Astro Gardener (별의 정원, Won Jong-shik, 2019)

Astro Gardener poster 1Korean cinema is sometimes criticised for its bleakness. Happy endings are indeed something of a rarity, though not entirely absent and, ironically, often rejected for their sentimentality. Cinema for children might be a notable exception with the desire to cushion young viewers from the world’s harshness as a high priority even if it never shies away from the fact that life is sometimes hard and there will be times when you are sad or afraid or lonely. Astro Gardener (별의 정원, byeol-eui jeongwon), a colourful tale of strange creatures making sure the stars still shine, is a film about just those times which makes the very important and always relevant point that there is no light without darkness and that it’s OK to feel sad, or afraid, or alone because your darkness is also a part of you.

12-year-old Suha (Kim Yeon-woo) is excited that her parents are going to leave her alone in the apartment overnight for the first time while they go on a fishing trip. Before he leaves, Suha’s dad gives her a precious necklace which she is not very impressed with because all she wants is a dog. Suha’s dad is broadly in favour of the puppy idea, especially as grandma’s dog is currently pregnant so it would be very easy to adopt one once it’s born. Mum is less convinced, both fearing that she will end up looking after it and worrying that it will be sad when the dog inevitably passes away. While they’re busy discussing all that on the way to the campsite, the car swerves to avoid an oncoming truck and they get into an accident during which Suha’s dad is killed.

A year later, Suha’s mum takes her to stay with grandma during the holidays while she has to get back to work. Suha isn’t very happy about it, but the blow is softened by the fact she’s finally getting a little dog named “Night” who is the last of grandma’s puppies seeing as her own dog passed away shortly after giving birth. Playing on the beach, Suha is drawn to a strange stone and takes it home only for a weird little man with a star on his head to break into her room and steal it. The man, who turns out to be called Om (Jeon Tae-yeol), is an “Astro Gardener” charged with looking after the darkness to ensure that the stars can stay in the sky. It turns out that the planet Pluto (Shin Yong-woo) has gone rogue and left its orbit to become a space pirate hellbent on destroying the darkness to create a universe of light born of the destruction of hundreds of stars.

A universe of light in which there is no more loneliness or pain might sound very attractive, but where there’s no sorrow there can be no joy. Since her father’s death, Suha has been deathly afraid of “the dark”, sleeping with the light on and only venturing out in the middle of the night when her dog chases out after Om, which is how she winds up discovering the Astro Garden. She isn’t terribly invested in the quest to save the darkness but finds herself swept into it when Pluto’s minions show up and kidnap Night’s shadow which means she has to go and get it back or risk loosing him because, as the repeated metaphor points out, you can’t live as light alone. 

Om warns Suha that Pluto is a no-good rebel out to destroy the universe but because she loses a lot of her memory on his ship, Suha is instantly smitten seeing as it just so happens that Pluto looks exactly like the handsome K-pop idol we see on the poster in her bedroom. Realising that the necklace Suha received from her father is the All-Energy capable of controlling all the darkness in the universe (what teenage girl doesn’t think she can do the same?), Pluto sets out to take it but the snag is that the power can only be transmitted to someone you truly love which is the real gift her father was trying to give her.

Learning to remember her father’s love rather than his loss, Suha rediscovers her sense of confidence and is no longer so afraid of “the dark”. Resolving to be kinder to her mother, she can appreciate life’s light and shade but makes sure to keep in touch with her old friends at the Astro Garden to go tend to her darkness to make sure she can still see the stars. A cheerfully animated tale of a little girl figuring out how to live with grief while becoming embroiled in an interstellar battle to save the universe, Astro Gardner is a surprisingly deep meditation on depression and anxiety in which the heroine rediscovers her sense of self while finding the will to fight for others.


Astro Gardener screens on 2nd November as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

26 Years (26년, Cho Geun-hyun, 2012)

26 Years posterA society says a lot about itself in the way it treats its villains. Chun Doo-hwan was a brutal dictator who came to power as a result of a violent counter coup which encompassed the now notorious murder of ordinary citizens by agents of the state in Gwangju in May 1980. Chun’s reign eventually came to an end with the successful conclusion of the democratisation movement which gave birth to the modern democratic state of South Korea that is, at present, in the aftermath of dealing with another unpopular leader deposed through peaceful, democratic means. Though originally sentenced to death Chun’s punishment was later commuted. He has never paid the massive fine that was imposed upon him as symbolic recompense for his acts of terror and vast web of corruption. .

The five men and women at the centre of 26 Years (26년, Nyeon) have not forgotten the face of Chun Doo-hwan (Jang Gwang), identified only as “that man”, and are among the many frustrated by his refusal to take responsibility for his actions. A former soldier remorseful for his role in the events (Lee Geung-young) recruits an olympic sharpshooter (Han Hye-jin) whose mother was killed by a stray bullet, a gangland thug (Jin Goo) whose father was tortured and murdered by security forces driving his mother into madness, and a policeman (Im Seulong) who lost his sister running away from a demonstration, as well as his son (Bae Soo-bin), to assist in a plan to force the former general to apologise for his crimes and, if he refuses, enact their own justice.

Spoilers aside, Chun Doo-hwan is still very much alive and the events of 26 Years are inspired by an entirely fictionalised webmanga though it is true that Chun lives in an L-shaped compound protected by perimeter walls and a small army of police and security forces presumably at great cost to the Korean tax payer. He has never apologised for his actions regarding the Gwangju massacre and continues to blame the “rioters” in insisting that the soldiers had no choice but to fire back in self defence. That such a politically sensitive film could be made about a figure who is still alive, let alone that it would become a major box office success and crowd funding phenomenon is a small miracle in itself but speaks to the deep rift this troubled period of recent history provokes in the minds of the contemporary society.

