Svaha: The Sixth Finger (사바하, Jang Jae-hyun, 2019)

The thing about prophesies and the prophets who proclaim them, is that they only have power if people choose to believe in them. “Faith” can become a convenient cover for those who’d rather not explain themselves, a mechanism for manipulating sometimes vulnerable people looking for a greater truth or a purpose in their lives. Svaha: The Sixth Finger’s (사바하) dogged pastor is intent on investigating religious crimes and exploiting spiritual charlatans but he of course has his own agenda, that mostly being that he’s keen to get money off his clients who are in turn hoping to bolster their authority by rooting out “heresies”.

Leader of the Far Eastern Religious Research Institute, a kind of religious detective agency employing only himself, an undercover assistant, and a “deaconess” secretary, Pastor Park (Lee Jung-jae) makes his money flagging up dodgy and/or exploitative practices connected with organised religion. According to him, freedom of religion is “overly” protected, and he is alone on the frontlines of a spiritual war against unscrupulous cultists. Though some kind of protestant, he often works for/against the Catholic Church and is good friends with a Buddhist monk who gives him a tip off about a weird sect he can’t get a handle on, Deer Hill. 

Meanwhile, a young girl, Geum-hwa (Lee Jae-in), explains to us that she was born with an “evil” twin clamped to her leg. The twin wasn’t expected to survive, but is still living with Geum-hwa and her family who keep her locked up in a shed like a beast. Rightly or wrongly, Geum-hwa connects her sister with the deaths of her parents which occurred fairly soon after the children were born. Her grandfather, with whom Geum-hwa now lives, never even registered the birth of a second child out of fear and shame, never expecting her to survive this long. When a truck hits a bridge and exposes the hidden body of a murdered teenager, the police start investigating too, eventually leading them to two young men loosely connected with the shady Buddhist cult. 

“This world is one big muddy mess”, according to the cultists at Deer Hill. It’s not difficult to see why people might be looking for spiritual reassurance in such a chaotic world, but it’s exactly that need that places like Deer Hill may be seeking to exploit. Nevertheless, the only thing that Park’s undercover agent turns up is that there doesn’t appear to be anything untoward. Deer Hill doesn’t accept offerings from its members and even gives money away to the needy. Tellingly, the real nitty gritty to Park’s clients is in doctrinal deviation, they only really want to know what kind of Buddhism it is that they do and if it’s in line with broader teachings of the faith. 

A further tip off leads them to the mysterious Je-seok (Jung Dong-hwan), a legendary Buddhist priest who studied in Japan but apparently devoted himself to the Independence movement and is said to have achieved enlightenment. Je-seok’s teachings are dark in the extreme, “Pain is the fruit of faith” goes his mantra, “pain purifies your blood”. He believes that he is the “light” that will conquer the “darkness” by snuffing out “snakes”. One of his disciples, brainwashed as a vulnerable young man and encouraged to do terrible things in the name of good, begins to doubt his teachings when confronted with a possible hole in his logic and the very real human cost of his strategy. 

Not quite as cynical as he seems, Park retains his faith. It’s ironic that all this is taking place at Christmas and centres on the prophesied birth of a child that threatens someone’s sense of personal power. Unlike most, Park has always regarded Christmas as a “sad” holiday, unable to forget that Jesus’ birth was accompanied by the mass murder of innocent baby boys. He wonders where God is now and why he permits these things to happen. Park has faith that God sent Jesus into the world for the greater good, but Je-seok has convinced his followers that the same is true of him, that he has come to banish the darkness and that all their pain and suffering is fuel in a holy war. Their faith has been redirected and misused for the benefit of a false prophet, while his opposite number has been made to live a life of bestial misery solely because of superstitious prejudice. The police is a fairly irrelevant presence in this series of spiritual transgressions, but there is much less clarity to be had in “truth” than one might hope with “faith” the only solution in an increasingly uncertain world.


Svaha: The Sixth Finger is currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories).

International trailer (English subtitles)

Money (돈, Park Noo-ri, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

money poster 1“Could you ask him something for me,” the beleaguered yet victorious protagonist of Park Noo-ri’s Money (돈, Don) eventually asks, “what was he going to use the money for?”. Wealth is, quite literally it seems, a numbers game for the villainous Ticket (Yoo Ji-tae) whose favourite hobby is destabilising the global stock market just for kicks. As for Cho Il-hyun (Ryu Jun-yeol), well, he just wanted to get rich, but where does getting rich get you in the end? There’s only so much money you can spend and being rich can make you lonely in ways you might not expect.

Unlike most of his fellow brokers, Cho Il-hyun is an ordinary lad from the country. His parents own a small raspberry farm and he didn’t graduate from an elite university or benefit from good connections, yet somehow he’s here and determined to make a success of himself. In fact, his only selling point is that he’s committed the registration numbers of all the firms on the company books to memory, and his ongoing nervousness and inferiority complex is making it hard for him to pick up the job. A semi-serious rookie mistake lands the team in a hole and costs everyone their bonuses, which is when veteran broker Yoon (Kim Min-Jae) steps in to offer Il-hyun a way out through connecting him with a shady middle-man named “The Ticket” who can set him up with some killer deals to get him back on the board.

