Secret Reunion (의형제 / 義兄弟, Jang Hoon, 2010)

secret reunion posterStrangely enough, North Koreans in South Korean films are often marked by a naive nobility, filled with all the “goodness” that is otherwise so absent from the hypocritical egalitarianism of the nation that raised them. Jang Hoon’s Secret Reunion (의형제 / 義兄弟, Uihyeongjae) is a perfect example of the ongoing trend in its direct contrasting of a pure hearted North Korean operative betrayed by his comrades, and the cynical NIS officer who turns to a shady career in the private sector when a botched operation gets him fired. An interesting look at North/South relations, Secret Reunion is equal parts buddy cop comedy and probing thriller but places the heartfelt connection between its perfectly mirrored protagonists firmly at its centre.

North Korean agent Song (Gang Dong-won) reads a bedtime story to his unborn child over a telephone whilst preparing for an operation south of the border, while NIS officer Lee (Song Kang-ho) bickers with his wife about their daughter’s education. Song, along with another agent, Tae-soo (Yoon Hee-seok), is to meet a top North Korean hitman known as Shadow (Jeon Kuk-Hwan) and assist in his mission to take out a prominent North Korean defector. Horrified by Shadow’s abrupt murder of the target’s wife and mother-in-law, Song draws on Shadow in defence of the man’s young son whom Shadow has also marked for death and places himself in the firing line in the process but is “saved” when Lee and the NIS turn up following a tip-off from Tae-soo who has betrayed them. Lee and Song briefly catch sight of each other but the operation is a bust which allows both Shadow and Song to escape whilst causing mass civilian casualties from stray police bullets and general panic.

Six years later Lee, fired from the NIS and divorced by his wife, spots Song again during his shady line of work as a finder of missing persons which often sees him tracking down runaway mail order brides from Vietnam. Unable to go home after being branded a traitor, Song is living as a casual labourer under a false South Korean identity. Unbeknownst to Lee he recognises the NIS agent but is unaware Lee has recognised him, especially when he offers him a job at his “company”. Song, intrigued, accepts in the hope of getting enough money together to bring his family to the South while Lee is hoping Song will lead him to Shadow and path back into the NIS but despite their best efforts the two men begin to develop a deep and warm understanding of each other even whilst working at cross purposes.

Song and Lee are indeed mirror images. When we first meet Song he’s eagerly embracing his role as a father and lamenting the fact that he cannot be with his pregnant wife while promising to be home soon. Lee, by contrast, argues with his wife over the phone and abruptly hangs up to go back to police business. Neither man is able to have the close and loving relationship with their daughters they would like – Song because he cannot return home and worries for the safety of his family, and Lee because his wife has remarried and moved to England. Lee’s loss of family is a personal failure first and foremost, but also a consequence of the botched operation in which Song escaped – hence Lee’s desire to capture Song is also part payback for ruining his life, but one which is frustrated by his gradual awakening to Song’s uncomplicated pureheartedness and identification with his own separation from his wife and child.

Song’s nobility is used against him by the heartless North Korean hitman, Shadow, who decries the “pathetic Southerners ruled by emotion” and warns Song that the “Great Nation cannot tolerate someone so fragile” when taken to task over his heartless murder of the defector’s South Korean family members. Lee, the NIS agent, resorts to barely legal immorality when stripped of his authority in becoming a finder of missing persons. The work largely involves tracking down trafficked women who’ve been tricked into coming to South Korea to marry rich and handsome men but often find themselves shackled to cruel husbands who regard them as slaves to be beaten and tortured. Yet Lee sends them back, knowing exactly what will happen to them when he does – something which Song refuses to allow. Despite coming from a brutalising regime, Song has retained his innate humanity, battles injustice and (tries to) protect the weak where Lee, a police officer in a (recently) democratic developed nation, quips about the nature of capitalism being learning to find happiness in stealing the wealth of others and is content to make himself complicit in a system he otherwise does not condone.

Despite their differences the two men come to see themselves in the other, discovering the better qualities of an “enemy” and becoming conflicted in anticipating the day when they will eventually have to confront the secrets they’ve been keeping. Jang keeps the tension high as Lee and Song play each other while Shadow dances around in the background, presumably playing a game which is entirely his own. Nevertheless the bonds of brotherhood between North and South are firmly repaired in Lee and Song’s eventual transition to blood brothers, restoring their severed familial connections whilst building and strengthening new ones.


