Oh Lucy! (オー・ルーシー!, Atsuko Hirayanagi, 2017)

Oh Lucy! posterDespite its rich dramatic seam, the fate of the lonely, long serving Japanese office lady approaching the end of the career she either sacrificed everything for or ended up with by default has mostly been relegated to a melancholy subplot – usually placing her as the unrequited love interest of her oblivious soon to be retiring bachelor/widower boss. Daihachi Yoshida’s Pale Moon was perhaps the best recent attempt to bring this story centre stage in its neat contrasting of the loyal employee about to be forcibly retired by her unforgiving bosses and the slightly younger woman who decides she’ll have her freedom even if she has to do something crazy to get it, but Atsuko Hirayanagi’s Oh Lucy! (オー・ルーシー!) is a more straightforward tale of living with disappointment and temporarily deluding oneself into thinking there might be an easier way out than simply facing yourself head on.

Middle-aged office lady Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is the office old bag. Unpopular, she keeps herself aloof from her colleagues, refusing the sweets a lovely older lady (herself somewhat unpopular but for the opposite reasons) regularly brings into the office, and bailing on after hours get togethers. Her life changes one day when the man behind her on a crowded station platform grabs Setsuko’s chest and says goodbye before hurling himself in front of the train. Such is life.

Taking some time off work she gets a call from her niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsuna) to meet her in the dodgy maid cafe in which she has been working. Mika has a proposition for her – having recently signed up for a year’s worth of non-refundable English classes, Mika would rather do something else with the money and wonders if she could “transfer” the remainder onto Setsuko. Despite her tough exterior Setsuko is something of a soft touch and agrees but is surprised to find the “English School” seems to be located in room 301 of a very specific brothel. John (Josh Hartnett), her new teacher, who has a strict English only policy, begins by giving Setsuko a large hug before issuing her a blonde wig and rechristening her “Lucy”. Through her English lesson, “Lucy” also meets another man in the same position “Tom” (Koji Yakusho) – a recently widowed, retired detective now working as a security consultant. Setsuko is quite taken with her strange new hobby, and is heartbroken to realise Mika and John are an item and they’ve both run off to America.

Setsuko’s journey takes her all the way to LA with her sister, Ayako (Kaho Minami), desperate to sort her wayward daughter out once and for all. As different as they are, Ayako and Setsuko share something of the same spikiness though Setsuko’s cruel streak is one she deeply regrets and only allows out in moments of extreme desperation whereas a prim sort of bossiness appears to be Ayako’s default. Setsuko’s Tokyo life is one of embittered repression, having been disappointed in love she keeps herself isolated, afraid of new connections and contemptuous of her colleagues with their superficial attitudes and insincere commitment to interoffice politeness. Suicide haunts her from that first train station shocker to the all too common “delays caused by an incident on the line” and the sudden impulsive decision caused by unkind words offered at the wrong moment.

“Lucy” the “relaxed” American blonde releases Setsuko’s better nature which had been only glimpsed in her softhearted agreeing to Mika’s proposal and decision to allow Ayako to share her foreign adventure. John’s hug kickstarted something of an addiction, a yearning for connection seemingly severed in Setsuko’s formative years but if “Lucy” sees John as a symbol of American freedoms – big, open, filled with possibilities, his homeland persona turns out to be a disappointment. Just like the maid’s outfit Setsuko finds in John’s wardrobe, John’s smartly bespectacled English teacher is just a persona adopted in a foreign land designed to part fools from their money. Still, Setsuko cannot let her delusion die and continues to see him as something of a saviour, enjoying her American adventure with girlish glee until it all gets a bit a nasty, desperate, and ultimately humiliating.

Having believed herself to have only two paths to the future – being “retired” like the office grandma, pitied by the younger women who swear they’ll never end up like her (much as Setsuko might have herself), or making a swift exit from a world which has no place for older single women, Setsuko thought she’d found a way out only to have all of her illusions shattered all at once. “Lucy” showed her who she really was, and it wasn’t very pretty. Still, even at this late stage Setsuko can appreciate the irony of her situation. That first hug that seemed so forced and awkward, an insincere barrier to true connection, suddenly finds its rightful destination and it looks like Setsuko’s train may finally have come in.


