Start-Up (시동, Choi Jung-yol, 2019)

Two young men experience a failure to launch in Choi Jung-yol’s Start-Up (시동, Sidong), a much gentler coming of age tale than his 2016 feature debut One Way Trip. Like the earlier film, however, Start-Up finds its two heroes pulled in different directions while experiencing the same dilemmas, these being in the main a kind of toxic masculinity that sees them in part reject their respective maternal figures in internalised shame as sons who feel they should be but are fundamentally incapable of taking of care of them and perhaps concluding that their only familial connection must be disappointed and resentful.

We can see the boys’ sense of futility in the opening sequence in which they literally fail to kickstart a scooter that 18-year-old Taek-il (Park Jung-min), the hero, has somehow managed to buy on the internet but seems to be a dud. Eventually they wind up having an accident and being taken to the police station where Taek-il’s mother Jeong-hye (Yum Jung-ah) has to bail them out leaving even the desk officers looking quite embarrassed as she takes Taek-il to task for his irresponsibility, disappointed to learn he spent money intended for lessons to help him (belatedly) get his high school diploma on the useless scooter. He tells her he’s dropped out of school and has no interest uni, fiercely resenting her refusal to accept his decision while unwisely cutting in that she doesn’t have the money to send him anyway which earns him one of her trademark volleyball slaps. 

Taek-il’s unwise words perhaps hint at part of the reason he’s rejecting the life his mother wants for him in that he knows how much she’s suffered and sacrificed on his behalf and doesn’t want to add to her burden by encouraging her to overwork herself to pay for college when he doesn’t think he’s worth it anyway. Of course, he can’t say any of this to her, and she can’t tell him she only wants the best for him, so they alternate between silence and blazing rows with Taek-il retreating into peaceful visions of life on a desert island when everything gets too hard. Wanting to prove himself independent, he ends up running away but doesn’t have money to get very far so ends up working in a Chinese noodle restaurant in provincial Gun-san. 

His friend Sang-pil (Jung Hae-in), meanwhile, is an orphan living with his elderly grandmother (Go Doo-shim) who appears to be suffering from dementia and has been supporting the pair of them by peeling chestnuts. Like Taek-il, Sang-Pil desperately wants to be able to take care of his grandmother and make her life as easy as possible but is largely out of options which might be why he lets a shady friend, Dong-hwa (Yoon Kyung-ho), introduce him to his “company” which turns out to be a local loansharking gang for which Dong-hwa is an enforcer and debt collector. Sang-pil tells Taek-il that he’s got a job “in finance”, and though he’s conflicted enjoys the sense of self worth he gains as a working man earning money to look after grandma. He is too naive to realise that the first family they visit is aggressively nice to Dong-hwa because he’s probably been less than nice to them in the past, coming away with the mistaken idea that the job’s not so bad and people are grateful for the “service” they’re providing. 

A repeated gag sees both boys getting repeatedly beaten up, literally struck down every time they attempt to move forward. Taek-il finds himself punched in the stomach by an amateur boxer with problems of her own and thereafter knocked around by the eccentric chef at the Chinese restaurant (Ma Dong-seok), while Sang-pil is finally awakened to the dark side of his new job when he’s thrown through a glass doorway by a drunken client very clearly at the end of his tether. The answer is less fighting back than it is standing together and up for oneself as the boys begin to make mutual decisions about the future directions of their lives and the kind of men they’d like to be even if they still don’t quite know where they’re going. 

Start-Up’s genesis as an online webmanga might help to explain its myriad unresolved plot strands including the backstory of the mysterious boxing high school girl (Choi Sung-eun) who appears to have lost or become estranged from her family but ends up becoming the surrogate daughter of the kindly man who owns the Chinese restaurant (Kim Jong-Soo) which seems to be a haven for lost people of all ages looking for a place to call home, while Jeong-hye’s past success as a volleyball star is resolved as little more than an awkward punchline and her desire to start her own business which she is then swindled out of presented as something done solely for her son rather than for herself. The difficult economic circumstances of contemporary South Korea are certainly a factor in the boys’ malaise and general sense of hopelessness but it’s less Hell Joseon that’s trapping them than a complex web of familial love and resentment coupled with their desire as a young men to feel in control of their own lives rather than being constrained by parental expectation. “You should decide where to go first” Taek-il is repeatedly told, but when it comes right down to it the most important thing is figuring out how to start the engine, everything else you can figure out later.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Family Ties (가족의 탄생, Kim Tae-yong, 2006)

What is it that binds a “family”, bonds or blood, and do you really have a choice when it comes to being in one? Those are all questions which might have greater import in societies in which the concept of family is clearly defined and deeply entrenched, but even so the answers may be in a state of flux in the face of rapid social change which perhaps dangles the possibilities of greater personal freedom while in other ways remaining rigidly conservative. 