International trailer (English subtitles)

The King (더 킹, Han Jae-rim, 2017)

the king posterAbsolute power corrupts absolutely, but such power is often a matter more of faith than actuality. Coming at an interesting point in time, Han Jae-rim’s The King (더 킹) charts twenty years of Korean history, stopping just short of its present in which a president was deposed by peaceful, democratic means following accusations of corruption. The legal system, as depicted in Korean cinema, is rarely fair or just but The King seems to hint at a broader root cause which transcends personal greed or ambition in an essential brotherhood of dishonour between men, bound by shared treacheries but forever divided by looming betrayal.

Tae-soo (Jo In-sung) is the classic poor boy made good. His mother abandoned the family when he was only six because she couldn’t cope with his father’s rampant criminality. Do bad things and you’ll go to hell, she told her son but perhaps Tae-soo already feels himself to be there and so doesn’t worry so much about those “bad things” that are a normal part of his life. The top fighter at his school, Tae-soo finds his calling when he sees his tough as nails father kneeling on the ground, pleading furiously in front of a skinny bespectacled man wearing a fancy suit. The man is a prosecutor and walks with the swagger of someone whose every action is government backed, his authority is absolute.

Tae-soo knuckles down, starts studying and gets into Seoul University. An accidental brush with the pro-democracy protest movement lands him in the army but thanks to lying about his hometown on his registration form he gets an easy posting meaning he has even more time to study for the bar. Everything seems to fall into place – he qualifies, gets his dream job, even marries a beautiful, intelligent, feisty woman who also happens to come from a wealthy elite family. The poor boy from Mokpo has made it, but prosecuting isn’t all he thought it would be. Tae-soo is a civil servant which means, like it does the world over, that he’s overworked and underpaid. When he rubs up against a dodgy case he’s made an offer he can’t refuse – drop it, and get a promotion to the big leagues where celebrity prosecutors enjoy lavish lifestyles filled with parties, drinks, and pretty girls. He knows it’s not right, but this is what he’s always wanted and Tae-soo is soon seduced.

Tae-soo’s seduction causes him a few pangs of conscience, but he was, as he was assumed to be, easy pickings. The case in question is a sickening if ordinary one – a teacher has molested a pupil but as the teacher is the son of an influential man and the single mother of the girl in question has learning difficulties, the case has been made to go away. Tae-soo is outraged, hauls the man back in, re-opens the case and obtains additional evidence and witness testimonies which confirm the girl’s story and will have the teacher sent to jail. His seduction is easy – they simply offer to make him one of them, and Tae-soo agrees, sacrificing not only this little girl but potentially many others for his own greed and satisfaction.

Tae-soo is redeemed, in a sense, thanks to his association with a childhood friend who helps him out by taking care of the teacher through “unofficial” means. Choi Du-il (Ryu Jun-yeol) is Tae-soo’s flip side, another poor boy done good but this time on the other side of the law. An ambitious gangster, Du-il is also loyal, just, and honourable – at least within a gangster code. The “errand boy” for this group of thuggish lawyers who behave like gangsters while the gangsters act like politicians with literal rather than metaphorical attack dogs, Du-il senses he’s walking a dangerous path to nowhere at all and has only his friendship with Tae-soo to believe in.

The genuine bond between the two men is one of the few redeeming features of Tae-soo’s increasingly compromised existence in which he sells his soul for the false approval of the man he regards as a “King” in the figure of all powerful, amoral chief prosecutor Han (Jung Woo-Sung). Tae-soo’s story is a conventional one of a basically good yet weak man struggling with a choice he’s made against his better judgement yet it’s not until it’s cost him everything he holds dear that he starts to reconsider.

Han Jae-rim weaves in archive footage and musical cues to evoke the changing eras which will be more obvious to Korean audiences – a case in point being the dramatic positioning of the suicide of former president Roh Moo-hyun in 2009. Roh had been a progressive president, often unpopular during his time in office thanks to his inability to pass his policies, and was later tarnished with a corruption scandal but found his reputation posthumously reappraised following his death which was seen both as a declaration of innocence and as a symbol of his deep love for his country and its people. Tae-soo’s change of heart seems to accelerate after Roh’s suicide which drew vast crowds of mourning (and knowing smirks from sleazy prosecutors Han and his sidekick Yang) as his own run in with death prompts a re-evaluation of his place in the grand scheme of things.

