This Charming Girl (여자, 정혜, Lee Yoon-ki, 2004)

This Charming GirlIt’s strange how, even in this increasingly interconnected world, our relationships with those around us are often wilfully superficial. Trapped within our own self-obsessed perspectives, we often fail to see beneath the surface of social conformity to realise that others are also lonely or troubled, wishing someone would see them but also afraid to make plain the various ways they don’t measure up to a social ideal. The heroine of Lee Yoon-ki’s This Charming Girl (여자, 정혜, Yeoja, Jeong-hye) is just such a woman – “charming” in her perfectly composed exterior, in many ways an embodiment of traditional femininity in her near invisibility as she gets on with her life and work quietly and with efficiency. There are however tiny cracks in the surface of her ordered existence that betray an ongoing, perhaps incurable anxiety.

Jeong-hae (Kim Ji-soo), a young woman in her late twenties, has an ordinary job working on the counter in the local post-office. As we later find out, she was once married but walked out on her new husband on their wedding night and, following the death of her mother, lives alone in the same apartment she has lived in all her life. Despite being well liked at work and taking lunch with the office ladies, Jeong-hae is perhaps not quite part of the group and finds it hard to relate to her noisy colleagues who gossip about her behind her back and when all is said and done probably regard her as a fellow employee rather than friend. Jeong-hae’s days are mostly spent alone, her interactions with others outside of work extend only to awkward telephone conversations with an unkind aunt, and an angry neighbour complaining about her extremely loud alarm clock.

Despite her shyness and self-imposed isolation, Jeong-hae is a kind and caring person with a gentle, nurturing personality. In the absence of human connection, she lovingly tends to her plants but is wary of taking on responsibility for more complex creatures and it’s only after a few mornings of noticing a melancholy, mewling kitten on her way to the bus stop that she decides to pick it up and take it to a vet. Suddenly being a cat owner has a profound impact on Jeong-hae’s way of life even if the skittish creature echoes her own sense of mistrust born of previous trauma in insisting on hiding under the sofa. Bonding with a living creature brings back painful memories of her traumatic past which threaten to impede her new sense of forward motion even as she attempts to outrun them.

The kitten isn’t the only stray Jong-hae picks up, later she takes pity on a sad young man who became involved in a drunken bar fight and alienated all his friends. Generally speaking, for reasons we later come to understand, Jeong-hae is wary of men and of male physicality. A rare visit to a shoe shop provoked by an unpleasant meeting with her ex-husband who has only got back in touch to express how much she hurt him by walking out without explanation, makes plain her distress even with perhaps “ordinary” everyday interactions. Though she does her best to endure it, Jeong-hae’s discomfort with the salesman’s hard sell tactics as he uses overfamiliar language and roughly manhandles her feet into a pair of sandals (which do not really suit her) eventually results in an extremely rare instance of self-assertion as she tells the assistant off, politely, before stopping to advise the woman behind the counter that perhaps men should not be selling women’s shoes or at any rate they should treat their customers as “people” rather than sales targets. Nevertheless, something about the drunken young man tells her that he is not a threat, only another person who seems to be in a dark place and probably in need of a stranger’s ear.

It’s perhaps this same sense of “recognition” that prompts her into making an extremely forward and uncharacteristically bold overture towards a shy young writer (Hwang Jung-min) who comes to the post office regularly to send off his manuscripts. If we get the sense that Jeong-hae is a mostly invisible person, then the writer is much the same. We catch sight of him often in the background, shopping in convenience stores, sitting at outdoor tables, waiting to cross the road. He’s the kind of person that perhaps only someone like Jeong-hae, equally invisible, a supernumerary even within her own world, might recognise. The tragedy is that Jeong-hae has a lot of love to give but has been robbed of the knowledge of how to give it safely thanks a traumatic incident in her past in which her innocence and naivety were abused by a person of trust who left her with no one to turn to for protection and a deeply internalised sense of shame and rage.

Her traumatic memories surround her like living beings, occupying the same space, occasionally poking their heads into her everyday life to remind her of an unpleasant association she couldn’t forget if she tried. Jeong-hae no longer sleeps, she naps fitfully on the sofa or wanders around all night at markets and cafes; she craves connection, but cannot access it. Thanks to the cat, the ex, the writer, even the overbearing shoe shop assistant and drunk man, she begins to find a way forward even if it pushes her towards an equally dangerous conclusion, and suddenly perhaps it’s not quite all so hopeless as it seemed.


