Tokyo far away from snowy Sapporo. Ten years pass and Iori (Yuki Saito) has become a happy, healthy high school girl but the resurfacing of the Naba sisters in her life is to have profound consequences when one of them is murdered and Iori finds herself regarded as a prime suspect.

Embracing its almost Dickensian roots, Lost Chapter’s most obvious theme is the place, or displacement, of the orphaned within Japanese society which places the family above all else. Iori’s origins are never mentioned beyond her early life in an orphanage, but even when Yuichi brings her home the first words the housekeeper offers are that a discarded child like Iori maybe trouble, assuming that she is the result of a “loose woman’s” weakness and irresponsibility. The Nabas, who are a thoroughly unpleasant bunch ruled over by older sister Sachiko, have adopted her despite being an already large family but raising a lonely child in love was not their aim so much as getting a kitchen maid they wouldn’t have to pay. Iori is sent out on pointless errands through the snow and freezing air only to fear she will be beaten for having drunk the juice she was sent to buy on Sachiko’s behalf. This fate is not unique to Iori as she discovers when Daisuke (Kiminori Sera), a friend of Yuichi’s who has become like a second father to her, reveals his orphan past as a poor relation sheltered by family members but not quite embraced by them.

Iori’s poor treatment at the Naba’s is offered as a possible motive for the murder of Hiroko (Mai Okamoto) – younger sister to Sachiko and a student in the same class as Iori. Hiroko is fairly depressed and a flighty girl, still cruel and eager to show off in front of her former step-sister with a lengthy dance sequence offered in front of the hottest boys at school. When she dies suddenly, all evidence points to a cup of coffee Iori tried to take her in kindness but even if it wasn’t Iori who plotted to kill her, Hiroko’s death is still firmly linked to her family’s cruel superiority.

The strain of the investigation plays on Iori’s mind, forcing her into a deeper consideration of her place within Yuichi’s household especially as she’ll soon be approaching the crossroads of adulthood and will need to decide whether to go on to university or leave Yuichi’s house to be independent. In the housekeeper’s mind, staying at “home” is not an option once she could, theoretically, support herself but Yuichi and Daisuke may feel quite differently about this damaged little girl they once took in and are still in the process to turning into a fine young woman. Yuichi’s housekeeper has a choice metaphor regarding Yuichi’s intentions in rescuing Iori – pointing to a withered flower, she suggests that Iori was a thirsty seed that Yuichi has been patiently watering in order to see the flowers bloom, but this way of viewing the situation places a further wedge between Iori and Yuichi who is still seeing his fiancée in Tokyo while Iori’s feelings about the father figure who raised her but is also still a handsome, kind, and youngish man have begun to become confused.

Falling into shojo romance territory, Lost Chapter does indeed become a slightly uncomfortable romantic tale in which a young woman falls in love with her “father” and he with her though, as they aren’t blood related, it can still be depicted as sweet and innocent rather than a tale of long term grooming and inappropriate power structures. Yuichi, though obviously a kind and socially minded young man, is nevertheless as “irresponsible” as he’s branded in his neglect of his longterm fiancée (who later makes an embarrassing first visit in nine years to Yuichi’s home to ask Iori to back off and finally declare herself grown up so she and Yuichi can marry), and later positing of Iori as some kind of pet project in his determination to have her graduate university – a feather in his cap rather than a stepping stone to a middle-class life for his precious daughter.

Known for his long, roaming, handheld takes Somai opens with a 14 minute seemingly unbroken, dreamlike sequence recounting Iori’s life with the Nabas and her eventual rescue. Somai’s camera pans around a series of snow trenches, placing a phone call from Tokyo right inside the icy space alongside a hidden violin player scoring the action. Shot with the random, etherial quality of memory mixed with dream, this first sequence gives way to a more conventional main body even if Somai maintains his preference for long takes filled with surprising pans and unexpected entrances into the frame. There are great moments of tenderness and warmth in Iori’s story, brought to life by Somai’s noticeably expressionist techniques, but there’s pain and darkness too as death and suicide lurk in the background, ready to strike at any moment. A beautifully surreal, theatrical exploration of a standard coming of age tale Lost Chapter is both shojo romance at its most controversial and a fine showcase for a popular idol shining in a leading role.


Originally released as a double header with Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Four Sisters.

14 minute long take intro (no subtitles)

Yuki Saito singing Jonetsu on a Japanese TV show presumably around the time of the film’s release.

