The Wonderland (バースデー・ワンダーランド, Keiichi Hara, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

birthday wonderland poster 1The demands of adulthood are apt to overshadow any young teen’s life, but you can’t shake them off just by lying in bed and refusing to age. So the heroine of Keiichi Hara’s The Wonderland (バースデー・ワンダーランド, Birthday Wonderland) discovers as she determines to hideout from emotional complexity, waiting for the storm to pass and cowardly failing to defend a friend in the process. The last thing she wants is the responsibility of being “the chosen one”, but the thing about that is that you don’t get to choose and if the universe has plans for you it would be very irresponsible to refuse.

After (not) getting involved in a minor spat amongst friends about coloured hair clips, Akane (Mayu Matsuoka) decides the best solution is to feign illness, turn off her phone, and avoid going to school. Her kindly mother (Kumiko Aso), seemingly aware she’s not really ill, decides to let her stay home anyway but all she ends up doing is mistreating the cat in frustration and moping about, so her mum despatches her to her aunt Chii’s (Anne Watanabe) place to pick up her birthday gift which she presumably can’t open until the big day tomorrow. Truth be told, Akane doesn’t much like her aunt Chii, she’s far too free spirited and unpredictable for the neurotic teen, but she could stand to learn something from her irrepressible lust for life.

Akane gets the perfect opportunity to do just that when she sticks her hand onto a palm print in her aunt’s shop and is promptly greeted by a dapper-looking man with a fabulous moustache and his tiny minion (Nao Toyama) who crawl up through the hidden basement to explain that she is the “Goddess of the Green Wind” they’ve been searching for and must come with them right away because their nation is in peril! As expected, Akane doesn’t want to go, but is chivvied along by her overexcited aunt and a strange amulet the man, an alchemist named Hippocrates (Masachika Ichimura), places around her neck.

The amulet, he tells her, helps you move forward even if you want to go back. That is, in a sense, Akane’s entire dilemma as she finds herself on the cusp of adulthood, afraid to step forward and accept the responsibilities of maturity while longing to return to carefree childhood days when there was nothing much to worry about and always someone around to look after her. Like any good fairytale, she finds her mirror in the other world in a melancholy prince who remains so reluctant to take part in an essential ritual that he is almost willing to burn the world to avoid having to acknowledge his royal responsibilities.

Meanwhile, Akane is slow to adjust to the charms of her new Wonderland, refusing to engage and loudly stating her desire to go home while her aunt tries to encourage her to embrace a sense of adventure. Chii, the film’s best asset who proclaims “no alcohol no life” while thoroughly enjoying sparring with the uptight Hippocrates (who perhaps is also enjoying the challenge though might not want to admit it), might in some senses be a barrier to Akane’s self-actualisation but is also an important source of safety for her in an unsafe world and just irresponsible enough to push her niece towards taking the right kind of risks in order to do the right thing and save the kingdom.

The reasons the kingdom is in peril in the first place are hugely symbolic – an ongoing water crisis caused by governmental negligence is draining the world of colour while literally drying it out. Getting used to her new surroundings, Akane begins to see their charm. This world, near identical to her own in many ways, diverged around the industrial revolution. Where “our” world rocketed into a frenetic lust for convenience, the rhythms of this one stayed the same, a perpetual village society in which cheerful people live laidback lives surrounded by the beauty of nature – something Akane later comes to worry her own world is losing. Gradually letting go of her fear and getting a better idea of the kind of life she might want, Akane gains the courage to embrace responsibility through directly supporting someone else as they learn to do the same.

A whimsical coming of age tale, The Wonderland excels in world building but somehow never quite achieves the level of emotional engagement it seems to be looking for even as its sullen, detached heroine perhaps begins to realise she did a great disservice to her friend when she failed to defend her during the silly hair ornament argument largely because she personally didn’t want to rock the boat and put herself in the firing line. Her horizons suitably expanded, Akane finds she no longer needs an amulet to keep moving forward even when longing to look back and resolves to step into adulthood with an easy, laidback confidence learned from her palls on the other side.


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Day and Night (デイアンドナイト, Michihito Fujii, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

day and night poster 1Can two wrongs ever really make a right? Michihito Fujii’s Day and Night (デイアンドナイト) wants to ask if the difference between good and evil is really as stark as that between dawn and dusk, or if life is really more like twilight in which morality is a relative concept and acts cannot by judged individually but only as a part of the whole. What the hero discovers, however, is that the world is an inherently unfair place and it may not be possible to “win” against the forces of self-interest solely through being pure of heart.

