Black Money (블랙머니, Chung Ji-young, 2019)

Following hot on the heels of Default, Chung Ji-young’s financial thriller Black Money (블랙머니) once again has some questions to ask about the nature of capitalism in South Korea. Loosely based on a real life incident concerning the sale of the Korea Exchange Bank (KEB) to American private equity firm Lone Star Funds, Chung’s film points the finger at systematised corruption as its collection of greedy financial elites peddle national interest as a reason for keeping the public in the dark when it comes to their dodgy dealings.

The trouble starts in 2011 when an illicit couple, one working for Daehan bank and the other for the Financial Supervisory Service, are bumped off after being called in by the Supreme Prosectors’ Office in connection with an ongoing corruption investigation into the sale of the bank at rock bottom prices. The male bank employee is killed when the couple is run off the road by a truck but the FSS woman, Su-gyeong (Lee Na-ra), manages to escape. Fully aware that her life is at threat, she tries to get herself arrested by the police for protection but fails and is later discovered dead in her car next to a charcoal briquette. A “suicide note” in the form of a text message to her sister suggests that she has chosen to take her own life because of the aggressive tactics of prosecutors one of whom sexually harassed her after which she felt too humiliated to go on living. 

The mention of sexual harassment is intended to act as a tiny bomb by the shady forces in play, fully aware that just mentioning those words makes the entire case toxic ensuring it will be shut down never to be mentioned again. They have, however, picked the wrong man for their patsy in “bulldozer” Yang Min-hyuk (Cho Jin-woong) who is outraged to have been unfairly labelled a sex offender and will stop at nothing to clear his name, eventually uncovering the entire conspiracy after realising that Su-gyeong’s death was almost certainly a murder.

In this, Yang is obviously acting in self interest, which isn’t to say that he doesn’t care about the conspiracy, but it’s not his primary motivation. His opposing number, Kim Na-ri (Lee Honey), is perhaps much the same, a victim of her upbringing but increasingly conflicted. Brought up by a right-wing, ultra-capitalist professor who is good friends with former prime minister Lee Gwang-ju (Lee Kyoung-young) now working on the Daehan bank sale, Na-ri tells herself she’s acting in the national interest in her desire to set up her own international trade law firm to prevent Korea being taken advantage of by bigger foreign economic powers and in particular the Americans. Despite her law background, what Na-ri has mainly found herself doing is more like PR, finding palatable ways forward to make sure the deal goes through on favourable terms despite the already widespread public outcry.

Surprisingly, Na-ri and Yang end up bonding over the course of the investigation, discovering they have more in common than either might have assumed. Given the kind of evidence that Yang is digging up which points to a wide scale conspiracy involving complex fraud and murder, Na-ri finds herself conflicted. Maybe she isn’t quite as committed to ultra-capitalism as her father is, giving Lee’s speech at the Davos conference the heart-warming title of “free trade with a human face” which apparently went down very well with the audience. Whatever else she is, she’s a lawyer, and the kind of lawyer who doesn’t really like it when people break the law, so she’d rather not think that she’s been party to criminality without ever realising. Lee, meanwhile, uses their familial closeness against her, adopting a sleazy kind of sexist paternalism as he brushes off her concerns as if telling her not to worry her pretty little head about it while tacitly admitting what he’s up to isn’t quite right but is justifiable because the economy must be protected at all costs. 

Only, that’s a difficult claim to square when Na-ri’s restructuring plans for Daehan involve hundreds of workers being laid off and some of them are currently on a hunger strike in the public square to protest. Na-ri is used to thinking in big numbers, she’s not usually confronted by the human face of their results and the weight of her responsibility does perhaps shake her. Yang too is used to being equivocal, declaring himself a neutral force because his job is to enforce the law equally, but he got into this after his dad was involved in a traffic accident where the other driver turned out to be a chaebol kid, so he knows all about systemic inequality and entrenched corruption. Nevertheless, self interest continues to play its part. The sympathetic chief prosecutor who put his career on the line to take the case forward is ousted through a trumped up charge while his replacement offers to shelve it in return for a promotion. A combination of bribery and violence conspires to keep the financial elites doing what they’re doing because no one is secure enough to stop them. 

Trying to discourage her from her newfound sense of responsibility, Na-ri’s father reminds her that Lee is like family to them, which is one reason he’s put her forward for a top job as a financial commissioner, explaining that “that’s how we live through capitalism. Just accept it. It’s not something you can change on your own”. Chung ends the film with a sense of triumph as the common man, Yang, makes an impassioned speech in front of an angry mob, but according to the on screen text his was an empty victory because no one was ever brought to justice over the “illegal” bank sale which put a lot of ordinary citizens out of work while already wealthy elites lined their pockets aided by the financial authorities and a rotten judiciary. An attack on rampant capitalism, Black Money is not afraid to announce where its allegiances lie but seemingly has few answers other than indignation towards an inherently corrupt society ruled by greed and indifferent to the suffering of ordinary people.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Peppermint Candy (박하사탕, Lee Chang-dong, 1999)

Peppermint Candy 4K posterA wise man once said that the tragedy of life is that you have to live it forwards but it can only be understood in reverse. Lee Chang-dong’s second feature, the poignantly titled Peppermint Candy (박하사탕, Bakha Satang), lays bare the wounded innocence of 20th century Korea through the story of one man betrayed by the world in which he lived, eventually destroying himself in a protracted act of self-harm intended as a perverse attempt either at atonement or grudging conformity with a society he could not resist.

