Move the Grave (이장, Jeong Seung-o, 2019)

MOVE THE GRAVE STILL 1The patriarchal society refuses to release its grip on four disgruntled sisters in Jeong Seung-o’s debut feature Move the Grave (이장, i-jang). Unearthing the buried past is indeed what the sisters find they have to do when their father’s “eternal” resting place is ring marked for a new development, but there’s nothing quite like unexpected family reunions for throwing present and past into stark relief. Cheating spouses, surprise pregnancies, pre-marital discord, and the old favourite money woes conspire against familial unity but female solidarity is perhaps the only weapon at their disposal in an overwhelmingly sexist environment.

Eldest daughter Hye-yeong (Jang Liu) receives the grave relocation notice on an extremely bad day. Her naughty, headstrong son Dong-min has been reprimanded for being disruptive in school yet again, and her employer has intimated that it if she intends to take extended leave they expect her resign rather than return. Nevertheless, she has to sort this grave thing out so she calls her sisters – unhappily married Geum-ok (Lee Seon-hee), soon-to-be married Geum-hee, and university student Hye-yeon (Gong Min-jung). Meanwhile, their only brother Seung-rak (Kwak Min-gyoo), refuses to take their calls on a general basis and has never given any of them his address – something which causes a problem when the women arrive at their uncle’s house. A deeply conservative man, he refuses to move the grave without the eldest son present, sending his nieces all the way back to the city with the instruction to bring their brother back with them though they have no idea where he is.

The relationship between the sisters at least is relatively stable – they may not see each other often or particularly enjoy each other’s company but are, perhaps superficially, well acquainted with each other’s lives to the extent of suspecting there is probably more going on with each of them than anyone wants to talk about. This is especially true of Geum-ok who has brought a suspiciously large suitcase for a day trip and come alone without any of her family members. Geum-hee, meanwhile, constantly bickers about money – asking pointed questions about possible compensation and taking petty potshots at Hye-yeong over the high paid job she hasn’t had time to tell them she’s effectively been fired from for daring to ask about maternity leave.

The conservative, authoritarian, and sexist uncle has presumably made his peace with Hye-yeong’s divorce and career as a working single-mother, but continues to exercise his patriarchal rights over his nieces, insisting that their presence is less essential than that of their spoilt little brother who only ever contacts them when he needs money. Tellingly when Seung-rak is finally forced to appear, he is feted and fussed over with a lavish meal cooked by his aunt while the nieces remain a secondary consideration. Recalling their difficult upbringing, they lament that Seung-rak had the best of everything – his own room, new clothes, and a bowl full of food at dinner while the four of them always had to share. Faced with such criticism of the “traditional” family, the uncle finally erupts, asking what right “you women” think you have to talk so much, and what’s wrong with staying in the house all day doing chores anyway? 

Though the older sisters are minded to bite their tongues, committed feminist Hye-yeon isn’t going to let him get away with such outdated claptrap. She loudly takes him to task, pointing out that their father made their mother so miserable that she expressly asked not to be buried with him, while also having a word with Seung-rak about his irresponsible treatment of his former girlfriend who needs him to make an important decision but seems reluctant to consider getting back together which might be what he wants but then it’s difficult to know because none of the men in this family do much in the way of talking.

Meanwhile, Geum-hee remains pre-occupied about money because her husband-to-be is dragging his feet over her proposed budget for married life. He thinks they can shave it further by ignoring his parents’ birthdays and not buying them Christmas presents, but also that they can save on daily expenses by simply “fetching” things like toothpaste and toothbrushes from his mother’s house. Adulthood, it seems, has not quite come home to him. In the end the sexist uncle and the feckless Seung-rak are forced to stand down and respect the decision the sisters have come to about the grave, but the women remain largely powerless to resist the other forces of patriarchal oppression in their lives from unfair employment policies and stigma surrounding single motherhood to society’s general refusal to accept sexual equality. The aunt’s parting words to the unhappy crowd at the docks that they “only have each other” have a mildly chilling quality, but the family does perhaps emerge with a greater sense of intimacy and a gentle solidarity as they finally put the past to rest and prepare to move forward into a less stressful future.


