Underground Rendezvous (만남의 광장, Kim Jong-jin, 2007)

Underground Rendezvous posterAt the very beginning of Kim Jong-jin’s Underground Rendezvous (만남의 광장, Mannamui Gwangjang), a group of kindly villagers in the north of Korea are caught by surprise when they unwittingly help to build the 38th parallel – a series of fortifications which will divide them from one another forevermore. Family members are trapped on different sides of an artificial border by a matter of accident rather than choice, a decision effectively made for them by the Americans and Russians amping up cold war hostility in engineering a proxy war over war-torn Korea.

30 years after the villagers sealed their own fates through being overly helpful, the South Korea of the 1980s is perhaps not so different from its Northern counterpart. A brief hope for democracy had once again been dashed and the land remained under the yoke of a cruel and oppressive dictatorship. Young-tan (Im Chang-jung), a boy from a poor village, is determined to escape his life of poverty by travelling to Seoul and studying to become a teacher. However, within five minutes of exiting the station, his country bumpkin ways see his only suitcase swiped by a street thief. An attempt to report the crime only gets him into trouble and so Young-tan is sent to a “re-education” camp in the mountains. Falling off the back of a truck, he gets lost and eventually ends up in a remote village where they assume, ironically enough, that he is the new teacher they’ve been expecting for the local school. The village, however, has a secret – one that’s set to be exposed thanks to Young-tan’s questions about a beautiful lady he saw bathing at the local watering hole.

Young-tan turns out to be a pretty good teacher, though not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. The village’s big secret is that the divided families were so attached to each other that they each started digging tunnels to the other side shortly after the wall went up and eventually met somewhere in the middle where they’ve built a large cave they use for underground reunions. Apparently existing for 30 years, no one outside of trusted citizens on either side knows about the tunnel’s existence. No one has used it to switch sides, the only purpose of the tunnel is for relatives and friends to mingle freely in defiance of the false division that’s been inflicted on them by outside forces.

Young-tan, however, is fixated on the bathing woman who turns out to be North Korean Sun-mi (Park Jin-hee) – the sister-in-law of the village chief. Thinking only of his crush and also a comparative innocent and devotee of the moral conservatism of ‘80s Korea, Young-tan catches sight of Sun-mi and the village chief and is convinced that the old man is molesting an innocent young maiden. He sets out to convince the villagers of this, little knowing the truth and unwittingly threatening to expose the entire enterprise through failing to understand the implications of his situation.

Kim pulls his punches on both sides of the parallel, only hinting at the oppressions present on each side of the border with Sun-mi fairly free in the North, working as the army propaganda officer in charge of the noisy broadcasts which attempt to tempt South Koreans to embrace the egalitarian “freedoms” on offer to defectors. Meanwhile the villagers in the South live fairly isolated from the unrest felt in the rest of the country, continuing a traditional, rural way of life but are also under the supervision of a local troop of bored army conscripts on the look out for North Korean spies. Nobody wants to defect, though perhaps there’d be little point in any case, but everyone longs for the day when families can all live together happily as they used to free from political interference.

Satire, however, is not quite the main aim. An absurd subplot sees the “real” teacher marooned on his own after taking a detour and accidentally standing on a landmine leaving him rooted to the spot on pain of death, but the majority of the jokes rest on Young-tan’s “misunderstandings” as a village outsider, goodnatured simpleton, and bullheaded idiot. A final coda tries to inject some meaning by hinting at the effects of repurposing the truth for political gain and the tempered happiness of those who get what they wanted only not quite in the way they wanted it, but it’s too little too late to lend weight to the otherwise uninspired attempts at comedy.


Currently streaming on Netflix UK (and possibly other territories)

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Concubine (후궁: 제왕의 첩, Kim Dae-seung, 2012)

the-concubineYou can become the King of all Korea and your mum still won’t be happy. So it is for poor Prince Sungwon (Kim Dong-wook) who becomes accidental Iago in this Joseon tale of betrayal, cruelty, and love turning to hate in the toxic environment of the imperial court – Kim Dae-seung’s The Concubine (후궁: 제왕의 첩, Hugoong: Jewangui Chub). Power and impotence corrupt equally as the battlefield shifts to the bedroom and sex becomes weapon and currency in a complex political struggle.