Beginning and ending with a picnic, Lee opens in 1999 as a hopelessly drunk Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu) crashes a reunion party he wasn’t technically invited to held to mark 20 years of friendship among former factory workers now approaching middle age. Dressed in a suit which looks somehow wrong on him, Yong-ho hogs the karaoke mic to sing a maudlin song about failed love, dances wildly, and sobs with the crushing hopelessness of a man entirely alone in the world. While his old friends try to reclaim the cheerful atmosphere, he climbs up to a nearby railway bridge where he waits for a train with outstretched arms, screaming “I’m going back” as he prepares to greet it.

Yong-ho does indeed “go back” as the train bears us ceaselessly back into the past, showing us the moments of Yong-ho’s life which struck him like a hammer to the soul and turned him into the defeated figure on the railway bridge, howling into the wind. At 40, Yong-ho is a hollowed out shell of a man, divorced and living in a greenhouse after falling foul of the volatile late ‘90s stock market, subsequently cheated out of all his money and the possibility of a new start by a man he thought was his friend. Given what we later learn about the middle-aged Yong-ho, it’s difficult to believe he had any kind of friends at all, and even if we’re conditioned to pity him as a man already dead he does nothing to earn our sympathy, cheating a poor roadside coffee seller out of a few pennies and then quietly smirking to himself in the safety of his car.

Yet, he begins to soften when a kindly man shows up and tells him that his first love, Sun-im (Moon So-ri) – now apparently this good man’s wife, is close to death and wants to see him one last time never having given up on the man he once was. Given the suit which doesn’t suit him by Sun-Im’s husband so that she won’t realise Yong-ho has made a mess of his life and be upset, Yong-ho stops to pick up a small jar filled with the titular “peppermint candy”, suddenly revealing that perhaps he never quite gave up on that man either and that may be his tragedy.

Before he was an arch capitalist making a few shady bucks in the pre-financial crisis economic boomtown of the newly democratised Korea, Yong-ho was a policeman working for the authoritarian government brutally torturing teenage democracy activists during the dying days of the regime. As a young rookie we see him squeamishly try to resist, only to be pressured into violence and then snap. The suspect fouls Yong-ho’s hand with the kind of smell that never really washes off, but it’s just one more stop on Yong-ho’s journey to spiritual ruination. Finally we reach his breaking point, in Gwangju in 1980, where his soul is forever soiled.

The Gwangju Massacre, in the story of Yong-ho’s life which is also the story of Korea, is the great festering wound which can never be healed. He carries it with him in an intermittent limp that resurfaces at times of emotional difficulty, and convinces himself that he is unworthy of everything good or innocent in the world. He breaks with Sun-im, cruelly betraying her faith in him with a crude gesture that wounds them both equally, mutually understood as a perverse act of kindness. Becoming what he thinks he’s supposed to be, what this society has made him, he wilfully destroys himself in a decades-long act of self harm that leads only back to the train which haunts him throughout all of his encounters, so painfully central to the arc of his life. Literally railroaded by an inexorable fate, Yong-ho lacks the will to resist believing he is no better than the hand he has been dealt but consumed by self-loathing and infinite regret. There is no way back, only forward, but for Yong-ho, and perhaps for Korea, Lee sees only one way out and the soft of heart will not survive it.


Peppermint Candy was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Juror 8 (배심원들, Hong Seung-wan, 2019)

Juror 8 poster 1What is the role of the law in a free and democratic society? In an effort to democratise justice, Korea held its first jury trial in 2008 giving “the people” a voice in the courts. As might be expected the judiciary had its doubts. Where judges and lawyers are best placed to assess the evidence and draw their conclusions, might not ordinary citizens be swayed by emotion or argument? Then again, compassion might be a force sorely lacking in a legal process some might feel to have become too efficient in its keenness to see justice is done speedily, losing all important scrutiny and allowing corruption and complacency to sneak their way in.

Juror 8 (배심원들, Baesimwondeul), a courtroom comedy drama, subtly puts the nation on trial as it asks what the point of the law is if it’s wielded like a blunt object. The case in hand concerns a middle-aged man, Kang Du-sik (Seo Hyun-woo), accused of hitting his elderly mother (Lee Yong-yi) on the head with a hammer and then throwing her off the balcony to disguise the crime. Though the defendant made a confession to police shortly after the incident, he did so vaguely from a hospital bed after being knocked out and now claims he can’t remember the events in question. This presents a problem for the judiciary who had chosen this case for the first jury trial precisely because it seemed so open and shut, all the jury was supposed to do was consider sentencing. Now they’re being asked to consider guilt or innocence and asking lots of awkward questions in what was supposed to be a token effort on behalf of law enforcement to demonstrate that it is listening.