Il-hyun isn’t stupid and he knows this isn’t quite on the level, but he’s desperate to get into the elite financial world and willing to cheat to make it happen. As might be expected his new found “success” quickly goes to his head as he “invests” in swanky apartments and luxury accessories, while his sweet and humble teacher girlfriend eventually dumps him after he starts showering her with expensive gifts and acting like an entitled elitist. It’s not until some of his fellow brokers who also seem to have ties to Ticket start dying in mysterious circumstances that Il-hyun begins to wonder if he might be in over his head.

Unlike other similarly themed financial thrillers, it’s not the effects of stock market manipulation on ordinary people which eventually wake Il-hyun up from his ultra capitalist dream (those are are never even referenced save a brief reflective shot at the end), but cold hard self-interest as he finally realises he is just a patsy Ticket can easily stub out when he’s done with him. Yoon only hooked him up in the first place because he knew he’d be desperate to take the bait in order to avoid repeated workplace humiliation and probably being let go at the end of his probationary period. What he’s chasing isn’t just “money” but esteem and access to the elite high life that a poor boy from a raspberry farm might have assumed entirely out of his reach.

It’s difficult to escape the note of class-based resentment in Il-hyun’s sneering instruction to his mother that she should “stop living in poverty” when she has the audacity to try and offer him some homemade chicken soup from ancient Tupperware, and it’s largely a sense of inferiority which drives him when he eventually decides to take his revenge on the omnipotent Ticket. Yet there’s a strangely co-dependent bond between the two men which becomes increasingly difficult pin down as they wilfully dance around each other.

The world of high finance is, unfortunately, a very male and homosocial one in which business is often conducted in night-clubs and massage parlours surrounded by pretty women. There is only one female broker on Il-hyun’s team. The guys refer to her as “Barbie” and gossip about how exactly she might have got to her position while she also becomes a kind of trophy conquest for Il-hyun as he climbs the corporate ladder. Meanwhile, there is also an inescapably homoerotic component to Il-hyun’s business dealings which sees him flirt and then enjoy a holiday (b)romance with a Korean-American hedge fund manager (Daniel Henney) he meets at a bar in the Bahamas, and wilfully strip off in front of Ticket ostensibly to prove he isn’t wearing a wire while dogged financial crimes investigator Ji-cheol (Jo Woo-jin) stalks him with the fury of a jilted lover.

Obsessed with “winning” in one sense or another, Il-hyun does not so much redeem himself as simply emerge victorious (though possibly at great cost). Even his late in the game make up with Chaebol best friend Woo-sung (Kim Jae-young), who actually turns out to be thoroughly decent and principled (perhaps because unlike Il-hyun he was born with wealth, status, and a good name and so does not need to care about acquiring them), is mostly self-interest rather than born of genuine feeling. In answer to some of Il-hyun’s early qualms, Ticket tells him that in finance the border between legal and illegal is murky at best and it may in fact be “immoral” not to exploit it. What Il-hyun wanted wasn’t so much “money” but what it represents – freedom, the freedom from “labour” and from from the anxiety of poverty. Life is long and there are plenty of things to enjoy, he exclaims at the height of his superficial success, but the party can only last so long. What was the money for? Who knows. Really, it’s beside the point.


Money was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

This Charming Girl (여자, 정혜, Lee Yoon-ki, 2004)

This Charming GirlIt’s strange how, even in this increasingly interconnected world, our relationships with those around us are often wilfully superficial. Trapped within our own self-obsessed perspectives, we often fail to see beneath the surface of social conformity to realise that others are also lonely or troubled, wishing someone would see them but also afraid to make plain the various ways they don’t measure up to a social ideal. The heroine of Lee Yoon-ki’s This Charming Girl (여자, 정혜, Yeoja, Jeong-hye) is just such a woman – “charming” in her perfectly composed exterior, in many ways an embodiment of traditional femininity in her near invisibility as she gets on with her life and work quietly and with efficiency. There are however tiny cracks in the surface of her ordered existence that betray an ongoing, perhaps incurable anxiety.

Jeong-hae (Kim Ji-soo), a young woman in her late twenties, has an ordinary job working on the counter in the local post-office. As we later find out, she was once married but walked out on her new husband on their wedding night and, following the death of her mother, lives alone in the same apartment she has lived in all her life. Despite being well liked at work and taking lunch with the office ladies, Jeong-hae is perhaps not quite part of the group and finds it hard to relate to her noisy colleagues who gossip about her behind her back and when all is said and done probably regard her as a fellow employee rather than friend. Jeong-hae’s days are mostly spent alone, her interactions with others outside of work extend only to awkward telephone conversations with an unkind aunt, and an angry neighbour complaining about her extremely loud alarm clock.

