The Scarlet Letter (주홍글씨, Byeon Hyeok, 2004)

The Scarlet Letter posterSouth Korea has long had a reputation for being among the most conservative of East Asian nations, perhaps because of a strong Christianising influence, but even so the fact that adultery was only fully decriminalised in 2015 is something of a surprise. Ironically enough the legislation was enacted in the defence of women who enjoyed few legal rights and would be left destitute if their husbands left them, suffering not only the humiliation and social stigma of divorce but also having no independent income and very little possibility of gaining one. Nevertheless it quickly became another tool of social control, branding “harlots” rather than protecting “wives”. Byeon Hyeok’s The Scarlet Letter (주홍글씨, Juhong Geulshi) was released in 2004, which is a whole decade before adultery was removed from the statue books, and draws inspiration from the book of the same name by Nathaniel Hawthorne in which a young woman becomes a social outcast after giving birth to an illegitimate child.

Cocksure policeman Ki-hoon (Han Suk-kyu) lives in a world of his own dominion. Married to the elegant concert cellist Su-hyun (Uhm Ji-won), Ki-hoon is also carrying on an affair with the bohemian nightclub singer Ga-hee (Lee Eun-ju). One fateful day he is called to the scene of a bloody murder. The owner of a photographer’s studio has been found with half his head caved in and the prime suspect is his wife, Kyung-hee (Sung Hyun-ah), who found the body. Once she’s had some time to recover from the shock, Kyung-hee offers up some possible evidence regarding a local photographer who may have been semi-stalking her – something which had caused tension between herself and her husband. The photographer claims Kyung-hee asked him to take the photos, and others besides, but denies he was romantically interested in her or that the couple had been having an affair.

The murder case floats in the background as Ki-hoon’s personal life spirals ever more out of control. Both Su-hyun and Ga-hee are pregnant with his child and it seems inevitable the affair will be exposed. Ki-hoon fears this not out of guilt in causing emotional harm to one or both of his women, but out of a sense that it will be very annoying, inconvenient, and burdensome for him. When his wife does eventually confront him about the affair, Ki-hoon’s response is to ignore it and carry on as normal by acting excited about the baby as if to remind Su-hyun that she is already tied to him and it will be almost impossible for her to leave. Meanwhile, he refuses to give up Ga-hee whose mental state seems to be fracturing under the intense pressure of her need for Ki-hoon and his continuing disregard for the feelings of others.

Ki-hoon is a classic noir hero, wading into a morass of moral ambiguity and hurtling headlong towards an existential reckoning. A late, yet fantastically obvious, twist offers another perspective which the film has no time to expand on so caught up is it in the moral ruining of Ki-hoon in suggesting that oppressive social codes have in some way contributed to this intense situation, forcing three people into an uncomfortable love triangle where everyone has ended up with the wrong partner. Byeon does, however, choose to emphasise “morality” in lending a spiritual slant to Ki-hoon’s fall rather than choosing to attack the social oppression of Korea’s intensely conservative culture in which all the power was in Ki-hoon’s hands (even if he uses it to ruin himself, later left in a state of spiritual emptiness filled only with guilt and shame).

The reckoning comes in a literal evocation of Ki-hoon’s claustrophobic love life in which he finds himself trapped in an inescapable black hole, waiting to find out if he will be released or condemned to suffer an eternity of pain for his various transgressions. Byeon never quite manages to marry his higher purpose to the noir narrative, leaving his avant-garde final set piece out of place in an otherwise straightforward thriller while his final twist falls flat in retreading well worn genre cliches. Frank in terms of its depiction of sex and nudity, The Scarlet Letter takes on an anti-erotic quality, painting its various scenes of actualised sex as passionless acts of compulsion with only those of fantasy somehow imbued with colour and light though its melancholy conclusion suggests even these may carry a heavy price.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Nowhere to Hide (인정사정 볼 것 없다, Lee Myung-se, 1999)

Nowhere to hide posterOne of Korea’s foremost visual stylists, Lee Myung-se’s work has often been under appreciated at the time of its release. His desire to experiment finds fertile ground in the intensely kinetic ode to the police procedural, Nowhere to Hide (인정사정 볼 것 없다, Injeongsajeong bol Geos Eobsda). A tale of cops and robbers, Nowhere to Hide follows a cop who talks too much on the trail of a silent assassin who is, in fact, an expert at hiding in plain sight through the art of disguise. Moving quickly from one intense, beautifully choreographed set piece to the next, Lee draws inspiration from the crime-tinged tragedies of old Hollywood and beyond whilst embracing those of his home nation in the classic twin pairing of actors Ahn Sung-ki as the enigmatic assassin, and Park Joong-hoon as the bullheaded cop hot on his trail.