Screened at Raindance 2017

Expanded from Atsuko Hirayanagi’s 2014 short which starred Kaori Momoi.

Clip (English subtitles)

Rage (怒り, Lee Sang-il, 2016)

rage posterVillain, Lee Sang-il’s 2011 adaptation of a novel by Shuichi Yoshida, used a crime story to investigate the wider effects of social stigma and emotional repression – themes which are recurrent in the author’s work. Rage (怒り, Ikari) attempts to do something similar but its aims are larger, reflexively tacking the vicious cycle of social oppression and emotional repression in a society which actively suppresses the desire for expression in the aim of maintaining an illusion of harmony. A brutal, senseless killing has occurred and three suspects present themselves. The killer could be any one or none of them, but the fact of the matter is that when you cannot speak the truth, you cannot truly believe in anything or anyone.

In the blazing summer heat with its noisy cicadas and uncomfortable humidity, a young couple has been brutally murdered in their Hachioji home. There are few clues to be found save that the killer has painted the kanji for “rage” in blood on the wall. The police do, however, come up with a suspect and circulate a photofit which is anonymous enough to look like any youngish man who might make you feel uncomfortable for a reason you can’t articulate.

Meanwhile, a middle-aged man from Chiba, Maki (Ken Watanabe), anxiously wanders around Kabukicho until someone finds him and takes him to a brothel where his runaway daughter, Aiko (Aoi Miyazaki), has been working and has been very badly injured through her “eagerness to please her clients”. The father, trying to comfort his daughter who seems cheerful enough despite her ordeal, inwardly seethes with rage and is both relieved and worried when she begins a relationship with a secretive drifter, Tashiro (Kenichi Matsuyama).

Back in Tokyo, Yuma (Satoshi Tsumabuki) visits a gay bathhouse and roughly forces himself on a nervous man hunched in a corner. Despite the slight unpleasantness of their meeting, the two men eat dinner together and Yuma invites his new friend, Naoto (Go Ayano), to live with him in his well appointed apartment despite knowing nothing more about him.

Further south, a teenage couple enjoy a day out on what they think is a deserted island but the girl, Izumi (Suzu Hirose), discovers a backpacker, Tanaka (Mirai Moriyama),  living in some local ruins. Strangely drawn to him, Izumi keeps meeting up with Tanaka but an encounter in the city turns sour when her friend, Tatsuya (Takara Sakumoto), works himself into a jealous rage. Trying to get the drunken Tatsuya to the ferry, Izumi is raped by GIs from the local military base.

The Okinawan episode is, in many ways the key. Tetsuya invites Izumi to see a movie in Naha but they’re really going to observe a protest about the continued presence of the US military bases. Tatsuya wanted to be there to see it but pressed for an answer he doubts protest will achieve anything. Izumi, after her brutal encounter, says the same thing. She doesn’t want anyone to know. “Protesting won’t change anything”. No matter what she says, nothing will be done, no one would listen, nobody really cares.

Or, perhaps they simply care about the wrong things. Aiko gets home from her horrible ordeal in the city but everyone knows what she did there; her “sordid” past is the talk of the town. Her father says nothing, because like Izumi he knows it will do no good, but still he berates himself for it and his internalised anger grows.

Izumi does not want the stigma of being a rape victim, and Aiko does not want the stigma of being a “fallen woman”, their secrets are already out, but Yuma is jealously guarding his – living as a cautious gay man with his life strictly divided, his true nature walled off from his professional persona. Too afraid to be open about his sexuality, he projects his sense of unease and discomfort onto Naoto – first going overboard by inviting someone he just met and knows nothing about to live with him and then refusing to let him in all the way. Yuma asks Naoto not to attend his mother’s funeral despite the fact they had been friends because he doesn’t want the awkwardness of deciding how to introduce his boyfriend to a set of relatives he doesn’t really know. What he doesn’t do is ask any questions about Naoto’s past, jumping to conclusions and angrily slinging accusations when he thinks he’s caught Naoto out in a lie but his reaction and subsequent behaviour only bear out his own insecurities in his inability to trust the man the loves.