First time director Cho opens with the events of 1980 but in highly stylised animation rather than live action. There is something in the sketchy quality of the artwork that perfectly evokes the ambivalence of the entire enterprise, of not quite wanting to look at events which are so hard to see. See we do as bystanders are cruelly struck by stray bullets, soldiers panic and shoot, and the left behind search desperately for their missing loved ones but find only tragedy and pain. Reverting to live action for 1983 onwards, Cho then takes us through the next 20 years noting landmarks as he goes – the ever present terror of Chun on TV screens everywhere, his eventual fall and the restoration of democracy, Chun’s pardoning and eventual yet accidental house imprisonment for his own security.

The wounds remain unhealed, festering without resolution. While protestors make their voices heard, a room full of supporters fall to their knees before a resurgent Chun standing proud before them. Chun remains unrepentant, cruelly so in Cho’s dramatisation, shaking off the body of a fallen bodyguard like a slobbering dog, caring nothing for his people and thinking only of his own survival.

Cho keeps the tension high as the small band of traumatised youngsters attempts to confront their nation’s difficult history head on, finding both resistance and camaraderie yet fighting internal conflict all the way. Avoiding easy answers, 26 Years is among the most direct attempts Korean cinema has made to reckon with the traumatic recent past, mixing high octane action with a melancholy consideration of the effects of a national trauma but it also finds itself in a moment of indecision, refusing the ending narrative demands in favour of an intake of breath followed by a weary exhale of weighty resignation.


Currently available to stream via Netflix.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Jeong Yoon-chul, 2017)

Warriors of the Dawn posterSome might say a king is the slave of his people, but then again he is a very well kept slave even if he is no more free than a serf at the mercy of a feudal lord. Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Daeribgoon), set in 1592 during the short-lived Japanese invasion, takes this idea to its heart in playing up the inherent similarities between the oppressed poor who are forced to impersonate the sons of wealthy men too grand for the battlefield, and the Crown Prince unwillingly forced to impersonate the King who has abandoned his people and run away to China to save his own skin. Though the Prince is young and afraid, with the help of his resentful mercenary brethren he begins to find the majesty buried inside himself all along but crucially never forgets what is like to feel oppressed so that he might rule nobly and fairly, unlike his more selfish father.

The tale begins with Tow (Lee Jung-Jae) – a “Proxy Soldier”, one of many from the Northern borderlands where the living is hard. Sons of feudal lords need not risk their lives on the battlefields while there is money to spend and so they buy the service of young men from poor families to stand in for them. The men take the name of the man they’re supposed to be but if they die, their family must send a replacement to serve out the remaining time or pay back the money that was given to them. At this point Tow’s main problem is the Jurchen rebels who’ve decided to live life their own way outside of the system of class hierarchy currently in place in feudal Korea.

The Japanese, however, are pressing on and making gains towards the capital. The King decides to flee, hoping to reach China where the Ming Emperor may be minded to help them. He cannot, however, simply abandon ship and decides to divide the court with the left behind contingent headed by his son, Crown Prince Gwang-hae (Yeo Jin-goo). Gwang-hae is young and inexperienced. Not having had a good relationship with his father, he’s mystified as to why he’s suddenly been given this “honour” but together with a selection of advisors he’s sent on a journey to found a second court at Gonggye, picking up scattered forces along the way. This brings him into contact with Tow and his contingent who become his main defenders.

Having lived a life inside the palace walls, Gwang-hae knows nothing of war or fighting and has brought a selection of books with him hoping to learn on the job. His ineptitude is likened to that of a young recruit to the band of Proxy Soldiers who has been forced to join on the death of his father but has no training and is too squeamish to kill, requiring Tow to come to his rescue as he later does for Gwang-hae. Tow is a born soldier yet reluctant, fully aware that he no longer exists and should he die another man with no name will step into his place with nary a pause. He continues to fight because he has no choice but he also feels an intense bond of brotherhood to his fellow men, something which later extends to Gwang-hae once his latent nobility begins to emerge.

Gwang-hae’s central conflict is between his advisors who council him towards austerity, and his deeper feelings which encourage him to sympathise with the ordinary people he meets along the way whose lives are being ruined thanks to the government’s failure to protect them. As it turns out, Gwang-hae is also low-born, in a sense, and therefore has inherited something of the common touch which separates him from the aloofness of his father. Though he is constantly told to make the “rational” choice he refuses – ordering troops to stop when they attempt to extort food from starving peasants, insisting on evacuating a village to safer ground, and then finally becoming a warrior himself in order to defend his people when no one else would.

Gwang-hae is, perhaps, a warrior for a new dawn and a flag that men like Tow can follow in the quest for a better world in which each man can keep his own name and fight for his own cause rather than that laid down for them by men with money or power. Despite the potential for a more urgent argument, Jeong mostly falls back on standard period aesthetics with overly familiar narrative beats heavily signposted by a subpar script. Warriors of the Dawn cannot decide whether it’s a film about catching the conscience of a king or the noble sacrifice of would be revolutionaries, failing to lend the essential weight to its duel arcs of rebirth and coming of age all of which makes for a long, hard march towards an inevitable conclusion.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

International trilogy (English subtitles)