Lee opens in black and white with Inspector Woo (Park Joong-hoon) in full on gangster mode as he wanders through a ruined landscape, pausing only to tie his shoelace while the pulsing, punkish music continues in the background, before he walks in on an entire room of besuited gangsters and calmly sits down to introduce himself. Sometime later, Sungmin (Ahn Sung-ki), in sunshades and trench coat, patiently bides his time before committing a dramatic murder and making off with a mysterious briefcase.

What follows then is a game of cat and mouse as Woo chases the ghost of Sungmin through dingy back allies and neighbourhood dive bars, taking his more serious partner, Kim (Jang Dong-kun), whose more primary motivations include his family or more particularly his little girl, along for the ride. Woo lives only for his work, drawing more thrill from the chase than he is likely to admit. Through his pursuit of Sungmin, Woo draws closer to a side of himself he hoped to avoid, burying his natural rebelliousness in service of the law. We see him brutally interrogate suspects, even at one point trussing one up like a prize pig and suspending him between two desks in the middle of the police station. It is, in this sense, Woo who is left with “nowhere to hide”. As a young man, he had a violent streak which might well have led him into crime if his father had not pointed him towards the police, but he can no longer claim to be very much different than the quarry he pursues. His true nature has been laid bare by his opposing number.

Woo’s rage and unpredictable energy are tempered by Kim’s evenhandedness, but after a job goes wrong and Kim kills a suspect by mistake he starts to fall apart. Suddenly Woo cannot rely on Kim to save him from himself and then tragically fails to save Kim during another operation, leaving him open to serious injury. His quest is now as much one of vengeance and personal feeling as it is of justice.

Sungmin, by contrast, says not one word in the entirety of the film. A felt presence more than a seen one, he slips in and out of personas, escaping from the scene in various disguises as a figure more of legend than of reality. A close relationship with a bar hostess girlfriend is Woo’s way in to Sungmin’s world, correctly identifying a weakness and pressing it, pursuing a more concrete route to the centre of Sungmin’s existence than simply tracking him through the shady netherworld in which he lives.

The two men run from and mirror each other as pictures of action and stillness, resistance and urgency. Through a relentless pursuit of capture or escape, neither can evade the shadow of himself, each moving closer to their true selves as repressed elements surface and threaten to destroy the whole. Woo and Sungmin are each on a mutually destructive pursuit of the self as much as they are for their own, self defined goals.

Lee frames all of this within his characteristically ironic world view, painting the drama as comedy imbued with its own kind of cartoonish slapstick. Throwing in cinematic homages from a brief nod to Battleship Potemkin to an ending plucked straight out of The Third Man, Lee mixes freeze frames with an odd jump dissolve technique which lends his intensely beautiful choreography an impressionistic, fleeting quality. Two men chase the shadow of the other, engaged in a desperate game of hide and seek, but when the game is up neither may like what they see.


Robbery sequence (dialogue free)

Anarchist from Colony (박열, Lee Joon-ik, 2017)

anarchist from colony posterLee Joon-ik follows his poetical mediation on the Korean independence movement, Dong-ju, with an equally philosophical, if not quite as rigorous, tale of rebellion and tragedy inspired by real life revolutionary anarchist, Park Yeol. Where Dong-ju was a tale of a world in in black and white, Anarchist from Colony (박열, Park Yeol) is one of glorious colour and the strange joy of pithily rejecting an oppressor’s authority. The oppressor’s authority is, however, infinite and no amount of anarchy will be enough to evade it even if there may be long term advantages in losing a battle in grand style.