More literally translated as the birth of a family, Kim Tae-yong’s Family Ties (가족의 탄생, Gajokeui tansaeng) explores these changing connections through three interconnected stories, the first two occurring roughly contemporaneously and the third around a decade later. The heroine of the opening chapter, Mira (Moon So-ri), is a reserved young woman running a small cafe mostly catering to noisy teens. Originally excited to receive a phone call from her younger brother Hyung-chul (Uhm Tae-woong) whom she hasn’t seen for five years letting her know he’ll be coming home for a visit, Mira’s enthusiasm for the reunion dwindles when he turns up with a new wife, Mu-shin (Go Doo-shim), who appears to be much older than him. Mira is understandably put out. Firstly, he obviously didn’t invite her to his wedding, in fact he didn’t even bother to share the news he’d got married, and secondly it’s quite inconsiderate not to have warned her there would be an extra guest in tow especially as they’ve not met before. 

On the other hand, perhaps seeing him again merely reminds her of all the reasons they haven’t stayed in touch. In a quiet moment, Hyung-chul reveals he wants to open a shop selling traditional hanbok nearby, which is a surprise, but Mira instantly realises he’s probably come for money and repeatedly tells him she doesn’t have any. When everyone’s asleep, she makes a point of putting her bank book in a locked box inside the safe just to be sure he won’t abscond with it in the night. With Hyung-chul picking a fight with her fiancé and a random child turning up who turns out to be Mu-shin’s unwanted stepdaughter from several relationships ago, Mira’s patience begins to come to an end. She suggests that perhaps they’ve outstayed their welcome, but then evidently thinks better of it only to be let down once again by her irresponsible brother who claims he can take care of everyone, but predictably does not follow through. 

Family becomes a burden left to women to bear while acting as a safety net for men who view their role as protector yet largely can’t look after themselves. Sun-kyung (Gong Hyo-jin), the slightly younger protagonist of the second story, is frustrated by this same self sacrificing quality in her mother who has been continually deceived by useless lovers all her life including the most recent, a married man who won’t leave his wife and children. She also resents the presence of her much younger brother, still an elementary student doted on by the mother from whom she feels increasingly disconnected. Having run away from home to become a singer, Sun-kyung now has her sights set only on escaping abroad and is currently working as a guide for Japanese tourists only to end up bumping into her ex-boyfriend on a day out with his new partner. For her family is little more than a trap, her boyfriend apparently breaking up with her for being too selfish while she eventually pays a visit to the home of her mother’s lover to confront him and ask if “love” is really worth the price of sneaking around living a lie. Yet bonding with her brother and discovering what was in the mysterious suitcase her mother insisted on leaving at her apartment perhaps reconnects her with her childhood self and a more positive take on family bonds, even if that means in a sense regaining one dream only to abandon another. 

In any case, the anxieties of the first two sequences are visited in the third through the story of a young couple we first meet sitting next to each other on a train. So familiar with each other are they that we assume they are already involved, but they are in fact strangers meeting for the first time. Flashing forward a little, however, we can see their relationship is strained. Kyung-seok (Bong Tae-gyu), the young man, has inherited a sense of male insecurity, flying into jealous rages ostensibly because his girlfriend Chae-hyeon (Jung Yu-mi), is simply too nice or more to the point she’s nice to everyone and not just to him. He is frustrated by her because he feels she allows herself to be taken advantage of, often lending money to people who won’t see the need to pay her back because she’s too “nice” to bring it up. The last straw comes when he feels she’s embarrassed him by not showing up for a family dinner because she got involved in the search for a missing child. 

“When I’m with you I’m dying of loneliness” he somewhat dramatically announces as part of a breakup speech, annoyed that Chae-hyeon does not devote herself entirely to him as perhaps he expects a woman to do, but defiantly carries on being indiscriminately nice to everyone. He describes his mother as “pathetic” for having been overly attached to unreliable men, only to be corrected by his sister who reminds him that she merely had a big heart, something he’s perhaps lacking in his broody neediness. Yet through meeting Chae-hyeon’s family we get a sense of something different and new in which two women have raised a child unrelated to them by blood who came into their lives by chance as the result of a man’s irresponsible behaviour, an unnecessary throwaway reference to separate bedrooms perhaps undermining the boldly progressive introduction of Chae-hyeon’s two mothers to the extremely confused Kyung-seok. Nevertheless what we see in this last family, born as it was through a series of accidental meetings, is the first instance of a warm and loving home built on mutual support and affection rather than simply on blood or obligation. Having reclaimed the nature of family for themselves perhaps gives the women the courage and conviction to firmly close the door on those who might seek to misuse or corrupt it with their own sense of selfish entitlement, blood relation or not. 


