The Spy Gone North (공작, Yoon Jong-bin, 2018)

Spy gone north posterSome might say the first lesson of spying is not too ask too many questions. The hero of Yoon Jong-bin’s Spy Gone North (공작, Gongjak) may wish he’d heeded this advice as his ongoing mission to gain access to North Korea’s nuclear secrets by way of an unlikely advertising scheme sets him on a dark path towards the realisation that he might not be working for the good guys after all. In geopolitical terms, an enemy is sometimes more helpful than a friend – especially if your “enemy” is working on the same system and can be relied upon to play along when the occasion calls.

By the early ‘90s, South Korea has emerged from a lengthy period of military dictatorships into a fledgling democracy. Tensions with the North are running high as the nation has announced an intention to withdraw with from the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty on grounds of national security. Fearing that the North has already successfully developed nuclear weapons, the South decides to ramp up intelligence gathering activity which is where “Black Venus” comes in. Shedding his old identity by appearing to lose himself in drink and gambling, intelligence officer Park Suk-young (Hwang Jung-min) poses as a sleazy businessman with the intention of gaining access to the North Korean elite through their external trade commission operating out of Beijing.

Improbable though it seems, Park manages to engineer a genuine friendship with the cold and austere North Korean trade official Ri Myong-un (Lee Sung-min) with whom he eventually shares unexpected common ground. Strapped for cash after the South sets them up by getting them in hock to China over a mislabelled walnut scandal, the North needs money fast, which is why they’re prepared to talk to someone as shady as Park’s cover. Park sells them an unlikely solution which runs contrary to their core philosophies in exploiting the exoticism of the forgotten North to sell capitalistic decadence in the South through selling licenses to shoot commercials on North Korean soil (which also allows him to travel about the country with a camera), but he doesn’t quite see the added value of his mission even while almost forgetting about the need to get close to the site of the supposed nuclear research facility.

While Park finds himself an “honoured guest” of the Dear Leader (Gi Ju-bong) whose presence evokes both fear and awe, he is also faced with a pressing political crisis at home as the nation prepares for an upcoming presidential collection. Despite the democratic revolution, the same party has been in power for the last 30 years and the recent swing towards the liberal opposition party has many running scared, especially as taking a softer line towards the North is a prominent manifesto pledge – alongside a reform of the security services, which is obviously distressing news for Park’s bosses. In order to maintain the sense of fear which keeps the right-wingers in power, the security services have been secretly communicating with the North and bribing them to create disturbances at politically advantageous times to manipulate the outcome of elections. Park is not exactly a liberal, but he has to admit this is not a good look and if you’re just going to parrot the “for the people” line perhaps you’re not much better than the thing you claim to hate.

Meanwhile, Park is also witness to a side of North Korea outsiders don’t generally see filled with the starving and the destitute. Loyalists all, there are those among the North Korean elite who want to see conditions improve and worry that thanks to the intense stranglehold of the ruling regime they never will. As in everything, business interests trump all. Park and Ri are fighting for the same thing, aware their fledging enterprise is a subterfuge but also that it’s a huge and dangerous first step towards a happier future. After 40 years of mutual manipulations, however, not everyone is keen on abandoning the status quo especially as the two nations have developed an intensely symbiotic relationship founded on mutual demonisation and a friendly willingness to conspire in ensuring the survival of a useful evil. Still, the strangely fraternal relationship between Park and Ri – two fiercely patriotic men from opposing sides who each identify goodness in the other becomes the heart of the film, holding out hope for empathy and compromise when most prefer enmity and chaos.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Bungee Jumping of Their Own (번지점프를 하다, Kim Dae-seung, 2001)

Bungee Jumping on theie own posterLove is a continuous stream, according to the debut film of Kim Dae-seung, Bungee Jumping of Their Own (번지점프를 하다, Bungee Jump Hada). The title may sound whimsical, but it’s less the physical act of fall and rebound we’re talking about here than a spiritual bounce, souls which spring from one body to another and eventually find their way home. Kim presents eternity as one great confluence and love as an enduring bond which survives not only death and time but transcends existence itself. Love is a spiritual cause, but, as the rather muddy philosophy goes on to suggest, perhaps not so free of social mores as it would like to believe itself to be.

