The Killer (더 킬러: 죽어도 되는 아이, Choi Jae-hoon, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

A retired hitman gets back in the game when he’s charged with babysitting a naive teen who almost immediately ends up getting kidnapped by human traffickers in Choi Jae-hoon’s retro action fest, The Killer (더 킬러: 죽어도 되는 아이, The Killer: Jookeodo Dweneun Ai). The Korean title of the film is appended by that of the novel from which it is adapted, The Girl Who Deserves to Die by Bang Jin-ho, and hints at the secondary drama which underpins the main narrative in which the kind of masculinity the cynical hitman projects is redefined to accommodate a nascent paternity, 

When questioned by the 17-year-old Yoon-ji (Lee Seo-young), Ui-gang (Jang Hyuk) tells her that he has no children because he didn’t want them. Even so he appears to be in touch with some of the children of his wife’s friends whom he mostly calls by generic names such as “Punk Ass 1”, and his rejection of paternity appears to be born of a desire for a simple life spent in comfort with his wife without additional responsibilities. When his wife asks him to take care of her friend’s daughter so the two of them can jet off to Jeju island for two weeks, he’s understandably reluctant especially as a girl of 17 hardly needs a babysitter but at the end of the day he generally does as his wife tells him. 

Consequently, he allows Yoon-ji a high degree of (illusionary) freedom while placing a tracker on her so he can at least keep tabs on where she is. Perhaps because her mother is away and has left her with a random middle-aged man she doesn’t know, Yoon-ji takes advantage of the situation and makes a few bad choices which result in her falling into the trap of a gang of people traffickers. Ui-gang wants to get her back mostly because his wife will be upset with him if he doesn’t but also begins to develop a fatherly bond with Yoon-ji while morally outraged by the societal corruption he uncovers through searching for her. 

In a genre archetype, sensitive killer Ui-gang has the moral high ground in that he has a code to live by along with a sense of justice that is revulsed by the casual cruelty of those who would trade human beings like cattle. He discovers that Yoon-ji’s kidnapping was not an accident but that someone actively chose her and wants to know who and why stopping not just at rescuing her but trying to take down the whole corrupt mechanism while discovering that its roots extend even further than he had expected. His final resolution that no child deserves to die restores his humanity as evidenced by his acceptance of a paternal responsibility and the creation of a new family unit with his wife and Yoon-ji. 

Even so his path to rescuing her is structured in the same way as a video game, Choi’s composition sometimes referencing that of a first person shooter as Ui-gang emerges from lifts and cooly takes out a gangster who then crashes violently into the background. He fights his way towards resolution hacking and slashing at hordes of oncoming foot soldiers while armed with nothing other than a pair of chair legs or else cooly executing them with a single shot. An arms dealer friend literally references The Man from Nowhere which the film at times also echoes both narratively and visually in its tightly controlled and well choreographed action sequences. This sense of unassailability is in itself a reflection of Ui-gang’s moral goodness while the bumbling quality of the crooks and the ease with which he dispatches them equally reflects their immorality. 

A retro action fest, The Killer makes the most of a modest budget while taking aim at a contemporary society that leaves young people so unprotected that traffickers can even claim to be “helping” them given that there are few other ways for runaway teens to earn a living on the streets. Then again it may be a little problematic that the solution presented lies in a restoration of the patriarchal ideal in Ui-gang’s resumption of his paternity in pledging to protect Yi-joon until she comes of age. Nevertheless, anchored by another strong performance from veteran actor turned rising action star Jang Hyuk, Choi’s stripped back action thriller is a visceral journey into the dark heart of the contemporary society.


The Killer screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Tomb of the River (강릉, Yoon Young-bin, 2021)

“Why did you turn this place into hell?” a reformed gangster asks his defeated enemy only to be told that nobody made the world this way, it is just is. In any case, Yoon Young-bin’s purgatorial gangster epic Tomb of the River (강릉, Gangneung) finds itself in a world of conflicting moral values in which organised crime has become increasingly legitimised conducted by men in sharp suits sitting in elegant surroundings but no less thuggish, violent, and immoral than it ever was. 

