Blue Spring (青い春, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2001)

Blue Spring posterJapan is a hierarchical society, but that doesn’t mean there is only one hierarchy. Every sector of life seemingly has its own way of ordering itself, including high school. Back in the ‘80s, high schools became known as violent places in which angry young men took out their adolescent frustrations on each other, each hoping to be accounted the toughest guy in town. Toshiaki Toyoda, chronicler of millennial malaise, made his one and only “youth movie” in adapting Taiyo Matsumoto’s delinquent manga Blue Spring (青い春, Aoi haru), bringing to it all the nihilistic hopelessness of his earlier work tempered with sympathetic melancholy.

The action begins with a photograph of group of boys entering their final year of high school before embarking on a dare to decide who will be the new king of the school which involves hanging off a high balcony and seeing how many times you can clap before needing to catch hold of the railing or fall to your death. Cool and apathetic Kujo (Ryuhei Matsuda) wins easily with a new record, but seems indifferent to his increased status while his best friend and underling, Aoki (Hirofumi Arai), basks in the vicarious glow of suddenly being top dog. Meanwhile, Yukio (Sousuke Takaoka) – a silent and troubled young man, keeps his minion on the hook with promises of making him a fully fledged member of the gang while squaring off against Ota (Yuta Yamazaki) who is keen to talk up his growing friendship with a local mobster.

Despite a reputation for order and discipline, Asa High School is a lawless place where ineffective authority figures run scared of the hotblooded teens. Set in entirely within the school, there is little hint of the boys’ home lives but none of them truly believe there’s very much for them out in the world and know that the last year of high school is a final opportunity to be uncivilised with relatively few repercussions. The teachers, sadly, mainly agree with them, tiredly reading out the same dull text books while letting the kids do as they please because they lack the inclination to help them. Even those who do take an interest fail to get through, trotting out tired platitudes which do little to convince the kids in their care that their time at school matters or that they should want to work on their interpersonal skills and anger issues.

“People who know what they want scare me”, Kujo explains to a strangely sympathetic teacher (Mame Yamada) whose job it is to make the flowers bloom. He’s top dog now, but being made king has only made him feel powerless and uncertain. Suddenly, being the strongest seems like an irrelevance and this pointless violence an absurd waste of time. The problem is, none of these kids have any direction or hope for the future. They don’t believe education can be a way out, and being trapped in a stagnant economy makes them inherently distrustful of the salaryman dream that might have distracted their fathers. All they have are their fists and angry, adolescent hearts.

One by one their dreams are crushed – the baseball star doesn’t make it to Koshien, the sickly kid doesn’t show up for school, the yakuza goon is betrayed by a friend, the bullied underling moves up to bullying others, and a cross word between Aoki and Kujo threatens to ruin a childhood friendship. Asked for his hopes and dreams for the future, all Yukio can offer is a dedication to world peace and the Ultraman pose. Kujo, staring confused at the flowers, wonders if some are destined to wither without ever blooming only for his teacher to console him, melancholically, that he chooses to believe that flowers are born to bloom and so bloom they will.

Meanwhile, yakuza circle the fences like baseball scouts at a championship game, knowing organised crime is the traditional next step for handy boys who won’t graduate high school. Yet the tragedies here aren’t so much ruined futures and the futility of life as the failure of friendship. The boys fight and they hurt each other in ways other than the physical but lack the maturity to deal with their pain. Violence, self inflicted and not, is their only outlet and their only means of attracting attention from the authority figures so intent on ignoring their existence. Toyoda builds on the relentless sense of hopelessness seen in Pornostar but leaves with the weary resignation of one no longer young who knows that youth is dream destined to disappoint.


Blue Spring is released on blu-ray courtesy of Third Window Films on 13th May. The set also includes a very frank and often humorous commentary from Toyoda (in Japanese with English subtitles) as well as a “making of” from the time of the film’s release.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Distance (ディスタンス, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2001)

Distance DVDHirokazu Koreeda has become known predominantly for his nation’s representative genre – the family drama. He has, however, maintained a somewhat ambivalent attitude to the idea of family and more specifically what it means in the contemporary society. Koreeda’s later work might have found more faith in the healing power of familial bonds, but his third film, Distance (ディスタンス), is among his bleakest and finds little cause for hope when relations between people remain necessarily oblique. Another of the post-Aum films from the 2000s, Distance does not concern itself primarily with the immediacy of terrorist cult violence but its wider causes and implications.

