26 Years (26년, Cho Geun-hyun, 2012)

26 Years posterA society says a lot about itself in the way it treats its villains. Chun Doo-hwan was a brutal dictator who came to power as a result of a violent counter coup which encompassed the now notorious murder of ordinary citizens by agents of the state in Gwangju in May 1980. Chun’s reign eventually came to an end with the successful conclusion of the democratisation movement which gave birth to the modern democratic state of South Korea that is, at present, in the aftermath of dealing with another unpopular leader deposed through peaceful, democratic means. Though originally sentenced to death Chun’s punishment was later commuted. He has never paid the massive fine that was imposed upon him as symbolic recompense for his acts of terror and vast web of corruption. .

The five men and women at the centre of 26 Years (26년, Nyeon) have not forgotten the face of Chun Doo-hwan (Jang Gwang), identified only as “that man”, and are among the many frustrated by his refusal to take responsibility for his actions. A former soldier remorseful for his role in the events (Lee Geung-young) recruits an olympic sharpshooter (Han Hye-jin) whose mother was killed by a stray bullet, a gangland thug (Jin Goo) whose father was tortured and murdered by security forces driving his mother into madness, and a policeman (Im Seulong) who lost his sister running away from a demonstration, as well as his son (Bae Soo-bin), to assist in a plan to force the former general to apologise for his crimes and, if he refuses, enact their own justice.

Spoilers aside, Chun Doo-hwan is still very much alive and the events of 26 Years are inspired by an entirely fictionalised webmanga though it is true that Chun lives in an L-shaped compound protected by perimeter walls and a small army of police and security forces presumably at great cost to the Korean tax payer. He has never apologised for his actions regarding the Gwangju massacre and continues to blame the “rioters” in insisting that the soldiers had no choice but to fire back in self defence. That such a politically sensitive film could be made about a figure who is still alive, let alone that it would become a major box office success and crowd funding phenomenon is a small miracle in itself but speaks to the deep rift this troubled period of recent history provokes in the minds of the contemporary society.

First time director Cho opens with the events of 1980 but in highly stylised animation rather than live action. There is something in the sketchy quality of the artwork that perfectly evokes the ambivalence of the entire enterprise, of not quite wanting to look at events which are so hard to see. See we do as bystanders are cruelly struck by stray bullets, soldiers panic and shoot, and the left behind search desperately for their missing loved ones but find only tragedy and pain. Reverting to live action for 1983 onwards, Cho then takes us through the next 20 years noting landmarks as he goes – the ever present terror of Chun on TV screens everywhere, his eventual fall and the restoration of democracy, Chun’s pardoning and eventual yet accidental house imprisonment for his own security.

The wounds remain unhealed, festering without resolution. While protestors make their voices heard, a room full of supporters fall to their knees before a resurgent Chun standing proud before them. Chun remains unrepentant, cruelly so in Cho’s dramatisation, shaking off the body of a fallen bodyguard like a slobbering dog, caring nothing for his people and thinking only of his own survival.

Cho keeps the tension high as the small band of traumatised youngsters attempts to confront their nation’s difficult history head on, finding both resistance and camaraderie yet fighting internal conflict all the way. Avoiding easy answers, 26 Years is among the most direct attempts Korean cinema has made to reckon with the traumatic recent past, mixing high octane action with a melancholy consideration of the effects of a national trauma but it also finds itself in a moment of indecision, refusing the ending narrative demands in favour of an intake of breath followed by a weary exhale of weighty resignation.


Currently available to stream via Netflix.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days (신과함께-인과 연,Kim Yong-hwa, 2018)

Along with the gods 2 posterKarma is a bitch, and Korean hell is apparently full of it. You don’t have to be guilty to work here, but it certainly seems to help. Picking up straight after the conclusion of the first film, Kim Yong-hwa’s Along with the Gods sequel, The Last 49 Days (신과함께-인과 연, Singwa Hamgge: Ingwa Yeon) sees stern grim reaper/celestial defence lawyer Gang-lim (Ha Jung-woo) make good on his promise to clear the name of a once vengeful spirit now cheerfully deceased, but willingly or otherwise it’s himself he’s putting on trial as the facts of his client’s case veer eerily close to his own. King Yeomra (Lee Jung-jae) is up to his old tricks once again.

