The Chaser (추격자, Na Hong-jin, 2008)

The chaser movie posterWhen it comes to law enforcement in Korea (at least in the movies), your best bet may actually be other criminals or “concerned citizens” as the police are mostly to be found napping or busy trying to cover up for a previous mistake. The Chaser (추격자, Chugyeogja) continues this grand tradition in taking inspiration from the real life serial murder crime spree of Yoo Young-chul , eventually brought to justice in 2005 after pimps came together and got suspicious enough to make contact with a friendly police officer.

Former cop turned petty pimp Joong-ho (Kim Yun-seok) has a problem. His girls keep skipping out on their debts. Or so he thinks – rousing one of his last remaining “employees”, Mi-jin (Seo Young-hee), from her sickbed (and unbeknownst to him calling her away from her seven year old daughter), Joong-ho finds a phone belonging to a missing girl and realises the last number called is the same as the one he’s about to send Mi-jin off to. Suspicious, Joong-ho rediscovers his detective skills and notices this particular number all over his books. Thinking the john is kidnapping his girls to sell them on, Joong-ho hatches a plan to track Mi-jin and have a word with this bozo but unsurprisingly nothing goes to plan. Mi-jin has fallen into the grip of a vicious serial killer, Young-min (Ha Jung-woo), but may still be alive if only Joong-ho can find her in time.

Joong-ho is not a good guy. Maybe he’s not the worst of his kind but as a former law enforcement official turned unsentimental exploiter of women, Joong-ho is an unlikely saviour. His primary motivation is, unsurprisingly, commercial as the look of concern he gives to one of his ladies encountering a dangerous client betrays, the kind of irritation a taxi driver might display on noticing a large scratch on his expensive car rather than a recognition of the pain and suffering those cuts and bruises bear witness to. He never stops to consider that something untoward has befallen the missing women and is, in one sense, relieved when he thinks they’ve been sold on rather than just skipping out on him. Throughout his quest to find Mi-jin which sees him forming an unexpected paternal bond with her young daughter, Joong-ho begins to rediscover his humanity as he’s forced to confront the similarities between himself and this deranged psycho killer.

Like his real life counterpart, Young-min, is a sexually frustrated misogynist who begins his social revenge through killing off the wealthy before moving on to the less easily missed including local prostitutes which is what ultimately proves his downfall when the various area pimps begin to connect the dots. In actuality it turns out Young-min has previously been questioned in connection with a murder but was released due to lack of evidence. Likewise, this time around the police are not very interested in capturing him and Young-min is once again returned to society due to some political concerns which result in pressure from above. As if having charmed luck with the police weren’t enough, Young-min also exploits the other cornerstone of South Korean society – the church, through which he recruits his victims, subverting their trusting religiosity with his violent perversion.

For a film which largely lives on the chase, winding through the darkened, rain drenched backstreets of downtown Seoul, Na adds in plenty of twists and turns as the case proceeds down one dingy alleyway after another. Joong-ho’s gradual reawakening as a human being rather than cold blooded human trafficker is accompanied by the gradual reveal of his counterpart’s dangerous need for validation through violence but also by the realisation of his total powerlessness in the face of such a nebulous and faceless threat. The police won’t help (perhaps if they’d investigated those parking violations a little more assiduously all of this could have been avoided), the Church is just an ironic distraction, and the politicians are busy squabbling amongst themselves. Joong-ho is an unlikely figure of salvation, but he remains the last best hope for justice so long as he can avoid becoming that which he seeks.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Handmaiden (아가씨, Park Chan-wook, 2016)

handmaiden.jpgPark Chan-wook has something of a track record when it comes to bending literary sources in unexpected ways – who else would have thought of adding vampires to Thérèse Raquin and actually managed to make it work? In The Handmaiden (아가씨, Agasshi), his first return to Korean filmmaking after Stoker’s foray into American Gothic, Park adapts Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith – a Dickensian tale of love and the multilayered con, and relocates it to 1930s Korea under Japanese rule.

Ambivalent attitudes to the Japanese is a key element exploited by a ruthless conman posing as “Count Fujiwara” (Ha Jung-woo) in order to seduce a lonely heiress. To complete his elaborate plan, he needs the help of pickpocket extraordinaire, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-Ri), whom he will install as a maid in the household so she can subtly sell the virtues of the dashing nobleman to the innocent flower trapped in a well of opulence.

On arriving at the curiously constructed mansion which is an elegant architectural mix of Korean, Japanese, and English country estate, Sook-hee is quite literally out of place in the upperclass environment a world away from her home in a den of petty of thieves doubling as a baby farm. Another thing she had not quite banked on was that her new mistress, Hideko (Kim Min-hee), would be quite so pretty. A serious spanner is thrown in the works as a mutual attraction builds up between the two women who, for reasons which become apparent, are being pulled in separate directions by other desires.

Park retains Waters’ tripartite structure even if he jettisons the final plot reveal for a less intricate tale of liberation and escape. Beginning with Sook-hee’s narrative he introduces us to the first layer of the con but also to Sook-hee and her down and dirty home in the criminal underworld. Chosen by the Count for her supposed lack of intellect and innocent naivety, Sook-hee is not quite at home among her family either. Both believing the promise that the babies they collect and sell in Japan will be going on to better lives and lamenting the cruelty of the whole business in wanting to mother the lot of them, Sook-hee is soft presence yet she also wants to prove herself as adept at criminality as her legendary, now deceased, mother.

It’s this essential warmth which eventually attracts Hideko’s attention. The much talked about tooth filing scene in which Sook-hee takes out a thimble to soften a lacerating sharpness in her mistress’ mouth is not just notable for the oddly erotic quality born of the obvious suggestive motion, unavoidable intimacy created by the closeness of bodies, and the growing desire of fleeting, furtive glances, but for its essential kindness. Moving into Hideko’s perspective for the second chapter, more is learned about her damaged past filled with cruelty and abuse. Orphaned and brought to Japan as a small child by her pornography obsessed uncle so that he might train her to entertain him with readings of erotic literature before he eventually marries her to inherit the family fortune, Hideko has never known anything as simple as unguarded goodness.

Caught up in a long con, the choice remains whether to blow cover and declare one’s hand or play the thing through to the end, however painful it may be. Park takes a different route than in the original novel which makes both of its heroines the victims of someone else’s avaricious plot of revenge against the cruelty of an unequal world, eventually reinforcing their bond by a shared rejection of their victimhood, but even when their passions eventually erupt the lovemaking begins as a another “con” where Sook-hee takes on the role of the Count, “educating” the assumedly “innocent” Hideko in the ways of desire.

Trapped within an oppressive gilded cage of a prison, Hideko has become the embodiment of desire for her cruel and eccentric uncle and the groups of men he invites to listen to her read erotic literature as if reciting a classical play. Complete with sideshows of sex dolls and theatrical scenery, Hideko is forced to act out the scenes from the books as an actress on the stage for an audience rapt in silence. Unable to escape alone, Hideko is offered new hope by Sook-hee’s straightforward outrage which allows the pair to destroy or repurpose the instruments of their oppression for their own pleasure. This is, in essence, their form of revenge in which they simply remove themselves from an abusive environment leaving the men behind to wonder at what’s gone wrong and later to destroy themselves without any additional help.

Filled with a gothic sense of impossible desires and uncertain judgements, The Handmaiden is unafraid of the genre’s melodramatic roots but is all the better for it. Beautifully photographed, this opulent world of swishing ball gowns and gloved hands is undercut by the ugliness of quisling collaborator Kouzuki and his basement of horrors. Erotically charged but ultimately driven by love, The Handmaiden is another unconventionally romantic effort from Park albeit one coloured by his characteristic sense of gothic darkness.


Reviewed at 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tunnel (터널, Kim Seong-hun, 2016)

TunnelIn 1925 an avid cave explorer, Floyd Collins, became trapped in a narrow crawl space. Though he was discovered and help came with food and water, a cave in left him sealed off down there and fourteen days later he died of thirst and exposure. As tragic as this obviously is, Floyd Collins is remembered for another reason – his rescue became one of the earliest mass media crazes. The surrounding media furore also inspired the 1951 Billy Wilder classic Ace in the Hole in which a grizzled reporter attempts to manipulate the fate of a man trapped in a cave for the maximum media coverage with the consequence that his delays cost the man his life. Jung-soo, a father on his way home with a birthday cake for his young daughter is about to join the marooned underground club when a shoddily built tunnel collapses sealing him inside. Unfortunately for Jung-soo, he finds that times have not changed all that much.