In 1983 university student In-woo (Lee Byung-hun) meets the love of his life, Tae-hee (Lee Eun-ju), as she steals a place under his umbrella during a violent rainstorm. Shy and introverted, In-woo waits at the bus stop where Tae-hee abruptly left him hoping to see her again, finally encountering her by chance on his university campus. Despite his diffidence, the pair eventually become a couple and are very happy together but In-woo will shortly have to leave for his military service. He asks Tae-hee to meet him at the station, waiting once again only to be left alone on the platform as the trains fly by.

Flashforward 17 years to the start of a new millennium and In-woo is now a slick, confident man entering middle-age, married to someone else and with a small daughter of his own. He teaches high school and is the kind of inspirational teacher many dream of being, well-respected by his students for his patience and faith as he remains committed to stand up for them no matter what. In-woo might have thought he’d put the memory of Tae-hee to the back of his mind to go on living, but a strange young man, Hyun-bin (Yeo Hyeon-soo), begins to reawaken in him the buried memory of his first love. Seeing echoes of Tae-hee in the young male student, In-woo finds himself facing several different kinds of social and internal pressures to which he had previously given little thought.

Arriving in 2001, Bungee Jumping of Their Own is (sadly) one of the first “mainstream” films to touch on the theme of homosexuality, only the film itself is quite determined to negate any kind of homosexual reading into its central love affair – it is, after all, not “Hyun-bin” that In-woo is falling in love with, but the reincarnated soul of Tae-hee, which is to say a “female” soul and not a male one. Though Kim’s metaphor of existence as a great river through which love endures across time and societies ought to make gender and the physical body an irrelevance, same-sex love is relegated to an inappropriate absurdity. In a playful conversation about reincarnation in which In-woo and Tae-hee pledge their love to one another, In-woo jokingly asks what would happen if he were too were reincarnated as a girl, to which Tae-hee replies that they’d just have to wait for the next reincarnation. Despite the endurance of their love, it is apparently not viable outside of a traditional male/female pairing and any other iteration is tragedy to which the only solution is suicide and the hope for a quick reincarnation to find each other again in more socially appropriate forms.

Nevertheless, Kim does also do his best to criticise a still conservative society’s prejudice against homosexuality though this too has its problematic elements in unwittingly conflating two issues which ideally speaking are better not conflated. In-woo is a teacher falling in love with a boy who is not only a minor but also his student – a situation clearly inappropriate in any and all circumstances. However, the while the crusty old dinosaurs in the staffroom lament the new liberal society and fear being branded sex pests for leering at the girls, claiming it’s their own fault for “looking like that”, In-woo comes in for an especial level of vitriol targeted not at a pervy teacher but simply at a “gay” man while Hyun-bin is gradually ostracised by his friends simply for being the object of his affection and therefore tarred with the gay brush.

Meanwhile, the conflicted In-woo goes to see a doctor to correct his “sickness” only to be told that his responses indicate a “normal” heterosexual man with that caveat that he should also regard his interest in men as a “normal” part of life. Desperate to not to acknowledge his same-sex desire, In-woo becomes violent towards his wife in an effort to reinforce his masculinity, unwilling to discuss with her the real reasons their marriage has always been hollow – not his possible bisexuality, but that he has only ever loved Tae-hee and will only ever love Tae-hee in whichever form she appears.

