Microhabitat (소공녀, Jeon Go-woon, 2017)

Microhabitat posterIs there a “right” or, by implication, “wrong” way to live your life? The heroine of Jeon Go-woon’s debut feature Microhabitat (소공녀, Sogongnyeo) is determined to live by her own rules, but her unconventional approach to life in competitive Korean society is not treated with the same kind of universal acceptance with which she treats each and every person she meets on her meandering path towards fulfilment. Life is conspiring to take away even the smallest pleasures which make existence bearable, but small pleasures are sometimes all life is about and perhaps the only thing really worth fighting for.

At 31 years old, Miso (Esom) lives what might outwardly be thought of as a miserable existence. Working as a cleaner she exists hand to mouth and is able to afford only a tiny, unheated, one room apartment in a run down part of the city. Her life is tightly budgeted and whatever else anyone might say about the way she lives, Miso is not irresponsible and refuses to get into debt. It is therefore a huge problem when a New Year price hike threatens to push her beloved cigarettes out of her reach. If that weren’t worrying enough, her landlord is also jacking up the rent. Staring intently at her accounts book, Miso contemplates a life without cigarettes and whiskey and then takes a look around her before deciding to strike through the line marked “rent”. Packing her most essential belongings into a couple of suitcases, she decides to make herself temporarily homeless and reliant on the kindness of former friends now virtual strangers whom she hopes will be minded to repay past kindnesses by putting her up for a while.

Miso’s plight is symptomatic of many in her generation who feel they’ve lost out in Korea’s relentlessly competitive, conformist, and conservative society, but her fate also bears out something of a persistent social stigma directed at those without means or family. Unlike the friends she decides to track down, Miso never graduated university – she lost her parents young and then ran out of money, but then she isn’t particularly bitter about something she was powerless to control. Miso’s small pleasures are also ones generally marked off limits to “nice” young women who generally do not smoke or drink and the old fashioned austerity mentality sees nothing good in a “self indulgent” need to enjoy life by “wasting” money on “frivolous” things if you claim not to be able to find the money to pay your rent. Some would say Miso has her priorities all wrong and has messed up her life by getting trapped in the world of casual labour and still being single at such an advanced age, conveniently ignoring the fact that much of the social order functions solely to keep women like her in their place so the higher ups can prosper.

Miso, however, would probably listen patiently to their concerns before calmly brushing them off. She is happy – to an extent, at least, with her minimalist life. She doesn’t need a fancy apartment or a swanky car, she only wants her cigarettes, her whisky, and her boyfriend Hansol (Ahn Jae-Hong) – an aspiring manhwa artist who feels broadly the same but is starting to get frustrated with his own precarious economic circumstances and present inability to offer the degree of economic support which would mean the pair could move in together. The first friend she tracks down, Mun-young (Kang Jin-a), has become a workaholic salary woman who self administers saline drips at work to increase her productivity and declines to put Miso up on the grounds having someone around when she’s not there makes her uncomfortable. Each of her old bandmates has opted for the conventional life but it has not served them well – keyboardist Hyun-jung (Kim Gook-hee) is unhappily married and trapped in a home of oppressive silence, Dae-yong (Lee Sung-wook) is a brokenhearted wreck whose wife has left him after less than eight months of marriage, vocalist Roki (Choi Deok-moon) has a strange relationship with his parents, and former guitarist Jung-mi (Kim Jae-hwa) has thrown herself headlong into stepford wife territory going quietly mad through boredom and insecurity in the palatial apartment that belongs to her husband’s family.

For various reasons, Miso understands that she can’t stay with her friends very long though she tries to help each of them as best she can while she’s around. She cleans their apartments, cooks them nutritious meals, keeps them company and listens to their problems though few of them take the trouble to really ask her why it is she is in the position she is in or how they might be able to help beyond providing temporary shelter. Surprised by one of her wealthy clients who is unexpectedly at home during cleaning time and seems to be distressed, Miso does her best to comfort her, making it clear that she does not disapprove of her client’s lifestyle and thinks she has nothing in particular to be ashamed of. The client, vowing to leave her present occupation behind, feels quietly terrible that her decision inevitably means Miso will lose her job but Miso genuinely means it when she says she’s happy for her client and hopes she will be able to attain her dreams.

Forced to leave the memory of each of her friends behind, Miso’s world seems to shrink until even her beloved whisky now seems like it will be out of her reach. Jeon Go-woon is unafraid to lay bare Miso’s bleak prospects, though she depicts them in an often humorous light as Miso goes apartment hunting in the darkest and dingiest part of Seoul, striding up endless flights of stairs to rooms with increasingly tiny windows before landing at the only realistic possibility in a filthy attic space with no electricity. Still, Miso remains undaunted. She is free, beholden to no one, and retains her kind heart even as she becomes a cypher to us, lost under the grey skies of an indifferent city until she alone becomes the tiny light on its ever expanding horizons.


Microhabitat screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 10th July, 6.30pm.

