Beasts Clawing at Straws (지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들, Kim Yong-hoon, 2020)

If you found a big bag full of money and then waited a while but no one came to claim it, what would you do? Many people would do as Jung-man (Bae Seong-woo) did, but sometimes gifts from the gods are sent to tempt you and are decidedly more trouble than they’re worth. Beasts Clawing at Straws (지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들, Jipuragirado Jabgo Sipeun Jibseungdeul) is an apt way to describe our small group of interconnected protagonists, each desperately trying to get their hands on the money not necessarily for itself but for the power and possibility it represents or simply to free themselves from a debt-laden existence. 

Jung-man finds the Louis Vuitton bag stuffed inside a locker at his part-time job in a bathhouse. It seems that he is feeling particularly powerless because he’s somehow lost the family business and either never told his extremely domineering mother (Youn Yuh-jung) or she’s simply forgotten, often going off on crazed rants about how her daughter-in-law is secretly plotting to kill them all. Meanwhile, across town, immigration officer Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung) is desperately trying to find his missing girlfriend, Yeon-hee (Jeon Do-yeon), who has, apparently, run off with all his money leaving him in a difficult position with vicious loan shark Park (Jung Man-sik), and melancholy hostess Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-bin) is miserably trapped in an abusive marriage and plotting escape with the help of Jin-tae (Jung Ga-ram), an undocumented migrant from China she met in the club. 

As expected the streams will eventually cross, it is all connected, though it’ll be a while before we start to figure out how in Kim Yong-hoon’s tightly controlled non-linear narrative, adapted from the novel by Japanese author Keisuke Sone. Other than the money the force which connects them is powerlessness. Some of them, maybe all, are “greedy” but it’s not necessarily riches that they want so much as a way out of their disappointing lives. Jung-man feels particularly oppressed because he’s made to feel as if he’s failed his father by losing the family business, something he’s constantly reminded of by his ultra paranoid, domineering mother who eventually pushes his wife down the stairs provoking a crisis point in the foundation of the family. If working part-time in a bathhouse in his 40s hadn’t left him feeling enough of a failure, he is further emasculated by being unable to pay his daughter’s university tuition after she fails to win a scholarship and informs them she’s planning to take a term or two off to earn the money by herself. 

Tae-young is in much the same position, humiliatingly trapped by having foolishly co-signed his girlfriend’s loan only for her to disappear off the face of the Earth, leaving him wondering if he’s just a complete idiot or something untoward has happened to her. He thinks he can regain control of the situation by slipping further into the net of criminality, helping an old uni friend who’s committed large-scale fraud escape to China in exchange for a cut of the loot (and secretly plotting to nab the lot with the help of his shady friend Carp (Park Ji-hwan) who works at the club). 

A crisis of masculinity is also behind Mi-ran’s life of misery as her husband takes out his resentment towards his reduced circumstances on his wife, beating her mercilessly while forcing her to work at a hostess bar to pay off their debts from unwise stock market investments. For her, the money is both revenge and a pathway to a better life. She wants to be free of her husband, and profit in the process. Unable to do it alone, she manipulates male power in the lovestruck Jin-tae all too eager to play white knight to a damaged woman. But Jin-tae is male failure too. When all’s said and done he’s still an innocent boy, not quite prepared for the ugliness of causing a man’s death even if he is a wife beating tyrant the world may be better off without. As an undocumented migrant, he’s pretty marginalised too. Taking advice on how to solve the Jin-tae problem, a more experienced player reminds Mi-ran that no one’s coming looking for an illegal alien and it’s not as if she actually likes him so he is infinitely expendable. 

In an odd way, getting the money is about not being an expendable person anymore. They want the money because they think it will give them back a degree of control over their lives, a kind freedom to move forward with a sense of possibility they do not currently have because of all their debts both financial and emotional. Yet they find themselves farcically scrabbling in chaos, beasts clawing at straws, as they try to outsmart each other and the universe to get their hands on the bag. The universe looks on and laughs, rejoicing in its darkly humorous punchline as the bag finds itself another owner, tempted by its dubious charms with only the promise of more chaos to ensue.


Beasts Clawing at Straws streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app Aug. 29 to Sept. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film festival. Now available in the UK on digital download courtesy of Blue Finch Films!

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Contact (접속, Chang Yoon-hyun, 1997)

The Contact poster 1Even in 1997, it was supposedly much easier than ever before to make contact with pretty much anyone anywhere in the world, yet most of use chose not to. Twenty years later, perhaps not much has changed as we remain increasingly disconnected in an evermore connected world. Sometimes, however, as a radio host’s opening monologue reminds us, life has you take the long way round and it’s not until you hit a bump in the road that you start to think about what’s really important. The melancholy heroes of Chang Yoon-hyun’s The Contact (접속, Jeopsok) are each reeling from romantic disappointment, but brought together by a series of coincidences eventually find an outlet for their woes in the newfangled world of online chat.

Dong-hyeon (Han Suk-kyu) is the producer of a successful radio show but constantly in trouble with the suits for his uncommercial music choices. When someone anonymously sends in a battered copy of The Velvet Underground’s self titled album, he decides to switch up the order and play Pale Blue Eyes partly out of a sense of nostalgia and partly because he is hoping the woman he suspects may have sent it will be listening.

Meanwhile, across town, Soo-hyeon (Jeon Do-yeon) is sharing a moment with a cheerful young man, Ki-cheol (Choi Cheol-ho), who turns out not to be her boyfriend, but that of her roommate. To get away from the pain of seeing them cosied up together, she goes out for a drive and turns the radio on for company just as Dong-hyeon drops the needle on Pale Blue Eyes. So moved by the song that she only narrowly escapes a multi-car pileup, Soo-hyeon writes in to request it again which leads Dong-hyeon to wonder if she’s his old flame using an alias. Obviously, she isn’t, but excited to get an email from a radio show producer and not wanting to disappoint him she lies and says the request was for her friend who might be the one he’s looking for.

A pair of brokenhearted romantics, Dong-hyeon and Soo-hyeon are old souls who like rainy days and going to the movies in the afternoon but they’re also intensely online and attuned to the possibilities of indirect communication. Despite the “instant” nature of modern technology, the pair send intermittent emails, leave messages on answerphones, and fax each other, only sometimes replying in the moment via IRC but communicating on a much deeper level than they might have meeting face to face. Because they live in a city and have much more than they know in common, they unwittingly slip past each other with improbable frequency but would likely never meet, the act of making “contact” in person all but an impossibility.

The curiously analogue, nostalgia-laden, and above all physical device of the LP brings the pair together through a shared sense of loneliness born of frustrated love as they attempt to support each other through differing stages of romantic grief. While Dong-hyeon remains wilfully trapped in the past, mooning over an old flame while blaming himself for possibly coming between the woman he knew did not love him and the man she did, Soo-hyeon is in the thick of it struggling with her feelings for her roommate’s boyfriend. Calling himself “Happy End” because he’s read about them in books but doesn’t believe they exist in the “real” world, Dong-hyeon gives Soo-hyeon contradictory advice while making an ill-advised romantic overture to straightforward writer Eun-hee (Chu Sang-mi) who, unlike Dong-hyeon and Soo-hyeon, knows exactly what she wants and isn’t afraid to state it directly. “Why can’t you be honest with your feelings?” she repeatedly asks Dong-hyeon, but predictably gets no reply.

Soo-hyeon meanwhile has given herself the rather depressing name of “female 2” online, apparently inspired by a series of walk-on parts in plays, but perhaps hinting at her categorisation of herself as an invisible face in the crowd while also ironically pointing at her awkward position as the third wheel in her friend’s relationship. Berated for his emotional diffidence by Eun-hee, Dong-hyeon nevertheless tells Soo-hyeon she’s better off to forget Ki-cheol if she can’t find the courage to tell him how she really feels but as good as his advice sounds it’s primed to backfire, potentially costing not just one but two friendships and seeing Ki-cheol disappear from her life forever. Braver than Dong-hyeon, she resolves to give it a go and whatever happens it will at least answer a question, putting an end to the continued suffering of being merely friends with the man she loves.