Everything might have gone to plan if it hadn’t been for problematic “Juror 8” Nam-woo (Park Hyung-sik ) who, despite giving some worryingly conservative answers in his interview, instantly sympathises with the suspect and worries that there are too many unanswered questions in the evidence presented. His conviction only strengthens when he wanders off trying to get to the patent office to file sample of a self-defence device he was trying to launch as a business and accidentally meets Kang who seems despondent and frightened, worried he really might be guilty but fundamentally unable to remember.

More cynical minds might ask if Kang’s memory lapse is merely convenient and he hopes to exploit the jury trial to win acquittal through sympathy. Having noticed that Kang has no fingers, Nam-woo insists on a test to see if he is able to swing a hammer only for others to point out that there is no real way to know if he is not physically able to do it or chooses not to to aid his case. Meanwhile, Kang sits sullenly like a defeated ball of pent-up rage, eventually exploding when the jury is handed a letter he claims he was forced to write expressing frustration with his mother’s refusal to sign a legal separation form so that he would be eligible to receive welfare payments.

As his lawyer later puts it, the real villain here is poverty. Kang was raised by a single-mother, something still frowned upon, who had to leave him alone to go out to work. She locked the door from the outside to keep him safe, but that also meant he was unable to escape a house fire and was badly burned at only five years old sustaining prominent facial scarring and the loss of the fingers on both hands which means he is unable to work and cannot easily write. According to the testimony, Kang and his mother argued constantly over money, especially since her job washing dishes at a restaurant came to an end. As her son and dependent, he was unable to claim benefits and wanted, the prosecution claims, to legally sever ties. When his mother refused, they allege that he lost his temper, killed her, and tried to make it look like an accident.

Nam-woo is unconvinced as is another juror whose 30 years as an embalmer tell him that the head wound was unlikely to have been caused by a hammer. Juror 6 is dismissed for speaking out in court, his exuberance held up as an example of teething problems in the jury system, but his words strike a chord with some of the other jurors who wonder if the smug expression on the forensic scientist is there to mask the fact that he didn’t really bother to investigate because there had already been a confession and all he needed to do was “confirm” the police’s findings. Time and again, the jurors accidentally uncover the failings of justice in a system geared towards efficiency. Kang was pushed to confess by police keen to meet their targets, the confession then became basis for deprioritising his case. Or as some of the legal minds put it, they got “sloppy” because there was no sense in devoting time and energy to a matter already closed.

The same thing happens in the jury room. The jurors are ordinary people. They have lives waiting for them. Nam-woo wants to file his paperwork for the business loan, another juror has a child to get back to, one is a salaryman with an angry boss on the phone. Everyone has a vested interest in getting this over with as quickly as possible so they can all go home, but they also take their responsibilities seriously – much more seriously than they were intended to. Korea is a conservative society in which it is natural to follow the guidance of the authorities and the collective will, and so it seems natural to everyone that you simply rubber-stamp whatever the judge says. Nam-woo is a bit different, he notices details and he asks awkward questions. “Just go with the flow” the other jurors urge him, “when in doubt follow their lead”, but he wants to do what feels right. The exasperated businessman orders him to fall in with the boss, in this case the judge, but crumbles when another juror asks for his own opinion. He doesn’t have one, because he’s corporate drone and he’s been conditioned to do whatever the boss says without really thinking about it.

In any case, the jury system itself is a bit of a sham. The jury’s opinion is not legally binding, the judge only has to take it under advisement and can overrule. Sympathetic judge Kim (Moon So-ri), defended in her appointment as “strong and resolute like a man”, is fighting her own battles in a male-dominated arena, hoping for a long overdue promotion following the successful handling of this high profile case she only got through lottery. She begins to notice things she might not have when it was just a formality of sentencing a man who had confessed, but she is under pressure to maintain control and authority while demonstrating the magnanimity of the state. The jurors’ deliberations expose their pettiness and snobbery, some taking against Kang just because he lives in the poor part of town, but also their keenness to ensure the law is fair and exists to protect and not to oppress. Genial and humorous, Juror 8 addresses a serious subject with a lightness of touch and a subtlety that gently exposes the shortcomings of its society while placing its faith in “the people” to make a compassionate choice in the face of a fierce pressure to conform.


Juror 8 screens in Chicago on Sept. 12 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema season 9 where director Hong Seung-wan will be in attendance for an introduction and Q&A moderated by Korean cinema expert Darcy Paquet.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Romang (로망, Lee Chang-geun, 2019)

romang posterKorea, like many developed nations, is facing a demographic crisis as society continues to age at an unprecedented pace. While cultural norms demand deference to older people, the many problems they face in a society where welfare provisions are still minimal have often gone unaddressed in the assumption that family members have a duty to look after their relatives in their old age. This is, however, not always possible and there are occasions where considering opting for outside help becomes unavoidable.

