Fengshui (명당, Park Hee-gon, 2018)

FengShui poster 1A would-be-dynast gets overly involved with a weird spiritualist and almost (?) ruins the nation. Does that sound a little familiar? As metaphors go, it might be a stretch but then so much of Park Hee-gon’s Fengshui (명당, Myeong-dang) is just that. Set in the late 19th century, Park’s film is the third in a loose trilogy themed around Korean fortune telling traditions (following The Face Reader, and The Princess and the Matchmaker), but rather than questioning the efficacy of its art asks a series of questions about its application and the internecine lengths those who lust for power or otherwise feel themselves unfairly oppressed will go to to reclaim their rightful position.

Our hero, unwisely honest fengshui master Jae-sang (Cho Seung-woo), is the only one brave enough to point out that the site chosen for the burial of the late king is cursed, but inevitably he is ignored. He is of course right, which means he must be eliminated which is why a troop of soldiers working for the nefarious Kim clan show up and burn his house down, executing his wife and child by the sword when they manage to escape. 13 years later, he finds his expertise called on again when the weak and inexperienced king begins to suspect the Kim clan is plotting against him and that their shenanigans over his father’s grave may have something to do with it.

Like any typical Korean period drama, Fengshui is chiefly concerned with palace intrigue, only this intrigue is stranger than most in its bizarre obsession with the possibilities of manipulating spiritual power through acquiring “auspicious” land for whichever purpose one might wish from conceiving an heir to making sure your line holds power. The Kims are convinced they can win the throne (if by proxy) through digging up their ancestors and replanting them in more advantageous places only to discover that the grass is (literally) always greener. Still, they will stop at nothing from outright murder to psychological game playing in order to manipulate the teenage king into acting as their puppet.

One might ask themselves what the point is, what’s so great about being king anyway? The actual king might say not much, as he discovers himself a humiliated, hollow figure who wields no real power seeing as his soldiers seem set to side with Kim. Heungseon (Ji Sung), however, his “cheerful” uncle might feel differently after experiencing a lifetime of just the same. Forced to prance about doing party tricks for the Kims, barking and eating scraps from the floor like a mangy dog, he might say that being king is the only way to reclaim your self-respect and ensure you will never be at the mercy of ruthless men ever again.

The real key, however, is presented at the end when Jae-sang and his money loving friend Yong-shik (Yoo Jae-myung) are visited some years later by two men in suits who want to know the best place to start a military school to train Independence fighters. Jae-sang, having vowed to stop looking for places to bury people so he can find one to save them, is only too happy to oblige and even comes up with the name “Shinheung Military Academy” (a real school which is also, quite bizarrely, the subject of a smash hit musical). The point is further brought home with Kim’s descendent standing next to a family grave and lamenting that it can’t have been auspicious enough because they’ve lost all their power since the Japanese arrived. The subtext seems to be that feudal corruption and a subversion of traditional values such as ancestor worship and filial piety contributed to the gradual weakening of the Korean state which was plagued by insecure kings and political finagling until finally “sold” to foreign powers in the early 20th century.

Indeed, the ambitious usurpers eventually burn the soul of Korea in order to ensure their own, or rather their children’s, futures even at the expense of their nation’s. Literally fighting over a grave, the elites waste their time on pointless, internecine dynastic squabbling while ordinary people continue to suffer. Jae-sang, having given up on his own petty quest for revenge, comes to the conclusion that all this looking back is a waste of time when what they should be thinking about is the future – not burying things, but planting them. It is a good lesson, but, Park seems to suggest, perhaps one that has not yet been fully learned.


Screened as the latest teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival. The next teaser screening, Zhang Lu’s Ode to the Goose, takes place on 19th August at Picturehouse Central.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Bros (부라더, Chang You-jeong, 2017)

The Bros posterTime passes differently in the country. Two brothers from rural Andong thought they’d escaped the relative restrictions of an oddly feudal upbringing, but something keeps pulling them back. Ghosts literal and figural force them to return home, confront each other and their remaining family, and then attempt to come to some kind of acceptance of their places in the grand scheme of things in light of their newly acquired knowledge. The Bros (부라더, Buladeo) stars unlikely siblings Ma Dong-seok and Lee Dong-hwi and is adapted from the stage musical “The Brothers Were Brave” which was also directed by Chang You-jeong. Set in rural Andong, the film is an affectionate, if not entirely sympathetic, portrayal of the fiercely traditional way of life in tiny country towns in which it really still matters who accedes to be the head of a family and women are expected to know their place.

