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)

Forever the Moment (우리 생애 최고의 순간, Yim Soon-rye, 2008)

forever the moment posterSports is one of society’s acceptable obsessions. Devotion to a football team, intense knowledge of baseball stats, and idolatry of athletes is not only respected, it is often required for any kind cultural fluency in the society in which one lives. Sportsmen and women, however, can become a disposable commodity. This is after all why the pay for sports stars is so high – the career is temporary. A brief moment in the spotlight can earn a top athlete a multitude of promotional contracts and role model status to hundreds of sporty kids, but when the music stops everyone loses interest. The heroes of Yim Soon-rye’s Forever the Moment (우리 생애 최고의 순간, Woori Saengae Chwegoui Soongan) achieved their 15 seconds of fame when the Korean women’s handball team won a couple of gold medals in the ‘90s before the sport returned to relative obscurity. Despite being gold medal winners, the women are in a precarious position, left without professional team contracts and lacking the necessary qualifications and experience to find well paid work outside of the sports world.

Yim frames her story around the 2004 Olympic Games in which the Korean women’s handball team came back from a disastrous slump to reach the final only to go home with silver after a penalty shootout defeat to Denmark. Mi-sook (Moon So-ri) was part of the gold medal winning 1992 team and is now a wife and mother. Her financial circumstances, however, are strained. When the supermarket handball team she’s been playing for is disbanded, Mi-sook counts herself lucky to get a job on the shop floor. Her husband (Sung Ji-ru), formerly a top male handball player, has been conned out of all his money by an unscrupulous business partner and is currently on the run from debt collectors leaving her a virtual single parent and desperate for money.

Money is the reason she eventually decides to come back to the Korean Women’s Olympic handball team. Mi-sook’s one time rival, Hye-kyeong (Kim Jung-eun), has been parachuted in to coach the Korean Olympic hopefuls after a successful run coaching in Japan. The team is in a sorry state – filled with inexperienced youngsters, it will need serious work to even qualify for the upcoming games let alone reach the podium. Hye-kyeong decides to get some of her old medal winning team-mates back to bring some strength to the ranks even if they’re all a little past their prime. Despite her best efforts, Hye-kyeong is soon sidelined for male coach (and old flame) Ahn Pil-seung (Uhm Tae-woong) who decides to junk the “Korean method” which uses speed as a weapon against the taller European challengers, and embark on a “science-based” European training regimen.

Yim deliberately moves away from the classic sports movie formula, eschewing the training montage and including only one lengthy match at the film’s climax. Forever the Moment prefers to concentrate on the internal struggles of its scrappy, underdog team the best hopes of which are middle-aged women with children whom society often writes off. Hye-kyeong is an earnest, driven woman who’s made a successful life for herself as a sports professional after her court life has come to a natural end, but she still loses out because she got divorced – the bigwigs are nervous about the proposition of a “divorced” woman occupying a “public” position, something that would hardly come up if she were a man. Made “acting coach”, Hye-kyeong is given hardly any time at all to prove herself before the experiment of “allowing” a woman to coach women is ruled unsuccessful and a man with little experience given full budgetary backing to replace her.

Hye-kyeong’s battles with Ahn may eventually take on the expected romantic dimension but it’s the relationships between the other players which become the film’s spine. Mi-sook has always made a point of distancing herself from handball, regarding it simply as a paycheck rather than a vocation – something which seems all the more relevant thanks to her ongoing troubles with her absent husband who is rapidly sinking into a breakdown over his humiliation and inability to support his wife and child. Struggling through adversity and working hard to achieve a physical goal, the teammates discover new strengths, growing as people and as athletes in their quest to be ready for the all important Athens games.