This is the dilemma faced by elderly taxi driver Nam-bong (Lee Soon-jae) as he gradually comes to the conclusion that his wife, Mae-ja (Jung Young-sook), is suffering from dementia. The couple share their house with grown-up son Jin-soo (Jo Han-Chul), his wife Jeong-hee (Bae Hae-sun), and their young daughter Eun-ji who had mostly been cared for by Mae-ja while Jeong-hee was the family’s only breadwinner seeing as Jin-soo is an out of work academic (not particularly actively) looking for a new position. Mae-ja’s condition gradually declines to the point at which she begins to pose a danger to her remaining family members causing Jeong-hee to leave Jin-soo and take Eun-ji to her parents’ out of the way.

Gruff and insensitive, Nam-bong decides to send Mae-ja away to a hospice despite Jin-soo’s pleas but eventually reconsiders and brings Mae-ja home where he is committed to care for her himself. However, he too begins to experience the early signs of dementia and is at a loss as to how to proceed in the knowledge that it will become increasingly difficult for him to look after his wife or she him.

The onset of dementia, the film seems to imply, perhaps allows the troubled couple to begin to move past a central moment of trauma in their relationship which has left a lasting thread of resentment between them. Nam-bong, a chauvinistic, difficult husband is not well liked by his family members and most particularly by his son while Mae-ja had, maybe reluctantly, stood by him physically at least if not emotionally. His decision to send Mae-ja away is then a double betrayal in his abnegation of his duties as a husband and in his spurning of all Mae-ja has had to put up with over the last 40 years.

The distance between the couple has also had an effect on Jin-soo who always felt himself pushed out as an accidental victim of his parents’ emotional pain. It is clear that Nam-bong, a traditionally minded patriarch, has little respect for his son who, in his view, is a failure for not having secured a steady career which can support a wife and child, “allowing” his wife to work in his stead. For Nam-bong, being a man is all about “supporting” a family but not actually having to be around very much. For Jin-soo, a modern man, it’s very different. He wants to be there for his wife and daughter so that they have good memories of him hanging out and having fun rather than being that guy who turns up at dinnertime to shout at everyone and then leaves again.

Nevertheless, Nam-bong is eventually forced to accept his emotional duty to his family when he decides to care for Mae-ja. While their mutual condition begins to bring old, negative emotions never fully dealt with to the surface, it also allows them to rediscover the innocent love they had for each other as a young married couple. When Jin-soo eventually leaves the family home to return to his wife and child, the couple decide to isolate themselves, holing up in the living room and communicating via a series of poignant post-its which remind them to care for each other as the darkness intensifies.

Yet it’s not quite all sweetness and light as the elderly romantics rediscover a sense of warmth and connection they assumed long lost. Despite the support shown for Jin-soo’s modern parenting, there is a notably conservative spin placed on the story of Mae-ja and Nam-bong which may very well mark them out as simply being of their time but a late poignant scene in which the young Mae-ja declares her dream to be having a good husband while Nam-bong’s is to support a family sits uncomfortably in its unsubtle defence of traditional gender roles. To make matters worse, the final moments seem to suggest that there is no place for the elderly couple in contemporary society in allowing them (well, Nam-bong) to take control of their destinies only in the most final of ways. Maudlin and sentimental, Romang sparkles when embracing the unexpected cuteness of the late life love story but too often opts for easy melodrama over emotional nuance in its refusal to address its darker elements and eagerness to romanticise the business of ageing.


Romang (로망) was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Pension (더 펜션, Ryu Jang-ha, Yang Jong-hyun, Yoon Chang-mo, Jung Heo Deok-jae, 2018)

The Pension poster“We’re all lonely beings” the proprietor of a small mountain lodge advances hoping to comfort a distressed guest. The temporary denizens of The Pension (더 펜션), a four part omnibus set in a charmingly old-fashioned forest hideaway, are indeed mostly lonely beings making use of this liminal place to process the taboo away from the prying eyes of civilisation, embracing the savagery of the natural world as they cast off conventional morality to pursue their illicit desires be they vengeful, violent, protective or loving.

We begin with darkness as our first pair of guests, a man, Choo-ho (Jo Han-chul), and his wife Mi-kyung (Park Hyo-joo), seem to be all too interested in the family next door. Eventually we discover that the couple have come with ill intentions and revenge on their mind, though the man they’re after doesn’t seem so bad to begin with – he asks them to dinner with his wife and son who seem happy, but the atmosphere grows tenser as he begins to drink and a darkness creeps in. Before long Mi-kyung has set her mind on poetic justice, leaving the other couple’s young son in peril while Choo-ho struggles with his desire to stop his wife making a terrible mistake while not wanting to upset her.

Unhappy families continue to be theme with the second pair of guests – a married couple hoping to rekindle their listless romance in the peace and tranquillity of the remote mountain lodge. While the arrival is pleasant enough, perhaps too much so as the husband (Park Hyuk-kwon) puts on a show of making the effort, despair creeps in when he realises he’d made sure to bring his wife’s (Lee Young-jin) favourite coffee but forgotten the grinder. He wants her all to himself, but she just wants to go home and worries about their young daughter staying with a mother-in-law she doesn’t seem to like very much. Eventually the couple decide they need some time apart and she ends up meeting someone else (Kim Tae-hoon) in the woods to whom she recounts all the loneliness and isolation she experiences in her married life, seemingly trapped by conventionality but unconvinced that anything would be very different if she left.