“Estranged” brothers Seok-bong (Ma Dong-seok) and Joo-bong (Lee Dong-hwi) have each skipped out on their familial responsibilities for lives of modern “freedom” in Seoul. Seok-bong is a “treasure hunter” who gives eccentric lessons on archeological ethics to bored students while overspending on the latest tools to aid him in his (permanently unsuccessful) quests, while Joo-bong is an ambitious salaryman whose career runs into a problem after he is accused of “embezzlement” for ruling out the cheapest route for a new road because (unbeknownst to his bosses) it would cut right past his childhood home. Just as Seok-bong realises he’ll have to pay back the outrageous sum of money he “speculated” on new equipment when a civil war breaks out in his prospective dig site, and Jong-boo frets over his workplace blunder, both sons get an unexpected text informing them that their “estranged” father has died and they’re “welcome” to attend the funeral, if they should wish. As both brothers are in need of a getaway plan (and also an opportunity to ask for some financial assistance), they find themselves finally going “home” only to unexpectedly find each other on the road, start bickering in the car, and then accidentally run over a random young woman (Lee Honey) apparently out walking in this otherwise barren and deserted stretch of land.

On their arrival, the brothers are not exactly embraced by their loving family. Nobody really expected to see them and, as it turns out, their grandfather didn’t even realise they’d been invited. The boys’ rural country home is one of fierce traditionality, seemingly cut out of time and existing in the feudal past where people refer to each other via archaic titles and it really seems to matter who is declared “first son” of the family. Both Seok-bong and Joo-bong left the village because they had no interest in all this feudal nonsense and resented the old fashioned authoritarianism which defined their relationships with the apparently tyrannical patriarch they have both come home to bury, if not perhaps to mourn. Seok-bong, in particular, remains extremely resentful towards his late father for the way he treated their mother who, he assumes, must have been very unhappy all her married life.

Rural Andong, it turns out is not a great place for women. The brothers do have a “friend” in the family complex in the form of Mi-bong (Jo Woo-jin) – a policeman recently married to a very nice but often frustrated young lady who has taken to smoking (still considered scandalous in these parts) in secret in order to relieve the stress of being a married woman suddenly expected to undertake all these arcane social responsibilities, which include being “nice” to her overbearing mother-in-law who seems to delight in scolding her for doing everything wrong. In fact Mi-bong’s wife wants to move to Vietnam to get as far away from the family as possible, but  finds it difficult to abandon the feudal way of thinking in wondering what it would be like to be the wife of a “first son”. Women here are supposed to know their place – stay silent, serve the men. When Joo-bong’s “lady friend” from the city shows up unexpectedly, everyone reacts to her as a “potential daughter-in-law” and sets about giving her the third degree which includes a pop quiz on the three duties of an Andong woman which include obeying a father, then a husband, and then presumably a son. In a running joke, no one can even remember the given name of the boys’ mother because she was always just referred to as “first daughter-in-law”.

All in all, it’s no surprise that Seok-bong and Joo-bong wanted to leave but then again, it turns out there was a lot more going on with the family than they were ever privy to know and they have perhaps judged their father unfairly without knowing all the facts. This being a comedy, the central point is the repair of a broken family – firstly in the brothers repairing their bond as they face the crumbling of their individual quests and are forced to work together, unwittingly uncovering the truth about their family history. Meanwhile, they also have to cope with the strange woman they apparently ran over who seems to have lost her memory but has valuable information to impart to each of them. Haunted by the ghosts of home, neither of the boys finds what they originally came for but gets something (arguably) better in rediscovering their roots and experiencing the upsides of familial connection.