Forever the Moment is another in the long line of Korean films which celebrate the achievements Koreans can make when they come together and work hard to achieve their goal. As in real life, the Korean Women’s Olympic Handball Team are robbed of their final victory by circumstance and accident, but coming second becomes a victory in itself because of everything it took to get there. Less a sports movie than a subversive comment on the way women are often cast aside or underestimated, Forever the Moment is a tribute to the power of hard work and team spirit which becomes its own reward even when one falls short of the goal.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

How to Steal a Dog (개를 훔치는 완벽한 방법, Kim Sung-ho, 2014)

how to steal a dog posterEverything seems so simple to children. The logic maybe surreal, but it is direct. Problems have solutions and there are clear pathways to achieve them even if they seem odd to a more adult way of thinking. Perhaps we’d all be better off if we thought about social issues in the same way children do, though naivety and innocence often prove blindspots in otherwise solid plans. How to Steal a Dog (개를 훔치는 완벽한 방법, Gaereul Hoomchineun Wanbyeokhan Bangbub) is basically a heist movie in which two adorable little girls plan to kidnap a beloved pooch from a rich old lady who will then be only too happy to part with her millions to get it back but it’s also a subtle social satire on class relations and the economic causes of family breakdown in modern Korea.

Little Ji-soo (Lee Re) tries her best to put brave face on it, but at home everything’s gone wrong. In fact, they don’t even have a home any more – Ji-soo’s dad’s pizza business failed and he’s run off and left them. Evicted, the family have been living in the old pizza van while Ji-soo’s mum (Kang Hye-jung) has convinced an old flame (Lee Chun-hee) to give her a job as a waitress in a posh cafe. It’s approaching crunch time because Ji-soo’s birthday is coming up and the other kids are expecting to be invited to a party at a house Ji-soo doesn’t have. When she spots an ad for a lost dog which promises a reward, Ji-soo strikes on an idea. Together with a new found friend (Lee Ji-won), she hatches a complicated plan to steal the beloved dog of the grumpy old lady (Kim Hye-ja) who owns the cafe where her mother works and extort enough money to buy a lovely new house for her family where she can have her birthday in style.

Ji-soo’s worldview is both cheerfully innocent and extremely cynical. Sad and lonely with her dad gone, she blames her mother’s fecklessness for their present plight, berating her lack of practicality and failure to get her kids into a proper home in good time. Playing the sensible one for her family of three, Ji-soo is always on the look out for scams and trickery, assuming most people are up to something especially when it comes to innocent little girls. Hence she quickly has the number of the local pizza boy (Lee Hong-ki) who takes orders for family size pizzas but writes regular on the order slips and then pockets the difference from the unsuspecting customer. When she spots an ad in an estate agent’s window for houses at 5 million won she becomes fixated on gaining exactly that amount of money, thinking “per three square metre” is the name of an area and little knowing that 5 million won won’t even buy you a front porch in Seoul let alone an entire house.

Though living in a van is not exactly pleasant, Ji-soo’s problem is more one of social shame than it is of actual discomfort. All the kids at school have already been indoctrinated with class competitiveness and everyone is still talking about the last birthday party, the subject of which is getting a little nervous in case Ji-soo’s house turns out to be nicer than his. No one knows Ji-soo’s dad has run off and they’re living in a van, even the teacher seems curious enough about Ji-soo’s putative birthday party to actively remind her about it and enquire when she plans to make some kind of announcement to her schoolmates.

Thankfully, Ji-soon does eventually learn that money and status aren’t everything. The mean old lady turns out just to be sad and lonely, filled with regrets about a mistake made in her past. The scary homeless man (Choi Min-soo) turns out to be a goodhearted free spirit, and Ji-soo’s mum finally finds her feet after buckling down in an honest yet low paying job which requires a lot of early morning starts. From Ji-soo’s point of view, adults are still a bit rubbish but everything seems to be working out for the best. Oddly pure hearted for a story about dognapping, How to Steal a Dog is a charming, whimsical adventure in which a little girl’s faith in the goodness of the world is finally rewarded, even if not quite in the way she imagined.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Villainess (악녀, Jung Byung-gil, 2017)

