The Scarlet Letter (주홍글씨, Byeon Hyeok, 2004)

The Scarlet Letter posterSouth Korea has long had a reputation for being among the most conservative of East Asian nations, perhaps because of a strong Christianising influence, but even so the fact that adultery was only fully decriminalised in 2015 is something of a surprise. Ironically enough the legislation was enacted in the defence of women who enjoyed few legal rights and would be left destitute if their husbands left them, suffering not only the humiliation and social stigma of divorce but also having no independent income and very little possibility of gaining one. Nevertheless it quickly became another tool of social control, branding “harlots” rather than protecting “wives”. Byeon Hyeok’s The Scarlet Letter (주홍글씨, Juhong Geulshi) was released in 2004, which is a whole decade before adultery was removed from the statue books, and draws inspiration from the book of the same name by Nathaniel Hawthorne in which a young woman becomes a social outcast after giving birth to an illegitimate child.

Cocksure policeman Ki-hoon (Han Suk-kyu) lives in a world of his own dominion. Married to the elegant concert cellist Su-hyun (Uhm Ji-won), Ki-hoon is also carrying on an affair with the bohemian nightclub singer Ga-hee (Lee Eun-ju). One fateful day he is called to the scene of a bloody murder. The owner of a photographer’s studio has been found with half his head caved in and the prime suspect is his wife, Kyung-hee (Sung Hyun-ah), who found the body. Once she’s had some time to recover from the shock, Kyung-hee offers up some possible evidence regarding a local photographer who may have been semi-stalking her – something which had caused tension between herself and her husband. The photographer claims Kyung-hee asked him to take the photos, and others besides, but denies he was romantically interested in her or that the couple had been having an affair.

The murder case floats in the background as Ki-hoon’s personal life spirals ever more out of control. Both Su-hyun and Ga-hee are pregnant with his child and it seems inevitable the affair will be exposed. Ki-hoon fears this not out of guilt in causing emotional harm to one or both of his women, but out of a sense that it will be very annoying, inconvenient, and burdensome for him. When his wife does eventually confront him about the affair, Ki-hoon’s response is to ignore it and carry on as normal by acting excited about the baby as if to remind Su-hyun that she is already tied to him and it will be almost impossible for her to leave. Meanwhile, he refuses to give up Ga-hee whose mental state seems to be fracturing under the intense pressure of her need for Ki-hoon and his continuing disregard for the feelings of others.

Ki-hoon is a classic noir hero, wading into a morass of moral ambiguity and hurtling headlong towards an existential reckoning. A late, yet fantastically obvious, twist offers another perspective which the film has no time to expand on so caught up is it in the moral ruining of Ki-hoon in suggesting that oppressive social codes have in some way contributed to this intense situation, forcing three people into an uncomfortable love triangle where everyone has ended up with the wrong partner. Byeon does, however, choose to emphasise “morality” in lending a spiritual slant to Ki-hoon’s fall rather than choosing to attack the social oppression of Korea’s intensely conservative culture in which all the power was in Ki-hoon’s hands (even if he uses it to ruin himself, later left in a state of spiritual emptiness filled only with guilt and shame).

The reckoning comes in a literal evocation of Ki-hoon’s claustrophobic love life in which he finds himself trapped in an inescapable black hole, waiting to find out if he will be released or condemned to suffer an eternity of pain for his various transgressions. Byeon never quite manages to marry his higher purpose to the noir narrative, leaving his avant-garde final set piece out of place in an otherwise straightforward thriller while his final twist falls flat in retreading well worn genre cliches. Frank in terms of its depiction of sex and nudity, The Scarlet Letter takes on an anti-erotic quality, painting its various scenes of actualised sex as passionless acts of compulsion with only those of fantasy somehow imbued with colour and light though its melancholy conclusion suggests even these may carry a heavy price.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Green Fish (초록 물고기, Lee Chang-dong, 1997)

Green Fish poster

You can never go home again. Lee Chang-dong’s debut, Green Fish (초록 물고기, Chorok Mulgogi), is as much a chronicle of his rapidly modernising nation’s gradual loss of innocence as it is that of its melancholy hero, Makdong (Han Suk-kyu), whose simple dream of family harmony is destroyed by the forces of desire and oppression. Perpetually someone’s little brother, Makdong struggles but finds no schoolyard protectors in his ongoing quest for leadership and direction from someone or something external to himself. All he finds is a gradual descent into darkness and criminality in which misplaced loyalties eventually carry the heaviest of penalties.

