The Chase (반드시 잡는다, Kim Hong-sun, 2017)

The Chase posterKorea may not quite be facing such an ageing population crisis as neighbouring nations, but old age has become a persistent cinematic preoccupation. We’ve seen old women still engaging in acts of prostitution to support themselves in the absence of family (and indeed the state), serial killers becoming dangerously confused, and ageing grandmother’s attempt to see the beauty in a world that seems to be descending into chaos. What The Chase (반드시 잡는다 Bandeusi Jabneunda) shows us is that the elderly do at least have time on their hands that could well be used for fighting crime and protecting the vulnerable.

If you were appointing elderly street guardians, you probably wouldn’t pick Deok-soo (Baek Yoon-sik). A curmudgeonly landlord with a conviction that everyone is out to diddle him on their rent, Deok-soo complains loudly when a body is found in a nearby area because it’s going to damage property prices. People who are supposed to die should just die, he exclaims, that’s patriotism! You can bet your bottom dollar Deok-soo voted for Park Geun-hye, but despite his grumpy exterior he has a soft heart as one of his young charges reveals when she reminds him that he’s never thrown anyone out just because they didn’t pay up. Deok-soo has taken quite a (paternal) liking to Ji-eun (Kim Hye-in), a young woman living alone away from family in one of his horrible little apartments. Aside from her rent arrears and tendency to let her mixed up friend stay over so often that she virtually lives there, Ji-eun is one of Deok-soo’s favourite tenants.

Which is perhaps why he gets himself so involved when she suddenly goes missing after a shock discovery is made in her flat. Other than the first body which got Deok-soo so worked up, a few other elderly people have been passing away in lonely deaths which, sadly, isn’t particularly suspicious save that the pattern matches that from an unsolved serial murder case from 30 years ago which began with the killing of old people and then progressed to sexually aggravated murder of young women with long dark hair – just like Ji-eun.

Aside from the ongoing serial killer plot, director Kim Hong-sun makes space for depicting the various problems faced by the elderly in contemporary Korea. The first problems are loneliness and dislocation caused by separation from family members – many of the older people Deok-soo is familiar with have children overseas whom they have all but lost touch with. The second problem is economic – Deok-soo’s flats are dirt cheap for a reason and mostly inhabited by the very young and the very old, i.e. people without a lot of “disposable” income. Being elderly, they often can’t find jobs and don’t have access to a proper pension leading many to take to the streets protesting for rights for the aged including that to work or to be given state support. Deok-soo is lucky with income from renting the apartments, but he also works as a locksmith which brings in a few extra pennies. Being Deok-soo he isn’t particularly worried about other people less lucky than himself, so he rolls his eyes at the protests but is worried enough by the lonely deaths to ask one of his tenants to look in on him every now and then to avoid becoming one.

Meanwhile, Deok-soo has become “friends” with a retired police detective who’s convinced the serial killer he failed to catch 30 years ago is back. Worried that Ji-eun may end up among his victims, Deok-soo begins investigating, unwittingly getting himself mixed up in a dark and confusing world of old school hardboiled only Pyeong-dal (Sung Dong-il) is not quite as worthy a guide as he seemed. Walking around like a maverick cop from a violent ‘70s action movie, Pyeong-dal is convinced he knows who the killer is but he is old and unsteady and his mind is not perhaps reliable.

Then again a persistent subplot seems to argue that the young have no respect for age, are selfish and corrupt, thinking only of short term pleasures and forgetting that they too will one day be old with no one around to look after them. No one takes Deok-soo and Pyeong-dal seriously, they are after all just grumpy old men that everyone wants to get rid of as quickly as possible. They do, however, (paradoxically) have time to indulge in “silly” ideas that the young do not have and are, therefore, perfectly positioned to take down a serial killer who preys on the weak and vulnerable including old men like them and pretty young girls like Ji-eun. Old guys have still got it, at least according to The Chase, though they might have got there faster if only they’d cut the young whippersnappers some slack.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Also available to stream on Netflix.

International trailer (English subtitles)

In Between Seasons (환절기, Lee Dong-eun, 2016)

In Between Seasons posterIt’s a strange thing to say, but no two people can ever know the same person in the same way. We’re all, in a sense, in between each other, only holding some of the pieces in the puzzle of other people’s lives. Lee Dong-eun’s debut feature, In Between Seasons (환절기, Hwanjeolgi), is the story of three people who love each other deeply but find that love tested by secrets, resentments, cultural taboos and a kind of unwilling selfishness.