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)

Worst Woman (최악의 하루, Kim Jong-kwan, 2016)

movie_imageKim Jong-kwan’s award winning unexpected indie box office hit has been given the rather odd English title of Worst Woman (최악의 하루, Choeakui Haru) in contrast with the original Korean which simply means “The Worst Day”. In fact, the film is about two people – an aspiring Korean actress with problems in her personal life, and a Japanese writer visiting for the launch of the Korean translation of his novel, each of whom is indeed having an exceptionally unlucky day. Part walking and talking, part split focus romantic comedy, Worst Woman is a polished piece of indie filmmaking anchored by quality performances and an interesting approach to its material.

Eun-hee (Han Ye-ri) is supposed to be rehearsing for a play but somehow she’s not really into it, much to the consternation of her coach. Heading off to meet up with her vacuous soap star boyfriend, Hyun-Oh (Kwon Yool ), Eun-hee runs into a hopelessly lost Japanese man who asks her for directions but mangles the pronunciation of the address leaving her with little idea of the destination. Nevertheless, Eun-hee eventually helps the mysterious traveller, Ryohei (Ryo Iwase), find the place he’s looking for only to realise he’s been given the completely the wrong time and there’s no one there to meet him. The pair then decide to have coffee together in a nearby cafe before Eun-hee leaves to track down Hyun-oh.

At this point their paths diverge but each is in for a disastrous day. Eun-hee argues with Hyun-oh about a previous (married) boyfriend before teasing him about his decision to wear a face mask and sunglasses “in case someone recognises him” (hilariously, he still gets snapped when a passing woman realises only a celebrity would be wearing such an attention seeking disguise). The playful argument suddenly turns ugly when Hyun-oh calls Eun-hee by another girl’s name leading her to dump him on the spot and leave as quickly as possible. Moping around, she posts a picture of the view from the park on Twitter which “concerns” the aforementioned married ex-boyfriend, Woon-Chul (Lee Hee-joon), who also wants to take Eun-hee for coffee in an attempt to rehash the past.

Meanwhile, Ryohei has finally met up with his publisher but quickly discovers his book launch is not all that it seemed to be. Not only has the venue changed, but only two people have turned up (and even that was an accident). Making the best of things, Ryohei takes the “guests” to a nearby coffee shop and attempts to talk to them about literature with mixed results. The apologetic publisher is Ryohei’s biggest supporter, translating the book himself and determined to share it with his fellow countrymen, but has problems of his own which mean that the Korean edition of Ryohei’s novel is set to remain on the shelf a little longer.

Chatting awkwardly in English in the cafe, Eun-hee asks Ryohei what he does for a living to which he jokingly replies that he “lies”. His job is, in essence, to make things up – he’s a novelist, albeit one with only a single book to his name. Eun-hee laughs and says she’s same, only she’s an actress, and like Ryohei she is not yet famous or even particularly successful. In fact, Eun-hee has been giving the performance of her life off stage where lying has become something of a bad habit. Though she had told Hyun-oh about her relationship with Woon-chul, even explaining that he was a married man, it appears that perhaps she hadn’t been sharing the whole truth with either man. Needless to say, her taste in men has not served her well and the choice between the petty and self obsessed Hyun-oh and the possessive, persistent and obsessive Woon-chul may not be worth making.

If Eun-hee’s romantic difficulties undermine her sense of self confidence, Ryohei gets a professional dressing down from a bilingual journalist (Choi Yu-hwa) who claims to be a fan of his work but has serious questions about his approach to character. Why, she asks him, does he create such violent and sadistic scenarios and then allow his characters to suffer within them. If the writer is god, does he not owe it to his creations to show a little benevolence? Ryohei is a put out to receive such an underhanded criticism during an interview, especially as he doesn’t consider himself to be a cruel person, but now realises that perhaps his world view is a little bleaker than he’d previously thought.

Both having experienced one of those days which throw everything else into stark relief, the pair run into each other again at twilight in the picturesque Namsan Park. Eun-hee revisits the opening monologue from her play, now managing to breathe life into the lines informed by her recent experiences, before reuniting with Ryohei and making another surprising suggestion – that they set off on a long walk along the park trail which she has never managed to complete. The opening narration from Ryohei told us that he’d been dreaming a lot of his home town and had, unusually, come up with a story idea whilst travelling. Smarting from the criticisms of the journalist and realising many of the characters he’s denied a happy ending to are slightly lost, essentially nice women just like Eun-hee, Ryohei decides that it’s time to make an exception. He imagines the same place he is right now, only it’s snowing and a woman is looking nervously back along the path. This time there is no need to worry, he doesn’t know all the details yet, but this woman is definitely going to be happy, at least someday.

