After Life (ワンダフルライフ, Hirokazu Koreeda, 1998)

Afterlife posterAt the end of your life, if someone asks you what it all meant, what will you say? It’s a question that can’t be answered until after you’ve turned the final page, but there is an idea at least that death brings clarity, rendering all things simple from a strange perspective of subjective objectivity. This is the central idea behind Hirokazu Koreeda’s meta existential fantasy After Life (ワンダフルライフ, Wonderful Life) in which the recently deceased are given seven days grace in order to decide on their most precious memory so that a small collection of clerks working in an old-fashioned government building can “recreate” it through the medium of cinema, allowing a departing soul to take refuge in a single memory preserved in eternity.

Heaven’s waiting room, as it turns out, is apparently located inside the ghost of the Japanese studio system. The recently deceased give their names at the door and patiently wait for their turn with their allotted case manager whose job it is to offer after life counselling designed to bring them to the point of boiling their existence down to the single moment which defines it within the arbitrary three day time limit which gives the crew the time to put their memories into pre-production complete with old-fashioned stage sets and studio-era special effects.

The purpose of all of this is not is exactly clear, though a clue is perhaps offered when we discover that the clerks are able to order VHS tapes of the entirety of their subjects’ lives in the event that they are struggling to think of relevant moments in an existence which seems to have disappointed them. The point is not so much the literal truth of the memory, be it accurate or not, but its sensation and the transience of feeling which is then re-experienced through the medium of cinema, captured in celluloid as momentary permanence.

Consequently, the chosen moments are necessarily often ones of stillness which promise the kind of peace and serenity one is supposed to find in death. The moments are ones of silent togetherness, of natural beauty, of childish innocence, or unbridled joy but is each is perhaps the key to unlocking the enigma of a life and as such is a solution which points towards a question. One older gentleman, Watanabe (Taketoshi Naito), finds himself unable to choose. He views his life as the epitome of mediocrity and can find nothing in it that seems worthy of “eternity”. Watching the videotapes of his life, he sees himself as a young man vowing to make a mark and is desperate to find some evidence that he lived but like many does not find it. His life was happy by virtue of being not unhappy for all that it was perhaps unfulfilled but only through communing with himself after death is he able to reclaim the memory of his late wife (Kyoko Kagawa) with whom he never quite bonded in mild jealousy of her lingering attachment to her first love who fell in war.

This being a film from 1998 and mostly featuring those in their ‘70s and above, the war looms large from painful battlefield memories of fear and starvation to unexpected reunions and the joy of simple pleasures found even in the midst of hardship. The clerks who died young may look on in envy of Watanabe’s “ordinary” life in the knowledge of all they were denied, while others mourn for a future they will never see. Yet there are shorter sad stories here too from a high school girl (Sayaka Yoshino) whose original choice of a day out at Disneyland is deemed too prosaic, to a middle-aged bar hostess (Kazuko Shirakawa) reminiscing about an old lover who let her down, and a rebellious young punk (Yusuke Iseya) who flat out refuses to choose because he feels that is the best way to accept responsibility. Forced into a reconsideration of his own life, even a clerk is eventually moved by the realisation that even if he had previously believed his existence devoid of meaningful moments he has achieved something by featuring in those of others and is therefore also a meaningful part of a considered whole.

Making the most of his documentary background, interspersing “genuine” memories among the imagined, Koreeda’s heavenly fantasy is one firmly tied to the ground where seasons still pass, time still flows, and the relentlessly efficient march of bureaucracy continues on apace undaunted by the presence of death. Death may give life meaning, but it’s living that’s the prize in all of its glorious complexity filled with both beauty and sadness but always with light even in the darkest corners.


After Life screened as part of an ongoing Koreeda retrospective currently running at BFI Southbank.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Woman in Witness Protection (マルタイの女, Juzo Itami, 1997)

woman in witness protection posterJuzo Itami’s fearless taste for sending up the contradictions and hypocrisies of his home nation knew no bounds, eventually bringing him into conflict with the very forces he assumed so secure it was safe to mock – his 1992 film Minbo led to brutal attack by a gang of yakuza unhappy with how his film portrayed the world of organised crime. Woman in Witness Protection (マルタイの女, Marutai no Onna), continuing the “Woman” theme from previous hits A Taxing Woman and the more recent Supermarket Woman, would be Itami’s final feature as he died in mysterious circumstances not long after its completion and like Minbo it touched an open nerve. In 1997, crazy cult violence was perhaps no laughing matter nor as ridiculous as it might have seemed a few years earlier, yet Itami makes the actions of brainwashed conspirators the primary motivator of a self-centred actress’ gradual progress towards accepting the very thing his previous films might have satirised – her civic duty as a Japanese woman.