Prince Sungwon first catches sight of official’s daughter Hwa-yeon (Cho Yeo-jeong) after a hunting party and develops a dangerous attraction to her. His possessive parent, the Queen Mother (Park Ji-young), finds this worrying and manoeuvres to take Hwa-yeon out of the picture by having her brought to court as a concubine of the king. Hwa-yeon, however, has a love of her own in the roguish hanger-on Kwon-yoo (Kim Min-jun) and is willing to risk her life by defying the imperial orders and running away with him. The pair consummate their union but are discovered at first light whereupon Hwa-yeon agrees to go to court on the condition Kwon-yoo’s life is spared.

Some years later, Hwa-yeon is the reigning queen as the mother of the sickly king’s only son but her life becomes considerably more complicated when the king dies in mysterious circumstances. Power passes back to the Queen Mother who puts her son, Sungwon, on the throne, making Hwa-yeon and the young prince direct threats to her power base. Sungwon is still in love with Hwa-yeon but his mother forbids him from pursuing her. Forbidding is something his mother does quite a lot of, and it’s not long before Sungwon becomes frustrated with his lack of real power. Matters come to a head when Kwon-yoo also resurfaces as a eunuch at the imperial court.

The imperial court is a golden prison and a world in itself. Once entered, it cannot be escaped. Everyone is vying for power but no one really has any. The king’s ill health and lack of a direct heir has left him dangerously vulnerable and the Queen Mother in a position of unusual strength. If one thing is clear, it’s that she has had to play a long game to get here, done terrible things in the name of power or self preservation, and will stop at nothing to make sure she remains on top.

The Queen Mother’s ascendency is contrasted with Hwa-yeon’s fall as she finds herself forced into the court against her will. Realising her total lack of agency as the court ladies are instructed to obey protocol in undressing her for the bath rather than allowing her to undress herself, Hwa-yeon exclaims that she has no right to her own body. Hwa-yeon’s body is, now, imperial property to be used and abused by the king for his pleasure and his alone. However, the Queen Mother may have met her match in the steely and intelligent politician’s daughter who seems just as well equipped to play the game as she is.

Much has been made of the sexual content of The Concubine which was largely sold on its titillating qualities. However, even if the adult content is frank it is far from erotic as sex becomes a tool of control and manipulation – one of the few available to the subjugated women of the court environment. Aside from the first love scene between Hwa-yeon and her true love, Kwon-yoo (which is perhaps the least direct), none of the subsequent scenes is fully consensual, each a part of a wider scheme or courtly ritual. Rather than an expression of love or intimacy, sex is an act of mutual conquest in which each side, essentially, loses.

Sungwon finds himself powerless both politically and romantically, unable to wrest power away from his controlling mother or win the heart of the already brutalised Hwa-yeon. A prisoner of his own circumstances, Sungwon’s increasing feelings of impotence manifest in violence and erratic behaviour as his obsession with Hwa-yeon borders on madness. Far from a liberation, Sungwon’s sex life is, in a sense literally, dictated as his ritualised consummation of marriage is conducted in front of an audience shouting out commands from behind screen doors who eventually criticise him for his lack of stamina. Kwon-yoo has been robbed of his ability to engage in this game and his desire for revenge is intense yet he will have to take it from the shadows by stealth if at all.

Director Kim Dae-seung manages the intrigue well in crafting the intensely claustrophobic environment of the oppressive court whilst ensuring motivations and desires remain crystal clear. There are no winners here even if there is a reigning champion claiming the throne. The cycle of violence and manipulation seems set to continue as even those who entered as innocents leave with blood on their hands, having become the very thing they fought so hard against. Often beautifully shot with opulent production values, The Concubine is an ice cold thriller in which desire competes with reason but rarely, if ever, with love.


Original trailer (no subtitles)