Beginning at the mid-point with a violent car crash, Lee then flashes back four years perviously as Soo-hyun (Ji Yun-ho) introduces his new friend, Yong-joon (Lee Won-gun), to his mother, Mi-keyong (Bae Jong-ok). Soo-hyun’s father has been living abroad in the Philippines for some time and so it’s just the two of them, while Yong-joon’s uneasy sadness is easily explained away on learning that his mother recently committed suicide. Thankful that her son has finally made a friend and feeling sorry for Yong-joon, Mi-kyeong practically adopts him, welcoming him into their home where he becomes a more or less permanent fixture until the boys leave high school.

Four years later, Soo-hyun and Yong-joon are both involved in the car crash which opened the film. Yong-joon has only minor injuries, but Soo-hyun is in a deep coma with possibly irreversible brain damage. It’s at this point that Mi-kyeong finally realises the true nature of the relationship between her son and his friend – that they had been close, inseparable lovers, and that she had never known about it.

When Mi-kyeong receives the phone call to tell her that her son has been in an accident, her friends are joking about their own terrible boys. As one puts it, there are three things a son should never tell his mother – the first being that he’s going to become a monk, the second that he’s going to buy a motorcycle, and the third is something so terrible they can’t even say it out loud. Mi-kyeong’s reaction to discovering her son is gay is predictably negative. Despite having cared for Yong-joon as a mother all these years, she can no longer bear to look at him and tells him on no uncertain terms not come visiting again. Yet for all that her reaction is only half informed by prevailing cultural norms, it’s not so much shame or disgust that she feels as resentment. Here is a man who loves her son, only differently than she does, and therefore knows things about him she never will or could hope to. She is forced to realise that the image she had of Soo-hyun is largely self created and the realisation leaves her feeling betrayed, let down, and rejected.

Both Mi-kyeong and Yong-joon ask the question “What have I done wrong?” at several points in the film – Yong-joon most notably when he’s rejected by Mi-kyeong without explanation, and Mi-kyeong when she’s considering why she’s not been included in the wedding plans for a friend’s daughter. Both Mi-kyeong and Yong-joon are made to feel excluded because they make people “uncomfortable” – Yong-joon because of his sexuality (which he continues to keep secret from his colleagues at work), and Mi-kyeong because of her grief-stricken purgatory. No one quite knows what to say to her, or wants to think about the pain and suffering she must be experiencing. They may claim they don’t want to upset her with something as joyous as a wedding but really it’s more that they don’t want her sadness to cast a shadow over the occasion.

Gradually the ice begins to thaw as Mi-kyeong allows Yong-joon back into her life again even if she can’t quite come to terms with his feelings for her son, describing him as a “friend” and embarrassed by his presence in front of her sister and other visitors. Soo-hyun’s illness and subsequent dependency ironically enough push Mi-kyeong towards the kind of independence she had always rejected – finally learning to drive, sorting out her difficult marital circumstances, and starting to live for herself as well as for her son. Yong-joon remains stubborn and in love, refusing to be shut out of Soo-hyun’s life even whilst considering the best way to live his own. Beautifully composed in all senses of the word, Lee’s frames are filled with anxious longing and inexpressible sadness tempered with occasional joy. Too astute to opt for a crowd pleasing victory, Lee ends on a more realistic note of hopeful ambiguity with anxiety seemingly exorcised and replaced with tranquil, easy sleep.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017. In Between Seasons will also be screened at the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham on 11th November.

Trailer/behind the scenes EPK (no subtitles)

Interview with director Lee Dong-eun conducted during the film’s screening at the Busan International Film Festival in 2016.

Chilsu and Mansu (칠수와 만수, Park Kwang-su, 1988)

Chilsu MansuThough not a big box office hit at the time of its release, Park Kwang-su’s Chilsu and Mansu (칠수와 만수, Chil-su wa Man-su) is not only fondly remembered by its contemporary audience chiefly because of the amusing performances of its still popular leading actors, but is also credited with kicking off what would become known as Korean New Wave. Released in 1988 and set sometime in 1987, this is the new Seoul emerging into democracy after decades of military rule and looking ahead to the glory of the 1988 Seoul olympics. However, as ever, the future has not been evenly distributed and there are those who find themselves unable to climb its ladder through no fault of their own.