Park Yeol (Lee Je-hoon) is a Korean left wing agitator living in Tokyo and earning a living as a rickshaw driver. He is also a hero to local Koreans and has gained a lot of fans (many of them female) thanks to his poetry including his latest entitled “Damn Dog” which laments his lowly status as an oppressed Korean man. One of his many fans, Fumiko Kaneko (Choi Hee-seo) – a Japanese woman who spent some time in Korea as a child, manages to work her way into his heart and becomes both a lover and an integral part of his revolutionary movement known as The Revolt.

In 1923, The Great Kanto Earthquake caused wide scale destruction and general chaos in the capital. Martial law was instituted, but a rumour soon spread that Korean insurrectionists were using the confusion to fuel their revolutionary ambitions, poisoning wells, committing arson, and plotting to assassinate the Emperor and his son. Of course, the rumours were baseless but led to a citywide pogrom in which around 6000 Koreans are thought to have been murdered both by ordinary people and by the army. Hoping to avoid the violence, Park decides he might be better off turning himself in to the police, but even police cells are not free of vigilante justice.

Unlike many recent films set during the colonial period, Anarchist from Colony is not particularly interested in demonising the Japanese. Generally speaking, the Japanese government are depicted as a collection of buffoons ill equipped to deal with the unexpected disaster of the earthquake and obsessed with rules, protocol, and Emperor worship. The major antagonist is a moustache twirling idiot and committed racist nursing a grudge against Koreans over a career setback to do with the suppression of the March 1, 1919  protest which kickstarted the Korean Independence Movement. The other officials mostly regard Mizuno (Kim In-woo) as an embarrassment, calling him out on his obvious racism and attempting to circumvent his machinations but more often than not failing to successfully outmanoeuvre him.

Having been partly responsible for the massacre in failing to stop the racist rantings of Mizuno and co, the government are eager to suppress all knowledge of it and distance themselves from anything that could make them look bad on the international stage. In this Mizuno makes a serious miscalculation when he decides to fit up the most popular Korean political activist he can get his hands on as a “traitor” and have him tried and executed as an example to the others. Park is wise to this scheme right away and decides to play along even if he knows it may eventually cost him his life. In fact, he almost hopes it will because not only will he lend weight to the cause of independence through his own martyrdom, but it will be much harder for the government to suppress news of the massacre with him on trial for his supposed terrorist activities which are being touted as its cause.

Yet the tale is framed not so much as suppressed revolution but ill fated love in the tragic romance of Park and Kaneko. The mini band of anarchists are a surprisingly cheerful bunch for hardline leftists, and Park and Kanenko’s intense bond is one of both political solidarity and true affection. Being anarchists through and through, they do not believe in marriage but agree to live together after signing a contract of cohabitation in which they mutually affirm their loyalty to each other and their cause. When Park is arrested, Kaneko turns herself in and follows him despite his pleas with her not to. The couple remain fiercely together to the end presenting a united front delighting in mocking their joint show trial even knowing they may soon be heading for the gallows.

This strange kind of lightness and dada-esque surrealism is an odd fit for the grim tale at hand. Lee mostly glosses over the wider implications of the massacre aside from minor references to longstanding prejudices such as Park’s beating by a customer who has short changed him and the vigilante gang’s repeated use of a particular phrase to flag up Korean accents. The overriding sense of flippancy undercuts the seriousness of Park’s plight and ultimately robs it of its power as his struggle is played for broad comedy rather than subtle satire. Perhaps overly ambitious, Lee’s reframing of of Park’s story as surrealist vaudeville romance never quite takes off, sacrificing passion for laughs but finding that they ring hollow surrounded by so much suppressed terror.


Screened at the London East Asia Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Last Princess (덕혜옹주, Hur Jin-ho, 2016)

last-princessReview of Hur Jin-ho’s The Last Princess first published by UK Anime Network.


