A Single Rider (싱글라이더, Lee Zoo-young, 2017)

Single Rider posterAs the old adage goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. Having sacrificed it all for “conventional success”, an emotionally repressed salaryman loses everything when his company is exposed for its immoral business practices only to discover that he’s left it all too late and those he meant to keep close have begun to draw away from him. Quietly contemplative, Lee Zoo-young’s debut A Single Rider (싱글라이더) is a gentle meditation on the way life can get away from you. Brainwashed into the salaryman dream, our financier “hero” allows himself to be swept along by the confidence of his superiors, taking friends and family with him, when he knows deep down that if something seems too good to be true, that’s because it is. Sometimes, it really is just too late, and then sometimes, tragically, it isn’t but you miss your chance anyway.

Kang Jae-hoon (Lee Byung-hun) is a broker at a securities company. Buttoned-down and near silent, he cuts a geeky if reassuringly dull figure but there’s a storm brewing under his calm exterior. His top rated company is in a lot of trouble. They’ve all been breaking the rules, and now they’re about to go under taking the savings of hundreds of ordinary, innocent people with them – people that Kang personally assured that their money would be safe because the company would never declare bankruptcy. Not quite as morally bankrupt as he seems, Kang has been depressed for some time and is on some pretty heavy duty medication. Sending what looks eerily like a suicide note to his bosses, Kang appears to rethink. He sent his wife and son to Australia to “upgrade” them through adding English functionality but hasn’t exactly paid much attention to them since. Searching for the address of the house where they live on Google Maps, he spots them captured together outside and makes an abrupt decision. Before he knows it, he’s bought a plane ticket for Sydney, heading straight to the airport with no luggage and leaving his phone behind so his boss can’t bother him.

Far from a joyful reunion, however, what Kang finds is a visual guide to all the ways he has been erased from the lives of his family. Though Kang’s wife Soo-jin (Gong Hyo-jin) and son Jin-woo (Yang Yoo-jin) have been in Australia for a couple of years, Kang does not appear to have visited before and has trouble finding the house. When he eventually locates it, he knocks at the door and gets no answer, only to find his wife laughing and joking with a neighbour – apparently the father of a friend of Jin-woo’s. Unable to bring himself to knock again, or even to find a call box and explain, Kang begins “haunting” his family, creeping around the house while they’re out, spotting pictures of the Australian neighbour, Chris (Jack Campbell), everywhere and none at all of him.

Watching them from afar, Kang is forced to reevaluate his choices. The smallest details trigger memories of his life in Korea – a flapping kitchen door left ajar when his wife had insisted on a deadlock in Seoul because she felt so afraid with him gone so often even though they lived in an upscale high-rise with an electronic entry pad, the violin she gave up for him but now apparently has taken back up, the papers on the kitchen table which imply she wants to stay rather than go “home”. Like many men who work away from their families, Kang forgot that time was passing for them too and assumed they would be waiting for him like toys put away in a box, sleeping until he’s ready to wake them. Now he wonders how close she really is to Chris, if she wants to stay for him, if she’s grown away from her husband, or simply enjoys the wide open breeziness of their spacious Sydney home with its comparatively relaxed rhythms and friendly laid-back way of life. The only thing he can be sure of is that he doesn’t seem to belong in this house anymore and this is very much not his world.

Then again perhaps Australia is not all good – Kang hates the way everyone seems to call his wife “Sue” to make her foreign name easier to remember. He runs into something similar with a young girl he noticed at the station whose name is “Ji-na” (Ahn So-hee) but everyone in Australia seems to call “Gina”. Ji-na’s problems turn out to be bigger than a misremembered name. Despite his obvious familiarity with financial scams, Kang does nothing when he overhears Ji-na on the phone to some dodgy people who want to do a “personal currency exchange”. He doesn’t see them convince her to get in their car, but does catch sight of her coming back the same way later limping and bloody having been deprived of the money she’d carefully been saving up while her labour was exploited as she lingered on after her visa had expired (which is why she can’t go to the police, as her abusers are well aware). Ji-na, like him, made a series of bad decisions though perhaps for “better” reasons and has paid dearly for her mistakes.