Move the Grave screens on 6th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival

Short interview with the director (English subtitles)

The Mimic (장산범, Huh Jung, 2017)

The mimic posterFears of changeling children and their propensity to become cuckoos in the nest is a mainstay of folklore horror, but in recent times the creepy kid has crept his way in from the cold as the current monster of choice. The Mimic (장산범, Jangsanbum), though apparently completed some time earlier, has a few superficial similarities to Na’s The Wailing in its use of powerful, ancient myths and shamanic lore to conjure its particular brand of evil. If Na’s film was sometimes criticised for its obtuse ambiguity Huh has the opposite problem in failing to properly support his internal mythology with an appropriate level of consistency.

Hee-yeon (Yum Jung-ah) packs up her life including husband (Park Hyuk-kwon), mother-in-law (Heo Jin) suffering with dementia, little girl Jun-hee (Jang Liu) and a box of painful memories and moves to Mount Jang – her mother-in-law’s hometown. The move is intended to help the family put the past behind them and move on after Hee-yeon’s son disappeared without trace five years previously, but it’s not long before Hee-yeon is catching sight of small boys in ragged clothes on the streets around Mount Jang and convincing herself she’s seen her little boy despite the distance from the place where he disappeared and that he’d now be five years older than the version she has stored in her memory.

With Hee-yeon’s mental state already strained, she runs into trouble when a pair of earnest children arrive hoping one of the dogs in the kennel facility the family are running might be their missing puppy. It isn’t but their search leads them to a creepy walled up cave where they’re attacked by a malevolent entity. While her husband is helping the children and investigating the cave, Hee-yeon comes across a strange little girl (Shin Rin-ah), apparently lost, and dressed in an old fashioned velvet dress with a lace collar. The girl disappears while the Hee-yeon and her husband are busy with the police but later turns up at the couple’s home and worms her way inside, eventually claiming that her name is Jun-hee too, just like Hee-yeon’s daughter.

The central conceit is that the malevolent entity existing around Mount Jang mimics the voices of (usually dead) loved ones in order to convince its victims to surrender themselves voluntarily. Huh sets up Hee-yeon’s mental instability early on as she nervously guzzles pills to help her regain her grip on reality, but there after abandons it, never questioning the real existence of threat or Hee-yong’s relationship to the little girl whom she at times strangely believes to be her son. The little girl remains a typically creepy kid, originally mute and then mimicking Jun-hee but apparently unthreatening in and of herself. The cuts and bruises across the little girl’s back might explain her silence with her immediate adoption of a Jun-hee persona a kind of rejection of her original personality, but the film has already lost interest in rational explanations.

Hee-yeon, despite a degree of distance towards her daughter, immediately takes to the little girl, bringing her into the house with an intention to keep her despite her husband’s reservations. The desire to save this lost little girl is, of course, a kind of reaction to the loss of her son whom she seems to see in the little girl even without her supernatural gift of mimicry. Hee-yeon blames herself for the unknown fate of her little boy who disappeared after she left him with her mother-in-law (already suffering with dementia) in a busy foodcourt. Granny may have more clues, but if she has they’re irretrievably locked inside her fracturing mind. Having grown up in the surrounding area and being aware of the legends since childhood, granny is also a good person to ask about the strange goings on – only no one does because they assume she is not mentally stable. Hence when she alone knows to cover up mirrors and is suspicious of the little girl, everyone thinks it’s the dementia talking.