As the opening news report informs us, three years previously the Ark of Truth cult released a genetically engineered virus into the Tokyo water system leading to the deaths of 128 people with thousands poisoned. In quick succession we meet four ordinary Tokyoites variously affected by the disaster but trying to go about their everyday lives. Schoolteacher Kiyoka (Yui Natsukawa), salaryman Kai (Susumu Terajima), punkish student Masaru (Yusuke Iseya), and sensitive florist, Atsushi (Arata). Eventually each of them, somewhat reluctantly, prepares for a trip. Ending up in a small rural town, they’ve gathered to commemorate the attack but, crucially, they are not relatives of those who were poisoned but of the cultists who committed the atrocity.

The relatives are, in a sense, secondary victims – they have all lost loved ones and are forced to bear the vicarious stigma the conformist society heaps on them simply for being related to someone who has committed a crime. When the group’s car is randomly stolen in the middle of nowhere, they are “rescued” by the mysterious Sakata (Tadanobu Asano) who is the only surviving member of the cult cell which carried out the terrorist attack and was subsequently wiped out by fellow cultists presumably horrified by what they had done to discredit the movement. Holing up in the remote mountain lodge where the cult had lived, the relatives are forced to confront their complicated emotions towards their late loved ones and the various ways their lives continue to be influenced by their loss.

The “distance” to which the title refers, is that between the relatives and the cultists to whose eventual slide into fanaticism they were largely blind. There are secrets, things left unsaid, a growing gap between a perception of a person and the “reality”. Most joined a cult because they were frustrated with the modern world and bought into its dubious messages from spiritual healing to saving the environment, but they were also each lonely and looking for a replacement for the traditional family which they had failed to find in their ordinary lives. Now remarried with a small daughter, Kai thinks back on the disastrous dinner during which his then wife told him she was leaving with another man to join a cult because Kai was never willing to fully face her. Only in the cult where there is full and total trust, did she finally find a reason for living – something which did not exist within her (presumably unhappy) marriage.

Yet even these flashbacks cannot be taken at face value. Our former cultist, Sakata, appears meek and apologetic among the relatives, once again describing the cult as “family” (perhaps insensitively) with fathers, sisters, and brothers who all loved him “unconditionally” though he eventually betrayed them. His description to a policeman immediately after the event is somewhat different, as is his attitude towards “quiet” sister Yuko (Ryo) who follows her brother’s lead in describing herself as an inhabitant of “Silent Blue” and subsequently views herself as part of a revolution – an engineer of the systemic crash which will reset the world.

With varying degrees of truth and self-deception, the relatives interrogate themselves and their place within the actions taken by the cultists while attempting to process the future with greater clarity. The divisions, however remain – in the strained relationship between in Kai and his wife, and that between Masaru and his suspicious girlfriend. Lonely souls look for forgiveness through reparation, but ultimately decide that perhaps the only solution really is to burn the whole thing down. A formal experiment for the increasingly formalist director, Distance is an unusually bleak negation of the concept of family which refuses the possibility of genuine connection in a world so often built on guile and subterfuge.


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

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Luxurious Bone (贅沢な骨, Isao Yukisada, 2001)

Luxurious Bone posterIsao Yukisada made his name with the 2004 hit Crying Out Love, in the Centre of the World, but even before becoming a “junai” pioneer his early films were far from strangers to melancholy, impossible romance. The strangely titled Luxurious Bone (贅沢な骨, Zeitakuna Hone, AKA Torch Song) is a case in point in its early, ambiguous treatment of same sex love and emotional repression. Though in some senses very much of its time, Yukisada’s sad chamber drama is a sensitive exploration of the path towards awakening, if ultimately not to happiness.

The drama begins when Miyako (Kumiko Aso) gets the titular “luxurious bone” lodged in her throat. In this case, it’s an eel bone which is a fish too expensive for either she or her roommate Sakiko (Tsugumi) to eat very often, hence its tinge of luxury even if there’s relatively little difference when it’s tickling your trachea. “Roommate” might not be the best way to describe exactly what Sakiko is to Miyako, though their relationship seems curiously ill-defined. The two women share a bed, and seemingly a life, but perhaps platonically. Sakiko wants to look for a job, but Miyako doesn’t quite want her to because she’s happy to support the pair of them on her wages as a sex worker. Likewise, Sakiko isn’t quite happy with Miyako’s line of work, not because she’s jealous or judgmental, but because she worries the job is unpleasant. Miyako reassures her that it’s fine because she feels nothing at all during sex so mostly it’s just dull.

