My Big Mama’s Crazy Ride (큰엄마의 미친봉고, Paek Seung-hwan, 2021)

A veteran matriarch suddenly decides she’s had enough in Paek Seung-hwan’s indie comedy, My Big Mama’s Crazy Ride (큰엄마의 미친봉고, Keuneommaui michinbonggo). Taking aim not only at the deeply ingrained and hopelessly outdated patriarchal social codes of contemporary society, Paek also asks a series of questions about the concept of family with the wives and daughters-in-law repeatedly finding themselves described as “outsiders” yet expected to sacrifice their hopes and aspirations in dedicating themselves entirely to the “family” which more often than not treats them as unremunerated housekeepers. 

It’s easy enough to see why “Big Mama” Yeong-hui (Jung Young-joo) is fed up as her husband Han-il (Yu Seong-ju) barks orders from upstairs while she tries to sort out the food for the ancestral rites knowing the men are up there lounging around drinking just expecting everything to be done for them without needing to lift a finger to help. This year she’s choosing chaos, rounding up all of the other women in the family including Eun-seo (Kim Ga-eun) her nephew’s fiancée meeting the family for the first time and packing them into her minivan leaving the men to fend for themselves.  

This is a problem for them for several reasons the biggest being that it soon becomes clear they have no idea how to do anything for themselves, drill sergeant Han-il ordering his brother and sons to finish all the food prep within the hour while they search for YouTube videos to teach them basic cooking. They can barely even figure out how to make themselves some instant noodles while they wait, becoming progressively drunker to avoid facing the reality of their situation or accept that perhaps their treatment of their wives has been unfair or that they’ve taken all of their labour for granted. Old-fashioned authoritarian Han-il even approves of Yeong-hui’s flight in the beginning in the belief that she’s taken the other women out to teach them some discipline despite her having brought up the subject of divorce because of his own treatment of her. He doesn’t see his behaviour as essentially abusive because of the patriarchal social codes in which he operates believing this is simply the way that husbands are supposed to boss their wives. His brother and sons are little different though subordinate to him as head of the family, oldest song Hwang-sang (Song Dong-hwan) eventually kicking back but only after realising his mother may really leave profoundly shaking his foundations even as a grown man with a son of his own. 

Then again, aside from a potential divorce Yeong-hui is otherwise described as an “outsider” having married into the family most particularly when it comes to light that Han-il has sold some ancestral land and intended to keep the money for himself rather than share it amongst the other family members. When he sends the proceeds to Yeong-hui in a last ditch effort to get her to come home, it causes division on both sides with his brother Han-san (Yoo Byung-hoon) in particular objecting to the money leaving the family as Yeong-hui is technically a Lee and not a Yu while the women also think she should share the money with them rather than keep it for herself little knowing she was already planning to do so. Having serious doubts about marrying into this crazy family, Eun-seo, who is in any case Christian, isn’t sure why she was attending their ancestral rites anyway but if none of these women are actually “family” why is it they’re the ones expected to prepare the rites for the Yu ancestors? Yeong-hui sees the money in part as compensation for the unpaid labour she’s performed over the last 40 years while being shouted at and ordered around by her overbearing authoritarian husband. 

Thanks to YouTuber niece Hyo-jeong (Ha Jung-min) and sleazy tabloid journalist nephew Jae-sang (Cho Dal-hwan) the women’s flight ends up going viral and even making the evening news where they find mass support from other women in similar situations along with unexpected male solidarity though a big thumbs up from a series of male policemen seems a little unlikely given the threat they present to the entrenched social order in rebelling against the same kind of patriarchal male authority the police force itself represents. In any case, it becomes clear that Yeong-hui has simply chosen to celebrate her own ancestral rights in paying tribute to another woman whose name she only belatedly found out, the other women also revealing that they don’t even quite know each other’s given names because they’re so used to addressing each other only as daughter/sister-in-law or else as X’s mum to the extent that they’ve been robbed of an individual identity. Nevertheless through their transgressive road trip the women rediscover a sense of female solidarity while the men are forced to reckon with the way they treat their wives realising that if they want to keep their family together they’ll have to move with the times. 


My Big Mama’s Crazy Ride streamed as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Memoir of a Murderer (살인자의 기억법, Won Shin-yeon, 2017)

memoir of a murderer posterMemory, particularly traumatic memory, coupled with the inability to overcome painful truths through the act of forgetting, has a become an essential part of Korean cinema. The “hero” at the centre of Won Shin-yeon’s Memoir of a Murderer (살인자의 기억법, Salinjaui Gieokbeob), adapted from the novel by Kim Young-Ha, literally cannot remember his past crimes – he is suffering from dementia possibly brought on by brain damage sustained in an accident 17 years previously. The inability to remember is not the same as forgetting, and forgetting is not the same as ignoring, but there are some truths so essential that a superficial inability to recall them does not destroy their power.

Byung-su (Sol Kyung-gu) was once a serial killer. That is to say, he was the “noble” kind of serial killer who only killed “bad” people (in his own moral judgment) such as instigators of domestic violence, heartless loan sharks, or people who harm animals. These days Byung-su is a successful vet living with his grown-up daughter, Eun-hee (Seol Hyun). Having recently confirmed that he has Alzheimer’s, the doctor says possibly a result of trauma from that earlier car crash, Byung-su does not know what to do for the best seeing as he’ll have to give up work. An unexpected collision with a young man in a swanky silver car, Min Tae-ju (Kim Nam-Gil), gives Byung-su something else to think about when he notices what looks like blood dripping from the boot. Locking eyes with the man in question, Byun-su knows instantly that Tae-ju is just like him – a killer, probably the man behind a series of unsolved murders. Byung-su might have let this go as a matter of professional courtesy were it not for a few nagging doubts – did Tae-ju see in him what he saw in Tae-ju, and if he did will Eun-hee, who is a perfect match with the currently known victims in the unsolved serial killing case, be in additional danger due to her father’s accidental encounter?

Then again, did any of that actually happen? Byung-su’s rapidly deteriorating memory cannot be relied upon. Perhaps there was no crash, perhaps there was no body or the body was that of a deer, perhaps Byung-su is simply mixing up his original car crash with something more metaphorical. In an effort to help him remember where he is, Eun-hee has given her father a dictaphone so he can leave himself messages of things he might forget – when he took his medication, places he needs to go, the names of people he met but can’t remember. Unbeknownst to her, Byung-su has already engaged himself in a wider program of remembering by trying to write down his own life story, including all the grisly details of his serial killing past, in a kind of memoir on his computer. Though Byung-su struggles to remember details or ensure he has everything clearly the way it really happened, muscle memory speaks for itself and his body will never forget its murderous past. Freed from the moderating force of Byung-su’s remaining humanity, Byung-su worries what his body may do on his behalf while his mind is absent.

Byung-su positions himself as morally good, believing that his mission of killing “bad” people is a kind of service to humanity. When he begins to doubt himself, that perhaps he is both the old serial killer and the new but has “forgotten” his most recent victims, his justification starts to fall apart. Almost a father and son, Byung-su and his suspect come from different generations and grew up in very different political and social circumstances, yet both carry the scars of domestic violence. Violent fathers beget violent sons yet Byung-su, he believes, has chosen a better path in ridding the world of bullies whereas his opposing number has chosen to blame the victim in preying on the weak.

Alzheimer’s leaves Byung-su permanently vulnerable, not least to self betrayal, rendering him unable to even recognise his enemy or remember why it was he seems to suspect him. Despite the inability to remember, Byung-su retains his instinctive suspicion of Tae-ju, but is unable to evade the possibility that his misgivings are a mix of self-projection and a more natural paternal wariness. His world is in constant shift between realities founded on imperfect memory. Not until he has faced the truth in all its ugliness can he hope to reorder his existence. The act of forgetting cannot solve all one’s problems – the absence of superficial pain merely provokes a kind of numbness while the root causes remain. Byung-su cannot kill the killer in himself, and is condemned to chase his own ghost through various unrealities until it finally catches up with him. Filled with (extremely) dark humour and oddly warm naturalistic detail, Memoir of a Murderer operates on a deeper level than it first might appear, stepping away from literal truths in favour of metaphorical ones but finding little of either.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해, Jeong Jae-eun, 2001)

take-care-of-my-catThe time after high school is often destabilising as even once close groups of friends find themselves being pulled in all kinds of different directions. So it is for the group of five young women at the centre of Jeong Jae-eun’s debut feature, Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해, Goyangileul Butaghae). All at or around 20, the age of majority in Korea, the girls were a tightly banded unit during high school but have all sought different paths on leaving. Lynchpin Tae-hee (Bae Doo-na) is responsible for trying to keep the gang together through organising regular meet ups but it’s getting harder to get everyone in the same place and minor differences which hardly mattered during school grow ever wider as adulthood sets in.

Cheerful scenes of high school mischief give way to the uncertain present as five old friends prepare to celebrate the 20th birthday of the group’s self appointed star, Hye-joo (Lee Yo-won). Hye-joo, however, has moved on to a high level office job in Seoul and is about to blow off her high school friends to hang out with her possibly sleazy boss, only to revert back to plan A when he cancels on her. Too cowardly to ring her friends in person, Hye-joo leaves the business of calling off the party to the chief organiser, Tae-hee, who rings round letting the other three girls – jobless Ji-young (Ok Ji-young), and half Chinese twins Bi-ryu (Lee Eun-sil) and Ohn-jo (Lee Eun-ju), know (and presumably has to then ring them all back to tell them the party’s back on).

Hye-joo moved farthest away from her roots both in terms of location and of her social ambitions through taking a well paid admin job in the city. Increasingly materialistic and status orientated, her friendship with the other girls suffers as she sees herself as transitioning to a higher social class. Ironically, her views are equally deluded as she continues to believe that her dedication and willingness to work hard can make up for her lack of a degree but quickly finds herself displaced when the next batch of newbies arrive.

This growing desire for material status has also contributed to a seemingly unbridgeable rift with Ji-young whose economic status is the most vulnerable. Orphaned and living in a shack with her elderly grandparents, Ji-young has recently lost her job and is having difficulty finding another one precisely because of her circumstances – one firm even point blank refuses her application because both of her parents are dead and they need a direct family member to vouch for her. Hye-joo is insensitive in the extreme and often flashes her money around whilst rubbing salt in Ji-young’s wounds by emphasising her lack of it and pouring cold water over her ideas of saving money to study abroad. Small digs like these and insisting that all the girls leave their home town to visit her in Seoul (leaving aside the additional costs for Ji-young whom she knows is having difficulty making ends meet) point to Hye-joon’s own sense of neediness and insecurity.

As a result, Ji-young distances herself from her friends, ashamed of her desperation and feeling unable to ask them for help. It is she who finds the cat of the title when she hears it mewing whilst trapped behind debris on her way home. The cat becomes almost a mirror of Ji-young – alone and abandoned on the streets with no one to look after her. Originally, Ji-young tries to give the kitten to Hye-joon as a birthday present only to have it immediately returned. The cat is then passed around among each of the friends looking for a more permanent kind of affection, but finding little in the way of stability.

The longest and most devoted guardian turns out to be Tae-hee who is perhaps most affected by the loss of her friends and changing circumstances. Tae-hee is from a moderately well off middle class family and has been helping out in her father’s business since leaving school (apparently without pay). Despite her lack of worry over material comforts, she finds herself feeling restless and increasingly interested in the “foreign” with dreams of taking off alone for adventures overseas. Her desire for freedom is partly down to her domineering father who simply overrules all of her decisions even down to ordering food in a restaurant. Tae-hee is the only one to reach out to Ji-young when she realises she might be in trouble and is the only one still there for her at the end. Their economic and familial circumstances may be different, but in their desire to escape the confines of the rundown Incheon for something outside of what it might have planned for them, the two girls are a perfect match.

Of the group of friends the twins receive the least attention, hovering on the sidelines, separate from the mini dramas erupting between the insensitive and self obsessed Hye-joo and the increasingly desperate Tae-hee and Ji-young. As a unit of two they have their own little world which seems much happier and more solid than that of any of the other girls and arguably have less need for the immediacy of their old friendships. They are therefore the ideal place to deposit them, in the form of a stray cat finally finding a home. The past has its place – in the past, the memories are warm and fluffy and deserve to be taken care of, but there comes a time you have to surrender full custody and be content to visit from time to time.

An extraordinarily well composed debut feature, Take Care of My Cat has a more European feeling than many a Korean coming of age drama but is filled with realistic detail such as the constant ringing of the girls’ ever present mobile phones and the onscreen representation of their straightforward text based conversation. There’s a kind of sadness associated with the transition from carefree adolescence to the difficult journey into adulthood with each of the girls discovering what it is they want out of life, or more aptly what it is they don’t want. Hye-joo emerges as the quasi-villain of the piece as she makes an obvious, superficial choice to follow the consumerist trend over valuing human relationships though it’s hard not to feel sorry for her when it appears she’s being set up for disappointment. Ending on a note of hopeful uncertainty, Jeong’s debut feature is a hymn to the theme of moving on but is careful to admit the bittersweet quality of a new beginning.


International trailer (English subtitles)