A Single Spark (아름다운 청년 전태일, Park Kwang-su, 1995)

In the present day, South Korea has become a prosperous society and leading world economy, but the miracle of its modernisation came at a heavy price. Socially committed filmmaker Park Kwang-su’s A Single Spark (아름다운 청년 전태일, Areumdaun cheongnyeon Jeon Tae-il) takes a trip back to the “truly dark days” of the Park Chung-hee dictatorship to expose the exploitation on which the modern society was, and in fact still is, founded, enabled largely by the wilful misuse of a fear of “communism” as manifested in the problematic presence of threat from “the North”.

Park filters his true life tale through the figure of a fictionalised author and activist, Kim (Moon Sung-Keun), who finds himself on the run from the authorities in 1975. Hiding out in a small town in a backroom rented by his pregnant factory worker girlfriend Jung-soon (Kim Sunjae), Kim is working on a biography of a labour rights activist, Jeon Tae-il, who self-immolated in order to protest the failure to properly enforce existing workers’ rights five years’ earlier in 1970.

Switching to crisp black and white, Park paints a bleak picture of working class life in the late 1960s as the oppressive Park Chung-hee regime imposed extreme export goals designed to boost the local economy. We first meet Jeon (Hong Kyeong-in), who was only 22 at the time of his death, selling umbrellas on the street before he is “lucky” enough to get a job in a tailoring factory. Committing himself to working hard and getting on, he is quickly disillusioned with conditions at the plant which has little light or ventilation and often forces its employees to work through the night without adequate breaks for food. When the young woman next to him begins vomiting blood and is sent home but subsequently fired, Jeon becomes radicalised. Told that there are no laws which protect workers, he is surprised to discover that there are but their existence has been wilfully kept from him. The law is written in a language which is almost impossible for him to understand, in highly formal text using Chinese characters which most ordinary Koreans, never mind those like Jeon denied a proper education, struggle to read.

Jeon begins agitating. He takes a copy of the statutes and a series of violations at the factory to those in charge, but no one is interested. Even when he convinces some of the other workers to come with him, the boss is eventually forced to make a token concession of listening to them but ultimately rolls his eyes and says it’s all very well but not good for business. Jeon isn’t asking for anything radical (save the later addition of provision for menstrual leave), only for better ventilation and for the existing laws to be obeyed.

Meanwhile, Kim meditates on his legacy in the dark days of 1975 where anti-communist sentiment runs high in the wake of the end of the Vietnam War. “Anti-communism” and the demonisation of the North were a central part of Park Chung-hee’s right-wing, nationalist military dictatorship and any attempts to form things like unions or left-leaning political associations were quickly decried as “communist”. Kim’s girlfriend Jung-soon is currently involved in trying to set up a union at her factory to combat many of the same kinds of issues that Jeon was fighting five years’ earlier, but she too is under a lot of pressure. Afraid of the authorities and of losing their jobs, many workers refuse to join and even after she reaches her quota the request for recognition is denied. She and the other activists are harassed by factory management beginning with a “friendly” meeting outside her home in which they try to bribe her with money and expensive fruits, and ending with a raid on the building in which some of the workers are holding a protest during which a woman falls ill and the others are badly beaten when they try to get her to a hospital.

Jeon and the others are lectured by management that they should try to feel more “patriotic” and be willing to suffer in order to raise the economy, bribed with false promises that they’ll all be driving luxury cars in 10 years’ time. Meanwhile, a woman coming to collect money from Jeon’s mother angrily exclaims that debtors should take rat poison and die (which seems counterproductive when they owe you money), and the managers dismiss workers’ concerns with the rationale that they obviously “aren’t hungry enough” to put up with starvation wages and poor working conditions. From the vantage point of 1975, Kim meditates on Jeon’s sacrifice as he witnesses the suicide of another young man, Kim Sang-jin – a student who quoted Thomas Jefferson’s words that democracy is an outcome of struggle at a rally at Seoul National University in April 1975 before publicly slashing his belly. He sees the tragedy of Jeon’s death as the “single spark” which lit a fire under the democracy movement, a torch he wants to pick up and keep aflame to guide them towards a better future.