Each of the trio begins to doubt their friends or lovers with little more to go on than a police photofit which only superficially resembles them. The suspicion, however, is reflexive. It’s born of a society in which one is obliged to keep secrets and emotional honesty is frowned upon. No one speaks the truth because no one wants to hear it – it will only bring more suffering with additional social stigma. Sooner or later, when all of these unexpressed emotions reach a critical mass, they will explode. Such crimes could so easily be avoided were it easier to live a more open, less fearful life, but as long as it is impossible to trust oneself, there can be no unguarded trust between people.

Neatly in line with the self-centred narrative viewpoints, Izumi’s rape is relegated to a plot device as she herself disappears from the screen only to return briefly in the final coda. The effects of the rape are then explored as they impact on Tetsuya and Tanaka whose self images of masculinity are (seemingly) damaged by their failures to protect her. Izumi’s rape is viewed as something that happened to the men, as if she were a car that was scratched or a jacket torn. Self-involved as this is, it plays into the central theme – no one cares very much about anybody else’s feelings until those feelings are visited upon them by means of violence.

The murder occurs essentially because of a betrayal followed by unbearable, unexpected kindness. A woman felt sorry for a man, and so she trusted him and was betrayed. Two parties fail to trust the one they love because of a failing in themselves, their own sense of personal inadequacy will not allow them to believe in the other person’s faith in them, while another misplaces his trust in his need to find an ally and confidant to feel less alone and powerless. Prevailing social stigmas, selfishness, and a need to maintain the status quo have left all running scared, craving connection but too afraid to engage. When the system won’t let you be, violence, of one sort or another, is an inevitable consequence.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Red Carpet (레드카펫, Park Bum-soo, 2014)

red carpet posterExpectation is a heavy burden for a film. Not just the hopes built by excessive hype, but the way it chooses to define itself in advance. Of course, particularly with big budget studio movies it’s marketing men who decide all that rather than filmmakers but still, it’s hard to escape the feeling of confusion when the way a film was marketed works against its true nature. For a film like Red Carpet (레드카펫), an indie rom-com with a strangely innocent heart, it cuts both ways. The salacious hook is that this is a story of porno hell – tortured artists, egotistical men, and abused women. This is couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, Red Carpet is deeper than it seems, asking real questions about the place of the porn industry in a modern society and attacking our own unfair and hypocritical judgements on its existence.

Park Jun-woo (Yoon Kye-Sang) is a lifelong cinephile who dreams of making award winning films he can watch on a Sunday afternoon with his parents, but life has been unkind to him and so he’s been working in the adult video industry for the last ten years. His life changes when he arrives home one day to find a strange young woman waiting there who accuses him of being a prowler and repeatedly hits him over the head with a frying pan. When the police get involved and take Jun-woo’s side seeing as he has the proper documentation it’s revealed that the woman, who has just returned for an extended period living in Spain, has been duped by a housing scam. Jung-woo, being the kindly soul he is, lets the woman, Eun-soo (Koh Joon-hee), live with him until she figures things out. Eun-soo is also a former child actress keen to get back into the profession and takes a keen interest in some of Jung-woo’s scripts never knowing exactly what kind of films it is that he really makes…

Though the setting is the porn industry, director Park makes sure to keep things light and humorous, showing the reality of adult video making but avoiding directly displaying it on the screen. Jung-woo’s work is almost entirely themed around porn parodies of famous movies as in the first shoot we witness where we gradually realise that the whole thing is Oldboy remade as a sex film (apparently including the corridor hammer fight, though no one’s figured out what to do with that yet). More amazing titles follow including the amusing “Inspect Her Gadget”.

