Memoir of a Murderer (살인자의 기억법, Won Shin-yeon, 2017)

memoir of a murderer posterMemory, particularly traumatic memory, coupled with the inability to overcome painful truths through the act of forgetting, has a become an essential part of Korean cinema. The “hero” at the centre of Won Shin-yeon’s Memoir of a Murderer (살인자의 기억법, Salinjaui Gieokbeob), adapted from the novel by Kim Young-Ha, literally cannot remember his past crimes – he is suffering from dementia possibly brought on by brain damage sustained in an accident 17 years previously. The inability to remember is not the same as forgetting, and forgetting is not the same as ignoring, but there are some truths so essential that a superficial inability to recall them does not destroy their power.

Byung-su (Sol Kyung-gu) was once a serial killer. That is to say, he was the “noble” kind of serial killer who only killed “bad” people (in his own moral judgment) such as instigators of domestic violence, heartless loan sharks, or people who harm animals. These days Byung-su is a successful vet living with his grown-up daughter, Eun-hee (Seol Hyun). Having recently confirmed that he has Alzheimer’s, the doctor says possibly a result of trauma from that earlier car crash, Byung-su does not know what to do for the best seeing as he’ll have to give up work. An unexpected collision with a young man in a swanky silver car, Min Tae-ju (Kim Nam-Gil), gives Byung-su something else to think about when he notices what looks like blood dripping from the boot. Locking eyes with the man in question, Byun-su knows instantly that Tae-ju is just like him – a killer, probably the man behind a series of unsolved murders. Byung-su might have let this go as a matter of professional courtesy were it not for a few nagging doubts – did Tae-ju see in him what he saw in Tae-ju, and if he did will Eun-hee, who is a perfect match with the currently known victims in the unsolved serial killing case, be in additional danger due to her father’s accidental encounter?

Then again, did any of that actually happen? Byung-su’s rapidly deteriorating memory cannot be relied upon. Perhaps there was no crash, perhaps there was no body or the body was that of a deer, perhaps Byung-su is simply mixing up his original car crash with something more metaphorical. In an effort to help him remember where he is, Eun-hee has given her father a dictaphone so he can leave himself messages of things he might forget – when he took his medication, places he needs to go, the names of people he met but can’t remember. Unbeknownst to her, Byung-su has already engaged himself in a wider program of remembering by trying to write down his own life story, including all the grisly details of his serial killing past, in a kind of memoir on his computer. Though Byung-su struggles to remember details or ensure he has everything clearly the way it really happened, muscle memory speaks for itself and his body will never forget its murderous past. Freed from the moderating force of Byung-su’s remaining humanity, Byung-su worries what his body may do on his behalf while his mind is absent.

Byung-su positions himself as morally good, believing that his mission of killing “bad” people is a kind of service to humanity. When he begins to doubt himself, that perhaps he is both the old serial killer and the new but has “forgotten” his most recent victims, his justification starts to fall apart. Almost a father and son, Byung-su and his suspect come from different generations and grew up in very different political and social circumstances, yet both carry the scars of domestic violence. Violent fathers beget violent sons yet Byung-su, he believes, has chosen a better path in ridding the world of bullies whereas his opposing number has chosen to blame the victim in preying on the weak.

Alzheimer’s leaves Byung-su permanently vulnerable, not least to self betrayal, rendering him unable to even recognise his enemy or remember why it was he seems to suspect him. Despite the inability to remember, Byung-su retains his instinctive suspicion of Tae-ju, but is unable to evade the possibility that his misgivings are a mix of self-projection and a more natural paternal wariness. His world is in constant shift between realities founded on imperfect memory. Not until he has faced the truth in all its ugliness can he hope to reorder his existence. The act of forgetting cannot solve all one’s problems – the absence of superficial pain merely provokes a kind of numbness while the root causes remain. Byung-su cannot kill the killer in himself, and is condemned to chase his own ghost through various unrealities until it finally catches up with him. Filled with (extremely) dark humour and oddly warm naturalistic detail, Memoir of a Murderer operates on a deeper level than it first might appear, stepping away from literal truths in favour of metaphorical ones but finding little of either.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Suspect (용의자, Won Shin-yeon, 2013)

suspect posterNorth Koreans have become the go to bad guys recently, and so North Korean spies have become the instigators of fear and paranoia in many a contemporary political thriller. The Suspect (용의자, Yonguija), however, is quick to point the finger at a larger evil – personal greed, dodgy morals, and the all powerful reach of global corporations. Opting for a high octane action fest rather than a convoluted plot structure, Won’s approach is (mostly) an uncomplicated one as a wronged man pursues his revenge or redemption with no thought for his own future, only to be presented with the unexpected offering of one anyway alongside the equally unexpected bonus of exposing an international conspiracy.