Symbolically the choice which is presented is between past and future, life and death, in the knowledge that the two are mutually exclusive. The liminal space of the cave becomes its own purgatorial courtroom in which Hee-yeon, and the other victims, must decide for themselves who or what they believe and which sort of existence they wish to embrace. For Hee-yeon her trial involves the abandonment of another child as a final goodbye to her long absent son, pulling at her fragile maternity and testing each and every aspect of it (though not, perhaps, that related to her remaining daughter who seems to have been temporarily forgotten). Huh makes fantastic use of soundscapes and intriguing use of mirrors, but even the high quality photography and committed performances can’t quite overcome the hollowness of his mythology, robbing his dark fairytale of its essential power.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017. Also screening at Showroom Cinema, Sheffield, 15 November 2017, 8.30 pm

International 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)

A Mere Life (벌거숭이, Park Sang-hun, 2012)

%e1%84%87%e1%85%a5%e1%86%af%e1%84%80%e1%85%a5%e1%84%89%e1%85%ae%e1%86%bc%e1%84%8b%e1%85%b5_%e1%84%91%e1%85%a9%e1%84%89%e1%85%b3%e1%84%90%e1%85%a5Anyone who follows Korean cinema will have noticed that Korean films often have a much bleaker point of view than those of other countries. Nevertheless it would be difficult to find one quite as unrelentingly dismal as A Mere Life (벌거숭이, Beolgeosungi). Encompassing all of human misery from the false support of family, marital discord, money worries, and the heartlessness of con men, A Mere Life throws just about everything it can at its everyman protagonist who finds himself trapped in a well of despair that not even death can save him from.

Park Il-rae (Kin Min-hyuk) and his wife Yurim (Jang Liu) own a small supermarket which isn’t doing so well. After approaching both of their parents for help and getting a flat no from both directions, the couple decide to throw all of their savings into buying a delivery van to increase their business potential. Il-rae excitedly travels into the city to sign the paperwork but gradually realises something is wrong when the salesman suddenly disappears. Having lost all of the family’s money, Il-rae travels home dejected and hits on a drastic solution – a family suicide. Poisoning his wife and son, Il-rae means to die too but survives even more burdened by guilt and regret than before. More failed suicide attempts follow as Il-rae attempts to come to terms with his actions, somehow surviving yet all but dead inside.

There really is no hope for Park Il-rae. At the very beginning of the film, the family visit a park in which his wife urges their son to make a wish by adding a stone to the top of a cairn, only to see the whole thing suddenly collapse in front of them like a grim harbinger of the way their lives are about to implode. Il-rae tries to repair the pile, but all to no avail. This quite awkward family trip in which Il-rae moodily strides on ahead will actually be the happiest they ever are, away from the destructive domestic environment where money troubles and male pride cast a shadow over an otherwise ordinary family life.

Both Il-rae and his wife seem to have strained relationships with their parents. Il-rae tries his own father first in the quest for help only for him to angrily tell his son to man up. When his wife visits her parents (alone with the couple’s little boy) it’s the first time she’s seen them in a decade and they are fairly nonplussed that it’s money she’s come for. After Yurim delicately states her predicament, her father tells her that he can’t help because he now has lots of hobbies which all require money. Offering perhaps the worst piece of fatherly advice ever uttered, he suggests she take up something fun herself and not worry about money so much.

The worse things get the more the family fragments. Il-rae drinks while the couple’s son seems to be addicted to video games. Faced with an obnoxious man who thoughtlessly parks his expensive car directly in the doorway of their store yet refuses to move because “he’ll only be a few minutes”, Il-rae is only saved from doing something stupid by his wife physically pushing him out of the way, but her physical dominance only worsens his sense of impotence. After making his drastic and irreversible decision, Il-rae is left alone and reeling from the worst kind of failure and regret. From this point on he’s marooned in his very own limboland, hovering on the brink of life and death.

Beginning with POV shots of a car dutifully following the only path laid out for it, A Mere Life states its bleak indie intentions right away as the gloomy lyrics of a folk tune run in the background constantly making reference to a despair which not even death could comfort. Recalling the great misery epics of the ‘70s, Park Sang-hun films with an anxious, unblinking camera save for the ominous shaky cam shots of a man facing the sea which begin and end the film. Il-rae may have made a decision as regards a future, but it remains unclear if there is any hope of salvation waiting for him. A Mere Life is never is never an easy watch thanks to its unshaking bleakness, but its strength of purpose and uneasy mix of morality play and character drama make for an unusual, interesting independent feature debut.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)