Director’s Intention (영화의 거리, Kim Min-geun, 2021)

A location scout struggles with memory and landscape when reuniting with a former love in Kim Min-geun’s indie drama, Director’s Intention (영화의 거리, yeonghwaui geoli). The director’s intention is something she’s trying to tease out in trying to find the places that best reflect his feelings, but in doing so she’s also forced to confront herself, her regrets about the past, and her true feelings about her city and her place within it. 

Longtime movie-obsessive Sun-hwa (Lee Sun-hwa) has been working as a location scout in her home city of Busan for quite some time and while moderately successful has not yet hit the big time. Her boss is excited to call her back to the city for a big new job he thinks could even lead to some Hollywood connections, but Sun-hwa isn’t sure she wants to take it because the director, Do-young (Lee Wan), turns out to be an old flame who broke her heart by leaving her behind to chase movie success in Seoul. 

It’s Sun-hwa’s firm opinion that Busan is as good as anywhere else and that filmmaking shouldn’t be limited to a small elite in the capital. She couldn’t understand why Do-young was so keen to leave and was determined to stay making films with those she loves in a place she loves. She accuses him of selfishness, but it is perhaps on another level simply afraid to leave the security of the familiar for the promise of the new, while he is too quick to abandon the old insisting that there are better opportunities to be had elsewhere. At the end of the day what they have is contradictory perspectives that cause each of them a crisis of faith in the relationship, he because she won’t leave with him and she because he won’t stay. “He cared more about his dreams, I cared more about my life” Sun-hwa later explains, justifying her desire to stay and build something on firmer foundations rather than take a gamble on an unlikely success. 

Sun-hwa prides herself on being able to match the emotions from the scene she’s given to a particular place to help the director express his feelings onscreen, but Do-young seems to reject each of her choices simply walking away from each location as in someway unsuitable. She offers him only barbed comments which seem to confuse the other members of the film crew who presumably have no clue what’s going on or of the couple’s former relationship while he says barely anything leaving the question open as to whether he’s here to rekindle an old romance or simply to memorialise it in film. Sun-hwa meanwhile needles him by deliberately selecting painful places filled with their shared memories sure to provoke something if not necessarily the effect Do-young was hoping for. Then again, his key criteria for a pivotal, unwritten scene is that it should look nice but feel empty. 

In any case, as Sun-hwa says there are no places you only see in the movies. Every location has its own story to tell, but can also play host to the stories of others. In the opening scenes, Sun-hwa holds a notebook and surveys a river ominously containing abandoned boots and clothing. She is mistaken for a detective by a panicked local who has in a sense created his own story from what he sees only to be relieved on discovering it to be an illusion. No horrific crime has disrupted the tranquility of this peaceful, rural scene. The only thing that matters is that it’s the right place for the right director and perhaps at the right time. Wander around and you might just find what you’re looking for while in having a firm destination you might ending up missing the perfect spot and never reach what you thought you were searching for. Then again, even if a place no longer exists the feelings surrounding it survive and can perhaps be salvaged even if not quite the same as they once were as Sun-hwa discovers in revisiting her past to scout locations that will either bring an old story to an end or begin it anew.


Director’s Intention in Chicago on Sept. 25 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Tomb of the River (강릉, Yoon Young-bin, 2021)

“Why did you turn this place into hell?” a reformed gangster asks his defeated enemy only to be told that nobody made the world this way, it is just is. In any case, Yoon Young-bin’s purgatorial gangster epic Tomb of the River (강릉, Gangneung) finds itself in a world of conflicting moral values in which organised crime has become increasingly legitimised conducted by men in sharp suits sitting in elegant surroundings but no less thuggish, violent, and immoral than it ever was. 

The two opposing forces are hippyish middle-aged enforcer Gil-suk (Yu Oh-seong) whose boss has adopted an anti-violence philosophy, and the psychotic Min-suk (Jang Hyuk) whom we first meet as the only survivor of a smuggling boat massacre hiding in the hold eating the dead bodies of his comrades whom he may or may not have killed himself. The battle ground is a new casino resort in the previously peaceful rural backwater of Gangneung shortly to host the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics. Gil-suk’s ageing boss decides to hand him the reins of the business but he objects out of old-fashioned gangster etiquette because the complex is technically located in an area handled by his colleague Chung-sub (Lee Hyun-kyun) who is currently in the boss’ bad books after a group of young people were found passed out having taken drugs in one of the karaoke rooms he manages. 

Gil-suk is perhaps a representative of disingenuous contemporary corporatised gangsters who still operate like thugs but do so with a veneer of elegance, his now elderly boss having achieved a state of zen in giving him small pieces of wisdom such as “don’t fight. If you fight you suffer whether you win or lose”. Gil-suk later echoes him when he tells his friend to leave Min-suk alone and that rather than fighting they should share a meal with him sometime instead acknowledging that his gang members’ lives seem to have been hard. But his compassion is as it turns out, misplaced, Min-suk is not the sort of man who can be befriended or softened with kindness for he is the personification of humanity’s baser instincts in unbridled selfishness and destructive desire. 

“I did it to survive” his underlings often justify themselves, believing they have no other option than to behave the way they do while Min-suk exploits the venality and misfortune of others as a kind of get out of jail free card promising to wipe their debts if they take the fall for his crimes. Sooner or later everyone betrays everyone else for reasons of greed or self-preservation, even Gil-suk eventually pulled towards the dark side while his policeman friend (Park Sung-geun) attempts to save him from himself. “What other choice did I have?”, he asks, but to conform to the dubious morality of the world around him. He criticises the police for a lack of action, but watches and does nothing as Min-suk carves up his entire squad of foot soldiers while patiently making his way towards him. 

The irony is that Gil-suk had been the good gangster, never wanting more than he needed and always happy to share. He is confused by the betrayal of his closest friends because he cannot understand their motivation. He had always thought of the resort as “ours” never considering that it could be “mine” while his friend tells him he should take it all because if he doesn’t someone else will. To prove his point Gil-suk tries to broker a peaceful solution by offering to share control with Min-suk in a process of appeasement, suggesting he take the club while he keeps the casino and they split the profits between them before eventually deciding to surrender it entirely in order to curry favour with an even shadier corporate gangster whose polite interest in the resort he’d previously rebuffed. 

Taking on spiritual dimensions in its gloomy backgrounds, battles fought under the light of a full moon, and the snow falling over the living and the dead in the melancholy final sequence Yoon’s hellish tale seems to take place in a gangster purgatory in which as Gil-suk finally announces romance really is dead, in its place only internecine violence and the intense desire to survive by any means possible mortal anxiety provoking only preemptive greed and cruelty. As Min-suk suggests “only death will end things” but everyone here is in a sense already dead only trapped in the eternal limbo of the gangster mentality. 


Tomb of the River streamed/screened as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)