Jung-woo may be conflicted about his career as a porn director, longing for the chance to make more “serious” films, but the rest of the crew is fairly happy with their choice of profession. This is, after all, just a job the same as any other. No one here is forced to work in the porn industry. There are no gangsters, no women trapped, abused, or forcibly hooked on drugs to keep them compliant. Everyone here seems to have made a free choice to engage in this type of work and is free to stop anytime they choose.

The problem, in this sense, is ours. Jung-woo and the crew face constant social stigma for what they do. At several points someone (well, always a man) is asked if they watch porn – to which they sheepishly admit, giving the impression that it is something they rarely do and are ashamed of doing. This central fallacy is the entire problem, everyone is watching the films Jung-woo makes – probably thousands more people have watched his adult movies online than have seen the legit movie which was plagiarised from a script that he wrote but was not allowed to direct because he didn’t have the “experience”. Yet everyone disapproves of pornography, tries to deny they watch it, and has the impression that people who make these films are in some way damaged or perverted. Enjoying a meal together in a restaurant, the gang are accosted by a “fan” who asks for a photo with a “famous actress” only to suddenly grab her breast. Just because she’s an actress in adult movies, the man thinks it’s OK to grab her  – “she sells her body”, so what’s the problem? The man, who obviously watches porn, does not think of the people who make it as other human beings but as commercial products existing only for his pleasure.

Jung-woo, in a sense, thinks this too but doesn’t quite realise until he’s made to read out a statement at a press conference in which he’s supposed to apologise for his “unethical” behaviour but refuses, avowing that neither himself or his crew has ever felt ashamed of the work they do. Jung-woo’s dreams are directly contrasted with Eun-soo’s as she works hard to become a legitimate actress all the while loosing her individual freedom to the marketing concerns of her agency and facing the prospect of being forced to abandon Jung-woo, whom she has come to care for, in order to keep her new career and avoid the “scandal” of being in any way associated with the porn industry.

Even if it seems like people such as Jung-woo are not allowed their dreams, it can still all work out in the end as long you’re true to yourself and accepting of everything you are and were. Jung-woo’s early career was harmed by an unscrupulous competitor who stole Jung-woo’s shot and took the credit himself but his “success” may only be temporary because he’s living a lie of artistic integrity while Jung-woo and Eun-soo have maintained their authenticity even when it looked like it may cost them everything they wanted. Improbably sweet and charming, Red Carpet is an innocent love story in which dreams come true through hard work, perseverance, and compromise but finally through truthfulness in the refusal to be shamed for simply being what you are.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Midnight Runners (청년경찰, Kim Joo-hwan, 2017)

b861faaff73e4760fa673b9ca1b1468dffb7a334b9e43caee1065e675364da586d07306fe12f0a8d2f3556ef798dde699b6f2adc283c1ae8d9b53a8d85745de393ee015725bff3c47298edfb94e7f49fThere are many good reasons for applying to Police University, even if many people can’t see them. That aside, the heroes of Kim Joo-hwan’s Midnight Runners (청년경찰, Chungnyeongyungchal) have ended up there not through any particular love of honour and justice, but simply because it was cheap, on the one hand, and because it was different, on the other. An ‘80s-style buddy (not quite) cop comedy, Kim’s followup to the indie leaning Koala is the story of two young men finding their calling once their latent heroism is sparked by witnessing injustice first hand, but it’s also careful to temper its otherwise crowd pleasing narrative of two rookies taking on evil human trafficking gangsters with a dose of background realism.

Rookie recruits to Seoul’s Police University, Gi-jun (Park Seo-joon) and Hee-yeol (Kang Ha-neul) could not be more different. Gi-jun is exasperated by his worried mother’s words of parting, but hugs her goodbye anyway. Hee-yeol’s dad looks on in envy at this touching scene, but asking if he should hug his son too gets a resounding “no” before Hee-yeol begins to walk away, turning back to remind his father to button his coat because it’s cold outside. Gi-jun doesn’t want to get his hair cut because he’s fashion conscious, whereas Hee-yeol doesn’t want his cut because they don’t sterilise the clippers and he doesn’t want to catch a bacterial skin infection. Nevertheless, the pair eventually bond first during lunch as Hee-yeol surrenders his “carcinogenic” sausages to the always hungry Gi-jun, and then when Hee-yeol sprains his ankle during the final endurance test and Gi-jun (eventually) agrees to carry him to the finish line. Not for the first time, Gi-jun’s “selfless” actions to help a person in need earn the pair a few words of praise from their commander who berates the others for running past an injured comrade and thinking only of themselves when the very point of a police officer is to help those in need.

