A Special Lady (미옥, Lee An-gyu, 2017)

A Special Lady posterAll you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun – so goes the age old wisdom. Korean cinema, it has to be said, has been in a fairly progressive mood of late with several high profile female-led action movies to complement the macho melodrama that has become synonymous with the nation’s cinematic output. There has, however, been a slight imbalance in the way these films have been presented – yes, women carry guns and issue roundhouse kicks to the face but they do so out of maternal fire. This obsession with corrupted motherhood finds a natural home in Lee An-gyu’s A Special Lady (미옥, Miok) which puts puts Kim Hye-soo in a blonde wig and then asks her to do pretty much what she did in Coin Locker Girl only more sympathetically.

Na Hyun-jung (Kim Hye-soo) has risen from lowly bar girl and exploited sex worker to be the right-hand woman of mob boss Kim (Choi Moo-sung). Marshalling a collection of (well cared for) high class call girls, her main stock in trade is blackmail – she sends her girls out as honey traps to capture “important” people, bring them back to the “hotel” for illicit “fun”, and film them in the act to compel them to work in the best interests of the gang. The plan usually works, but snotty prosecutor Choi (Lee Hee-joon), who has just returned from his honeymoon after marrying the boss’ daughter, liked to think of himself as having integrity and is hell bent on revenge against the villainous Na. Exploiting weaknesses already exposed within the gang including the stormy romance between Na and ambitious foot soldier Lim (Lee Sun-Kyun), and the return of Na’s illegitimate son with boss Kim whose wife and (legitimate) child were murdered by a rival organisation, Choi sets about taking it down in an unorthodox way as a means of getting his sex tape back but also fulfilling his commitment to “justice”.

The English title, A Special Lady, has an awkward spin to it with its mobster-esque patter hinting at a classy bar girl or much loved peripheral figure. The Korean title which is simply a woman’s name gives a better indication of the tale at hand in its emphasis on loss of innocence, fall, and rebirth as something or someone else. Na is certainly well versed in the gangster world, perfectly equipped to operate within it both in her physical prowess and also in her emotional control, politicking, and ability to strategise, yet she also operates outside of gang structures with many, including Lim who has long been in love with her, resenting that a mere woman holds such a high position with such proximity to Kim.

This marginal status extends to Na’s feminised perspective which reduces her to a figure of ruined motherhood. Na takes care of her girls, as a mother would, entrusting them to another woman who acts as their madam but is fiercely loyal to her, more nanny than henchman. Her major preoccupation is with the son she was forced to give up as an infant after spending time on the inside on behalf of the gang. Joo-hwan (Kim Min-suk) is Kim’s son and heir and the mob boss has been careful to keep him overseas to keep him safe, but either because of persistent parental absence or his gangster genes, the boy keeps getting himself expelled for violent conduct and Kim thinks it’s probably time to bring him home and verse him in his heritage. Na has long wanted to be reunited with her almost grown up son, but he has no idea she is his mother and believes he is the son of Kim’s deceased wife. When Joo-hwan is threatened and then turned against her by vicious rumours, Na will stop at nothing to ensure his safety even if he never knows who she really is.

Na’s descent into ferocious fighting machine, attacking a field full of mobsters with a bone saw, is the rage of a mother whose child is threatened. She doesn’t fight them off because she wants to survive, or for revenge, or simply because they are from a rival gang but because they threaten her children both in the case of one of her girls who happens to be with Na, and of course their targeting of Joo-hwan solely to get to his mother. The world of the film is a persistently misogynistic one – not just in the way women are routinely used as a means to an end by the gangsters, and by Na herself, but in the way that Na struggles to be accepted as a valid member of the gangster hierarchy rather than an adjunct to it as an honorary manager of the female contingent. Lim, who feels displaced by her in his status within the gang, is also desperately in love with Na who seems to return his feelings on some level but ultimately turns him down – something he can not accept, stooping so low as to threaten Na’s child to blackmail her into accepting him despite his intense resentment on finding out about her previous relationship with Kim.

Unexpected action hero status aside, Na becomes nothing more than a figure of corrupted motherhood who must be “repaired” through saving her son and then by retiring to become a more “normal” maternal figure. The debut from Lee An-gyu, A Special Lady features a number of well choreographed action scenes, strikingly composed images, and impressive production design but all too often falls back on tired ideas as its heroine battles valiantly to save her son with the intention of “rescuing” herself in the process.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Jeong Yoon-chul, 2017)

Warriors of the Dawn posterSome might say a king is the slave of his people, but then again he is a very well kept slave even if he is no more free than a serf at the mercy of a feudal lord. Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Daeribgoon), set in 1592 during the short-lived Japanese invasion, takes this idea to its heart in playing up the inherent similarities between the oppressed poor who are forced to impersonate the sons of wealthy men too grand for the battlefield, and the Crown Prince unwillingly forced to impersonate the King who has abandoned his people and run away to China to save his own skin. Though the Prince is young and afraid, with the help of his resentful mercenary brethren he begins to find the majesty buried inside himself all along but crucially never forgets what is like to feel oppressed so that he might rule nobly and fairly, unlike his more selfish father.

