The God of Cookery (食神, Stephen Chow, 1996)

Thing about cooking is, you gotta have heart. At least, that’s the main takeaway from Stephen Chow’s 1996 culinary comedy God of Cookery (食神) in which he once again stars as a man who’s become rich and successful exploiting the talents of others but gets a major humbling when his duplicity is exposed by an even more duplicitous, though apparently talented, rival. Only by living among the people and rediscovering the simple joy of ordinary food cooked with love can he regain his true identity as the “God of Cooking”. 

Stephen Chow (Stephen Chow playing a character of the same name but written with different characters) has built up a successful food empire built around himself as a celebrity chef known as the “God of Cooking”. As a popular TV judge on a cooking competition, he makes a point of giving each of the contestants zero points, starting off with words of praise but eventually finding fault with “basic” techniques and even at one point complaining that it doesn’t matter how tasty the dish is because the chef is so ugly it’s made him lose his appetite. Chow treats his employees with total disdain, going so far as making a prospective hire defecate in public in front of a lift in return for a job, while schmoozing with Triads to expand his empire. The Triads, however, are getting fed up with him and have installed a mole in his organisation. Bull Tong (Vincent Kok Tak-chiu) is a talented chef who claims to have trained at the Chinese Culinary School on the mainland. He makes a point of causing public embarrassment to Chow by tearing apart one of his signature dishes at the press launch for the 50th branch of his branded restaurant chain. Chow is exposed as a talentless fraud and thanks to his haughty attitude, his friends abandon him. 

Penniless and destitute, he rocks up at a noodle stall run by Sister “Twin Daggers” Turkey (Karen Mok), critiquing her noodles in the same way Bull had torn apart his. Turkey takes pity on him after he’s beaten up by thugs and accepts him into her mini street gang. It’s Chow who finds an innovate solution to to her turf war with a rival stall holder in inventing the not entirely appetising “Pissing Beef Balls” which prove an instant hit with all who try them, even helping to cure those suffering with anorexia (apparently a widespread problem of the time, at least according to onscreen newspapers). Chow has not, however, lost his cynical streak and wants to get back to the top by opening a nationwide chain of Pissing Beef Ball restaurants, while Bull and the Triads begin to panic about his seemingly unstoppable success. 

Parodying both Tsui Hark’s Chinese Feast from the previous year, and Wong Jing hit God of Gamblers, Chow brings even more of his now familiar slapstick style, turning cookery into a kind of martial art, and even including a brief sequence in which he gets trapped inside the Shaolin Temple and ends up learning some of their patented culinary techniques. As the cynical top chef, Chow stands in for the evils of the age, puffed up on empty capitalism, openly telling his staff to pull dirty restaurant tricks like making the seats small and uncomfortable to increase turnover and filling the drinks with giant ice cubes to keep costs down and encourage guests to order more. Bull Tong, however, goes even further, beating the staff and suggesting they serve greasy, salt-laden dishes like French fries so kids order more soda, ignoring complaints from the chefs that it’s unethical to serve such obviously unhealthy food to children. 

Sister Turkey’s cuisine, by contrast, might not exactly be top table stuff but it makes no pretence of being anything other than it is. Her rival prides himself on using high quality ingredients, even making sure his oil is changed daily, making it plain that your average market hawker (whether he’s telling the truth or not) at least appears to have more concern for his customers than giant restaurant chains do. Turkey’s ordinary barbecue pork and rice dish with a side of egg is the best Chow’s ever tasted because it was made with kindness. He may have been fond of saying that you have to have heart to cook, but it was just one of his soulless catchphrases until he realised it was true. Good food, companionship, love, and a Christmas miracle slowly work their magic until the “God of Cookery” is finally restored thanks to a little celestial intervention, showing the Bull Tongs of the world exactly what they’re missing.


The God of Cookery screens in New York on Feb. 15 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival Winter Showcase.

All’s Well, Ends Well (家有囍事, Clifton Ko, 1992)

Now an annual institution, the “New Year Movie” was only just beginning to find its feet at, arguably, the end of a golden age in Hong Kong cinema. Clifton Ko’s All’s Well, Ends Well (家有囍事) is often regarded as one of the key movies that made the genre what it is today, taking the box office by storm and spawning a small franchise with a series of sequels, the latest of which All’s Well, Ends Well 2020, is released this year. The original, however, is a classic “mo lei tau” nonsense comedy starring master of the form Stephen Chow as an improbable lothario chased into domesticity by the beautiful Maggie Cheung. 