Filmic biopics of real life historical figures are not generally known for their fierce adherence to fact, but The Last Princess (덕혜옹주, Deokhyeongjoo) is unusually honest in its approach in the sense that it includes a brief opening statement to the effect that the film pays very little attention to historical veracity. Hur Jin-ho adapts the story of Korea’s last princess, Yi Deok-hye (Son Ye-jin), as recounted in a novel by Kwon Bi-young, whilst indulging the genre he’s best known for – romantic melodrama. Another of the recent spate of films to address Korea’s colonial past, The Last Princess is the story of a woman who was fiercely loyal to her homeland, even in the face of harsh opposition and final rejection by the very people she’d been striving so hard to protect.

Told in a non-linear fashion, The Last Princess spans the majority of Deok-hye’s life from her opulent childhood in the royal palace to her eventual repatriation to Korea in the mid 1960s. In 1919, nine years after Korea had been annexed by the Japanese, Deok-hye lives in the palace with her loving father, the former Emperor (Baek Yoon-sik), and her mother, the concubine Lady Yang (Park Joo-mi). Her carefree days soon end when she witnesses her father’s death by poison and comes to understand her precarious position as puppet royalty of a subjugated regime.

Her life, and those of her remaining family members, is largely in the hands of a traitorous civil servant, Han (Yoon Je-moon), whose fierce loyalty to the Japanese emperor knows no bounds. Deok-hye is unwilling to assist him in his desire to use her as a tool to promote the “Japanisation” of the country and so is packed off to the mainland to study with the promise that she can return to live with her mother in Korea after her studies have ended. Needless to say she does not return.

In a touch of cinematic romanticism, the film elides two characters into one in the otherwise fictional character of Kim Jang-han (Park Hae-il). The son of a resistance fighter loyal to the emperor, Jang-han was betrothed to Deok-hye when they were both children and later returns to her as an adult in Japan where he is active in the Resistance, before coming back to find her years after the war. Jang-han hatches a plan to help Deok-hye and the other royal family members escape for exile in Shanghai but the the pair are eventually separated.

Recalling other recent Korean Resistance movies Age of Shadows and Assassination, The Last Princess has its share of action as Deok-hye and Jang-han attempt to escape the Japanese occupation and foster the revolution from abroad. The villain of the piece this time around is not so much the Japanese but the Koreans who willingly helped them as as exemplified here by the odious Han. Han is the most typically melodramatic character and only lacks a moustache to twirl to complete the effect. Hellbent on ingratiating himself with the Japanese, Han is determined to harness his princess’ appeal to sell the virtues of the Japanese state. When Deok-hye resolutely refuses to play along, he threatens her family members and friends in an attempt to force her compliance but finds her love for her country too strong to be bent by his egocentric cruelty.

Sent away and kept a virtual prisoner far from home, there is little Deok-hye is able to do in service of her nation. Introduced to the Resistance operating in Japan, she begins to see a way to help and eventually finds herself taking a stand when blackmailed into reading out a propaganda speech in front of a collection of forced labourers. Beginning the speech in Japanese as ordered, Deok-hye finds she cannot continue and eventually makes her real feelings known in Korean as she instructs the people in front of her not to give up, she will be right along side them fighting to regain their homeland. In a touch of Casablanca inspired drama, a chorus of Arirang suddenly springs up among the crowd, much to the consternation of the Japanese officers expecting a show of contrition, as the Princess herself is whisked off to pay a heavy price for her “betrayal”.

The Last Princess forces its heroine through constant loss – of her home, of her position, of her family, of a future, of love, of a child, of happiness, of her mind, and most importantly of her nationality. Deok-hye never wanted to be Japanese, did not travel to Japan of her own volition, and did her best to resist even at great personal cost. Nevertheless she finds eventually finds herself barred from her homeland due to opposing political concerns when the fledgling Republic fears the misuse of a powerful symbol like a royal family to frustrate the democratic future. Played with wonderful sensitivity by leading actress Son Ye-jin, Deok-hye suffers as her nation suffers, longing for independence both personal and national but finding only new cages everywhere she goes. Despite the unconvincing ageing makeup of the latter part of the film and an overly intrusive score, The Last Princess is an impressively produced prestige picture which plays its melodrama credentials to the max but is also undoubtedly moving in recounting the tragic story of its heroine whose constant misuse and lack of agency mirror much of the history of the nation she holds so dear.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Violent Prosecutor (검사외전, Lee Il-hyeong, 2016)

112997_47166_106Review of Lee Il-hyeong’s A Violent Prosecutor first published by UK Anime Network.


