The Witness (목격자, Cho Kyu-jang, 2018)

The Witness poster 2The murder of a young woman outside of her New York apartment block in 1964 became a psychology text book standard thanks to the fact no one had raised the alarm or come to help her. Later investigations more or less debunked the so called “bystander effect”, at least in this instance, but it remains broadly true that those who find themselves witnessing a distressing incident fully expect that “someone” will be dealing with it, conveniently forgetting that they too are “someone”. The hero of Cho Kyu-jang’s The Witness (목격자, Mokgyeokja) is only one of many to temporarily distance himself from his community when he fears he has locked eyes with a killer and inadvertently made his family a target for retribution.

Sang-hoon (Lee Sung-min), a middle-class lawyer, is riding high after buying a new apartment (with a hefty mortgage) for his wife and daughter. Rolling home drunk after an evening drinking with colleagues, he opens yet another beer and gazes out over the balcony of his new apartment musing on how great his life is only to be confronted with a screaming woman being chased by a violent man in the courtyard. She falls and the man strikes her. Sang-hoon struggles for his phone but drops it in drunken shock. His wife emerges from the bedroom and alerts the killer to their presence by turning the lights on. Sang-hoon snaps them off and goes back to the balcony where he is convinced the killer has seen him. Paranoid, he forgets all about the poor woman bleeding on the concrete below and spends the night in his hallway clutching a baseball bat just in case.

He doesn’t know it yet, but Sang-hoon has indeed made himself a target for a marauding “random” killer. Afraid and ashamed, he decides to keep quiet. It would be easy enough to read Sang-hoon’s unwillingness to get “involved” in other people’s business as a hangover from an upbringing in an authoritarian regime in which keeping your head down and your nose clean might be essential tools for survival, but it’s also fair to say that his attitude is defined as much by notions of middle-class respectability as it is by cowardice and selfishness. An old busybody in the apartment block is constantly banging on about the house prices, getting the residents to sign a legal waver promising not to cooperate with the police or the media to avoid the name of the community becoming linked with violent crime. Sang-hoon says he wants to protect not only his wife and daughter, but their home too. His hopes and dreams are bound up with conventional homeownership. This is the way he intended to fulfil his male obligations to protect his family, but now it’s being threatened in a way he never expected and he finds himself tested.

Despite himself, Sang-hoon does feel he ought to help those in need. He bristles when his wife wants him to help out a friend whose child was injured in a car accident that the police didn’t bother to investigate properly, because he knows it’s a lost cause and she’s better to settle. He feels sorry for her, but not enough to rock the boat. Being a lawyer he perhaps knows what a risk it can be when the wrong people know where you live, but he’s at constant battle with himself knowing that the killer is still out there and will likely kill again. If he’d only called an ambulance instead of cowering by the front door, the poor woman might have survived – her death is on his hands as much as the killer’s because he chose to do nothing. The body count will only rise all while Sang-hoon tries to hedge his bets, calculating whether he’s better off keeping quiet and hoping the killer appreciates his complicity or surrendering himself to the police in the hope that they can protect him by taking the killer out of the picture.

Sang-hoon’s desire not to get involved has left him very involved indeed. He hoped it would all go away if he turned a blind eye and kept himself out of it, but like it or not he is a member of a community and he has a responsibility which cannot be abnegated. It turns out the best way to protect your family is protecting other people’s, maintaining a herd immunity to the threat of violent crime. There is, however, a reason they tell you to shout “fire” and not “help” – people are selfish and if they hear fire they know they are in danger too so it’s in their interest to come running, if it’s only you in danger they may not put themselves out. Sang-hoon’s brush with the embodiment of random threat does at least release him from the ingrained isolationism of the aspirant middle-classes in which any kind of fellow feeling is distinctly frowned upon, allowing him free rein to embrace his natural tendency towards altruism safe in the knowledge that his desire to help is not a weakness but a strength that will keep his family safe through the interconnectedness of a compassionate community.


The Witness was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Come, Together (컴, 투게더, Shin Dong-il, 2017)

come, together posterToo fast, too loud, too bright. The pressure cooker society threatens to explode in Shin Dong-il’s sympathetic portrayal of one family’s period of crisis in Come, Together (컴, 투게더). When sorrows come they come not single spies but in battalions – redundancy (of several kinds), betrayal, anxieties academic and financial, the Parks have more than their fare share to deal with but the cumulative effect of their individual troubles quickly overwhelms their ordinary, middle-class existence, exposing the tiny fractures in its foundation hitherto papered over by chasing the dream of materialism.