The plot, such as it is, revolves around three brothers – Moon (Raymond Wong Pak-ming), Foon (Stephen Chow Sing Chi), and So (Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing). Oldest son Moon is a regular salaryman married to devoted housewife Leng (Sandra Ng Kwan-yue). Though it’s his seventh wedding anniversary, he’s late for the family dinner at home with his parents and brothers because he’s entertaining his mistress, Sheila (Sheila Chan), instead. Foon, meanwhile, is a disk jockey on local radio filling in for a friend taking a day off to get married. Eccentric movie enthusiast Holliyok (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk) rings into the show to complain that she feels lost and lonely, so Foon takes her address and phone number under the pretext of gifting her a laserdisc. So, meanwhile, is an effeminate young man who teaches flower arranging and clashes with his tomboyish, motorcycle riding “auntie” Mo-shang (Teresa Mo Shun-kwan) who practices extremely aggressive massage techniques. 

As this is a New Year movie, the conclusion we’re moving towards is the repairing of the family unit with the two unmarried brothers eventually pairing off, culminating in a mass wedding in which mum (Lee Heung-kam) and dad (Kwan Hoi-san) can participate too. Before that, however, we’re dropped into the increasingly affluent world of Hong Kong in the early ‘90s in which men like Moon think they’re king. Leng, meanwhile, laments that she married her husband after high school and unlike him does not have the option to quit her “job”, forced to serve the two “company directors” day and night with no overtime or double pay. Quit is exactly what she does do, however, when confronted with Moon’s infidelity. After promising to take her out for a swanky dinner, he gets distracted by his mistress and ends up getting rid of Leng to have dinner with Sheila after which he is so drunk she has to carry him to his own door. Sheila may have thought she was pushing herself into a middle class way of life, but being a housewife is hard work too, especially with Moon’s rather demanding if eccentric parents who suffer separation anxiety from their TV set and prefer to be vacuumed down to keep themselves clean while they watch. 

Leng, not quite having intended to really leave, is forced to reassert herself as an independent woman. She re-embraces her love of singing, getting one of the few jobs that’s open to women in her situation – working in a karaoke box. Eventually, she glams up and becomes a “credible” rival to Sheila, who has now become the housebound “hag” resented by the regretful (but perhaps not remorseful) Moon who has learned absolutely nothing at all about being a good husband.  

Meanwhile, Foon romances Holliyok through movie roleplay, cycling through Pretty Woman, to hit of the day Ghost, before heading into the darkness of Misery, and the unexpected salvation of Terminator 2. After himself getting caught with another girl, Foon gets hit on the head with an egg and “develops” a “brain disease” that causes him to lose his mind. Holliyok swears revenge, but, inexplicably, can’t seem to give up on the idea of Foon’s love while he remains just as pompously macho as Moon, believing women are things you win and then discard. 

Counter to all that, So and Mo-shang occupy a rather ambiguous space – quite clearly coded as gay complete with offscreen lovers they communicate with only by letter until they make a surprise appearance to make a surprise announcement. First feeling a spark of unexpected attraction while making some electrical repairs in the kitchen, they are eventually shocked straight – So transforming into a pillar of conventional masculinity, and Mo-shang suddenly wearing her hair long (did it grow overnight?), putting on makeup and dressing in ladies’ fashions. Thus, their gender non-conforming natures have been in some sense “corrected” by “love’ or “electroshock” depending on how you choose to look at it, assuming of course that their newfound romance is not just a clever ruse to neatly undercut the use of their homosexuality as a punchline. In any case, as the title says, all’s well that end’s well, and the Shang household seems to have regained its harmony, rejecting Sheila and all she stands for to embrace true family values just in time for the festive season.  


Screened in association with Chinese Visual Festival.