Oar (櫂, Hideo Gosha, 1985)

oar posterUntil the later part of his career, Hideo Gosha had mostly been known for his violent action films centring on self destructive men who bore their sadnesses with macho restraint. During the 1980s, however, he began to explore a new side to his filmmaking with a string of female centred dramas focussing on the suffering of women which is largely caused by men walking the “manly way” of his earlier movies. Partly a response to his regular troupe of action stars ageing, Gosha’s new focus was also inspired by his failed marriage and difficult relationship with his daughter which convinced him that women can be just as devious and calculating as men. 1985’s Oar (櫂, Kai) is adapted from the novel by Tomiko Miyao – a writer Gosha particularly liked and identified with whose books also inspired Onimasa and The Geisha. Like Onimasa, Oar also bridges around twenty years of pre-war history and centres around a once proud man discovering his era is passing, though it finds more space for his long suffering wife and the children who pay the price for his emotional volatility.

Kochi, 1914 (early Taisho), Iwago (Ken Ogata) is a kind hearted man living beyond his means. Previously a champion wrestler, he now earns his living as a kind of procurer for a nearby geisha house, chasing down poor girls and selling them into prostitution, justifying himself with the excuse that he’s “helping” the less fortunate who might starve if it were not for the existence of the red light district. He dislikes this work and finds it distasteful, but shows no signs of stopping. At home he has a wife and two sons whom he surprises one day by returning home with a little girl he “rescued” at the harbour after seeing her beaten by man who, it seemed, was trying to sell her to Chinese brokers who are notorious for child organ trafficking.

Iwago names the girl “Kiku” thanks to the chrysanthemums on her kimono and entrusts her to his irritated wife, Kiwa (Yukiyo Toake), who tries her best but Kiku is obviously traumatised by her experiences, does not speak, and takes a long time to become used to her new family circumstances. Parallel to his adoption of Kiku, Iwago is also working on a sale of a girl of a similar age who ends up staying in the house for a few days before moving to the red light district. Toyo captures Kiwa’s heart as she bears her sorry fate stoically, pausing only to remark on her guilt at eating good white rice three times a day at Iwago’s knowing that her siblings are stuck at home with nothing.

Iwago’s intentions are generally good, but his “manly” need for control and his repressed emotionality proceed to ruin his family’s life. He may say that poverty corrupts a person’s heart and his efforts are intended to help prevent the birth of more dysfunctional families, but deep down he finds it hard to reconcile his distasteful occupation with his traditional ideas of masculine chivalry. Apparently “bored” with the long suffering Kiwa he fathers a child with another woman which he then expects her to raise despite the fact that she has already left the family home after discovering the affair. Predictably her love for him and for the children brings her home, but Iwago continues to behave in a domineering, masterly fashion which is unlikely to repair his once happy household.

Kiwa is the classic long suffering wife, bearing all of Iwago’s mistreatments with stoic perseverance until his blatant adultery sends her running from marriage to refuge at the home of her brother. Despite the pain and humilation, Kiwa still loves, respects, and supports her husband, remembering him as he once was rather than the angry, frustrated brute which he has become. Despite her original hesitance, Kiwa’s maternal warmth makes a true daughter of Kiku and keeps her bonded to the eldest and more sensitive of her two sons, Ryutaro, even if the loose cannon that is Kentaro follows in his step-father’s footsteps as an unpredictable punk. Her goodheartedness later extends to Iwago’s illegitimate daughter Ayako whom she raises as her own until Iwago cruelly decides to separate them. For all of Iwago’s bluster and womanising, ironically enough Kiwa truly is the only woman for him as he realises only when she determines to leave. Smashing the relics of his “manly” past – his wrestling photos and trophies, Iwago is forced to confront the fact that his own macho posturing has cost him the only thing he ever valued.

Gosha tones down the more outlandish elements which contributed to his reputation as a “vulgar” director but still finds space for female nudity and frank sexuality as Iwago uses and misuses the various women who come to him for help or shelter. More conventional in shooting style than some of Gosha’s other work from the period and lacking any large scale or dramatic fight scenes save for one climactic ambush, Oar acts more as a summation of Gosha’s themes up until the mid-80s – men destroy themselves through their need to be men but also through destroying the women who have little choice but to stand back and watch them do it. Unless, like Kiwa, they realise they have finally had enough.