All that changes however when Miyako meets unusual client Shintani (Masatoshi Nagase) who goes to the trouble of buying her a hamburger bento because he heard that’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to do in these situations. Shintani blows Miyako’s mind which isn’t something she was expecting or quite knows what to do with. On hearing the news Sakiko seems mildly worried, but following a strange series of events Shintani ends up becoming a minor part of their lives as the third wheel in their previously stable though somehow awkward relationship.

Miyako’s intense opening voice over makes reference to a secret she cannot bear to speak that will lie closed within her heart for all eternity. The fish bone becomes a symbol of the thing stuck in her throat, the truth she is too afraid to voice. Choking, Miyako gasps for air like a goldfish floundering in shallow water but cannot find the strength to swallow.

As we will later discover, this dark secret is bound up with her complicated feelings for Sakiko of which she seems to feel afraid and ashamed, wanting to possess her love in its entirety but also unable to access it and hating herself for her continuing need for possession and control. Her unexpected connection with Shintani is, after a manner of speaking, simply a more “acceptable” way of accepting her desire for Sakiko as she later reveals when confessing that she only ever thought of Sakiko when making love with Shintani which is presumably why only he was ever able to give her a satisfying experience.

Unable to cope with the intensity of her feelings, Miyako turns self destructive and attempts to lure Shintani into a sexual relationship with Sakiko who, apparently, is afraid of intimacy altogether having been raised in an abusive, neglectful home in which she was convinced that she was “dirty” and unloveable, an obstacle in the way of her father’s new relationship with a much younger step-mother (Makiko Watanabe).

Something of a cliché in itself, Luxurious Bone first attempts to delegitimise the feelings of the two women for each other by introducing the figure of Shintani to suggest that their problems are largely down to not having met a good man. Miyako sleeps with Shintani to feel closer to Sakiko, while Sakiko begins to move past her emotional trauma only thanks to the gentle machinations of Shintani. Their strange ménage à trois brings them together whilst driving them apart as the two women attempt to touch each other through Shintani while he remains detached and conflicted if perhaps wilfully used. Miyako’s self destructive impulses push her towards burning her world before facing what it is that frightens her. Only a strange encounter with another woman in a club shows her that her fear was not so much love as submission, while Sakiko tries to reconnect with her childhood self to move past her emotional trauma.

Despite its motion towards a positive resolution, Luxurious Bone cannot quite find the courage of its convictions and as quickly delegitimises the love as it tried to legitimise it through leaving Sakiko broadly where she started – lost, confused, and afraid, uncertain if unresolved longing is a natural condition of living. Perhaps of its time and overly simplistic in its treatment of complex issues from traumatic childhoods to shame and repressed sexuality, Luxurious Bone nevertheless has its heart (broadly) in the right place even if it leaves its lovelorn youngsters in the same position as many a Yukisada hero still looking for their place in a cruel and arbitrary world.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Torch Song by The Humpbacks which features prominently throughout. The song was actually written for the film and is performed by Masatoshi Nagase.

Camel(s) (낙타(들), Park Ki-yong, 2001)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Bungee Jumping of Their Own (번지점프를 하다, Kim Dae-seung, 2001)

Bungee Jumping on theie own posterLove is a continuous stream, according to the debut film of Kim Dae-seung, Bungee Jumping of Their Own (번지점프를 하다, Bungee Jump Hada). The title may sound whimsical, but it’s less the physical act of fall and rebound we’re talking about here than a spiritual bounce, souls which spring from one body to another and eventually find their way home. Kim presents eternity as one great confluence and love as an enduring bond which survives not only death and time but transcends existence itself. Love is a spiritual cause, but, as the rather muddy philosophy goes on to suggest, perhaps not so free of social mores as it would like to believe itself to be.