The two opposing forces are hippyish middle-aged enforcer Gil-suk (Yu Oh-seong) whose boss has adopted an anti-violence philosophy, and the psychotic Min-suk (Jang Hyuk) whom we first meet as the only survivor of a smuggling boat massacre hiding in the hold eating the dead bodies of his comrades whom he may or may not have killed himself. The battle ground is a new casino resort in the previously peaceful rural backwater of Gangneung shortly to host the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics. Gil-suk’s ageing boss decides to hand him the reins of the business but he objects out of old-fashioned gangster etiquette because the complex is technically located in an area handled by his colleague Chung-sub (Lee Hyun-kyun) who is currently in the boss’ bad books after a group of young people were found passed out having taken drugs in one of the karaoke rooms he manages. 

Gil-suk is perhaps a representative of disingenuous contemporary corporatised gangsters who still operate like thugs but do so with a veneer of elegance, his now elderly boss having achieved a state of zen in giving him small pieces of wisdom such as “don’t fight. If you fight you suffer whether you win or lose”. Gil-suk later echoes him when he tells his friend to leave Min-suk alone and that rather than fighting they should share a meal with him sometime instead acknowledging that his gang members’ lives seem to have been hard. But his compassion is as it turns out, misplaced, Min-suk is not the sort of man who can be befriended or softened with kindness for he is the personification of humanity’s baser instincts in unbridled selfishness and destructive desire. 

“I did it to survive” his underlings often justify themselves, believing they have no other option than to behave the way they do while Min-suk exploits the venality and misfortune of others as a kind of get out of jail free card promising to wipe their debts if they take the fall for his crimes. Sooner or later everyone betrays everyone else for reasons of greed or self-preservation, even Gil-suk eventually pulled towards the dark side while his policeman friend (Park Sung-geun) attempts to save him from himself. “What other choice did I have?”, he asks, but to conform to the dubious morality of the world around him. He criticises the police for a lack of action, but watches and does nothing as Min-suk carves up his entire squad of foot soldiers while patiently making his way towards him. 

The irony is that Gil-suk had been the good gangster, never wanting more than he needed and always happy to share. He is confused by the betrayal of his closest friends because he cannot understand their motivation. He had always thought of the resort as “ours” never considering that it could be “mine” while his friend tells him he should take it all because if he doesn’t someone else will. To prove his point Gil-suk tries to broker a peaceful solution by offering to share control with Min-suk in a process of appeasement, suggesting he take the club while he keeps the casino and they split the profits between them before eventually deciding to surrender it entirely in order to curry favour with an even shadier corporate gangster whose polite interest in the resort he’d previously rebuffed. 

Taking on spiritual dimensions in its gloomy backgrounds, battles fought under the light of a full moon, and the snow falling over the living and the dead in the melancholy final sequence Yoon’s hellish tale seems to take place in a gangster purgatory in which as Gil-suk finally announces romance really is dead, in its place only internecine violence and the intense desire to survive by any means possible mortal anxiety provoking only preemptive greed and cruelty. As Min-suk suggests “only death will end things” but everyone here is in a sense already dead only trapped in the eternal limbo of the gangster mentality. 


Tomb of the River streamed/screened as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Swordsman (검객, Choi Jae-hoon, 2020)

“Is this all there is to being a soldier?” a jaded young man asks of an apparently reluctant mentor as he, also reluctantly it seems, prepares to betray his king merely because the balance of power has shifted. Drawing heavily from wuxia and chanbara, Choi Jae-hoon’s The Swordsman (검객, Geomgaek) once again takes on the futility of violence as the two men who might each lay claim to the title attempt to escape the complicated world of Joseon politics but find themselves unable to escape the legacy of the blade while facing an internal debate as to how to protect that which is most precious to them.

Loosely “inspired by true events” as the opening title card insists, the action opens in 1623 with King Gwanghae (Jang Hyun-sung) fleeing the palace in the wake of insurrection. Like pretty much every other ruler, he’s been accused of murdering his siblings to usurp the throne and has lost the the support of the army, including his personal swordsman Min Seung-ho (Jung Man-sik), after instructing his generals to surrender to the enemy. Valiantly protected by lone defender Tae-yul (Jang Hyuk), Gwanghae makes the ultimate sacrifice for his people and agrees to go quietly pausing only to secretly entrust his infant daughter to the last man standing. 

