Die Bad (죽거나 혹은 나쁘거나, Ryoo Seung-wan, 2000)

die bad posterRyoo Seung-wan is now one of Korea’s top directors with such high profile box office hits as Berlin File, Veteran, and Battleship Island to his name. Back in 2000, he was just a young punk trying to make his mark in the film industry. Die Bad (죽거나 혹은 나쁘거나, Jukgeona Hokeun Nabbeugeona), Ryoo’s feature debut is, in reality, a series of four connected shorts (some of which were screened individually) telling an all too familiar story of a life ruined in adolescence giving way to a gangland nightmare and a nihilistic struggle for survival. Shot on grainy, low budget 16mm, Ryoo’s aesthetic is clearly influenced by the cinema of Sogo Ishii and perhaps Shinya Tsukamoto in its intensely kinetic, punk rock rhythms but he brings to it a youthful, angry fatalism so often seen in Korean youth drama.

Told in four chapters each of which is filmed with a different conceit, Die Bad is the story of Sung-bin (Park Sung-bin), a young man whose future is derailed after he kills a boy by accident in a pool room scuffle. When he gets out of jail, his father doesn’t want to know him and his friends have moved on but his brother gets him a job in a garage and it seems as if he’s finding his feet. When he comes across a guy getting beaten up in the street, he’s hesitant to get involved – literally seeing the ghost of the boy he killed in amongst the aggressors. Eventually he intercedes and rescues the guy who turns out to be a well connected mobster.

Meanwhile, while Sung-bin was inside, his friend who started the fight that fateful night, Seok-hwan (Ryoo Seung-wan), has become a policeman. Seok-hwan’s little brother, Sang-hwan, is getting involved in the same typically teenage punk violence which defined the adolescence of Sung-bin and Seok-hwan. A police round up engineers a fateful reunion between Seok-hwan and Sung-bin who discovers a way of getting back at the “friend” he feels destroyed his life though targeting the impressionable little brother with big time gangster dreams.

Given the unusual production circumstances behind Die Bad – the decision to incorporate two existing short films and combine them with two new ones to create a single feature, it’s no surprise that it can feel disjointed. The first segment, The Rumble, is pure punk spectacle. Set to a ferocious beat, the camera becomes a protagonist as Ryoo mixes frequent POV shots careering down narrow streets with more abstract sequences of the boys fighting the camera, extreme close-ups and artful contemplations of the awful beauty of violence.

Nightmare continues in more or less the same vein but “grows up” along with Sung-bin, dropping the frenetic, testosterone fuelled pace for a slower kind of melancholy as Sung-bin tries to find his feet as an ex-con in an unforgiving society. The Rumble was an indictment on the hopeless situation of young men without prospects – unlikely to escape through academic success, Sung-bin and Seok-hwan exorcised their feelings of impotence and impossibility through violence, but The Nightmare is its inescapable aftermath in which Sung-bin, having paid for his crimes, is unable to come to terms with his guilt and is haunted by the face of the boy he killed by accident. Given no real hope for a positive future, Sung-bin gives in to the lure of violence and eventually pursues gangland success rather than a life on the straight and narrow.

The ironically titled Modern Men rams this point home in its deliberate contrasting of Sung-bin and Seok-hwan – the gangster and the cop. Ryu moves away from the naturalism of the earlier scenes for a docudrama conceit as both Seok-hwan and Sung-bin’s mentor Tae-hoon give direct to camera interviews talking about their respective careers. Tae-hoon wound up a gangster for similar reasons to Sung-bin, he was a regular punk teen with no prospects who was handy with his fists so he joined a gang where his talents could be of the most use. Seok-hwan joined the police but his job involves a lot of tussling with thugs and there are times he’s not even sure if he’s a policeman or state sponsored gangster. He no longer has hopes or dreams and his only desire is to work hard without encountering any hassle. Both men define themselves through violence, they dress for the fight and chart their success through defeats and conquests. Yet both also claim that their violence is in the name of “maintaining order” even as they create chaos in facing each other.

For the final segment, Die Bad, Ryoo shifts to black and white as the stories of Seok-hwan and Sung-bin reunite. Times have changed, but not all that much. Sang-hwan, Seok-hwan’s little brother, hangs around in arcades with his buddies but Streetfighter soon gives way to Streefighting as the boys determine to work out their youthful frustrations through violence. Sang-hwan, brought up on an image of violence as masculinity is eager to prove himself, and dreams of the glamorous gangster life. Sung-bin, the jaded, reluctant veteran, makes cynical use of Sang-hwan’s desperation to get revenge on his brother for ruining his life by engineering the fight that cost both Sung-bin and his victim their lives. Cop or thug, there are no winners in Ryoo’s violent world in which the disenfranchised masses are encouraged to scrap to the death for the mere crumbs thrown to them. Fiercely kinetic and filled with the fire of youth Ryoo’s debut is an extraordinary meditation on the fatalism of violence as the most intimate, or perhaps the only, means of communication between men.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Coin Locker Girl (차이나타운, Han Jun-hee, 2015)

coin locker girl posterFamily in Korean films, unlike those say of Japan, has always been something of a double edged sword. Coin Locker Girl (차이나타운, AKA Chinatown) takes the idea of “family” and twists it around, bites into it to test its veracity, and offers a wry smirk as the metal begins to bend. Set in Incheon’s Chinatown, Han Jun-hee’s noirish thriller sends its heroine down a series of dark alleyways as she both fights and fights to retain her humanity whilst inhabiting an extremely inhuman world.

Il-young (Kim Go-eun) was found, covered in blood, hidden away in a coin locker, an abandoned child with no clue as to her identity or that of the woman who gave birth to her. Named and taken in by a collection of beggars at the station, she began her life as a street rat though not, perhaps, entirely unloved or friendless. As a young child she was then taken by gangsters working for a fearless female gang boss known as “Mom” (Kim Hye-soo). Mom is not one to suffer fools and feels no compunction in getting rid of those no longer useful to her. She soon puts Il-young to work, pamphleteering, begging, and eventually debt collecting as she grows older under Mom’s watchful eyes. By the time Il-young is almost come of age, she has an older brother and a sister as well as a younger brother with learning difficulties whom Mom still looks after despite her otherwise unsentimental approach to life.

The trouble starts when Mom sends Il-young to collect a debt from the young son of a man who’s skipped the country. Seok-hyeon (Park Bo-gum) is not like the typical clients she’s met before. He opens his door, invites her in, even offers to feed her before she leaves. Il-young finds all of this very strange. She’s never met anyone “nice” before and wonders what his angle is. Seok-hyeon, however, does not appear to have much of an angle aside from perhaps the usual one. Spending a bit of time with him, Il-young begins to develop certain feelings which see her swapping her Mom-style slacks and jackets for pretty summer dresses. Despite his son’s faith in him, Seok-hyeon’s father has not kept his end of the bargain and so Mom decides it’s time to call in the debt by offing Seok-hyeon and harvesting his organs. Il-young has a choice – between the woman she calls “Mom”, and a naive young man she has come to like though he has no place in her kill or be killed world.

One of the most attractive qualities about the young Il-young was that she didn’t exist. No birth certificate and no identity meant that she could be Mom’s to do with as she pleased. Consequently, adolescent Il-young has a more complicated relationship with her “Mom” than most young women but is also acutely aware of the debt of gratitude which is owed, the precariousness of her position, and the reality that she has nowhere else to go should she decide to try and break away from the world in which she has been raised. Never quite sure what her relationship to Mom is, Il-young has come to think of the other children in the same situations as siblings, but again cannot be sure that they feel the same.