Police brutality is something of a hot button issue at the moment, so it’s a little disconcerting to see a film like A Violent Prosecutor (검사외전, Geomsawejeon) casting a rogue cop with a penchant for forced confessions as its hero. Then again, the theme plays into the obvious retro charm on offer and the film does, at least, make it plain that violence should have no place in law enforcement. The debut feature from director Lee Il-Hyeong, A Violent Prosecutor has a distinctly ‘70s vibe from its quirky credits sequence to the carefully managed tone which manages to be both serious and not at the same time.

Hwang Jung-min plays hardline prosecutor Byun Jae-wook, feared more than respected because of his willingness (or perhaps eagerness?) to indulge in physical violence in the name of justice. Already known as a trouble maker, Byun’s maverick status is an exploitable weakness and so when he kicks up a fuss trying to expose an obvious cover up, he’s framed for wrongful death after a witness dies in police custody.

Sent to prison among many of the men he helped to put there, Byun quickly finds his feet by providing free legal advice to the guards. Five years later, Byun has become the one of the prison’s top dogs but he’s still intent on clearing his name and nailing the guys who did this to him. Enter suave conman Chi-won (Gang Dong-won) and Byun sees an opening…

Aside from Byun’s problematic approach to his work, he’s definitely one of the good guys as justice, politics, and business have all come together in a whirlwind of mutually beneficial corruption. The whole mess begins during an environmental protest against an industrial complex which is about to be built right next to a bird sanctuary. The evil corporate bozos don’t want any delays so they pay a bunch of gangsters to infiltrate the protest and start a riot to make the environmentalists look like crazed, violent, loonies. Unsurprisingly, public opinion about the development improves following the unpleasant actions of the protestors. The police were just supposed to go along with this (police in Korean films never seem very interested in solving crimes after all), but Byun is different, he smells a rat and he’s not going to roll over and let powerful corporations abuse justice.

Unfortunately, his dedication is not matched by his colleagues who are more interested in their own careers than abstract concepts like truth or justice. Receiving pressure from above and realising Byun can’t be talked down, they decide to take drastic action. One of Byun’s bosses, Kang (Kim Eung-soo), later decides to move into politics, having solidified support through this alliance with the money guys, and is then interested in nothing other than his own success – lying, cheating, and smiling his way to the top. Corruption stemming from the power of monied corporations has become a constant theme in recent Korean cinema and A Violent Prosecutor makes good use of its cinematic background even if treating the subject matter in a necessarily light way.

Essentially, A Violent Prosecutor is a buddy comedy in which the two guys at the centre are kept apart for much of the film. Byun uses his hard won legal knowledge to fight his way out of prison by playing by the book, learning the error of his ways in the process. More often than not, he’s the straight man to Chi-won’s constant scamming as the charming conman comes up with one zany scheme after another trying to keep himself out of trouble whilst also helping Byun enact his plan of revenge. Actor Gang Dong-won is on fine form as the slippery but somehow loveable Chi-won whose main line of work is scamming chaebol daughters out of their inheritances by convincing them he’s a Korean-American Penn State business school graduate, peppering his speech with Americanisms but clueless when challenged on his English. He also deserves bonus points for subverting the “escape from prison dressed as a guard” trope by trying to escape from a corridor full of thugs by blending in with the very men sent to capture him.

Ending in a spectacular, if ridiculous, courtroom finale in which Byun defends himself by forcing a confession in a new, more acceptable way, A Violent Prosecutor delivers the necessary “justice” to all who seek it. Byun learns the error of his ways and accepts that his own violence was at least partly to blame for the way the situation developed, but also ensures that he gets justice for everyone else so that the rich and powerful can’t be allowed to ride roughshod over the people with no one to defend them. A smart buddy comedy, A Violent Prosecutor isn’t exactly the exploitative action fest the title seems to promise but is undoubtedly influenced by the bad cop movies of the ‘70s and excels at finding humour even in the strangest of places.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English Subtitles)