Featuring a light jazz score and indie-style straightforward direction, Worst Woman recalls both the distant irony of Hong Sang-soo and other recent cross-cultural romances such as A Midsummer’s Fantasia (which also starred leading man Ryo Iwase) and Hong’s own Hill of Freedom. A tale of city serendipity, the film makes use of constant reoccurring motifs from coffee shops and national parks to professional insecurity and confused relationships but even if Eun-hee has been playing the role of herself with both of the men in her life, her connection with Ryohei seems to have a more authentic quality. Light yet poignant and filled with sophisticated comic touches, Worst Woman is a delightful late summer romance which ends on a refreshingly upbeat, open ended, note careful to leave the door open for these two frustrated artists to make the best of their worst day.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Bacchus Lady (죽여주는 여자, E J-Yong, 2016)

bacchus-ladyRather than a Maenad in a divine frenzy driven by drunkenness, lust, and hedonistic fury, a “Bacchus Lady” is a humorous nickname used for the older women who solicit men in Korean parks by euphemistically offering to sell them a bottle of Bacchus energy drink. E J-yong reteams with veteran Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung to tell the tragic story of Youn So-young, hooker with a heart of gold and now a member of the older generation permitted to slip through the cracks in the absence of familial connections.

Youn So-young (Youn Yuh-jung) is going to have to close the shop for a few days, she has gonorrhoea thanks to a no good customer who (presumably) paid her extra for no protection. As if that weren’t bad news enough, So-young becomes a witness to a public domestic dispute as the doctor’s Filipina former lover and mother to his unacknowledged son tracks him down to his clinic. During the heated argument conducted in English the jilted lover stabs her no good former beau with a pair of scissors and is hauled off by security, instructing her young son, Min-ho, waiting downstairs, to make a run for it.

Not knowing quite why, So-young chases after the boy and ends up taking him home. With the help of her transgender landlady (An A-zu) and younger neighbour with a prosthetic leg (Yoon Kye-sang), So-young cares for the boy before trying to figure out what’s going on with his mother. So-young returns to work after her initial problems are cleared up which brings her into contact with three former clients who each have a very unusual favour to ask of her…

First and foremost, The Bacchus Lady (죽여주는 여자, Jug-yeo-ju-neun Yeo-ja) wants to ask a lot of questions about the status of the elderly in contemporary Korea. Korea has one of the highest rates of older people living in poverty among the developed nations with many forced to keep working to support themselves even as their health fails. Though many older people have extended family networks, the nature of modern society leaves them isolated as their children may have moved away or even to foreign countries and are not able, or simply not interested, in providing later life care for their relatives. Some, like So-young, are on their own. With no familial connections to rely on and only her neighbours to count as friends, she has few options and opportunities for women of her age are thin on the ground.

Speaking to a client who turned out to be a documentary filmmaker, So-young reveals that she chose prostitution out of pride – she couldn’t bring herself to take a street cleaning job and thinks this is better. In fact, her story is more complex and exposes a deep seem of historical social problems as So-young first became a prostitute at the American air base.

There are odd parallels to be found everywhere – So-young was seduced an abandoned by an American soldier just as Min-ho’s mother has been abandoned by her Korean doctor who returned home and married well, leaving her far behind. In fact, Min-ho has a picture of his happy family which is almost identical to one So-young has stashed away in a drawer (only she’s torn out the painful half of hers). Now the Koreans are making the same mistakes as the previously mentioned occupying forces, sowing their wild oats abroad and forgetting all about their foreign adventures when they come home to settle down.

Parents reject their children, and children reject their parents. When one of So-young’s former customers suffers a stroke, his son’s family come back from the States to visit him but the daughter-in-law coldly announces that they won’t visit again for another year (knowing full well he may not have that long). The grandchildren barely speak Korean and aren’t interested in hanging round the sickbed of a man they don’t quite know, grandfather or not. The son says nothing. The daughter-in-law even tries to stop So-young visiting her husband’s father assuming she’s some kind of granny gold digger (got to protect that inheritance after all). No wonder the poor man becomes the first of many asking So-young to help him to die. Loss of youth, loss of health, loss of relationships – the loneliness and the boredom alone are too much to bear, let alone pecuniary worries.

So-young is an impulsive sort of woman. When asked why she does some of the things she does, So-young replies that she doesn’t know, she must be mad. Yet there’s a kindness and a naivety belying her otherwise straightforward personality. Even if she can feel something is probably a bad idea but it might help, she feels compelled to do it anyway, eventually with disastrous consequences. So-young is a nice woman who’s been unlucky and society continues to make her pay for that. Always left feeling as if she needs to atone for an unforgivable sin, So-young lives an oddly ascetic life, taking few pleasures and giving away most of her rewards. Her story may be an extreme one, but hers is the fate of many older women who find themselves abandoned without pensions, savings, or family to help them survive.

An interesting look at life on the fringes of an affluent city, The Bacchus Lady is sad tale though one filled with compassion and good humour. E avoids outward melodrama or unwelcome sentimentality, approaching So-young’s ultimate destination with the necessary pathos. The gentle accordion based score lends the film a whimsical air which is only undercut by the abrupt tonal shift and suddenness of the coda finale, but E’s aim is a serious one. So-young is her own woman, but she also stands for a disadvantaged stratum of society who have been consistently denied the ability to fend for themselves and are suddenly expected to do so in their old age when they most need society’s help. Sympathy for Lady Bacchus? Society would do well to take note.


Reviewed at the 2016 BFI London Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles):