The Truth Beneath (비밀은 없다, Lee Kyoung-mi, 2016)

10_06_15__574b920705d42Politics in South Korea has never been exactly drama free, though recent times have seen a multitude of storms engulf its top brass running from the national to the personal. Frequent Park Chan-wook collaborator Lee Kyoung-mi’s followup to her acclaimed 2008 debut Crush and Blush, The Truth Beneath (비밀은 없다, Bimileun Eobda) begins as if it’s going fit into the ‘70s dark political thriller mould but gradually shifts gear to present both a bleak family drama and the story of one woman’s descent into the near madness of grief as she attempts to uncover the true circumstances behind her private tragedy even as it plays out on a national stage.

Married to a prominent candidate in a tightly contested electoral race, Yeon-hong (Son Ye-jin) is perfect first lady material – save that she’s from an inconvenient home town. Two weeks before the big day, Yeon-hong’s daughter Min-jin (Shin Ji-hoon) does not return from school as expected which, aside from the obvious distress, is not ideal for her father as his political campaign has largely been run on Min-jin’s face and the slogan “I will protect your children”. Jong-chan (Kim Ju-hyeok), Min-jin’s ambitious father, is reluctant to report her disappearance for fear it will hurt him politically and, after all, Min-jin has “disappeared” at times before. Yeon-hong is deeply worried and unable to understand her husband’s indifference to their daughter’s mysterious absence. As time passes, Yeon-hong steps up her investigation becoming ever more suspicious of those around her.

On the surface of things, Yeon-hong had the ideal life – a wealthy, handsome husband, and a nicely turned out, studious teenage daughter. The first glimpse we catch of them is a celebration of the campaign’s launch in which Yeong-hong is furiously cooking away – a motif which is to be repeated with an entirely different sense of celebration sometime later. Yet there’s something slightly artificial about the setup even in its beginning as the conversation between the men takes on a barbed, guarded quality while Min-jin lies to her mother even whilst pledging to straighten up now that the campaign is in full swing.

The more Yeong-hong investigates, the more she realises how much of the life she’d been living was careful artifice. Min-jin had gone off the rails before, though perhaps no more than any other teenage girl and given her father’s position, she’d been under a considerable amount of strain. The “friend” Min-jin had claimed to be meeting does not seem to exist and on visiting her school, Yeong-hong finds out that Min-jin had been ostracised by the other girls, even experiencing violent treatment at their hands.

Min-jin had, in fact, eventually embraced her outsider status by forming a performance art influenced, punk inspired rock band with a similarly “uncool” girl, Mi-ok. Mi-ok may have been one of the last people to have contact with Min-jin before her disappearance and quickly becomes a person of interest in Yeong-hong’s investigations but whatever it is she’s hiding, it’s clear that there was a whole side of Min-jin’s life that her mother was entirely unaware of.

As Yeong-hong becomes increasingly desperate, she starts entertaining the idea of conspiracy. Her first thoughts turn to her husband’s rival, Noh, an unscrupulous man who may just be capable of kidnapping Jong-chang’s poster girl in order to punch a hole through his opponent’s ill advised slogan by demonstrating that he can’t even protect his own child, let alone anyone else’s. Then again, how far would her husband be prepared to go in the quest for power? Would his campaign team really kidnap his own daughter to cast suspicion on Noh and win public sympathy? Jong-chang’s ongoing indifference could be easily explained if he already knows the score, but the more Yeong-hong finds out the more she begins to doubt everything she thought she knew about her family.

Son Ye-jin turns in a career making performance in capturing Yeon-hong’s increasingly volatile emotional state. A once elegant political wife, Yeon-hong’s disintegration is manifested in her untidy hair and progressively relaxed dress sense as she becomes ever surer that there is something larger at play than a runaway teen. Yeon-hong defiantly rejects the entirety of her experience through her appearance at a funeral wearing a bright and colourful floral dress almost as if demanding to be seen, remembered, and addressed. No longer will she remain Jong-chang’s silent partner, Yeon-hong’s grief-stricken, maternal fury requires answers and will not rest until the whole of the truth is known.

