A Quiet Dream (춘몽, Zhang Lu, 2016)

Review of Zhang Lu’s A Quiet Dream (춘몽, Chun-mong) first published by UK Anime Network.


A North Korean defector, a lonely orphan, and a nerdy landlord walk into a bar but also, perhaps, into a dream or several dreams in Zhang Lu’s latest chronicle of lovelorn city dwellers and their eccentric days of tiresome banality. Dreams, reality, and wish fulfilment mingle freely in this run down land of cheerful hopelessness populated by the displaced and permanently fugitive. Zhang’s film is as elusive as it is melancholy but offers its painful meditations with good humour and kindness even if it sees little possibility of escape.

Everyone is in love with pretty barmaid, Yeri (Han Ye-ri). Yeri bears this with good grace as she divides her attentions equally between her three suitors, nervous landlord Jong-bin (Yoon Jong-bin), petty criminal Ik-june (Yang Ik-june), and sorrowful North Korean defector Jung-bum (Park Jung-bum). Having come to Korea as a teenager after her mother died, Yeri tracked down her estranged father only for him to suffer a serious illness requiring round the clock care soon after. When she’s not serving drinks or looking after dad, Yeri spends her time with the three guys, drinking, visiting the Korean Film Archive, or chatting with the romantic teenage poetess (Lee Joo-young) so obviously, painfully, in love with her that Yeri is able to do little other than ignore it in an attempt to let her down gently.

Dreamscape aside, the problems each of the protagonists is facing is real enough. Yeri’s life yields its own sorrows as her heartfelt rendition of Li Bai’s famous ode to homesickness makes plain as do her frequent references to her mother and the quest for a mysterious crater bound lake. Having lost a mother and found a father she loses again when he is taken ill and she is left to care for a man she barely knew in the most intimate of ways. Her burden is a heavy one and her dreams filled with the idea of abandoning it as her father’s wheelchair careers emptily down the hill on which they live. A visit to a fortune teller proves far from reassuring when he informs her that her father will live a long life, but abruptly changes the subject when it comes to a more personal projection.

The three guys could almost be aspects of her own personality turning up to haunt her but each of Yeri’s men (as she later describes them) is battling his own kind of despair. Jung-bum’s is the most pronounced as he battles bipolar disorder and possible PTSD from North Korean labour camps. A refugee with no one to protect him, Jung-bum falls victim to workplace exploitation only be fired because his eyes are “too sad” and it’s bringing his boss down. Ik-june, kinder than anyone gives him credit for, thinks he can help him through his gangland godfather “Mr. Jellyfish” but Ik-june can’t decide how far he really wants to be in the criminal underworld and is in disgrace after laughing at a funeral. Jong-bim lays claim to control over everything in sight as he’s “the landlord” only it’s his father who actually owns the land and Jong-bim is arrested in an almost adolescent sense of powerlessness.

Nevertheless, their days are ones of gentle dreaming as the guys push their luck but refuse to compete for the love of Yeri, preferring to share the unique light she seems to bring into their darkened world. Dreams and reality flow into one another without thought or warning leaving each indistinct as Yeri dances drunkenly on a rooftop only to turn around and find her trio of suitors disappeared, though the surreal characters which people the city including an old lady who collects cans, bottles and cardboard to place outside an old wardrobe on the side of the road which she uses “to pray” might make “reality” a difficult thing to believe in in any case.

Purgatorial as their existence is, the melancholy collective seem to find a comforting symbiosis in their personal miseries. Filming through mirrors and opaque curtains Zhang rejects any idea of certainty or concrete realities. The Chinese characters which accompany the film’s original title effectively mean “short lived illusion”, lending a poetic air to the otherwise surreal goings on, painting this greyed out land as a temporary container for eternal woes. At the film’s end we either wake up or fall asleep, or perhaps merely exchange one dream for another but despite all of the heartache and desperation this strange world is one defined by warmth and basic human goodness.


A Quiet Dream was screened as part of a teaser programme for the London Korean Film Festival. The next screening in the series will be E Oni’s Missing at Picturehouse Central on April 10, 2017. Tickets on sale now directly from Picturehouse.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Paju (파주, Park Chan-ok, 2009)

pajuPaju (파주) is the name of a city in the far north of Korea, not far from “the” North, to be precise. Like the characters who inhabit it, Paju is a in a state of flux. Recently invaded by gangsters in the pay of developers, the old landscape is in ruins, awaiting the arrival of the future but fearing an uncertain dawn. Told across four time periods, Paju begins with Eun-mo’s (Seo Woo) return from a self imposed three year exile in India, trying to atone for something she does not understand. Much of this has to do with her brother-in-law, Joong-shik (Lee Sun-kyun), an local activist and school teacher with a troubled past. Love lands unwelcomely at the feet of two people each unable to make us of it in this melancholy coming of age tale shot through with tragic irony.