This Charming Girl was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Repatriation (송환, Kim Dong-won, 2004)

Repatriation posterIt is sometimes said that citizens of a divided nation suffer more from the manipulation of the division than from the division itself. Kim Dong-won’s landmark 2004 documentary Repatriation (송환, Songhwan) tackles this issue from the side in examining the lives of “unconverted” political prisoners – spies from the North who endured years of torture yet never abandoned their core ideology. Kim tells their stories with warmth and empathy, but cannot avoid the various ways they have been used and misused as proxies in a long dormant war, sometimes willingly but sometimes not. Personal friendships aside, Kim’s view of the ex-prisoners is coloured by the political attitudes of his times in which the left, deeply wounded following the subversion of the hard won fight for democracy, longs to see the right’s claims of the North as mere propaganda and perhaps idealises the positive qualities of life North of the border only to have their illusions shattered and their hopes once again dashed

Back in 1992, a priest asked director Kim Dong-won for the use of his car. He was bringing a pair of “unconverted” long term prisoners to the village and needed help. Despite his reservations Kim agreed and against the odds, Choi and Kim were warmly welcomed into the small community who came together to look after the two old men regardless of their controversial beliefs and pasts as spies sent down from the North more than 30 years previously.

“Unconverted” is, strictly speaking, the preferred language of the North. The South refers to the same prisoners as “converts-to-be”, which is to say that the normal practice for captured spies is a period of lengthy torture designed to force the captives to “convert” from North Korean communism to regularised South Korean anti-communism. The language in itself is telling, and Kim frames his tale as one of faith and martyrdom with the Unconverted painted as true believers who never wavered even in the face of extreme suffering and persecution. Indeed, the suffering itself only strengthened their resolve and legitimised their struggle – if they are prepared to go this far to obliterate your ideas, then your ideas must after all have power.

This idea of an almost religious belief in the righteousness of North Korean “socialism” seems to have caught Kim’s attention, but he is not blind to the darker sides of their continued indoctrination. Kim and Choi have frequent get togethers with others in the same position, singing North Korean folksongs and communist anthems while they extol the virtues of a land they’ve not set foot in since they were young men, pining for a homeland that might not exist anymore. The Unconverted want to go home, but those of a more practical mindset might wonder what would happen to them if they could – will they be welcomed with open arms as they seem to think, or be treated with suspicion as returnees who’ve lived freely in the South which has, after all, released them willingly?

Meanwhile, belief in the “goodness” of the North begins to crumble with increasing improvement in relations which gradually lays bare the truth of the Communist state, suffering heavily thanks to the fall of the Soviet Union and ongoing economic reforms in China. Pervasive governmental corruption had encouraged many to feel that any and all information regarding the evils of North Korea must be lies created to spread fear as part of a vast propaganda machine and so when much of it turned out to be the truth it was a double blow to an already wounded left whose revolution had been betrayed when a newly democratic Korea went ahead and elected the dictator’s chosen successor. The Unconverted become a political pinball – if the South lets them go home some will praise their compassion, but many more will read it as a defeat while the North may well make full capital out of their returned heroes’ unbreakable resolve while also using them to attack the “cruel” South for treating them so badly and refusing to allow those still imprisoned to return.

Yet Kim’s concerns are human before they’re ideological – these are men who want to go home and someone is telling them that they can’t. The Uncoverted are mere pawns in an ongoing ideological game being played by two sides of a never-ending civil war. The division itself remains weaponised by both sides, each seeking to use it to demonise the other and no matter your personal ideology the inhumanity of making political capital of ordinary people ought to be disturbing. What Kim proves, however, is that a kind of “reunification” is possible – that friendships can be formed across ideological lines and that a peaceful coexistence can be won over common ground so long as there is the will to find it.


Screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2018: Documentary Fortnight.

The President’s Barber (효자동 이발사, Lim Chan-sang, 2004)

president's barber posterWe each of us live in the midst of history being made, some of us closer to the action than others. Most of us don’t quite realise how close we are or fully understand our role in events until it’s too late, but in any case we’re all just too busy getting on with the business of living to give much thought such grand concepts as history or legacy. Song Kang-ho has made a name for himself playing genial everymen forever at the mercy of historical machinations, but before he was an apathetic Taxi Driver, he was an apathetic barber giving haircuts to a dictator he half imagined was a friend. The President’s Barber (효자동 이발사, Hyojadong Ibalsa) is part journey into the intersection between rosy childhood nostalgia and national trauma, and part subtle political satire on the moral corruptions of authoritarianism but its own soft heartedness is often at odds with the grimness of its purpose.

Sung Han-mo (like the counter for tofu) is a nice but dim sort who has his own barber’s studio right across from the Blue House. As his son (Lee Jae-eung) tells us in his cutsey voice over, Han-mo (Song Kang-ho) is easily led and content to do whatever the village leader tells him to do, including participating in the ongoing corruption surrounding the re-election of despotic president Rhee Syngman. Our narrator, the oddly named Nak-an, was born as a result of a brief indiscretion between his father and an assistant (Moon So-ri) who had, apparently, hoped to marry someone else from her home village if Han-mo hadn’t trapped her with maternity. She wanted wanted an abortion but didn’t find out until after the much publicised five month cut off, meaning Han-mo talked her into staying and little Nak-an acquired the unfortunate nickname of “five months Na-kan”.