Despite her shyness and self-imposed isolation, Jeong-hae is a kind and caring person with a gentle, nurturing personality. In the absence of human connection, she lovingly tends to her plants but is wary of taking on responsibility for more complex creatures and it’s only after a few mornings of noticing a melancholy, mewling kitten on her way to the bus stop that she decides to pick it up and take it to a vet. Suddenly being a cat owner has a profound impact on Jeong-hae’s way of life even if the skittish creature echoes her own sense of mistrust born of previous trauma in insisting on hiding under the sofa. Bonding with a living creature brings back painful memories of her traumatic past which threaten to impede her new sense of forward motion even as she attempts to outrun them.

The kitten isn’t the only stray Jong-hae picks up, later she takes pity on a sad young man who became involved in a drunken bar fight and alienated all his friends. Generally speaking, for reasons we later come to understand, Jeong-hae is wary of men and of male physicality. A rare visit to a shoe shop provoked by an unpleasant meeting with her ex-husband who has only got back in touch to express how much she hurt him by walking out without explanation, makes plain her distress even with perhaps “ordinary” everyday interactions. Though she does her best to endure it, Jeong-hae’s discomfort with the salesman’s hard sell tactics as he uses overfamiliar language and roughly manhandles her feet into a pair of sandals (which do not really suit her) eventually results in an extremely rare instance of self-assertion as she tells the assistant off, politely, before stopping to advise the woman behind the counter that perhaps men should not be selling women’s shoes or at any rate they should treat their customers as “people” rather than sales targets. Nevertheless, something about the drunken young man tells her that he is not a threat, only another person who seems to be in a dark place and probably in need of a stranger’s ear.

It’s perhaps this same sense of “recognition” that prompts her into making an extremely forward and uncharacteristically bold overture towards a shy young writer (Hwang Jung-min) who comes to the post office regularly to send off his manuscripts. If we get the sense that Jeong-hae is a mostly invisible person, then the writer is much the same. We catch sight of him often in the background, shopping in convenience stores, sitting at outdoor tables, waiting to cross the road. He’s the kind of person that perhaps only someone like Jeong-hae, equally invisible, a supernumerary even within her own world, might recognise. The tragedy is that Jeong-hae has a lot of love to give but has been robbed of the knowledge of how to give it safely thanks a traumatic incident in her past in which her innocence and naivety were abused by a person of trust who left her with no one to turn to for protection and a deeply internalised sense of shame and rage.

Her traumatic memories surround her like living beings, occupying the same space, occasionally poking their heads into her everyday life to remind her of an unpleasant association she couldn’t forget if she tried. Jeong-hae no longer sleeps, she naps fitfully on the sofa or wanders around all night at markets and cafes; she craves connection, but cannot access it. Thanks to the cat, the ex, the writer, even the overbearing shoe shop assistant and drunk man, she begins to find a way forward even if it pushes her towards an equally dangerous conclusion, and suddenly perhaps it’s not quite all so hopeless as it seemed.


This Charming Girl was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Spy Gone North (공작, Yoon Jong-bin, 2018)

Spy gone north posterSome might say the first lesson of spying is not too ask too many questions. The hero of Yoon Jong-bin’s Spy Gone North (공작, Gongjak) may wish he’d heeded this advice as his ongoing mission to gain access to North Korea’s nuclear secrets by way of an unlikely advertising scheme sets him on a dark path towards the realisation that he might not be working for the good guys after all. In geopolitical terms, an enemy is sometimes more helpful than a friend – especially if your “enemy” is working on the same system and can be relied upon to play along when the occasion calls.

By the early ‘90s, South Korea has emerged from a lengthy period of military dictatorships into a fledgling democracy. Tensions with the North are running high as the nation has announced an intention to withdraw with from the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty on grounds of national security. Fearing that the North has already successfully developed nuclear weapons, the South decides to ramp up intelligence gathering activity which is where “Black Venus” comes in. Shedding his old identity by appearing to lose himself in drink and gambling, intelligence officer Park Suk-young (Hwang Jung-min) poses as a sleazy businessman with the intention of gaining access to the North Korean elite through their external trade commission operating out of Beijing.

Improbable though it seems, Park manages to engineer a genuine friendship with the cold and austere North Korean trade official Ri Myong-un (Lee Sung-min) with whom he eventually shares unexpected common ground. Strapped for cash after the South sets them up by getting them in hock to China over a mislabelled walnut scandal, the North needs money fast, which is why they’re prepared to talk to someone as shady as Park’s cover. Park sells them an unlikely solution which runs contrary to their core philosophies in exploiting the exoticism of the forgotten North to sell capitalistic decadence in the South through selling licenses to shoot commercials on North Korean soil (which also allows him to travel about the country with a camera), but he doesn’t quite see the added value of his mission even while almost forgetting about the need to get close to the site of the supposed nuclear research facility.