To be fair, Kang thought he was making his decisions for good reasons – he convinced himself he was working to provide for his family, even sending them away “for their benefit”, but now he regrets it. He regrets everything – his workaholic lifestyle, the way he allowed his principles to be compromised in pursuit of “success”, the way he bought his swanky Seoul apartment and a middle-class suburban home in Australia through defrauding people who trusted him, and the way he lost his family through a misplaced desire to “better” them rather than simply allowing them to be happy. He thinks it’s too late, that he’s ruined himself and that his family have already moved on. He may be wrong, but he won’t find out by snooping around the house and following Chris about all day to figure out how close he is to his wife.

Kang’s tragedy is that he made a series of bad decisions in which the last was the worst and the most sad. Lee Byung-hun invests Kang with an air of utter defeat, as if the air itself were crushing him while he remains unable to reconcile himself to his new circumstances or bring himself to make contact with his family. A final revelation (or perhaps confirmation of an obvious fact) makes plain why exactly it is that he seems to wander invisibly through the city streets, using public transport but miraculously disappearing from one place to appear in another as if in a trance. Kang’s only option is, perhaps, to learn to be glad that his wife and son finally have a chance to be happy even if it’s without him and be grateful that his son has found another man who’d run until his feet were sore just to keep him safe. Sometimes it really is just too late, but, tragically, sometimes you accept defeat too early when what you thought you’d lost is already on its way back to you only you’ve already given up, not on it, but on yourself.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Miss Baek (미쓰백, Lee Ji-won, 2018)

Miss baek posterIn one sense we’ve never been more connected to one another, but our tendency to remain inside our own solipsistic bubbles has never been higher. We ignore those in need, confident that “someone” will do something, that it isn’t our responsibility. Then again perhaps we don’t even notice. It’s freezing cold in director Lee Ji-won’s debut feature Miss Baek (미쓰백) and a little girl is sitting outside in her nightie. No one takes very much interest her even though it’s far too late for a child to be out alone. That is, until the titular Miss Baek (Han Ji-min) overcomes her own sense of alienation and decides to look back.

Now in her mid-30s, Baek Sang-ah is an aloof, near silent woman who ekes out a living through a series of casual jobs from car washing to massage. She is in a kind of relationship with a kindly policeman, Jang-sub (Lee Hee-joon), who wants to marry her, but Sang-ah has long ago ruled out the idea of marriage and family. She never wanted to be someone’s wife or mother. Sang-ah says this not (entirely) because she values her independence, but because of a legacy of trauma and abandonment born of the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother who fell into depression and alcoholism following the loss of her husband. Fearing becoming another link in a long chain of abuse passed from parent to child, Sang-ha has kept herself isolated, avoiding all intimate relationships and vowing to continue on alone causing harm to no one.

One winter day, however, she can’t walk past the girl in the nightie anymore. Taking her to a nearby food stall, Sang-ha finds out the girl’s name is Ji-eun (Kim Si-a) and she’s nine years old. Just as Sang-ha is beginning to ask about the cuts and bruises on Ji-eun’s hands and feet, a well dressed woman who turns out to be her father’s girlfriend arrives and whisks the girl away. Sang-ha tries to forget about her and go on with her life, but she can’t seem to do it. Buying Ji-eun some proper winter wear, she resolves to try and help the girl the way that no one tried to help her.

There is something particularly insidious in the continuous stream of injustice and mistreatment Sang-ha and Ji-eun find themselves subject to precisely because of their lack of social power. Children, most obviously, have no mechanism to defend themselves besides their parents and should they try to speak out against them, they may not be listened to. Managing to escape, Ji-eun tried to tell the police what her parents were doing to her but they sent her home with only a mild warning to her smirking step-mother that she’d best ease back on the “discipline”. Understandably, Ji-eun doesn’t have much faith in the authorities as a source of salvation. Sang-ha experienced much the same but her oppression continued on into adulthood when she was arrested for violently defending herself against a would-be-rapist who happened to be the son of a wealthy and connected man who used his status to do as he pleased while Sang-ah went to jail. Sang-ha’s prison record comes back to bite her again when she tries to talk to the police on Ji-eun’s behalf only for them to lay into her when they eventually run her file.

Meanwhile, Ji-eun’s step-mother Mi-kyung (Kwon So-hyun) is well turned out and scrupulously polite. She has a plausible answer for everything and a talent for middle-class respectability, even crying during church services. Her father Il-gon (Baek Soo-jang), by contrast, is addicted to video games and rarely leaves the house while little Ji-eun is often locked in the bathroom where she cowers under the sink, or cast out onto the balcony in the mild hope that she’ll freeze to death. The only reason Mi-kyung has been keeping her around is the welfare payments, but they’re about to stop. Both “parents” project all of their personal resentments onto the face of a nine year old girl whom they beat, starve, and torture for no discernible reason other than they don’t know any other way to behave.