Short clip from near the beginning of the film (no subtitles)

Tampopo (タンポポ, Juzo Itami, 1985)

tampopo posterSome people love ramen so much that the idea of a “bad” bowl hardly occurs to them – all ramen is, at least, ramen. Then again, some love ramen so much that it’s almost a religious experience, bound up with ritual and the need to do things properly. A brief vignette at the beginning of Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (タンポポ) introduces us to one such ramen expert who runs through the proper way of enjoying a bowl of noodle soup which involves a lot of talking to your food whilst caressing it gently before finally consuming it with the utmost respect. Ramen is serious business, but for widowed mother Tampopo it’s a case of the watched pot never boiling. Thanks to a cowboy loner and a few other waifs and strays who eventually become friends and allies, Tampopo is about to get some schooling in the quest for the perfect noodle whilst the world goes on around her. Food becomes something used and misused but remains, ultimately, the source of all life and the thing which unites all living things.

Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a middle-aged man with a fancy hat, and his truck mate Gun (Ken Watanabe), younger, tight white jeans and colourful neckerchief, have become ramen experts thanks to their road bound life. Taking a break during a heavy rain storm, the pair run into a little boy being beaten up by three others and, after scaring the assailants off, escort him into the ramen restaurant where he lives with his widowed mother, Tampopo. Goro and Gun get the stranger in town treatment, but decide to sit down and order a bowl each anyway before a getting into a fight with another diner. Despite her skills as a home cook, Tampopo’s ramen is distinctly second-rate which explains why her business isn’t taking off. Goro and Gun spend some time helping her figure out where she’s going wrong leading Tampopo to beg them to stay, or at least come back when they have time, and teach her what it takes to make the perfect bowl.

Essentially a hybrid between a western and a sports movie, Tampopo has its fair share of training montages as the titular heroine tries to improve her stamina by taking intensive runs, carrying heavy pots of water from one place to another, and constantly trying get her cooking time down to three minutes. The lone woman on the “ranch” that is her restaurant, Tampopo may not be contending with boisterous cattle, threatening neighbours, or disapproving townsfolk but she is being mentored to become her own master as much as anything else. Goro is her strong and silent teacher, but, like Shane, he’s a man not meant to be tied down and is essentially teaching her how to survive alone however painful it may be for him to leave.

This is a fairly radical idea in and of itself. Tampopo’s goal is not another marriage and a man to mind the ranch, but the creation of a successful business which will support both herself and her son built on genuine skills and a lot of hard work. Goro, a ramen aficionado, takes charge but ropes in a few other “experts” to help him including a ramen loving former doctor now living on the streets, the private chef of a wealthy man the gang saved when he almost choked on mochi, and the guy Goro fought with in the beginning who also happens to be a childhood friend of Tampopo nursing a lifelong crush on her.  From each of these men, as well as friendly (or not) rivalry with local competitors, Tampopo learns everything she needs to succeed including the confidence in herself to carry it through.

Whilst Tampopo and co. are busy figuring out the zen of ramen, Itami wanders off for a series of strange vignettes examining more general attitudes to food beginning with Koji Yakusho’s white suited, cinephile gangster who vows bloody murder on anyone daring to eat noisy snacks during the movie. The gangster and his moll eventually retreat to a hotel room where they find new and actually quite strange ways of using food to enhance their pleasure but their story leads us to others in the hotel from a young man stuck in a business meeting who shows up his less cultured colleagues with his culinary knowledge and either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that you’re supposed to order the same as your boss lest you be implying his choice of dish is “wrong”, to a group of young women taking a class in the proper way to eat spaghetti. The instructor (played by veteran actress Mariko Okada), goes to great lengths to explain that it’s considered very uncouth to make any kind of noise whilst eating pasta, only for a westerner of undisclosed nationality to loudly slurp his noodles half way across the room.

While these two episodes showcase the ridiculousness of food etiquette, others take a more surreal direction such as in the strange episode of an old lady who likes to sneak into the local supermarket and torment the clerk by squeezing the fruits, cheeses, and pastries while he chases her round the shop. Here appetites are to be indulged, even if they’re strange, rather than suppressed in favour of someone else’s idea of the proper way to behave. Yet that doesn’t mean that food is something throwaway, to be consumed without thought – in fact, it’s the opposite as Goro’s tutelage of Tampopo shows. Skills alone are not enough, achieving the zen of cookery is a matter of touch and sensitivity, of shared efforts and interconnected strife. Like a dandelion blowing in the wind, Tampopo’s ramen shop gives as it receives, generously and without pretension.


Available now in the UK/US courtesy of Criterion Collection!

