My Dad is a Heel Wrestler (パパはわるものチャンピオン, Kyohei Fujimura, 2018)

“Your job embarrasses me” little Shota (Kokoro Terada) coldly tells his actually quite lovely father, slowly closing the door on his well meaning attempt at connection. Self evident from the title, My Dad is a Heel Wrestler (パパはわるものチャンピオン, Papa wa Warumono Champion), Shota’s dad Takashi (real life wrestler Hiroshi Tanahashi) is a former champ reduced to playing the “heel”, a masked villain fans love to hate whose signature move is comic relief. Like all little boys, Shota really looked up to his father and wanted to be just like him, and so he gets a dose of paternal disappointment a little earlier than expected in realising that he is in a sense a professional loser with a degree of internalised shame regarding his failure to get back in the ring under his own identity. 

10 years previously, just before 9-year-old Shota was born, Takashi was a champion but a knee injury cost him his career. To stay in the game and provide for his family, he decided to become a heel as a temporary measure until he was well enough to return to being a “face”. A decade later however he’s still “Cockroach Mask” working with “Bluebottle” as a comedy villain known for pulling all sorts of unscrupulous tricks like using “Roach Spray” on his opponents or extracting gadgets from a Doraemon-esque interdimensional portal in the shape of a garbage can. Ashamed of himself, Takashi has avoided telling Shota what exactly it is he does for a living, promising that he’ll explain everything when he’s older. 

But Shota’s at the age when everyone at school is boasting about their dads and it’s niggling at him that he doesn’t really know, especially when one of his friends jumps to the conclusion he must be a yakuza. Determined to find out, Shota does some detective work and secretly follows him, only to wind up surrounded by beefy guys backstage at the ring. Bumping into a wrestling obsessive classmate (Maharu Nemoto) there with her father (Yasushi Fuchikami), Shota is horrified to realise his dad’s that jerk that everyone hates so when she somehow jumps to the conclusion that his dad’s her idol, reigning champ Dragon George (real life wrestler Kazuchika Okada), he doesn’t bother to correct her. 

The irony is, Takashi is a genuinely nice guy. He’s desperate to make it to Shota’s parents’ morning at school, but misses it because he stops on the way to help an old lady who was struggling with her shopping. When the kids are asked to compose a speech about their dreams for the future, Shota says that he wants to get big and strong like his dad in the hope that being big will also make him kind. Shota, however, is still too young to understand the way that wrestling works. He only sees his dad degrade himself, do “bad” things to win, and act in an underhanded, dishonourable way that is completely at odds with his offstage personality. Yet as much as it is that he’s disappointed to think his dad’s a “loser”, the real cause of his resentment is seeing that he’s not being true to himself. Shota’s mother tells him that wrestling is Takashi’s passion, but he pointedly asks her if his dream was being a heel, which it obviously wasn’t. 

While Shota picks up on his dad’s internalised sense of shame over the failure to achieve his dreams, he indulges in a little subterfuge himself in keeping up the pretence that his father is not the hated Cockroach Mask but the universally loved Dragon George. Failing to clear up the misunderstanding makes him an unexpected class hero, but it also unbalances the social hierarchy with snooty rich kid and all-round popular boy Yuta irritated at Shota stealing his thunder. When some of his friends start to doubt his story, it’s not the fact that Takashi is Cockroach Mask that upsets them only that Shota lied. Having a pro wrestler dad is cool in itself, he didn’t need to worry about what people would think and he shouldn’t have anyway because he should have stuck by his father rather than rejecting him completely and changing his dream to boring salaryman like the odious Yuta. 