The drama begins with a stunned Koji (Shinnosuke Abe) returning to his small-town home to graffiti scrawled across his fences and his father lying in repose inside after having apparently taken his own life. No one will quite explain to Koji what exactly has happened, but it seems there has been some unpleasantness surrounding his father’s auto business. Though most of the other townspeople including his old friends are civil, they are also frosty and obviously unwilling to address the subject of Mr. Akashi save to press Koji for money they might still be owed as employees.

Meanwhile, poking around the garage in search of answers, he runs into the mysterious figure of Kitamura (Masanobu Ando) who claims to have known his father well though Koji’s mother claims never to have heard of him. Seeing as Kitamura is the only person willing to speak to him, Koji ends up taking a job at the orphanage where he works which turns out to be a little different than he thought seeing as Kitamura is actually the head of a local crime ring which exists with the sole purpose of keeping the orphanage running.

Though Koij, like his father, is an upstanding, law-abiding young man, he is quickly pulled into Kitamura’s world of moral justifications when presented with his personal philosophy in which the greater good remains paramount. Kitamura steals cars by night, stripping the unsellable ones for parts, which is where Mr. Akashi came in having succumbed to a life of “crime” in order to support himself while his business was suffering. He also does some possibly less justifiable work in the red light district while making a point of beating up drug dealers because 80% of the kids in his care have a parent in jail for crimes related to substance abuse. In Kitamura’s view at least, these are all “justifiable”, morally defensible “crimes” given that they are necessary to ensure the protection of the orphans. Though the money is good and Koji does need it, they are not in this for personal gain but to protect something they feel is important.

As Kitamura puts it, Mr. Akashi put his faith in laws that are meant to protect people but in the end it killed him. Having discovered a serious flaw in the auto parts he received from a local company he did the “right thing” and blew the whistle but Nakamichi Autos is the major player in the local economy and many people did not take kindly to having their reputation called into question. Nakamichi rallied its supporters and had Akashi hounded into submission. As one of the former employees tells Koji, the truth “hardly matters anymore”. Nakamichi doesn’t care there is a minor flaw in their products because they feel the chance of a fatal accident is slim enough not to need to worry about and happy to let the risk continue as long as they maximise their profits.

Miyake (Tetsushi Tanaka), Nakamichi’s CEO, also has his justifications, insisting that there’s no such thing as right and wrong only the cold logic of numbers and that the death of one man will not change anything. Increasingly pulled into Kitamura’s world of crime, Koji opts for underhanded methods to expose the truth about Nakamichi and clear his father’s name but finds in the end that no one is interested in facts. Listening in to some of his father’s old employees enjoying their belated severance pay he is dismayed to hear them too justifying their actions as they each insist that they did what they thought was “best” for everyone, for a peaceful life, for their families.

In truth, Koji claims he hated his father. That he resented him for always working all the time. Now however he begins to see that Akashi was only trying to protect his family by providing for it. His father was a “good” man, and he did the “right” thing, but he also became involved with Kitamura’s morally questionable crime syndicate. Kitamura wants to protect the orphans and takes care of them well, but can he really justify his actions solely on the grounds that there is no honest way to care for children who are often victims of an unfair society the pressures of which have pushed their parents from the “moral” path? What Koji’s left with, broadly, is that “good” people do “bad” things for “good” reasons, but bad people do bad things because they’re selfish and so they hardly care about the consequences of their actions. He starts to believe that the only way to resist is to fight fire with fire, but discovers that the little guy is always at a disadvantage when there is too much vested interest in not “making trouble”. It turns out everyone is OK with the status quo, so long as it’s not their car that might suddenly lose its wheels. As Miyake says, “that’s just how society works”.

A bleak meditation on the wider nature of justice and moral greyness of the world, Fujii’s noirish drama suggests good and bad are less like day and night than a shady evening in which the only shining light is the greater good. The world, however, continues on in self interest and the “good” will always lose to the “bad” as long it compromises itself trying to play by the other guy’s rules. Koji finds himself torn between a desire to avenge his father and a new sense of fatherhood fostered by bonding with a teenage girl at the orphanage as he contemplates the existence of a line between good and evil and his own place along it, but his old fashioned “nobility” finds no answer in the infinitely corrupt moral dubiousness of the modern society.