Itami breaks the film into a series of vignettes bookended by title cards beginning with the first which introduces us to our leading lady – Biwako Isono (Nobuko Miyamoto). Biwako is currently in rehearsals for an avant-garde play about giving birth (“a woman’s moment of glory”) during which she reduces her assistant to tears prompting her resignation, decrying Biwako’s self-centred bitchiness as she goes. Chastened, Biwako spends the evening doing vocal exercises outside her apartment which is how she comes to witness the botched murder of a lawyer by a crazed cultist (Kazuya Takahashi) during which she is almost murdered herself and only survives because the killer’s gun jams. As the only witness Biwako suddenly becomes important to the police which works well with her general need for attention but less so with her loathing for hassle. Seeing as Biwako is a famous actress, her involvement also precipitates increased press interest for the murder and accidentally threatens the ongoing police investigation not least because Biwako likes to play up for the camera and isn’t quite sure how best to deal with her divided responsibilities. With the killer still at large, the police decide to give Biwako protection in the form of two detectives – Chikamatsu (Yuji Murata), a cultured man who’s a big fan of Biwako’s stage career, and Tachibana (Masahiko Nishimura), a rather stiff gentleman who never watches films and rarely indulges in entertainment.

Bringing up cult violence in 1997 just two years after Japan’s only real terrorist incident perpetrated by a crazed cult, might be thought taboo but taboo was not something that Itami had ever run away from. Crazed cults had also popped up during A Taxing Woman’s Return though back then they mostly represented the hypocrisy of the new yakuza as a front for organised crime that thought nothing of bleeding vulnerable people dry while feeding them a lot of semi-religious claptrap to make them feel a part of something bigger while the bubble economy continued its puffed up attempts to make them feel inadequate. This time around our cultists are less well drawn but clearly a collection of unlucky people duped into believing the strange philosophies of the “Sheep of Truth” which teach that the world can only be saved by its followers dividing the world into white sheep and black sheep. Like the policeman and later Biwako, the killer believes he is only doing “that which must be done” in the best interests of the world. He is unaware of the cult’s shadiness and shocked when their lawyer threatens his family in an effort to convince him not to talk once the police have managed to break his programming, ironically through exactly the same methods – manipulating his feelings towards his wife and son.

The cult is however merely background to Biwako’s ongoing character drama. Despite experiencing emotional trauma from witnessing a murder and then being threatened herself, Biwako enjoys being the centre of the attention with the police as well as the warm glow she feels in being able to help them with their enquiries, but balks at the additional hassle of having to be involved in the trial (even if she would be given quite a sizeable platform as a witness in a high profile court case). She resents having the two policemen follow her around – especially as she has quite a busy schedule which includes an affair with her married manager. Nevertheless she gradually allows them into her life with Tachibana even making his stage debut as spear carrier in a production of Anthony and Cleopatra. Tachibana’s steadfast defence of her person even at the risk of his own life begins to teach Biwako a few things about civic responsibility and the importance of duty, even if her final moment of realisation is another of her staged set pieces in which she conjures a poignant monologue from the accidentally profound mutterings of Tachibana, a little of Cleopatra, and the earlier line from the maternity play repurposed as she affirms that testifying against the cultists will be her “moment of glory”.