the villainess korean posterVengeance is a doubled edged sword, it cannot help but wound the wielder. The heroine of Jung Byung-gil’s ironically titled The Villainess (악녀, Aknyeo) has more to be revenged of than even she knows. Yes, the narrative beats are familiar and Jung has clearly drawn inspiration from Luc Besson’s seminal hit woman movie La Femme Nikita as well as the long history of female revenge films from Lady Snowblood to Kill Bill, but he does it with style and style is always hard to argue with. A new kind of action cinema, The Villainess makes a performer of its camera, darting frantically like an animal on the run and then drifting listlessly between dreamlike visions of half remembered traumas. Jung remains firmly in B-movie territory but owns it, unafraid to embrace the genre’s more extreme qualities and all the better for it.

When we first meet Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin), we are Sook-hee. Jung opens with a lengthy (seeming) one take POV shot of an assassin fearlessly taking down untold numbers of bad guys in a tightly controlled corridor battle before we are suddenly ejected from her head when it connects with a mirror. Sook-hee has come here for revenge, though we don’t know that yet. Leaping from an upper window and landing heroically in an alleyway below, Sook-hee is taken into custody by a shady government organisation intent on turning her into a sleeper assassin. She is uniquely qualified for the task but has lost all hope and longs only for death. The revelation that she is pregnant gives her a reason to keep on living, as does the promise of her new mentor, Kwon-sook (Kim Seo-Hyung), who assures her ten years of service will buy a lifetime of comfort and freedom both for herself and the young life inside her.

Of course, it is not that simple. Jung gradually reveals Sook-hee’s backstory through brief flashbacks and lengthier evidence gathering sequences but her story is one of constant abandonment, adoption, betrayal, and vengeance. As if she could ever have forgotten them, the seminal images of Sook-hee’s life are frequently thrown back at her – an innocent girl witnessing the bloody death of her father, the eyes of the dying gazing back at something they once loved, games of death and of salvation. Sook-hee has been used and misused by men all her life, traded for jewels, and tricked into a murder of the self as sheds her skins to transform from frightened child to heartless killer, loyal wife, and loving mother. Swapping one master for another she is lied to and manipulated, denied her own identity in service of someone else’s ideals.

Ironically enough the prize which is dangled in front of Sook-hee’s eyes is nothing more than the prospect of a “normal life”, free from crime, killing, and fractured identities. As elliptical as the film itself, Sook-hee’s adult life is an ongoing quest to regain what was taken from her in childhood. A “normal life” is what’s offered to her by each of her respective masters but none of them has the capability, and only one the will, to give it to her. There can be no normal life for Sook-hee, reduced as she is from a name to an epithet. A villainess – no longer a woman, merely a faceless archetype, a grudge bearing revenger with dead eyes and an icy heart.

When Sook-hee performs in her strangely meta, Hedda Gabler inspired play, she remarks that she and the (presumably) long lost lover to whom she is speaking can no longer exist in the same space, in order for one to live the other must die. This line has an obvious correlation in the narrative but Sook-hee isn’t just speaking of her unseen enemy but of her own dualities. Only one Sook-hee can survive, but so many Sook-hees have died already starting with the lost little girl offered salvation in the barrel of the gun. Beginnings become endings, and endings become beginnings, but whether The Villainess is the story of a woman assuming her true identity or being subsumed by it, Sook-hee remains where she’s always been – alone and encircled by men with guns whose infinite authority she is perpetually unable to evade.


The Villainess was screened at FrightFest 2017 and will also be screened as the final Teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival at Regent Street Cinema on 11th September ahead of a limited cinema outing and October DVD/blu-ray release from Arrow Video.