Brother of the first film’s “paragon” Ja-hong, Kim Su-hong (Kim Dong-wook) is headed nowhere good – after being accidentally shot by one friend and then buried alive by another to cover it up, Su-hong became a vengeful spirit creating havoc in the mortal and underworlds. Gang-lim, however, is convinced that Su-hong’s death was “wrongful”, that he died as a deliberate act of murder rather than simply by a tragic accident, and commits himself to clearing Su-hong’s name so that he can be reincarnated immediately. He manages to win King Yeomra over, but there is one condition – an old man, Hur Choon-sam (Nam Il-Woo), is an overstayer in the mortal world and should have been “ascended” long ago but his household god, Sung-ju (Ma Dong-Seok), keeps despatching the Guardians to keep the old man safe. If Gang-lim and his assistants Hewonmak (Ju Ji-Hoon) and Deok-choon (Kim Hyang-Gi) can clear Su-hong’s name and ascend Choon-sam within 49 Days King Yeomra will at last set them free and allow them to be reincarnated.

Having dealt so thoroughly with the mechanics of hell in The Two Worlds, Kim expands and deepens his canvas to delve into the lives of our various Guardians. As it turns out Sung-ju was once a Guardian himself and so he knows a thing or two about our two underlings – Hewonmak and Deok-choon, whose memories were wiped when they became employees of King Yeomra. As Sung-ju spins a yarn, it becomes clear that the fates of the three Guardians were closely linked in life and death, bound by a series of traumatic events over a thousand years ago during the Goryeo dynasty.

As in the Two Worlds it all comes down to family. Gang-lim’s memories are fractured and confused, he’s convinced himself he’s a righteous man and wilfully misremembered his death (or at least misrepresented it to his cohorts). Stiff and lacking in compassion, Gang-lim was at odds with his gentle hearted father who, he thought, had found a better son in a boy orphaned by the cruelty of his own troops. These broken familial connections become a karmic circle of resentment and betrayal, enduring across millennia in the knowledge that even to ask for forgiveness may itself be another cruel and selfish act of violence. The circle cannot be closed without cosmic justice, but justice requires process and process requires a victim.

Gang-lim plays a bait and switch, he walks the strangely cheerful Su-hong through the various trials but it’s himself he’s testing, working towards a resolution of his own centuries old burdens of guilt and regret. There are, however, unintended victims in everything and the fate of orphans becomes a persistent theme from the orphaned foster brother Gang-lim feared so much, to those who lost their families in the wars of Goryeo, and a little boy who will be left all alone if Hewonmak and Deok-choon decide to ascend Choon-sam. Choon-sam’s adorable grandson is only young but he’s already been badly let down – his mother sadly passed away, but his father ran up gambling debts and then ran off to the Philippines never to be seen again. He didn’t ask for any of this, but there’s no cosmic justice waiting for him, only “uncle” Sang-ju who has taken the bold step of assuming human form to help the boy and his granddad out while trying to come up with a more permanent solution.

Nevertheless, compassion and forgiveness eventually triumph over the rigid business of the law, finally closing the circle through force of will. Kim doubles down on The Two Worlds’ carefully crafted aesthetic but perhaps indulges himself with a series of random digressions involving psychic dinosaur attacks and lengthy laments about stock market fluctuations and failing investments. Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days may lack the narrative focus of its predecessor but is undoubtedly lighter in tone and filled with the sense of fun the first film lacked, which is just as well because it seems as if hell is not done with our three Guardians just yet.


Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days is currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds (신과함께-죄와 벌, Kim Yong-hwa, 2017)

Along With the Gods- The Two Worlds posterThere’s nothing like death to give life perspective. If life is a series of tests, death is the finals but if you pass you get to come back and do it all again, otherwise you’ll have to spend some time in the afterlife thinking hard about what you’ve done and presumably studying for some kind of resits. At least, that’s how it seems to work in the complicated Buddhist hell of Kim Yong-hwa’s fantasy epic Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds (신과함께-죄와 벌, Sin gwa Hamkke – Joe wa Beol). The first in a two part series, The Two Worlds takes a saintly man and tries to pull him down only to build him back up again as a potent symbol of filial piety and wounded selflessness.

Firefighter Kim Ja-hong (Cha Tae-hyun) is killed leaping heroically from a burning building with a little girl wrapped in his arms. He doesn’t realise he’s dead until he’s greeted by two neatly suited, official looking types who explain to him that they are his “Guardians” and will be looking after him on his journey through the afterlife. It turns out that Ja-hong’s heroic death has earned him a “Paragon” badge – a rare occurrence, and he has a good chance of reincarnation before the 49th day if he can successfully pass each of the seven trials which mark passage through Buddhist Hell.

As the Guardians point out, it would be extremely difficult for a “normal” person to pass these seven trials and achieve reincarnation but as a Paragon Ja-hong should have an easier ride. Ja-hong is, however, an ordinary person with an ordinary person’s failings even if his faults are comparatively small. Ja-hong is literally on trial seven times – represented by his team of defence lawyers, the Guardians, he is charged with various sins each “judged” by a god presiding over a custom courtroom. Murder Hell is fiery chaos, indolence is assessed by a stern older lady (Kim Hae-sook), and deceit by (who else) a small child (Kim Soo-ahn) licking a large lollipop.

Ja-hong is indeed a “good person” but he has also been to dark places, wilfully deciding to turn and walk away from them in order to repurpose his rage and resentment into a determination to care for his seriously ill mother (Ye Soo-jung) and younger brother (Kim Dong-wook). Working tirelessly, Ja-hong has been selfless in the extreme, saving lives and saving money for his family whilst sacrificing his own life and prospect of happiness in order to provide for others. That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t a degree of “sin” in the selfishness of Ja-hong’s selflessness or that he hasn’t also been cowardly in making a symbolic recompense for a guilty secret rather than a personal apology.

Kim Yong-hwa weaves in a series of subplots including a lengthy shift into the life of Ja-hong’s brother Su-hong, a possibly gay soldier with an intense attachment to a comrade which eventually has tragic results. Su-hong’s mild resentment towards his brother becomes a key element in his trial, eventually developing into a more literal kind of spectre haunting the proceedings while perhaps creating even more turmoil and confusion in the living world thanks to a moustache twirling villain whose desire to “help” is probably more about saving face – the kind of “betrayal” which is not “beautiful” enough to get a pass from the Goddess.

In the end the court seems to bend towards Ja-hong’s moral philosophy, excusing his human failings through moral justification even when that justification remains flimsy as in the case of his “fake” letters intended to make people feel better through the comfort of lies. The essence of the judgement, however, looks for forgiveness – if a sin is forgiven in the mortal world, it is inadmissible in a celestial court. The message seems clear, face your problems head on and sort out your emotional difficulties properly while there’s time else you’ll end up with “unfinished business” and get bogged down in Buddhist Hell being attacked by fish with teeth and having old ladies asking you why you spent so much time watching movies about death rather than living life to the fullest.

Ambitious in its use of CGI, Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds acquits itself well enough in its carefully drawn (if lifeless) backgrounds and frequent flights of fancy which allow Ha Jung-woo’s enigmatic Gang-lim ample opportunity to whip out his fiery sword of justice. Narratively, however, it’s comparatively clumsy and content to revel in the melodrama of its tearjerking premise. A post-credits teaser linking part one and part two through the recurring figure of an old man who can see the Guardians presents a familiar face in an extremely unfamiliar light and hints at a great deal of fun to be had next time around – appropriate enough for a film about reincarnation, but then again it’s as well to have some fun in this life too, something The Two Worlds could have used a little more of.


