Peppermint Candy (박하사탕, Lee Chang-dong, 1999)

Peppermint Candy 4K posterA wise man once said that the tragedy of life is that you have to live it forwards but it can only be understood in reverse. Lee Chang-dong’s second feature, the poignantly titled Peppermint Candy (박하사탕, Bakha Satang), lays bare the wounded innocence of 20th century Korea through the story of one man betrayed by the world in which he lived, eventually destroying himself in a protracted act of self-harm intended as a perverse attempt either at atonement or grudging conformity with a society he could not resist.

Beginning and ending with a picnic, Lee opens in 1999 as a hopelessly drunk Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu) crashes a reunion party he wasn’t technically invited to held to mark 20 years of friendship among former factory workers now approaching middle age. Dressed in a suit which looks somehow wrong on him, Yong-ho hogs the karaoke mic to sing a maudlin song about failed love, dances wildly, and sobs with the crushing hopelessness of a man entirely alone in the world. While his old friends try to reclaim the cheerful atmosphere, he climbs up to a nearby railway bridge where he waits for a train with outstretched arms, screaming “I’m going back” as he prepares to greet it.

Yong-ho does indeed “go back” as the train bears us ceaselessly back into the past, showing us the moments of Yong-ho’s life which struck him like a hammer to the soul and turned him into the defeated figure on the railway bridge, howling into the wind. At 40, Yong-ho is a hollowed out shell of a man, divorced and living in a greenhouse after falling foul of the volatile late ‘90s stock market, subsequently cheated out of all his money and the possibility of a new start by a man he thought was his friend. Given what we later learn about the middle-aged Yong-ho, it’s difficult to believe he had any kind of friends at all, and even if we’re conditioned to pity him as a man already dead he does nothing to earn our sympathy, cheating a poor roadside coffee seller out of a few pennies and then quietly smirking to himself in the safety of his car.

Yet, he begins to soften when a kindly man shows up and tells him that his first love, Sun-im (Moon So-ri) – now apparently this good man’s wife, is close to death and wants to see him one last time never having given up on the man he once was. Given the suit which doesn’t suit him by Sun-Im’s husband so that she won’t realise Yong-ho has made a mess of his life and be upset, Yong-ho stops to pick up a small jar filled with the titular “peppermint candy”, suddenly revealing that perhaps he never quite gave up on that man either and that may be his tragedy.

Before he was an arch capitalist making a few shady bucks in the pre-financial crisis economic boomtown of the newly democratised Korea, Yong-ho was a policeman working for the authoritarian government brutally torturing teenage democracy activists during the dying days of the regime. As a young rookie we see him squeamishly try to resist, only to be pressured into violence and then snap. The suspect fouls Yong-ho’s hand with the kind of smell that never really washes off, but it’s just one more stop on Yong-ho’s journey to spiritual ruination. Finally we reach his breaking point, in Gwangju in 1980, where his soul is forever soiled.

The Gwangju Massacre, in the story of Yong-ho’s life which is also the story of Korea, is the great festering wound which can never be healed. He carries it with him in an intermittent limp that resurfaces at times of emotional difficulty, and convinces himself that he is unworthy of everything good or innocent in the world. He breaks with Sun-im, cruelly betraying her faith in him with a crude gesture that wounds them both equally, mutually understood as a perverse act of kindness. Becoming what he thinks he’s supposed to be, what this society has made him, he wilfully destroys himself in a decades-long act of self harm that leads only back to the train which haunts him throughout all of his encounters, so painfully central to the arc of his life. Literally railroaded by an inexorable fate, Yong-ho lacks the will to resist believing he is no better than the hand he has been dealt but consumed by self-loathing and infinite regret. There is no way back, only forward, but for Yong-ho, and perhaps for Korea, Lee sees only one way out and the soft of heart will not survive it.


Peppermint Candy was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Adulthood (어른도감, Kim In-seon, 2018)

Adulthood poster 2Growing up is a funny thing, most of us are content to let it run as a background task while we get on with our daily lives but some of us are forced to contemplate the nature of “adulthood” from a transitionary perspective when confronted with independence delivered at an unexpected juncture. The debut feature from Kim In-seon, Adulthood (어른도감, Eoreundogam) is a coming of age tale but it’s also one about family, responsibility, integrity, and the social fabric as a teenage girl’s attempts to adjust to life alone are frustrated by the arrival of an irresponsible uncle with issues of his own.