Ji Dong-cheol (Gong Yoo) is former top North Korean asset now defected to the South and working as a driver for an important CEO. His boss thinks he ought to just go home, but Ji has a mission – he’s looking for a former friend, also defected, who was responsible for the deaths of his wife and daughter as part of a wide ranging purge following the accession of Kim Jong-un. Taking pity on him, the CEO eventually gives him the address of his target, adding that he hopes Ji can learn to forgive him (which seems unlikely), but is assassinated by other agents that same night. Arriving at the scene too late, Ji finds himself framed for the killing and charged with taking care of a secret message also in the CEO’s possession at the time of his death. Teaming up with a documentary filmmaker, Ji is now on the run and determined to find his former friend turned mortal enemy before the authorities catch up with him whilst also trying to work out what to do with his boss’ coded message.

Family, debts of honour, and bonds between men are at the centre of this fast paced thriller as Ji attempts to navigate this ever changing conspiracy torn between friends turned enemies and enemies who may become friends. His main adversary is a government agent, Min (Park Hee-Soon), whom he previously encountered during a mission in Hong Kong during which he made the decision to spare Min’s life after catching sight of a photo of his wife and son in his wallet. Min, however, is less than grateful as the failed mission greatly damaged his career prospects and so he has a personal grudge with Ji which he hopes to exorcise through arresting him. On the other side, Ji is also on the hunt for his former training buddy, Lee (Kim Sung-Kyun), whom he believes to have been responsible for the death of his own wife and child though later discovers that perhaps they have all merely been pawns in a much larger game.

The larger game appears to include worldwide arms sales by turns frustrated and conducted by North Korean agents. The conspiracy, however, is very much home grown in terms of its South Korean genesis but makes clear the complicated relationship between the two territories which is very much open to abuse by those who have access to both sides. The big bad turns out not to be the totalitarian regime with its constant purges and rigid enforcement of its political power, but the greedy and venal, power hungry petty officials of the democratic regime working in concert with big business.

Won has obviously drawn inspiration from the first Bourne film, offering several blatant homages including a long car chase referencing The Italian Job by proxy. His shaky cam aesthetic is perhaps overworked, but the fight scenes are undoubtedly impressive, anchored by the astounding performance of unlikely action star Gong Yoo – hitherto known as a sensitive leading man and frequent romantic lead. Having piled on the pounds, Gong is a credible vengeful presence apparently providing many of his own stunts including a strangely overblown sequence which sees him rock climbing bare chested only to emerge panting and glistening next to the flapping North Korean flag. Nevertheless, his near silent performance is a masterclass of physical acting, adding a much needed emotional dimension to the otherwise straightforward script which leaves little time for character development in between its admittedly impressive set pieces. Overlong yet moving at a rip roaring pace, The Suspect is a surprisingly well photographed action fest which manages to add a degree of pathos to its closing scenes even if failing to completely earn it whilst engaging in a series of subtle political allegories.


International trailer (English subtitles)

The Prison (프리즌, Na Hyun, 2017)

prison poster bigPrison can be a paradise if you’re doing it right, at least if you’re a top gangster in the movies. Na Hyun’s The Prison (프리즌) paints an interesting picture of incarceration and the way it links into his nation’s infinitely corrupt power structures. When investigators wonder why a crime spree suddenly came to an end, one of the frequently offered explanations is that the perpetrator was most likely arrested for another crime but what if you could turn this obviously solid alibi to your advantage and get those already behind bars to do your dirty work for you?

Disgraced policeman Song Yoo-gun (Kim Rae-Won) has wound up imprisoned alongside several of the men he himself helped put away. Like many cops who suddenly find themselves on the other side of the bars, Yoo-gun’s life is not easy. Badly beaten, tortured, and threatened with amputation Yoo-gun eventually starts fighting back and seizes the most likely path to prison survival – allying himself with the inside’s big guy, Jung Ik-ho (Han Suk-Kyu). Ik-ho, a notorious gangster famous for eating the eyeballs of his enemies, is the one who’s really in charge around here, not least because he’s the one running the gang of prison based hitmen trotted out to take care of the bad guys’ hit list.

What starts out as an intriguing idea quickly descends into predictability as Yoo-gun and Ik-ho face off against each other, finding common ground and camaraderie but ultimately existing on the plains of good and evil. Yoo-gun has his own reasons for landing himself in prison but his policeman’s heart still loves truth and justice even if he’s forced to become a prisoner whilst in prison. While he goes along with Ik-ho’s crimes, joining in the violence and intimidation he practices, he also wants to take Ik-ho down even if it means becoming him in the process.

While the interplay between the two men forms the central axis of the film as they develop an odd kind of grudging friendship which may still end on the point of a knife at any moment, Na tries his best to recreate the world of the grim ‘80s action thriller. Technically speaking, The Prison is set in the ‘90s (not that viewers outside of Korea would notice aside from the external lack of mobile phones, computers, internet etc) but wants to be the kind of tough, bruisy, fight heavy action movie they don’t make any more in which a righteous hero defeats a large-scale conspiracy by jump kicking hoodlums. He almost succeeds in this aim, but never quite manages to anchor the ongoing background conspiracy elements with the intense pugilism of the prison environment.