Currently on limited UK cinema release courtesy of China Lion.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

 

Confession of Murder (내가 살인범이다, Jung Byung-gil, 2012)

Confession of murder posterThe UK does not have a statute of limitations for criminal cases, only for civil ones, so if you want to be certain you’ve got away with murder you’ll need to wait until the very end and offer only a deathbed confession. In Korea, however, the statute of limitations on murder is (or was, at least, in 2012) 15 years so after that time you can even go on TV and tell everyone you’re a serial killer and all that will happen is that you’ll suddenly become a media darling beloved by a hundred giddy schools. Such is the premise behind Jung Byung-gil’s complicated mystery thriller Confession of Murder (내가 살인범이다, Naega Salinbeomida) in which a grizzled detective and the bereaved relatives try to cope with their guilt and desire for revenge by enacting their own kind of justice on a self-confessed serial killer.

15 years ago, Detective Choi (Jung Jae-young) let a serial killer get away with only a scar on his cheek and the killer’s promise of reunion to show for it. 10 women are dead and Choi’s own fiancée missing presumed among the victims, and with the statute of limitations about to expire it appears that the killer will get away with his heinous crimes having successfully outlived justice. On the day the killer is officially off the hook, one of the victim’s sons commits suicide, further adding to Choi’s sense of inadequacy in being unable to bring the killer to justice within the time limit.

Two years on from the limitation passing, a handsome young man steps into the limelight with a book called “Confession of Murder” which claims to be an exposé on his reign of killing. Lee (Park Si-hoo) with his pop idol good looks and suave manner quickly becomes a media sensation despite the discomfort of some that he is profiting from the deaths of his innocent victims whom he has also robbed of justice even if he claims to be remorseful and to have reformed. Detective Choi has his doubts about the killer’s account and particularly about the possible 11th victim whose body has never been found.

Aside from the intrigue surrounding the true identity of the killer (or killers), Confession of Murder has a few difficult questions to ask about the nature of fame and the cult of celebrity. Lee has just confessed to a brutal series of unsolved killings of women, but thanks to his boy band good looks and impressive media marketing campaign he’s already amassed a fan club of adoring young girls including three rowdy high schoolers we first meet in Choi’s prison cells. Having escaped justice, Lee feels secure enough in his legal protections to crow not only about his crimes but in having gotten away with them so skilfully. His book becomes a best seller and his TV appearances hotly anticipated even if the fascination behind them maybe more ghoulish than intellectual or steeped in admiration.

What Lee exposes is a set of judicial double standards in which a man who has not paid for crimes he freely admits committing can be allowed to remain free and even use those same crimes to build a new life for himself by exploiting them for financial and social gains. The families of the bereaved, denied justice, seek their own – as does Choi even if he does it as a serving law enforcement officer. The lines between justice and revenge become ever blurred as the killer subverts the protections of the law as weapons against those who would seek to see that his crimes are properly served by it.

Meanwhile, Jung veers wildly between taught psychological thriller and absurd action drama in which an attempt to kidnap the killer is made by throwing poisonous snakes at him and then stealing him away in a fake ambulance which soon gives way to a lengthy motorway chase. The action sequences, often unexpected, are brilliantly choreographed set pieces of frenzied attack and retreat in which the outcome is perpetually uncertain. Uncertainty is certainly something Jung is adept at using as his narrative becomes ever more convoluted and intentions increasingly cloudy.

As much fun as it all is, Confession of Murder also has its degrees of poignancy in insisting on a need to deal with the unresolved past head on. Buried truths begin to fester and no amount of wilful forgetting will cure them, only the truth will do. Detective Choi faces a serious dilemma when faced with the limitations of a system to which he has devoted his life and which has already taken so much from him. If he transgresses, he will be judged by that same system but the judgement itself will also be a kind of affirmation that justice has finally been done and the case firmly closed.


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)

Miss Granny (수상한 그녀, Hwang Dong-hyeok, 2014)

131212-001_1401140436597Review of Hwang Dong-hyeok’s age swap comedy Miss Granny (수상한 그녀, Soosanghan Geunyeo) up at UK Anime Network.


Miss Granny is something of a departure for Korean director Hwang Dong-hyeok whose previous two films have both explored fairly weighty subjects firstly in The Father which, based on a true story, features an American adoptee looking for his father only to find him languishing on death row, and more recently in Silenced (also known as The Crucible) which depicted the harrowing, and again true, events that occurred at the Gwangju Inhwa School for the Deaf in which pupils were routinely abused by teachers and staff. So far as we know, Miss Granny is not based on a true story and is a more mainstream comedy in which a “difficult” old lady suddenly finds herself transformed into her 20 year old self.

At the beginning of the film, Oh Mal-soon is a bad tempered 74 year old woman who terrorises everyone around her into submission including her middle aged daughter-in-law who eventually lands up in the hospital with a heart condition that may in part have been brought on by Mal-soon’s constant criticism. Mal-soon’s son faces an impossible choice, ship his mother off to a home and give his wife some peace or risk losing either his marriage or his wife by keeping his mother around. Heartbroken at the thought her son maybe about to abandon her, Mal-soon wanders around the city before deciding to enter a mysterious portrait photographers and dolling herself up for a “funeral photo”. However, when she emerges she’s mysteriously transformed into a lithe and pretty 20 year old! Suddenly young again with potentially a whole life in front of her, what sort of choices will Mal-soon make this time around?

Much of the comedy of Miss Granny centres around the young Mal-soon, renamed Oh Doo-ri after her favourite actress, Audrey Hepburn, speaking and acting as if she really really were a 74 year old woman with all of the freedoms (and the invisibilities) that age grants you. Snapping away in her thick rural dialect and handing out unsolicited advice in the way only a nosy old woman can, Doo-ri is a very strange, and perhaps a slightly frightening, young woman. Undoubtedly, as we find out, Mal-soon has had a difficult life – starting out as an upperclass woman before becoming a young, penniless single mother dependent on the kindness of others and doing everything in her power to ensure that her son will grow up a fine man. Life has made her hard and in turn she makes things hard for all around her.

As a young woman she’s initially much the same yet comes to understand something of who she was and who she is. In her younger days she dreamed of being a singer and even as an old woman was well known for her fine voice. After unexpectedly jumping up to sing at a senior’s event in order to best another old lady rival, she’s “discovered” by a producer who’s tired of all the soulless idol stars who walk across his stage. Doo-ri is exactly what he’s been looking for, a young and pretty face with a voice that’s full of a lifetime’s heartbreak. Here is the real coup of the film – the younger actress, Shim Eun-kyung, reinterprets these classic pop songs from 40 years ago beautifully with exactly the right levels of pain and regret perfectly matching the montage flashbacks to Mal-soon’s youth. Becoming young again, experiencing everything again as if for the first time – opportunity, romance, friendship, Mal-soon finally begins to soften as if some of the harsh years of her original young life had been smoothed away.

Of course, nothing lasts forever and Mal-soon eventually has to make a choice between her newly returned youth and something else precious to her. She comes to understand that however hard it was she’d do it the same all over again because the same things would always have been the most important to her. Though it’s far from original and drags a little in the middle, Miss Granny still proves a warm and funny tale that walks the difficult line between serious and funny with ease and throws in a pretty catchy soundtrack to boot.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.

Also here is one of the musical sequences in the film – I think this is a famous song from the ’70s (?) called White Butterfly. ‘Tis quite beautiful (mild spoilers for the film as it includes a montage of Mal-soon’s youth in the ’60s).