14-year-old Kyung-un’s (Lee Jae-in) father (Choi Duk-moon) has just passed away following a lengthy illness. Her mother left when she was small, and now Kyung-un is all alone. The funeral is lonely, and Kyung-un is otherwise unaccompanied, without friends or relatives to assist in the business of mourning. That is, until a good-looking young man suddenly jumps on the bus to the crematorium and bursts into tears. Jae-min (Um Tae-Goo) claims to be the younger brother of Kyung-un’s father whom she has never met. Sceptical, Kyung-un has no other option than to allow Jae-min to invade her life even though she felt as if she was managing fine on her own.

However, Jae-min’s intentions turn out to be less than honourable. He’s a conman and a gigalo who’s forever failing in various scams and deceptions, and despite Kyung-un’s prudent caution towards him, he manages to trick her out of her dad’s life insurance money thanks to making himself her legal guardian on a pretext of saving her from a foster home. Being the clever little girl she is, Kyung-un manages to track her errant uncle down to a shady part of town, but the only way she’s getting her money back is if she consents to become Jae-min’s accomplice and pose as his daughter in order to win over his latest mark, lonely pharmacist Jum-hee (Seo Jung-yeon).

Forced to care for herself from an early age thanks to her father’s illness, Kyung-un is a mature little girl who can manage perfectly fine on her own, even dealing with complicated formalities like submitting death certificates and dealing with insurance companies. At 14 she probably shouldn’t have to do any of this alone but doesn’t want to lose her independence or have her life further disrupted by being forced out of her home and into foster care. Despite her natural caution there is perhaps a part of her that wants to believe Jae-min’s story, even if the other part of her is cloning his mobile phone and going through his bag to try and figure out what it is he’s after.

Jae-min, however, is a selfish man child perpetually chasing quick fixes and conveniently deciding to ignore whoever might end up getting hurt in the process, though it’s also true that he’s not completely unaffected by the pain he causes to others. His moral scruples do not extend to cheating his niece out of her father’s money which is all she has to live on and probably means she will also become homeless seeing as her landlord (who hasn’t even noticed her dad has died) is pushing the rent up. Eyes always on the prize, Jae-min’s dream of opening a Japanese restaurant is real enough and he doesn’t much care what he has to do to make it a reality.

However, when Jae-min and Kyung-un are forced to start playacting family for the lonely Jum-hee, a genuine connection is set in motion. As it turns out, there’s a reason for Jum-hee’s continued aloofness and fear to engage and her interactions with the “widowed” father and daughter do indeed begin to shift something inside her too. Despite all the lying and the natural mistrust, something true bubbles to the surface even if the continued deceptions threaten to push it all back down again.

In the end perhaps that’s what adulthood means, understanding that sometimes people tell the truth when they lie. Kyung-un and Jae-min, both orphans, both lonely, both doing “fine” on their own, nevertheless come to realise that perhaps it’s not so bad to be doing fine on your own with someone else. It’s not perfect, and perhaps it’s not what you wanted, but then that’s “adulthood” for you. A promising debut from Kim In-seon, Adulthood is a warm and empathetic look at different paths to maturity as a little girl and a hollow man bond in their shared sense of aloneness and come to realise that independence does not necessarily require solitude.


Adulthood gets its North American premiere as the opening night gala of the seventh season of Asian Pop-up Cinema which takes place in Chicago from 12th September to 14th November 2018. Director Kim In-seon and actress Lee Jae-in will be in attendance for the opening night screening at AMC River East 21 on 12th September for an introduction and Q&A. Tickets are already on sale via the official website.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

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)

Manhole (맨홀, Shin Jae-young, 2014)

manhole posterFinding the sinister in the commonplace is the key to creating a chilling horror experience, but “finding” it is the key. Attempting to graft something untoward onto a place it can’t take hold is more likely to raise eyebrows than hair or goosebumps. The creators of Korean horror exercise Manhole (맨홀) have decided to make those ubiquitous round discs the subject of their enquiries. They are kind of worrying really aren’t they? Where do they go, what are they for? Only the municipal authorities really know. In this case they go to the lair of a weird serial killer who lives in the shadows and occasionally pulls in pretty girls from above like one of those itazura bank cats after your loose change.