Jung-soo (Ha Jung-woo) was having a good day. He’d closed an important deal and has a birthday cake in the back of his car ready for his little girl when he gets home. He also ends up with two free bottles of water for not making a fuss when a hard of hearing old timer working at the petrol station gives him a full tank rather the $30’s worth he’d asked for. It all comes crashing down, literally, when he starts hearing strange noises shortly after entering a newly completed tunnel. Driving as fast as he can, Jung-soo is still trapped under falling debris and unable to escape though otherwise uninjured. Luckily, Jung-soo’s phone still works and he’s able to get enough signal to dial the emergency services but as he’ll discover, the matter of coming to his rescue may not be as straightforward as one might hope.

Just before Jung-soo heads into the tunnel which has only been open for around a month, there’s a sign testifying to happy and safe construction. It transpires that the tunnel was completed far too quickly, corners were cut, and public safety not properly respected. Corporate corruption and margin squeezing become a constant theme as more and more faults are discovered with the tunnel’s structure right down to missing manuals and incorrect blueprints. As one sardonic construction worker puts it, who follows the rules these days anyway? In light of recent tragedies, the government can no longer be trusted to assure public safety by insuring that its infrastructure, and the third party companies which run it, are fit for purpose and operating in line with public safety standards. The fact is that the construction of the sister tunnel to this one is already underway and there have also been hundreds of other recorded safety incidents in other facilities around the country. Construction means jobs, and money, and progress – who would want to let a little thing like safety stand in the way?

If money grabbing culture and government laissez-faire are two of the greatest evils, the third leg of the tripod is mass communications who see only the story and not the human. In fact, the first people to call Jung-soo back after his emergency call are the reporters parked in their van directly outside the tunnel’s entrance. Even Jung-soo’s wife, Se-hyun (Bae Doona), only discovers her husband’s fate from a TV displaying breaking news at a supermarket. Once she drops everything to get to him, she’s quickly trotted out for endless photo-ops with government officials and rescue workers to sell the story that the entire country is behind Jung-soo in his horrendous ordeal and working hard to get him out of there. The mouth of the tunnel is now a media circus as reporters parasitically dig in, raking up whatever kind of news they can spin for good copy. When it looks like Jung-soo may be rescued, one reporter even seems upset that he hasn’t quite broken the record set by the survivors of the Sampoong Department Store collapse in 1995 (notably also directly caused by corporate greed).

Jung-soo himself accepts his situation with a stoic calmness. Sensibly rationing out his water and battery life on his cellphone, he beds in for the long haul. Before long, the TV news has even declared him a national hero for maintaining his compassionate humanity even in the face of crisis. More resourceful than most, Jung-soo is making the best of things when all he can do is wait, hoping that the authorities will finally come to his rescue. Unfortunately the authorities he’s waiting on are largely the same ones responsible for this entire mess and aside from the valiant commander of the rescue squad Dae-kyoung (Oh Dal-su) are more interested in being able to resume construction on the sister tunnel (which involves more of the blasting that may have destabilised the tunnel in first place) and deflecting the embarrassment of this high profile infrastructure project having gone so catastrophically wrong.

Kim Seong-hun keeps the tension high as Jung-soo fights for his life by simply trying to survive long enough for someone to reach him. Genuinely fraught and claustrophic, Tunnel is not without a healthy dose of black humour lightening the mood in even the bleakest of circumstances. The political subtext is refreshingly subtle yet perfectly clear as Jung-soo finds himself literally buried underneath a national scandal and branded an inconvenient truth by those whose interests lie in maintaining the illusion of compassionate government anchored by friendly corporations. Tense, thrilling, and frightening on more than one level, Tunnel is an unexpectedly thoughtful disaster movie detailing one good man’s struggles to escape from underneath the destruction caused by pervasive social ills.


US release trailer (English subtitles)

The Yellow Sea (황해, Na Hong-Jin, 2010)

yellow sea korean posterReview of Na Hong-Jin’s The Yellow Sea (황해, Hwang Hae, AKA The Murderer) – revised form of a piece first published by UK Anime Network in March 2012.