A year a later the pair are firm friends and decide to take a night on the town to find themselves some girlfriends to spend Christmas with. Sadly, they do not find any but they do find crime when they spot a pretty girl in the street and then spend ages arguing about asking for her number only to see her being clubbed over the head and bundled into a black van. Slightly drunk, the boys panic, chase the van, and ring the police but are told to stay put and wait for a patrol car. They figure they can get to the police station faster than a car can get to them but once they do they realise the entire station is being pulled away on another high profile case and no one’s coming. They do what it is they’ve been trained to do, investigate – but what they discover is much darker than anything they’d imagined.

Police in Korean cinema often have a bad rap. It’s nigh on impossible to think of any examples of heroic police officers who both start and finish as unblemished upholders of justice. Midnight Runners, however, attempts to paint a rosier picture of the police force, prompting some to describe it almost as a propagandistic recruiting tool. It helps that Gi-jun and Hee-yeol are still students which means that the idealistic line they’re being fed goes mostly unchallenged (at least until the climactic events prompt them to think again), but there are certainly no beatings, no shady dealings with the underworld, or compromised loyalties in the boys’ innocent quest to rescue a damsel in distress.

The spectre of corruption hovers in the background but on a national, rather than personal, level as the news constantly reports on the kidnapping of a wealthy CEO’s child while a young woman from a troubled background has also gone missing but no one, not even the police who have devoted all their resources to the CEO’s case, is interested. Meanwhile, Gi-jun and Hee-yeol, having just escaped from certain death, attempt to get help from a nearby police box but the shocked jobsworth of a duty officer won’t help them because they don’t have their IDs. The boys’ outrage on being informed that despite all their efforts, the specialist team who handle cases like these won’t even be able to look at it for weeks is instantly understandable, but so is their professor’s kindly rationale that all lives are equal and the squad can’t be expected to dump their current caseload and swap one set of victims for another. The police, so it goes, are heroes caged by increasing bureaucracy which has made them forget the reasons they became policemen in the first place. 

Despite the grim turn the film takes after Gi-jun and Hee-yeol make a shocking discovery as a result of their investigation, Kim keeps things light thanks the boys’ easy, symbiotic relationship filled with private jokes and even a cute secret handshake. Jokey slapstick eventually gives way to hard-hitting action as the rookie officers finally get to try out some of their training and find it effective on entry level street punks, but less so on seasoned brawlers with mean looks in their eyes. Told to “leave things to the grown ups”, Gi-jun and Hee-yeol decide there are things which must be done even it is dangerous and irresponsible because no one else is going to do them (whether that be eating sausages or rescuing young women no one else seems to care about). A strange yet fitting place to make the case for a better, less selfish world, Midnight Runners is a buddy cop throwback which brings the best of the genre’s capacity for humour and action right back with it.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original trailer (English subtitles – select from menu)

Queen of the Night (밤의 여왕, Kim Je-young, 2013)

Queen of the NightThere are only two things which spring to mind on hearing the words “Queen of the Night” – Mozart and…something else. Anyway, Kim Je-yeong’s Queen of the Night (밤의 여왕, Bamui Yeowang) is about neither of these. It’s about a dreadfully self-centred IT guy who finds out something he didn’t previously know about his wife and then decides to go all CIA about it. It’s also about her boss who turns out to have a connection to her hidden past and a taste for date rape. Queen of the Night is a comedy in which in which nothing seems very funny, at least if you don’t happen to be a nerdy IT guy whose dream it is to marry a kind and “frugal” woman who will have just emerged from a nunnery or spent her formative years at a conservatoire where all male contact was expressly prohibited.

Young-soo (Chun Jung-myung) is a lonely, middle-aged computer guy whose continual search for love is often undermined by his money-saving mania which extends to leaving his lunchtime blind date waiting while he runs back to the office to retrieve the discount coupon he’d intend to use to buy her a cheap meal. All he wants is a wife who is “frugal” and kind. One day he ventures into a Subway and lays eyes on the girl of his dreams, Hee-joo (Kim Min-jung), who doesn’t seem to notice him and also seems to be the reason this is store completely packed out with middle-aged salarymen. Finally she sees him, the pair start dating, and eventually get married.

Everything is amazing, Young-soo has never been happier. The pair have bought their own apartment in Seoul and are even about to get rid of Young-soo’s horrible old fridge. Young-soo’s life begins to derail when his good-looking but sleazy boss, Park Chang-joo (Kang Sung-ho), asks him to install a dodgy surveillance app across the office network but it’s a trip to a uni reunion which plants doubts in Young-soo’s mind as to how well he really knows his wife.

Without giving too much away, Queen of the Night’s big secret is not what you think it is. In fact it’s nothing at all. All it amounts to is that Hee-joo was once young and a bit mixed up. She spent some time abroad, didn’t feel like she fit in, came back to Korea and felt even more out-of-place. So she started going to clubs and hanging out with delinquents – how scandalous! Of course, Young-soo wanted a nice, level-headed girl who was careful with money so this information disturbs him. Hee-joo has definitely outgrown her wild years and is exactly the woman he wants her to be, but Young-soo just can’t let it go.

The ironic thing is, spineless Young-soo is conflicted about employing the spy program but does it anyway while planning to write a blocking program to stop it working. Meanwhile he’s basically stalking his wife, googling her on the internet and trying to track down her old friends to find out who she really was before he met her. Simply asking Hee-joo does not occur to him.

The world Hee-joo is forced to live in is extremely misogynistic. Young-soo’s suspicions are first aroused when he is talked into making a rare appearance at a uni reunion after being assured he can take his new wife with him. Young-soo only wants to do this to show off that’s netted himself such a lovely, pretty girl but the reunion itself takes a turn for the strange when the wives (there is only one female computer engineer in the group and she apparently owes her graduation to Young-soo who supposedly ghostwrote her thesis for her, because you know women and computers, right?) are expected to participate in a bizarre talent contest to win white goods by showing off their special skill. Hee-joo ends up winning a kimchi fridge her mother-in-law had been desperate for by showing off her smooth moves on the dance floor, much to Young-soo’s surprise and mild displeasure.

Aside from being thrust into combat with the other wives of engineers, Hee-joo is also forced to contend with the unwanted attentions of Young-soo’s boss, Park. As part of his attempts to defeat the spying app, Young-soo discovers surveillance footage of Park taking women back to his office and spiking their drinks after which he assaults them. Despite seeming outraged, Young-soo does nothing at all about this. When Hee-joo looks set to become his latest victim, Young-soo busts a gut to save her but later descends into a bout of victim blaming, preferring to bring up the small amount of info he’s discovered about Hee-joo’s past to imply this was all her fault. Matters are made worse by Young-soo’s geeky friend (Kim Ki-bang) who spends too much time on the internet and assures him that the reason he and Hee-joo haven’t conceived is because of the anti-sperm antibodies in her system generated by promiscuity. Absolute and total rubbish, but Young-soo falls for it without reservation, largely because he has such low self-worth that he assumes any woman who falls for him must in some way be damaged.

