Unstoppable (성난황소, Kim Min-ho, 2018)

Unstoppable poster 5Can a person ever really change? The answer might be more complex than it seems but then again, you might not quite want them to change as much as you might think you do. Ma Dong-seok is quickly becoming Korean cinema’s MVP, in the genre stakes at least, and has begun to make a career for himself as a big hearted teddy bear of a man with gigantic heavy fists. It’s a legacy he very much embraces in the oddly light hearted Unstoppable (성난황소, Seongnan Hwangso) which sees him play a former gangster gone straight whose latent violent streak is reawakened when he becomes a warrior for love.

Dong-cheol (Ma Dong-seok) was once a notorious tough guy but gave up the streets when he met “an angel”, nurse Ji-soo (Song Ji-hyo), and married her. These days, he works a regular low pay labour job at the fish market but is always dreaming of better things which is why he’s constantly getting scammed by the latest get rich quick scheme proposed by one of his dodgy friends. The trouble starts when Dong-cheol is rear ended by some shady types and gets out of his car to ask for insurance details. Sensing danger but now fully reformed, Dong-cheol remains calm and refuses to engage but Ji-soo isn’t having any of it. She verbally lays into the gangsters and insists on compensation. When Dong-cheol returns home to find his apartment in disarray after arguing with Ji-soo about his unwise financial decisions during a birthday dinner at a fancy restaurant they can’t afford, he has an inkling about what may have occurred but finds the police slow and unsympathetic leaving him to take matters into his own hands.

Unlike many a similarly themed action drama, Unstoppable is keen to emphasise the sweet and innocent love between Dong-cheol and Ji-soo with even the climactic argument between them neutered shortly before Ji-soo is taken. Dong-cheol is not a violent man at heart, but is prepared to meet violence with violence where necessary and he does not like to lose. He takes damage, but never gives up the fight not because he’s angry and hellbent on revenge but because he loves his wife and is desperate to make sure nothing bad happens to her while he is around to prevent it. Meanwhile, Ji-soo is far from a damsel in distress. Refusing to be cowed, she keeps her wits about her and protects the other women kidnapped by the gang while she looks for a way to escape.

The fact is, there seem to have been a lot of unexplained disappearances of young women in this city – something which Dong-cheol becomes aware of while hanging around the police station, yet the authorities have not made much headway on the case. Dong-cheol quickly works out that he’s potentially dealing with an organised crime network which makes its money out of trafficking kidnapped women all over Asia and that, unlike himself, the families of these women largely opted to take the “compensation” money left in their place by the gangsters rather than fight back. This in itself annoys him, though not quite as much as being forced to play the gangsters’ game in order to maximise the chances of getting to Ji-soo before it’s too late.

What quickly becomes apparent to flamboyant gangster Ki-tae (Kim Sung-oh) is that he’s made quite a big mistake, even if that mistake might be more fun than hassle. Ji-soo is not the victim type and her husband will stop at nothing to get her back which means he’s fighting a war on two fronts, both surprised and somewhat amused to be met with such unexpected resistance. Still, Dong-cheol is determined to barrel through fists flying while his bumbling sidekicks – old comrade Choon-sik (Park Ji-hwan) and fast talking fixer Gomsajang (Kim Min-jae), handle the investigation from the sidelines. Undercutting the essential darkness of the “lone vigilante takes on heinous human trafficking ring” narrative with warmhearted humour, Unstoppable proves an ideal vehicle for the increasingly popular Ma Dong-seok which finds unexpected sweetness in the genuine connection between its perfectly matched husband and wife team.


Unstoppable was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Memories of a Dead End (막다른 골목의 추억, Choi Hyun-young, 2018)

Memories of a dead end posterSometimes dead ends show up unexpectedly, as the heroine of Memories of a Dead End (막다른 골목의 추억, Makdareun Kolmokui Chueok) points out while ruminating on the abrupt revelation which has just rendered all her life’s hopes and dreams null and void. Adapted from the Banana Yoshimoto novella, Choi Hyun-young’s debut feature follows a young-ish Korean woman to Japan where she finds out something she probably knew already but didn’t quite want to accept and, thanks to the kindness of strangers, begins to see a way forward where she feared there might not be one.

Yumi (Sooyoung), a woman in her late 20s from a wealthy family, has been engaged to Tae-gyu (Ahn Bo-hyun) for the last few years but he has been working away in Japan supposedly preparing for their shared future. Unable to get in touch with him and worried he seems to be dodging her calls and refusing to return her texts, Yumi decides (against the advice of her steadfast sister) to go to Japan and confront him. Sadly, her family were right when they advised her that perhaps she should just forget her fiancé and move on. Tae-gyu has met someone else. On arriving at his apartment, Yumi is greeted by another woman who knows exactly who she is and why she’s come, but takes no pleasure in explaining that she and Tae-gyu plan to marry and were hoping Yumi would take the hint given a little more time.

Confused and heartbroken, Yumi checks into a hotel for the night planning to return to Korea the following day but a nagging phone call from her “I told you so / plenty of fish in the sea” mother (tipped off by her loudmouth sister) makes her think perhaps that’s not the best idea. Wandering around, she winds up at the End Point hotel and cafe where she cocoons herself away to think things through, trying to reconcile herself to the “dead end” she has just arrived at in the life path she had carved out for herself.

“End Point” is not perhaps an auspicious name for a hotel. A hotel is, after all, a deliberately transient space and not in itself a destination. The reason it might accidentally become one is perhaps on Yumi’s mind when she decides to check in, but despite the name the cafe is a warm, welcoming, and accepting place perfectly primed to offer the kind of gentle support someone like Yumi might need in order to rediscover themselves in the midst of intense confusion.

This is largely due to the cafe’s owner, Nishiyama (Shunsuke Tanaka), who, we later discover, was himself neglected as a child and almost adopted by the community who collectively took him under their wing and sheltered him from his childhood trauma. This same community still frequents the End Point cafe and is keen to extend the same helping hand to those in need, becoming a point of refuge for a series of lonely souls many of them travellers from abroad. Despite her desire for isolation, Yumi is finally tempted out of her room by the gentle attentions of the cafe’s regulars who make sure to include her in all their gatherings, reawakening something of her faith in humanity in the process.

In introducing her to the cafe, Nishiyama remarks that though it is literally in a dead end, many begin their forward journeys from here. A dead end does not, after all, have to be an “end point” but can become an opportunity to turn around and start again without necessarily having to go back the way you came. Yumi likes the End Point so much she briefly considers staying, but it would, in a sense, be a betrayal of its spirit. Nishiyama, becoming a staunch friend and ally, finally comes to the conclusion that her former fiancé was not a bad man even if he was a weak one, but that in all the time he knew her he never discovered the “treasure” of her heart as he seems to have done despite knowing her only a few days. Yumi takes this new knowledge with her on her forward journey as she abandons her much commented on practicality for warmhearted connection as a path towards fulfilment, learning to treasure her “dead end” memories not as time wasted but as a pleasant diversion which led her to exactly the place she needed to be in order to discover the treasure in her own heart and the willingness to find it in others.


Memories of a Dead End screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on April 17, 7pm, at AMC River East 21.

International trailer (English subtitles)