Takashi, meanwhile, needs to think through why he’s doing a job that he’s essentially ashamed of. Bluebottle, his partner, who entered the trade as a heel and loves the strange thrill of being booed by the crowd, is offended at his insinuation that being a heel is somehow embarrassing. Michiko (Riisa Naka), an eccentric journalist and wrestling obsessive, tries to explain to Shota that the heel is an essential part of the game – you can’t have a fight without a villain after all, but Takashi still wants to be the face and regain his rightful place as a champion. He can’t let go of past glory and struggles to accept that there are new ways to win. “Wrestling’s not about winning or losing, it’s a way of life” an exasperated Michiko tells her editor (Yo Oizumi), trying to get him interested in the soap opera drama by way of investment in Takashi’s struggle. You don’t have to win, all you have to do is keep getting back up and make sure you put on a good show. Shota figures out that just because his dad’s a “bad guy” doesn’t make him a bad person, while Takashi figures out the only way to be the champ is to embrace his inner roach. Turns out, what wrestling’s all about is authenticity, just not quite in the way you were expecting it. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

Hong Kong release trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

A Banana? At This Time of Night? (こんな夜更けにバナナかよ 愛しき実話, Tetsu Maeda, 2018)

Many people will tell you that if you’re having trouble sleeping, a banana is just the thing though if you’ve failed to properly prepare and have left it until 2.30am to try and buy one you might be out of luck. The hero of Tetsu Maeda’s A Banana? At This Time of Night? (こんな夜更けにバナナかよ 愛しき実話, Konna Yofuke ni Banana kayo: Itoshiki jitsuwa) is not proposing to go out and find one himself, but using his sudden desire for the potassium rich fruit as an excuse to dispatch one of his helpers in the hope of being left alone with the pretty young girl who’s just joined the team. Unbeknownst to him, the girl, Misaki (Mitsuki Takahata), is actually the girlfriend of the aspiring doctor, Tanaka (Haruma Miura), he was trying to get rid of, but the plan backfires when she takes the opportunity to go get one herself in order to escape an increasingly awkward situation. 

Inspired by Kazufumi Watanabe’s non-fiction book, A Banana? At This Time of Night? is the latest in a series of recent Japanese films dealing with the issue of disability in a society which often struggles to accommodate difference. The hero, Yasuaki Shikano (Yo Oizumi), has suffered with muscular dystrophy since the age of 12 and has survived to the age of 34 despite being told that he would likely never see 20. Determined to live an “independent” life, he relies on a small team of volunteers who assist him with day to day tasks he can no longer manage, and works as an activist for the rights of disabled people. 

Yasuaki is, however, by his own admission not always an easy person to get along with. He is often selfish and cruel to the volunteers who have given their time to help him out of nothing more than human kindness while deliberately sending them out on random errands to buy burgers  (or bananas) but finding fault when they return. Yet, he largely gets away with it because of his cheeky personality and the fact he is so robustly “honest” about his own behaviour. One of the major tenets of his activism is destigmatising the idea of asking for help so that younger disabled people in particular who might feel awkward about asking others to assist them so they can lead independent lives know that there is nothing wrong in being upfront about their needs. 

Of course, despite his “honesty”, there’s an essential contradiction in Yasuaki’s definition of independence in that he freely admits that he can only live an “independent” life because of the support he receives from the volunteers. Without them, his life would be impossible. In a further contradiction, we eventually realise that he’s only so mean to his mother (Chie Ayado) because he doesn’t want her to sacrifice the entirety of her life to look after him and wants his parents to be able to live their own lives while he lives his. Misaki, only originally volunteering to check up on her boyfriend, is horrified by Yasuaki’s attitude and vows never to return, only to be coaxed back by Tanaka awkwardly forced to take dictation of an apology/declaration of love when Yasuaki finds himself smitten by her boldness in defiantly standing up to him. 

Slightly embarrassed, Tanaka never explains that Misaki is his girlfriend, perhaps a little patronisingly allowing Yasuaki to play at romance he feels is impossible so that his feelings won’t be hurt. The central problem is, however, that both Misaki and Tanaka have their own failures of honesty which place their relationship at risk. Tanaka was under the impression that Misaki was studying to become a teacher, but her friends just said that to get her into a party with med students and she never bothered to correct him. When the relationship gets more serious, she comes clean, but he takes it badly, half-convinced she just wanted to meet a doctor and the whole relationship has been a lie. Meanwhile, he’s only studying medicine because his authoritarian father wants him to take over the family hospital and he’s beginning to wonder if it’s really what he wants to do with his life. Unlike either of them Yasuaki knows exactly what he wants – to go America and meet his idol which is why he’s been working hard learning English. 