The family live happily enough until the mid-1960s when Park Chung-hee stages a coup and declares himself “President for Life”. When Han-mo somehow manages to catch a “North Korean Spy”, he gets himself a commendation and the attention of the authorities (for good or ill). A KCIA agent dutifully turns up and hauls Han-mo off to the Blue House because the president needs a trim…

Park’s reputation underwent something of a rehabilitation for a time. He did, in the minds of those seeking to justify his tyrannical reign, preside over Korea’s economic recovery. Han-mo is one of many to prosper, in his case directly in working indirectly for the regime. Han-mo is a simple man, he doesn’t think about politics but often feels belittled and downtrodden, made a figure of fun by those close to him even whilst remaining a cheerful optimist. He doesn’t take much convincing to hitch his mule to Park’s waggon, enjoying the personal boost in his social standing and finally feeling like a someone in being introduced to the world of the elites even when he is forced to accept that he does not and cannot exist fully within it.

Han-mo cuts hair, chatting away the way a barber does without really realising either that he is a vox pop spy or that he might, at any time, say the wrong thing and land himself in serious trouble. Serious trouble arrives during a heated and extremely bizarre period of political hysteria surrounding the “Marxus” virus – a lamentable episode in which an epidemic of dysentery was blamed on North Korean spies and all those who suffered from the condition taken in for “questioning”. Only when his own family is threatened does Han-mo start to reconsider his role in the affair – his status as a peripheral member of the Blue House team is no help in protecting those close to him and he can no longer pretend he does not know what happens in those basements, and that it happens to ordinary people not just “suspicious” ones.

The low level satire derives from Han-mo’s background presence becoming foreground as a very personal spat between a couple of high ranking Blue House staffers gathers in intensity before exploding into events which will have profound, though short-lived, consequences for Korean political history. Han-mo sadly takes down his portrait of Park hanging in pride of place in his shop and replaces it with one of Chun Doo-hwan (who was bald). Still a simple man he has, at least, learned his lesson and prepares to turn down the “honour” of shaving a dictator’s chin. Korea, the film seems to unsubtly hint, is finding its feet again though there will be another long reckoning before it, like Han-mo and his family, is finally able to free itself of the militarist yoke.


The Scarlet Letter (주홍글씨, Byeon Hyeok, 2004)

The Scarlet Letter posterSouth Korea has long had a reputation for being among the most conservative of East Asian nations, perhaps because of a strong Christianising influence, but even so the fact that adultery was only fully decriminalised in 2015 is something of a surprise. Ironically enough the legislation was enacted in the defence of women who enjoyed few legal rights and would be left destitute if their husbands left them, suffering not only the humiliation and social stigma of divorce but also having no independent income and very little possibility of gaining one. Nevertheless it quickly became another tool of social control, branding “harlots” rather than protecting “wives”. Byeon Hyeok’s The Scarlet Letter (주홍글씨, Juhong Geulshi) was released in 2004, which is a whole decade before adultery was removed from the statue books, and draws inspiration from the book of the same name by Nathaniel Hawthorne in which a young woman becomes a social outcast after giving birth to an illegitimate child.

Cocksure policeman Ki-hoon (Han Suk-kyu) lives in a world of his own dominion. Married to the elegant concert cellist Su-hyun (Uhm Ji-won), Ki-hoon is also carrying on an affair with the bohemian nightclub singer Ga-hee (Lee Eun-ju). One fateful day he is called to the scene of a bloody murder. The owner of a photographer’s studio has been found with half his head caved in and the prime suspect is his wife, Kyung-hee (Sung Hyun-ah), who found the body. Once she’s had some time to recover from the shock, Kyung-hee offers up some possible evidence regarding a local photographer who may have been semi-stalking her – something which had caused tension between herself and her husband. The photographer claims Kyung-hee asked him to take the photos, and others besides, but denies he was romantically interested in her or that the couple had been having an affair.

The murder case floats in the background as Ki-hoon’s personal life spirals ever more out of control. Both Su-hyun and Ga-hee are pregnant with his child and it seems inevitable the affair will be exposed. Ki-hoon fears this not out of guilt in causing emotional harm to one or both of his women, but out of a sense that it will be very annoying, inconvenient, and burdensome for him. When his wife does eventually confront him about the affair, Ki-hoon’s response is to ignore it and carry on as normal by acting excited about the baby as if to remind Su-hyun that she is already tied to him and it will be almost impossible for her to leave. Meanwhile, he refuses to give up Ga-hee whose mental state seems to be fracturing under the intense pressure of her need for Ki-hoon and his continuing disregard for the feelings of others.