Rerelease trailer (traditional Chinese/English subtitles)

Sada (SADA〜戯作・阿部定の生涯, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1998)

Sada poster“Facts can easily become fiction when recounted by someone, even by oneself. But with a bit of sincerity lies can become truth”, our genial guide explains, paradoxically telling us that the heroine, a woman he regards as a loveable kid sister, wants to tell us her story herself. Apologising in advance for her “rudeness”,  he reveals to us that the woman is none other than the “notorious” Sada Abe, a woman who, apparently now forgotten, was once a front page sensation for having killed her lover and cut off his penis to carry him with her always.

Despite the narrator’s claims that Sada’s fame has faded, her story has proved fertile cinematic ground, most famously inspiring Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses which sees her claustrophobic descent into sexual obsession as a reaction to the intense austerity of militarism. Obayashi, however, is keen to remember that that aside from the newspaper headlines, the salaciousness and peculiar romanticism of her story, Sada was a real woman who suffered in an intensely patriarchal society and was perhaps seeking something that the world was unable to give her.

As she reminds us, Sada too had a childhood. Obayashi opens the film with a young Sada innocently throwing hoops over a tall phallic object. Six years later, her life changes when a college boy drags her off the street into a nearby inn and rapes her, claiming that she is well known as a good time girl and that he is perfectly entitled to behave in the way he is behaving. Deed done, the college boy leaves but Sada (Hitomi Kuroki) is rescued by the gentlemanly figure of sickly medical student Okada (Kippei Shina) who has a patch over his eye and a romantic disposition. Okada gives her not only a lifelong and strangely erotic attachment to donuts, but a junai foundation in an eternally unrealisable longing for a pure and innocent love.

Okada, as Obayashi later tells us, is also a “real” person though he has no real evidence that he and Sada ever crossed paths. He gives her the knife she will later use to sever her lover’s penis and tells her to use it to cut out his heart, which belongs to her. Okada, claiming that he will forever watch over her, introduces a secondary theme in that he is a sufferer of Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, then thought incurable and “treated” only by exile. Sada loses her pure love and never knows why, but sadly chooses not take his advice to remember that she is an honest girl and refuse to be corrupted by her trauma. Now unable to marry and it remaining a virtual impossibility to enter any other kind of profession, Sada becomes a geisha, later giving that up for the more lucrative world of casual sex work.

Perhaps ironically, it’s through her life as a sex worker that Sada begins to find a degree of freedom amidst the impassioned atmosphere of increasing militarism. While the men are caught up in destructive games of martial glory, Sada is just trying to live her many lives and dreaming her dream of love. It’s that dream of love that brings her to Tatsuzo (Tsurutaro Kataoka), a married, poetic ladies’ man with whom she eventually retreats into an isolationist kingdom of two. Yet their intensely co-dependent relationship is never quite enough for her because it fails to marry her physical need with the emotional, and the figure of Okada, the innocent, romanticised white knight of her youth, lingers in her mind. Sada kills Tatsuzo not quite by accident, attempting to take ownership of something which can never be hers in her fiercely patriarchal world where her clients coldly chide her for not being “polite” enough and despite the earning potential of her profession, she remains dependent on men to escape it.

Sada’s “crime” might not quite be revenge for all she’s suffered but it is a pointed act of rebellion towards a conformist society. She laments that her notoriety soon faded, that if being forgotten is like dying then she died long ago, but for a short time all of Japan was captivated not by the outrageous horror of her transgression but by an idea of “romance” that stood behind it as if Sada had moved beyond double suicide into new territories of eternal love through seeking to possess her lover even in death. The narrator, Sada’s sometime pimp, tells us that few remember Sada now and suggests that Japan is once again in a dark age, stopping only to remark that people were beautiful then too despite or perhaps because of the darkness. Fittingly the figure of the “real” Sada retreats and we’re left again with her legend, an imagined future for a woman who faded into pre-war tragedy as a symbol of its dangerous intensity. Even so, Obayashi is intent to show us that there was indeed a woman named Sada Abe who found herself at the mercy of her times but tried to live all the same, dreaming of impossible love in a world of corruption.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Hero (馬永貞, Corey Yuen, 1997)

hero 1997 posterIt’s an old ‘un but a good un. Young gun from the country hits the city, decides to do things his own way, becomes the top dog but loses himself in the process and is then faced with a choice between his better nature and potential gains. Corey Yuen’s remake of the Shaw Brothers classic Boxer from Shantung, Hero (馬永貞, Ma Wing Jing), stars Taiwanese heartthrob Takeshi Kaneshiro in his first big action lead as the titular good guy who nevertheless finds himself wavering under the oppressive skies of turn of the century Shanghai.