Through their shared friendship with Yasuaki, both of the lost youngsters begin to find direction and the courage to follow it. Despite the many setbacks and difficulties he faces, Yasuaki never gives up on his dreams and boldly insists on the right to pursue them while living his life to the fullest. Which isn’t to say that his own story is merely inspirational fodder for his friends, but it does make the case for a better, more inclusive society built on mutual support in which all are free to live the way they choose spreading love and joy wherever they go. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Code Blue: The Movie (劇場版コード・ブルー –ドクターヘリ緊急救命–, Masaki Nishiura, 2018)

Code Blue posterThe common complaint plaguing popular Japanese cinema is that it’s increasingly dependent on existing source material, not in only the prevalence of manga adaptations, but the continuing influence of TV drama. Ever since the massive success of the Bayside Shakedown franchise, big screen outings for popular series have been a mainstay of the Japanese film industry, the problem of course being, from a certain point of view, that their nature as an extension of an already existing narrative universe makes them not only impossible for export but also a potential audience turn off to those not already invested.

Code Blue is itself comparatively unusual in being one of the few Japanese TV dramas to head into multiple series. That being so, a movie was something of an inevitability, but like many medical shows which generally adopt a case of the week formula, Code Blue thrives on finely crafted characterisation. Rather than jump this obvious hurdle, director Masaki Nishiura opts for the time-honoured solution of a brief flashback highlighting the key events of the previous three seasons and otherwise tries to avoid too many references to past events. It remains true however that viewers already acquainted with the Doctor Heli team will be best placed to navigate the complex interpersonal relationships informing the rest of the action.

Those would be, chiefly, the unexpected return of aloof doctor Aizawa (Tomohisa Yamashita) who is about to take up a research position in Toronto, while Dr. Hiyama (Erika Toda) is also preparing to follow her dream by moving on to head up the perinatal department at a nearby hospital. As is stressed in the opening sequence for those who might not be aware, the Doctor Heli program does not airlift passengers by helicopter but drops doctors into emergency situations where they are most urgently needed. Aizawa’s arrival coincides with the forced return of a flight originally heading to Vietnam which experienced heavy turbulence with multiple casualties needing evacuation from the plane or treatment on the ground. One such patient turns out to be an especially difficult case seeing as she has not only sustained serious injuries, but is also suffering from stage 4 stomach cancer and was trying to take a last vacation in her final days.

The Doctor Heli team are deeply touched by Tomizawa’s (Kasumi Yamaya) plight, knowing that though her injuries would otherwise not be regarded as serious, she may well end up spending her remaining time in their ICU rather than doing the things she wanted while she could. A talk with her parents reveals a painful breakup and canceled wedding, neatly echoing a conflicted nurse desperately trying to get out of the, in her view unnecessary, wedding ceremony her fiancé has organised. Tomizawa’s former boyfriend (Mackenyu) eventually returns and apologises, hoping to make up for lost time, but she isn’t sure she should let him, not only because he let her down by running away, but because she fears that if she does she might prevent him moving on with his life after the inevitable occurs.

Despite being skilled at fixing the human body, the doctors confess they are often at a loss when it comes to the human heart. They struggle to communicate their true feelings to each other, keeping their minds on the job with well practiced practicality, but are all too aware of the precariousness of being alive. What they all advise is that it’s best to let the people you love know your true feelings because you never really know if there will be another opportunity. Dependable leader Shiraishi (Yui Aragaki) can’t quite find the words to express her feelings for her soon to be departed best friend Hiyama, while she struggles with her essential “awkwardness” yet has a knack for the good kind of “direct”, always knowing the right words to help people feel better.

Aizawa, who had no family of his own, is stoical and patient with those of others, comforting a young man who’s gotten into a car accident with the abusive father he’d tried to reconnect with, letting him know that there was nothing wrong in his rage or resentment but also nothing wrong in his desire to tell him that he has become a fine man on his own and that his father’s violence has not destroyed him. Likewise, a young nurse, Futaba (Fumika Baba), gets an unexpected shock when her older sister brings their alcoholic mother (Rino Katase), from whom she’d become wilfully estranged, into the hospital after she fell and got a kitchen knife stuck in her head. Aizawa tells her that she did what she needed to do and shouldn’t feel guilty about “abandoning” her mother, but also gives her the space to reconnect with her as she begins to understand a little of her mother’s suffering.