Rather than end on Biwako’s sudden moment of enlightenment, Itami cuts to an ironic epilogue in which a police detective watching the movie we have just seen complains about its authenticity while emphasising that no one in protective custody has ever been attacked. A little tongue in cheek humour from Itami that is followed by the more usual disclaimer before the credits resume, but perhaps anticipating another dose of controversy from both law enforcement and cult devotees. Lighter in tone and noticeably less surreal than some of Itami’s earlier work, Woman in Witness Protection is the story of a vacuous actress learning the purpose of her stage as her particular brand of artifice meets that of the less innocently self-centred cultists head on and eventually becomes the best weapon against it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Motel Cactus (모텔 선인장, Park Ki-yong, 1997)

Motel Cactus posterAs a pair of its patrons eventually begin to muse in a moment of easy reflection, Motel Cactus is an odd name for a love hotel. Then again, a prickly flower blooming in the desert perhaps captures the uniquely melancholy qualities of these illicit, temporary meetings filled with defeated hope and existential malaise. A breakthrough feature for Park Ki-yong, Motel Cactus (모텔 선인장, Motel Seoninjang) owes a significant debt to the world of Wong Kar-wai with which it shares a mild visual similarity thanks to cinematographer Christopher Doyle making his only (to date) foray into Korean cinema. Park’s explorations of romantic emptiness might not be particularly original but it’s hard to argue with the beauty in his sadness.

Each of our joyless encounters takes place in room 407 of the titular Motel Cactus stretching across ten years of turbulent Korean history. Park begins with politics as a young woman attempts to wash tear gas out of her eyes after wandering into a democracy demonstration by mistake. Time moves on and the room becomes home to a pair of students intent on shooting a film but trapped in a Godot-esque limbo waiting for a friend who has been unavoidably detained. The first woman suddenly reappears but with a different man, followed by the man again but now with an old flame whose life after love has proved disappointing.

Park bookends each of the episodes with a brief piece of to camera monologue taking place outside of the room. Hyun-Joo (Jin Hee-kyung), the woman from the first and third scenes, angrily berates an offscreen friend for being naive and getting her heart broken by another no good, cheating man. Of course, Hyun-Joo’s irritated speech could easily be directed at herself, abandoned and then abandoning in each of her unsuccessful encounters with men. Though her original assignation with the young and handsome Min-koo (Jung Woo-sung) begins with passionate intensity, it quickly turns cool – he calls another woman and lies about being with a client, emerging guilty and conflicted. Min-koo refuses to talk of love and eventually leaves early, offering the olive branch of a Saturday picnic that both of them know will probably never take place.

Suk-tae (Park Shin-yang), Hyun-joo’s second partner, begins with a “funny” story recited in a bar about a woman who may have been intending to commit suicide for love. Drunk out of their minds, Suk-tae and fellow drinker Hyun-joo head on up to room 407 where they have a total blowout, alternating between childish play and animalistic lovemaking. When the air cools and introspective chat takes over, he asks her if it’s true she always comes here when it rains to which she freely admits, reliving the ghost of past love and a rainy birthday with the presumably long gone Min-koo. This time, it’s Hyun-joo who leaves sadly before the sun has risen while Suk-tae is left behind in a blissful, drunken snooze.

When Suk-tae returns to the room, it’s for a less deliberate purpose. Reuniting with college sweetheart Hee-soo (Lee Mi-yun), he makes awkward small talk reminiscing about the old days while she sadly keys him in to her melancholy dissatisfaction with her later life which neatly echoes his own sense of defeated failure. They want to go back to a more innocent time, but they can’t and it’s clear their superficial reconnection is merely an echo of the past which won’t survive the room.

The room has its way of distorting itself, trapping the would be lovers in an imaginary space in which a part of them will always remain. The students attempt to subvert the nature of Motel Cactus through inching towards innocent romance, but they remain at odds with each other, playing childishly at love while attempting to take mastery of the room but repeatedly failing. Miscommunication reigns. Seo-Kyung (Kim Seung-hyun), the young actress in filmmaker Joon-Ki’s (Han Woong-soo) student project, gets waylaid on her way to the hotel by a TV vox popper who wants to ask her opinion about in a change in the law which would reverse a ban on people with the same surname marrying (a fairly big problem given Korea’s relatively small number of surnames even when only applying to a common ancestral branch). Seo-kyung, however, mishears them and launches into a consideration of same sex relationships on which she ultimately comes out in favour.

Hee-soo’s monologue was delivered to a fortune teller who’d previously advised her that her marriage was a bad idea – she didn’t believe him, but he was right. Motel Cactus is a sad place, drenched in neon half light with the greyness of rainy skies worrying at the windows. An old lady reappears to clear up after our careless lovers while the room’s decor undergoes minor changes, an ‘80s-style electric moving picture diorama an eerie fixture on the wall as its bright waterfalls threaten to tumble on for all eternity. Time stands still in here, marked only by the futility of true connection and the inescapable longing that accompanies it. Park’s naturalistic desires are occasionally swamped by Doyle’s characteristically stylish camerawork but it’s difficult to argue with the poetry of his images even whilst singing an old song.