Like many a good film noir, the tragedy lies in not completely closing off one’s heart as the harshness of the world dictates. Mom rejects those who are not useful and terminates those who have betrayed her with extreme prejudice, but despite herself she cannot destroy Il-young. Stepping back from her code, her orders are to let Il-young live, condemning her to a fate perhaps worse than death but alive all the same. Mom is betrayed by another child figure enacting a petty act of revenge, but her decision to let Il-young live is the one which threatens to condemn her. Having believed herself an unloved, unwanted child, Il-young is left with two terrible legacies of abandonment and the feeling that she will never leave that coin locker in which she has been trapped since birth. The cycle of maternal sacrifice continues, though Il-young has the opportunity to change her fate by taking charge of it, picking up where Mom left off but with greater compassion even within the confines of her still cruel world.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017. Also screening at Manchester (11 Nov) and Glasgow (16 Nov).

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Merry Christmas Mr. Mo (메리크리스마스 미스터 모, Lim Dae-hyeong, 2016)

Merry Christmas Mr Mo posterMr. Mo does not at first seem the Christmassy type. He’s gloomy, sullen, and monosyllabic – about as far from festive as it’s possible to get, yet over the course of Lim Dae-hyung’s charming feature debut, he becomes an irresistible hero bravely fighting back against his loneliness and disappointment while there is still time. Shot in black and white with a deadpan, Jarmushian sense of humour, Mr. Mo’s journey of reconnection is one of quiet melancholy yet filled with its own strange warmth for its cast of disconnected characters each finding a point of recognition in the silent world of Mr. Mo.

The local barber, Mr. Mo (Gi Ju-bong) is known around town but does not encourage friendliness outside of his studio. His life begins to diverge from its usual routine when a visit to the doctor, who urges him to quit smoking, causes him to worry about his health. Despite his normally aloof nature, Mr. Mo engages in some slapstick humour in the pool where he swims everyday before asking a young woman, Ja-young (Jeon Yeo-bin), to go for a drink with him on the way home. Ja-young is somewhat taken aback and perhaps worried about an old man asking her to drink with him, replying that she’s quite tired and just wants to go home. Mr. Mo’s intentions are 100% honourable and he just really wanted some company on this quite depressing day. Ja-young decides to go anyway and regales him with horticulture tips and theories on physiognomy, her loquaciousness a perfect match for Mr. Mo’s laconic demeanour.

When he receives even worse news than he feared from the Doctor, Mr. Mo decides it’s time to put his house in order – clearing out a 15 year old Christmas tree but leaving the December 1999 calendar hanging on the door. It’s clear from Mr. Mo’s apartment that he once had a family and now lives alone, though he mostly spends his off time munching popcorn in front of the TV and writing in his diary. His nights are repetitions of insomnia in which he repeatedly thumps his pillow in frustration, sitting up reluctantly in the morning and tearing his eye mask off his face.

Having dreamed of being an actor in his youth, Mr. Mo’s final wish is to make a film with his distant, aspiring filmmaker son. Stephen (Oh Jung-hwan) lives in the city with his girlfriend, Ye-won (Go Won-hee), but he seems to be just as sullen and depressed as his dad though perhaps without so much of the reason. Mr. Mo is a big fan of Ye-won, though he can’t quite understand what she’s doing with his son. She puts up Stephen’s nonsense, his loss of drive and occasional fits of pique and the couple’s relationship seems solid, even if a little strained and sometimes difficult.

Making the movie, a Chaplin-esque slapstick piece, is partly an excuse to reconnect with Stephen but it also affords him an opportunity to revisit and reconsider the past, revealing hitherto hidden details of his son’s early life. Gi Ju-bong excels in the leading role of the vacant Mr. Mo who eventually becomes a hilarious silent movie comedian complete with silly walk and repeated sight gags which also take on and added degree of melancholy given Mr. Mo’s condition and his desire to push his own self-destruct button.