In-woo makes a point of teaching his students that “different” does not mean “wrong” but it’s apparently not a lesson he’s able to internalise. Kim plays with dualities, idealises imperfect symmetries, and shows us that things which might seem “different” from one perspective are in essence the same, yet he walks back his message of acceptance to emphasise the importance of conforming to social norms rather than allowing the love between Tae-hee and In-woo to exist in the physical world in any other iteration than male/female. Nevertheless, Kim’s true intention of painting love as a continuous stream made possible by cosmic serendipity is a romantic notion difficult to resist and even if his reasoning proves occasionally hollow he has perhaps opened a door towards a greater understanding.


Bungee Jumping on Their Own was screened as part of the Rebels With a Cause series at the Korean Cultural Centre London.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Office (오피스, Hong Won-chan, 2015)

office posterThe pressure cooker society threatens to explode in Hong Won-chan’s Office (오피스). The writer of recent genre hits The Chaser and The Yellow Sea, Hong has long experience of examining those living on the edge but in his directorial debut he takes things one step further in depicting an entire society running to keep up with itself, furiously chasing its own tail with barely suppressed rage. Not so much survival of the fittest as survival of the least scrupulous, the world of Office is the one in which the mad become the most sane, escaping the constraints of corporate oppression through social revenge but taking the innocent along with them.

Salaryman Byun-guk (Bae Seong-woo) has the soulless eyes of one whose dreams have already died. Dejectedly he sits alone at a coffee shop before cramming himself into the commuter train home where he sits, silently, among his busy family. They wonder why he hasn’t changed out of his suit, shed his corporate persona for his familial one, but when Byung-guk gets up he returns brandishing a hammer which he then, as if in a trance, uses to bludgeon to death his loving wife, disabled son, and senile mother.

Byun-guk flees the scene of crime and is loose somewhere in the city. The police search his office for clues but his colleagues have already come up with their unified version of events, keeping the company out of it by claiming that they all loved Byun-guk and are shocked that he could have done something so horrifying. Meanwhile, intern Mi-rae (Go Ah-sung), who regarded Byun-guk as her only friend in the office, is upset but perhaps not quite so shocked. Excluded from the interoffice cliquery, no one has thought to brief Mi-rae on the party line leaving her a prime target for police inspector Choi (Park Sung-woong).

Byun-guk and Mi-rae are two of a piece – members of the upright and hardworking lower classes who have done everything right but somehow have never been accepted by their peers. Mi-rae, an ordinary girl from Gwangju who worked to lose her accent in her teens dreaming of the high life in Seoul, is shy and mousy but works hard – harder than anyone, to prove herself worthy of Seoul’s unrealistic demands. Her colleagues, privileged, confident, and also harried, do not forgive her for this. They find her earnestness “creepy”, her desire to succeed “suspicious”. Cruelly taken down a peg or two by a colleague taking out her own frustrations on the office nobody, another tries to comfort her with some advice – don’t try so hard, you make us all look bad and we wonder what your need is hiding. Mi-rae isn’t really hiding anything save her slowly fragmenting mental state and the overwhelming need to be accepted to a club that, in truth, is not open to people like her who value their integrity and still believe deep down that working hard and being honest are the only paths to true success.

Korean society, it seems, has become a giant chain of screaming. Byun-guk has been repeatedly passed over for promotion despite being the most reliable employee in the office but his ineffectual boss is overly wedded to the shouting school of business management. Faced with results he doesn’t like, Byun-guk’s boss picks someone to shout at to make them better but offers no further guidance. Railing at the police for not doing their job as if screaming will some how provoke major results even outside of the office, the boss can’t know that police also have their own chain of screaming and Choi has his own boss already taking care of that side of things, demanding results rather than truth or justice.

The meek are taking their inheritance ahead of schedule, but their revenge is born both of societal corruption and rejection. People like Byun-guk and Mi-rae, who are quiet, honest, kind but perhaps not good with people, become the bugs in a system which simultaneously holds them up as essential cogs. Those who cannot just pretend, grease the wheels with superficial social niceties, and accepted their place in the chain of screaming in order to climb further up it are condemned to wander idly around its lower levels going quietly mad until, perhaps, the system crushes them or else collapses.