Motel Cactus was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

The Power of Kangwon Province (강원도의 힘, Hong Sang-soo, 1998)

Power of Kangwon province posterTogether, but separate, could serve as a thematic guide to the work of Hong Sang-soo for whom time is malleable and place even more so. The Power of Kangwon Province (강원도의 힘, Gangwon-do ui him), his second feature, is as playful as one might expect, employing the dual structure familiar from Hong’s later work to set a pair of lovers against each other as they endure the same holiday without ever crossing paths in an attempt to forget their doomed romance.

Jisook (Oh Yun-hong) takes a train to the titular Kangwon province – a popular holiday destination just far enough from the city to make it an attractive place to bury one’s sorrows. Together (but sort of separate) with two university friends she wanders around doing all the regular tourist stuff. For some reason the girls attract the attention of a local policeman (Kim Yu-seok) who starts hanging out with them. Over a tense dinner, Ji-sook argues with her friend over her failed affair with a married man, after which she ends up in an odd encounter with the policeman who is also married.

Meanwhile, married professor Sangkwon (Baek Jong-hak) is in a state of lovelorn depression over the end of an affair with a much younger woman who he claims is the only one he’s ever truly loved. Underappreciated at his current place of work, he spends some time sucking up to his sumo-loving boss but eventually comes to the conclusion it’s all been pointless and he’s never going to get tenure from this rigid old man. Still, despite his wife’s encouragement, he drags his feet applying to another university and continues to mope. Relief comes when his friend (Chun Jae-hyun) invites to him Kangwon for a few days to forget his troubles, but time away only seems to reinforce his sense of emptiness and inability to let go of a lost love.

In truth, we have little implication that the stories of Jisook and Sangkwon are connected at all until they finally intersect save that their movements mirror each other as they each attempt to erase the memory of their failed romance through a sad vacation. Jisook and Sangkwon are on the same train, going to the same place, where they do very similar things but their paths do not cross again – they are out of step with one another, unable to repair the rhythm of their romance but bound by an awkward togetherness just the same.

Meanwhile, a dark spectre haunts them in the form of a mysterious woman and her “fall” from a cliff. Jisook’s disappointing relationship with the married policeman is at least a natural connection, however ill advised it may turn out to be, whereas Sangkwon spends his time irritatedly chasing a lonely woman who got fed up of waiting for him and later walked into the path of another jealous and impatient man. Though in no particular hurry, both Jisook and Sangkwon are constantly annoyed by being forced to waste time hanging around. Jisook’s ballistic attack on the policeman who arrived late to collect her on a return visit to Kangwon is probably misdirected anger at Sangkwon and the illicit nature of her visit, but Sangkwon’s is a kind of arrogance – as if he believes the world exists at his leisure and that he is free to put it down and pick it back up again at his own choosing. Jisook wouldn’t wait for him any longer, but Sangkwon can’t quite accept the relationship is over. He never truly considers abandoning his wife and family to pursue a supposedly “true” love, but won’t give up on the romantic ideal.

Hong positions both lovers as lost, chasing distant ghosts of each other through the spooky environs of the picturesque holiday town, attempting to bury their loneliness in other bodies but emerging with only sadness and resentment. Connection is fleeting, and perhaps unsatisfying in itself. The power of Kangwon province may lie in making a grave for the impossible dream of enduring of love. Jisook buries the smoking embers of her romance even whilst still alight, leaving Sangkwon sadly gazing into a goldfish bowl made for two but now home to only one. Destined never to understand each other, we are all trapped in our own fishbowls sadly gazing out at an incomprehensible world where the only reward of longing is existential sadness. Sound familiar?


The Power of Kangwon Province was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Home video release trailer (no subtitles)

Dangan Runner (弾丸ランナー, SABU, 1996)

Dangan Runner posterIt’s not difficult to see what might send three young men running like stray bullets from a random gun in the Japan of the mid-90s, but each of the various protagonists of SABU’s debut feature Dangan Runner (弾丸ランナー, AKA Non-Stop) is reaching for a different target. Like much of the director’s later work, Dangan Runner pivots on random circumstance which somehow conspires to bring our three runners together as if bound by cosmic thread while they too are chased by an oncoming storm in the form of vengeful yakuza and the bumbling cops hot on their trail.