The tale begins with Tow (Lee Jung-Jae) – a “Proxy Soldier”, one of many from the Northern borderlands where the living is hard. Sons of feudal lords need not risk their lives on the battlefields while there is money to spend and so they buy the service of young men from poor families to stand in for them. The men take the name of the man they’re supposed to be but if they die, their family must send a replacement to serve out the remaining time or pay back the money that was given to them. At this point Tow’s main problem is the Jurchen rebels who’ve decided to live life their own way outside of the system of class hierarchy currently in place in feudal Korea.

The Japanese, however, are pressing on and making gains towards the capital. The King decides to flee, hoping to reach China where the Ming Emperor may be minded to help them. He cannot, however, simply abandon ship and decides to divide the court with the left behind contingent headed by his son, Crown Prince Gwang-hae (Yeo Jin-goo). Gwang-hae is young and inexperienced. Not having had a good relationship with his father, he’s mystified as to why he’s suddenly been given this “honour” but together with a selection of advisors he’s sent on a journey to found a second court at Gonggye, picking up scattered forces along the way. This brings him into contact with Tow and his contingent who become his main defenders.

Having lived a life inside the palace walls, Gwang-hae knows nothing of war or fighting and has brought a selection of books with him hoping to learn on the job. His ineptitude is likened to that of a young recruit to the band of Proxy Soldiers who has been forced to join on the death of his father but has no training and is too squeamish to kill, requiring Tow to come to his rescue as he later does for Gwang-hae. Tow is a born soldier yet reluctant, fully aware that he no longer exists and should he die another man with no name will step into his place with nary a pause. He continues to fight because he has no choice but he also feels an intense bond of brotherhood to his fellow men, something which later extends to Gwang-hae once his latent nobility begins to emerge.

Gwang-hae’s central conflict is between his advisors who council him towards austerity, and his deeper feelings which encourage him to sympathise with the ordinary people he meets along the way whose lives are being ruined thanks to the government’s failure to protect them. As it turns out, Gwang-hae is also low-born, in a sense, and therefore has inherited something of the common touch which separates him from the aloofness of his father. Though he is constantly told to make the “rational” choice he refuses – ordering troops to stop when they attempt to extort food from starving peasants, insisting on evacuating a village to safer ground, and then finally becoming a warrior himself in order to defend his people when no one else would.

Gwang-hae is, perhaps, a warrior for a new dawn and a flag that men like Tow can follow in the quest for a better world in which each man can keep his own name and fight for his own cause rather than that laid down for them by men with money or power. Despite the potential for a more urgent argument, Jeong mostly falls back on standard period aesthetics with overly familiar narrative beats heavily signposted by a subpar script. Warriors of the Dawn cannot decide whether it’s a film about catching the conscience of a king or the noble sacrifice of would be revolutionaries, failing to lend the essential weight to its duel arcs of rebirth and coming of age all of which makes for a long, hard march towards an inevitable conclusion.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

International trilogy (English subtitles)

The Outlaws (범죄도시, Kang Yoon-sung, 2017)

The outlaws posterBack in 2004, a hero cop made the headlines by cleaning up Chinatown when he took into custody 32 known gang members in Seoul’s Garibong district. Based on the real life case, The Outlaws (범죄도시, BumJoedoshi, AKA Crime City), is the debut feature from Kang Yoon-sung in which Ma Dong-seok adds goodhearted yet compromised policeman to his list of increasingly impressive leading performances. Truth be told the role does little to stretch his current range but fits comfortably into Ma’s well worn persona of noble bruiser as he plays fatherly commander to his fiercely loyal team and avuncular mentor to a brave boy in the district who wants to help free the area from the dangerous gang violence which leaves not just businesses but lives under threat.

Ma Seok-do (Ma Dong-seok) is the only force stopping Garibong from descending into a hellish war zone of gang violence and destruction. A local resident, Ma is well respected in the area and knows the territory well enough to navigate its various challenges. Rather than take on the gangs wholesale he attempts to placate them, brokering an uneasy equilibrium which keeps the violence contained and helps to protect ordinary people from its effects. All of that goes out the window when a new threat arrives in the form of vicious gangster Jang Chen (Yoon Kye-sang) and his two minions whose methods are unsubtle in the extreme, ending with rival gang bosses chopped up and placed inside suitcases over nothing more than a trifling gambling debt.