Yoo-gun and Ik-ho are obviously a special case but aside from their efforts, prison life in Korea is not too bad – the guards are OK, the warden is ineffectual, and the inmates are running the show. Nevertheless the prison is the centre of the conspiracy as elite bad guys take advantage of put upon poor ones who’ve found themselves thrown inside thanks to ongoing social inequality, trading cushy conditions to guys who’re never getting out in return for committing state sponsored crimes. Needless to say, someone is trying to expose the conspiracy which would be very bad news for everyone but rubbing them out might prove counter productive in the extreme.

Na lets the in-house shenanigans drag on far too long, pitching fight after fight but failing to make any of his punches land with the satisfaction they seem to expect. Flirting with the interplay between Yoo-gun and Ik-ho in wondering how far Yoo-gun is prepared to go or whether he is destined to become his criminal mentor rather than destroy him, Na never fully engages with the central idea preferring to focus on the action at the expense of character, psychology, or the corruption which underlines the rest of the film. Nevertheless The Prison does have the requisite levels of high-octane fights and impressive set pieces including the fiery if predictable prison riot finale. Life behind bars isn’t all it’s cracked up to be after all, the corrupt elites of Korea will have to actually pay people to off their enemies. Predictable and poorly paced, The Prison is best when it sticks to throwing punches but might be more fun if it placed them a little better.


The Prison was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Romance Joe (로맨스 조, Lee Kwang-kuk, 2011)

romance-joeReview of Lee Kwang-kuk’s Romance Joe (로맨스 조) up at UK Anime Network. First saw this at the LFF a couple of years ago but now it’s back alongside Lee’s latest film A Matter of Interpretation at the London Korean Film Festival.


Lee Kwang-kuk’s meta romantic comedy drama first got a London outing at the BFI film festival back in 2012 but now makes a welcome return visit as part of the 2015 Korean film festival in a strand dedicated to its director. Playing alongside a short film, Hard to Say, which was completed by Lee in-between Romance Joe and his new film A Matter of Interpretation, the film brings Lee’s meta concerns to the fore and offers plenty of Alice in Wonderland inspired absurdity to its otherwise straightforward plot elements.

Romance Joe is a film with many levels. On the first layer, we have an elderly couple arriving in Seoul to look for their son who came to the city to be a director 18 years ago but he’s not been in contact recently so they’re worried. His friend greets them and tells them their son had been feeling depressed lately over the suicide of a well known actress. He then starts to tell them about an idea for a screenplay he’s had about a director with writer’s block who checks into a motel where he’s told another set of stories by a prostitute who delivers coffee as a cover. From here the stories radiate out like cracks in a broken mirror though we never quite get the answers we’ve been looking for.

Lee has worked extensively with Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo and his shadow looms large over the film. From the cutesy title cards to the static camera with occasional creeping zooms and often unbearably awkward situations, there is certainly a lot of Hong in Lee’s film. However, where Hong takes the same situation and replays it with a different outcome, Lee gives you a set of intersecting stories which spring forth from each other. Lee’s interests are more surreal and metaphysical than Hong’s which are, ostensibly, more naturalistic in feeling than Lee’s almost hyperreal world.

In contrast to Hong’s social comedies, Lee also digs a little darker into the Korean psyche and reveals a strange preoccupation with suicide and abandoned children. The furthest point back in the film deals with the lonely mid forest suicide attempt of a teenage schoolgirl who’s become a figure of fun thanks to a loud mouth “boyfriend”. Her rescuer may (or may not be) the man we later come to know as Romance Joe. Though the two eventually bond, the story is not an altogether happy one as they’re rushed into fairly adult decisions which neither of them is really ready for.

Later, a young boy who may (or may not) be the child of the high school girl arrives at the “cafe” from which the prostitute operates looking for his mother who apparently last wrote to him from that address sometime ago and has since disappeared. Later, the prostitute receives a call from her own son safely in the country being cared for by grandparents while his mother earns the money in the city.

In many ways it’s a series of sad yet inevitable stories leaping out from inside each other each more heart rending than the last, though somehow it never becomes as affecting as you’d like it to be. Romance Joe feels like a deliberate experiment in form or at least a dedication to pushing conventional narrative structures into new and exciting places but it does so in a way that’s self consciously about form rather than content so that it never quite takes hold. It wants to discuss time and memories and stories but ends up mostly talking about itself and, in truth, a little lengthily, still Romance Joe does at least manage to offer an intriguing, beautifully filmed and often enjoyable surrealist tale that will have your mind in knots long after you see it.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.