Family Ties streamed as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

EXIT (엑시트, Lee Sang-geun, 2019)

Exit poster 2“Hell Joseon” manifests as “toxic gas” in Lee Sang-geun’s Exit (엑시트). Millennial “slackers” losing out in Korea’s increasingly cutthroat economy find themselves consumed by their own sense of failure while those around them only compound the problem by branding them useless, no-good layabouts, writing off the current generation as lazy rather than acknowledging that the society they have created is often cruel and unforgiving. Yet, oftentimes those “useless” skills learned while having fun are more transferable than one might think and the ability to find innovative solutions to complex problems something not often found in the world of hierarchical corporate drudgery.

30-something Yong-nam (Jo Jung-suk) spends his days in the park surrounded by grannies and has earned the nickname “IBM” – Iron Bar Man, for his athletic pursuits. The local kids have even come up with an origin story for him that his girlfriend must have died after falling off one and so now Yong-nam is some kind of “village idiot” with an overwhelming need to master the monkey bars. The truth is, however, that Yong-nam has nothing much of anything else in his life. His continual failures to find employment are an embarrassment to his family, and even his little nephew (Kim Kang-hoon) is so ashamed of him that he routinely blanks Young-nam in the street. With mum’s (Go Doo-shim) 70th coming up, everyone is very keen that Yong-nam look the part and try not to embarrass them.

Yong-nam is also quite invested in not being an embarrassment because the only reason he booked this fancy restaurant that’s a two hour drive away is that he’s heard his university crush Eui-ju (Im Yoon-ah) works there. Back in uni when they were both members of the rock climbing club, Yong-nam asked Eui-ju out but she was only interested in friendship so he started avoiding her out of embarrassment. Not really any more mature, he lies that he’s a high flying hedge fund manager rather than admit that his life has not been going well. Eui-ju, meanwhile, is the vice-manager of this events centre but shrugs the job off as not much better than part-time when in reality she’s really running the place while her sleazy boss (Kang Ki-young) who’s only in the position because it’s his dad’s company constantly sexually harasses her and shows no signs of taking no for an answer.

When toxic gas floods the city, however, the pair are instantly in their element. They know how to conjure makeshift stretchers from stuff that’s lying around and how to try and draw attention to yourself when you’re in need of rescue, but find their ideas dismissed by Yong-nam’s confused, conventional family members well used to ignoring crazy uncle Yong-nam. To survive they’ll have to trust him and his rock climbing prowess as he shins his way to the top of the building where salvation seems more of a possibility.

Crisis aside, Yong-nam lives in a world of constant anxiety where he’s forever receiving disaster alerts on his phone for things he never thought he’d have to worry about, and his mother spends her evenings diligently copying down ways to prevent cancer from TV documentaries. Yong-nam’s dad (Park In-hwan) would rather chill out with some soap operas, but it seems you can’t drown out existential dread with vicarious drama. Having more or less given up, Young-nam hasn’t even been going to his climbing club. After all, if you can’t get a foot on the ladder, what use is the ability to climb? “Our lives are the disaster” Yong-nam’s similarly troubled friend exclaims, but the sudden threat of toxic gas does at least give the dejected young man motivation to prove himself in demonstrating that his skills are useful, even essential, rather than frivolous or eccentric as his family members previously believed them to be.

Eui-ju, meanwhile, is kept in her place by a combination of sexism and the demands of a hierarchical society which prevent her from fulfilling her true potential by convincing her that she has to be polite to her odious boss. Teaming up with Young-nam, the pair work as equals and support each other as they try to find ways to survive. No damsel in distress, Eui-ju is finally able to take an active role in her own destiny while also making sure to save other people along the way, often at the expense of the pair’s own chance to escape.

In a loose moment, Yong-nam declares that he’s only applying for jobs in one of the shiny skyscrapers from now on because those guys probably got saved first, but in the end it’s their plucky never say die spirit which saves them, in more ways than one, as their exploits go viral with their millennial brethren who eventually motivate the drone squad to try and keep them safe. There may be no exit from Hell Joseon, but as Yong-nam and Eui-ju discover, you don’t have to listen when people tell you there’s no way out because the only way is up and you won’t know unless you go.


EXIT was screened as the opening night gala of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)