20 years later, Park may be acknowledging that some battles have been won in a newly democratised Korea as Kim looks on with satisfaction in a peaceful marketplace while a student carries the book he has written about Jeon Tae-il under his arm, but implicitly suggests that not enough has changed and the same battles Jeon was fighting are still being fought. A melancholy meditation on political martyrdom, art, and legacy, A Single Spark pays tribute to those who gave their lives for a fairer world but is equally intent that their sacrifice must not be forgotten.


A Single Spark was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Ticket (티켓, Im Kwon-taek, 1986)

Ticket posterThe times may have changed but the double standard is still very much in existence in Im Kwon-taek’s Ticket (티켓). Set in a tabang ticket bar – a delivery coffee establishment in which customers may by “tickets” for unspecified “services”, Ticket follows five ordinary women in Kangwon Province who’ve found themselves trapped in the world of casual sex work for various different reasons but each dreaming of finding something better in the difficult mid-80s economy.

Im opens with stern madam Ji-suk (Kim Ji-Mi) selecting three pretty girls from an employment office to work at her bar in rural Kangwon Province. As she explains, the cafe is located in a quiet port town and mainly caters to seamen and tourists. Ji-suk views refinement as one of her selling points and so she expects her ladies to mind their manners and avoid vulgarity. The girls were given an advance on their wages as a signing bonus, but are technically indentured servants until they pay it off which may take some time seeing as Ji-suk is fond of adding fines onto their accounts should they break any of her rules or request any additional advances for work related expenses such as medical fees, clothing, or cosmetics.

While two of the new recruits, Miss Hong (Lee Hye-young) and Miss Yang (Ahn So-young), have had experience of this type of work before, Se-yeong (Jeon Se-yeong) is much younger and struggles to come to terms with the nature of the job, frequently incurring Ji-suk’s wrath by running out on clients who get fresh. Miss Ju (Myeong Hui), who has been working at the tabang for three years with ballooning debts, tries to warn the girls that in order to avoid her mistakes they should abide by three rules – cash only, no mercy, and no repeats. All quite sensible rules in theory but difficult to enforce in practice.

Unlike Miss Hong and Miss Yang who’ve come from impoverished rural backgrounds, Se-yeong is from Seoul but has found herself responsible not only for her immediate family but also for her down on his luck student boyfriend Min-su (Choi Dong-joon) who is currently studying to become a teacher but struggling to support himself. Min-su, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, hasn’t quite figured out that the girls don’t really just deliver coffee but in any case remains conflicted over his dependence on Se-yeong for money. Still struggling to accommodate herself to sex work, Se-yeong eventually decides to seduce a friendly sea captain as a means of easing herself into it while also trying to get Min-su a job on his boat.

Meanwhile, Miss Yang dreams of becoming an actress and is naive enough to think sleeping with a famous actor will help, and Miss Hong concentrates on being the best but usually ends up getting herself into trouble. Miss Ju, a divorcee, misses her son while Jin-suk turns out to have a sad story of her own in which she was driven into sex work after her husband, a dissident poet, was picked up by the authorities in less liberal times. Unable to bear the shame she left him, but still harbours hope he may find her again only to have that hope cruelly dashed with the stark message that life is like a bus – if you miss it, it won’t come back for you. Each of these women has, in a sense, already missed a bus and is stuck in Kangwon for the foreseeable future with no clear way out.

Though Jin-suk seemed the toughest and the least sentimental of the ladies, it’s she who wants “forgiveness” most of all which is perhaps why she goes to the trouble of taking Min-su to task for his unreasonable treatment of Se-yeong. Pointing out that nobody chooses this way of life freely, Jin-suk snaps on realising that there really are no sympathetic men and all now view her and her girls as “dirty” while continuing to use their services. Im closes with an improbably happy ending, if ambiguously, which promises a more positive future for each of our ladies as they manage to find ways out of the rural sex industry and into something more hopeful but even this abrupt tonal shift only serves to reinforce the miraculous nature of their sudden opportunities in a society which appears to remain hostile to their very existence.