In 1983 university student In-woo (Lee Byung-hun) meets the love of his life, Tae-hee (Lee Eun-ju), as she steals a place under his umbrella during a violent rainstorm. Shy and introverted, In-woo waits at the bus stop where Tae-hee abruptly left him hoping to see her again, finally encountering her by chance on his university campus. Despite his diffidence, the pair eventually become a couple and are very happy together but In-woo will shortly have to leave for his military service. He asks Tae-hee to meet him at the station, waiting once again only to be left alone on the platform as the trains fly by.

Flashforward 17 years to the start of a new millennium and In-woo is now a slick, confident man entering middle-age, married to someone else and with a small daughter of his own. He teaches high school and is the kind of inspirational teacher many dream of being, well-respected by his students for his patience and faith as he remains committed to stand up for them no matter what. In-woo might have thought he’d put the memory of Tae-hee to the back of his mind to go on living, but a strange young man, Hyun-bin (Yeo Hyeon-soo), begins to reawaken in him the buried memory of his first love. Seeing echoes of Tae-hee in the young male student, In-woo finds himself facing several different kinds of social and internal pressures to which he had previously given little thought.

Arriving in 2001, Bungee Jumping of Their Own is (sadly) one of the first “mainstream” films to touch on the theme of homosexuality, only the film itself is quite determined to negate any kind of homosexual reading into its central love affair – it is, after all, not “Hyun-bin” that In-woo is falling in love with, but the reincarnated soul of Tae-hee, which is to say a “female” soul and not a male one. Though Kim’s metaphor of existence as a great river through which love endures across time and societies ought to make gender and the physical body an irrelevance, same-sex love is relegated to an inappropriate absurdity. In a playful conversation about reincarnation in which In-woo and Tae-hee pledge their love to one another, In-woo jokingly asks what would happen if he were too were reincarnated as a girl, to which Tae-hee replies that they’d just have to wait for the next reincarnation. Despite the endurance of their love, it is apparently not viable outside of a traditional male/female pairing and any other iteration is tragedy to which the only solution is suicide and the hope for a quick reincarnation to find each other again in more socially appropriate forms.

Nevertheless, Kim does also do his best to criticise a still conservative society’s prejudice against homosexuality though this too has its problematic elements in unwittingly conflating two issues which ideally speaking are better not conflated. In-woo is a teacher falling in love with a boy who is not only a minor but also his student – a situation clearly inappropriate in any and all circumstances. However, the while the crusty old dinosaurs in the staffroom lament the new liberal society and fear being branded sex pests for leering at the girls, claiming it’s their own fault for “looking like that”, In-woo comes in for an especial level of vitriol targeted not at a pervy teacher but simply at a “gay” man while Hyun-bin is gradually ostracised by his friends simply for being the object of his affection and therefore tarred with the gay brush.

Meanwhile, the conflicted In-woo goes to see a doctor to correct his “sickness” only to be told that his responses indicate a “normal” heterosexual man with that caveat that he should also regard his interest in men as a “normal” part of life. Desperate to not to acknowledge his same-sex desire, In-woo becomes violent towards his wife in an effort to reinforce his masculinity, unwilling to discuss with her the real reasons their marriage has always been hollow – not his possible bisexuality, but that he has only ever loved Tae-hee and will only ever love Tae-hee in whichever form she appears.

In-woo makes a point of teaching his students that “different” does not mean “wrong” but it’s apparently not a lesson he’s able to internalise. Kim plays with dualities, idealises imperfect symmetries, and shows us that things which might seem “different” from one perspective are in essence the same, yet he walks back his message of acceptance to emphasise the importance of conforming to social norms rather than allowing the love between Tae-hee and In-woo to exist in the physical world in any other iteration than male/female. Nevertheless, Kim’s true intention of painting love as a continuous stream made possible by cosmic serendipity is a romantic notion difficult to resist and even if his reasoning proves occasionally hollow he has perhaps opened a door towards a greater understanding.


Bungee Jumping on Their Own was screened as part of the Rebels With a Cause series at the Korean Cultural Centre London.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Fish and Elephant (今年夏天, Li Yu, 2001)

513cslBr5wLThe first narrative feature from former documentarian and TV presenter Li Yu, Fish and Elephant (今年夏天, Jīn Nián Xià Tiān) is touted as the first film from mainland China to explicitly deal with lesbian life in modern Beijing. Necessarily shot under the radar to get around China’s strict censorship requirements, the film almost disappeared after “getting lost” on return from the Venice Film Festival (where a mishap with missing reels apparently led to a less than stellar reception though Li did eventually pick up an award) but went on to feature in a number of international festivals even if not quite welcomed at home. Imperfect and somewhat clumsy in execution, Fish and Elephant is nevertheless as whimsical as its title might suggest if only in its ironically abstracted need for detachment.