Ji-eun’s father was also beaten as a child. He wonders where the police were then and what sort of life they think Ji-eun is going to have when she too grew up like this. Sang-ah’s desire to save Ji-eun is also a desire to save herself as she contemplates maternity from both sides in revisiting the complicated relationship with her own mother while wondering if she is a fit person to care for a child with such poor models to follow. She doubts she can break the chain and free Ji-eun from a seemingly inescapable system of abuse and violence but through her deepening attachment to the little girl Sang-ha begins to find a way through her inertia and fear of intimacy to a deeper and more positive connection. A gritty yet always open and empathetic look at an all too often hidden social problem, Miss Baek is a promising and important debut from Lee Ji-won which refuses to look away from the dark and unpalatable but finds hope in the power of simple human kindness against cruelty and indifference.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Coin Locker Girl (차이나타운, Han Jun-hee, 2015)

coin locker girl posterFamily in Korean films, unlike those say of Japan, has always been something of a double edged sword. Coin Locker Girl (차이나타운, AKA Chinatown) takes the idea of “family” and twists it around, bites into it to test its veracity, and offers a wry smirk as the metal begins to bend. Set in Incheon’s Chinatown, Han Jun-hee’s noirish thriller sends its heroine down a series of dark alleyways as she both fights and fights to retain her humanity whilst inhabiting an extremely inhuman world.

Il-young (Kim Go-eun) was found, covered in blood, hidden away in a coin locker, an abandoned child with no clue as to her identity or that of the woman who gave birth to her. Named and taken in by a collection of beggars at the station, she began her life as a street rat though not, perhaps, entirely unloved or friendless. As a young child she was then taken by gangsters working for a fearless female gang boss known as “Mom” (Kim Hye-soo). Mom is not one to suffer fools and feels no compunction in getting rid of those no longer useful to her. She soon puts Il-young to work, pamphleteering, begging, and eventually debt collecting as she grows older under Mom’s watchful eyes. By the time Il-young is almost come of age, she has an older brother and a sister as well as a younger brother with learning difficulties whom Mom still looks after despite her otherwise unsentimental approach to life.

The trouble starts when Mom sends Il-young to collect a debt from the young son of a man who’s skipped the country. Seok-hyeon (Park Bo-gum) is not like the typical clients she’s met before. He opens his door, invites her in, even offers to feed her before she leaves. Il-young finds all of this very strange. She’s never met anyone “nice” before and wonders what his angle is. Seok-hyeon, however, does not appear to have much of an angle aside from perhaps the usual one. Spending a bit of time with him, Il-young begins to develop certain feelings which see her swapping her Mom-style slacks and jackets for pretty summer dresses. Despite his son’s faith in him, Seok-hyeon’s father has not kept his end of the bargain and so Mom decides it’s time to call in the debt by offing Seok-hyeon and harvesting his organs. Il-young has a choice – between the woman she calls “Mom”, and a naive young man she has come to like though he has no place in her kill or be killed world.

One of the most attractive qualities about the young Il-young was that she didn’t exist. No birth certificate and no identity meant that she could be Mom’s to do with as she pleased. Consequently, adolescent Il-young has a more complicated relationship with her “Mom” than most young women but is also acutely aware of the debt of gratitude which is owed, the precariousness of her position, and the reality that she has nowhere else to go should she decide to try and break away from the world in which she has been raised. Never quite sure what her relationship to Mom is, Il-young has come to think of the other children in the same situations as siblings, but again cannot be sure that they feel the same.

Like many a good film noir, the tragedy lies in not completely closing off one’s heart as the harshness of the world dictates. Mom rejects those who are not useful and terminates those who have betrayed her with extreme prejudice, but despite herself she cannot destroy Il-young. Stepping back from her code, her orders are to let Il-young live, condemning her to a fate perhaps worse than death but alive all the same. Mom is betrayed by another child figure enacting a petty act of revenge, but her decision to let Il-young live is the one which threatens to condemn her. Having believed herself an unloved, unwanted child, Il-young is left with two terrible legacies of abandonment and the feeling that she will never leave that coin locker in which she has been trapped since birth. The cycle of maternal sacrifice continues, though Il-young has the opportunity to change her fate by taking charge of it, picking up where Mom left off but with greater compassion even within the confines of her still cruel world.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017. Also screening at Manchester (11 Nov) and Glasgow (16 Nov).