You can’t deny that Code Blue: The Movie (劇場版コード・ブルー –ドクターヘリ緊急救命–, Gekijoban Code Blue Doctor Heli Kinkyu Kyumei) is basically a two hour TV special, shot exactly like the TV series with seemingly no increase in budget or production values, but it topped the Japanese box office and obviously provided fans with exactly what they were looking for. A little less melodramatic than might be feared, the series’ big screen finale (?) is unabashedly emotional but celebrates as much the close bonds between the Doctor Heli team as those with their patients as they face the unthinkable time and again but get through it together.


Teaser trailer (no subtitles)

We Make Antiques (嘘八百, Masaharu Take, 2018)

We make antiques posterWho will scam the scammers? The antiques trade is a high stakes business, and at least as far as Masaharu Take’s We Make Antiques (嘘八百, Uso Happyaku) goes, one which makes use of its aura of respectability to cheat unsuspecting amateurs out of their hard earned cash for the false promise of exclusivity. Then again, does it really matter when something was made so long as it was made well and with artistic integrity? Perhaps collectors are just as happy with a nice piece as an authentic one, if only no one ever tells them the difference.

Jaded antiques dealer Norio Koike (Kiichi Nakai) prides himself on having a good eye, forced to learn to spot the inauthentic in record time after having his reputation trashed when he accidentally sold a “fake”, making the rookie mistake of taking provenance at face value without assessing all the facts. These days he’s not as precious as he used to be, mostly making his living out of buying up genuine antiques from clueless owners, convincing them their pieces are fakes and therefore worthless before selling them on at tremendous profit. It’s a trick he pulls on a wealthy man with a warehouse full of teacups that belonged to his father he’d rather get rid of so he can open a cafe, spotting an obvious fake and buying it cheap to take it straight back to where he knows it came from. Koike gets his comeuppance however when the man calls him back and says he’s found something interesting – an Edo-era letter in a box. Koike lies and says the letter is a random missive about a peasant revolt, when really it’s from grandmaster Rikyu and mentions coming with a tea bowl which Koike manages to find after searching the warehouse again.

After buying the entire stock to mask his desire for the tea bowl and letter, Koike realises he’s been had. The man he was talking to isn’t the owner of the warehouse but a caretaker, and the warehouse only exists to store fakes produced by a team of master forgers operating out of a nearby ramen joint. Noda (Kuranosuke Sasaki), who managed to scam Koike, was like him professionally embarrassed and by the same two corrupt elitists, Tadayasu Hiwatashi (Kogan Ashiya) and his celebrity authenticator Seiichiro Tanahashi (Masaomi Kondo), who picked him up as an aspiring ceramicist, giving him a fancy award but secretly using him to produce “replicas” to sell in their store. 20 years later, Noda is a cynical and jaded figure, unable to connect with his “nerdy” son (Tomoya Maeno) who spends his time building fantastically realistic military dioramas, and increasingly distanced from his patient wife who deeply resents the loss of his artistic integrity.

After a brief locking of horns, the two men decide to team up to scam the scammers, teach them a lesson, get a little ironic revenge, and become filthy rich in the process. Creating expert fakes, however, is a taxing business which requires an extreme depth of knowledge and in this case of a well known and hugely respected historical figure. Sen no Rikyu, the father of the tea ceremony, was, ironically enough, ordered to commit seppuku after speaking truth to power and, because he was an honourable man, he did it.

The reason most fakes fail is because they’re soulless replicas, often expertly crafted but essentially superficial. Creating a convincing fake allows Noda to regain the creative mojo that he’s been suppressing all these years in resentment towards Hiwatashi and Tanahashi, determined to craft something that reflects the spirit of Rikyu by virtue of the fact that it contains a piece of his own soul. Of course, the guys fully intend to exploit their own “artistic integrity”, Koike turning on the salesman’s patter to sell the dream of Rikyu to two soulless elitists too wrapped up in their sense of self-importance and blinded by greed to see things properly. Yet, there is a perverse love not only for the grift but for the craft and for Japan’s disappearing traditional culture, if only in the ironic rebuke of those who misuse it for their own gain. Bonded in revenge not only against the the venal Hiwatashi and Tanahashi but middle-age and and life itself, the guys generate an unlikely friendship, rediscovering their authentic selves through forgery as they scam the scammers and retake their sense of integrity in the form of a briefcase stuffed with cash.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Saint Young Men (聖☆おにいさん, Yuichi Fukuda, 2018)