Ticket was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

A Special Lady (미옥, Lee An-gyu, 2017)

A Special Lady posterAll you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun – so goes the age old wisdom. Korean cinema, it has to be said, has been in a fairly progressive mood of late with several high profile female-led action movies to complement the macho melodrama that has become synonymous with the nation’s cinematic output. There has, however, been a slight imbalance in the way these films have been presented – yes, women carry guns and issue roundhouse kicks to the face but they do so out of maternal fire. This obsession with corrupted motherhood finds a natural home in Lee An-gyu’s A Special Lady (미옥, Miok) which puts puts Kim Hye-soo in a blonde wig and then asks her to do pretty much what she did in Coin Locker Girl only more sympathetically.

Na Hyun-jung (Kim Hye-soo) has risen from lowly bar girl and exploited sex worker to be the right-hand woman of mob boss Kim (Choi Moo-sung). Marshalling a collection of (well cared for) high class call girls, her main stock in trade is blackmail – she sends her girls out as honey traps to capture “important” people, bring them back to the “hotel” for illicit “fun”, and film them in the act to compel them to work in the best interests of the gang. The plan usually works, but snotty prosecutor Choi (Lee Hee-joon), who has just returned from his honeymoon after marrying the boss’ daughter, liked to think of himself as having integrity and is hell bent on revenge against the villainous Na. Exploiting weaknesses already exposed within the gang including the stormy romance between Na and ambitious foot soldier Lim (Lee Sun-Kyun), and the return of Na’s illegitimate son with boss Kim whose wife and (legitimate) child were murdered by a rival organisation, Choi sets about taking it down in an unorthodox way as a means of getting his sex tape back but also fulfilling his commitment to “justice”.

The English title, A Special Lady, has an awkward spin to it with its mobster-esque patter hinting at a classy bar girl or much loved peripheral figure. The Korean title which is simply a woman’s name gives a better indication of the tale at hand in its emphasis on loss of innocence, fall, and rebirth as something or someone else. Na is certainly well versed in the gangster world, perfectly equipped to operate within it both in her physical prowess and also in her emotional control, politicking, and ability to strategise, yet she also operates outside of gang structures with many, including Lim who has long been in love with her, resenting that a mere woman holds such a high position with such proximity to Kim.

This marginal status extends to Na’s feminised perspective which reduces her to a figure of ruined motherhood. Na takes care of her girls, as a mother would, entrusting them to another woman who acts as their madam but is fiercely loyal to her, more nanny than henchman. Her major preoccupation is with the son she was forced to give up as an infant after spending time on the inside on behalf of the gang. Joo-hwan (Kim Min-suk) is Kim’s son and heir and the mob boss has been careful to keep him overseas to keep him safe, but either because of persistent parental absence or his gangster genes, the boy keeps getting himself expelled for violent conduct and Kim thinks it’s probably time to bring him home and verse him in his heritage. Na has long wanted to be reunited with her almost grown up son, but he has no idea she is his mother and believes he is the son of Kim’s deceased wife. When Joo-hwan is threatened and then turned against her by vicious rumours, Na will stop at nothing to ensure his safety even if he never knows who she really is.

Na’s descent into ferocious fighting machine, attacking a field full of mobsters with a bone saw, is the rage of a mother whose child is threatened. She doesn’t fight them off because she wants to survive, or for revenge, or simply because they are from a rival gang but because they threaten her children both in the case of one of her girls who happens to be with Na, and of course their targeting of Joo-hwan solely to get to his mother. The world of the film is a persistently misogynistic one – not just in the way women are routinely used as a means to an end by the gangsters, and by Na herself, but in the way that Na struggles to be accepted as a valid member of the gangster hierarchy rather than an adjunct to it as an honorary manager of the female contingent. Lim, who feels displaced by her in his status within the gang, is also desperately in love with Na who seems to return his feelings on some level but ultimately turns him down – something he can not accept, stooping so low as to threaten Na’s child to blackmail her into accepting him despite his intense resentment on finding out about her previous relationship with Kim.

Unexpected action hero status aside, Na becomes nothing more than a figure of corrupted motherhood who must be “repaired” through saving her son and then by retiring to become a more “normal” maternal figure. The debut from Lee An-gyu, A Special Lady features a number of well choreographed action scenes, strikingly composed images, and impressive production design but all too often falls back on tired ideas as its heroine battles valiantly to save her son with the intention of “rescuing” herself in the process.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)