International trailer (dialogue free, English captions)

Petty Romance (쩨쩨한 로맨스, Kim Jung-hoon, 2010)

petty-romanceKorea is quite good at rom-coms. Consequently they make quite a lot of them and as the standard is comparatively high you have to admire the versatility on offer. Korean romantic comedies are, however, also a little more conservative,  coy even, than those from outside of Asia which makes Petty Romance (쩨쩨한 로맨스,  Jjae Jjae Han Romaenseu) something of an exception in its desire to veer in a more risqué direction. He’s too introverted, she’s too aggressive – they need each other to take the edges off, it’s a familiar story but one that works quite well. Petty Romance does not attempt to bring anything new to the usual formula but does make the most of its leads’ well honed chemistry whilst keeping the melodrama to a minimum.

Manhwa artist Jeong Bae (Lee Sun-kyun) is not having much success with his latest project. In fact, his publishing house has been using his submitted drafts as scrap paper. He’s also got a problem in that a gallery owning friend of his late father has been the caretaker of a precious painting left to him in his father’s will but now wants to call in a loan or sell it to get the money back and so Jeong bae is in desperate need of fast cash.

Across town, Da-rim (Choi Kang-hee) has managed to bag a writing gig on her friend’s woman’s magazine but finds herself out of her depth working on a sex advice column when she has no direct experience of love or dating. Given the axe by her friend and living with her moody twin brother to whom she owes money, Da-rim is also in need of something to sink her teeth in to.

When a friend of Bae’s lets him know about a new competition with a $100,000 cash prize it sounds like just what he needs. The only snag is the competition is for “adult” manhwa which has not generally been Bae’s thing. Taking his editor’s advice, Bae decides to work with a writer but most of his interviewees are not exactly what he’s looking for. Da-rim with her “experience” in translation and publishing, as well as her unusual forthrightness concerning the subject matter very much fits the bill.

Kim doesn’t waste much time in getting the two together though their love/hate relationship is a definite slow boil as both Bae and Da-rim spend most of their partnership playing each other to try and get the upper hand. Bae’s trouble, according to his editor, is a talent for action but a failure with narrative – hence the need for a writer. Da-rim, by contrast, has altogether too much imagination coupled with the kind of arrogance which masks insecurity. Having blagged her way into the job, Da-rim spends most of her time ensuring that she’s in a superior position to Bae so that he will have to do most of the work while she enjoys freshly made coffee ordered to distract him from the fact that she has no idea what she’s doing.

Despite coming up with a promising storyline about a sex obsessed female assassin, Da-rim’s naivety is palpable in her attempts to come up with a suitably “adult” atmosphere. Disney-esque scenarios of handsome princes and desert islands, even if spiced up (in the most innocent of ways), isn’t quite striking the tone for the kind of prize winning raunchy manga that the pair are aiming for. Pushed further, Da-rim’s extrapolations from “research” are so unrealistic as to set Bae’s alarm bells ringing but offered with such insistence as to have him momentarily doubt himself.

Kim makes good use of manhwa as a visual device allowing him to include slightly more erotic content than usual in a Korean romantic comedy in an entirely “safe” way. Refreshingly he keeps the usual plot devices to a minimum though there is the “sibling mistaken for lover”, “mistimed job offer,” and “aggressive rival” to contend with, even if the major barriers are entirely centred around the personalities of the protagonists who are each fairly self involved in their own particular ways. Despite making good use of the chemistry generated by previous collaborators Lee Sun-kyun and Choi Kang-hee, Petty Romance lives up to its name in providing enough low-key drama to keep rom-com fans happy but never quite moves beyond the confines of its genre.


Available to stream on Mubi (UK) until 15th March 2017 courtesy of Terracotta Distribution.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Concubine (후궁: 제왕의 첩, Kim Dae-seung, 2012)

the-concubineYou can become the King of all Korea and your mum still won’t be happy. So it is for poor Prince Sungwon (Kim Dong-wook) who becomes accidental Iago in this Joseon tale of betrayal, cruelty, and love turning to hate in the toxic environment of the imperial court – Kim Dae-seung’s The Concubine (후궁: 제왕의 첩, Hugoong: Jewangui Chub). Power and impotence corrupt equally as the battlefield shifts to the bedroom and sex becomes weapon and currency in a complex political struggle.