Ma Wing Jing (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and his brother Tai Cheung (Yuen Wah) have left their old country home to seek their fortunes in the city following a devastating drought. The Shanghai International Settlement, nominally under the control of the British, was a bustling, international port city but also lawless place where gangsters ruled – Tam Sei (Yuen Biao), who is supported by the Brits, controls half the territory with his rival Yang Shuang (Yuen Ta), backed by the local police, taking the rest. The Ma brothers hoped to make something of themselves in the brave new world of Shanghai but are simply two of thousands of refugees fleeing famine and can only find dock work where they are exploited and treated poorly.

Their fortunes pick up, however, when Wing Jing gets an early opportunity to show off his hero qualifications by saving Tam from certain death during an ambush. Tam, grateful, somewhat humiliates Wing Jing by forcing him to bend for a silver dollar before berating him for doing it but the pair eventually bond in a good old fashioned fist fight. Tam offers him a job, but Wing Jing has learned his lesson – he’ll be his own man and make his own name.

A melancholy love story plays in the background behind the otherwise macho dynamics. Arriving at Tam’s saloon, Wing Jing falls in love at first sight with the beautiful singer, Ling-tze (Jessica Hsuan), but is unable to pursue his romance with her thanks to his brotherly debt to Tam, who is in love with the bar’s landlady, Yam (Valerie Chow), but has broken things off because the of precariousness of his gangster lifestyle. Tam disappears for a bit, leaving the bar and his territory to Wing Jing, but doesn’t bank on Yam’s machinations as she gets rid of Ling-tze and takes up with Wing Jing while working with Yang on an evil plan that turns out to be a weird way of protecting her one true love.

Nevertheless, Wing Jing takes centre stage as he quickly climbs the local tree and becomes the big guy in town, little realising that his bravado has irked just about everyone in sight – he’s not only made himself a target for Yang but for the local Chinese police while Tam’s old associations with the British can’t be counted on forever. Yang, ironically enough, is playing divide and conquer but Wing Jing is too naive to see and too hotheaded to listen to Tam’s advice even when he returns to offer it.

Then again, a hero is a hero through and through and so it’s not long before Wing Jing’s moral goodness begins to resurface and he realises where his loyalties really lie. Given that Hero is a Hong Kong production released in 1997, perhaps it’s less surprising that the good guys are the ones backed by the British rather than local law enforcement which is, of course, deeply corrupt and and immersed in Yang’s world of internecine scheming. Still, this Shanghai is one of scrapping poor boys fighting for freedom from oppression (if accidentally veering into the role of oppressor in the process) much more than it is about international politics or the or the increasingly global milieu of the late 19th century city and its position as the gateway to the East for an avaricious Europe.

Mixing classic Shaw Brothers style with a modern New Wave edge, Yuen gives Kaneshiro his time to shine as an ultra cool action hero complete with a series of hugely impressive action sequences culminating in a fantastically satisfying final shoot out where blood and brotherhood take centre stage. But there can be no winners in this world of betrayals and counter betrayals, and so our Hero may have to leave it behind for pastures new as he takes his heroism with him into a hopefully better future.


Currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Single Spark (아름다운 청년 전태일, Park Kwang-su, 1995)

In the present day, South Korea has become a prosperous society and leading world economy, but the miracle of its modernisation came at a heavy price. Socially committed filmmaker Park Kwang-su’s A Single Spark (아름다운 청년 전태일, Areumdaun cheongnyeon Jeon Tae-il) takes a trip back to the “truly dark days” of the Park Chung-hee dictatorship to expose the exploitation on which the modern society was, and in fact still is, founded, enabled largely by the wilful misuse of a fear of “communism” as manifested in the problematic presence of threat from “the North”.

Park filters his true life tale through the figure of a fictionalised author and activist, Kim (Moon Sung-Keun), who finds himself on the run from the authorities in 1975. Hiding out in a small town in a backroom rented by his pregnant factory worker girlfriend Jung-soon (Kim Sunjae), Kim is working on a biography of a labour rights activist, Jeon Tae-il, who self-immolated in order to protest the failure to properly enforce existing workers’ rights five years’ earlier in 1970.