Kickstarting the whole affair, lowly restaurant worker Yasuda (Tomorowo Taguchi), fed up with the petty humiliations of his life, decides to rob a bank. He has everything planned, even rehearsed and choreographed down to the second, but when the time comes he makes a mistake. Having left his mask at home, he decides to buy one from a local combini but panics and accidentally shoplifts instead, attracting the attentions of bullet two – Aizawa (Diamond Yukai), who is wounded in the arm by Yasuda’s nervous shot when his gun accidentally goes off. A drug addict and former rockstar, Aizawa, intent on revenge for the disrespect he’s just been paid, retrieves the gun dropped by Yasuda and chases him through the streets of Tokyo. Aizawa in turn continues the chain reaction when he bumps into a yakuza, Takeda (Shinichi Tsutsumi), who is “triggered” by a deep seated trauma into chasing off after Aizawa, knife in hand. Meanwhile, a rival yakuza clan is also after Takeda because of gangland politics while they too are being monitored by the police who have gotten wind of a gang war in the offing.

Though SABU’s film is not in the least political, it is like much of his work a mild satire even if its sympathy lies firmly with its three central heroes each desperately trying and failing to outrun themselves. Yasuda, a small man with a slight frame, is the lowest of the low. He has a terrible job as a kitchen assistant in a small restaurant where he is constantly bullied by the head chef and belittled by the other kitchen staff who are all much taller and stronger than he is. It’s not difficult to see why he might bristle so much when one calls him “good for nothing”, yet he’s not the type to offer more than an angry stare in return. To make matters worse, he runs into an old girlfriend who appears to have moved on and up. Walking arm in arm with a wealthy salaryman, she has apparently jettisoned the “common” name of “Midori” for the relatively more sophisticated one of “Yasuko”, presumably hoping to hook someone who is indeed the polar opposite of a “loser” like Yasuda.

Aizawa also has his share of woman troubles though his are of an opposing dimension. A failed musician with a drug problem, Aizawa alienated his loving girlfriend while hoping his addiction would save him from his unattainable dreams. Of course, it’s an entirely different “shot in the arm” that starts him running, but like Yasuda in the end all he can think of is the girl and how he did everything wrong. Takeda, by contrast, is a yakuza through and through. His regrets are bound up with homosocial bonding and male loyalty, mourning the death of the trusted superior he failed to save in dodging the blows of a random assassin. Yet as his superior tells him, all living beings run towards the same thing. A yakuza cannot control his death but he can control his life and the effect he has on others. He urges Takeda to run and find life in the process, but perhaps Takeda’s destination is the run itself rather than where it will eventually take him.

Indeed, Yasuda, accidentally landing up in the middle of the yakuza gang war, affirms that he never felt so alive as when he was running for his life. All three men, running fast from failure, finally achieve the freedom they’d dreamed of through the intense exertion of their flight which later literally becomes orgasmic as all three fantasise about a pretty woman seen on the side of the road. Like bullets fired from a gun powered by social impossibility, each is destined to explode on reaching its chosen target. Like many of SABU’s later protagonists, these are men brought low by life and circumstance, driven slowly mad by a conspiracy of cosmic coincidence, mere playthings of fate without power or agency. Angry young men are a powder keg waiting to ignite, but in SABU’s whimsically surreal universe they usually sort things out amongst themselves. For the Dangan Runners, they only need to look in the mirror to figure out where it is they need to go.


Dangan Runner is available on dual format DVD & blu-ray from Third Window Films. On disc extras include a video essay on the history of V Cinema from film scholar Tom Mes, and an expansive audio commentary by Jasper Sharp providing detailed background on SABU’s career and the Japanese cinema landscape of the mid-90s.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Swordsman II (笑傲江湖之東方不敗, AKA The Legend of the Swordsman, Tony Ching Siu-tung, 1992)

Swordsman II still 1In a world filled with chaos, is the answer to all life’s problems retreat or attack? After the unexpected success of Swordsman which survived the withdrawal of legendary director King Hu to go on to be a box office hit, a sequel was quickly set in motion to be directed by action choreographer Tony Ching Siu-tung. Swordsman II (笑傲江湖之東方不敗) would be the second in a trilogy inspired by Louis Cha’s novel The Smiling, Proud Wanderer and largely dispenses with the cast of the original film for a virtual reboot led by action star Jet Li and actress Brigitte Lin as an extraordinarily sympathetic villain.