Despite his aloofness, Mr. Mo is a keen observer of people as revealed in the final voiceover of his diary for December (written in the form of letters to his late wife) in which he notes down his various meetings from the overly polite young man who says hello to too many people to picking up on Ja-young’s loneliness, and regretting his hostile reaction to his sister-in-law’s kindness. Getting everyone together at the end to reveal the solution to the enigma which is Mr. Mo, Lim’s debut is a whimsical journey through the loneliness and resignation of late middle age filled with a strange affection for its cast of eccentrics and enlivened by the quirky, acoustic guitar score which considerably adds to the air of mild surreality in strangely framed vistas of emptiness which perfectly capture Mr. Mo’s charming black and white world.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Battleship Island (군함도, Ryoo Seung-Wan, 2017)

battleship island posterKorean cinema has been in a reflective mood of late. The ongoing series of colonial era dramas have sometimes leaned towards uncomfortable and uncompromising nationalism but among the more recent, there has also been an attempt to ask more serious questions about collaboration and capitulation of ordinary people living under a brutal and often cruel regime. While Age of Shadows dramatised this particular problem through the conflicted figure of a former resistance fighter turned Japanese military police offer, The Battleship Island (군함도, Goonhamdo) goes further in its depiction of those who dedicated themselves entirely to the Japanese Empire and were willing to oppress their fellow Koreans to do so. That is not to ignore the hellish conditions which define the very idea of Hashima as an off shore labour camp where depravity rules, exploitation is hidden, and the camp commander is free to run his ship however he sees fit.

In early 1945 Korea is still under Japanese colonial rule and ordinary Koreans are liable for conscription into the Imperial Japanese army whether they like it or not. Gang-ok (Hwang Jung-min) and his daughter Sohee (Kim Soo-ahn) are members of a popular jazz band but Gang-ok has a habit of getting himself into trouble and so they are tricked into getting on a boat to Japan hoping for a safer, more lucrative life. Where they end up is Hashima – otherwise known as “Battleship Island”. Gang-ok and Sohee are separated with Gang-ok stripped of his musical instruments and Sohee, who is only a child, carted off with the other women destined for the “comfort station”.

Ryoo wastes little time demonstrating the immense evil buried in places like Hashima. A deep seam coal mine in the middle of the sea, the island is a fortress prison from which escape is impossible. Early on, three small boys decide to flee after their friend is killed in a cave-in only for one to be shot and the other two drowned by the lazy soldiers of a Japanese patrol boat who couldn’t be bothered to fish them out of the water. The miners are beaten, starved, tortured and manipulated into submission knowing that capitulation is their best route to survival. Not only are these men the subjects of forced labour, they are also made liable for the “costs” involved in their own enslavement with the bill for their transportation, food, clothes, and tools deducted from their “wages” which are supposed to be paid into their bank accounts for access on release. Those killed whilst working are supposed to receive compensation for their families but as will later be revealed, systematic corruption means their families may not even know their loved ones are dead let alone that they are being denied the money rightfully owed to them.

Things get even worse for little Sohee who is forced into a kimono and smothered with makeup to “entertain” some of the Japanese officers on the island. She manages to buy herself some time when she realises the Korean record the camp commander puts on to “comfort” the “comfort women” is one she is actually singing on. This new discovery earns her and her father a slightly improved status in the camp though she may not be safe for long. Gang-ok has already reverted to his tried and tested methods for getting out of sticky situations, making himself a kind of camp fixer aided by his ability to speak Japanese.

The Korean prisoners are represented by a former resistance leader, Yoon Hak-chul (Lee Kyoung-Young), who offers rousing speeches in public but privately is not quite all he seems. Gang-ok gets himself mixed up in a Resistance operation run by an OSS (Song Joong-ki) plant on site to rescue Yoon who eventually uncovers several inconvenient truths which make his mission something of a non-starter. Yoon’s empty rhetoric and self serving grandeur represent the worst of the spiritual crimes discovered on Hashima but there is equal ire for the turncoat Koreans who act as enforcers for the Japanese, issuing beatings and siding with their oppressors in the desperation to escape their oppression. Tragically believing themselves to have switched sides, the turncoats never realise that the Japanese hold them in even lower regard than those they have betrayed.