Day and Night was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Moon in the Hidden Woods (숲에 숨은 달, Takahiro Umehara, 2018) [Fantasia 2019]

The Moon in the Hidden Woods posterNight is dark, but when you have the moon to light the way there is always the hope of a better tomorrow. When all hope is gone, how are you supposed go on? For a small group of villagers, the answer is to do the best they can, staving off the darkness with determination and guile. Directed by Japan’s Takahiro Umehara making his directorial debut, The Moon in the Hidden Woods (숲에 숨은 달, sup-e sum-eun dal) is a story about learning how to survive the darkness but also an oblique allegory about authoritarian corruption and the power that comes with embracing your essential identity. 

As the wise old granny tells us at the beginning, long ago the Moon watched over the villagers, protecting them from the terror of night, but then it suddenly disappeared. A terrifying monster, Muju, wrapped the night sky in red, devouring misfortunes and sending fearsome minions to plague mankind. Warriors set out to look for the Moon, but none returned. Meanwhile others learned how to profit from the new world and saw no need for a return to the past until gradually people forgot there had ever been a Moon to begin with.

One such profiteer was the evil Count Tar, who is determined to marry the Princess Navillera very much against her will. Escaping to the city, Navillera finds herself coming to the rescue of a musical trio caught up in an unfair competition to win some mystic water to use in their harvest festival, and making use of her telepathic super powers and natural musical ability at the same time. The Nova Folk Band are a small group of illegal meteor hunters from the village who are more interested in survival than they are in intrigue, but are nevertheless some of the only people still looking for the Moon. In any case, they end up taking Navillera with them as they flee, not quite believing that she is a princess and the intended bride of their tyrannical ruler.

While in the village, Navillera gets a crash course in class conflict, never having left the palace before and spent her entire life in a lavish comfort she assumed was available to all. This quickly puts her into conflict with musician Janggu who deeply resents the “spoiled” entitlement that sees her asking for extravagant luxuries like meat, fruit, and honey, while being entirely unused to farm work. She does, however, try her best even mucking in with the other villagers where she can but is obviously unable to contribute to the same degree given that she has never had to do a day’s work in all her life. Meanwhile, as Janggu points out, the gang have gone out hunting meteors full in the knowledge that it’s illegal because they need them to survive. The princess objects to their reckless lawbreaking, affirming that the kingdom will protect them with ore only for Janggu to point out an ore is worth half the year’s harvest and the only reason you’re not allowed to hunt meteors is so that the unscrupulous powers that be can sell you an alternative and thereby keep a grip on their power by keeping the poor in their place. Suddenly, Muju isn’t looking so much like a scary red monster but an eerie metaphor for late stage capitalism.

Meanwhile, the Navillera is also busy trying to escape an oppression she wasn’t even quite aware of in her attempt to reject the intentions of Tar. Through her time in the village, Navillera begins to lose heart, fearing that her cosseted life has left her powerless without skills or talents. What she discovers, however, is that she has a natural ability for dance that finds a perfect home in the cheerful village where such things are praised and becomes the key both to restoring her essential identity and defeating Muju to rediscover the Moon.

In opposition to the “nothingness” that Muju represents, Navillera draws strength from the camaraderie of the villagers as they adopt her as one of their own, urging her not to give in and marry the evil Tar but to join them in their rebellion, choosing the “path of life” as the joyous music of the villagers finally breaks the stronghold of Muju’s austerity. Finally seeing the light of a better tomorrow, the villagers look back on the past with stoical eyes, recognising that mankind’s greed gave rise to Muju and resolving to forgive those who were merely weak rather than actively evil in order to live on in the light of a new world. A perfect blend of Korean fantasy and Nausicaa-esque steampunk, The Moon in the Hidden Woods is a cheerful ode to the importance of hope and the pure joy of musical expression in a sometimes harsh existence.


The Moon in the Hidden Woods was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English/korean/Japanese captions)

Money (돈, Park Noo-ri, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

money poster 1“Could you ask him something for me,” the beleaguered yet victorious protagonist of Park Noo-ri’s Money (돈, Don) eventually asks, “what was he going to use the money for?”. Wealth is, quite literally it seems, a numbers game for the villainous Ticket (Yoo Ji-tae) whose favourite hobby is destabilising the global stock market just for kicks. As for Cho Il-hyun (Ryu Jun-yeol), well, he just wanted to get rich, but where does getting rich get you in the end? There’s only so much money you can spend and being rich can make you lonely in ways you might not expect.

