What a Man Wants (바람 바람 바람, Lee Byeong-heon, 2018)

What a man Wants posterMarriage, eh? Bit of a rollercoaster. Lee Byeong-heon’s sex farce What a Man Wants (바람 바람 바람, Baram Baram Baram) takes two ordinary couples and exposes the various hypocrisies which underpin their existences as they battle boredom and excitement in turn before finally figuring out exactly which relationship(s) they would ideally like to be in full time. The sexual politics are distinctly old fashioned, as is the male fantasy wish fulfilment at the film’s centre, but Lee chooses wryness over cynicism in asking if a little infidelity here and there might actually strengthen an otherwise shaky connection.

Seok-guen (Lee Sung-min) used to design rollercoasters all over the world, but now he drives a taxi on Jeju and gets his kicks “picking up” fares. That’s not to say he doesn’t love his wife, the patient Dam-deok (Jang Young-Nam), but he enjoys the thrill of the chase and favours instant gratification over the patient pleasures of married life. Seok-guen is often aided and abetted in his assignations by his straight laced brother-in-law, Bong-soo (Shin Ha-kyun), who is married to Seuk-guen’s forthright sister, Mi-young (Song Ji-hyo). Bong-soo doesn’t really approve of Seok-guen’s carrying on and doesn’t see the appeal of extra-marital affairs, but realises he has little choice other than to help Seok-guen out or risk his family life imploding. The couples live next-door to one another and are extremely close.

The trouble starts when Seok-guen tries to pick up the alluring Jenny (Lee El) at a pool bar. Bong-soo, not normally smitten, is seemingly hit by a lightening bolt and finds himself suddenly fantasising about another woman. Seok-guen had long been urging Bong-soo to have an affair (which is odd seeing as Bong-soo is married to his little sister), but he probably hadn’t envisaged him stealing Jenny out from under him. Flattered when Jenny starts paying him attention, Bong-soo succumbs only to make a rookie mistake of going home with her panties in his jacket pocket. Bong-soo takes revenge for years of being an alibi and blames the whole thing on Seok-guen who is mock thrown out by Dam-deok though she only really means to teach him a lesson rather than get rid of him for good.

The problem with Jenny is she’s not really real. She’s an embodiment of a male fantasy that might as well have been conjured up by the otherwise dull Bong-soo. With her sexy outfits, self consciously cute way of speaking, and frankly unbelievable interest in a boring failed restaurateur you really have to wonder if she’s not some kind of spy or a master criminal lining up a mark (except that neither Seok-guen or Bong-soo have any money). Sadly, no. She’s just the archetypal sexpot ripped straight from a ‘70s farce with little more to her character than sauciness with a side order of harlotry, despite the valiant efforts of actress Lee El who attempts to imbue her later emotional scenes with depth and sincerity to make up for her underwritten role. Jenny repeatedly claims to know what men “want” and then gives it to them, like some sort of temptress from a folktale, never allowed to express what it is she might “want” but only ever hanging around to be “won” by one of the two guys.

Bong-soo and Seok-guen undergo a role reversal when an unexpected tragedy forces Seok-gun to reassess his philandering ways while Bong-soo becomes a practiced adulterer. The marriage of Mi-young and Bong-soo is already on shaky ground – their sex life is all but dead and they’ve been having trouble conceiving. Mi-young is addicted to social media while Bong-soo spends his spare time building LEGO models, and in addition to being marital partners they also co-own an “Italian” restaurant which Bong-soo has long wanted to turn into a Chinese one (he trained as a Chinese chef) but Mi-young continually ignores his dream despite the fact that the restaurant is permanently empty and about to go bankrupt. Partly mid-life crisis, Bong-soo’s affair is motivated by a need to reassert his “manhood” while Jenny flatters him, strokes his ego, and does all the “wifely” things the “bossy” Mi-young refuses to do.

Yet just as Seok-guen said they would, Bong-soo’s fortunes improve thanks his to philandering – he becomes a better chef, the business takes off, and Mi-young (paradoxically) seems to develop more faith him as well as additional respect for his increasing “manliness”. Both men, through their interactions with the almost non-existent Jenny, are then forced to consider what, or who, it is they really want though Lee’s message seems to be that there are “secrets” in every marriage and perhaps it’s better not to ask too many questions if you want to maintain a happy married life. Cynical, though gleefully so, What a Man Wants is a salty affair but one which ultimately places its faith in “love” to find its way home despite the messiness of the journey.