Saint young men posterWhat if Buddha and Jesus were flatmates in modern day Tokyo? Hikaru Nakamura’s much loved manga Saint Young Men (聖☆おにいさん, Saint Oniisan) attempted to find out, casting the two holy beings as conventional manga slackers on “vacation” in the mortal realm, supposedly researching modern Japanese society. A firm favourite with fans, the franchise has already been adapted into a popular anime and now receives the live action treatment from none other than Gintama’s Yuichi Fukuda.

Split into a series of short vignettes mostly featuring only Jesus (Kenichi Matsuyama) and Buddha (Shota Sometani) in their apartment, Saint Young Men first aired as a 10-part web series before being compiled into a 70-minute movie. The central conceit is that Jesus is a cheerful if slightly feckless hippy, while Buddha is the calm and the responsible one making sure he’s well looked after. Perhaps surprisingly, Saint Young Men presents its vision of contemporary Japan from the point of view of the two guys as they explore everyday life, occasionally including explanatory narration from a distant authorial voice which, presumably, contains information widely known to the target audience, such as an explanations of “White Day” – Japan’s secondary Valentines in which men given chocolates are expected to return the favour with gifts three times the cost, and spring festival “Setsubun” in which beans are thrown at people wearing ogre masks to frighten off bad luck.

For the two guys these are fascinating little anthropological details they can get quite excited about despite their thousands of years of existence. On a trip to the convenience store, Jesus is thrilled to think he’s finally “made it” after 2000 years because some high school girls said he looked like Johnny Depp. Buddha goes to see if he looks like someone too, but the girls immediately recognise him as looking “like Buddha” which is both a disappointment and somehow validating. Meanwhile, he laments that the majority of his artistic renderings have only captured him in his “fat period” rather than the handsome figure he currently cuts. 

Bickering like an old married couple, the guys fight about the usual things – money, and the irresponsible use of it. Jesus has a bad habit of buying random stuff he doesn’t need off the internet, causing Buddha to get so annoyed he starts physically glowing and only calms down when Jesus gives him a present, a manga artist’s starter kit. Sadly, Buddha is proved right when Jesus gets bored with his random electric pottery wheel after only a few minutes, but is witness to an unexpected miracle when the clay is magically transformed into bread, turning the wheel into a “bread oven” with which Jesus seems very pleased only to tire of it just as quickly.

Trying to keep their “real” identities secret, the guys are keen to keep their abilities behind closed doors – something Buddha forgets when he hatches on the great idea of levitating to save floor space. Jesus comes home and quickly closes the curtains in case someone thinks they’re some kind of weird cult. The guys consider moving somewhere with a little more room, but discover that even for holy beings it’s almost impossible to find a decent apartment in modern day Tokyo that doesn’t cost the Earth. The primary reason Jesus wanted to move, however, is not so much that the apartment’s a little poky for two full-grown guys, but that the other place was gated which means he won’t be getting bothered by cold calling newspaper sales representatives.

Jesus may be too nice to keep saying no to pushy salesmen, but Buddha has a few unexpected trust issues. Faint from hunger, the guys think about ordering a take away, but Buddha is a strict vegetarian and worries about the chain of communication involved in food preparation. He can only trust that the restaurant follows the instructions he gives them honestly and that the delivery guy won’t do anything weird with the food on his way over. In the end, you just have to have faith, but Buddha is struggling while Jesus is content to let it all hang out. Something similar occurs when earnest Buddha unwisely meditates for hours in the beautiful snow in only his ironic T-shirt and catches a cold with only Jesus to nurse him. Jesus wants to take him to the hospital, but they don’t have insurance and don’t want to risk extortionate medical bills. Jesus’ healing powers apparently don’t work on other holy beings, and so he finds himself healing a bunch of people at the hospital to earn a free visit from a doctor with whom Buddha can only communicate through possession and telepathy.