Switching to crisp black and white, Park paints a bleak picture of working class life in the late 1960s as the oppressive Park Chung-hee regime imposed extreme export goals designed to boost the local economy. We first meet Jeon (Hong Kyeong-in), who was only 22 at the time of his death, selling umbrellas on the street before he is “lucky” enough to get a job in a tailoring factory. Committing himself to working hard and getting on, he is quickly disillusioned with conditions at the plant which has little light or ventilation and often forces its employees to work through the night without adequate breaks for food. When the young woman next to him begins vomiting blood and is sent home but subsequently fired, Jeon becomes radicalised. Told that there are no laws which protect workers, he is surprised to discover that there are but their existence has been wilfully kept from him. The law is written in a language which is almost impossible for him to understand, in highly formal text using Chinese characters which most ordinary Koreans, never mind those like Jeon denied a proper education, struggle to read.

Jeon begins agitating. He takes a copy of the statutes and a series of violations at the factory to those in charge, but no one is interested. Even when he convinces some of the other workers to come with him, the boss is eventually forced to make a token concession of listening to them but ultimately rolls his eyes and says it’s all very well but not good for business. Jeon isn’t asking for anything radical (save the later addition of provision for menstrual leave), only for better ventilation and for the existing laws to be obeyed.

Meanwhile, Kim meditates on his legacy in the dark days of 1975 where anti-communist sentiment runs high in the wake of the end of the Vietnam War. “Anti-communism” and the demonisation of the North were a central part of Park Chung-hee’s right-wing, nationalist military dictatorship and any attempts to form things like unions or left-leaning political associations were quickly decried as “communist”. Kim’s girlfriend Jung-soon is currently involved in trying to set up a union at her factory to combat many of the same kinds of issues that Jeon was fighting five years’ earlier, but she too is under a lot of pressure. Afraid of the authorities and of losing their jobs, many workers refuse to join and even after she reaches her quota the request for recognition is denied. She and the other activists are harassed by factory management beginning with a “friendly” meeting outside her home in which they try to bribe her with money and expensive fruits, and ending with a raid on the building in which some of the workers are holding a protest during which a woman falls ill and the others are badly beaten when they try to get her to a hospital.

Jeon and the others are lectured by management that they should try to feel more “patriotic” and be willing to suffer in order to raise the economy, bribed with false promises that they’ll all be driving luxury cars in 10 years’ time. Meanwhile, a woman coming to collect money from Jeon’s mother angrily exclaims that debtors should take rat poison and die (which seems counterproductive when they owe you money), and the managers dismiss workers’ concerns with the rationale that they obviously “aren’t hungry enough” to put up with starvation wages and poor working conditions. From the vantage point of 1975, Kim meditates on Jeon’s sacrifice as he witnesses the suicide of another young man, Kim Sang-jin – a student who quoted Thomas Jefferson’s words that democracy is an outcome of struggle at a rally at Seoul National University in April 1975 before publicly slashing his belly. He sees the tragedy of Jeon’s death as the “single spark” which lit a fire under the democracy movement, a torch he wants to pick up and keep aflame to guide them towards a better future.

20 years later, Park may be acknowledging that some battles have been won in a newly democratised Korea as Kim looks on with satisfaction in a peaceful marketplace while a student carries the book he has written about Jeon Tae-il under his arm, but implicitly suggests that not enough has changed and the same battles Jeon was fighting are still being fought. A melancholy meditation on political martyrdom, art, and legacy, A Single Spark pays tribute to those who gave their lives for a fairer world but is equally intent that their sacrifice must not be forgotten.


A Single Spark was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

The Contact (접속, Chang Yoon-hyun, 1997)

The Contact poster 1Even in 1997, it was supposedly much easier than ever before to make contact with pretty much anyone anywhere in the world, yet most of use chose not to. Twenty years later, perhaps not much has changed as we remain increasingly disconnected in an evermore connected world. Sometimes, however, as a radio host’s opening monologue reminds us, life has you take the long way round and it’s not until you hit a bump in the road that you start to think about what’s really important. The melancholy heroes of Chang Yoon-hyun’s The Contact (접속, Jeopsok) are each reeling from romantic disappointment, but brought together by a series of coincidences eventually find an outlet for their woes in the newfangled world of online chat.