The hotel owner (Jo Jae-yoon) might agree with her – a lonely soul he is too, though it appears he opened this hotel for just that reason, burying himself away from his heartache by coming to live alone with the transient presence of strangers and peaceful isolation of the woods. His mother, however, is not convinced and is constantly nagging him to get married – in fact, she’s set up a meeting for the following day meaning he’ll have to close the shop. That might be a problem, because he gets a surprise guest in the middle of the night, a distressed woman (Shin So-yul) intent on staying in a very particular room. Finding it odd, he can hardly turn her away with nowhere else to go but a TV programme on the causes of suicide (loneliness, the decline of the traditional family, economic pressures etc) convinces him he ought to check on her. Assuming she is merely lovelorn (as is he), he tries to comfort her with platitudes but pulls away from her emotional need only to find himself eventually wounded only in a much more physical way as he idly fantasises what it might have been like if he’d gone back to her room and been a bit more sympathetic.

Our proprietor is notably absent in the final segment, replaced by a much younger man (Lee Yi-kyung) with much more urgent desires. Despite being there to do a job, the boy has brought his girlfriend whom he alienates by failing to explain a mysterious text from another girl all while making eyes at the attractive young woman (Hwang Sun-hee) staying next door who claims to be “from the future”. When another guest turns up and starts making a fuss about a missing engagement ring she supposedly left behind, everything becomes much more complicated than it seems but one thing is certain – there is precious little love to be found in this hotel where everyone has come to embrace the side of themselves the city does not allow to breathe.

Much more cynical and obviously comedic than the preceding three tales, the final chapter perhaps bears out the message that it’s not so much rest and relaxation people have come to The Pension for, but “privacy” or to be more exact “discretion”. Some came for love, others for lack of it, but all of them are looking for something they are unlikely to find here though the first couple could perhaps have found it if only they had stuck together. Nevertheless, hotels are transient places for a reason – take what you need from your stay and leave the rest behind.


The Pension screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on April 16, 7pm, at AMC River East 21.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Heart Blackened (침묵, Jung Ji-woo, 2017)

Heart Blackened posterMost of us like to kid ourselves that you can become rich and successful by working hard and playing by the rules, but it takes a certain kind of ruthlessness to climb the chaebol tree. Corrupt CEO Yim Tae-san (Choi Min-sik) is about to have his mettle tested in Jung Ji-woo’s Silent Witness remake Heart Blackened (침묵, Chimmuk). Wealth, money, power, networks of control and manipulation – Tae-san has all these, but a crucial failure to keep his house in order is about to bring it all crashing down. Unless, of course, he can find an acceptable way out. There are some difficult choices to be made but nothing is quite as it first seems in this world of interpersonal gamesmanship and high stakes machinations.

A widower, Tae-san is in a seemingly happy relationship with famous singer Yuna (Lee Honey). His dreams of familial bliss, however, hit rocky ground when his grown-up but still young daughter refuses to accept his new love. Despite Yuna’s attempts to win her over, Mira (Lee Soo-kyung) hates her potential step-mother with unusual intensity. Matters come to a head when some of Mira’s friends alert her to a sex tape going viral on the internet recorded some years previously and featuring Yuna with an old boyfriend. Mira demands a conference and Yuna dutifully comes, hoping for a rapprochement but getting a tirade of abuse. The next morning, Yuna is discovered close to death in the car park underneath her apartment building where a fire has been set presumably to destroy crucial evidence. Mira is arrested but can’t remember anything about the night in question. Tae-san hires an old friend of Mira’s, Choi Hee-jeong (Park Shin-hye), who has now become a defence attorney, in an attempt to get her some moral support from a compassionate lawyer.

Tae-san’s motivations remain opaque and inscrutable. He appears to think his daughter did it, so why does he hire a friendly but second rate, relatively inexperienced lawyer to defend her when he could use his vast wealth to hire the best of the best or even have the case thrown out altogether? As might be expected for someone in his position, Tae-san is a corrupt businessman with a shady past. He has a history with the prosecutor working on this case who has an interest in trying to get at him through his daughter but Tae-san tries buying him off anyway. To Tae-san money is everything. There is nothing which cannot be bought, nothing which cannot be done by a man with “means”, and no trap which cannot be sprung by a man in total control. So why is he letting his daughter go through all this when he could have found a way to pull her out of it?

As it turns out, there are things money can’t buy (but in a round about way, you might be able to make a cash sacrifice in order to prove how much you want them). As part of their investigations, Tae-san and Hee-jong rub up against creepy super fan Dong-myeong (Ryoo Joon-Yeol), otherwise known as “Cableguy”, who’s been stalking Yuna for years and has secret cameras installed all over her apartment building meaning he may have crucial footage of the incident. To Dong-myeong, however, money is “worthless” in comparison to love, family, and friendship (or so he says). Taking the stand, Tae-san amps up his fascistic chaebol survival of the fittest rhetoric in reiterating that “not all lives are equal” and that saying there’s nothing to be done is only the defeatist excuse of the perpetual failure. If he believes the things he says, then Tae-san is indeed a “vile man” as the prosecutor brands him, but then again Tae-san’s relationship to the “truth” is not altogether a faithful one.