To begin at the beginning, eight years prior to Eun-mo’s return from India, Joong-sik is hiding from the police in the home of his first love, now the wife of a comrade who, unlike Joong-sik, is serving time for unspecified political crimes. After Ja-young (Kim Bo-kyung) returns home from failing to see her husband in prison and aggressively ignores Joong-shik, he somehow manages to seduce her only for a tragic accident to befall her young son while the couple are busy in the bedroom.

Guilt ridden, Joong-sik runs away to religious friends in Paju in an attempt to evade the police and the unpleasant domestic mess he’s just created back in the city. Whilst there he meets the teenage Eun-mo and ends up marrying her older sister, Eun-su (Shim Yi-young). When Eun-su is killed in an accident, the pair end up living together as a family but Eun-mo’s growing maturity and Joong-sik’s past traumas conspire to ensure the nature of their relationship is, like their environment, in constant flux.

Joong-shik is a man with an uncertain outlook. Believing himself to be bad, he’s constantly trying to overcompensate in goodness by participating in church activities and getting involved in social activism. His political activity is more born out of a desire to appear to care, than actual caring, as he later confesses to Eun-mo. He got involved because he thought it was “cool”, stayed out of loyalty, and finally continues because he doesn’t know how to stop even though he thinks the struggle is pointless. Joong-shik is man who’s convinced himself he doesn’t deserve what he wants, so he avoids wanting anything at all and has become hollow as a result.

It may be this quality of vagueness that sets Eun-mo’s alarm bells ringing, aside from the obvious intrusion of a stranger into her necessarily close relationship with her older sister who is her last remaining relative following the deaths of their parents. Eun-su seems overjoyed in her unexpected marriage but cracks appear when Joong-shik remains unwilling to consummate the union. Ironically enough, Eun-su has a series of burn scars across her back which she speculates is the cause of Joong-shik’s aversion. Joong-shik does indeed have a habit of “burning” other people – from the accidental scalding of Ja-young’s son to Eun-su’s eventual fiery death of which her scars are a grim foreshadowing. This fear of being the harbinger of misfortune is perhaps why he finds honesty such a difficult concept, even if his main aim is to protect those he truly cares about from being burned by a truth which only he possesses.

With a touch of Antonioni inspired astuteness, Park begins the film in thick fog as Eun-mo attempts to chart her way back home to a town she no longer quite knows. The mist eventually lifts but Eun-mo spends the rest of the film lost in the haze, perpetually prevented from seeing anything clearly. Realising Joong-shik has lied to her about the circumstances of her sister’s death she becomes increasingly suspicious of him just as she’s forced to confront her (she judges) inappropriate feelings for a man who is technically a relative even if she didn’t suspect him of contributing to whatever it is that really happened to Eun-su. Each is hiding something, unwilling to reveal themselves fully to the other, intentionally blurring the world around them and damaging their own vision in the process.

Anchored by a stand out performance from actress Seo Woo in the difficult role of the emotionally fragile Eun-mo, Paju is a sad tale of the corrosive effects of guilt and unresolved longing. Eun-mo has returned home in search of answers to questions to she’s too afraid to ask, whereas Joong-shik has too many answers to questions he never stops examining. Sacrifices are made as Eun-mo and Joong-shik attempt to move forward but once again find themselves facing different directions as Eun-mo looks to the future and Joong-shik to the past. Beautifully shot with an intriguing non-linear structure, Paju is an ambitious indie drama realised with unusual skill and genuinely affecting human emotion.


International trailer (English subtitles) – WARNING! Contains major spoilers.

Worst Woman (최악의 하루, Kim Jong-kwan, 2016)

movie_imageKim Jong-kwan’s award winning unexpected indie box office hit has been given the rather odd English title of Worst Woman (최악의 하루, Choeakui Haru) in contrast with the original Korean which simply means “The Worst Day”. In fact, the film is about two people – an aspiring Korean actress with problems in her personal life, and a Japanese writer visiting for the launch of the Korean translation of his novel, each of whom is indeed having an exceptionally unlucky day. Part walking and talking, part split focus romantic comedy, Worst Woman is a polished piece of indie filmmaking anchored by quality performances and an interesting approach to its material.