Of course, it’s sort of our first victim’s fault because she’s dared to go out late at night on her own and committed the cardinal sin of shouting at her over protective father on the phone shortly before realising she’s wandered into a horror movie by mistake. The lights start flickering, everything goes wavy and then you’re being pulled down a manhole. Not cool.

Anyway, the real story is about two sisters. Yeon-seo (Jung Yu-Mi) is now the sole guardian of Soo-jeong (Kim Sae-Ron) following the death of their parents and also seems to be harbouring some kind of guilt over an accident that left Soo-jeong permanently deaf. Perhaps a little over protective as a consequence, Yeon-seo instructs Soo-jeong to stay in their apartment and wait for her to get back. Soo-jeong, however, is old enough to push the boundaries and ventures out alone to meet her sister on her way home with an umbrella. Unfortunately, she catches sight of the killer along the way and is soon trapped in the sewer like everyone else, apparently. Yeon-soo tries to call the police but they aren’t interested so she has little choice but to track her sister’s phone and journey underground herself. She’s joined (well, they’re there at the same time) by the father of the first victim (Choi Duk-Moon) who happens to be a former policeman, now in possession of a gun stolen from a friend also set to make a fateful descent at a later point.

Manhole is a very confused film. Unable to decide who its protagonist(s) is (are), it meanders freely between its disparate plot strands without ever managing to build coherent connections between them. Though the sisters are posited as the main element of the story, they take quite a long time to arrive and are then frequently sidelined in favour of other ongoing developments. Their story is undoubtedly the most interesting as it presents an unusual plot device in which they remain unable to communicate verbally during their attempts to escape from the sewers and it’s nice to see sign language used so ordinarily in a genre film, yet even their meagre backstory is painted in broad strokes and through flashbacks once again making it difficult to fully connect with them as they battle the threat in the shadows.

The role of the killer, Soo-chul (Jung Kyoung-Ho), is also a difficult one as he is neither protagonist nor generic threat but given a small amount of flashback backstory delivered in monologue to his victims which only serves to make him a frustrating presence. Manhole seems as if it has a point to make about families in that Soo-chul is a damaged child of a broken home, both trying to avenge himself and regain what he’s lost by, in a sense, “recreating” a family through his kidnappings. Frequent glances towards the prominently displayed portrait of the ideal family contrast with the other relationships in the film – Jong-ho and his hunt for his missing daughter, and the bond between the two sisters. Both of these family units are also missing elements – the sisters who’ve lost their parents and Jong-ho as a lone father. Neither of the parental figures in the film is fully able to protect their charges despite appearing controlling and over protective prior to the incident though no particular reason seems to be offered for this other than praising parental sacrifice in allowing both to fight all out to protect those closest to them.

What Manhole tries to be is a chase film, confining itself to the sewer environment as its crazed killer crawls around it like the literal beast in the shadows, cocooning victims in clingfilm and wearing bug-like bright red night vision goggles. Though exciting enough the frequent cutaways and over reliance on shaky cam disrupt the claustrophobic atmosphere as do the stereotypical jump scares and framing which feel as predictable as the final sequence of a video game in which the idea is to dodge the falling axes. Muddled and inexpertly photographed, Manhole is a disappointing genre exercise which even the generally strong performances of its cast can’t mask. Still, hardcore genre fans may find more to admire in the gore stained darkness of the oddly accessible sewer network and its lizard-like psycho killer.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Helpless (화차, Byun Young-joo, 2012)

121003-006_1211020310103Review of Byun Young-joo’s Helpless (화차, Hwacha) first published by UK Anime Network


Can you ever really know another person? Everything you think you know about the people closest to you is founded on your own desire to believe what they’ve told you is the fundamental truth about themselves, yet you’ll never receive direct proof one way or the other. Byun Young-joo’s Helpless is based on Miyuki Miyabe’s popular novel Kasha (available in an English translation by Alfred Birnbaum under the title All She Was Worth) which literally means “fiery chariot” and is the name given to a subset of yokai who feed on the corpses of those who have died after accumulating evil deeds, which may tell you something about the direction this story is headed. After his fiancée suddenly disappears, one man discovers the woman he loved was not who she claimed to be, but perhaps also discovers that she was exactly who he thought she was all along.