Perhaps out of a sense of guilt for having selfishly prioritised his own feelings with tragic consequences, Dong-hyeon has decided to keep them to himself, but if so it’s also made him casually cruel and infinitely insensitive. Giving up on his romantic dream, he contemplates running away and starting a new life abroad, while Soo-hyeon risks everything in pursuit of love. Not knowing how to connect with her in the offline world, Dong-hyeon once again resorts to the physical in order to make contact, waving a tiny document like a one-way passport to love in order prove his identity and romantic destination. Finally finding the strength to let go of lost love and take a chance on new ones, the pair shift their relationship from digital to analogue as they, ironically, resolve to leave the past behind for more connected future.


The Contact was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Birthday (생일, Lee Jong-un, 2019)

Birthday posterOn 16th April 2014, a ferry carrying mostly teenagers on a school trip sank taking 304 passengers and crew down with it. The Sewol Ferry tragedy was to have profound ramifications, asking a series of questions as to corporate and political corruption in the society which had permitted such an accident to happen and then failed to mount an effective rescue. In the five years since, many films have probed the causes and implications of the tragedy, but Lee Jong-un’s Birthday (생일, Saengil) is not so much interested in the incident itself as in the nature of grief and all the more so when it takes place across a national canvas.

Lee picks up three years after the sinking as husband and father Jung-il (Sol Kyung-gu) returns to Korea after five years of working away in Vietnam. So disconnected is he from his family, that he was only vaguely aware that they had moved and has trouble finding the new apartment. When he gets there, his wife Soon-nam (Jeon Do-yeon) pretends to be out, sending Jung-il back to stay with his understanding sister who tries to fill him in on the various reasons he might not be welcome at his own door.

The loss of the couple’s oldest child, Su-ho (Yoon Chan-young), in the ferry tragedy is only gradually revealed though it’s clear that there is an absence in the family home. Soon-nam has kept Su-ho’s room exactly as he left it – school uniform hanging on the wardrobe door, unfinished school work on the desk, post-its seemingly everywhere. Meanwhile, youngest daughter Ye-sol (Kim Bo-min) is often left to her own devices while Soon-nam buries herself in work and shuts out everything that reminds her that her son is never coming home.

While some of the other parents have formed a tightly bonded community forged by shared grief and anger, Soon-nam wants no part of it. Invited to a gathering after bumping into other parents at the memorial site, she lasts barely a few minutes before accusing them of turning their suffering into an excuse for frivolity. It’s not as if she could ever forget what happened to her son, but when the ferry tragedy is on every street corner, on the radio, on the news, it becomes impossible to ignore. Soon-nam wants her grief to herself. Her son and her loss. She isn’t interested in sharing him with anyone else, be that an increasingly angry society or her little girl who is now terrified of water and worried about her mum.

Jung-il, burdened with guilt for having abandoned his family, tries to address his grief in a more positive sense by re-embracing his role as a father to Ye-sol who was so small when he left that she doesn’t really remember him. Though Lee is not particularly interested in the political ramifications of the tragedy, she does subtly point the finger at the effects of economic pressure on the ordinary family which have seen Jung-il exile himself abroad and Soon-nam working so hard just to keep her head above water that Ye-sol is caught in the middle. Jung-il wasn’t there when his family needed him, and there’s precious little he can do for them now other than try to be around.

The other members of the support group have been holding birthday parties for some of the kids who passed away, turning the solemnity of a memorial service into a celebration of life. Soon-nam is against the idea – she would rather save the day for herself in private commemoration, but Jung-il is broadly in favour. Probed, he has to admit he barely knew the young man his son was becoming and that this party might be the only way to reconnect with the boy he lost. A passport that will never be stamped, colleges that will never be applied to, weddings that will never take place – the finality of the loss is crippling, but in holding the birthday parties those left behind are able to find a kind of acceptance in shared remembrance and a confirmation that their loved ones were loved and will continue to be loved even in their absence. A sensitive yet uncompromising exploration of the sometimes forgotten personal dimension to a national tragedy, Birthday is a beautifully complex evocation of learning to live with loss and a strangely uplifting, cathartic experience.