Xiaoqun is approaching 30 and unmarried. Despite her mother’s pleas and the needling of relatives Xiaoqun has no desire to marry. She supports herself well enough as an elephant keeper at the zoo and lives alone in a small apartment. A desire for independence is not the only reason Xiaoqun chooses to remain single – she is gay. Unable to state this fact openly, Xiaoqun is often forced to attend various blind dates set up by her mother who emotionally blackmails her by bursting into tears on the phone. Nevertheless, she eventually develops a flirtation with a young woman, Xiaoling, who owns her own clothing store at the market. Before long the women have moved in together and established an easy domesticity only for Xiaoqun’s mother to turn up unannounced determined to see her daughter wed. As if that weren’t enough, Xiaoqun’s long lost ex, Junjun, also arrives without warning apparently on the run from the police for “bank robbing”.

Perhaps because of the need to shoot covertly, Li’s script is structurally threadbare involving several large narrative jumps but the quality of unseen incompleteness plays into the film’s central theme in that the lives of women like Xiaoqun and Xiaoling are often invisible and hidden from view. We observe the two women’s courtship obliquely and in stages as they flirt (tentatively), wait for each other, are frustrated by exes, and finally come to a kind of agreement framed against the turquoise of of Xiaoqun’s bedroom wall which makes the pair look uncomfortably like the goldfish trapped inside her aquarium. Even this is unspoken and uncertain, hands tentatively grasped in trying to confirm that the situation has been read correctly until it is quite literally sealed with a kiss.

Xiaoqun, at least, is not so afraid to tell people what she is, only they never seem to believe her. Her uncle, berating her for turning down all the suitors he finds and reminding her that it’s the “proper thing” for women to marry and bear children, asks her what the problem is, to which Xiaoqun replies that she’s told him plenty of times before – she’s “no interest in men”. The uncle cannot process this information and offers to find a therapist to help with Xiaoqun’s supposed “issues”. Similarly, she decides to tell it straight to one of her dates – “I don’t like men, I like women”, but he refuses to listen. It seems he’s familiar with the concept, but doesn’t really believe in it and assumes Xiaoqun is trying to skip out on the date without giving him a proper chance by saying something outrageous.

Each time Xiaoqun calmly explains her life choices, everyone just ignores her. Either they simply don’t understand or refuse to accept that her sexuality is a good enough “excuse” for refusing to conform to the social order. Not until she finally attempts to come out to her mother does Xiaoqun actually say “I am gay” and then only very quickly followed directly by an explicit explanation of what she means. Unfortunately her mother still can’t quite get it, the language and cultural gap too vast to bridge. Like the young person’s pop song she’s always listening to, it’s not that she doesn’t understand, it’s just that the world is moving so fast.   

Eventually Xiaoqun’s mother starts to come round and considers going against the social order by marrying again herself despite her supposedly inappropriate age. Marriage, however, seems an unhappy business all round and none of the men we are introduced to are particularly appealing. The men in Xiaoling’s shop bark at their girlfriends and criticise the slutty clothes, or try to harass Xiaoling into dropping the price while her boyfriend hovers in the background and places a territorial hand on her shoulder almost as if he knew why she just gave a quite massive discount on an expensive shirt to the woman currently trying it on for size. Xiaoqun’s mother is divorced, her father having left the family (and an apparently unhappy marriage) for another woman. Yet everyone seems intent on railroading the two women into this culturally demanded alleyway of misery.

For the most part, Xiaoqun and Xiaoling are content to simply ignore the world around them and live peacefully together like two fish in a bowl. Conspiratorially linking hands under the table as Xiaoqun’s mum reels off her marriage spiel and leaning in close to light one cigarette from another, they perhaps take pleasure in mocking the social order directly under her nose while worrying what the fall out might be should the truth be discovered. The relationship is threatened not particularly by the marriage plots, but by the presence of Junjun who places a wedge between the verbally uncommunicative lovers and another burden of secrecy on the already burdened Xiaoqun.

Li concludes by splitting the narrative into its three component strands, opting for a perhaps unwise slide into absurdity as Junjun embarks on a last stand though it does provide an opportunity for another (accidentally?) misogynistic/homophobic remark from a police officer. The film ends on a wedding, at which Xiaoqun and Xiaoling are conspicuously absent despite being expected and as a couple. Perhaps they are just “busy” having recently recovered from their momentary romantic drama, but their failure to appear also reinforces their committed isolation in which they are content (for good or ill) to hide themselves away, existing only for each other.


US release trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)

Kilimanjaro (킬리만자로, Oh Seung-uk, 2001)

Kilimanjaro posterMt. Kilimanjaro is the world’s tallest free-standing mountain. Oh Seung-ok’s debut, Kilimanjaro (킬리만자로), is not a climbing story, at least not in that sense, but a story of a man trying to conquer his own mountain without really knowing why. Twin brothers Hae-shik and Hae-chul are mirrors of each other, a perfect mix of light and dark, but when one makes a choice to choose the darkness, it throws the other into despair and confusion. A noir-ish tale of fragmented identities and fatalistic retribution, Oh’s world of tired gangsters and impossible dreams is as icy and unforgiving as the summit of its titular mountain, offering little more than lonely deaths and eternal regrets.

Policeman Hae-shik (Park Shin-Yang) drifts in and out of consciousness, tied up in a room by his twin brother, Hae-chul, with Hae-chul’s children looking on. Hae-chul murders his family and then shoots himself all while his brother is tied up and helpless, a policeman without recourse to the law. Taken to task by his colleagues who want to know how he could have allowed any of this to happen, if not as a brother than as a cop, Hae-shik has little to offer them by way of explanation. To add insult to injury, he is also under fire for unethical/incompetent investigation, and is taken off the case. Suspended pending an inquiry, Hae-shik goes back to his hometown but is immediately mistaken for Hae-chul and attacked by gangsters Hae-chul had pissed off before he left town and killed himself. Saved by local petty gangster Thunder (Ahn Sung-Ki), Hae-shik assumes Hae-chul’s identity and slips into the life of hopeless scheming which ultimately led to his brother’s ugly, violent death.

The film’s title is, apparently, slightly ironic in referring to the film’s setting of a small fishing village in the mountainous Gangwon-do Providence, known to some as “Korea’s Kilimanjaro”. Each of the men in this small town is trapped by its ongoing inertia and continual impossibility. They want to make something of themselves but have few outlets to do so – their dream is small, owning a family restaurant, but still it eludes them and they soon turn to desperate measures in opposing a local gangster in the hope of finally improving their circumstances.

Despite the seemingly tight bond of the men in Thunder’s mini gang – a mentally scarred ex-soldier known as “The Sergeant” (Jung Eun-pyo) and nerdy religious enthusiast knows as “The Evangelical” (Choi Seon-jung) rounding out Hae-chul’s goodhearted chancer, none of them has any clue that Hae-shik is not Hae-chul, or that Hae-chul and his family are dead. No one, except perhaps Thunder, is very happy to see him but even so Hae-shik quickly “reassumes” his place at Thunder’s side and takes over Hae-chul’s role in the gang’s scheming.

Hae-shik and Hae-chul had formed a perfect whole of contradictory qualities, each with their own degrees of light and darkness. Hae-chul had been the “good” brother who worked hard at home taking care of his parents while Hae-shik headed to university and a career in the city, never having visited his hometown since (in fact, no one seems to know or has already forgotten that Hae-chul even had a twin brother). Hae-shik’s “goodness” might be observed in his career as a law enforcer, but he’s clearly not among the list of model officers, and his home life also seems to be a failure. Hae-chul’s family might also have failed, and his shift to a life of petty crime provides its own darkness but living in this claustrophobic, impossible environment his crime is one of wanting something more than that his world ever had to offer him.

As might be expected, Thunder’s plans do not unfold as smoothly as hoped. Ineptitude and finally a mental implosion result in a near massacre costing innocent lives taken in a fury of misdirected vengeance. Despite wishing for a quiet life spent with friends on the beach, heroes die all alone, like mountain climbers lost on a snowy slope unsure whether to go up or down. Attempting to integrate his contradictions, become his brother as well as himself, Hae-shik reaches an impasse that is pure noir, finally meeting his end through a case of “mistaken identity”.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.