Jang is a new and terrifying threat because he sees no need to play by the “rules”. A peace cannot be brokered with him and he cannot be reasoned with. Ma knows the time has come for action but even with police resources behind him is ill equipped to become, in effect, Garibong’s latest gang leader. To this end he makes a surprising decision – asking the residents for help. The residents, however, remain terrified. How can he ask them to inform on gangsters to whom they’re still paying protection money? Ma’s promise is a big one – to do what no one thought could be done in neutralising the organised crime threat by conducting a mass arrest of foot soldiers from across the gangland spectrum.

Ma Dong-seok makes fantastic use of his trademark sarcasm as the regular neighbourhood guy who also happens to be a top cop. Kang mixes a fair amount of humour into an otherwise dark and violent tale such as the recurrent presence of two lowly pamphleteers who are eventually pressed into more serious service for Ma, his trickery and manipulation of a suspect (which is also a way to save him from a death sentence on being sent back to China), and Ma’s love of drunken karaoke and lamb skewers with the boys. Ma thinks nothing of arming a gangster with a stab vest, setting up another in a public bath, or playing gangland politics for all they’re worth, but when it really counts he’s as straight as they come, protecting the residents of Garibong like the lone sheriff of some outpost town, equal parts officer of the law and disappointed dad.

The incongruously comical tone harks back to the ‘70s maverick cop golden age in which the lines between law breaker and law enforcer were always blurred but you knew who the good guys were because they had all the best lines. If Kang is aiming for this branded mix of grit and humour he doesn’t quite find it and the comedy sometimes undercuts his more serious intentions but it is undeniably good fun all the same. Ma Dong-seok’s warmhearted maverick is quite rightly the star of the show, but his rivalry with Yoon Kye-chang’s Jang Chen fails to ignite with Chen never quite seeming as menacing as intended. Nevertheless even if Kang’s gangland action comedy has little to add to an already crowded arena, it does at least provide a fitting showcase for Ma’s talents in its sarcastic, world weary policeman who may have one foot on the wrong side of the law but always acts in the name of justice.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

 

Fabricated City (조작된 도시, Park Kwang-hyun, 2017)

fabricated cityThe real and the unreal. In the era of fake news, it’s become ever harder to draw a clear line between the two but when you live online, the borders are even more permeable. Twelve years after the wartime comedy Welcome to Dongmakgol, director Park Kwang-hyun finally makes a return to the director’s chair with an action packed cyberpunk thriller which joins the ranks of recent Korean films bemoaning the country’s hardwired tendency to social inequality where the rich and powerful are free to run roughshod over the merely ordinary. Fabricated City (조작된 도시, Jojakdwen Doshi) refers to more than just the literally manufactured online world, but to the social reality in which unseen forces govern and define the lives of others, operating in secret behind a government backed curtain.

Kwon Yoo (Ji Chang-wook) was once a national athlete – a rising star of the Korean Taekwondo team. Starting fights when he wasn’t supposed to put paid to that dream and now Kwon Yoo is an aimless wastrel. Too sad and ashamed to have anything more to do with Taekwondo, Kwon Yoo spends all his time in gaming cafes, living a more successful life online. In his favourite game he’s known as the Captain, and the dashingly heroic leader of his party known as Resurrection.

One evening someone leaves their phone behind. It rings and Kwon Yoo answers it. Irritated, he’s about to hang up on the frantic sounding woman who wants him to bring the phone to her but her offer of money changes his mind. Kwon Yoo delivers the phone but the whole thing seems weird especially as the door was open and the woman in the shower when he arrived. Next thing he knows, Kwon Yoo is arrested for a brutal rape and murder. The police have a lot of evidence against him, and so Kwon Yoo winds up in jail where he’s branded a sex offender. Luckily a crazed serial killer realises this kid is no killer and helps him get out whereupon his loyal Resurrectionists valiantly come to the aid of their Captain in the real world, exposing the impressive fit up job that got him put away in the first place.

The deeper Kwon Yoo and his team dive the more corruption they discover. Kwon Yoo is not the only innocent sacrificed for someone else’s grand plan, there are others and the pattern is disturbing. Like Kwon Yoo, the other victims are usually people living on the margins – ones that no one would miss or the uncharitable might say were “unnecessary”, lives that can be exchanged for those of the rich and famous finding themselves in a fix. Kwon Yoo’s fate becomes an extreme version of that meted out to the young men and women of Korea unlucky enough to have been born without wealth, connections, or familial status – expendable and condemned to live without hope.

The fabricated city, in its more literal sense is the online world Kwon Yoo and his team have chosen and in part created for themselves in an attempt to escape the aspects of their lives and personalities which most disappoint them. Kwon Yoo, kicked off the Taekwondo team, has made a warrior hero of himself online, backed by a similarly escapist squad he doesn’t really know. His saviour turns out to be a shy computer genius who can only bear to talk via telephone even when in the same room yet has broken out of her self imposed isolation in order to save the life of her online friend. Other members of the team follow suit bearing similar backstories, attempting to live up to their fantasy selves for real with varying levels of success. Yet the fantasy world was all they had, locked out of all means of escape or advancement by the rigid social codes which make their present predicament possible, even if the fact remains that Kwon Yoo was doing a pretty good job of wasting his life all on his own.

Fabricated City’s biggest selling point is in its unusually well developed production design which takes its cues from the video game world with fantastical images from a prison carved into a mountain to the relatively more familiar cyberpunk influenced technological hybridity as floors become giant computer screens and everything really does exist online. Jumping genres from the classic wrong man to prison drama and eventually techno thriller, Fabricated City bites off more than it can chew but its well choreographed action and typically Korean sense of subtly ironic humour help to smooth over some of the film’s more outlandish moments.


Fabricated City was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Asura: The City of Madness (아수라, Kim Sung-soo, 2016)

asura-poster

Review of Kim Sung-soo’s Asura: The City of Madness first published by UK Anime Network.


Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. It’s a shame the title City of Violence was already taken, Asura: The City of Madness (아수라, Asura) is a place of chaos in which carnage has become currency. Re-teaming with actor Jung Woo-sung fifteen years after Musa the Warrior, Kim Sung-soo’s Asura: The City of Madness is, at heart, B-movie pulp steeped in the hardboiled world of tough guys walking alone through the darkness, but even if film noir’s cynicism is out in force, there’s precious little of its essentially chivalrous mentality to be found in this fiercely amoral universe.

World weary policeman Han (Jung Woo-sung) has been moonlighting as the “gun-dog” of corrupt crime boss mayor, Park (Hwang Jung-min), and soon plans on quitting the legitimate force to work for city hall full time. After helping Park “relocate” an inconvenient witness, Han runs into a problem when another policeman turns up and promptly gets killed, drawing unwanted attention to his shady second job. This also brings him into contact with a righteous prosecutor, Kim (Kwak Do-won), who claims to be hellbent on exposing Park’s not quite legal operations and ousting him from power in the hope of a less corrupt regime emerging. Despite his lofty claims, Kim’s methods are little different from Park’s. Han soon finds himself caught in the middle of a legal cold war as he tries to play both sides one against the other but slowly finds neither worth betraying.

The film’s title, Asura, is inspired by the creatures from Indian mythology who are imbued with immense supernatural power yet consumed by negative emotion, relentlessly battling each other in a quest for material rather than spiritual gain. The very male world of Annam is no different as men trade blows like money and wear their wealth on their faces. There are no good guys in Annam, each is involved in a desperate fight to survive in which none can afford luxuries such as pity or morality. Han emerges as the film’s “hero” not out of any kind of nobility or a desire to do good, but simply in being the least actively bad. Able to see the world for what it is – a hell of chaos and cruelty, Han is, perhaps, the best man his environment allows him to be but this same knowledge eats away at him from the inside as he’s forced to act in a way which betrays his own sense of righteousness.

Annam is a world founded on chaos. The forces which are supposed to represent order are the very ones which perpetuate a state of instability. The police are universally corrupt, either working for themselves or in the pay of larger outside forces, and the municipal authorities are under the control of Park – a vicious, mobbed up, sociopath. Prosecutor Kim who claims to represent the resistance against this cosmology of corruption is not what he seems and is, in fact, another part of the system, willing to resort to blackmail, torture, and trickery in order to achieve his vainglorious goal. Yet for all that, the force that rules is mere chance – the most meaningful deaths occur accidentally, the result of shoddy construction work and high testosterone or in the indecision of betrayal. Death is an inevitability for all living creatures, but these men are, in a sense, already dead, living without love, without honour, and without pity.

Kim Sung-soo makes a point of portraying violence in all of its visceral reality as bones crack and blood flows with sickening vitality. The film is extreme in its representation of what could be termed ordinary violence as men engage as equals in hand to hand combat until the machetes and hacksaws come out to combat the shootout finale, complete with the Korean hallmark corridor fight.

Beautifully shot with a neo-noir aesthetic of the nighttime, neon lit city filled with crime ridden back alleys, Asura: The City of Madness is a grimy, hardboiled tale of internecine violence fuelled by corruption and self serving compliance. The ‘80s style lowkey synth score adds a note of anxiety to the proceedings, hinting towards an almost supernatural presence in this strange city populated by the walking dead and morally bankrupt. An epic of “unheroic” bloodshed, Asura: The City of Violence presents a world which thrives on pain where men ease their suffering by transferring it to others. Bleak and nihilistic in the extreme, this is the hard edge of pulpy B-movie noir in which the men in the shadows wish they were as dark as the city streets, but find themselves imprisoned within a series of private hells which are entirely of their own making.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)