Birthday was screened as the opening night gala of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Man and a Woman (남과 여, Lee Yoon-ki, 2016)

A man and a woman postetSome memories are better when forgotten, according to the heroine of A Man and a Woman (남과 여, Namgwa Yeo) – the latest romantic melodrama from Lee Yoon-ki. The title, deceptively simple as it is, makes plain Lee’s intention to reduce this melancholy love story to a universal level in which two people who share a deep and genuine connection choose to sever it rather than break with social convention and/or incur the additional risks of ongoing entanglement. An elongated Brief Encounter, the ballad of Sang-min and Ki-hong is a strangely old fashioned one in which unhappiness appears to be the ideal choice and a satisfied life an indulgent luxury.

Sang-min (Jeon Do-yeon) has brought her almost teenage son to Finland for treatment at a special needs school. Dropping him off for a school trip, Sang-min gets cold feet and tries to insist on accompanying the boy, only to be roundly refused by the carers. In the car park she runs into another Korean – Ki-hong (Gong Yoo) has been living in Finland for a couple of years and his young daughter attends the school to help with depression. Sang-min presses Ki-hong for information about where the camp is and eventually he offers to drive her. Predictably, they get caught in a snowstorm and have to stay overnight. A visit to a woodland sauna the next day leads to an intimate encounter but as soon as they arrive back in the city, the pair part ways without even exchanging names.

So begins the sad ballad of Sang-min and Ki-hong which eventually takes them back to Seoul where they resume their affair, putting each of their families at risk. Both parties are married already but each desperately lonely in very ordinary ways. Sang-min is a highflying CEO of a small fashion line but also shoulders most of the responsibility of looking after her son who needs a lot of extra help to cope with his autism. Her husband is rational and distant; the marriage is not unhappy but perhaps emotionally unfulfilling. Ki-hong’s marriage is also under strain as his wife has ongoing mental health issues leaving him to look after their equally distressed daughter whilst also pursing a career as an architect. 

The snowbound, silent forests of Finland are an appropriate point for the start of the affair, echoing the couple’s frozen, interior blankness. Sang-min has a pre-occupation with time in Helsinki which she abandons in Seoul, less because of a literal return to the alternation of light and darkness than a inner feeling of it passing at a more predictable rate. In Finland she wanted to know everything, in Seoul she decides perhaps it’s better not to know. Ki-hong, by contrast, is a vague sort of person in both places. Yet their instant connection is real and deep. They echo each other, repeating their shared phrases and sharing something to which they cannot give a name.

Though living in more permissive times, the love of Sang-min and Ki-hong remains impossible despite the ongoing unhappiness of their married lives. Sang-min looks on enviously at her younger sister who is dallying in marrying her American boyfriend. Her sister tells her she wants what Sang-min has – to be “happily” married, entirely unaware of Sang-min’s loneliness and dissatisfaction. Ki-hong’s moribund marriage is difficult enough but the spark has already gone – his wife tells him she feels like a patient, the subject of Ki-hong’s dutiful devotion rather than a woman who is loved by the man with whom she shares her life. Despite all of this the idea of leaving their unhappy situations to find happiness in each other is never a real possibility for either Sang-min or Ki-hong who each remain trapped both by adherence to social conventions and a lingering reluctance to fully commit.