Flashforward 15 years or so and Tae-yul is now a mountain recluse raising his teenage daughter Tae-ok (Kim Hyun-soo) alone in hiding from nefarious forces. The problem is that his eyesight is now failing and a trip to the physician to acquire medicine proves fruitless when it turns out such rare substances are available only to those with connections. Tae-ok wants to take up an offer from a local lord to become his foster daughter in order to get her father the medicine, but he is understandably reluctant. Meanwhile, a new threat has arrived in town in the form of thuggish Qing slave traders apparently intent on further disrupting the already unbalanced Joseon political situation which is divided in support of the Ming. 

The political context in itself is only subtly conveyed, though this is a rare period drama in which the focus is only tangentially on courtly intrigue in the suggestions that constant machinations by ambitious lords have undermined the notions of soldierly honour and loyalty that ordinarily support the feudal system. The conflicted Min, a man of the sword, retires from the court because he isn’t certain he acted correctly in his actions towards Gwanghae and fears he was merely manipulated as he later is by bloodthirsty slave trader Gurantai (Joe Taslim). Gurantai and his henchmen seem to be on the look out solely for a worthy opponent to satiate their boredom, threatening an entire kingdom in the process. Tae-yul, by contrast, has renounced the way of the sword altogether and attempted to isolate himself from worldly violence in order to better protect his daughter only to find himself dragged down from the mountain by her love for him in insisting he find the means to fix his eyes. 

When Tae-ok is kidnapped by Gurantai who has figured out who she is (in one sense or another), Tae-yul enters full on Taken mode determined to save both the girl herself and reclaim this relic of an earlier, purer world to which she is perhaps the heir pausing only to free a few slaves on his way. Operating on a much lower budget than your average period drama, Choi shoots mainly in a shaky handheld maintaining an indieish aesthetic in keeping with the rough and ready quality of the narrative which seems to draw equally from Hollywood westerns, Hong Kong wuxia, and Japanese samurai movies in its relentless drive towards the final showdown. Making a few points about he changing nature of the times and the futility of violence, the minions of a venal lord are eventually cutdown by rows of Qing armed with rifles while they flounder helplessly with only their blades, swordsmanship itself now an obsolete art though apparently one still valuable to bored, insecure leaders such as Gurantai. Nevertheless, the expertly choreographed action scenes have a mounting intensity from Tae-yul’s early refusal to unsheathe his distinctive double-edged blade to the merciless killing of a female bystander at the film’s conclusion. Ending with an ironic return to the world, apparently now changed, The Swordsman kicks back against feudal hypocrisies while its blinded hero uses the only weapons available to him in order to protect what he considers to be worth protecting. 


The Swordsman streamed as part of the Glasgow Film Festival.

US trailer (English subtitles)

Black Hair (검은 머리, Lee Man-hee, 1964)

Black Hair 1964 posterFilm noir can be the most contradictory of genres. A moralistic world filled with immortality, fatalism mixed with existential angst, and a rage against society which is always tinged with a resignation to living on its margins. Genre in Korean cinema has always been a little more fluid than elsewhere and Lee Man-hee’s seminal crime thriller Black Hair (검은 머리, Geomeun Meori) is also a melodrama – the story of a self loathing man committed to his own arbitrary codes, and a woman he expects to pay the price for them.

In a brief prologue that has little to do with the ongoing narrative, ruthless gangster Dong-il (Jang Dong-hui) extorts a corrupt CEO by blackmailing him over some illicit smuggling. Meanwhile, across town, the gangster’s wife, Yeon-sil (Moon Jeong-suk), meets with a man, Man-ho (Chae Rang), in a hotel room. She’s come to pay him off, hoping it will be for the last time but Manh-ho, an opium addict, knows he’s onto an endless cash cow and refuses to put an end to their “arrangement”. Sometime ago, Man-ho raped Yeon-sil and has been blackmailing her for money and sexual favours ever since. Yeon-sil threatens to tell her husband and the police and suffer the consequences, but Man-ho knows she won’t. Dong-il’s gang have a strict rule about adultery and if Yeon-sil trusted him enough to believe he would believe her about the rape, she would have told him already.