Returning home from his mandatory military service, still dressed in his warm weather combats, Makdong inhales a taste of freedom by hanging out of the open train doorway. He notices a woman doing the same thing a few doors down. Her red scarf floats away on the breeze and hits Makdong in the face. Later he notices the same woman being hassled by a gang of louts and decides to intervene. Despite his military uniform, Makdong is no great warrior and he’s quickly beaten up and humiliated, retreating to the bathroom where he soaks the woman’s scarf in water and puts it over his bloodied face, inhaling her scent through the fabric as it somehow expresses his otherwise repressed scream.

Vowing revenge for his humiliation Makdong jumps off the train and attacks the louts with a heavy stone trophy, but he mistimes his attack and ends up running after the departing carriages before being forced to abandon all hope of catching up and concentrate on evading the louts who are once again on his tail. On his arrival home, Makdong discovers nothing is as he left it. His family is scattered – father dead, mother going mad, one brother married and a policeman though apparently also a drunk, other brother a wideboy punk, little sister working as a hostess, where there were fields now there are apartment blocks as far as the eye can see, only his older brother with developmental disabilities remains the same. Unable to find work, Makdong chases the scent of the woman on the train, eventually encountering her in the city. Miae (Shim Hye-jin) is a nightclub singer involved with petty gangster Bae Tae-gon (Moon Sung-keun). Remaining close to her, Makdong finds himself drawn ever further into Maie’s self destructive spiral of desire and darkness.

Makdong, whose name literally means “youngest sibling”, is perpetually looking for a family. Turned away from the chaos of his childhood home, he looks for it in the traditional place of the dispossessed male – the gang. Desperate to prove himself and be accepted, Makdong is willing to undergo any kind of pain and humiliation. Given his first job, he sings a snatch of the karaoke song playing in the bar about a prodigal son who disappoints his parents, looks himself in the mirror then hesitates before slamming the stall door shut across his fingers, leaving them swollen and bloodied. He then picks a fight with a rival gangster to give Bae Tae-gon an excuse to settle a score. Bae, solicitous, expresses irritation with Makdong’s act of self-harm but also gives him a leg up into the organisation, something which does not prove universally popular with the already established crew.

Bae’s decision to make Makdong his latest “little brother” (a sort of pun on his name and Bae’s position as the gang’s “big brother”), is mirrored in Bae’s own turbulent relationship with his superior/rival, Yang-gil (Myung Gye-nam). Yang-gil, setting up shop right across from Bae’s establishment, describes Bae disparagingly as a scrappy puppy dog biting at his master’s heels. Much as he feels humiliated by Yang-gil’s authoritative disdain, he refuses to move against him, ordering his guys to back off even though it makes him look weak and diminishes him in the eyes of his followers. Just as Makdong has placed his faith in Bae, Bae’s is already installed in Yang-gil, something which Makdong tragically fails to understand.

Makdong’s loyalty to Bae also presents a conflict in his desire for Miae. A much stereotyped gangster’s moll, Miae is the melancholy nightclub singer familiar from classic noir. Her world is just as ruined and broken as Makdong’s. She wants to leave Bae and his life of violent chaos in which she’s often pimped out to serve his interests, but she’s looking for someone to help her, just as Makdong is looking for someone to defend him. A long train journey brings the pair together in a moment of innocent tenderness, but presented with a choice Makdong choses Bae and his new world of male chivalry over his original act of white knight rescue which brought him to Miae’s attention in the first place. Later he makes another, more final choice, burning Miae’s scarf which he’d been carrying like a talisman all along. The flames reflected in his sunglasses give him eyes of fire, but behind the frames there are tears too as he bids goodbye to one dream in the mistaken belief of buying himself another.