Unlike most of his fellow brokers, Cho Il-hyun is an ordinary lad from the country. His parents own a small raspberry farm and he didn’t graduate from an elite university or benefit from good connections, yet somehow he’s here and determined to make a success of himself. In fact, his only selling point is that he’s committed the registration numbers of all the firms on the company books to memory, and his ongoing nervousness and inferiority complex is making it hard for him to pick up the job. A semi-serious rookie mistake lands the team in a hole and costs everyone their bonuses, which is when veteran broker Yoon (Kim Min-Jae) steps in to offer Il-hyun a way out through connecting him with a shady middle-man named “The Ticket” who can set him up with some killer deals to get him back on the board.

Il-hyun isn’t stupid and he knows this isn’t quite on the level, but he’s desperate to get into the elite financial world and willing to cheat to make it happen. As might be expected his new found “success” quickly goes to his head as he “invests” in swanky apartments and luxury accessories, while his sweet and humble teacher girlfriend eventually dumps him after he starts showering her with expensive gifts and acting like an entitled elitist. It’s not until some of his fellow brokers who also seem to have ties to Ticket start dying in mysterious circumstances that Il-hyun begins to wonder if he might be in over his head.

Unlike other similarly themed financial thrillers, it’s not the effects of stock market manipulation on ordinary people which eventually wake Il-hyun up from his ultra capitalist dream (those are are never even referenced save a brief reflective shot at the end), but cold hard self-interest as he finally realises he is just a patsy Ticket can easily stub out when he’s done with him. Yoon only hooked him up in the first place because he knew he’d be desperate to take the bait in order to avoid repeated workplace humiliation and probably being let go at the end of his probationary period. What he’s chasing isn’t just “money” but esteem and access to the elite high life that a poor boy from a raspberry farm might have assumed entirely out of his reach.

It’s difficult to escape the note of class-based resentment in Il-hyun’s sneering instruction to his mother that she should “stop living in poverty” when she has the audacity to try and offer him some homemade chicken soup from ancient Tupperware, and it’s largely a sense of inferiority which drives him when he eventually decides to take his revenge on the omnipotent Ticket. Yet there’s a strangely co-dependent bond between the two men which becomes increasingly difficult pin down as they wilfully dance around each other.

The world of high finance is, unfortunately, a very male and homosocial one in which business is often conducted in night-clubs and massage parlours surrounded by pretty women. There is only one female broker on Il-hyun’s team. The guys refer to her as “Barbie” and gossip about how exactly she might have got to her position while she also becomes a kind of trophy conquest for Il-hyun as he climbs the corporate ladder. Meanwhile, there is also an inescapably homoerotic component to Il-hyun’s business dealings which sees him flirt and then enjoy a holiday (b)romance with a Korean-American hedge fund manager (Daniel Henney) he meets at a bar in the Bahamas, and wilfully strip off in front of Ticket ostensibly to prove he isn’t wearing a wire while dogged financial crimes investigator Ji-cheol (Jo Woo-jin) stalks him with the fury of a jilted lover.

Obsessed with “winning” in one sense or another, Il-hyun does not so much redeem himself as simply emerge victorious (though possibly at great cost). Even his late in the game make up with Chaebol best friend Woo-sung (Kim Jae-young), who actually turns out to be thoroughly decent and principled (perhaps because unlike Il-hyun he was born with wealth, status, and a good name and so does not need to care about acquiring them), is mostly self-interest rather than born of genuine feeling. In answer to some of Il-hyun’s early qualms, Ticket tells him that in finance the border between legal and illegal is murky at best and it may in fact be “immoral” not to exploit it. What Il-hyun wanted wasn’t so much “money” but what it represents – freedom, the freedom from “labour” and from from the anxiety of poverty. Life is long and there are plenty of things to enjoy, he exclaims at the height of his superficial success, but the party can only last so long. What was the money for? Who knows. Really, it’s beside the point.