While Park finds himself an “honoured guest” of the Dear Leader (Gi Ju-bong) whose presence evokes both fear and awe, he is also faced with a pressing political crisis at home as the nation prepares for an upcoming presidential collection. Despite the democratic revolution, the same party has been in power for the last 30 years and the recent swing towards the liberal opposition party has many running scared, especially as taking a softer line towards the North is a prominent manifesto pledge – alongside a reform of the security services, which is obviously distressing news for Park’s bosses. In order to maintain the sense of fear which keeps the right-wingers in power, the security services have been secretly communicating with the North and bribing them to create disturbances at politically advantageous times to manipulate the outcome of elections. Park is not exactly a liberal, but he has to admit this is not a good look and if you’re just going to parrot the “for the people” line perhaps you’re not much better than the thing you claim to hate.

Meanwhile, Park is also witness to a side of North Korea outsiders don’t generally see filled with the starving and the destitute. Loyalists all, there are those among the North Korean elite who want to see conditions improve and worry that thanks to the intense stranglehold of the ruling regime they never will. As in everything, business interests trump all. Park and Ri are fighting for the same thing, aware their fledging enterprise is a subterfuge but also that it’s a huge and dangerous first step towards a happier future. After 40 years of mutual manipulations, however, not everyone is keen on abandoning the status quo especially as the two nations have developed an intensely symbiotic relationship founded on mutual demonisation and a friendly willingness to conspire in ensuring the survival of a useful evil. Still, the strangely fraternal relationship between Park and Ri – two fiercely patriotic men from opposing sides who each identify goodness in the other becomes the heart of the film, holding out hope for empathy and compromise when most prefer enmity and chaos.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Adulthood (어른도감, Kim In-seon, 2018)

Adulthood poster 2Growing up is a funny thing, most of us are content to let it run as a background task while we get on with our daily lives but some of us are forced to contemplate the nature of “adulthood” from a transitionary perspective when confronted with independence delivered at an unexpected juncture. The debut feature from Kim In-seon, Adulthood (어른도감, Eoreundogam) is a coming of age tale but it’s also one about family, responsibility, integrity, and the social fabric as a teenage girl’s attempts to adjust to life alone are frustrated by the arrival of an irresponsible uncle with issues of his own.

14-year-old Kyung-un’s (Lee Jae-in) father (Choi Duk-moon) has just passed away following a lengthy illness. Her mother left when she was small, and now Kyung-un is all alone. The funeral is lonely, and Kyung-un is otherwise unaccompanied, without friends or relatives to assist in the business of mourning. That is, until a good-looking young man suddenly jumps on the bus to the crematorium and bursts into tears. Jae-min (Um Tae-Goo) claims to be the younger brother of Kyung-un’s father whom she has never met. Sceptical, Kyung-un has no other option than to allow Jae-min to invade her life even though she felt as if she was managing fine on her own.

However, Jae-min’s intentions turn out to be less than honourable. He’s a conman and a gigalo who’s forever failing in various scams and deceptions, and despite Kyung-un’s prudent caution towards him, he manages to trick her out of her dad’s life insurance money thanks to making himself her legal guardian on a pretext of saving her from a foster home. Being the clever little girl she is, Kyung-un manages to track her errant uncle down to a shady part of town, but the only way she’s getting her money back is if she consents to become Jae-min’s accomplice and pose as his daughter in order to win over his latest mark, lonely pharmacist Jum-hee (Seo Jung-yeon).

Forced to care for herself from an early age thanks to her father’s illness, Kyung-un is a mature little girl who can manage perfectly fine on her own, even dealing with complicated formalities like submitting death certificates and dealing with insurance companies. At 14 she probably shouldn’t have to do any of this alone but doesn’t want to lose her independence or have her life further disrupted by being forced out of her home and into foster care. Despite her natural caution there is perhaps a part of her that wants to believe Jae-min’s story, even if the other part of her is cloning his mobile phone and going through his bag to try and figure out what it is he’s after.

Jae-min, however, is a selfish man child perpetually chasing quick fixes and conveniently deciding to ignore whoever might end up getting hurt in the process, though it’s also true that he’s not completely unaffected by the pain he causes to others. His moral scruples do not extend to cheating his niece out of her father’s money which is all she has to live on and probably means she will also become homeless seeing as her landlord (who hasn’t even noticed her dad has died) is pushing the rent up. Eyes always on the prize, Jae-min’s dream of opening a Japanese restaurant is real enough and he doesn’t much care what he has to do to make it a reality.

However, when Jae-min and Kyung-un are forced to start playacting family for the lonely Jum-hee, a genuine connection is set in motion. As it turns out, there’s a reason for Jum-hee’s continued aloofness and fear to engage and her interactions with the “widowed” father and daughter do indeed begin to shift something inside her too. Despite all the lying and the natural mistrust, something true bubbles to the surface even if the continued deceptions threaten to push it all back down again.

In the end perhaps that’s what adulthood means, understanding that sometimes people tell the truth when they lie. Kyung-un and Jae-min, both orphans, both lonely, both doing “fine” on their own, nevertheless come to realise that perhaps it’s not so bad to be doing fine on your own with someone else. It’s not perfect, and perhaps it’s not what you wanted, but then that’s “adulthood” for you. A promising debut from Kim In-seon, Adulthood is a warm and empathetic look at different paths to maturity as a little girl and a hollow man bond in their shared sense of aloneness and come to realise that independence does not necessarily require solitude.