Eun-hee (Han Ye-ri) is supposed to be rehearsing for a play but somehow she’s not really into it, much to the consternation of her coach. Heading off to meet up with her vacuous soap star boyfriend, Hyun-Oh (Kwon Yool ), Eun-hee runs into a hopelessly lost Japanese man who asks her for directions but mangles the pronunciation of the address leaving her with little idea of the destination. Nevertheless, Eun-hee eventually helps the mysterious traveller, Ryohei (Ryo Iwase), find the place he’s looking for only to realise he’s been given the completely the wrong time and there’s no one there to meet him. The pair then decide to have coffee together in a nearby cafe before Eun-hee leaves to track down Hyun-oh.

At this point their paths diverge but each is in for a disastrous day. Eun-hee argues with Hyun-oh about a previous (married) boyfriend before teasing him about his decision to wear a face mask and sunglasses “in case someone recognises him” (hilariously, he still gets snapped when a passing woman realises only a celebrity would be wearing such an attention seeking disguise). The playful argument suddenly turns ugly when Hyun-oh calls Eun-hee by another girl’s name leading her to dump him on the spot and leave as quickly as possible. Moping around, she posts a picture of the view from the park on Twitter which “concerns” the aforementioned married ex-boyfriend, Woon-Chul (Lee Hee-joon), who also wants to take Eun-hee for coffee in an attempt to rehash the past.

Meanwhile, Ryohei has finally met up with his publisher but quickly discovers his book launch is not all that it seemed to be. Not only has the venue changed, but only two people have turned up (and even that was an accident). Making the best of things, Ryohei takes the “guests” to a nearby coffee shop and attempts to talk to them about literature with mixed results. The apologetic publisher is Ryohei’s biggest supporter, translating the book himself and determined to share it with his fellow countrymen, but has problems of his own which mean that the Korean edition of Ryohei’s novel is set to remain on the shelf a little longer.

Chatting awkwardly in English in the cafe, Eun-hee asks Ryohei what he does for a living to which he jokingly replies that he “lies”. His job is, in essence, to make things up – he’s a novelist, albeit one with only a single book to his name. Eun-hee laughs and says she’s same, only she’s an actress, and like Ryohei she is not yet famous or even particularly successful. In fact, Eun-hee has been giving the performance of her life off stage where lying has become something of a bad habit. Though she had told Hyun-oh about her relationship with Woon-chul, even explaining that he was a married man, it appears that perhaps she hadn’t been sharing the whole truth with either man. Needless to say, her taste in men has not served her well and the choice between the petty and self obsessed Hyun-oh and the possessive, persistent and obsessive Woon-chul may not be worth making.

If Eun-hee’s romantic difficulties undermine her sense of self confidence, Ryohei gets a professional dressing down from a bilingual journalist (Choi Yu-hwa) who claims to be a fan of his work but has serious questions about his approach to character. Why, she asks him, does he create such violent and sadistic scenarios and then allow his characters to suffer within them. If the writer is god, does he not owe it to his creations to show a little benevolence? Ryohei is a put out to receive such an underhanded criticism during an interview, especially as he doesn’t consider himself to be a cruel person, but now realises that perhaps his world view is a little bleaker than he’d previously thought.

Both having experienced one of those days which throw everything else into stark relief, the pair run into each other again at twilight in the picturesque Namsan Park. Eun-hee revisits the opening monologue from her play, now managing to breathe life into the lines informed by her recent experiences, before reuniting with Ryohei and making another surprising suggestion – that they set off on a long walk along the park trail which she has never managed to complete. The opening narration from Ryohei told us that he’d been dreaming a lot of his home town and had, unusually, come up with a story idea whilst travelling. Smarting from the criticisms of the journalist and realising many of the characters he’s denied a happy ending to are slightly lost, essentially nice women just like Eun-hee, Ryohei decides that it’s time to make an exception. He imagines the same place he is right now, only it’s snowing and a woman is looking nervously back along the path. This time there is no need to worry, he doesn’t know all the details yet, but this woman is definitely going to be happy, at least someday.

Featuring a light jazz score and indie-style straightforward direction, Worst Woman recalls both the distant irony of Hong Sang-soo and other recent cross-cultural romances such as A Midsummer’s Fantasia (which also starred leading man Ryo Iwase) and Hong’s own Hill of Freedom. A tale of city serendipity, the film makes use of constant reoccurring motifs from coffee shops and national parks to professional insecurity and confused relationships but even if Eun-hee has been playing the role of herself with both of the men in her life, her connection with Ryohei seems to have a more authentic quality. Light yet poignant and filled with sophisticated comic touches, Worst Woman is a delightful late summer romance which ends on a refreshingly upbeat, open ended, note careful to leave the door open for these two frustrated artists to make the best of their worst day.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)