Facing his end, Makdong rings home and reminisces about a story of idealised childhood innocence in which he spent a day at the river with his siblings, trying to catch the green fish of the title from under a railway bridge. Earlier on the family had another picnic in a similar spot which quickly degenerated into a chaotic family spat with the trains passing ominously behind them. The world that Makdong wants is already fading, he is, in some sense, already its ghost and the future has no place for him. His dreams were small – a modest family restaurant, and a return to the warmth and security he felt as a child surrounded by unconditional love. His family, however, no longer support him, he is alone and unloved. The world has moved past him like a train leaving the station, Makdong runs but he can’t catch up. The future belongs to those who can move fast enough to adapt to the new reality of modern Korean life, not to old romantics like Makdong who still believe in archaic ideals of family and brotherhood. Yet, there is something of that old world remaining in the posthumous fulfilment of Makdong’s only wish, even if he himself is not permitted to witness it.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Cabaret scene (no subtitles)

The Prison (프리즌, Na Hyun, 2017)

prison poster bigPrison can be a paradise if you’re doing it right, at least if you’re a top gangster in the movies. Na Hyun’s The Prison (프리즌) paints an interesting picture of incarceration and the way it links into his nation’s infinitely corrupt power structures. When investigators wonder why a crime spree suddenly came to an end, one of the frequently offered explanations is that the perpetrator was most likely arrested for another crime but what if you could turn this obviously solid alibi to your advantage and get those already behind bars to do your dirty work for you?

Disgraced policeman Song Yoo-gun (Kim Rae-Won) has wound up imprisoned alongside several of the men he himself helped put away. Like many cops who suddenly find themselves on the other side of the bars, Yoo-gun’s life is not easy. Badly beaten, tortured, and threatened with amputation Yoo-gun eventually starts fighting back and seizes the most likely path to prison survival – allying himself with the inside’s big guy, Jung Ik-ho (Han Suk-Kyu). Ik-ho, a notorious gangster famous for eating the eyeballs of his enemies, is the one who’s really in charge around here, not least because he’s the one running the gang of prison based hitmen trotted out to take care of the bad guys’ hit list.

What starts out as an intriguing idea quickly descends into predictability as Yoo-gun and Ik-ho face off against each other, finding common ground and camaraderie but ultimately existing on the plains of good and evil. Yoo-gun has his own reasons for landing himself in prison but his policeman’s heart still loves truth and justice even if he’s forced to become a prisoner whilst in prison. While he goes along with Ik-ho’s crimes, joining in the violence and intimidation he practices, he also wants to take Ik-ho down even if it means becoming him in the process.

While the interplay between the two men forms the central axis of the film as they develop an odd kind of grudging friendship which may still end on the point of a knife at any moment, Na tries his best to recreate the world of the grim ‘80s action thriller. Technically speaking, The Prison is set in the ‘90s (not that viewers outside of Korea would notice aside from the external lack of mobile phones, computers, internet etc) but wants to be the kind of tough, bruisy, fight heavy action movie they don’t make any more in which a righteous hero defeats a large-scale conspiracy by jump kicking hoodlums. He almost succeeds in this aim, but never quite manages to anchor the ongoing background conspiracy elements with the intense pugilism of the prison environment.

Yoo-gun and Ik-ho are obviously a special case but aside from their efforts, prison life in Korea is not too bad – the guards are OK, the warden is ineffectual, and the inmates are running the show. Nevertheless the prison is the centre of the conspiracy as elite bad guys take advantage of put upon poor ones who’ve found themselves thrown inside thanks to ongoing social inequality, trading cushy conditions to guys who’re never getting out in return for committing state sponsored crimes. Needless to say, someone is trying to expose the conspiracy which would be very bad news for everyone but rubbing them out might prove counter productive in the extreme.

Na lets the in-house shenanigans drag on far too long, pitching fight after fight but failing to make any of his punches land with the satisfaction they seem to expect. Flirting with the interplay between Yoo-gun and Ik-ho in wondering how far Yoo-gun is prepared to go or whether he is destined to become his criminal mentor rather than destroy him, Na never fully engages with the central idea preferring to focus on the action at the expense of character, psychology, or the corruption which underlines the rest of the film. Nevertheless The Prison does have the requisite levels of high-octane fights and impressive set pieces including the fiery if predictable prison riot finale. Life behind bars isn’t all it’s cracked up to be after all, the corrupt elites of Korea will have to actually pay people to off their enemies. Predictable and poorly paced, The Prison is best when it sticks to throwing punches but might be more fun if it placed them a little better.


The Prison was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)