Adulthood gets its North American premiere as the opening night gala of the seventh season of Asian Pop-up Cinema which takes place in Chicago from 12th September to 14th November 2018. Director Kim In-seon and actress Lee Jae-in will be in attendance for the opening night screening at AMC River East 21 on 12th September for an introduction and Q&A. Tickets are already on sale via the official website.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생, Kim Jee-woon, 2005)

bitterweet life posterAs Boss Kang (Kim Young-chul) tells the hero of Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생, Dalkomhan Insaeng), no matter how well things are going, it only takes one mistake to make it all float away. Like any good film noir, the forces which conspire to ruin the quiet, orderly life of cooler than thou gangster Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) are those of desire as they come in conflict with codes of loyalty and decency. Sun-woo, like many a lonely hitman before him, finally wakes up to the emptiness of his life only to find no point of escape except the one he has often provided for others in precisely the same situation.

Smartly suited, Sun-woo is the trusted manager of the casino bar, Dolce Vita. Taken away from his elegant dessert in the upstairs restaurant, Sun-woo deals with a group of rowdy customers in true gangster fashion by launching in with a series of jump kicks and quickly thrown punches that reveal just why it is Sun-woo rules the roost. Sun-woo’s boss, Kang, has a special mission for his most trusted minion – keep an eye on his much younger girlfriend, Hee-soo (Shin Min-a), while he travels to Shanghai for three days. Kang thinks Hee-soo is having an affair. If she is, Sun-woo’s options are either to call Kang right away or take affirmative action on his own initiative.

Sun-woo investigates, but much to his surprise finds himself taken with Hee-soo. She is indeed having an affair, something which Sun-woo tries to ignore but finally has to be dealt with. A sudden pang of sympathy stops him from contacting Kang or pulling the trigger. Instead he decides to let the pair go on the condition they never see each other again. Thinking it’s all behind him, Sun-woo tries to go back to his regular job but he’s still dealing with the fallout from playing whistleblower on a high ranking gangster’s son.

Kim opens with an arty black and white sequence of tree branches swaying. In the story offered in voice over a disciple asks whether it is the trees or the wind which are moving, but the master replies that is is neither – it is the heart and mind which move. Like the branches, Sun-woo’s heart has begun to stir. Not love exactly, or lust, but movement. Sun-woo gazes at the way Hee-soo’s hair brushes her shoulder, at the way she walks and smiles at him. Listening to her cello rehearsal, his own emotional symphony begins, dangerously unbalancing his previously one-note existence with its identical suits and minimalist apartments.

Yet if Sun-woo’s downfall is Hee-soo and her alluring vitality, it was Kang’s first. An ageing gangster, Kang feels foolish taking up with a young girl but just can’t help himself. He loves the way Hee-soo couldn’t care less about what other people think, but that also worries him because she’ll never care what he thinks. Kang’s childishly romantic gift of a kitschy lamp with two owls huddling together on the base is the perfect symbol of his misplaced hopes – oddly innocent yet ultimately redundant. Notably, the lamp is one of many things shattered when Sun-woo takes Hee-soo’s lover to task.

Realising he has been betrayed, though not quite for the reasons he thinks, Sun-woo vows revenge. Everything has gone wrong, and he no longer believes in any kind of future which has him in it. Pausing only to send a more mature romantic gift to Hee-soo, an elegant lamp she’d admired on one of their shopping trips, he marches off towards certain death no longer caring for own life in his quest for vengeance and retribution. Repeating Kang’s questions back to him, asking for the real reason any of this happened, doesn’t get him very far but even if these two men have shared the same folly, they fail to understand each other even in death.

Returning to the master and his pupil, the closing coda recounts another story in which the pupil wakes up from a dream, weeping. The master asks him if he’s had a nightmare but the pupil says no, he’s had the sweetest of dreams. He’s crying because he’s awake and knows his dream can never come true. Sun-woo too has woken up, he knows there’s nothing for him now except to accept his fate. He has but been asleep, dreaming a sweet dream, and now he must wake and taste life’s bitterness just as he prepares to leave it.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

New World (신세계, Park Hoon-jung, 2013)

new world posterUndercover cop dramas have a long history of dealing more delicately with the nature of identity than in just a simple good guy/bad guy dichotomy, but New World’s (신세계, Sinsegye) moody noir setting ensures that the lines are always blurred and there may not in fact be any sides to choose from. Directed by Park Hoon-jung, scriptwriter of I Saw the Devil and The Unjust, New World makes plain that there may not be so much difference between a police officer and a gangster when each acts covertly, breaking their own rules and throwing any idea of honour out of the window in favour of self preservation or aggrandisement. In this worldview the victory of selfishness is assured, the law protects no one – not even its own, and the gangster, well, he only protects himself.