Hee-joo is allowed to get her own back, to a point, by reuniting with some of her delinquent friends to scare the living daylights out of Park before telling Young-soo to get lost. He, of course, tries to win her back but he’ll have to learn to love her past too if he’s to have any chance of regaining his bright and happy future. This is a positive step, in a sense, as Young-soo seems to have acknowledged Hee-joo is a person and not just a personification of his hopes and dreams, but it’s also painted as a kind of forgiveness rather an acknowledgement of his totally inappropriate behaviour. Nothing about this is funny to anyone born after 1780, it is rather profoundly depressing. Queen of the Night may shine a little light on male/female relations in modern-day Korea but the picture it paints is far from inspiring.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Villainess (악녀, Jung Byung-gil, 2017)

the villainess korean posterVengeance is a doubled edged sword, it cannot help but wound the wielder. The heroine of Jung Byung-gil’s ironically titled The Villainess (악녀, Aknyeo) has more to be revenged of than even she knows. Yes, the narrative beats are familiar and Jung has clearly drawn inspiration from Luc Besson’s seminal hit woman movie La Femme Nikita as well as the long history of female revenge films from Lady Snowblood to Kill Bill, but he does it with style and style is always hard to argue with. A new kind of action cinema, The Villainess makes a performer of its camera, darting frantically like an animal on the run and then drifting listlessly between dreamlike visions of half remembered traumas. Jung remains firmly in B-movie territory but owns it, unafraid to embrace the genre’s more extreme qualities and all the better for it.

When we first meet Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin), we are Sook-hee. Jung opens with a lengthy (seeming) one take POV shot of an assassin fearlessly taking down untold numbers of bad guys in a tightly controlled corridor battle before we are suddenly ejected from her head when it connects with a mirror. Sook-hee has come here for revenge, though we don’t know that yet. Leaping from an upper window and landing heroically in an alleyway below, Sook-hee is taken into custody by a shady government organisation intent on turning her into a sleeper assassin. She is uniquely qualified for the task but has lost all hope and longs only for death. The revelation that she is pregnant gives her a reason to keep on living, as does the promise of her new mentor, Kwon-sook (Kim Seo-Hyung), who assures her ten years of service will buy a lifetime of comfort and freedom both for herself and the young life inside her.

Of course, it is not that simple. Jung gradually reveals Sook-hee’s backstory through brief flashbacks and lengthier evidence gathering sequences but her story is one of constant abandonment, adoption, betrayal, and vengeance. As if she could ever have forgotten them, the seminal images of Sook-hee’s life are frequently thrown back at her – an innocent girl witnessing the bloody death of her father, the eyes of the dying gazing back at something they once loved, games of death and of salvation. Sook-hee has been used and misused by men all her life, traded for jewels, and tricked into a murder of the self as sheds her skins to transform from frightened child to heartless killer, loyal wife, and loving mother. Swapping one master for another she is lied to and manipulated, denied her own identity in service of someone else’s ideals.

Ironically enough the prize which is dangled in front of Sook-hee’s eyes is nothing more than the prospect of a “normal life”, free from crime, killing, and fractured identities. As elliptical as the film itself, Sook-hee’s adult life is an ongoing quest to regain what was taken from her in childhood. A “normal life” is what’s offered to her by each of her respective masters but none of them has the capability, and only one the will, to give it to her. There can be no normal life for Sook-hee, reduced as she is from a name to an epithet. A villainess – no longer a woman, merely a faceless archetype, a grudge bearing revenger with dead eyes and an icy heart.

When Sook-hee performs in her strangely meta, Hedda Gabler inspired play, she remarks that she and the (presumably) long lost lover to whom she is speaking can no longer exist in the same space, in order for one to live the other must die. This line has an obvious correlation in the narrative but Sook-hee isn’t just speaking of her unseen enemy but of her own dualities. Only one Sook-hee can survive, but so many Sook-hees have died already starting with the lost little girl offered salvation in the barrel of the gun. Beginnings become endings, and endings become beginnings, but whether The Villainess is the story of a woman assuming her true identity or being subsumed by it, Sook-hee remains where she’s always been – alone and encircled by men with guns whose infinite authority she is perpetually unable to evade.


The Villainess was screened at FrightFest 2017 and will also be screened as the final Teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival at Regent Street Cinema on 11th September ahead of a limited cinema outing and October DVD/blu-ray release from Arrow Video.