Picking up soon after the end of the first film, Ling (Jet Li) and his female comrade nicknamed “Kiddo” (Michelle Reis) are on the run with the intention of retiring from the world of martial arts to live simply among honest people. However, they are about to ride straight into the heart of conflict. At this particular point in history, the “Highlanders” feel themselves oppressed by the ruling “Mainlanders” and would be set on rebellion if they weren’t so busy fighting amongst themselves. Meanwhile, a number of Japanese troops are also holing up in China to wait out political strife in Japan. “Invincible” Dawn (Brigitte Lin), a Highlander, appears to have gotten a hand on the first film’s MacGuffin – the “Sacred Volume” which holds the key to untold martial arts power. Teaming up with the displaced Japanese, Dawn plans to use the powers of the Sacred Volume to dominate the Highlanders and then eventually take over the entire nation.

Dawn happens to be the uncle of a woman, Ying (Rosamund Kwan), with whom Ling began something like a romance back in the first film. Ying’s father, Wu (Lau Shun), the chief of Highlander tribe Sun Moon Sect, has gone missing – presumed taken prisoner by Dawn as a prelude to seizing power. Despite his desire to escape the duplicitous world of martial arts, Ling finds himself on a quest to save Ying’s father and with it the Sun Moon Sect if not the entire nation from the tyrant that Dawn seems primed to become.

Ling, as heroes go, is very much of the wine, women, and song, school. Indeed, he’s not much for anything without a good cup of booze – something that provokes an instant connection with the unusual figure of Dawn when he spots her bathing in a local pool and she offers him some of her upscale alcohol in a pretty bottle. The powers of the Sacred Volume come with a price – in order to embrace them, Dawn must transform herself into a woman (or in the less poetic rendering of the text, simply cut off her penis). Dawn’s transformation is a gradual process and she continues to play her male role as the head her clan, even parading her mistress in front of her captives in a noticeably salacious manner. However, Dawn is also caught off guard by an unexpected attraction to the cheerfully tipsy Ling and the transformation seems to accelerate – she begins wearing makeup, her voice changes into a more feminine register, and her sexual relationship with her mistress appears to be definitively over.

Meanwhile, Ling is fighting a romantic war on three fronts – he’s captivated by the mysterious woman who avoided speaking to him never knowing she is really his enemy, but is still half in love with Ying, and the subject of Kiddo’s unrequited crush. While Dawn wrestles with a deeper transformation, Kiddo is also trying to process her place as a woman among men in attempting to shed her tomboyish image by styling her hair in more classically female fashions and wearing makeup – something which can’t help but arouse mild hilarity among her comrades who collectively think of her as a tough little sister. Trying to explain her new persona to her mistress, Dawn insists that she will never forget her and that essentially nothing has changed, while the guys partially mock Kiddo’s new desire to embrace her femininity by avowing that male/female/non-binary gender is an irrelevance. Even so, on realising Dawn is the person he’d been looking for and was once Ying’s uncle, Ling’s parting questions are all about whether he might have accidentally slept with a man which he seems to find embarrassing. Nevertheless, it’s “femininity” which finally does for Dawn as she finds herself weakened by love and eventually pushed towards a “heroic” act of romantic sacrifice.

Having defeated one tyrant, Ling finds himself threatened by another as Wu’s maniacal need for revenge provokes a wide scale purge of those who had “betrayed” him. Ling’s desire to remove himself from this world of betrayals, violence, and complex moralities seems ever more understandable but cannot be his answer even as he finds himself unwillingly exiled. If you turn your back on trouble, it will eventually engulf you and everything you love – as will a failure to resist a trusted ally’s descent into darkness. Strangely affecting in its hero/villain symmetries and air of tragic romance, Swordsman II’s beautifully choreographed action sequences are only surpassed by its fierce commitment to fantasy.


Swordsman II was screened as part of An Evening with Tony Ching Siu-tung presented by the Chinese Visual Festival.