What a Man Wants was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Midnight Runners (청년경찰, Kim Joo-hwan, 2017)

b861faaff73e4760fa673b9ca1b1468dffb7a334b9e43caee1065e675364da586d07306fe12f0a8d2f3556ef798dde699b6f2adc283c1ae8d9b53a8d85745de393ee015725bff3c47298edfb94e7f49fThere are many good reasons for applying to Police University, even if many people can’t see them. That aside, the heroes of Kim Joo-hwan’s Midnight Runners (청년경찰, Chungnyeongyungchal) have ended up there not through any particular love of honour and justice, but simply because it was cheap, on the one hand, and because it was different, on the other. An ‘80s-style buddy (not quite) cop comedy, Kim’s followup to the indie leaning Koala is the story of two young men finding their calling once their latent heroism is sparked by witnessing injustice first hand, but it’s also careful to temper its otherwise crowd pleasing narrative of two rookies taking on evil human trafficking gangsters with a dose of background realism.

Rookie recruits to Seoul’s Police University, Gi-jun (Park Seo-joon) and Hee-yeol (Kang Ha-neul) could not be more different. Gi-jun is exasperated by his worried mother’s words of parting, but hugs her goodbye anyway. Hee-yeol’s dad looks on in envy at this touching scene, but asking if he should hug his son too gets a resounding “no” before Hee-yeol begins to walk away, turning back to remind his father to button his coat because it’s cold outside. Gi-jun doesn’t want to get his hair cut because he’s fashion conscious, whereas Hee-yeol doesn’t want his cut because they don’t sterilise the clippers and he doesn’t want to catch a bacterial skin infection. Nevertheless, the pair eventually bond first during lunch as Hee-yeol surrenders his “carcinogenic” sausages to the always hungry Gi-jun, and then when Hee-yeol sprains his ankle during the final endurance test and Gi-jun (eventually) agrees to carry him to the finish line. Not for the first time, Gi-jun’s “selfless” actions to help a person in need earn the pair a few words of praise from their commander who berates the others for running past an injured comrade and thinking only of themselves when the very point of a police officer is to help those in need.

A year a later the pair are firm friends and decide to take a night on the town to find themselves some girlfriends to spend Christmas with. Sadly, they do not find any but they do find crime when they spot a pretty girl in the street and then spend ages arguing about asking for her number only to see her being clubbed over the head and bundled into a black van. Slightly drunk, the boys panic, chase the van, and ring the police but are told to stay put and wait for a patrol car. They figure they can get to the police station faster than a car can get to them but once they do they realise the entire station is being pulled away on another high profile case and no one’s coming. They do what it is they’ve been trained to do, investigate – but what they discover is much darker than anything they’d imagined.

Police in Korean cinema often have a bad rap. It’s nigh on impossible to think of any examples of heroic police officers who both start and finish as unblemished upholders of justice. Midnight Runners, however, attempts to paint a rosier picture of the police force, prompting some to describe it almost as a propagandistic recruiting tool. It helps that Gi-jun and Hee-yeol are still students which means that the idealistic line they’re being fed goes mostly unchallenged (at least until the climactic events prompt them to think again), but there are certainly no beatings, no shady dealings with the underworld, or compromised loyalties in the boys’ innocent quest to rescue a damsel in distress.

The spectre of corruption hovers in the background but on a national, rather than personal, level as the news constantly reports on the kidnapping of a wealthy CEO’s child while a young woman from a troubled background has also gone missing but no one, not even the police who have devoted all their resources to the CEO’s case, is interested. Meanwhile, Gi-jun and Hee-yeol, having just escaped from certain death, attempt to get help from a nearby police box but the shocked jobsworth of a duty officer won’t help them because they don’t have their IDs. The boys’ outrage on being informed that despite all their efforts, the specialist team who handle cases like these won’t even be able to look at it for weeks is instantly understandable, but so is their professor’s kindly rationale that all lives are equal and the squad can’t be expected to dump their current caseload and swap one set of victims for another. The police, so it goes, are heroes caged by increasing bureaucracy which has made them forget the reasons they became policemen in the first place. 

Despite the grim turn the film takes after Gi-jun and Hee-yeol make a shocking discovery as a result of their investigation, Kim keeps things light thanks the boys’ easy, symbiotic relationship filled with private jokes and even a cute secret handshake. Jokey slapstick eventually gives way to hard-hitting action as the rookie officers finally get to try out some of their training and find it effective on entry level street punks, but less so on seasoned brawlers with mean looks in their eyes. Told to “leave things to the grown ups”, Gi-jun and Hee-yeol decide there are things which must be done even it is dangerous and irresponsible because no one else is going to do them (whether that be eating sausages or rescuing young women no one else seems to care about). A strange yet fitting place to make the case for a better, less selfish world, Midnight Runners is a buddy cop throwback which brings the best of the genre’s capacity for humour and action right back with it.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original trailer (English subtitles – select from menu)