Lee’s composition is simply stunning making frequent use of dissolves, superimpositions, and a subtle floating of time periods to underline Yeon-hong’s precarious mental state. When Yeon-hong discovers a particularly unpleasant truth, the previously balanced camera suddenly slides into a canted angle, leaving the ordered world of a political thriller behind for a new kind of noir-ish murkiness. Yeon-hong is, literally, unbalanced – wrong footed and wild as she enters into a desperate quest to understand not only the truth beneath the events which have engulfed her, but the essential truth beneath her life. Playing out almost like an inverted The World of Kanako, the Truth Beneath is a similarly bleak tale filled with coldness and duplicity, yet its distressing finale carries with it a fragmentary warmth and the slightest glimpse of hope in the embrace of a motherless child and childless mother.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International 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 Age of Shadows (밀정, Kim Jee-woon, 2016)

age-of-shadowsWhen the country of your birth has been occupied by another nation, what do you do? Do you fight back, insist on your independence and expel the tyrants, or quickly bow to your new overlords and resign yourself to no longer being what you once were? Kim Jee-woon becomes the latest director to take a look at Korea’s colonial past with the Resistance based thriller Age of Shadows (밀정, Miljung) which owes more than a little to Melville’s similarly titled Army of Shadows, as well as classic cold war spy dramas The Third Man and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

The film opens with an impressive set piece in which two Resistance members, Jang-ok (Park Hee-soon), and Joo (Seo Young-joo) are betrayed whilst trying to sell a Buddhist statue. Joo is captured but Jang-ok makes a run for it as what looks like the entire Japanese garrison of Seoul chases him, running gallantly over the picturesque Korean rooftops. Cornered, Jang-ok is confronted by Korean born Japanese policeman Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho), once a Resistance member himself and a former comrade in arms of Jang-ok. This is the point Jung-chool’s carefully crafted collaboration beings to fracture – his friend, rather than allow himelf to be captured, shouts “Long Live Korea” and blows his own brains out.

His mission a failure, Jung-chool is then moved onto the next investigation which aims to dig out the Resistance top brass in the city. Jung-chool’s Japanese boss Higashi (Shingo Tsurumi) wants him to infiltrate the cell headed by antique dealer and photographer Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) in the hope that it will lead them to head honcho, Jung (Lee Byung-hun). However, Higashi also saddles him with a very young but high ranking Japanese official, Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo), to “help” him bring in Woo-jin.

In Jung-chool’s final conversation with Jang-ok, his friend berates him for the decision to turn traitor and work for the Japanese rather than against them. Jung-chool asks him if he thinks independence is a credible aim, implying he’s long since given up believing in the idea of the Japanese ever being overthrown. Jang-ok evidently believed in it enough to sacrifice his own life, but other comrades have also abanoned the cause and actively betrayed the movement in much more serious ways than Jung-chool’s pragmatic side swapping.

Even if Jung-chool has decided that if you can’t beat the Japanese you may as well join them, he’s coming to the realisation that his superiors, even if they’ve previously treated him warmly, will never regard him as equal to the Japanese personnel. Hashimoto’s sudden arrival undercuts Jung-Chool’s career progress and reminds him that he serves a very distinct purpose which may soon run out of currency. Higashi, having seduced Jung-chool with promises of a comfortable life and praise for his skills, does not trust his Korean underling enough to send him out on his own. This personal wound may do more to send him reeling back to the other side than anything else, especially as his “replacement” Hashimoto is a crazy eyed psychopath who has half a mind to burn the entire city just to be sure of getting his man.

A man who’s been turned once can be turned again and so mastermind Jung decides to prod Jung-chool in the hope that he’ll become an asset rather than a threat. As he puts it, what’s more frightening than feeling your heart move and Jung-chool’s certainty has already been shaken. Song Kang-ho perfectly inhabits Jung-chool’s conflicted soul as his old patriotic feelings start to surface just as he begins to truly see his masters for what they are. Always keeping his intentions unclear, Jung-chool is the ideal double agent, playing both sides or maybe neither with no clear affiliation.

Like Army of Shadows, the final nail in the coffin is delivered by a sentimental photograph. In this chaotic world of betrayals and counter betrayals, there can be no room for love or compassion other than loyalty to one’s comrades and to the movement. Yet against the odds Woo-jin comes to trust Jung-chool implicitly, certain that he will finally choose the side of freedom rather than that of the oppressor. The relationship between the two men provides the only real moments of comic relief, though others members of the group are less well defined including an underwritten part for Woo-jin’s Chinese love interest (Han Ji-min) who isn’t permitted to do very much other than model some elegant twenties outfits.

Maintaining tension throughout, Kim intersperses psychological drama as betrayal piles on betrayal, with intense action sequences including a particularly claustrophobic train based game of hide and seek. Inspired by real historical events, Kim does not claim any level of authenticity but sets out to tell the story of the double dealing inside a man’s heart as he weighs up duty and self interest and asks himself how far he’s willing to go for the sake of either. The age of “shadows” indeed, these are hollow men whose identities have been eroded, living only for today but in certainty of the bright tomorrow. Kim’s examination of this turbulent period is both a big budget prestige picture with striking production values, and a tense, noir-inflected thriller in the mould of Melville, but also a nuanced human drama unafraid to ask the difficult questions which lie at the heart of every spy story.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)