Obviously very low budget and mostly starring just the two guys with additional appearances from their middle-aged landlady and the confused doctor, Saint Young Men is very much a Fukuda production bearing his familiar hallmark of waiting slightly too long for a joke land, which it often does not. Though seeing all 10 episodes in one go necessarily flags up their essential sameness, they do provide an amusing exploration of slacker life in contemporary Japan with occasional forays into warmhearted cross-cultural exchanges between the serious Buddha and scatterbrained Jesus.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Eating Women (食べる女, Jiro Shono, 2018)

Eating Women poster 2“Comfort cinema” may be a slightly maligned genre, disregarded for its throwaway pleasures, but it can often be much more subversive than it’s given credit for. Jiro Shono’s adaptation of Tomomi Tsutsui’s novel Eating Women (食べる女, Taberu Onna), refusing to unambiguously reinforce contemporary social norms, it actively undercuts them as it pushes its lonely heroines towards more positive paths of self-fulfilment while remaining unafraid to embrace the sometimes taboo idea of female desire as something entirely normal.

The heroine, however, is someone who’s decided to live without it. Food writer and bookstore owner Atsuko (Kyoko Koizumi) lost the love of her life at 29 and has lived alone ever since. She does, however, have a very committed group of female friends who get together once a month to enjoy a tasty dinner she and her friend Mifuyu (Kyoka Suzuki), who runs the local restaurant, cook for them. Unlike Atsuko, Mifuyu is a sexually liberated older woman, complaining once again that both of her (young, male) apprentices have quit after she seduced them. Keiko (Erika Sawajiri), Atsuko’s editor, has hatched on a different solution in affirming that she has already achieved financial independence and has no real desire for male companionship, preferring to embrace her freedom to live as she chooses while Tamiko (Atsuko Maeda), an assistant TV producer and the youngest of the group, is facing the opposite dilemma – her boyfriend has proposed to her, but she’s unconvinced because he’s just too “nice” to make her heart beat faster.

Though at different points of their lives, the women are always there to support each other while permitting themselves the indulgence of fully enjoying beautifully cooked meals taken with good company. Meanwhile, across town, an American woman, Machi (Charlotte Kate Fox), seems to be content to play the role of a 50s housewife to a grumpy salaryman husband (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) who barges in through the front door and roughly forces himself on her before retreating to the bedroom. The problem in their marriage is, apparently, that Machi can’t cook, providing mostly Western-style microwavable dinners which fail to excite her husband who tells her he’s been having an affair with someone who can make good food. Heartbroken, Machi runs into Mifuyu and eventually ends up living in one of Atsuko’s spare rooms where she slots right in with the other gourmet women as she begins to learn to cook under Mifuyu’s gentle guidance.

It is not, however, a pathway towards regaining her husband or “fixing” a perceived fault so that she can be a “proper” wife, but a way for Machi to rediscover life’s small pleasures along with a sense of independence, rejoicing in her own success as she enjoys a meal she cooked herself made with ingredients that she earned the money to pay for. Tamiko’s barfly friend Akari (Alice Hirose) begins to discover something similar on her own, repeatedly dumped by snooty salarymen boyfriends who objected to her preference for minced meat over whole steak. Akari had a habit of thinking of herself in terms of the meat – quick, cheap, and simple, but finally finds love with a gentlemanly colleague after she gains the confidence to share with him her real self by embracing her love of mince without embarrassment.

The only “misstep” is perhaps in Keiko’s tale in which her bid for solo independence is eventually negated by her loneliness, implying that in the end she did need male companionship after all. Indeed, only Atsuko who rejects sex in favour of vicarious maternity is allowed to live life alone, though conversely Mifuyu’s free spirited pursuit of younger men is never judged negatively nor is she encouraged to settle down even while she ironically advises Tamiko to do just that, and pointedly tells Keiko that she’s running out time to find anyone halfway decent. Yet all of that aside, the ladies are an accepting bunch, emphasising that love is love and refusing to judge others, making sure to offer support to all who need it. We’re never the same people as yesterday, Atsuko writes in her book, we just need to be ourselves. Above all, however, she seems to say you have to be kind to yourself, embracing life’s small pleasures such as the simple joy of well cooked food made with love, and the rest you can figure out later.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Drug King (麻藥王 / 마약왕, Woo Min-ho, 2018)

