OK! Madam (오케이 마담, Lee Cheol-ha, 2020)

“If I have to die I’ll die in business class” a passenger insists, refusing her hijacker’s instructions to move to the more egalitarian section of the plane. Partly a social comedy in which a cast of disparate individuals respond in their idiosyncratic ways to an airborne hostage crisis, Lee Cheol-ha’s Ok! Madam (오케이 마담) is also an unconventional family drama in which an impoverished family go to great lengths to save their very first family holiday. 

Mum Mi-young (Uhm Jung-hwa) runs a successful twisted doughnut stand at the market, while her husband Seok-hwan (Park Sung-woong) is an in-demand IT expert. Yet financially the family is strained with Mi-young apparently exasperated that Seok-hwan keeps wasting money buying vitamin drinks in the hope of winning giveaway prizes. When they finally get lucky and win a dream trip to Hawaii, the couple are originally over the moon only for the penny pinching Mi-young to reconsider. Perhaps it’s irresponsible to take time off from their businesses and selling the prize online would be the more sensible option. When their daughter, Nari, complains that the other kids make fun of her because of her parents’ professions and the fact she’s never been abroad, however, Mi-young reconsiders. She may later regret that, as their dream family getaway is quite literally hijacked by North Korean spies who believe a fugitive former agent may be aboard their plane. 

Lee keeps up a sense of suspense as to the identity of the former North Korean agent even if the twist is a fairly obvious one. The other passengers on the plane are a minor microcosm of the contemporary society, one of the most vocal a feisty mother-in-law who’s forced her son’s wife on a long haul flight in the final trimester of her pregnancy so she can give birth on American soil and guarantee her child US citizenship. Other passengers meanwhile gossip about a famous actress while an arrogant politician constantly throws his weight about and an old man travelling to meet family bitterly regrets starting a conversation with Seok-hwan. 

Much of the comedy rests, ironically, on class disparity as the penny pinching Mi-young resolves to make the most of her unexpected upgrade to business class on learning everything’s free while the snooty mother-in-law quips about trying to engineer her grandchild’s access to American citizenship only to wonder if they might end up being born North Korean. Seok-hwan even jokingly brands his wife a “communist” for her financial austerity as she contemplates passing up personal pleasure for financial gain, while North Korean agents targeting the plane are eventually torn apart by infighting with some determining to sell off the rogue agent rather than simply capture them alive as instructed. 

Nevertheless, the main draw is the awesome fighting skills of Mi-young who finds herself donning a stewardess outfit and taking out the bad guys aboard the unexpectedly cavernous aircraft. Simultaneously enforcing and undercutting conventional gender norms, Mi-young had forced her daughter to learn ballet against her will even though Nari would rather learn taekwondo and is always watching action movies on TV. In a meta touch, an actress confesses that it’s just her face someone else does the actual fighting while Mi-young effortlessly takes out rows of bad guys who, it is has to be said, are not much of an advert for North Korean special forces. 

The hostage crisis in its own way brings the family closer together as they fight not only to save the plane, and everybody’s lives, but their dream Hawaiian holiday. Discovering mutual secrets and past lives, even encountering an old flame, the couple enter a deeper level of intimacy while remaining true to themselves and solidifying their family bond, little Nari’s taekwondo dreams apparently coming true after witnessing her mum showing off her action star credentials. At heart a slapstick comedy with a touch of ironic farce, OK! Madam rejoices in sending up national stereotypes from the clueless penny pinching housewife to the feckless competition-obsessed husband, celebrity obsessives, and self-absorbed politicians but also insists the most ordinary of people have hidden talents they’ll have no hesitation exposing when their loved ones are in danger. 


OK! Madam screens on July 5/7/9 as part of this year’s Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF)

International trailer (English subtitles)

Master (마스터, Cho Ui-seok, 2016)

master posterCorruption has become a major theme in Korean cinema. Perhaps understandably given current events, but you’ll have to look hard to find anyone occupying a high level corporate, political, or judicial position who can be counted worthy of public trust in any Korean film from the democratic era. Cho Ui-seok’s Master (마스터) goes further than most in building its case higher and harder as its sleazy, heartless, conman of an antagonist casts himself onto the world stage as some kind of international megastar promising riches to the poor all the while planning to deprive them of what little they have. The forces which oppose him, cerebral cops from the financial fraud devision, may be committed to exposing his criminality but they aren’t above playing his game to do it.

“Entrepreneur” Jin Hyun-pil (Lee Byung-hun), CEO of the One Network financial organisation which is about to make an unprecedented move into investment banking, is in the middle of an energising speech to his investors. He’s booked a massive stadium with lighting and stage effects worthy of a veteran rock star and is doing his best snake oil speech to convince the ordinary people who’ve invested their life savings in his obviously dodgy pyramid scheme that he’s going to make banking great again by handing ownership back to the masses. Many are convinced by his inspirational attitude, but Captain Kim Jae-myung (Gang Dong-won) of the financial crimes division smells a rat. He knows there’s something very wrong here and is determined to bring Jin down before his exploits ruin the lives of even more innocent families just trying to make a better life for themselves.

Their way in is through Jin’s systems guy, Park (Kim Woo-bin), who’s been in on the scam from the beginning but is pretty much amoral and has been working his own angle on the whole thing. Spineless and opportunistic, Park is primed for police manipulation even if it takes him a few flip-flops before he picks any kind of side aside from his own. Kim is after Jin’s mysterious ledger which contains a host of information on his backers which would cause considerable damage to those involved and give the police the kind of leverage they need to expose Jin’s enterprise for what it really is. However, before they can spring the trap, Jin escapes with his ill gotten gains and goes into hiding leaving hundreds of innocent families who’ve fallen victim to his scams destitute, frightened, and humiliated.

Playing against type, Lee Byun-hun inhabits his sleazy, TV evangelist meets cult leader of a villainous conman with relish as he lies, cheats, steals and weasels his way out of trouble. After a potential liability is killed, Jin enjoys his crimson morning smoothie with unusual delight leaving a bright red bloodstain across his upper lip as he ironically mutters “what a shame” watching the news footage of his flunky’s death. Not content with the vast amount of money he stole by exploiting the innocent dreams of people with little else, Jin tries the same thing again abroad, taking his “wife” Mama (Jin Kyung) with him though even she seems to know Jin is not to be trusted and could turn on her at any moment. Cornered, the only words of wisdom Jin has to offer is that perhaps he made a mistake in trying to run to the Philippines, he should have tried Thailand instead.

Starring three of South Korea’s biggest actors, Lee Byun-hun, Gang Dong-won, and Kim Woo-bin, Master takes on an almost tripartite structure as the upper hand passes between the three protagonists. Systems analyst Park is mostly out for himself and switches between each side more times than can be counted before gaining something like a conscience and committing to a particular cause while Kim and Jin mastermind a cat and mouse game advancing and retreating yet stepping further into each other’s territory. The game is an ugly one. Master is a fitting and timely indictment of those who make impossible promises to vulnerable people desperate enough to take the bait in the hope of making a better life for themselves and their families, yet it also fails to capitalise on its themes, preferring to leave them as subtle background elements to the cerebral games of one-upmanship and fractured loyalties between Jin, Kim, and Park. Over long at 143 minutes, Master is unevenly paced yet picks up for its Manila set, action packed finale which is out of keeping with much of what has gone before but ends things on an entertaining, upbeat note as justice is served, wrongs righted, and the truth revealed.


Master was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)