When the “CEO” (Lee Kyoung-young) of the Goldmoon “corporation” is killed in a “freak” car accident, his sudden absence creates a power vacuum in which his prime underlings, supported by their respective factions, vie for the top spot. Unbeknownst to them, police chief Kang (Choi Min-sik) has taken an interest in this suddenly instability in the largest crime syndicate in Korea and intends to launch Operation New World to interfere with the succession and ultimately install his longterm undercover agent in the director’s seat.

Lee Ja-sung (Lee Jung-jae) has been undercover for ten years, during which time he’s become the right hand man to one of the contenders to take over in the flashy Jung Chung (Hwang Jung-min). The opposing number, Lee Joong-gu (Park Sung-woong), is unscrupulous and suspicious – he has it in for Ja-sung and sees the succession as his natural right. Ja-sung, for his part, had assumed the death of the Goldmoon CEO would signal the end of his mission, allowing him to go back to his regular cop life. Soon to be a father, he’s tired of his duplicitous lifestyle and burned out on secret keeping but perhaps so long spent among the gangsters means his more natural home is exactly where he is.

This is certainly a duplicitous world. Grizzled police chief Kang may be on a mission to take down an all powerful crime group, but his methods are anything but orthodox. As usual in deep cover stories, only Kang and one other officer know of Ja-sung’s police background (at least, that’s what he wants Ja-sung to think), but Ja-sung may not be the only undercover operative Kang has on his books. Ja-sung is also sick of Kang’s obsessive surveillance which records the entirety of life in painstaking detail listing everywhere he goes and everything he eats, apparently even down to the sex of his unborn child. No one can be trusted, not even those closest to him, as Kang’s all powerful spy network has eyes and ears in every conceivable place.

Ja-sung’s identity crisis is never the focus of the narrative and a brief coda set three years previously may suggest that he’s already made his choice when comes to picking a side, but then the lines are increasingly blurred between good and bad even when the gangsters are seen committing heinous acts of torture and violence, making their enemies drink cement before dumping them in the nearby harbour. Ja-sung’s friendship with Jung Chung may be the most genuine he’s ever had in contrast to his relationship with Kang in which he remains a tool to be used at will and possibly disposed of at a later date.

Park holds the violence off as long as possible, preferring to focus on the internal psycho-drama rather than the bloody cruelty of the gangster world, but eventually violence is all there is and Park lets go with one expertly choreographed car park corridor fight followed by frenetic lift-set finale. The “New World” that the film posits is a dark and frightening one in which it’s dog eat dog and every man for himself with no room for morality or compassion. When the law fails to uphold its own values, others will prevail, for good or ill.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017. Also screening in Sheffield (13th November), Glasgow (18th November) and Belfast (18th November). New World will also be released on DVD/blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment on their new Montage Pictures sub-label.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Battleship Island (군함도, Ryoo Seung-Wan, 2017)

battleship island posterKorean cinema has been in a reflective mood of late. The ongoing series of colonial era dramas have sometimes leaned towards uncomfortable and uncompromising nationalism but among the more recent, there has also been an attempt to ask more serious questions about collaboration and capitulation of ordinary people living under a brutal and often cruel regime. While Age of Shadows dramatised this particular problem through the conflicted figure of a former resistance fighter turned Japanese military police offer, The Battleship Island (군함도, Goonhamdo) goes further in its depiction of those who dedicated themselves entirely to the Japanese Empire and were willing to oppress their fellow Koreans to do so. That is not to ignore the hellish conditions which define the very idea of Hashima as an off shore labour camp where depravity rules, exploitation is hidden, and the camp commander is free to run his ship however he sees fit.

In early 1945 Korea is still under Japanese colonial rule and ordinary Koreans are liable for conscription into the Imperial Japanese army whether they like it or not. Gang-ok (Hwang Jung-min) and his daughter Sohee (Kim Soo-ahn) are members of a popular jazz band but Gang-ok has a habit of getting himself into trouble and so they are tricked into getting on a boat to Japan hoping for a safer, more lucrative life. Where they end up is Hashima – otherwise known as “Battleship Island”. Gang-ok and Sohee are separated with Gang-ok stripped of his musical instruments and Sohee, who is only a child, carted off with the other women destined for the “comfort station”.

Ryoo wastes little time demonstrating the immense evil buried in places like Hashima. A deep seam coal mine in the middle of the sea, the island is a fortress prison from which escape is impossible. Early on, three small boys decide to flee after their friend is killed in a cave-in only for one to be shot and the other two drowned by the lazy soldiers of a Japanese patrol boat who couldn’t be bothered to fish them out of the water. The miners are beaten, starved, tortured and manipulated into submission knowing that capitulation is their best route to survival. Not only are these men the subjects of forced labour, they are also made liable for the “costs” involved in their own enslavement with the bill for their transportation, food, clothes, and tools deducted from their “wages” which are supposed to be paid into their bank accounts for access on release. Those killed whilst working are supposed to receive compensation for their families but as will later be revealed, systematic corruption means their families may not even know their loved ones are dead let alone that they are being denied the money rightfully owed to them.