Mun-ho (Lee Sun-kyun) and Seon-young (Kim Min-hee) are newly engaged and on their way to deliver a wedding invite to his parents in person. They seem bubbly and excited, still cheerful in the middle of a long car journey. It’s doubly surprising therefore when Mun-ho returns to the car after stopping at a service station to find that Seon-young has disappeared. Seon-young is not answering her phone and has left her umbrella behind despite the pouring rain which only leaves Mun-ho feeling increasingly concerned. His only clue is her distinctive hair clip lying on the floor of the petrol station toilet. Reporting his fiancée’s disappearance to the police, Mun-ho is more or less fobbed off as they come to the obvious conclusion that the couple must have argued and Seon-young has simply left him, as is her right. Confused, hurt, and worried Mun-ho turns to his old friend, Jong-geun (Cho Seong-ha), a recently disgraced ex-policeman, to help him understand what exactly has happened to the woman he thought he loved.

Mun-ho, helpless as the title, has no idea what might have transpired – has she been abducted? Was she in trouble, was someone after her? Did she simply get cold feet as the policemen suggested? A trip to Seon-young’s apartment reveals the place has been pretty thoroughly turned over leaving little trace behind, the entire apartment has even been swept for fingerprints in chillingly methodical fashion. Another clue comes from a close friend who’d been looking into the couple’s finances and found some improprieties in Seon-young’s past which he’s surprised she wouldn’t have mentioned. Perhaps she was embarrassed or ashamed of her credit history, but running out onto the motorway in the pouring rain without even stopping to pick up an umbrella seems like a massive overreaction for such an ordinary transgression.

What transpires is a tale of identity theft, vicious loan sharks, parental neglect, and the increasingly lonely, disconnected society which opens doors for the predatory. Usurious loans become an ironic recurring theme as they ruin lives left, right and centre. Following the financial crash, a father takes out a loan from gangsters to support his business but promptly goes missing. His wife is so distraught that she becomes too depressed to care for their daughter who ends up in a catholic orphanage. Gangsters have their own rules, the debt passes to the girl, young as she is, who is then forced to pay in non-monetary services until she finally escapes only to discover the torment is not yet over. Meanwhile, another woman takes out a series of loans to cover credit card debt and is forced to declare bankruptcy, left only with a lingering sense of shame towards her ailing mother who then dies in a freak accident leaving her a windfall inheritance which she uses to buy a fancy headstone for the woman she was never able to look after whilst still alive.

The original identity theft is only made possible by this fracturing of traditional communities in favour of impersonal city life. Nobody really knows anybody anymore – Seon-young had claimed to have no family and no close friends so there was no one to vouch for her. Many other young women are in similar positions, orphaned and unmarried, living in urban isolation with only work colleagues to wonder where they’ve got to should they not arrive at the office one day. Loneliness and boredom leave the door wide open for opportunists seeking to exploit such weaknesses for their own various gains.

Byun hints that something is wrong right away by switching to anxious, canted and strange angles filled with oddly cramped compositions. The eerie score enhances the feeling of impending doom as Mun-ho continues to dig into Seong-young’s past, finding confusion and reversals each way he looks. Seong-young was not who she claimed to be, and her tragic past traumas can in no way excuse her later conduct, but even if Mun-ho’s faith in her was not justified, there is a kind of pureness in his unwavering love which adds to the ongoing tragedy. Mun-ho fell in love with the woman Seong-young would have been if life had not been so cruel, and perhaps that part of her loved him too, but life is cruel and now it’s too late. An intriguingly plotted, relentlessly tense thriller Helpless will make you question everything you ever thought you knew about your nearest and dearest, but it is worth remembering that there are some questions it is better not to ask.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)