Another goon hides behind a screen, snapping photos of Yeon-sil and Man-ho which he later passes on to Dong-il. The boss is shocked and shaken. He knows he has to enforce the rules he himself set down for the gang, but he never expected them to cost him his wife. Eventually Dong-il orders an underling to slash Yeon-sil’s face with a broken bottle, after which she is exiled from the gang. Anyone who tries to repair her scars or help her in any other way will be treated as an enemy.

At this point the narrative splits as Yeon-sil is cast down into a sleazy underworld, living with her blackmailer who pimps her out as a common streetwalker and then steals all her money to spend on drugs and booze. She pines for her husband whom she has been prevented from seeing, longing to at least explain why she did what she did and ensure he knows that her heart has always been with him. Dong-il, by contrast, is going to pieces – his gang no longer respect him, he feels guilty about the way he treated his wife, and he has no idea where to go from here.

Unlike other films of the era or film noir in general, Lee’s world view is non-judgemental in its treatment of the respective paths of Yeon-sil and Dong-il. Yeon-sil is left with no choice than to enter into a life of casual prostitution and the film forgives her for this – the fault is that of Dong-il and Man-ho rather than her own. Having been horribly scarred, she wears her hair longer on one side to hide her disfigurement but is constantly reminded of her emotional damage through its physical manifestation and the reactions it often elicits. Picking up a client in the street, she’s threatened with violence and cruel words for having “deceived” him when he catches sight of her disfigured face. A passing taxi driver witnesses the attack and challenges the man so Yeon-sil can escape. The cabbie then hires her and they spend the night together in a nearby brothel. He surprises Yeon-sil by being entirely unfazed about her facial scarring, offering to help her get it treated if that’s what she wants, and making it clear he would like to spend more time with her off the clock.

Yeon-sil’s life is completely controlled by her triangular relationship to the three men – her unforgiving husband Dong-il, the cruel and venal Man-ho, and the good and decent cab driver. After meeting the cabbie, Yeon-sil tries to see Dong-il again but his boys stop her. They say they’ll take her to see him, but really they’re planning quite another destination. Luckily, in a staggering coincidence, they’re spotted by the taxi driver who once again saves Yeon-sil, taking her home to stay with him and proposing they embark on a more formal relationship.

This is more of a problem than it seems for Dong-il’s guys who now fear their boss will find out they tried to kill his wife in an effort to wake him up from his ongoing existential malaise. The rules of the gang are tough and clear – adultery is not permissible, no woman is allowed to leave, no exceptions are to be made. Dong-il, however, is beginning to rethink the code he himself designed. A conversation with his childhood nanny throws up a number of interesting questions. She blames herself for giving Dong-il “evil” milk which has led to his spiritual corruption, though Dong-il later tells Yeon-sil that he did not choose evil so much evil chose him. He created these “evil” gang rules, but failed to live up to them in continuing to feel attached to Yeon-sil – he feels he must punish himself for the “sin” of being unable to forget her and abide by his own honour system which he now feels to be pointless and arbitrary. Effectively issuing himself a death sentence, Dong-il changes tack confirming that he has, in a sense, chosen evil even if it was a “choice” of refusing to resist the path set down for him. Suddenly realising the emotion he felt for Yeon-sil was love, he is struck by a terrible feeling of loneliness. 

As in much of Lee’s work, Yeon-sil and Dong-il are trapped by their own society and belief systems and finally perhaps by feeling. Yeong-sil is frequently captured behind bars or caught in a window, imprisoned within the frame as she tries to reconcile herself to her precarious position, daring to hope for a new, decent life with the good hearted taxi driver while also mourning her love for Dong-il and living with the humiliation caused to her by Man-ho. Lee’s structure is sometimes unclear as he introduces a fairly pointless subplot about the taxi driver’s modern woman little sister who has moved out to be independent but works in a hostess bar, inhabiting the same sleazy world as Yeon-sil and Dong-il, only more innocently, but never does much with it beyond contrasting the lives of the two women who occupy slightly different generations and have very different options open to them. There’s a fatalism and inevitability in the way Yeong-sil and Dong-il live their lives to which the taxi driver and his sister do not quite subscribe but Lee breaks with the genre’s trademark pessimism to offer the glimmer of a bittersweet ending and the chance of a new beginning for the much abused Yeon-sil now freed of her dark associations.