The forces which keep them apart are less societal than personal, an unwillingness to embrace the possibility of happiness or perhaps a sense that it is not something which is permitted to them. Times have moved on since Alec and Laura said goodbye to each other in a station cafe, unspoken emotion filling the room as a busybody inserts herself into a private world about to end. There is no particular reason why Sang-min and Ki-hong cannot be happy, yet they each eventually choose not to be. Frosty indeed, this is a love which is apparently best relegated to memory, untainted by time and eternally pure. Beautifully photographed and heartbreakingly bleak, A Man and a Woman is a sad story of refused connection in which love is a risk too great for two lonely souls.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Shameless (무뢰한, Oh Seung-uk, 2015)

fullsizephoto602641Review of Oh Seung-uk’s The Shameless (무뢰한, Moorwehan) up at UK Anime Network. I read some lukewarm reviews but I actually really liked this one (though I’m a sucker for B-movie noirs and my tolerance for melodrama is sky high)!


Director Oh Seung-uk maybe best known as the screenwriter behind such varied and well respected efforts as Green Fish (directed by Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong), Christmas in August and H, but way back in 2001 he made a minor splash at Cannes with his existential gangster piece, Kilimanjaro. The Shameless sees him one again turn to the shady world of underground crime though this time what he’s interested in is a romantic melodrama laced with deadly film noir morality.

Recently divorced police detective Jung Jae-gon has been handed what seems like a fairly straightforward murder. They already know who the killer is and the motive behind the crime, all that remains is to track the guy down. Luckily they also know that Park, a gangland thug, has a regular girlfriend, Kim Hye-kyung, who works at a seedy downtown bar. Through tailing her they’ll find their man. This is where things get sticky. Said girlfriend is the former lover of the head of another crime syndicate who’d now like to use Park’s current predicament to exact some revenge on the drifter who’s stolen his girl. Roping in a disgraced ex-cop, the gang offer Jae-gon a significant amount of money to cripple Park during his arrest and take him out of the picture for good. Jae-gon is conflicted. The way he sees it, the day you can’t tell which side you’re really on is the day you need to hand back your badge, but Jae-gon’s in need of money, this guy used to be his friend and then, there’s the girl…

Right here you have all the essential elements of your classic film noir. Basically good, if imperfect, detective receives an offer he can’t refuse and ultimately accepts it against his better judgement in part because of a femme fatale that he just can’t get out of his mind even if the more rational part of his brain knows this is something that is never going to happen. Before you know it, Jae-gon has researched Park’s history and adopted the persona of a former cellmate before taking an undercover job at Hye-kyung’s bar and attempting to become close to her in the hope that she’ll eventually lead them to Park’s whereabouts. Of course, he starts falling for her too and though she remains doggedly committed to Park, something in her begins to warm to him in return. This is a situation which can never end well and its classic B-movie style inevitability only adds to the eventual pathos of its deliberately downbeat ending.

The film is called The Shameless for a reason – nobody looks good in this shady world of corrupt cops and vicious gangsters who will stop at nothing to get what they want. The fact that you can barely tell who is on which side is a good indicator of the levels to which this world of chaos has become warped. Even the police are literally “shameless” stooping so far as to indulge in an interrogation technique which is, in fact, a sexual assault. At least the gangsters are abiding by their own rules.

The picture has a slick, stylish aesthetic which is perfectly in keeping with its morally grey, film noir inspired mood. It’s full of existential angst and the ennui of modern, aimless life. As usual for this kind of film, Hye-kyung repeatedly gets the short end of the stick – used and abused by faithless men, so massively in debt it’s almost impossible she’ll be able to extricate herself from the seedy world of hostess bars and petty gangsters before its too late. She’s only one victim of the pervasive sexism that defines this harsh world. Clinging desperately to Park, Hye-kyung’s one and only escape route is to hope one of these feckless men is the one who can take her away from this place.

Needless to say this isn’t one of those films where everyone gets what they want and walks off into the sunset of eternal happiness, but perhaps it isn’t as apocalyptic as the original premise might promise. That is actually something of a problem as the slightly softer ending undercuts the film’s emotional resonance and ultimately leaves one feeling a little less than satisfied. Still, even if The Shameless fails to hit its mark at the very end, Oh has still crafted a stylish and beautifully photographed neo-noir romance that stays true to its classic B-movie roots whilst also embracing the best of the modern crime movie.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.