Original 1985 trailer (English subtitles)

Gagman (개그맨, Lee Myung-se, 1988)

gagman cover

Is everything we see a waking dream or does it just appear that way? This question posed (or perhaps dreamed) by the protagonist of Lee Myung-se’s debut becomes a kind of key for unlocking much of what has gone before as Lee freewheels between fantasy and reality as his cast of movie obsessed dreamers attempt to inhabit their very own stretch of celluloid within the “real” world. Released in 1988, Gagman (개그맨) catches Korea in a moment of transition. Newly free of a lengthy dictatorship and back on the world stage after hosting the 1988 Olympics, the country was eager to promote itself as a modern liberal democracy. Hence, the arts were the first to feel the new freedom with young directors given the chance to create boundary pushing films and show just how far Korea could go. Lee was just one of these directors but Gagman is no political treatise (at least, not directly) preferring to experiment with form as a farcical exercise in meta comedy.

Cinema obsessed comedian Lee Jong-sae (Ahn Sung-ki) wants nothing more than to make the next great Korean movie which every one of the 40 million Koreans will fall in love with. Consequently he’s blagged his way onto the film set of a top director to whom he’s already sent his “prize-winning” script. Eventually thrown out, Jong-sae does not lose heart but promises the lead role in his movie to his equally film obsessed barber Moon Do-suk (Bae Chang-ho) whom he sends out on “research” missions walking into banks and asking about security. A fortuitous meeting with a feisty young woman in a cinema, Oh Sun-young (Hwang Cine), provides a another impetus for Jong-sae’s filmmaking dreams and so when he unexpectedly gets his hands on a gun after an encounter with a deserting soldier things just got real in a very unexpected way.

Lee signals his intent early on with a static camera shot focusing on the barber, Do-suk, as he waxes on about Kirk Douglas in the Vikings whilst simultaneously remarking on the fall in quality of his beloved dog meat. Do-suk feels that when it comes right down to it, Korean mutts are the best – not these scrawny poodles that cheap restaurant owners are substituting for the real thing. His comment might easily go for himself and Jong-sae, two scrappy working class Korean guys trying to make it in a walled off industry, but interestingly enough bar a mention of Sorrow Even Up in Heaven, Lee’s references are to European and American cinema rather than that of his homeland.

The most obvious of these lies in the central gag – that the gagman has a “funny” face. Ahn Sung-ki is saddled with a Charlie Chaplin moustache throughout the film (with the added bonus that it of course looks like a Hitler moustache to European/American viewers) and plays Jong-sae as someone who’s constantly doing a Chaplin impression with his strange walks and silent cinema plaintive looks. Ahn even begins layering his performance so that we get Charlie Chaplin impersonating Brando in the Godfather to recite the melancholy monologue which seems to open Jong-sae’s unfilmable script. For Jong-sae his existence is cinema, the life he lives is unreal or surreal always with an added dose of narrative in the ongoing story of his rise to greatness as the most famous Korean filmmaker of them all.

Fantasist as he is, Jong-sae has a way of pulling other people into his unrealisable dreams including the barber Do-suk and a young woman who unexpectedly starts canoodling with him in a cinema in an attempt to avoid some other creepy guys. Oh Sun-young is almost a mirror image of Jong-sae in her pragmatic realism though she too is looking at the stars and willing to engage in fantasy to get there. It is she who first suggests that the “research” they’ve been doing might have a more practical application and she is also the one to maintain a calm approach to their eventual need for escape but, even if she always has one foot in reality, Sun-young cannot escape the gravitational pull of Jong-sae’s strange dreamverse. Do-suk, by contrast, is a willing convert – just as obsessed with cinema and comics as Jong-sae, his desperation to be a part of the movies and unwavering faith in his friend lead him to give up everything in service of art even going so far as to get painful eye surgery to increase his box office potential (apparently a meta dig at a Korean celebrity who did something similar).

In keeping with the Chaplin theme Lee’s humorous universe is defined by slapstick and absurdity, his dialogue needlessly theatrical and mannered with a melodramatic seriousness. Nevertheless Lee makes the most of his canvas as the film goes on behind Jong-sae while he enters one of his reveries as in one particularly amusing scene in which he attempts to declare his love to Sun-young without noticing that she’s long wandered off and been replaced by Do-suk. Despite the cartoonish, comedic tone the atmosphere is a melancholy one reflecting the final destination of Jong-sae’s film project but also of his continuing inability to integrate the two distinct universes into one concrete whole which could be termed “reality”. In this Lee returns to that first question but this time he asks us as cinema lovers which world it is we live in, and which it is that is the more “real”.


Gagman is available on region free blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive but you can also watch the whole thing legally and for free via their YouTube channel!