From the outside the Parks are just like any typical middle-class family. They live in a nice apartment with a greenhouse balcony and plenty of space for three. Dad Beom-goo (Lim Hyung-guk) is a moderately successful salaryman, but his world collapses when he’s abruptly let go in the most insensitive of ways by his slimy boss. Mum Mi-yeong (Lee Hye-eun) is a credit card saleswoman who earns by commission and is well used to the hard sell. Teenage daughter Han-na (Chae Bin) has taken a year out to retake her university entrance exams but is now in limbo after not doing well enough to be accepted but having been ranked 18th on the waiting list, anxiously waiting to find out if enough people decide to decline the place she is so desperate to win.

Beom-goo losing his job of 18 years is not just humiliating and embarrassing, but as the family are already in huge debt it is also extremely worrying. As a middle-aged man, it’s unlikely Beom-goo is going to be able to find a comparable position in Korea’s competitive labour market where switching companies is still not the norm and most employees are hired right out of college. Having spent the last 18 years debasing himself to flatter his bosses, it’s galling in the least to realise he’s simply been replaced with a younger, cheaper employee he himself helped learn the ropes. Deprived of his breadwinner status, Beom-goo is supposed to be doing the housework but the boredom quickly gets to him and he spends most days lounging around in his pants lamenting his sorry state. That is until he meets the man from upstairs (Kim Jae-rok) who happens to be in a similar position and begins to lead Beom-goo astray before hinting at a much darker course for himself than the one he’s set Beom-goo on.

Mi-yeong is now the sole provider but her work is extremely stressful – not just the high pressure world of sales, but the bitchy, backstabbing atmosphere in the mostly female office. The job is to get people to sign up for credit cards they don’t really need and probably can’t afford, adding to the pressures of the consumerist society which have already landed the Parks in financial difficulty themselves. Mi-yeong is good at her job, she knows how to get people to sign on the dotted line but she’s also desperate enough to risk breaking the rules. When she’s undercut by a colleague whose situation she has misread, Mi-yeong takes it extremely personally, vowing revenge not just on the colleague but on the boss who refused to back her up and the client who betrayed her.

Mi-yeong’s rage and resentment are to have tragic, unforeseen consequences, threatening to deliver everything she’d dreamed of but at a terrible price. Han-na faces a similar dilemma as she finds herself staring at the list of 17 people in the queue in front of her and silently hoping some of them get hit by busses. The tense atmosphere at home only adds to Han-na’s stress levels as Beom-goo’s increasing impotence finds him playing father of the house like never before and deliberately undermining her sense of self esteem by repeatedly bringing up her failure to get into college. Unlike either of her parents, Han-na does at least have a positive influence in her life in the form of friend Yoo-gyeong (Lee Sang-hee), whom both her parents disapprove of because of her deliberate choice to live outside the mainstream.

Yoo-gyeong, though only in her early ‘20s, owns her own store selling leather bracelets and uses the proceeds to fund her free spirited lifestyle of taking off backpacking across whichever land takes her fancy. When Han-na says she wishes she could live like Yoo-gyeong, Yoo-gyeong bristles, insisting that she’d support whichever decision Han-na makes but that she ought to live her own life the way she wants rather than emulating someone else. Also, by way of an aside, she points out that people seem to assume she does exactly as she pleases but that’s not quite the case. In fact, it may be that Yoo-gyeong is, in a sense, forced to live a life outside of the mainstream simply by virtue of who she is and that her frequent flights to pastures new are a kind of escape or of running away from various social pressures at home.

Irrespective of whether or not they get what they thought it was they wanted, each is forced to reassess their way of living, realising that their relentless pursuit of material gain and the socially accepted definition of success has only made them miserable. Rather than continuing down the road to ruin, the Parks decide to choose happiness by simply dropping out, resetting their lives with the intention of doing what it is they want to do rather than what it is they think they’re supposed to. Waking up from a conformist delusion reawakens the freedom to embrace individual desires but it also restores the family to its previously happy state, released from the strain of modern life in favour of simpler, more essential pleasures.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (select English subtitles from captions menu)