Ki-hoon is a classic noir hero, wading into a morass of moral ambiguity and hurtling headlong towards an existential reckoning. A late, yet fantastically obvious, twist offers another perspective which the film has no time to expand on so caught up is it in the moral ruining of Ki-hoon in suggesting that oppressive social codes have in some way contributed to this intense situation, forcing three people into an uncomfortable love triangle where everyone has ended up with the wrong partner. Byeon does, however, choose to emphasise “morality” in lending a spiritual slant to Ki-hoon’s fall rather than choosing to attack the social oppression of Korea’s intensely conservative culture in which all the power was in Ki-hoon’s hands (even if he uses it to ruin himself, later left in a state of spiritual emptiness filled only with guilt and shame).

The reckoning comes in a literal evocation of Ki-hoon’s claustrophobic love life in which he finds himself trapped in an inescapable black hole, waiting to find out if he will be released or condemned to suffer an eternity of pain for his various transgressions. Byeon never quite manages to marry his higher purpose to the noir narrative, leaving his avant-garde final set piece out of place in an otherwise straightforward thriller while his final twist falls flat in retreading well worn genre cliches. Frank in terms of its depiction of sex and nudity, The Scarlet Letter takes on an anti-erotic quality, painting its various scenes of actualised sex as passionless acts of compulsion with only those of fantasy somehow imbued with colour and light though its melancholy conclusion suggests even these may carry a heavy price.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2004)

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who swing and those who…don’t – a metaphor which works just as well for baseball and, by implication, facing life’s challenges as it does for music. Shinobu Yaguchi returns after 2001’s Waterboys with a film that’s…almost exactly the same only with girls instead of boys and concert halls instead of swimming pools, but it’s all so warm and charming that it hardly matters. Taking the classic sports movie formula of eager underdogs triumphing against the odds but giving it a teen comedy drama spin, Yaguchi’s Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ) is a fitting addition to the small but much loved high school girls vs music genre which manages to bring warmth and humour to its admittedly familiar narrative.

It’s summer and it’s hot and sunny but the school is filled with yankis and dreamers, forced to spend this lovely day indoors. While one group is busy ignoring their maths teacher, the school band is getting ready to accompany the baseball team on an important match. Unfortunately, the bus leaves before the bento boxes they’ve ordered are delivered so enterprising high school girl Tomoko (Juri Ueno) suggests they blow off the maths class and show solidarity with those representing the school by making sure their fellow students are well fed. Unfortunately, they fall asleep and miss their stop on the train meaning by the time they get there it’s a very late lunch and these bento boxes containing fish and eggs etc have all been in the hot sun for a fair few hours. After nearly killing all their friends, the girls are forced to join the band in their stead, despite having almost no musical experience between them.

As might be expected, the girls start to get into their new activity even if they originally dismiss sole boy Takuo’s (Yuta Hiraoka) interest in big band jazz as the uncool hobby of pretentious old men. However, this is where Yaguchi throws in his first spanner to the works as the original band recover far sooner than expected leaving our girls oddly heartbroken. This allows us to go off on a tangent as the girls decide they want to carry on with their musical endeavours and form their own band but lack the necessary funds to do so. Being a madcap gang of wilful, if strange, people the schemes they come up with do not go well for them including their stint as supermarket assistants which they get fired from after nearly setting the place on fire, and a mushroom picking trip which leads to an encounter with a wild boar but eventually holds its own rewards.

The girls’ embittered maths teacher, Ozawa (Naoto Takenaka), who just happens to be a jazz aficionado offers some key advice in that it’s not so much hitting the notes that matters as getting into the swing of things. It might take a while for the Swing Girls (and a boy) to master their instruments, but the important thing is learning to find their common rhythm and ride the waves of communal connection. Tomoko quickly takes centre stage with her largely self centred tricks which involve pinching her little sister’s games system to pawn to buy a saxophone, and almost messing up the all important finale through absentmindedness and cowardice. Other characters have a tendency to fade into the background with only single characteristics such as “worried about her weight”, or “hopelessly awkward”, or even with “folk duo in love with punk rockers”. Other than the one girl lusting after the baseball star and the two punk rockers annoyed by their earnest suitors, Yaguchi avoids the usual high school plot devices of romantic drama, fallings out, and misunderstandings whilst cleverly making use of our expectation for them to provide additional comedy.

What Swing Girls lacks in originality it makes up for with warmth and good humour as the band bond through their recently acquired love of music, coming together to create a unified sound in perfect harmony. Ending somewhat abruptly as the gang win over their fellow musicians after having overcome several obstacles to be allowed to play, the finale does not prove quite as satisfying as might be hoped but is certainly impressive especially considering the music really is being provided by the cast who have each learned to play their intstruments throughout the course of the film just as their characters have been doing. Warm, funny and never less than entertaining, Swing Girls lacks the necessary depth for a truly moving experience but does provide enough lighthearted fun to linger in the memory.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Be With You (いま、会いにゆきます, Nobuhiro Doi, 2004)

be-with-youWhen it comes to tragic romances, no one does them better than Japan. Adapted from a best selling novel by Takuji Ichikawa, Be With You (いま、会いにゆきます, Ima, ai ni Yukimasu) is very much part of the “Jun-ai” or “pure love” boom kickstarted by Crying Out Love In the Center of the World released the same year but taps into Japan’s long history of supernaturally tinged love stories, filled with the weight of impending tragedy and the essential transience of the human experience.

