Idol (우상, Lee Su-jin, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Idol poster 1“Getting others to trust something is more important, not what they choose to believe” advises a cynical politician a little way into Lee Su-jin’s Idol (우상, Woosang). Image is indeed everything. Who are you more likely to believe – the slick, seemingly upstanding politician who’s done everything “right”, or an ageing, inarticulate aircon repairman with bleach blond hair? Two fathers go to bat for their sons, if in very different ways, but only one can emerge “victorious” in their strangely symmetrical endeavours.

Lee opens with a voice-over taken from a speech later in the film belonging to bereaved father Yoo (Sol Kyung-gu) in which he confesses that as his son Bu-nam (Lee Woo-hyun), who had severe learning difficulties, grew older, he found himself having to masturbate him to prevent him harming himself trying to calm his sexual urges. Yoo’s words play over his opposite number’s return home from a research trip to Japan. Koo (Han Suk-kyu) is a politician and former herbalist with a special interest in nuclear power. Ambitious, he spends much of his time travelling for business while his wife (Kang Mal-geum) cares for their wayward adolescent son, Johan (Jo Byung-gyu). A panicked text message warning that Johan has got himself into trouble again gets ignored, but when he arrives home Koo knows he has to act. Johan has knocked someone over and rather than take them to hospital, he’s brought the body back home.

A series of quick calculations tells him that the “best” option is for Johan to turn himself in, despite his wife’s insistence that they simply get rid of the body. He drives the corpse back to the scene and dumps it, gets rid of the original car, and then drives his son to the police station before expressing contrition in front of the cameras. That would have been that if it weren’t for Yoo’s dogged determination to find out what happened to his boy, and the fact that Bu-nam’s “wife” Ryeon-hwa (Chun Woo-hee), an undocumented former sex worker from China, managed to escape meaning there are loose ends Koo knows he needs to tie up.

“This rotting smell” Ryeon-hwa exclaims on putting a number of things together. There is something undoubtedly corrupt in Koo’s superficially smooth world of neatly pressed suits and sharp haircuts. Stagnant water swells around him, along with the murky swirl blood, as he contemplates the best way out of his present predicament. Everything here is stained, marked, or scarred as if hinting at the darkness beneath gradually seeping through.

Yoo, meanwhile, perhaps knows he lives in a “dirty” world and though he never claims to be completely clean himself, is fully aware of the implications of his actions. A widowed father, he tried to do the best for his disabled son. He offered him relief in ways others would find perverse in a strange gesture of fatherly love, finally deciding to get him a wife in the hope of putting an end to such degradation for them both only to regret his decision when he realises Bu-nam may not have died if he’d just stayed home. Koo, meanwhile, tries less to protect his son than himself, weighing up that the boy will most likely get a slap on the wrist and he’ll come out of it looking better because he behaved “honestly” and in line with the law. To get elected he will stop at nothing to preserve the image of properness, even if it means he must get his hands “dirty”.

In that essential ruthlessness, he may have something in common with the jaded Ryeon-hwa whose sister warns Yoo not to trust her because “her nature is different”. Like Koo, she has done terrible things but done them to survive rather than to prosper. Her marriage to Bu-nam might seem like no prize, but it was better than the life she was leaving behind and, crucially, a guaranteed path to Korean citizenship assuming Yoo eventually filled in the marriage papers properly.

Yoo just wants “justice”, but ruthless men like Koo who care about little other than image are not about to let him get it, which is why he finds himself trotted out as a superficial ally to bolster Koo’s appearance at the polls in return for Ryeon-hwa’s “assured” safety. In the end, all Koo’s scheming blows up in his face, but, Lee seems to say, the image always survives and men like Koo know how to spin it to their advantage while men like Yoo will always be at the mercy of the system. A bleak, often confusing, noirish thriller, Idol plunges a knife deep into the heart of societal corruption but finds that truth often matters less than the semblance of it in a society which idolises the superficial.