Gu-Nam (Ha Jung-Woo) is a taxi driver with a gambling problem. If the gambling wasn’t enough to get him into trouble, he’s also in debt to some gangsters over the money for his wife’s passage to South Korea. His wife was meant to be sending the money she’d make there back to him and their daughter to help pay off the debt, but no one’s heard from her in months. The obvious assumption is that she’s made a new life for herself and doesn’t want to be found, but Gu-Nam can’t quite bring himself to believe it. As a Joseonjok – a Chinese Korean from the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Gu-Nam had little chance of living an honest and prosperous life. Disowned by both China and Korea, many Joseonjoks are forced to resort to criminality in order to survive.

Just as it seems things are about to hit a crisis point, Gu-Nam receives an interesting job opportunity. Myung-ga (Kim Yun-Seok), the dog seller at the market, suggests Gu-Nam go to South Korea, kill a prominent businessman, look for his wife and return back to China (with the businessman’s thumb for proof). Assuming all goes well, Gu-nam will receive the pin number for an account with 57,000 Yuan, maybe return with his wife in tow or at least find out once and for all what the situation is between them, and finally get these gangsters off his back.

Still, sneaking into South Korea and committing a murder – it’s a big ask, and first off Gu-Nam rejects the idea out of hand but one conversation with his decidedly tough mother later and Gu-Nam has accepted. However, when he gets to Korea he finds things aren’t as simple as Myung-Ga made out. There seems to be a much bigger game in play than Gu-nam bargained for and it’s not long before he’s running from the police, gangsters, and just about everyone else.

If there’s one thing there’s a lot of in this film, it’s running. It’s difficult to think of another film that manages to make a good old fashioned foot chase quite so exciting. The set pieces are astonishing – multi-car pile-ups, police driving into and over each other, an extended chase sequence through a cargo boat – the list goes on, all with Gu-nam running desperately towards the camera. Propelled by pure survival instinct and later an intense need for revenge and an explanation, Gu-nam keeps running no matter what is coming for him.

One of those things is, of course, Myung-ga who’s now got a total mess on his hands that’s threatening to derail all of his current business arrangements (well, except the dog selling – something to fall back on). If there’s another thing there’s a lot of in this film, it’s stabbing (and later axing). Luckily for him, it seems Myung-ga is something of an expert at this as we find out in one scene where we see him, badly wounded, enter a room full of angry gangsters – the camera cuts away and we return to find all of the gangsters seemingly dead with very little fuss. He even tries to kill someone with a lamb bone at one point! Myung-ga is certainly not someone one would want to be meeting on a dark night (or ever buy a dog from). He is though, one of the most compelling film villains of recent years.

Speaking of stabbings, The Yellow Sea is a very violent and extremely bloody film. If you’re well versed in Korean crime dramas, you might be aware that South Korea has very tight gun laws, so much so that not even the toughest gangsters carry guns. Consequently what you have here is a lot of people sneaking around trying to get the drop on each other to stick the knife (or occasionally, hatchet) in. Obviously, it’s much quieter than gunfire but also much messier and much more physical. The only guns in the film are those which belong to the police, who are largely depicted as bumbling idiots who can’t tell one end of a gun from the other.

This Bounty Films release (distributed by Eureka in the UK) is the shorter 140 minute ‘Director’s Cut’. There is, however, some controversy about whether it really is a director’s cut or an international version prepared by the film’s co-producers Fox International. For the record, it runs about sixteen minutes shorter than the version seen in Korea. Despite being the shorter version, The Yellow River does still feel a little long at times and really pushes the ideal running time for a thriller of this kind. Nevertheless it does manage to keep the momentum going throughout and even has a streak of morbid humour running right through it.

A sad meditation on the futility of life, particularly for those who find themselves at the bottom of the pile and are forced to scrap like dogs for the little other people have left behind, The Yellow Sea is an exciting addition to the recent wave of Korean crime thrillers. Following on from his impressive debut The Chaser, The Yellow Sea certainly catapults director Na Hong-jin right into the top tier of Korean cinema.


The Yellow Sea is available on DVD and blu-ray from Eureka in the UK and on DVD from 20th Century Fox in the US.