It is hard to avoid the obvious nationalistic overtones as the Japanese remain a one dimensional evil, smirking away as they run roughshod over human rights, prepare to barter little girls and send boys into dangerous potholes all in the name of industry. At one point Gang-ok cuts an Imperial Japanese flag in half to make the all important ramp which will help the captive Koreans escape the island before being summarily murdered to destroy evidence of Japanese war crimes which is a neat kind of visual symbolism, but also very on the nose. Once again, the message is that Koreans can do impossible things when they work together, as the impressively staged, horrifically bloody finale demonstrates, but as Ryoo also reminds us there no “heroes”, only ordinary people doing the best they can in trying times. 


Currently on limited UK cinema release!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Suspect (용의자, Won Shin-yeon, 2013)

suspect posterNorth Koreans have become the go to bad guys recently, and so North Korean spies have become the instigators of fear and paranoia in many a contemporary political thriller. The Suspect (용의자, Yonguija), however, is quick to point the finger at a larger evil – personal greed, dodgy morals, and the all powerful reach of global corporations. Opting for a high octane action fest rather than a convoluted plot structure, Won’s approach is (mostly) an uncomplicated one as a wronged man pursues his revenge or redemption with no thought for his own future, only to be presented with the unexpected offering of one anyway alongside the equally unexpected bonus of exposing an international conspiracy.

Ji Dong-cheol (Gong Yoo) is former top North Korean asset now defected to the South and working as a driver for an important CEO. His boss thinks he ought to just go home, but Ji has a mission – he’s looking for a former friend, also defected, who was responsible for the deaths of his wife and daughter as part of a wide ranging purge following the accession of Kim Jong-un. Taking pity on him, the CEO eventually gives him the address of his target, adding that he hopes Ji can learn to forgive him (which seems unlikely), but is assassinated by other agents that same night. Arriving at the scene too late, Ji finds himself framed for the killing and charged with taking care of a secret message also in the CEO’s possession at the time of his death. Teaming up with a documentary filmmaker, Ji is now on the run and determined to find his former friend turned mortal enemy before the authorities catch up with him whilst also trying to work out what to do with his boss’ coded message.

Family, debts of honour, and bonds between men are at the centre of this fast paced thriller as Ji attempts to navigate this ever changing conspiracy torn between friends turned enemies and enemies who may become friends. His main adversary is a government agent, Min (Park Hee-Soon), whom he previously encountered during a mission in Hong Kong during which he made the decision to spare Min’s life after catching sight of a photo of his wife and son in his wallet. Min, however, is less than grateful as the failed mission greatly damaged his career prospects and so he has a personal grudge with Ji which he hopes to exorcise through arresting him. On the other side, Ji is also on the hunt for his former training buddy, Lee (Kim Sung-Kyun), whom he believes to have been responsible for the death of his own wife and child though later discovers that perhaps they have all merely been pawns in a much larger game.

The larger game appears to include worldwide arms sales by turns frustrated and conducted by North Korean agents. The conspiracy, however, is very much home grown in terms of its South Korean genesis but makes clear the complicated relationship between the two territories which is very much open to abuse by those who have access to both sides. The big bad turns out not to be the totalitarian regime with its constant purges and rigid enforcement of its political power, but the greedy and venal, power hungry petty officials of the democratic regime working in concert with big business.

Won has obviously drawn inspiration from the first Bourne film, offering several blatant homages including a long car chase referencing The Italian Job by proxy. His shaky cam aesthetic is perhaps overworked, but the fight scenes are undoubtedly impressive, anchored by the astounding performance of unlikely action star Gong Yoo – hitherto known as a sensitive leading man and frequent romantic lead. Having piled on the pounds, Gong is a credible vengeful presence apparently providing many of his own stunts including a strangely overblown sequence which sees him rock climbing bare chested only to emerge panting and glistening next to the flapping North Korean flag. Nevertheless, his near silent performance is a masterclass of physical acting, adding a much needed emotional dimension to the otherwise straightforward script which leaves little time for character development in between its admittedly impressive set pieces. Overlong yet moving at a rip roaring pace, The Suspect is a surprisingly well photographed action fest which manages to add a degree of pathos to its closing scenes even if failing to completely earn it whilst engaging in a series of subtle political allegories.


International trailer (English subtitles)