International trailer (dialogue free, English captions)

Plastic Love Story (プラスチック・ラブ・ストーリー, Ryutaro Nakagawa, 2014)

plastic love story posterFake plastic love, in the words of Radiohead – it wears you out. For three young women in contemporary Japan each seeking an identity through romantic connection, plastic love will have to do, for a time at least. Ryutaro Nakagawa’s indie feature Plastic Love Story (プラスチック・ラブ・ストーリー) is, in essence, anything but romantic as its three heroines veer dangerously between life and death, each lost, lonely, and lovelorn as they search for the pathways to lead them into a settled adulthood. For all of its gentle coming of age qualities, Plastic Love Story is a dark tale in which release is found only through loss, shared pain, and finally sacrifice.

Office lady Eri (Mai Sakata) is about to quit her job as she believes herself to be pregnant. A common occurrence even in modern Japan, though Eri’s case is less usual because she is not married. After confronting the probable father who wants nothing to do with it or her, Eri becomes fixated on a middle school classmate whom she feels was the last person to really understand her.

Meanwhile, high school girl Rina (Manami Takahashi) has a difficult home life with a flighty mother and distressed father. She dreamed of becoming a ballerina but since a leg injury put paid to her dancing dreams, Rina has tried to fill the void left by parental absence and early disappointment by hooking up with a string of useless boyfriends.

Kanae (Yumi Yamawaki), by contrast, is also a high school girl but sullen and depressed. A childhood trauma involving the death of her younger brother who had learning difficulties which was quickly followed by the death of her mother, has left her with an ongoing sense of guilt and hopelessness. Rejecting an erstwhile suitor from school, Kanae develops an odd relationship with a disturbed, suicidal young man currently in her doctor father’s care.

Each of the three women is in some way damaged, attempting to deal with extreme trauma and doing it all alone. Though they do not know each other and never meet, there are strange connections which bind them in their shared sufferings and inability to escape their oppressive environments. Eri’s loneliness is longstanding, leading her to attempt suicide as a schoolgirl at which point she was saved by the kindly attentions of another loner, Yasu, whom she has come to regard as a kind of absent soulmate. Yasu, in a trope which is repeated in all three stories, has since committed suicide but has left behind a series of videotapes through which, his sister says, he was able to make himself understood as he never could without a camera in his hand. The tapes centre on another high school classmate who seems to have been Yasu’s first (unrequited) love. Watching the videos forces Eri to face facts about her non-existent middle school romance and eventually helps her exorcise the ghost of her lonely teenage self.

Rina and Kanae are not quite so lucky, a little way behind on the path and each required to make a sacrifice of their potential mates in order to achieve what Eri achieves though her unattainable soulmate has already passed on. Rina’s life has been one of subservient neediness as she finds herself trapped in unfulfilling relationships with boys who see her only as a sex object. In fact, one of them actually describes her as a “toilet”, but all Rina says she wants is a “normal” relationship which starts as friends and gradually becomes something more. The janitor at her university has an intense crush on her which Rina originally rebuffs but every insane demand she makes of him, the janitor fulfils making more than a few sacrifices of his own.

Kanae’s relationship with the equally guilt ridden, suicidal young man at her father’s surgery is even less positive than Rina’s manipulative romance as the pair bond through their shared self loathing in feeling responsible for the deaths of people close to them whom they feel they did not try hard enough to save. Leaving aside the fact that the man is in his twenties and Kanae still a schoolgirl, the relationship is an intentionally doomed one. Kanae does not seek love but only an end to loneliness, avowing that no one has enough happiness to save someone else but that someday she plans to go faraway and learn to love herself once again.

Taking a turn for the poetic, Nakagawa has each of the women dance happily as they learn to let go of the objects which have bound them, smiling less painfully and walking with a little more lightness. Three expressions of womanhood, they exclaim that now they know love, they know beauty, they know solitude. The path that leads them here is dark, littered with bodies of those they have lost or have sacrificed in order to enact their own happiness. Plastic does not only imply something “fake” or engineered, but something soft and pliable, which is to say it can be moulded for good or ill. These plastic loves have soon turned rotten, but perhaps there is hope for a better future for each of these women for having come through them, even if their escape was not without cost.


Original trailer (English subtitles)