Tae-san believes that “money fixes everything” and whatever else he may have done, it’s hard to argue with his final assessment. What Tae-san is experiencing may well be karma for his life of corporate machinations, but it’s not quite of the kind you might expect. Mira, the archetypal chaebol child – spoiled, entitled, selfish, and arrogant, has in a sense been ruined by her father’s failure to teach her there are things more important than money and it’s a lesson both of them will find hard to learn. A chaebol chastened, Tae-san is a man brought low by his own ideology but it’s hard not to feel sorry him as he finds himself back on the path to righteousness having lost everything even if the real villain is the world which blackened his heart to such an intense degree.


Heart Blackened was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Pandora (판도라, Park Jung-woo, 2016)

pandora (korean) posterIn a time of crisis, the populace looks to the government to take action and save the innocent from danger. A government, however, is often forced to consider the problem from a different angle – not simply saving lives but how their success or failure, decision-making process, and ability to handle the situation will be viewed by the electorate the next time they are asked who best deserves their faith and respect. Pandora (판도라) arrives at a time of particularly strained relations between the state and its people during which faith in the ruling elite is at an all time low following a tragic disaster badly mishandled and seemingly aided by the government’s failure to ensure public safety. Faced with an encroaching nuclear disaster to which their own failure to heed the warnings has played no small part, Pandora’s officials are left in a difficult position tasked with the dilemma of sacrificing a small town to save a nation or accepting their responsibility to their citizens as named individuals. Unsurprisingly, they are far from united in their final decision.

As the film opens, a group of children marvel at the towers of the new nuclear plant which has just been completed in their previously run down rural town. Not quite understanding what the plant is, they repeat snippets they’ve heard in their parents’ conversations – that the plant is a “rice cooker” that’s going to make them all rich, or it’s a “Pandora’s box” which may unleash untold horrors. Still, they seem excited about this new and futuristic arrival in their dull little village.

Flashforward fifteen years or so and one way or another all the kids now work at the plant, like it or not, because there are no other jobs available. Kang Jae-hyuk (Kim Nam-Gil) is one such conflicted soul who doesn’t disapprove of the plant in itself but has good reason to fear that the powers that be are not taking good enough care seeing that both his father and older brother were killed during a previous incident at the plant some years previously. Jae-hyuk lives with his widowed mother (Kim Young-ae), sister-in-law (Moon Jeong-Hee), and nephew (Bae Gang-Yoo) but is reluctant to marry his long-term girlfriend Yeon-ju (Kim Joo-Hyun) due to his lack of financial stability and growing disillusionment with small town life.

Meanwhile, the wife of the Korean president has been passed a file by a whistle-blower hoping to bypass the corrupt bureaucracy and go directly to the top. The file, compiled by a worried engineer, details all of the many failings at the recently reconfigured plant which has been recklessly rushed into completion without the proper safety checks and required maintenance procedures. Unfortunately the president does not have time to read the report before a 6.1 magnitude earthquake strikes and destabilises the plant to the extent that it edges towards meltdown.

Unusually, in a sense, the president is a good man who genuinely wants to do the best for his people even if he sometimes ignores sensible advice out of a desire to protect those on the ground. Unfortunately, he is at the mercy of a corrupt cabinet headed by a scheming prime minister intent on withholding information in order to push the president into cynical decision-making models predicated on the idea of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few but which mainly relate to the needs of the prime minister and his cronies in the nuclear industry.

The man in charge of the plant has only been there a few weeks and has no nuclear industry experience. His second in command is a company man and his loyalty lies with his employers – he needs to keep everything functioning and ensure the plant will not be decommissioned. The only voice of reason is coming from the chief engineer who wrote the whistle blowing report and nobly remains on site throughout the disaster putting himself at grave personal risk trying to ensure the plant does not pose a greater danger to those in the immediate vicinity.

Claiming a desire to avoid mass panic, the government attempts to order a media blackout, giving little or no information to civilians stranded in the town and fitting communications jammers to prevent the spread of information. The town is eventually given an evacuation order and orderly transportation to a shelter but once there the townspeople are kept entirely in the dark. When they become aware of the full implications of the disaster and try to leave independently, they are locked in while officials flee and leave them behind.

Conversely, the emergency services are hemmed in by regulations which state they cannot act because they would be putting themselves at unacceptable risk. Kang Jae-hyuk, despite his earlier irritation with his place of work, abandons his own cynicism to walk back into the disaster zone to help his friends still trapped inside. The president nobly refuses to order anyone to tackle the disaster directly knowing that it would mean certain death but opts to appeal for volunteers willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Unexpectedly, he finds them. The president is well-meaning but ineffectual, the government is corrupt, and the emergency services apparently overburdened with regulation while under-regulated commercial enterprises put lives in danger. The only force which will save the Korean people is the Korean people and its willingness to sacrifice itself for the common good even in the face of such cynical, self-interested greed.

