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)

V.I.P. (브이아이피, Park Hoon-jung, 2017)

V.I.P. posterIn New World, Park Hoon-jung provided a bleak overview of creeping corruption with the absolute certainty that the forces of darkness will always win over those of the light, but with V.I.P. (브이아이피) he turns his attentions away from South Korea’s hellish gangland society to examine the effect of geopolitical concerns on the lives of ordinary citizens. He does this by positioning South Korea’s two biggest international concerns – America and The North, as twin manipulators with his home nation caught in the middle, trapped between the need to preserve allies and defend against enemies. The “enemy” here is a sociopathic serial killer allowed to get away with his crimes at home because of his elite status and then again abroad as a key informant of the American intelligence services.

Beginning at the end with a weary man accepting a gun and striding into a rundown building in Hong Kong, Park jumps back a few years to North Korea where an innocent schoolgirl is grabbed by a gang of three boys on a peaceful country road. Not only do they brutally rape and kill the girl, but they even go so far as to massacre her entire family. Police Chief Lee (Park Hee-Soon) identifies the killer as Kim Gwang-il (Lee Jong-Suk), son of a high ranking official. His boss closes the case; Gwang-il is untouchable. Lee is demoted and sent to a fertiliser plant.

A couple of years later similar crimes begin occurring in the South and maverick policeman Chae (Kim Myung-min), temporarily reinstated after being suspended for his violent ways, is handed the case after his superior apparently “commits suicide”. Like Lee, who eventually makes contact with Chae having followed his quarry to the South, Chae identifies Gwang-il and is prevented from arresting him but this time by South Korean intelligence services who were partly responsible for Gwang-il’s defection working closely with America’s CIA and the very greasy Agent Gray (Peter Stormare).

Like many Korean films of recent times the central point of concern is in the ability of the rich and powerful to do whatever they please and get away with it because their special status makes them untouchable. Park scores a double a whammy when he casts his villain both as an elitist and as a North Korean though he draws no connection between life in a brutalising regime and the desire to inflict violence.

This is a violent tale and the violence on show is sickening, often needlessly so. After showing us the aftermath of what happened to the innocent teenage girl in the prologue and then to her entire family including a five year old brother, there was really no need to go into detail but Park eventually includes a horrifying scene of Gwang-il garrotting his victim in an elegant drawing room right underneath the portraits of the Kims hanging proudly on the wall. The scene is problematic for several reasons but the biggest of them is in the depiction of the naked female body covered in blood and bruises while Park’s minions stand naked around her, pale and unstained by her blood, each of the actors carefully hiding their genitals from the camera. The victim, who has no lines other than a final plea not to kill her, is the only real female presence in the film save for one female police officer who is seen briefly and only appears to become another potential victim for Gwang-il.

The real ire is saved not for Gwang-il but for the intelligence services who lack the backbone to stop him. The Americans, or more precisely a need to placate them, are the major motivator – a fact which takes on additional irony considering Gwang-il is the North Korean threat the US is supposed to be helping to mitigate. It remains unclear why the CIA would be allowing Gwang-il free reign to live as a regular citizen given that he supposedly has important information regarding North Korean finances which is the reason the Americans are helping him defect, rather than keeping him safely contained and preventing him from committing heinous crimes all over the world which, apart from anything else, threaten to cause huge embarrassment to everyone involved. Still, Agent Gray lives up to his name in his general sleaziness and the intense implication that he is playing his own long game which may have nothing to do with country or protocol.

Park’s decision to structure the film in several chapters each with a different title card often works against him, taking the momentum of his procedural and occasionally proving confusing. Loosely, Park ties the stories of three men together – the idealistic North Korean officer who wants to see justice done, the grizzled cop with a noble heart, and the conflicted NIS officer realising the unforeseen consequences of his attempts to play politics for career advancement, but he fails to weave their fates into anything more than an extremely pessimistic exploration of hidden geopolitical oppression. Final shootout aside, V.I.P. is a grimy, politically questionable thriller which irritates in its narrative sluggishness and leaves a sour taste in the mouth in its own indifference to its villains’ crimes in favour of his V.I.P. status as the representative of an entirely different existential threat.


Screened at the London East Asia Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Chaser (추격자, Na Hong-jin, 2008)

The chaser movie posterWhen it comes to law enforcement in Korea (at least in the movies), your best bet may actually be other criminals or “concerned citizens” as the police are mostly to be found napping or busy trying to cover up for a previous mistake. The Chaser (추격자, Chugyeogja) continues this grand tradition in taking inspiration from the real life serial murder crime spree of Yoo Young-chul , eventually brought to justice in 2005 after pimps came together and got suspicious enough to make contact with a friendly police officer.

Former cop turned petty pimp Joong-ho (Kim Yun-seok) has a problem. His girls keep skipping out on their debts. Or so he thinks – rousing one of his last remaining “employees”, Mi-jin (Seo Young-hee), from her sickbed (and unbeknownst to him calling her away from her seven year old daughter), Joong-ho finds a phone belonging to a missing girl and realises the last number called is the same as the one he’s about to send Mi-jin off to. Suspicious, Joong-ho rediscovers his detective skills and notices this particular number all over his books. Thinking the john is kidnapping his girls to sell them on, Joong-ho hatches a plan to track Mi-jin and have a word with this bozo but unsurprisingly nothing goes to plan. Mi-jin has fallen into the grip of a vicious serial killer, Young-min (Ha Jung-woo), but may still be alive if only Joong-ho can find her in time.

Joong-ho is not a good guy. Maybe he’s not the worst of his kind but as a former law enforcement official turned unsentimental exploiter of women, Joong-ho is an unlikely saviour. His primary motivation is, unsurprisingly, commercial as the look of concern he gives to one of his ladies encountering a dangerous client betrays, the kind of irritation a taxi driver might display on noticing a large scratch on his expensive car rather than a recognition of the pain and suffering those cuts and bruises bear witness to. He never stops to consider that something untoward has befallen the missing women and is, in one sense, relieved when he thinks they’ve been sold on rather than just skipping out on him. Throughout his quest to find Mi-jin which sees him forming an unexpected paternal bond with her young daughter, Joong-ho begins to rediscover his humanity as he’s forced to confront the similarities between himself and this deranged psycho killer.

Like his real life counterpart, Young-min, is a sexually frustrated misogynist who begins his social revenge through killing off the wealthy before moving on to the less easily missed including local prostitutes which is what ultimately proves his downfall when the various area pimps begin to connect the dots. In actuality it turns out Young-min has previously been questioned in connection with a murder but was released due to lack of evidence. Likewise, this time around the police are not very interested in capturing him and Young-min is once again returned to society due to some political concerns which result in pressure from above. As if having charmed luck with the police weren’t enough, Young-min also exploits the other cornerstone of South Korean society – the church, through which he recruits his victims, subverting their trusting religiosity with his violent perversion.

For a film which largely lives on the chase, winding through the darkened, rain drenched backstreets of downtown Seoul, Na adds in plenty of twists and turns as the case proceeds down one dingy alleyway after another. Joong-ho’s gradual reawakening as a human being rather than cold blooded human trafficker is accompanied by the gradual reveal of his counterpart’s dangerous need for validation through violence but also by the realisation of his total powerlessness in the face of such a nebulous and faceless threat. The police won’t help (perhaps if they’d investigated those parking violations a little more assiduously all of this could have been avoided), the Church is just an ironic distraction, and the politicians are busy squabbling amongst themselves. Joong-ho is an unlikely figure of salvation, but he remains the last best hope for justice so long as he can avoid becoming that which he seeks.


Original trailer (English subtitles)