Black Republic (그들도 우리처럼, Park Kwang-su, 1990)

Black Republic still 1In the Korea of 1990, a revolution had been fought, won, and then betrayed by its people. Successfully petitioning for democracy, the newly minted Korean electorate went ahead and voted for the chosen successor of the dictator they’d just spent so long trying to oust. Change comes slow, but it comes even if not quite the way you wanted it. Park Kwang-su’s first film Chilsu and Mansu, released in 1988 and set in the contemporary Seoul running to catch up to its Olympic aspirations, had made its own quiet protest about a hypocritical society’s rising social inequality. His follow up, Black Republic (그들도 우리처럼, Keduldo Urichurum), takes a journey back in time while keeping one foot in the present to show us a nation engulfed by a darkness that crushes love, dreams, and possibility all while dangling the shining hope of a better future that seems impossibly far away.

Tae-hun (Moon Sung-keun), a student protestor wanted by the police, heads into the mountains under an assumed name hoping to get a job in a mine. However, this is a period of intense economic volatility and the mining industry is collapsing. When his attempts to find work as a miner fail, Tae-hun (going under the name Gi-yeong) overhears a conversation in a cafe and manages to get a job in a local briquette factory.

Park opens in darkness as Tae-hun makes a phone call to his mother in which he never speaks and she reassures him that everything will be OK while the sound of a train gradually gathers in the background. When Tae-hun arrives at his destination, he finds himself in a barren, blackened land where everything is quite literally falling apart. The mines are closing and the landscape, desolate as it is, is peppered with derelict buildings and the modest, makeshift homes of the rural poor at the constant mercy of their greedy masters. As a newcomer, Tae-hun is not privy to the town’s secrets, but quickly comes to understand that though he may have escaped Seoul, the struggle is inescapable, because the struggle is Korea. The owner of the briquette factory is also some kind of loanshark involved in a suspiciously close arrangement with the local mine owner who is in the middle of a labour dispute with the miners who are petitioning for fair pay and better conditions. Haunted by the memories of his protest days, Tae-hun finds himself looking on at another candlelight procession calling for workers rights but rendered impotent, forced to remain silent or risk attracting the attention of the police.

Meanwhile, Tae-hun’s silence sees him unwittingly pulled into the orbit of those he would usually oppose. Seong-cheol (Park Joong-hoon), the illegitimate son of the factory boss, takes his own sense of crushing impossibility out on the entire town. Technically the “vice-president” of the factory, Seong-cheol is a sometime enforcer for his father’s greedy loan sharking business and thinks nothing of striding in and helping himself to the petty cash to spend on women and booze while gazing at the photo of his long absent mother. An invitation to dine with Seong-cheol and pals brings Tae-hun into contact with melancholy sex worker Yeong-sook (Shim Hye-Jin) who begins to fall for him when he skips out on her after Seong-cheol has pulled one of his usual tricks in giving her away in an attempt to buy friendship through influence.

Like Tae-hun, Yeong-sook is also trapped, running, and living under an assumed identity. Through her exposure to Tae-hun who is, after all, so different from the other men in the mountains, she begins to rediscover a sense of hope and possibility. Yeong-sook quits the illegal part of her job as a “coffee girl” and deepens her bond with Tae-hun through nursing him after he is arrested and beaten by the police who seem to harbour an innate suspicion towards him despite little evidence, but their love will require another act of faith and flight and the world in which they live may not let them to escape.

Everyone here is trapped, lying to themselves or others, wishing things were different than they are but has long since given up the hope they ever could be. While Tae-hun attempts to ride out the storm by burying his head in the coal dust, feeling it fill his lungs, struggling to breathe, Seong-cheol opposes his order with chaos, laying waste to half the town in a self destructive venting of his rage and resentment towards his selfish, unfeeling father, and a society he feels has already rejected him. Impossibility and hopelessness are the defining qualities of this world of corruption and exploitation in which there can be no escape or salvation, only crushing futility. Park closes with an ironic coda of swapped fates and tragic promise which places Tae-hun right where he was when we first met him, defeated by hope but still in motion, if for an uncertain direction.


Black Republic was screened as part of the Korean Cultural Centre’s Korean Film Nights 2018: Rebels With a Cause screening series. It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.