Drug King posterKorean cinema has been in a reflective mood of late, keen to re-examine the turbulent post-war era in the wake of a second wave of democratic protest and political turmoil. Even so, dealing with the difficult Park Chung-hee era has remained sensitive with the legacy of life under a repressive regime apparently very much still felt. Woo Min-ho’s Drug King (麻藥王 / 마약왕, Mayakwang) is first and foremost a crime doesn’t pay story, but it’s also a subtle condemnation of authoritarianism and the corruption and cronyism that goes along with it. Painting its hero’s rise as a consequence of the society in which he lives, it perhaps implies the new wind of egalitarian democracy made such amoral venality a thing of the past but then again is at pains to show that nothing really changes when it comes to greed and resentment.

Our hero, Lee Doo-sam (Song Kang-ho), starts out as a jeweller dabbling in smuggling in Busan in 1972. Just as the smuggling business starts to take off, Doo-sam’s boss falls out with his friends in high places and decides to throw him to the wolves while he escapes abroad to safety. Doo-sam, not one to be beaten, starts coming up with ideas. Mobilising his wife (Kim So-jin) to get him out of jail through a combination of bribery and blackmail, he teams up with the area’s smuggling king to act on a tip-off he got from a Korean-Japanese yakuza and begins producing popular drug Crank for export to Japan.

As the opening voice over explains, Crank is a dangerous stimulant developed by the Japanese during the war and given to factory workers and kamikaze pilots because of its ability to eliminate both fear and fatigue. It is also highly addictive and provides an extreme high which have made it a popular recreational drug but, crucially, the real value is economic. The rising Japan is keen to make use of foreign labour, and Korea is keen to up its export capability. This, coupled with poor regulation of the workforce, has led to extreme exploitation in which factory workers are encouraged to hop themselves up on stimulants to keep working overtime for the sake of economic expansion. Thus, the influx of Crank is, in many ways, simply another facet of ongoing Japanese imperialism.

Not that Lee Doo-Sam cares very much about that. An honest prosecutor later puts it to him that he’s contributing to the exploitation of ordinary workers who might earn a few pennies extra for working a few more hours but at the cost of their health and wellbeing, while he gets filthy rich off the back of their misery. Doo-sam is, however, unrepentant. In the beginning he just wanted to provide for his wife, children, and unmarried sisters, but perhaps he also wanted to kick back against his reduced circumstances and he certainly did enjoy playing the big man. In any case, it has paid off. Doo-sam too has friends in high places and they won’t want to let him sit in a police cell for long in case he starts feeling chatty.

Times change, however, and whatever standing and influence Doo-sam thought he’d accrued his life is built on sand. When Park is assassinated by a member of his own security team, all those contacts are pretty much useless because the cronies are now out in the cold. There are protests in the streets and the wind of a new era is already blowing through even if it is still a fair few years away. That bold new era will, it hopes, do away with men like Doo-sam and their way of thinking, eradicating corruption and backhanders in favour of honest meritocracy. Naive, perhaps, and idealistic but it is true enough that Doo-sam is a man whose era has passed him by while he, arrogantly, burned all his bridges and gleefully sacrificed love and friendship on the altar of greed and empty ambition.

Hubris is Doo-sam’s fatal flaw, but he remains a weasel to the end only too keen to sell out his associates in order to save his own skin. He may claim he was only trying to live a “decent” life, but his definition of “decent” may differ wildly from the norm. Nevertheless, perhaps he was just like many scrappy young men of post-war years, desperate, hungry, and left with few honest options to feed his family if one who later found himself corrupted by backstreet “success” and the dubious morals of the world in which he lived which encouraged him to disregard conventional morality in favour of personal gain. Much more about life in Korea in the authoritarian ‘70s than it is about crime, The Drug King is nevertheless an ironic tragedy in which its drug peddling hero eventually enables the birth of a dedicated narcotics squad and helps to dismantle system which allowed him to prosper all while grinning wildly and, presumably, planning his next move.


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

International trailer (English subtitles)

Key tracks from the (fantastic) soundtrack:

Jung Hoon-Hee – Flower Road

Kim Jung Mi – Wind