Things get even worse for little Sohee who is forced into a kimono and smothered with makeup to “entertain” some of the Japanese officers on the island. She manages to buy herself some time when she realises the Korean record the camp commander puts on to “comfort” the “comfort women” is one she is actually singing on. This new discovery earns her and her father a slightly improved status in the camp though she may not be safe for long. Gang-ok has already reverted to his tried and tested methods for getting out of sticky situations, making himself a kind of camp fixer aided by his ability to speak Japanese.

The Korean prisoners are represented by a former resistance leader, Yoon Hak-chul (Lee Kyoung-young), who offers rousing speeches in public but privately is not quite all he seems. Gang-ok gets himself mixed up in a Resistance operation run by an OSS (Song Joong-ki) plant on site to rescue Yoon who eventually uncovers several inconvenient truths which make his mission something of a non-starter. Yoon’s empty rhetoric and self serving grandeur represent the worst of the spiritual crimes discovered on Hashima but there is equal ire for the turncoat Koreans who act as enforcers for the Japanese, issuing beatings and siding with their oppressors in the desperation to escape their oppression. Tragically believing themselves to have switched sides, the turncoats never realise that the Japanese hold them in even lower regard than those they have betrayed.

It is hard to avoid the obvious nationalistic overtones as the Japanese remain a one dimensional evil, smirking away as they run roughshod over human rights, prepare to barter little girls and send boys into dangerous potholes all in the name of industry. At one point Gang-ok cuts an Imperial Japanese flag in half to make the all important ramp which will help the captive Koreans escape the island before being summarily murdered to destroy evidence of Japanese war crimes which is a neat kind of visual symbolism, but also very on the nose. Once again, the message is that Koreans can do impossible things when they work together, as the impressively staged, horrifically bloody finale demonstrates, but as Ryoo also reminds us there no “heroes”, only ordinary people doing the best they can in trying times. 


Currently on limited UK cinema release!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Cart (카트, Boo Ji-young, 2014)

cartUp until very recently, many of us lucky enough to live in nations with entrenched labour laws have had the luxury of taking them for granted. Mandated breaks, holidays, sick pay, strictly regulated working hours and overtime directives – we know our rights, and when we feel they’re being infringed we can go to our union representatives or a government ombudsman to get our grievances heard. If they won’t listen, we have the right to strike. Anyone who’s been paying attention to recent Korean cinema will know that this is not the case everywhere and even trying to join a union can not only lead to charges of communism and loss of employment but effective blacklisting too. Cart (카트), inspired by real events, is the story of one group of women’s attempt to fight back against an absurdly arbitrary and cruel system which forces them to accept constant mistreatment only to treat their contractual agreements with cavalier contempt.

Sun-hee (Yum Jung-ah) is a loyal employee at the Mart. She’s had zero penalty points for five whole years and has been told that she’s about to be transferred from a temp worker contract to a regular employee position. Run more like a cult than a supermarket, the Mart’s workers all wear pristine blue and white uniforms and recite the dramatic sounding company credo every morning, vowing to increase sales whilst honouring customer service, and are instructed to say “Welcome Beloved Customer!” to each and every visitor. Eager to take on extra overtime with no extra pay and always at the beck and call of brusque manager Choi (Lee Seung-joon), Sun-hee is respected by her colleagues but perhaps not always liked as her goody two-shoes persona both makes them look bad and encourages the management to continue taking advantage.

Sun-hee’s dreams are about to crumble when the evil corporate suits at HQ decide it would be cheaper to fire all the temp workers and use outsourced labour instead. Despite all her long years of hard work and sacrifice, not only is she not getting her secure position, she might not have a job at all. Some of the other women decide they’ve had enough with their poor working conditions and it’s worth taking the chance on forming a union to fight head office together. Sun-hee is reluctant but is eventually convinced to become one of the spokespeople, after all, if they won’t listen to miss five years no penalties, who will they listen to?

It’s worth asking the question why all these terrible jobs with low pay and frequently exploitative conditions are being done exclusively by women. All of the workers on temporary contracts are female from the cleaning staff to the shelf stackers and cashiers, but all come from different backgrounds from young university graduates to old ladies and ordinary working wives and mothers. The management is unwilling to listen to the concerns of their staff because they are “only women”, “working for pocket money” and should just be grateful that the store gave them something to do rather than being bored at home. Pointing out that many of these women are single mothers or live in difficult economic circumstances meaning they need that money to eat would likely not go down well with these fiercely conservative, wealthy executives whose only response is to tell the women not to be so silly and to stop making a fuss over nothing because the men have business to do.

After just ignoring the women fails and they decide to go on strike eventually occupying the store for a longterm sit in, the company go on the image offensive, offering minor concessions including the reinstatement of some, but not all, workers and other small improvements designed to guilt some of the employees with more pressing circumstances to cross the picket line. Eventually, they go to the extreme measures of employing armed thugs and riot police to remove the women by force. In contrast with other similarly themed films from other countries, there is no attempt to get the press onside to expose the company’s workings and the only news reports seen in the film are extremely biased, painting the women as selfish loonies making trouble for everyone by refusing to shut up and accept the status quo.

Following a fairly standard trajectory, the main narrative thrust is the gradual blossoming of near brainwashed and timid employee Sun-hee into a firebrand campaigner for social justice. Through being encouraged to stand up for the other women, Sun-hee becomes concerned not just with her own treatment but the general working environment in Korea. This new found indignation also helps rebuild her relationship with her sullen teenage son after he experiences some workplace discrimination of his own which his mother is able to sort out for him now that she is not prepared to simply smile, nod, and apologise every time someone attempts to get their own way through intimidation.

Cart treats an important issue with the kind of levity and interpersonal drama which make it primed for a screen one hit rather than a later night run in screen five catering to those already aware of the issues. It probably isn’t going to agitate for any direct social change and according to the final caption the outcome of the original incident was more of a bittersweet accomplishment rather than an outright victory. Still, the fight goes on, even if you find yourself ramming a supermarket trolley into a riot officer’s shield to get the message across – an effect which Cart mimics in its quest to ensure as many people as possible get the memo that the time for passive acceptance has long since passed.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Asura: The City of Madness (아수라, Kim Sung-soo, 2016)

asura-poster

Review of Kim Sung-soo’s Asura: The City of Madness first published by UK Anime Network.


Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. It’s a shame the title City of Violence was already taken, Asura: The City of Madness (아수라, Asura) is a place of chaos in which carnage has become currency. Re-teaming with actor Jung Woo-sung fifteen years after Musa the Warrior, Kim Sung-soo’s Asura: The City of Madness is, at heart, B-movie pulp steeped in the hardboiled world of tough guys walking alone through the darkness, but even if film noir’s cynicism is out in force, there’s precious little of its essentially chivalrous mentality to be found in this fiercely amoral universe.

World weary policeman Han (Jung Woo-sung) has been moonlighting as the “gun-dog” of corrupt crime boss mayor, Park (Hwang Jung-min), and soon plans on quitting the legitimate force to work for city hall full time. After helping Park “relocate” an inconvenient witness, Han runs into a problem when another policeman turns up and promptly gets killed, drawing unwanted attention to his shady second job. This also brings him into contact with a righteous prosecutor, Kim (Kwak Do-won), who claims to be hellbent on exposing Park’s not quite legal operations and ousting him from power in the hope of a less corrupt regime emerging. Despite his lofty claims, Kim’s methods are little different from Park’s. Han soon finds himself caught in the middle of a legal cold war as he tries to play both sides one against the other but slowly finds neither worth betraying.

The film’s title, Asura, is inspired by the creatures from Indian mythology who are imbued with immense supernatural power yet consumed by negative emotion, relentlessly battling each other in a quest for material rather than spiritual gain. The very male world of Annam is no different as men trade blows like money and wear their wealth on their faces. There are no good guys in Annam, each is involved in a desperate fight to survive in which none can afford luxuries such as pity or morality. Han emerges as the film’s “hero” not out of any kind of nobility or a desire to do good, but simply in being the least actively bad. Able to see the world for what it is – a hell of chaos and cruelty, Han is, perhaps, the best man his environment allows him to be but this same knowledge eats away at him from the inside as he’s forced to act in a way which betrays his own sense of righteousness.

Annam is a world founded on chaos. The forces which are supposed to represent order are the very ones which perpetuate a state of instability. The police are universally corrupt, either working for themselves or in the pay of larger outside forces, and the municipal authorities are under the control of Park – a vicious, mobbed up, sociopath. Prosecutor Kim who claims to represent the resistance against this cosmology of corruption is not what he seems and is, in fact, another part of the system, willing to resort to blackmail, torture, and trickery in order to achieve his vainglorious goal. Yet for all that, the force that rules is mere chance – the most meaningful deaths occur accidentally, the result of shoddy construction work and high testosterone or in the indecision of betrayal. Death is an inevitability for all living creatures, but these men are, in a sense, already dead, living without love, without honour, and without pity.

Kim Sung-soo makes a point of portraying violence in all of its visceral reality as bones crack and blood flows with sickening vitality. The film is extreme in its representation of what could be termed ordinary violence as men engage as equals in hand to hand combat until the machetes and hacksaws come out to combat the shootout finale, complete with the Korean hallmark corridor fight.

Beautifully shot with a neo-noir aesthetic of the nighttime, neon lit city filled with crime ridden back alleys, Asura: The City of Madness is a grimy, hardboiled tale of internecine violence fuelled by corruption and self serving compliance. The ‘80s style lowkey synth score adds a note of anxiety to the proceedings, hinting towards an almost supernatural presence in this strange city populated by the walking dead and morally bankrupt. An epic of “unheroic” bloodshed, Asura: The City of Violence presents a world which thrives on pain where men ease their suffering by transferring it to others. Bleak and nihilistic in the extreme, this is the hard edge of pulpy B-movie noir in which the men in the shadows wish they were as dark as the city streets, but find themselves imprisoned within a series of private hells which are entirely of their own making.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)