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

International trailer (English subtitles)

Kingdom (キングダム, Shinsuke Sato, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Kingdom poster 1The class war arrives in feudal China via modern Japan in Shinsuke Sato’s big budget adaptation of the wuxia-inspired manga by Yasuhisa Hara, Kingdom (キングダム). Set in China’s Warring States period, Kingdom offers a surprisingly progressive message, if mildly tempered by a failure to tackle the system in its entirety, in which the oppressed (which in this case includes the king) rise up against sneering aristocracy fuelled mostly by righteousness and fierce defence of the right to dream.

The tale begins with a fateful meeting between enslaved war orphans Piao (Ryo Yoshizawa) and Xin (Kento Yamazaki) on a small farm somewhere in rural China. The boys, realising there is no way out of their enslavement save the sword, commit themselves to perfecting their martial arts with the ultimate goal of becoming the world’s greatest generals. Their intense bond is broken when a mysterious man, Lord Chang . Wen Jun (Masahiro Takashima), appears and offers Piao a job at the palace. Though he agonises over leaving his brother behind, Piao seizes his destiny little knowing he has been hired not quite so much for his sword skills as for his resemblance to weakened king Ying Zheng (also played by Ryo Yoshizawa). Sometime later, Piao returns close to death, entrusting Xin with an important mission – go to Ying Zheng and seek his own destiny by restoring rightful rule.

The two boys are about as oppressed as it’s possible to be – orphaned slaves with no prospect of improving their condition save the one they’ve already decided on, fighting in a war. This doesn’t quite explain how they can release themselves from the farm, but Xin’s eventual flight, in which his master does not attempt to stop him, might suggest the first hurdle is not as big as it seems. In any case, Xin finds an unlikely ally in Ying Zheng who has been deposed from the throne by his younger brother for not being royal enough because his birth was illegitimate and his mother was a dancer.

Of course, Ying Zheng’s intention to regain his “rightful” throne is in defence of a necessarily unequal social order, but it’s also a blow against the kind of elitism which mark’s his brother Cheng Jiao’s (Kanata Hongo) philosophy. Cheng Jiao believes that he is the most rightful king because his blood is the most royal. He looks down on Ying Zheng as low born, and has no respect for his subjects or the lower orders. “A peasant in fine clothes is still a peasant” one of his minions intones to intimidate an opponent, but someone with a sword is still someone with a sword no matter their circumstances of birth and provided you have access to acquire one, perhaps swordsmanship is a truly egalitarian art given that it largely depends on how well you wield a blade. Eventually, Ying Zheng makes an ally of another oppressed people – the mountain dwellers subjugated, and previously betrayed, by the powers that be who lend their strength to toppling a corrupt power structure in order to restore something like peace and balance to the land.

Indeed, asked to give a brief manifesto speech, Ying Zheng cooly declares that he aims to create a unified China by eliminating borders and therefore the need for war. Insisting that when a king picks up a sword it ought to be in service of his people, he makes the case for a borderless world, little caring that, as his general points out, history may brand him a tyrant. Nevertheless, he remains a “puppet king” whose status is dependent on the loyalty of key general Wang Yi (Takao Ohsawa) with whom true power lies. Wang Yi, as we later find out seems to be a “good” person who used his troops to protect the innocent and ensure no civilians were harmed during the chaos of the insurrection but he does indeed wield dangerously vast power for just one man. Meanwhile, Ying Zheng may reject the primacy of blood, but does dare to claim his birthright as an oldest son and is of course acting in service of an inherently oppressive system even if he means to make minor improvements towards the kind of meritocracy that allows men like Xin to embrace the power of their dreams.

The power of dreams is indeed the key. Though Cheng Jiao’s hardline mercenary may sneer that “dreams are bullshit” and deny a slave like Xin’s right to have one at all, to men like Xin dreams are all they have. As he says, they get you back on your feet when everything else seems hopeless. Learning that Piao achieved his dream even if it was only for a few moments gives him the strength to pursue his own in service not just of himself but his brother, friends, and kingdom.

Appropriating the aesthetics of wuxia may prove problematic for some, but like many Japanese manga with international settings, Kingdom’s mechanics are essentially home grown which is perhaps why Sato heavily leans on Kurosawa’s legacy, possibly overusing the distinctive side wipe and giving his heroine a look echoing that from Hidden Fortress while other influences seem to feed back from Star Wars in the strangely cute masked mountain elders and gleaming golden armour of bad ass warrior queen Yang Duan He (Masami Nagasawa). A surprisingly positive, perhaps ironically bold plea for a borderless world and if not actual equality at least a friendly kind of egalitarian nobility, Kingdom hands victory to those who fight hardest for their right to dream while subtly advocating for their right to rebel against an inherently unjust social order in order to claim it. 