Dong-hyeon (Han Suk-kyu) is the producer of a successful radio show but constantly in trouble with the suits for his uncommercial music choices. When someone anonymously sends in a battered copy of The Velvet Underground’s self titled album, he decides to switch up the order and play Pale Blue Eyes partly out of a sense of nostalgia and partly because he is hoping the woman he suspects may have sent it will be listening.

Meanwhile, across town, Soo-hyeon (Jeon Do-yeon) is sharing a moment with a cheerful young man, Ki-cheol (Choi Cheol-ho), who turns out not to be her boyfriend, but that of her roommate. To get away from the pain of seeing them cosied up together, she goes out for a drive and turns the radio on for company just as Dong-hyeon drops the needle on Pale Blue Eyes. So moved by the song that she only narrowly escapes a multi-car pileup, Soo-hyeon writes in to request it again which leads Dong-hyeon to wonder if she’s his old flame using an alias. Obviously, she isn’t, but excited to get an email from a radio show producer and not wanting to disappoint him she lies and says the request was for her friend who might be the one he’s looking for.

A pair of brokenhearted romantics, Dong-hyeon and Soo-hyeon are old souls who like rainy days and going to the movies in the afternoon but they’re also intensely online and attuned to the possibilities of indirect communication. Despite the “instant” nature of modern technology, the pair send intermittent emails, leave messages on answerphones, and fax each other, only sometimes replying in the moment via IRC but communicating on a much deeper level than they might have meeting face to face. Because they live in a city and have much more than they know in common, they unwittingly slip past each other with improbable frequency but would likely never meet, the act of making “contact” in person all but an impossibility.

The curiously analogue, nostalgia-laden, and above all physical device of the LP brings the pair together through a shared sense of loneliness born of frustrated love as they attempt to support each other through differing stages of romantic grief. While Dong-hyeon remains wilfully trapped in the past, mooning over an old flame while blaming himself for possibly coming between the woman he knew did not love him and the man she did, Soo-hyeon is in the thick of it struggling with her feelings for her roommate’s boyfriend. Calling himself “Happy End” because he’s read about them in books but doesn’t believe they exist in the “real” world, Dong-hyeon gives Soo-hyeon contradictory advice while making an ill-advised romantic overture to straightforward writer Eun-hee (Chu Sang-mi) who, unlike Dong-hyeon and Soo-hyeon, knows exactly what she wants and isn’t afraid to state it directly. “Why can’t you be honest with your feelings?” she repeatedly asks Dong-hyeon, but predictably gets no reply.

Soo-hyeon meanwhile has given herself the rather depressing name of “female 2” online, apparently inspired by a series of walk-on parts in plays, but perhaps hinting at her categorisation of herself as an invisible face in the crowd while also ironically pointing at her awkward position as the third wheel in her friend’s relationship. Berated for his emotional diffidence by Eun-hee, Dong-hyeon nevertheless tells Soo-hyeon she’s better off to forget Ki-cheol if she can’t find the courage to tell him how she really feels but as good as his advice sounds it’s primed to backfire, potentially costing not just one but two friendships and seeing Ki-cheol disappear from her life forever. Braver than Dong-hyeon, she resolves to give it a go and whatever happens it will at least answer a question, putting an end to the continued suffering of being merely friends with the man she loves.

Perhaps out of a sense of guilt for having selfishly prioritised his own feelings with tragic consequences, Dong-hyeon has decided to keep them to himself, but if so it’s also made him casually cruel and infinitely insensitive. Giving up on his romantic dream, he contemplates running away and starting a new life abroad, while Soo-hyeon risks everything in pursuit of love. Not knowing how to connect with her in the offline world, Dong-hyeon once again resorts to the physical in order to make contact, waving a tiny document like a one-way passport to love in order prove his identity and romantic destination. Finally finding the strength to let go of lost love and take a chance on new ones, the pair shift their relationship from digital to analogue as they, ironically, resolve to leave the past behind for more connected future.