Idol was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Cart (카트, Boo Ji-young, 2014)

cartUp until very recently, many of us lucky enough to live in nations with entrenched labour laws have had the luxury of taking them for granted. Mandated breaks, holidays, sick pay, strictly regulated working hours and overtime directives – we know our rights, and when we feel they’re being infringed we can go to our union representatives or a government ombudsman to get our grievances heard. If they won’t listen, we have the right to strike. Anyone who’s been paying attention to recent Korean cinema will know that this is not the case everywhere and even trying to join a union can not only lead to charges of communism and loss of employment but effective blacklisting too. Cart (카트), inspired by real events, is the story of one group of women’s attempt to fight back against an absurdly arbitrary and cruel system which forces them to accept constant mistreatment only to treat their contractual agreements with cavalier contempt.

Sun-hee (Yum Jung-ah) is a loyal employee at the Mart. She’s had zero penalty points for five whole years and has been told that she’s about to be transferred from a temp worker contract to a regular employee position. Run more like a cult than a supermarket, the Mart’s workers all wear pristine blue and white uniforms and recite the dramatic sounding company credo every morning, vowing to increase sales whilst honouring customer service, and are instructed to say “Welcome Beloved Customer!” to each and every visitor. Eager to take on extra overtime with no extra pay and always at the beck and call of brusque manager Choi (Lee Seung-joon), Sun-hee is respected by her colleagues but perhaps not always liked as her goody two-shoes persona both makes them look bad and encourages the management to continue taking advantage.

Sun-hee’s dreams are about to crumble when the evil corporate suits at HQ decide it would be cheaper to fire all the temp workers and use outsourced labour instead. Despite all her long years of hard work and sacrifice, not only is she not getting her secure position, she might not have a job at all. Some of the other women decide they’ve had enough with their poor working conditions and it’s worth taking the chance on forming a union to fight head office together. Sun-hee is reluctant but is eventually convinced to become one of the spokespeople, after all, if they won’t listen to miss five years no penalties, who will they listen to?

It’s worth asking the question why all these terrible jobs with low pay and frequently exploitative conditions are being done exclusively by women. All of the workers on temporary contracts are female from the cleaning staff to the shelf stackers and cashiers, but all come from different backgrounds from young university graduates to old ladies and ordinary working wives and mothers. The management is unwilling to listen to the concerns of their staff because they are “only women”, “working for pocket money” and should just be grateful that the store gave them something to do rather than being bored at home. Pointing out that many of these women are single mothers or live in difficult economic circumstances meaning they need that money to eat would likely not go down well with these fiercely conservative, wealthy executives whose only response is to tell the women not to be so silly and to stop making a fuss over nothing because the men have business to do.

After just ignoring the women fails and they decide to go on strike eventually occupying the store for a longterm sit in, the company go on the image offensive, offering minor concessions including the reinstatement of some, but not all, workers and other small improvements designed to guilt some of the employees with more pressing circumstances to cross the picket line. Eventually, they go to the extreme measures of employing armed thugs and riot police to remove the women by force. In contrast with other similarly themed films from other countries, there is no attempt to get the press onside to expose the company’s workings and the only news reports seen in the film are extremely biased, painting the women as selfish loonies making trouble for everyone by refusing to shut up and accept the status quo.

Following a fairly standard trajectory, the main narrative thrust is the gradual blossoming of near brainwashed and timid employee Sun-hee into a firebrand campaigner for social justice. Through being encouraged to stand up for the other women, Sun-hee becomes concerned not just with her own treatment but the general working environment in Korea. This new found indignation also helps rebuild her relationship with her sullen teenage son after he experiences some workplace discrimination of his own which his mother is able to sort out for him now that she is not prepared to simply smile, nod, and apologise every time someone attempts to get their own way through intimidation.

Cart treats an important issue with the kind of levity and interpersonal drama which make it primed for a screen one hit rather than a later night run in screen five catering to those already aware of the issues. It probably isn’t going to agitate for any direct social change and according to the final caption the outcome of the original incident was more of a bittersweet accomplishment rather than an outright victory. Still, the fight goes on, even if you find yourself ramming a supermarket trolley into a riot officer’s shield to get the message across – an effect which Cart mimics in its quest to ensure as many people as possible get the memo that the time for passive acceptance has long since passed.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Wailing (곡성, Na Hong-Jin, 2016)

wailingFor the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand – the residents of Goksung, the setting for Na Hong-jin’s nihilistic horror movie The Wailing (곡성, Goksung), might be inclined to agree with Yeats if only because the name of their town is also a homonym for the “sound of weeping”. There is plenty to weep over, and in places Na’s film begins to feel like one long plaintive cry reaching far back to the dawn of time but the main wounds are comparatively more recent – colonisation, not only of a landscape but of a soul. When it comes to gods, should you trust one over another simply because of its country of origin or is your faith to  be bestowed in something with more universal application?

Goksung is a sleepy little rural town way up in the mountains. This is the kind of place where nothing much ever happens but today all of that is about to change as a local man has committed a series of bloody murders and is now in a dissociative state. Bumbling policeman Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) arrives late to the crime scene but quickly finds himself pulled in to the ongoing investigations as bodies begin piling up in the previously quiet town.

The rational explanation for the spate of violent killings is blamed on a tonic containing some funny mushrooms but others have another idea. All of this started happening after a Japanese guy (Jun Kunimura) moved to the town. Some say he’s a professor, some say he’s a Buddhist monk, but there also those who hold him responsible for the rape of a local woman, and there are even reports of him running about the forest dressed only in a loincloth and feasting on the remains of fallen animals.

Eventually, Jung-goo’s young daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) falls under the curse, giving him an unavoidable impetus to find the truth. As well as the “suspicious” Japanese visitor, Jung-goo also comes into contact with a mysterious young woman dressed in white (Chun Woo-hee) who may be either friend or foe, whilst shamans and the Catholic Church are each approached for their advice on this singularly supernatural phenomenon.

This being quite a sleepy town, Jung-goo’s days most likely involved a lot of napping, eating, and card playing, broken up with chatting to old ladies. So unaccustomed to crime are they, they didn’t quite remember to put their gloves on before investigating a crime scene. Jung-goo and his partner are constantly branded “morons” by their boss and if the night they end up guarding the police station during a thunderstorm is anything to go by, they aren’t exactly the bravest of souls either. Not the best pair to be investigating a complex, supernatural mystery they decide to heed the rumours and pay a visit to the Japanese guy living way out in the woods.

Known only by the derogatory term “the Jap”, the new addition to the village quickly falls under suspicion thanks to the old fashioned crime of not being from around here. Whether out of resentment for historical crimes or simply because of being an outsider, everyone decides the Japanese visitor must, in some way, be responsible. Suspicions are compounded when Jung-goo, his partner, and his partner’s nephew who happens to be a Catholic priest in training with a solid command of Japanese, discover some very odd things whilst snooping around the man’s home. Is the mysterious visitor really, literally, a “Japanese devil” or just the victim of an ongoing campaign of intense xenophobia and the supernatural elements attributed to him a manifestation of that extremely offensive term?

Na keeps us guessing. Meanwhile, ancient remedies are sought when ancient ones are awakened, hence Jung-goo’s mother-in-law turns to shamanism to try and cure her granddaughter of her increasingly serious illness. The shaman (Hwang Jung-Min) arrives more like a TV evangelist than a witch doctor – smart suit and turtleneck, topped of with long hair tied into a bun. The exorcism scene itself is a furious battle between light and darkness (or so we presume) as the shaman dances wildly to the pulsating drum beats of his orchestra, sacrificing a chicken here and a goat there, all while Hyo-jin writhes in agony in the next room and his enemy performs a counter ritual from his recently refurbished lair.

“Believe in me and you shall be saved” is a message Jung-goo receives from just about everyone during the course of the film. The Catholic Church, however, is resolutely opposed to the idea of this demonic threat and informs Jung-goo that this is not a religious matter – he ought to take his daughter back to the hospital and instil his “faith” in modern medicine. Faith appears to be the central question, in what or whom should one believe? Can Jung-goo trust his shaman, is the Japanese guy an ally, threat, or just a neutral, ordinary man, and what of the oddly intense woman dressed in white? In the end, Jung-goo’s faith is questioned but he pays dearly for his final decision. Had he placed more faith in the old gods, his fate might have been very different but Jung-goo chose real world logic (not his strongest suit) over spiritual intuition and failed to heed the warnings.

Jung-goo, though presented as a broadly sympathetic presence, is partly responsible for his own downfall through his willingness to embrace the baser elements of his nature. In contrast to his otherwise laid-back character which sees him late to work because of family meals, Jung-goo has a violent streak first seen when he takes defending himself from an angry dog far further than he needed to. Later he rounds a group of friends to help him take out the Japanese man in a worrying stab at mob justice. Neither quality is very endearing but Jung-goo’s position as a slightly dim bruiser who mistakenly thinks he can smash his way out of a spiritual conundrum makes him an unlikely choice of saviour.

Na offers nothing in the way of hope, the forces of darkness are set to conquer the world helped only by humanity’s propensity towards doubt, its selfishness, and its fear. The dark humour fades as the pace increases until the film approaches its bleaker than bleak finale. This is a land of ghosts, both fleshy and otherwise but in order to bid them goodbye you must first accept their presence. In the end it’s all a question of faith but those most worthy of it may be among the most difficult to believe.


Reviewed at 2016 BFI London Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Piper (손님, Kim Gwang-tae, 2015)

PiperPosterReview of Kim Gwang-tae’s The Piper (손님, Sonnim) up at UK Anime Network. I really liked this one!


The piper must be paid. So goes the old saying, and with good reason – one should always honour one’s promises but even so there are those should not be crossed. So the denizens at the centre of the mysterious hidden village in the debut feature from Korean director Kim Gwang-tae come to discover as they’re repaid for some not quite unforgotten sins when a travelling piper and his invalid son come calling.

Kim Woo-ryong is a travelling piper with a crippled leg journeying to Seoul with his young son after hearing that there is an American doctor there who may be able to treat the boy’s TB if only they can reach the city in time. After walking through the countryside they eventually come across a village which isn’t marked on any map and beg shelter from the village chieftain there. Life in the village seems like a scene from the middle ages, everyone is wearing traditional clothing and there’s something more than a “stranger in town” vibe about the way they look at Woo-ryong and his son Young-nam. The chieftain allows the pair to stay but warns them they can reveal nothing of the outside world to the village’s inhabitants and especially not that the Korean war is already “over” and has been for some time. Later Woo-ryong and Young-nam wander into a village dispute and in a fit of over helpfulness Young-nam exclaims he’s sure his dad can fix the problem (though he doesn’t know what it is). Woo-ryong jumps to the conclusion it must be about the rats which plague the town and offers to take care of them. The chieftain offers him the price of a cow if he can rid the town of vermin, but one gets the impression there’s more than one kind of rodent lurking in this strange, isolated place.

If you know the classic children’s fable, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, you likely know the outcome won’t be a pleasant one though the events of the The Piper turn a little bloodier and even more supernatural than in the Brothers Grimm  fairytale. The story starts out pleasant enough as Woo-ryong and Young-nam start to make friends in the village – Woo-ryong playing his pipe and Young-nam enjoying spending some time with the other children. However, from their very first entrance you can tell there is something very wrong in this community. There’s not just suspicion or curiosity in the way the villagers stare at the strangers, there’s fear too. Woo-ryong is a middle aged man with a lame leg, and Young-nam is a weedy 10 year old boy with a lung disease. They are no threat to anyone, what do these people have to fear?

The chieftain himself is obviously quite a sinister fellow. He charms Woo-ryong but lies to him when asked for guidance about the journey on to Seoul and seems to instil nothing but fear in the eyes of the other inhabitants. Woo-ryong strikes up a tentative romance with the village’s reluctant shaman which further raises the chieftain’s concerns – perhaps, he thinks, he doesn’t need to pay this piper after all. As might be expected, there’s a dark past at play here. Everyone is so terrified of the war, which they still believe is going on, and the things they’ve already done to survive that they’re prepared to go along with whatever their leader says to maintain their peaceful village life. Mob mentality at its worst, even those who were growing closer to the pair of strangers are quick to turn on them in a paranoid frenzy.

Like the original story, the moral is that you reap what you sew and if you don’t keep your promises, you deserve everything that’s coming to you. These are people who have lived in difficult times and done cruel things to survive. The rats which plague the town take on an almost supernatural air and have apparently developed a taste for human flesh. They become a kind of metaphor, a haunting presence which refuses to allow the villagers to forget the crimes they’ve committed and reminds them that their present safety was bought with innocent blood. A perfectly pitched fairytale with an all pervading sense of dread and foreboding, The Piper is an impressive effort from first time director Kim Gwang-tae and marks him out as a promising new voice in the world of Korean cinema.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.

 

Han Gong-ju (한공주, Lee Su-Jin, 2014)

Photo 1Review of this complex Korean social drama up at UK Anime Network. Went a bit intense with this one….


Hot on the heels of A Girl at My Door, we’re confronted with another impressive debut film from a Korean director which once again deals with a series of important, if unpleasant, often over looked social phenomenons. It’s difficult to review Han Gong-ju without revealing the mysterious events at its centre yet much of the film’s impact is bound up with the slow drip of its structural dissection of its raw and painful wounds. Based on a real life case from 2004, Hang Gong-ju is a harrowing tale of victim shaming, social injustice and ingrained systems of corruption which will shock even the most cynical Korean cinema fan.

At the beginning of the film, Hang Gong-ju is being a little less than sensitively dealt with by her school teacher who hands her a new mobile phone and instructs her not to call anyone she knows, not even her father, and only to accept calls from his own phone. She’ll be transferring to a new school and staying with her teacher’s mother until other suitable accommodation can be arranged. We don’t know why any of this is happening but the teacher seems put out, less than willing to help Gong-ju – almost as if he finds her existence a little embarrassing. At her new school she keeps herself to herself, making sure to remain distant from her fellow pupils. However, a group of singers finds out that Gong-ju has musical talents and becomes intent on adding her to their group. Though fearful and unwilling, Gong-ju gradually becomes closer to them. The reason for her aloofness leads back to the very reason she’s been exiled from her hometown and is a secret Gong-ju is terrified will eventually be revealed. Following a possibly well meaning (or maybe a little less so) action by her new group of friends, the true reasons for her being forced into hiding are thrown into the light and Gong-ju once again becomes the centre of a storm composed of a complex system of societal repercussions.

Without giving too much away, nothing that happens to Han Gong-ju is her fault yet she’s the one sent away from her home, from her friends and family, and forced to feel ashamed for having undergone a terrifying ordeal. She’s just a normal teenage girl, but there’s no one to stand with her or for her – she is left totally alone in the home of a stranger with no one to talk to or be comforted by. Those that are responsible, the guilty parties, who were able to act in such a morally repugnant way thanks to their connections, social standing and the arrogance the combination of those things afforded them seem to have largely escaped the shame and ignominy which has continued to dog Gong-ju who is still subject to physical manifestations of their actions – let alone the mental scarring. Not only that, Gong-ju is also pursued by the families of those that have caused her harm who seem to want her to change her statement of events in favour of their children. The father of one whom she had been close to even wants her to sign a petition to say that his child was “forced” into these heinous acts. Perhaps even, in a sense, he was though it’s hard to see how any rational person could ever see that as a mitigating factor in the events which did actually take place.

It’s not only Gong-ju who’s found herself at the mercy of rigid social codes. Her hard nosed and originally reluctant landlady-cum-responsible-adult Mrs. Lee has also had her fair share of disapproval from the local housewives thanks to her relationship with the town’s police chief. Her middle aged romance also causes a degree of resentment from her horrified son who doesn’t seem to care very much about his mother’s actual feelings or those of Gong-ju whom he deposited at his mother’s house like an inconvenient suitcase in the hope of making a good impression with his boss. Although originally put out by the sudden arrival of a teenage house guest who may even be some sort of delinquent, Mrs. Lee comes to a grudging admiration for this obviously damaged girl and is close to being her only real supporter (though perhaps only up to a point). Gong-ju’s growing closeness with Mrs. Lee is even more valuable as her relationship with her own mother was fractured even before the events that have befallen her and leave her unable even to count on her mother’s love and support during such a difficult time.

Told with remarkable assurance by Lee Su-jin who opts for a complex, non linear structure Han Gong-ju is frankly more harrowing than any horror film as the demons which plague the central character (and actually, many of the other women in the film) are all too real – manmade by a rigidly conformist, conservative society riddled with corruption and all too quick to point the finger of blame at those incorrectly positioned within its complex network of social hierarchies no matter what the facts of the matter may be. Shocking, even if sadly somewhat unsurprising, Han Gong-ju dares to shine a bright light on this dark corner of human suffering and by telling the sad story of this one lonely, victimised girl who nevertheless tries to live her life in spite of her difficult circumstances may help others finally wake-up to the kind of injustices we allow to take place in the world which we, daily, create.


 

Out today on DVD & blu-ray from Third Window Films