Despite the scale of the disaster, Pandora takes its time, eschewing the kind of black humour which typifies Korean cinema disaster or otherwise. Serious rigour, however, goes out of the window in favour of overwrought melodrama, undermining the underlying messages of widespread societal corruption from corporations cutting corners with no regard for the consequences to politicians playing games with people’s lives. The powers that be have opened Pandora’s Box, but the only thing still trapped inside is men like Kang Jae-hyuk whose disillusioned malaise soon gives way to untempered altruism and eventually offers the only source of hope for his betrayed people.


Original trailer (English subtitles available from menu)

Luck-key (럭키, Lee Gye-Byeok, 2016)

luck-keyWhen it comes to intelligent farce, Kenji Uchida is Japan’s undisputed master so remaking his 2012 tale of love, crime, and mistaken identity Key of Life was always going to be a tall order. Thankfully it’s one Lee Gye-byeok largely manages to meet as he skilfully relocates the tale to South Korea and swaps Uchida’s complicated farce for a more lateral double sided comedy. While not as accomplished as Uchida’s hilariously intricate original, Luck-key (럭키) manages to charm with its thoroughly romantic, comically absurd, approach.

On one side of town, hitman Hyung-wook (Yu Hae-jin) finishes off his latest assignment and disappears into the night, while on another out of work actor Jae-sung (Lee Joon) contemplates suicide only to be interrupted by his landlady’s exasperated pleas for the back rent. In a fairly hopeless state, Jae-Sung heads out to the local bath house, intending to bid the world goodbye in a more dignified state. Hyung-wook also ends up at the same destination to wash the blood off his hands, only to embarrassingly slip on an errant piece of soap and knock himself out cold. Remembering admiring Hyung-wook’s expensive watch on the way in, Jae-sung makes a split second decision and switches locker keys with the unconscious rich guy.

Jae-sung decides to put his affairs in order by using Hyung-wook’s money to pay off old debts as well as experience one day as wealthy man before doing himself in. When Jae-sung discovers Hyung-wook has lost his memory and assumed Jae-sung’s identity, he decides against giving back Hyung-wook’s belongings in favour of trying on life in the fast stream. Jae-sung has also grown attached to a young woman who inexplicably appears on Hyung-wook’s TV, though he does wonder why Hyung-wook has all of these weapons and telephones, not to mention a big board of investigation material, stored away in a hidden room…

Each man begins to live a different life thanks to assuming the contents of the wrong locker. Hyung-wook has the rawer deal as he can’t remember anything about himself and ends up at Jae-sung’s apartment to find it covered in old food cartons and beer cans with his hangman’s noose still lying in the middle of the floor. With only two bucks in his wallet and no cards, he even has to ask the paramedic who brought him in, Lina (Jo Yoon-hee), to lend him the medical fees. Somewhat improbably Jae-sung’s identity card tells him that he is 32 years old (coincidentally the same as Lina) which can only make one think that he must have had a very hard life. Nevertheless, Lina decides to help him by taking him home and getting him a job in her mother’s restaurant.

Even though he can’t remember who he was before, Hyung-wook gradually reveals a different side to himself as Jae-sung, enjoying being a part of Lina’s busy family life. Jae-sung, by contrast, moves further towards the shadows as he becomes increasingly determined to protected the woman on Hyung-wook’s TV screen who turns out to be a whistleblower in a high profile fraud case. Eun-ju (Lim Ji-yeon) is a woman afraid for her life who leaves her apartment as little as possible, but eventually Jae-sung tracks her down and begins to woo her in impressively romantic ways, only to discover he’s made everything worse by misunderstanding the nature of the situation she finds herself in.

Experiencing a different sort of life highlights for each of the men what was making them so unhappy – Hyung-wook realises the value of a warm and supportive family life whilst Jae-sung finds purpose and drive in his desire to protect Eun-ju. Both men had, in a sense been “acting” as a part of their daily lives, living a kind of half life which frustrated their attempts to move forward. Through living in someone else’s world, these hidden parts of themselves – Hyung-wook’s softer, more feminine side, and Jae-sung’s masculine desire to charge of his life, become “unlocked” and allow them to become the people they always meant to be all along.

Dispensing with Uchida’s farce structure, Lee Gye-byeok more or less eliminates the third major character from the original script in order to more neatly split the action between the two guys who then mirror each other as they each begin to move more towards the centre whilst also making tentative moves towards romance. Filled with gentle, often absurd humour and taking pot shots at everything from gangster clichés to diva TV stars, Luck-key makes all the right moves in its relocation to Korea, bringing both amusing comedy and genuine romantic warmth with it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Wailing (곡성, Na Hong-Jin, 2016)

wailingFor the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand – the residents of Goksung, the setting for Na Hong-jin’s nihilistic horror movie The Wailing (곡성, Goksung), might be inclined to agree with Yeats if only because the name of their town is also a homonym for the “sound of weeping”. There is plenty to weep over, and in places Na’s film begins to feel like one long plaintive cry reaching far back to the dawn of time but the main wounds are comparatively more recent – colonisation, not only of a landscape but of a soul. When it comes to gods, should you trust one over another simply because of its country of origin or is your faith to  be bestowed in something with more universal application?