International trailer (English 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.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Robbery sequence (dialogue free)

Kilimanjaro (킬리만자로, Oh Seung-uk, 2001)

Kilimanjaro posterMt. Kilimanjaro is the world’s tallest free-standing mountain. Oh Seung-ok’s debut, Kilimanjaro (킬리만자로), is not a climbing story, at least not in that sense, but a story of a man trying to conquer his own mountain without really knowing why. Twin brothers Hae-shik and Hae-chul are mirrors of each other, a perfect mix of light and dark, but when one makes a choice to choose the darkness, it throws the other into despair and confusion. A noir-ish tale of fragmented identities and fatalistic retribution, Oh’s world of tired gangsters and impossible dreams is as icy and unforgiving as the summit of its titular mountain, offering little more than lonely deaths and eternal regrets.

Policeman Hae-shik (Park Shin-Yang) drifts in and out of consciousness, tied up in a room by his twin brother, Hae-chul, with Hae-chul’s children looking on. Hae-chul murders his family and then shoots himself all while his brother is tied up and helpless, a policeman without recourse to the law. Taken to task by his colleagues who want to know how he could have allowed any of this to happen, if not as a brother than as a cop, Hae-shik has little to offer them by way of explanation. To add insult to injury, he is also under fire for unethical/incompetent investigation, and is taken off the case. Suspended pending an inquiry, Hae-shik goes back to his hometown but is immediately mistaken for Hae-chul and attacked by gangsters Hae-chul had pissed off before he left town and killed himself. Saved by local petty gangster Thunder (Ahn Sung-Ki), Hae-shik assumes Hae-chul’s identity and slips into the life of hopeless scheming which ultimately led to his brother’s ugly, violent death.

The film’s title is, apparently, slightly ironic in referring to the film’s setting of a small fishing village in the mountainous Gangwon-do Providence, known to some as “Korea’s Kilimanjaro”. Each of the men in this small town is trapped by its ongoing inertia and continual impossibility. They want to make something of themselves but have few outlets to do so – their dream is small, owning a family restaurant, but still it eludes them and they soon turn to desperate measures in opposing a local gangster in the hope of finally improving their circumstances.

Despite the seemingly tight bond of the men in Thunder’s mini gang – a mentally scarred ex-soldier known as “The Sergeant” (Jung Eun-pyo) and nerdy religious enthusiast knows as “The Evangelical” (Choi Seon-jung) rounding out Hae-chul’s goodhearted chancer, none of them has any clue that Hae-shik is not Hae-chul, or that Hae-chul and his family are dead. No one, except perhaps Thunder, is very happy to see him but even so Hae-shik quickly “reassumes” his place at Thunder’s side and takes over Hae-chul’s role in the gang’s scheming.

Hae-shik and Hae-chul had formed a perfect whole of contradictory qualities, each with their own degrees of light and darkness. Hae-chul had been the “good” brother who worked hard at home taking care of his parents while Hae-shik headed to university and a career in the city, never having visited his hometown since (in fact, no one seems to know or has already forgotten that Hae-chul even had a twin brother). Hae-shik’s “goodness” might be observed in his career as a law enforcer, but he’s clearly not among the list of model officers, and his home life also seems to be a failure. Hae-chul’s family might also have failed, and his shift to a life of petty crime provides its own darkness but living in this claustrophobic, impossible environment his crime is one of wanting something more than that his world ever had to offer him.

As might be expected, Thunder’s plans do not unfold as smoothly as hoped. Ineptitude and finally a mental implosion result in a near massacre costing innocent lives taken in a fury of misdirected vengeance. Despite wishing for a quiet life spent with friends on the beach, heroes die all alone, like mountain climbers lost on a snowy slope unsure whether to go up or down. Attempting to integrate his contradictions, become his brother as well as himself, Hae-shik reaches an impasse that is pure noir, finally meeting his end through a case of “mistaken identity”.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

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)