The King ends on a rather trite message – that every man is his own king and in the end the choices are all yours (though it seems to hope the choices made will be more altruistic than those of Han, Yang, and the earlier Tae-soo). The power wielded by men like Han is fragile – they need lackies, and if they can’t get them the system crumbles, but they’re also hollow, frightened opportunists who are so desperate they’re even bringing in shady seeming shamans to avoid having to make difficult policy decisions. Tae-soo turns their own tricks back on them with masterstrokes of irony, vowing revenge and perhaps getting it, along with self respect and a re-orientated moral compass but then again, power abhors a vacuum.


Screened as part of a season of teaser screenings for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Prison (프리즌, Na Hyun, 2017)

prison poster bigPrison can be a paradise if you’re doing it right, at least if you’re a top gangster in the movies. Na Hyun’s The Prison (프리즌) paints an interesting picture of incarceration and the way it links into his nation’s infinitely corrupt power structures. When investigators wonder why a crime spree suddenly came to an end, one of the frequently offered explanations is that the perpetrator was most likely arrested for another crime but what if you could turn this obviously solid alibi to your advantage and get those already behind bars to do your dirty work for you?

Disgraced policeman Song Yoo-gun (Kim Rae-Won) has wound up imprisoned alongside several of the men he himself helped put away. Like many cops who suddenly find themselves on the other side of the bars, Yoo-gun’s life is not easy. Badly beaten, tortured, and threatened with amputation Yoo-gun eventually starts fighting back and seizes the most likely path to prison survival – allying himself with the inside’s big guy, Jung Ik-ho (Han Suk-Kyu). Ik-ho, a notorious gangster famous for eating the eyeballs of his enemies, is the one who’s really in charge around here, not least because he’s the one running the gang of prison based hitmen trotted out to take care of the bad guys’ hit list.

What starts out as an intriguing idea quickly descends into predictability as Yoo-gun and Ik-ho face off against each other, finding common ground and camaraderie but ultimately existing on the plains of good and evil. Yoo-gun has his own reasons for landing himself in prison but his policeman’s heart still loves truth and justice even if he’s forced to become a prisoner whilst in prison. While he goes along with Ik-ho’s crimes, joining in the violence and intimidation he practices, he also wants to take Ik-ho down even if it means becoming him in the process.

While the interplay between the two men forms the central axis of the film as they develop an odd kind of grudging friendship which may still end on the point of a knife at any moment, Na tries his best to recreate the world of the grim ‘80s action thriller. Technically speaking, The Prison is set in the ‘90s (not that viewers outside of Korea would notice aside from the external lack of mobile phones, computers, internet etc) but wants to be the kind of tough, bruisy, fight heavy action movie they don’t make any more in which a righteous hero defeats a large-scale conspiracy by jump kicking hoodlums. He almost succeeds in this aim, but never quite manages to anchor the ongoing background conspiracy elements with the intense pugilism of the prison environment.

Yoo-gun and Ik-ho are obviously a special case but aside from their efforts, prison life in Korea is not too bad – the guards are OK, the warden is ineffectual, and the inmates are running the show. Nevertheless the prison is the centre of the conspiracy as elite bad guys take advantage of put upon poor ones who’ve found themselves thrown inside thanks to ongoing social inequality, trading cushy conditions to guys who’re never getting out in return for committing state sponsored crimes. Needless to say, someone is trying to expose the conspiracy which would be very bad news for everyone but rubbing them out might prove counter productive in the extreme.

Na lets the in-house shenanigans drag on far too long, pitching fight after fight but failing to make any of his punches land with the satisfaction they seem to expect. Flirting with the interplay between Yoo-gun and Ik-ho in wondering how far Yoo-gun is prepared to go or whether he is destined to become his criminal mentor rather than destroy him, Na never fully engages with the central idea preferring to focus on the action at the expense of character, psychology, or the corruption which underlines the rest of the film. Nevertheless The Prison does have the requisite levels of high-octane fights and impressive set pieces including the fiery if predictable prison riot finale. Life behind bars isn’t all it’s cracked up to be after all, the corrupt elites of Korea will have to actually pay people to off their enemies. Predictable and poorly paced, The Prison is best when it sticks to throwing punches but might be more fun if it placed them a little better.


The Prison was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)