Based on a story by (banned at the time) Taiwanese writer Huang Chunming, the film begins with the blaring sirens which denote a “civil defence drill” is about to take place. Chilsu is forced off the bus he’d been travelling on and takes refuge in a video arcade where he encounters college student Jina. After the drill ends Chilsu continues to pursue her at her job working part-time in a Burger King. When he gets back to work, Chilsu finds that his boss has paid someone else to cover the time he was missing. Chilsu argues with him and quits but pesters the man he’s just met, Mansu, to take him on as an assistant and help him find work. The pair become friends and begin working together as billboard painters but one fateful outburst seems fit to change both of their lives forever.

Chilsu is an animated fellow who’s constantly wandering off to do his own thing to the consternation of everyone else. He’s a chancer and an opportunist and, as it turns out, a compulsive liar. Almost everything he says is untrue. In order to get closer Jina, he tells her he’s an art student and tries to impress her by speaking English with stories of going to America to study where his brother has a house in Miami. He dresses like Bruce Springsteen and has Stars and Stripes patterned T-shirts but his taste for Americana is merely aspirational, he has no education or connections and his stories about going to America to study are a fantasy. He does have an older sister who has apparently been disowned by their father for fraternising with Americans and may have have gone to America with a man, but no one even knows if she’s alive or dead.

Mansu, by contrast is sullen and standoffish. He drinks too much and says little though his anger is of the subdued kind. His problem is that his father had, and continues to have, communist sympathies which he refuses to renounce. This causes a problem for Mansu because each time he receives a background check he gets flagged up and in one notable instance he’s refused a passport that would enable him to take an overseas job precisely because of his father’s record. He’s trapped in poorly paid menial work through no fault of his own simply because of something that his father did that is nothing at all to do with him.

Chilsu is also resentful of his father who worked as a “houseboy” for the American military but now does nothing much of anything at all. After Chilsu’s mother died, his father remarried and lives off his second wife’s earnings. A drunk and a layabout, Chilsu’s father sets a poor example for his son who is terrified of becoming just as feckless and miserable as his deadbeat dad. Both men are paying the price for the actions of the previous generation who have left them with nothing but barriers preventing them from escaping the years of difficulty for the bright and shining future that men like themselves are building for other people’s sons to prosper in.

The climax of the film occurs as the pair are just finishing a giant billboard for an alcoholic drink and are taking a break. Chilsu climbs up on top of the billboard and Mansu goes up to join him. The pair get chatting and Chilsu eventually confesses his lies as he realises all of his dreams have been shattered. He has no hope left, no possible future to consider. Mansu is now angry for both of them and takes this opportunity to scream in rage into the uncaring void that is the expanding city below. Obviously, they can’t be heard or understood but the pair’s wild gesticulations create quite a show for the people down below and a crowd starts to gather. This results in the police being called and a further agressive motion by Chilsu makes them think the pair have petrol bombs. Neither of the two quite realises the fuss they’ve caused by unwittingly making a “political protest”, possible suicide bid or perhaps both. This absurd misunderstanding will have profound consequences for both of them.

This final scene continues the tragicomical tone that has characterised the film so far which adds to its absurdist quality rather than pushing it into a harder political statement. Chilsu and Mansu was the first film of Park Kwang-su who had already been politically active during the dark years of the dictatorship and was committed to socially-conscious filmmaking. Kicking off a similar trend for years to come, Chilsu and Mansu is an early example of commercial realist cinema that although not a big hit on original release has gone on to be regarded as an enormously important step in the history of modern Korean cinema.


Chilsu and Mansu is the fourth in the Korean Film Archive’s series of remastered blu-ray releases and like the others in the series includes English subtitles on not only the main feature but also the commentary track with director Park Kwang-su and film critic Kim Young-jin. The discs also boast an image gallery and the set comes with a 42 page booklet in both English and Korean plus a 20 page photo booklet.

You can also watch the entirety of Chilsu and Mansu (pre-restoration version) with English subtitles for free via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel

No trailer but here’s a prominent song from the film’s soundtrack which includes some early Korean rap: