Josée (조제, Kim Jong-kwan, 2020)

When Isshin Inudo’s adaptation of the 1984 short story by Seiko Tanabe Josée, The Tiger and The Fish was released back in 2003, it quickly gained popularity across Asia and is fondly remembered by many as a melancholy love story neatly anticipating the junai boom that would arrive a year later. Nevertheless, almost 20 years on the film’s depiction of disability might seem very of its time while its heavy focus on the male hero’s internal conflict realising that in the end he wasn’t strong enough to fight for love may also seem misplaced. Very loosely inspired by the same short story, Kim Jong-kwan’s Josée (조제) while still largely told from the hero’s point of view does its best to redress the balance in returning agency to the heroine as she resolves to live a freer and more independent life if still to a degree confined by an internal sense of ableism. 

As the film opens, Josée (Han Ji-min) is lying in the road having been thrown out of her electric wheelchair. Student Young-seok (Nam Joo-hyuk) comes to her rescue, grabbing a nearby stool while inspecting the chair only to discover the wheel is broken and the power is out. Thinking quickly he borrows a wheelbarrow from a storeowner and takes both her and the wheelchair back to her home where he’s treated to a meal but also endures Josée’s scorn, she feeling quite ambivalent thinking that she should repay his kindness but also not really wanting to engage with him. Young-seok meanwhile is somewhat captivated by her mystery, later helping her grandmother out after spotting her struggling with a heavy cabinet in the street and thereafter becoming a regular fixture in the young woman’s home. 

Unlike the earlier version, the reasons for Joseé’s largely self-imposed isolation are internal rather than to do with social stigma towards disability or a history of abuse. Nevertheless she harbours a degree of trauma owing to having been abandoned as a child and is reluctant to form close relationships with others which is one reason why she rebuffs Young-seok’s attempts at friendship believing he too would one day leave her while there is also a rather large age gap between them, Young-seok still a student in his early 20s while it appears Josée is at least 10 – 15 years older. Through Young-seok’s intervention Josée discovers that there are systems in place she could go to for support along with community organisations that are keen to help her live independently as an integrated member of society the only reason she had not found them before being her desire for isolation partly caused by the mistaken belief she is wanted by the police. 

Young-seok meanwhile despite his earnest desire to help her is still somewhat immature, naively asking his sometime college girlfriend insensitive questions about her rent and living arrangements while unable to understand the consequences of his actions in carrying on an affair with one of his professors and being exploited by another. Josée accuses him of pitying her which he perhaps does but is also drawn to her because of her sense of mystery discovering that little of what she says of herself is true, merely the expression of the escapist fantasies she uses to overcome the inertia of her life. The irony is that Young-seok is attracted to her precisely because of this quality of otherness and unknowability, while through forming a relationship with him she grows to know and love herself, finally accepting that she is worthy of love if also perhaps viewing herself as a burden as if she would trap Young-seok with her in world of isolation unfairly denying him the right to the fullness of the life. 

Because of her isolation Josée experiences the world differently, living vicariously through books travelling the world in spirit if not in body. Her marginalisation is compounded by her poverty, unable to afford the things that would make her life easier and unaware that there is help available because of her distrust of of authority figures born of her previous experiences which contributes to her desire for solitude. Yet through her relationship with Young-seok she begins to develop a sense of possibility, embracing her independence in driving an adapted car at the film’s conclusion while reconnecting with a childhood friend and his partner not to mention having a little cat to take care of at home. “I’m OK now, I’m not lonely” she offers, if a little sadly, romanticising the memory of love if not its actuality. Imbued with a deep sense of romantic melancholy, Kim’s richly textured drama nevertheless hands agency back to Josée who finally comes to love and accept herself through loving and being loved by another person seizing her independence to live a full and active life but ready to accept the help and support of others as she does so. 


Josée screens 14th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Awoke (복지식당, Jung Jae-ik & Seo Tae-soo, 2020)

“Please let me live with dignity” the hero of Jung Jae-ik & Seo Tae-soo’s Awoke (복지식당, Bogji Sigdang) eventually pleads as a sole judge looks down on him from on high, advocating for himself but seemingly finding little support. Co-directed by Jung who is disabled himself and employing a mixed ability crew, Jung & Seo’s kafkaesque drama explores the vagaries of disabled life in the contemporary society in which there is still a degree of stigmatisation towards those with differing needs while the expanding welfare system also presents its own barriers preventing those with disabilities from leading full and fulfilling lives. 

This 34-year-old Jae-gi (Jo Min-sang) discovers when he suddenly becomes disabled after a traffic accident. As his mother died while he was in the hospital, he has only his cousin Eun-ji, who is a single mother to a teenage son, and an elderly landlord to look after him while it seems no one has fully explained the options he now has. His hospital roommate, Bong-su, seems to be an old hand, visited by a man in wheelchair, Byeong-ho whom he calls brother, who has evidently explained to him how to game the system which is why he is later rated level 2, the second most severe category of disability, despite being fully able to walk and perform everyday tasks with relative ease. Being an honest person, Jae-gi fully co-operates with the civil servant sent to assess his level of disability and as he is able to stand and make a few steps to transfer into a wheelchair independently he is put down as able to walk, and as the assessor is able to move his left arm which constantly tremors and has low functionality he is graded level 5 or “mildly disabled”. 

To anyone’s eyes, this is plainly ridiculous. Jae-gi needs an electric wheelchair in order to get around and can only manage basic every day tasks such as housework and laundry with assistance. He is also forced to move out of the flat his mother left him because it’s a walkup, meaning he has to rent an accessible room. He tries to apply for various schemes intended to help people like him so that he’d be able to use subsidised accessible taxi services and have access to a personal carer but is repeatedly told he doesn’t “qualify” because of his level five designation. Unable to claim for disability living allowance, Jae-gil wants to get a job but again on visiting a specialist service designed to help those with disabilities get into work finds himself falling between two stools. The first interviewer simply looks at him and explains he wants someone who can walk and lift heavy objects, which is incongruous with advertising jobs to people with physical disabilities. The second wanted to hire him right away only to rescind the offer on looking at his welfare card explaining her company only hires levels one to three. Byeong-ho, who happens to work there too, explains that’s because companies are given subsidies for hiring the “severely” disabled which on paper Jae-gil is not. 

Time and again, Jae-gil becomes the victim of officious bureaucracy. The services needed to help him exist, but he is prevented from using them because an over officious assessor was too literal with his form. He’s told that it’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to get one’s level changed, a claim which seems doubly unfair given that disability can of course change over time. Intensely vulnerable, he comes to over rely on Byeong-ho’s advice, little knowing that Byeong-ho is also exploiting him despite being aware that he has no money and is in danger of being evicted from his flat if he is not able to get his level changed to enable him to work, claim the assistance he is entitled to, and live a fulfilling independent life. 

Encouraged by Byeong-ho, Jae-gil is certain that he’s going to get his rating overturned, assuring his cousin there’s no need to sell his mother’s flat in which she is currently living after losing her house when her husband passed away from cancer because he’ll soon have a job and can pay the rent. Perhaps to a certain extent you can’t blame Byeong-ho for being the way he is given the way he has also experienced exploitation and discrimination not to mention violence at the hands of a father who couldn’t accept having a disabled son, but his almost sadistic glee in fleecing Jae-gil of the little he has is plainly unforgivable, reaching out in solidarity as one disabled person to another only to pass on his sense of oppression to someone even more vulnerable. Forced into a kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare, all Jae-gil can do is repeatedly state his case only for those in positions of power to claim they are prevented from helping him because his card says level five despite the obvious evidence of their eyes. Nevertheless, through his traumatic experiences of betrayal and exploitation, he perhaps awakens to the injustice inherent in the contemporary society and is resolved to advocate for himself though the jury is it seems out on whether anyone is finally going to listen. 


Awoke screens 9th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)