Black Hair is the second in The Korean Film Archive’s Lee Man-hee box set which comes with English subtitles on all four films as well as a bilingual booklet. (Not currently available to stream online)

The Marines Who Never Returned (돌아오지 않는 해병, Lee Man-hee, 1963)

Marines Who Never ReturnedLee Man-hee was among the most prolific of Korean directors until his untimely death at the age of just 43 in 1975, but even among so many well regarded works The Marines Who Never Returned (돌아오지 않는 해병, 돌아오지 않는 해병, Doraoji Anneun Haebyong) has taken on an especial place in Korean film culture. Lee had himself served in the Korean War and brought his own ambivalent attitudes to the piece, expressing both an abject rejection of the senseless loss of life but also a warmth and nostalgia for the camaraderie born only out of such immediate danger. The film’s title, as melancholy as it is, points to this same ambivalence by signalling the eventually unhappy fates of these ordinary men but also according them a ghostly, unresolved future.

In the midst of the Korean War, a squad of South Korean soldiers is on patrol and taking fire from the Chinese in an urban environment. While they bide their time in a trench, a young girl and her pregnant mother run out of a nearby building. The girl runs clear but the mother is shot and killed in the crossfire. One of the soldiers is deeply struck by the scene and insists they at least make sure the little girl is safe. Pushing deeper into the building, the soldiers come upon a truly horrifying, hellish scene of men trussed up and hanging from the ceilings while bodies of the townspeople lie piled along the floor. The same soldier who wanted to save the little girl finds his own sister among the dead, just one face among so many.

From this point on the tale is narrated by the little girl, Young-hui (Jeon Young-sun), who is adopted by the troop of marines and smuggled around inside an old army kit bag so that the superiors do not find out about her presence. Young-hui proves a resilient little girl who obviously misses her parents but begins to care deeply for the soldiers who have taken her in. Giving each of her new uncles nicknames, Young-hui becomes the squad’s mascot and a symbol of everything it is they’re fighting for. Yet this makeshift family also has its share of difficulties. A problem arises when Young-hui recognises a new recruit, Choi (Choi Moo-ryong), as a man from her village. Choi is the brother of the man who joined the other side, took Young-hui’s father away and killed the sister of Private Goo, discovered so casually among the many dead in Young-hui’s village alone.

The conflict between Choi and Goo is emblematic of many ordinary families throughout Korea as fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, decided on different paths and found themselves on opposing sides of a war. Choi, as is pointed out, is not responsible for his brother’s actions – he clearly does not condone or agree with them, but still he feels responsible enough to understand Goo’s anger and resentment. Goo in turn realises his anger is pointless and misdirected but is powerless to change the way he feels. This situation is no one’s fault, but they’ll all pay the price anyway.

Lee spares no expense in recreating the hellish battles scenes more akin to the first war than the second with its outdated tanks, dugouts, and trenches. The easy, familial life of the camp soon gives way to action and danger as the squad meet their ends one by one. Away from the battlefield the men feel displaced within their own country – caught in the midst of a civil war yet also subjugated by foreign forces, barred from UN only bars and referred to as “tuppenny Koreans” by the “hostesses” in comparison to their big spending compatriots. Making his goodbye speech, the commanding officer instructs his comrade to return home and ask if anybody really needs to go to war, but rising from the trenches their thoughts are all for their fallen friends who will never see home again. These men remain “lost” on the battlefield, a lingering memory of loss and sacrifice which is impossible to resolve even so many years later.


The Marines Who Never Returned is the first in The Korean Film Archive’s Lee Man-hee box set which comes with English subtitles on all four films as well as a bilingual booklet but the film is also currently available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel.