Confession (자백, Yoon Jong-seok, 2022)

An accused man and the woman sent to defend him battle over the elusive nature of objective truth in Yoon Jong-seok’s steely psychological thriller, Confession (자백, Jabaek). A remake of the Spanish film Contratiempo, Confession is nevertheless the latest in a longline of Korean films critical of expanding chaebol culture and the utter entitlement of the elite who assume they have the right to do whatever they want because their money, status, and connections protect them from any potential consequences of their actions. Then again as the lawyer tells her client, salvation is never painless. 

Min-ho (So Ji-sub) had something of a golden life. Married to the daughter of the chairman of a large corporation, he was a rising star of cybersecurity who had even been named IT businessman of the year but was about to throw it all away through a lengthy affair with a woman, Se-hee (Nana), whom he has now been accused of killing. You’d have to admit, he had a motive and the circumstantial evidence against him is convincing yet Min-ho claims that he didn’t do it and there was a third party involved in this otherwise locked room mystery. 

Much of the film takes place in a claustrophobic wooden cabin in the woods all but cut off by heavy snow in which Min-ho has chosen retreat after his chairman father-in-law managed to get his arrest warrant canceled. What emerges is a psychological battle between Ms. Yang (Kim Yunjin), the fancy lawyer hired by the chairman, and Min-ho who have somewhat opposing goals. Min-ho wants her to sign the documents confirming her as his legal counsel and therefore making anything he might have said subject to privilege while she presses him for the location of vital evidence while trying to expose the objective truth behind Min-ho’s selective testimony. 

Neither of them are reliable narrators, Ms. Yang coming up with potential scenarios and at times implying she has evidence that she does not in order to push Min-ho towards revealing the facts of the case. As she says, a lawyer can only help you if you’ve been rigorously honest because she in turn needs to construct a narrative that can undercut the prosecution’s case. The truth might in one sense be irrelevant, as she implies when advising that they frame Se-hee as the villain suggesting that she orchestrated a plot to blackmail Min-ho over their affair in a mix of vengeance and greed when he decided to end their relationship because he could no longer bear the guilt of cheating on his wife. 

Yet there are further transgressions in Min-ho’s past aside from his affair and it’s the attempt to cover them up more than the affair itself which has landed him in so much trouble. As he tells the lawyer, he doesn’t just want to avoid prison but is set on total exoneration unwilling to accept any kind of responsibility for what is currently happening to him. Because of his wealth and status he believes he is not subject to the same laws as everyone else and that even if he had killed Se-hee as his lawyer is beginning to suspect, he would still not be guilty of any crime. “What’s important is to survive” he tells the lawyer revealing his inner ruthlessness along with the complacent reckless streak which might hinder her attempts to defend him. 

There’s no denying that the film’s earliest twists are obvious and heavily foreshadowed but like a seasoned lawyer it is also laying a trap that leaves its final revelations extremely satisfying in implying a kind of justice at least is possible in this inherently corrupt society where dodgy lawyers and elite privilege go hand in hand to destroy the lives of ordinary people. Dark in its implications, the cat and mouse game between lawyer and client who each lie in an attempt to expose the truth hints at the malleability of what is considered to be “true” in the way in which we all construct the narrative of our lives to suit ourselves while denying the realities of others. There may be no such thing as objective truth, but guilt and complacency will still come for you in the end. Visually referencing Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Yoon’s tense psychological drama is in its own way hopeful in its reeling conclusion even if as the lawyer says salvation is never painless. 


Confession screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Pension (더 펜션, Ryu Jang-ha, Yang Jong-hyun, Yoon Chang-mo, Jung Heo Deok-jae, 2018)

The Pension poster“We’re all lonely beings” the proprietor of a small mountain lodge advances hoping to comfort a distressed guest. The temporary denizens of The Pension (더 펜션), a four part omnibus set in a charmingly old-fashioned forest hideaway, are indeed mostly lonely beings making use of this liminal place to process the taboo away from the prying eyes of civilisation, embracing the savagery of the natural world as they cast off conventional morality to pursue their illicit desires be they vengeful, violent, protective or loving.

We begin with darkness as our first pair of guests, a man, Choo-ho (Jo Han-chul), and his wife Mi-kyung (Park Hyo-joo), seem to be all too interested in the family next door. Eventually we discover that the couple have come with ill intentions and revenge on their mind, though the man they’re after doesn’t seem so bad to begin with – he asks them to dinner with his wife and son who seem happy, but the atmosphere grows tenser as he begins to drink and a darkness creeps in. Before long Mi-kyung has set her mind on poetic justice, leaving the other couple’s young son in peril while Choo-ho struggles with his desire to stop his wife making a terrible mistake while not wanting to upset her.

Unhappy families continue to be theme with the second pair of guests – a married couple hoping to rekindle their listless romance in the peace and tranquillity of the remote mountain lodge. While the arrival is pleasant enough, perhaps too much so as the husband (Park Hyuk-kwon) puts on a show of making the effort, despair creeps in when he realises he’d made sure to bring his wife’s (Lee Young-jin) favourite coffee but forgotten the grinder. He wants her all to himself, but she just wants to go home and worries about their young daughter staying with a mother-in-law she doesn’t seem to like very much. Eventually the couple decide they need some time apart and she ends up meeting someone else (Kim Tae-hoon) in the woods to whom she recounts all the loneliness and isolation she experiences in her married life, seemingly trapped by conventionality but unconvinced that anything would be very different if she left.

The hotel owner (Jo Jae-yoon) might agree with her – a lonely soul he is too, though it appears he opened this hotel for just that reason, burying himself away from his heartache by coming to live alone with the transient presence of strangers and peaceful isolation of the woods. His mother, however, is not convinced and is constantly nagging him to get married – in fact, she’s set up a meeting for the following day meaning he’ll have to close the shop. That might be a problem, because he gets a surprise guest in the middle of the night, a distressed woman (Shin So-yul) intent on staying in a very particular room. Finding it odd, he can hardly turn her away with nowhere else to go but a TV programme on the causes of suicide (loneliness, the decline of the traditional family, economic pressures etc) convinces him he ought to check on her. Assuming she is merely lovelorn (as is he), he tries to comfort her with platitudes but pulls away from her emotional need only to find himself eventually wounded only in a much more physical way as he idly fantasises what it might have been like if he’d gone back to her room and been a bit more sympathetic.

Our proprietor is notably absent in the final segment, replaced by a much younger man (Lee Yi-kyung) with much more urgent desires. Despite being there to do a job, the boy has brought his girlfriend whom he alienates by failing to explain a mysterious text from another girl all while making eyes at the attractive young woman (Hwang Sun-hee) staying next door who claims to be “from the future”. When another guest turns up and starts making a fuss about a missing engagement ring she supposedly left behind, everything becomes much more complicated than it seems but one thing is certain – there is precious little love to be found in this hotel where everyone has come to embrace the side of themselves the city does not allow to breathe.

Much more cynical and obviously comedic than the preceding three tales, the final chapter perhaps bears out the message that it’s not so much rest and relaxation people have come to The Pension for, but “privacy” or to be more exact “discretion”. Some came for love, others for lack of it, but all of them are looking for something they are unlikely to find here though the first couple could perhaps have found it if only they had stuck together. Nevertheless, hotels are transient places for a reason – take what you need from your stay and leave the rest behind.


The Pension screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on April 16, 7pm, at AMC River East 21.

International trailer (English subtitles)