Filled with the strangeness of the village tradition with its mourning suits, wandering monks, shamanic rituals, and uncles who speak only in incomprehensible four character idioms The Bros is an absurd affair but one with its heart in the right place. Chang enlivens the otherwise unremarkable comedic narrative with interesting visual compositions as the mysterious woman seems to drag the brothers away into a pretty fairytale land filled with oversaturated picture book images in which the moon is just a little bit bigger than you’d expect and oddly ‘70s fashions of purple and yellow lend a cheerful and nostalgic air. A comedic tale of family, brotherhood, and the unexpected endurance of feudal tradition, The Bros is a warm and fuzzy tribute to rediscovering one’s roots but also one with unexpected bite in its subtle undercutting of the pervasive misogyny which underpins it.


The Bros is currently available to stream in the UK (and possibly elsewhere) via Netflix.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

The Outlaws (범죄도시, Kang Yoon-sung, 2017)

The outlaws posterBack in 2004, a hero cop made the headlines by cleaning up Chinatown when he took into custody 32 known gang members in Seoul’s Garibong district. Based on the real life case, The Outlaws (범죄도시, BumJoedoshi, AKA Crime City), is the debut feature from Kang Yoon-sung in which Ma Dong-seok adds goodhearted yet compromised policeman to his list of increasingly impressive leading performances. Truth be told the role does little to stretch his current range but fits comfortably into Ma’s well worn persona of noble bruiser as he plays fatherly commander to his fiercely loyal team and avuncular mentor to a brave boy in the district who wants to help free the area from the dangerous gang violence which leaves not just businesses but lives under threat.

Ma Seok-do (Ma Dong-seok) is the only force stopping Garibong from descending into a hellish war zone of gang violence and destruction. A local resident, Ma is well respected in the area and knows the territory well enough to navigate its various challenges. Rather than take on the gangs wholesale he attempts to placate them, brokering an uneasy equilibrium which keeps the violence contained and helps to protect ordinary people from its effects. All of that goes out the window when a new threat arrives in the form of vicious gangster Jang Chen (Yoon Kye-sang) and his two minions whose methods are unsubtle in the extreme, ending with rival gang bosses chopped up and placed inside suitcases over nothing more than a trifling gambling debt.

Jang is a new and terrifying threat because he sees no need to play by the “rules”. A peace cannot be brokered with him and he cannot be reasoned with. Ma knows the time has come for action but even with police resources behind him is ill equipped to become, in effect, Garibong’s latest gang leader. To this end he makes a surprising decision – asking the residents for help. The residents, however, remain terrified. How can he ask them to inform on gangsters to whom they’re still paying protection money? Ma’s promise is a big one – to do what no one thought could be done in neutralising the organised crime threat by conducting a mass arrest of foot soldiers from across the gangland spectrum.

Ma Dong-seok makes fantastic use of his trademark sarcasm as the regular neighbourhood guy who also happens to be a top cop. Kang mixes a fair amount of humour into an otherwise dark and violent tale such as the recurrent presence of two lowly pamphleteers who are eventually pressed into more serious service for Ma, his trickery and manipulation of a suspect (which is also a way to save him from a death sentence on being sent back to China), and Ma’s love of drunken karaoke and lamb skewers with the boys. Ma thinks nothing of arming a gangster with a stab vest, setting up another in a public bath, or playing gangland politics for all they’re worth, but when it really counts he’s as straight as they come, protecting the residents of Garibong like the lone sheriff of some outpost town, equal parts officer of the law and disappointed dad.

The incongruously comical tone harks back to the ‘70s maverick cop golden age in which the lines between law breaker and law enforcer were always blurred but you knew who the good guys were because they had all the best lines. If Kang is aiming for this branded mix of grit and humour he doesn’t quite find it and the comedy sometimes undercuts his more serious intentions but it is undeniably good fun all the same. Ma Dong-seok’s warmhearted maverick is quite rightly the star of the show, but his rivalry with Yoon Kye-chang’s Jang Chen fails to ignite with Chen never quite seeming as menacing as intended. Nevertheless even if Kang’s gangland action comedy has little to add to an already crowded arena, it does at least provide a fitting showcase for Ma’s talents in its sarcastic, world weary policeman who may have one foot on the wrong side of the law but always acts in the name of justice.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)