Kingdom was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival. It will also be screened in US cinemas from Aug. 16 courtesy of Funimation.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Divine Fury (사자, Kim Joo-hwan, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Divine fury poster 1“If you have faith you have nothing to fear” the veteran priest explains to his protege in Kim Joo-hwan’s The Divine Fury (사자 Saja). The hero is not quite so sure. A tale of grief and resentment, The Divine Fury revels in supernatural dread, but makes plain that the origins of evil lie in the human heart and that it’s a failure to forgive that invites the darkness in.

A brief prologue introduces us to the young Yong-hu whose mother passed away shortly after he was born. His doting dad leaves him at home alone at nights while he works as a regular beat cop. Unfortunately Yong-hu’s earnest father is killed one evening by a rogue driver, leaving the boy orphaned and alone. Though his dad had been careful to take him to church and explain to him about the power of prayer, Yong-hu feels distraught and betrayed by a god who refused to listen and took his dad anyway even though he prayed as hard as he could. Vowing never to set foot in a church again, Yong-hu refuses to believe in anything at all.

20 years later, he’s a world famous MMA star with vengeance on his mind. Plagued by voices telling him to go back and take revenge on the priest who told him everything would be OK, Yong-hu (Park Seo-joon) buries himself in violence and superficial pleasures. Everything changes on the flight back from an international bout when Yong-hu has a dream of his father in which he grabs a cross and wakes up with stigmata on his right hand. When doctors can’t explain his strange injury which refuses to heal, he turns to a shaman who tells him that he is rife with demonic energy and is only protected by the shining goodness of his father’s wedding ring which he still wears on a cord around his neck. Perhaps surprisingly, the shaman advises him to follow the cross and go to a church at a certain time where a man will help him. The man turns out to be father Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki) – a Vatican-based exorcist currently in the middle of a case so difficult it’s sent his assistant running for the hills in terror.

Anyone who knows anything about exorcism in the movies knows you need an old priest and a young priest. Ahn is more or less resigned to working alone, exorcism is no longer cool with the youngsters it seems, but nevertheless remains keen to court the enigmatic Yong-hu and his all powerful demon banishing hand. Yong-hu, however, remains reluctant. He doesn’t believe in God and resents the old priest as a symbol of all that’s betrayed him. Gradually he begins to warm to Ahn, seeing in him a kind of goodness as he selflessly battles the forces of evil and releases the tormented from their supernatural oppressors even if it might take longer to help them escape their darkness. Meanwhile he continues to hunt the “Dark Bishop” who feeds on fear and negativity in order to secure his own immortality.

Ahn is fond of saying that there’s a reason for every torment and that it’s all part of God’s grand plan. As far as the film goes, he may very well be correct at least in providing the mechanism for Yong-hu’s eventual path towards re-embracing his faith. Still missing his father and nurturing intense hurt and resentment, Yong-hu invited the darkness in, beginning to hate where he should have learned to forgive. As Ahn tells him, you can’t hate something you never loved which might explain why the darkness has never been able to fully consume him. Still battling his father’s absence, Yong-hu remains doubly conflicted, falling into an easy paternal rhythm with the older man yet also resenting him both as a potential father figure primed to betray and as a symbol of the Church in whom no he longer trusts.

Kim shifts away from the comedic banter which made Midnight Runners such an unexpected treat for something more melancholy as his heroes ponder the wages of grief and the demands of responsibility. Cynical, Yong-hu forgot his father’s ghostly instructions to him to grow up to be a good person who helps others and stands up to those who harm the weak (like demons) but eventually comes to reconnect with his dad’s essential goodness when realising that he’s been guided onto a unique path as an MMA star with a magic demon vanquishing fist. Having conquered the evil inside him and accepted his father’s legacy, Yong-hu is ready to take on the forces of darkness with a divine fury of his own while saving the souls of those in peril from threats both earthly and supernatural.


The Divine Fury was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival. It will also be released in cinemas across the US and Canada courtesy of Well Go USA from Aug. 16.

International trailer (English subtitles)

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)