The Contact was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Nambugun: North Korean Partisan in South Korea (南部軍 / 남부군, Chung Ji-young, 1990)

North Korean Partisan in South Korea poster 1Under the intense censorship of South Korea’s military dictatorships, “anti-communism” had become the single most important cultural signifier to the extent that all films were in some sense “anti-communist” even if some were more obviously anti-communist than others. As power shifted away from the dictators and towards a new era of democratic freedom, a more nuanced view of the recent past became possible with the “division film” taking the place of the old-fashioned anti-communist drama. Rather than demonise the North, the division film emphasised the tragedy of partition, painting the two Koreas as equal victims of geopolitical finagling.

Arriving in 1990 shortly after Korea’s democratisation, Chung Ji-young’s Nambugun: North Korean Partisan in South Korea (南部軍 / 남부군, Nambugun) is among the first to directly address the subject of the Korean War from the perspective of the North Korean partisans, albeit obviously from those who eventually came South. Adapting the memoirs of war correspondent Lee Tae, Chung ignores ideology in order to explore the gruelling experience of guerrilla warfare largely being fought by ordinary people with strong convictions rather than by career soldiers or committed revolutionaries.

Lee Tae (Ahn Sung-ki) himself is an “intellectual” North Korean newspaper reporter working as a correspondent in Jeonju which is currently in North Korean occupied territory. When they get word that the Americans and South Korean forces are on their way, the newspaper staff evacuates and eventually ends up heading into the mountains to join the partisans. As he has previous experience, Lee Tae is given command of a platoon and the instruction to try and make up for his bourgeois intellectualism with hard work on the job. To keep them all in one place, Lee is assigned a series of other “intellectual” recruits including conflicted student Kim (Choi Min-soo) who joined the fight to figure out what this “inhuman” war was all about.

One of the reasons Kim is so conflicted is that he brought his hometown, high school-age girlfriend with him and wonders if that was a very responsible thing to do, especially when they are eventually separated by the command chain who decide to send her to headquarters while Kim stays with the troops. Though we are shown that the North Korean soldiers are just ordinary men and women who call each other comrade, the regime itself still comes in for subtle criticism for its oppressive hardline austerity. On the run and separated from his unit, a wounded Lee is accompanied by an earnest nurse, Min-ja (Choi Jin-sil), with whom he falls in love, but when the romance is discovered by a superior officer Lee is taken aside and reminded that here there can be no love, only revolution. He must give all of himself to the cause, reserving nothing for such bourgeois affections as romance. Both Lee and Kim spend the rest of the picture trying and failing to reconnect with their respective women while fantasising about a different kind of life in which they would not have been kept apart.

Yet, despite the fact that we clearly see a world of near total equality among the partisans, it is clear that Lee’s own thinking at least is not quite as progressive as one might assume. Bonding with Min-ja and dreaming of the future, he envisages a life for himself as a reporter in Seoul at which point she asks what she’s supposed to do and receives the answer “have dinner ready for me”.  Min-ja, apparently an orphan whose brother was killed fighting for the South, found herself becoming a field nurse for the North and perhaps has a lower ideological consciousness as a result, freely offering her medical knowledge to anyone who might be in need of it. “Why is it that we’re fighting?” she asks Lee, “you both need me”, embodying the wounded innocence of the one Korea unfairly torn apart by forces beyond its control.

All gusto and determination, Lee and the others start out with pluck and positivity but gradual disillusionment accompanies the shift from the warmth of spring to the dead of winter as the partisans find themselves starving to death on a frozen mountain. Win or lose, the victory belongs to the US or USSR, one particularly dejected soldier intones laying bare his loss of faith in the primacy of North Korean communism and accepting that they are all playthings in a proxy war being fought by Koreans on Korean soil. Kim fails to find “meaning” in conflict and emerges only with shame and regret while others clutch at pamphlets dropped by the Americans promising an amnesty for those who surrender willingly. Lee trudges on alone, frostbitten and starving, encountering only the dead and finally contemplating suicide only to be given one last source of hope and to have that too crushed. Chung humanises the communists, but still they have to lose in the spiritual as well as the literal sense. Ending on a howl of existential despair, the film dedicates itself to all those on both sides who fell on Jirisan or sacrificed their lives for a vision of a better world but does so with pity more than admiration for all that they suffered as victims of their times.


Nambugun: North Korean Partisan in South Korea was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.