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Anarchist from Colony (박열, Lee Joon-ik, 2017)

anarchist from colony posterLee Joon-ik follows his poetical mediation on the Korean independence movement, Dong-ju, with an equally philosophical, if not quite as rigorous, tale of rebellion and tragedy inspired by real life revolutionary anarchist, Park Yeol. Where Dong-ju was a tale of a world in in black and white, Anarchist from Colony (박열, Park Yeol) is one of glorious colour and the strange joy of pithily rejecting an oppressor’s authority. The oppressor’s authority is, however, infinite and no amount of anarchy will be enough to evade it even if there may be long term advantages in losing a battle in grand style.

Park Yeol (Lee Je-hoon) is a Korean left wing agitator living in Tokyo and earning a living as a rickshaw driver. He is also a hero to local Koreans and has gained a lot of fans (many of them female) thanks to his poetry including his latest entitled “Damn Dog” which laments his lowly status as an oppressed Korean man. One of his many fans, Fumiko Kaneko (Choi Hee-seo) – a Japanese woman who spent some time in Korea as a child, manages to work her way into his heart and becomes both a lover and an integral part of his revolutionary movement known as The Revolt.

In 1923, The Great Kanto Earthquake caused wide scale destruction and general chaos in the capital. Martial law was instituted, but a rumour soon spread that Korean insurrectionists were using the confusion to fuel their revolutionary ambitions, poisoning wells, committing arson, and plotting to assassinate the Emperor and his son. Of course, the rumours were baseless but led to a citywide pogrom in which around 6000 Koreans are thought to have been murdered both by ordinary people and by the army. Hoping to avoid the violence, Park decides he might be better off turning himself in to the police, but even police cells are not free of vigilante justice.

Unlike many recent films set during the colonial period, Anarchist from Colony is not particularly interested in demonising the Japanese. Generally speaking, the Japanese government are depicted as a collection of buffoons ill equipped to deal with the unexpected disaster of the earthquake and obsessed with rules, protocol, and Emperor worship. The major antagonist is a moustache twirling idiot and committed racist nursing a grudge against Koreans over a career setback to do with the suppression of the March 1, 1919  protest which kickstarted the Korean Independence Movement. The other officials mostly regard Mizuno (Kim In-woo) as an embarrassment, calling him out on his obvious racism and attempting to circumvent his machinations but more often than not failing to successfully outmanoeuvre him.

Having been partly responsible for the massacre in failing to stop the racist rantings of Mizuno and co, the government are eager to suppress all knowledge of it and distance themselves from anything that could make them look bad on the international stage. In this Mizuno makes a serious miscalculation when he decides to fit up the most popular Korean political activist he can get his hands on as a “traitor” and have him tried and executed as an example to the others. Park is wise to this scheme right away and decides to play along even if he knows it may eventually cost him his life. In fact, he almost hopes it will because not only will he lend weight to the cause of independence through his own martyrdom, but it will be much harder for the government to suppress news of the massacre with him on trial for his supposed terrorist activities which are being touted as its cause.

Yet the tale is framed not so much as suppressed revolution but ill fated love in the tragic romance of Park and Kaneko. The mini band of anarchists are a surprisingly cheerful bunch for hardline leftists, and Park and Kanenko’s intense bond is one of both political solidarity and true affection. Being anarchists through and through, they do not believe in marriage but agree to live together after signing a contract of cohabitation in which they mutually affirm their loyalty to each other and their cause. When Park is arrested, Kaneko turns herself in and follows him despite his pleas with her not to. The couple remain fiercely together to the end presenting a united front delighting in mocking their joint show trial even knowing they may soon be heading for the gallows.

This strange kind of lightness and dada-esque surrealism is an odd fit for the grim tale at hand. Lee mostly glosses over the wider implications of the massacre aside from minor references to longstanding prejudices such as Park’s beating by a customer who has short changed him and the vigilante gang’s repeated use of a particular phrase to flag up Korean accents. The overriding sense of flippancy undercuts the seriousness of Park’s plight and ultimately robs it of its power as his struggle is played for broad comedy rather than subtle satire. Perhaps overly ambitious, Lee’s reframing of of Park’s story as surrealist vaudeville romance never quite takes off, sacrificing passion for laughs but finding that they ring hollow surrounded by so much suppressed terror.


Screened at the London East Asia Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)