The Age of Shadows (밀정, Kim Jee-woon, 2016)

age-of-shadowsWhen the country of your birth has been occupied by another nation, what do you do? Do you fight back, insist on your independence and expel the tyrants, or quickly bow to your new overlords and resign yourself to no longer being what you once were? Kim Jee-woon becomes the latest director to take a look at Korea’s colonial past with the Resistance based thriller Age of Shadows (밀정, Miljung) which owes more than a little to Melville’s similarly titled Army of Shadows, as well as classic cold war spy dramas The Third Man and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

The film opens with an impressive set piece in which two Resistance members, Jang-ok (Park Hee-soon), and Joo (Seo Young-joo) are betrayed whilst trying to sell a Buddhist statue. Joo is captured but Jang-ok makes a run for it as what looks like the entire Japanese garrison of Seoul chases him, running gallantly over the picturesque Korean rooftops. Cornered, Jang-ok is confronted by Korean born Japanese policeman Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho), once a Resistance member himself and a former comrade in arms of Jang-ok. This is the point Jung-chool’s carefully crafted collaboration beings to fracture – his friend, rather than allow himelf to be captured, shouts “Long Live Korea” and blows his own brains out.

His mission a failure, Jung-chool is then moved onto the next investigation which aims to dig out the Resistance top brass in the city. Jung-chool’s Japanese boss Higashi (Shingo Tsurumi) wants him to infiltrate the cell headed by antique dealer and photographer Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) in the hope that it will lead them to head honcho, Jung (Lee Byung-hun). However, Higashi also saddles him with a very young but high ranking Japanese official, Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo), to “help” him bring in Woo-jin.

In Jung-chool’s final conversation with Jang-ok, his friend berates him for the decision to turn traitor and work for the Japanese rather than against them. Jung-chool asks him if he thinks independence is a credible aim, implying he’s long since given up believing in the idea of the Japanese ever being overthrown. Jang-ok evidently believed in it enough to sacrifice his own life, but other comrades have also abanoned the cause and actively betrayed the movement in much more serious ways than Jung-chool’s pragmatic side swapping.

Even if Jung-chool has decided that if you can’t beat the Japanese you may as well join them, he’s coming to the realisation that his superiors, even if they’ve previously treated him warmly, will never regard him as equal to the Japanese personnel. Hashimoto’s sudden arrival undercuts Jung-Chool’s career progress and reminds him that he serves a very distinct purpose which may soon run out of currency. Higashi, having seduced Jung-chool with promises of a comfortable life and praise for his skills, does not trust his Korean underling enough to send him out on his own. This personal wound may do more to send him reeling back to the other side than anything else, especially as his “replacement” Hashimoto is a crazy eyed psychopath who has half a mind to burn the entire city just to be sure of getting his man.

A man who’s been turned once can be turned again and so mastermind Jung decides to prod Jung-chool in the hope that he’ll become an asset rather than a threat. As he puts it, what’s more frightening than feeling your heart move and Jung-chool’s certainty has already been shaken. Song Kang-ho perfectly inhabits Jung-chool’s conflicted soul as his old patriotic feelings start to surface just as he begins to truly see his masters for what they are. Always keeping his intentions unclear, Jung-chool is the ideal double agent, playing both sides or maybe neither with no clear affiliation.

Like Army of Shadows, the final nail in the coffin is delivered by a sentimental photograph. In this chaotic world of betrayals and counter betrayals, there can be no room for love or compassion other than loyalty to one’s comrades and to the movement. Yet against the odds Woo-jin comes to trust Jung-chool implicitly, certain that he will finally choose the side of freedom rather than that of the oppressor. The relationship between the two men provides the only real moments of comic relief, though others members of the group are less well defined including an underwritten part for Woo-jin’s Chinese love interest (Han Ji-min) who isn’t permitted to do very much other than model some elegant twenties outfits.

Maintaining tension throughout, Kim intersperses psychological drama as betrayal piles on betrayal, with intense action sequences including a particularly claustrophobic train based game of hide and seek. Inspired by real historical events, Kim does not claim any level of authenticity but sets out to tell the story of the double dealing inside a man’s heart as he weighs up duty and self interest and asks himself how far he’s willing to go for the sake of either. The age of “shadows” indeed, these are hollow men whose identities have been eroded, living only for today but in certainty of the bright tomorrow. Kim’s examination of this turbulent period is both a big budget prestige picture with striking production values, and a tense, noir-inflected thriller in the mould of Melville, but also a nuanced human drama unafraid to ask the difficult questions which lie at the heart of every spy story.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)