Prince Sungwon first catches sight of official’s daughter Hwa-yeon (Cho Yeo-jeong) after a hunting party and develops a dangerous attraction to her. His possessive parent, the Queen Mother (Park Ji-young), finds this worrying and manoeuvres to take Hwa-yeon out of the picture by having her brought to court as a concubine of the king. Hwa-yeon, however, has a love of her own in the roguish hanger-on Kwon-yoo (Kim Min-jun) and is willing to risk her life by defying the imperial orders and running away with him. The pair consummate their union but are discovered at first light whereupon Hwa-yeon agrees to go to court on the condition Kwon-yoo’s life is spared.

Some years later, Hwa-yeon is the reigning queen as the mother of the sickly king’s only son but her life becomes considerably more complicated when the king dies in mysterious circumstances. Power passes back to the Queen Mother who puts her son, Sungwon, on the throne, making Hwa-yeon and the young prince direct threats to her power base. Sungwon is still in love with Hwa-yeon but his mother forbids him from pursuing her. Forbidding is something his mother does quite a lot of, and it’s not long before Sungwon becomes frustrated with his lack of real power. Matters come to a head when Kwon-yoo also resurfaces as a eunuch at the imperial court.

The imperial court is a golden prison and a world in itself. Once entered, it cannot be escaped. Everyone is vying for power but no one really has any. The king’s ill health and lack of a direct heir has left him dangerously vulnerable and the Queen Mother in a position of unusual strength. If one thing is clear, it’s that she has had to play a long game to get here, done terrible things in the name of power or self preservation, and will stop at nothing to make sure she remains on top.

The Queen Mother’s ascendency is contrasted with Hwa-yeon’s fall as she finds herself forced into the court against her will. Realising her total lack of agency as the court ladies are instructed to obey protocol in undressing her for the bath rather than allowing her to undress herself, Hwa-yeon exclaims that she has no right to her own body. Hwa-yeon’s body is, now, imperial property to be used and abused by the king for his pleasure and his alone. However, the Queen Mother may have met her match in the steely and intelligent politician’s daughter who seems just as well equipped to play the game as she is.

Much has been made of the sexual content of The Concubine which was largely sold on its titillating qualities. However, even if the adult content is frank it is far from erotic as sex becomes a tool of control and manipulation – one of the few available to the subjugated women of the court environment. Aside from the first love scene between Hwa-yeon and her true love, Kwon-yoo (which is perhaps the least direct), none of the subsequent scenes is fully consensual, each a part of a wider scheme or courtly ritual. Rather than an expression of love or intimacy, sex is an act of mutual conquest in which each side, essentially, loses.

Sungwon finds himself powerless both politically and romantically, unable to wrest power away from his controlling mother or win the heart of the already brutalised Hwa-yeon. A prisoner of his own circumstances, Sungwon’s increasing feelings of impotence manifest in violence and erratic behaviour as his obsession with Hwa-yeon borders on madness. Far from a liberation, Sungwon’s sex life is, in a sense literally, dictated as his ritualised consummation of marriage is conducted in front of an audience shouting out commands from behind screen doors who eventually criticise him for his lack of stamina. Kwon-yoo has been robbed of his ability to engage in this game and his desire for revenge is intense yet he will have to take it from the shadows by stealth if at all.

Director Kim Dae-seung manages the intrigue well in crafting the intensely claustrophobic environment of the oppressive court whilst ensuring motivations and desires remain crystal clear. There are no winners here even if there is a reigning champion claiming the throne. The cycle of violence and manipulation seems set to continue as even those who entered as innocents leave with blood on their hands, having become the very thing they fought so hard against. Often beautifully shot with opulent production values, The Concubine is an ice cold thriller in which desire competes with reason but rarely, if ever, with love.


Original trailer (no subtitles)