Like many such tales, Be With You begins with a framing sequence set 12 years after the main events, but unusually it’s directed from the point of view of the soon-to-be 18 year old, Yuji (Yuta Hiraoka). Receiving a birthday cake from a bakery which has apparently only stayed open because of its promise to deliver birthday cakes to him every year until he turns 18, Yuji begins to reflect on the “miracle” which he and his father experienced all those years ago.

Yuji’s mother passed away at the age of 28 when he was only 5 years old. However, before she died, Mio (Yuko Takeuchi) had prepared a special picture book for Yuji to try and help him process what was happening. In the book, Mio has gone to a place called “Archive Star” and will return for the first rainy season a year after her death. Improbable as it is, Yuji and his father Takumi (Shido Nakamura) discover a woman who looks exactly like Mio lost in the forest during the first rains. Stunned the pair take her home but Mio has no knowledge of her former life as a wife and mother. Gradually, Mio begins to fall in love with her husband all over again whilst bonding with her young son, but their happiness is short lived as Mio realises her time with them is limited.

Because Mio can’t remember, we experience the love story between the teenage Takumi and Mio firstly through his eyes as he tells her of his unrequited high school crush when she sat at the desk across from him for two years during in which he was too shy to say anything. Later we hear the same story again from Mio’s perspective through her diary where we learn, not altogether surprisingly, that she felt the same way. The pair mirror each other throughout their courtship, wanting to say something but lacking the courage and looking for excuses to try and push the situation in a better direction. Other than the mutually unresolved attempts at phone calls and an unreturned pen, Mio and Takumi essentially relive their original romance in the brief time they are able to share together from repeated motifs of untied shoelaces and clumsiness with a bicycle, to innocent in pocket hand holding.

Takumi has an ongoing medical condition which interferes with his motor functions, slowing him down and giving him an air of soulful melancholy later compounded by his romantic tragedy. Having been a champion runner on a sports scholarship to college, the diagnosis causes extreme disruption to his life and leads him to the typically jun-ai decision to break up with Mio because he feels as if he’d be a burden to her. A year after Mio passed away, Takumi is doing his best to bring up his son but is a little distant and struggling to take care of the domestic environment. When Mio realises that she can’t take care of them forever, she switches her focus to trying to prepare her husband and son for life alone – teaching Yuji how to fry eggs and do the laundry, whilst renewing her emotional bond with Takumi. There’s no happy ending in store for Mio, the loss cannot be avoided and perhaps it might even be worse to have had this brief respite from the ongoing pain, but the six week rainy season does, at least, provide an opportunity to say those things that might have otherwise gone unsaid.

Nobuhiro Doi films in a typically elegant fashion making great use of the area’s natural beauty to create a fairy tale atmosphere from the mysterious, life giving forest. The poignancy of the tale is all the deeper knowing that Mio eventually understood what would happen to her, but chose a brief life with Takumi and her son over the possibility of a longer one without them. Heartbreakingly sad, yet a testament to the importance of appreciating the present which all too soon becomes the past, Be With You is a genuinely romantic love story, not only between a husband and a wife but an entire family carrying the weight of a tragic loss but easing the burden by treasuring the memory of the intense love shared between them.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Antenna (アンテナ, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2004)

AntennaScarring, both literal and mental, is at the heart of Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s third feature, Antenna (アンテナ). Though it’s ironic that indentation should be the focus of a film whose title refers to a sensitive protuberance, Kumakiri’s adaptation of a novel by Randy Taguchi is indeed about feeling a way through. Anchored by a standout performance from Ryo Kase, Antenna is a surreal portrait of grief and repressed guilt as a family tragedy threatens to consume all of those left behind.

Philosophy student Yuichiro (Ryo Kase) is currently working on a project which aims to reevaluate how pain is felt through attempting to identify with the pain of others. To do this he plans to investigate the S&M scene but before he can get started, a painful episode from his past is reawakened by current events. Yuichiro’s younger sister, Marie, has been missing since failing to return home from school one day when she was only eight years old. When news reports appear that another girl around the same age has been held captive in a nearby apartment complex since around the time Marie went missing hopes are sparked only to be dashed. Still no closer to discovering what happened to his younger sister, Yuichiro carries the guilt of having been unable to protect her as well as the inability to remember exactly what happened on that fateful day.

Matters come to a head when Yuichiro’s younger brother (their mother was pregnant with him at the time of the disappearance) turns up on his doorstep. Yuya (Daisuke Kizaki) repeatedly claims that Marie is about to return as he can feel her through his “antenna” (“like the horns of a snail”) and has a full scale fit aboard the train back. Things being what they are, the doctors advise Yuichiro to spend sometime at home as his distracted mother is no shape to cope with Yuya’s increasingly odd behaviour. A dutiful son, Yuichiro does what he can for what’s left of his family but his childhood home is far from a good environment for him.

Soon after Marie’s disappearance, both Yuichiro’s father and his uncle Shige who’d lived with them both died, leaving only Yuichiro’s mother and baby brother behind them. Unable to come to terms with Marie’s disappearance, Yuichiro’s mother has found religion, hosting Buddhist prayer sessions at the house and bringing in Feng Shui experts to try and heal the lingering sense of tragedy still present in the house. She has also become convinced that her second son, Yuya, is in fact the returned spirit of her daughter, raising him as a girl and dressing him in Marie’s clothes. This may explain some of Yuya’s conflicting behaviour and repeated insistence that his sister is “returning” in so much as something of her personality has become the ghost in his machine.

Once back in the house, Yuichiro’s mental state becomes ever more precarious as his memories of his sister’s disappearance begin to flicker to the surface. Overcome with repressed guilt, Yuichiro once again begins self harming by slashing his chest with a box cutter. Easing the mental pain with the physical, Yuirichiro finally begins to address some of his long buried trauma through repeated meetings with the dominatrix he was interviewing for his project. Undergoing a kind of S&M lead sex therapy, Yuichiro is slowly guided back through his memories to events he was too young to understand at the time and only now is fully able to comprehend.

Throughout his flashbacks Yuichiro is always sidelined, perched behind barriers or shut away by closed doors as the adults argue and loudly discuss things they claim are not suitable for children to hear. Crucial moments find him peaking through keyholes and seeing something he knew was not quite right but without knowing why. These incomplete and incomprehensible memories are the ones which haunt him, unresolvable but still trailing the guilt behind them of having seen yet done nothing.

Told in a slight non-linear fashion through frequent flashbacks, the film adopts a dreamlike tone and surreal imagery to make sense of the more extreme elements. The final sequence itself is either a hallucination or a dream that takes on a magical realist quality as the past is finally allowed to drift away from its lodging place, freeing up a space for light to return to the otherwise darkened house.

An intense exploration of buried trauma and childhood guilt, Antenna is a dark tale but does offer a glimmer of hope after all its hellish meandering. Kumakikri keeps things straightforward but his considered compositions have a strange kind of beauty despite the ugliness of the narrative. Embracing a number a taboo subjects coupled with strong emotion and explicit content, Antenna is not an easy watch but rewarding for those who can brave its extremes.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

3-Iron (빈집, Kim Ki-duk, 2004)

3-ironYou wouldn’t think it wise but apparently some people are so trusting that they don’t think twice about recording a new answerphone message to let potential callers know that they’ll be away for a while. On the face of things, they’re lucky that the guy who’ll be making use of this valuable information is a young drifter without a place of his own who’s willing to pay his keep by doing some household chores or fixing that random thing that’s been broken for ages but you never get round to seeing to. So what if he likes to take a selfie with your family photos before he goes, he left the place nicer than he found it and you probably won’t even know he was there.

Player 2 joins the young man (credited as Tae-suk but unnamed in the film) when he stays at an upscale mansion which turns out to be “haunted” by the still living but damaged figure of a battered wife. Tae-suk hurriedly leaves once discovered, but later thinks over his encounter with the sad seeming lady and decides to return. After an altercation with her violent husband, Sun-hwa leaves with Tae-suk and the pair sneak into various other “empty” homes together. After one particular dwelling reveals a nasty surprise the two bring themselves to the attention of the police who threaten to end their young love story before it’s hardly begun.

Like much of Kim’s work, 3-Iron (빈집, Bin-jip) is near silent and neither of the two protagonists speak one word to each other until final scene of the film. Tae-suk, in particular, seems to have an obsession with being invisible – hiding in blindspots and always making sure to tidy up after himself so well that no trace of his presence remains. Sliding into these mini universes, he seems oddly interested in their inhabitants as he gazes at their photographs and admires the decor. Despite his need to disappear, he builds connections with absent people even going so far as to take a photo with a photo of them, artificially generating some sort of kinship where there is none.

If Tae-suk is haunting the bourgeoisie, Sun-hwa is both spectre and spectee as she moves silently around her golden cage of a spacious villa like a frightened mouse locked inside the elephant house. Evidently further along the stealth game than Tae-suk has been able to progress, her discovery of him leads to a feeling of defeat. Yet, after reconsideration, he recognises a fellow lost soul and so returns to rescue her from her oppressive ogre of a husband by using his weapon of choice against him. The 3-Iron golf club is not only a symbol of the husband’s middle class pretensions, but its relative lack of wear also points to the lack of respect he reserves for his toys – even extending so far as his wife whom he also seems to regard as an “inautonomous” appendage to his image much like the golf club itself.

Kim ends the film with a caption to the effect that it’s hard to tell if the world we live in is reality or a dream. With the continued silence of the film’s protagonist, bizarre scenario of “borrowed” lives, and general surrealism, Kim creates an etherial atmosphere filled with heightened, everyday strangeness. This could be a ghost story – literally, or figuratively, as our haunted protagonists continue their visitations on the living, or a love story, or even an absurd comedy. Tae-suk and Sun-wha exchange roles, alternately comforting or rescuing one another before, perhaps, becoming one at the film’s conclusion. A strange, romantic fairytale, 3-Iron is Kim in an uncharacteristically cheerful mood though he’s careful to remind us that the world outside of this charming bubble is filled with violence, cruelty, and chaos.


3-Iron is available in the UK from Studiocanal and from Sony Pictures Classics in the US though the R3 Korean disc also includes English subtitles.

US release trailer:

Last Quarter (下弦の月 ラスト・クォーター, Ken Nikai, 2004)

Last Quarter posterTo begin on a cynical note, Last Quarter (下弦の月 ラスト・クォーター, Kagen no tsuki Last Quarter) is a film with a wide variety of marketing hooks. The first being that it’s an adaptation of a much loved short manga series by the well respected mangaka Ai Yazawa (Paradise Kiss) so it has its shoujo pedigree firmly in place. Secondly, pop star HYDE of L’Arc-en-Ciel is central to the production as he both stars in the movie as the ghostly love interest/deathly spirit and repeatedly sings his own songs throughout the film including over the end credits. Thirdly, it also stars actress Chiaki Kuriyama well known to overseas audiences thanks to Kill Bill and Battle Royale. You’d think with all these high quality ingredients first time director Ken Nikai would be able to cook up quite a feast though he does somewhat over egg the pudding.

After a brief dream sequence, the action kicks off at the 19th birthday party of British rock obsessed Mizuki (Chiaki Kuriyama) which takes place in a Mod inspired bar. Unfortunately, her best friend gets very drunk indeed and takes this opportunity to show Mizuki a photo of herself and Mizuki’s boyfriend in a compromising position. Mizuki throws a shoe at the no good philanderer and walks out on her own party ending up at a mysterious Western style mansion occupied by a sad man playing a guitar. She hits it off with “Adam” and decides to jack in her unhappy family life with her father and step-mother to leave for England with him. Sadly, she gets hit by a car on her way home only to wake up trapped inside the house and having lost all memory of who she formerly was. Soon enough, another girl, Hotaru (Tomoka Kurokawa), turns up and, assuming she’s a ghost, decides to help her “cross over” , but it’s all a little more complicated than Hotaru and her team had bargained for.

Last Quarter takes on an oddly imbalanced feel as it veers into star vehicle territory putting HYDE and his title song centerstage at the expense of Mizuki who ought to be the protagonist of the story. Understandably, as she’s fallen under the curse of the house, Mizuki is a mostly passive force throughout the film, entirely reliant on the efforts of the gang of three who are trying to help her by figuring out what’s really going on. The mystery element itself is quite an intriguing one but is often frustrated by the importance placed on the supernatural romance. Stretching plausibility to the limit, the events in question span 30 years and two continents to spin a yarn of pure love enduring beyond the grave. Pure love and grudge movies aren’t usually allowed to mix and they don’t quite here although Last Quarter certainly has elements of both.

Last Quarter’s biggest failing is in its production values which are generally on the low side. Nikai aims for an urban gothic aesthetic and achieves something close to sense of European decadence but opts to avoid the darkness inherent in the genre for a fairytale atmosphere. The effects are very highly stylised and old fashioned but Last Quarter doesn’t even attempt to make that work in its favour so much as offering it at face value.

In essence, Last Quarter often feels like an overblown music video for its rock star actor even if he actually has a relatively small role. Director Nikai has often worked with the band before and (apparently) there is a degree of recurring symbolism here that long time fans will instantly pick up on but will leave the casual viewer a little confused. Very firmly aimed at a younger teen female audience, Last Quarter will play best to fans of non-threatening supernatural romance but even then they’d be best advised to avoid thinking any of this through and simply enjoy the ghostly shenanigans for the ridiculous rag tag narrative they are. An interesting mix of ‘60s mod rocker cool with its parkas and vespas, and full on gothic with byronic heroes sitting in decaying mansions in the middle of creepy forests singing about their broken hearts, Last Quarter is incoherent to say the least but fans of its rockstar leading man will likely find their perseverance rewarded.


Last Quarter is available with English subtitles on R1 DVD in the US courtesy of Geneon.

Unsubtitled trailer:

69 (Lee Sang-il, 2004)

69Ryu Murakami is often thought of as the foremost proponent of Japanese extreme literature with his bloody psychological thriller/horrifying love story Audition adapted into a movie by Takashi Miike which itself became the cornerstone of a certain kind of cinema. However, Murakami’s output is almost as diverse as Miike’s as can be seen in his 1987 semi-autobiographical novel 69. A comic coming of age tale set in small town Japan in 1969, 69 is a forgiving, if occasionally self mocking, look back at what it was to grow up on the periphery of massive social change.

The swinging sixties may have been in full swing in other parts of the world with free love, rock and roll and revolution the buzz words of the day but if you’re 17 years old and you live in a tiny town maybe these are all just examples of exciting things that don’t have an awful lot to do with you. If there’s one thing 69 really wants you know it’s that teenage boys are always teenage boys regardless of the era and so we follow the adventures of a typical 17 year old, Ken (Satoshi Tsumabuki), whose chief interest in life is, you guessed it, girls.

Ken has amassed a little posse around himself that he likes to amuse by making up improbable fantasies about taking off to Kyoto and sleeping with super models (oddly they almost believe him). He talks a big about Godard and Rimbaud, posturing as an intellectual, but all he’s trying to do is seem “cool”. He likes rock music (but maybe only because it’s “cool” to like rock music) and becomes obsessed with the idea of starting his own Woodstock in their tiny town but mostly only because girls get wild on drugs and take their tops off at festivals! When the object of his affection states she likes rebellious guys like the student protestors in Tokyo, Ken gets the idea of barricading the school and painting incomprehensible, vaguely leftist jargon all over the walls as a way of getting her attention (and a degree of kudos for himself).

69 is a teen coming of age comedy in the classic mould but it would almost be a mistake to read it as a period piece. Neither director Lee Sang-il nor any of the creative team are children of the ‘60s so they don’t have any of the nostalgic longing for an innocent period of youth such as perhaps Murakami had when writing the novel (Murakami himself was born in 1952). The “hero”, Ken, is a posturing buffoon in the way that many teenage boys are, but the fact that he’s so openly cynical and honest about his motivations makes him a little more likeable. Ken’s “political action” is merely a means of youthful rebellion intended to boost his own profile and provide some diversion at this relatively uninteresting period of his life before the serious business of getting into university begins and then the arduous yet dell path towards a successful adulthood.

His more intellectual, bookish and handsome buddy Adama (Masanobu Ando) does undergo something of a political awakening after the boys are suspended from school and he holes up at home reading all kinds of serious literature but even this seems like it might be more a kind of stir crazy madness than a general desire to enact the revolution at a tiny high school in the middle of nowhere. Ken’s artist father seems oddly proud of his son’s actions, as if they were part of a larger performance art project rather than the idiotic, lust driven antics of a teenage boy but even if the kids pay lip service to opposing the war in Vietnam which they see on the news every night, it’s clear they don’t really care as much as about opposing a war as they do about being seen to have the “cool” opinion of the day.

Lee takes the period out of the equation a little giving it much less weight than in Murakami’s source novel which is very much about growing up in the wake of a countercultural movement that is actually happening far away from you (and consequently seems much more interesting and sophisticated). Were it not for the absence of mobile phones and a slightly more innocent atmosphere these could easily have been the teenagers of 2003 when the film was made. This isn’t to criticise 69 for a lack of aesthetic but to point out that whereas Murakami’s novel was necessarily backward looking, Lee’s film has half an eye on the future.

Indeed, there’s far less music than one would expect in the soundtrack which includes a few late ‘60s rock songs but none of the folk/protest music that the characters talk about. At one point Ken talks about Simon & Garfunkel with his crush Matsui (Rina Ohta) who reveals her love for the song At the Zoo so Ken claims to have all of the folk duo’s records and agrees to lend them to her though his immediately asking to borrow money from his parents to buy a record suggests he was just pretending to be into a band his girl likes. Here the music is just something which exists to be cool or uncool rather than an active barrier between youth and age or a talisman of a school of thought.

Lee’s emphasis is firmly with the young guys and their late adolescence growth period, even if it seems as if there’s been little progress by the end of the film. There’s no real focus on their conflict with the older generation and the movie doesn’t even try to envisage the similar transformation among the girls outside of the way the boys see them which is necessarily immature. That said, the film is trying to cast a winking, wry look back at youth in all its eager to please insincerity. It’s all so knowingly silly, posturing to enact a revolution even though there’s really no need for one in this perfectly pleasant if slightly dull backwater town. They’ll look back on all this and laugh one day that they could have cared so much about about being cool because they didn’t know who they were, and we can look back with them, and laugh at ourselves too.


Ryu Murakami’s original novel is currently available in the UK from Pushkin Press translated by Ralph McCarthy and was previously published in the US in the same translation by Kodansha USA (but seems to be out of print).

Unsubtitled trailer:

and just because I love it, Simon & Garfunkel At the Zoo