Goksung is a sleepy little rural town way up in the mountains. This is the kind of place where nothing much ever happens but today all of that is about to change as a local man has committed a series of bloody murders and is now in a dissociative state. Bumbling policeman Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) arrives late to the crime scene but quickly finds himself pulled in to the ongoing investigations as bodies begin piling up in the previously quiet town.

The rational explanation for the spate of violent killings is blamed on a tonic containing some funny mushrooms but others have another idea. All of this started happening after a Japanese guy (Jun Kunimura) moved to the town. Some say he’s a professor, some say he’s a Buddhist monk, but there also those who hold him responsible for the rape of a local woman, and there are even reports of him running about the forest dressed only in a loincloth and feasting on the remains of fallen animals.

Eventually, Jung-goo’s young daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) falls under the curse, giving him an unavoidable impetus to find the truth. As well as the “suspicious” Japanese visitor, Jung-goo also comes into contact with a mysterious young woman dressed in white (Chun Woo-hee) who may be either friend or foe, whilst shamans and the Catholic Church are each approached for their advice on this singularly supernatural phenomenon.

This being quite a sleepy town, Jung-goo’s days most likely involved a lot of napping, eating, and card playing, broken up with chatting to old ladies. So unaccustomed to crime are they, they didn’t quite remember to put their gloves on before investigating a crime scene. Jung-goo and his partner are constantly branded “morons” by their boss and if the night they end up guarding the police station during a thunderstorm is anything to go by, they aren’t exactly the bravest of souls either. Not the best pair to be investigating a complex, supernatural mystery they decide to heed the rumours and pay a visit to the Japanese guy living way out in the woods.

Known only by the derogatory term “the Jap”, the new addition to the village quickly falls under suspicion thanks to the old fashioned crime of not being from around here. Whether out of resentment for historical crimes or simply because of being an outsider, everyone decides the Japanese visitor must, in some way, be responsible. Suspicions are compounded when Jung-goo, his partner, and his partner’s nephew who happens to be a Catholic priest in training with a solid command of Japanese, discover some very odd things whilst snooping around the man’s home. Is the mysterious visitor really, literally, a “Japanese devil” or just the victim of an ongoing campaign of intense xenophobia and the supernatural elements attributed to him a manifestation of that extremely offensive term?

Na keeps us guessing. Meanwhile, ancient remedies are sought when ancient ones are awakened, hence Jung-goo’s mother-in-law turns to shamanism to try and cure her granddaughter of her increasingly serious illness. The shaman (Hwang Jung-Min) arrives more like a TV evangelist than a witch doctor – smart suit and turtleneck, topped of with long hair tied into a bun. The exorcism scene itself is a furious battle between light and darkness (or so we presume) as the shaman dances wildly to the pulsating drum beats of his orchestra, sacrificing a chicken here and a goat there, all while Hyo-jin writhes in agony in the next room and his enemy performs a counter ritual from his recently refurbished lair.

“Believe in me and you shall be saved” is a message Jung-goo receives from just about everyone during the course of the film. The Catholic Church, however, is resolutely opposed to the idea of this demonic threat and informs Jung-goo that this is not a religious matter – he ought to take his daughter back to the hospital and instil his “faith” in modern medicine. Faith appears to be the central question, in what or whom should one believe? Can Jung-goo trust his shaman, is the Japanese guy an ally, threat, or just a neutral, ordinary man, and what of the oddly intense woman dressed in white? In the end, Jung-goo’s faith is questioned but he pays dearly for his final decision. Had he placed more faith in the old gods, his fate might have been very different but Jung-goo chose real world logic (not his strongest suit) over spiritual intuition and failed to heed the warnings.

Jung-goo, though presented as a broadly sympathetic presence, is partly responsible for his own downfall through his willingness to embrace the baser elements of his nature. In contrast to his otherwise laid-back character which sees him late to work because of family meals, Jung-goo has a violent streak first seen when he takes defending himself from an angry dog far further than he needed to. Later he rounds a group of friends to help him take out the Japanese man in a worrying stab at mob justice. Neither quality is very endearing but Jung-goo’s position as a slightly dim bruiser who mistakenly thinks he can smash his way out of a spiritual conundrum makes him an unlikely choice of saviour.

Na offers nothing in the way of hope, the forces of darkness are set to conquer the world helped only by humanity’s propensity towards doubt, its selfishness, and its fear. The dark humour fades as the pace increases until the film approaches its bleaker than bleak finale. This is a land of ghosts, both fleshy and otherwise but in order to bid them goodbye you must first accept their presence. In the end it’s all a question of faith but those most worthy of it may be among the most difficult to believe.


Reviewed at 2016 BFI London Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)