The Drug King (麻藥王 / 마약왕, Woo Min-ho, 2018)

Drug King posterKorean cinema has been in a reflective mood of late, keen to re-examine the turbulent post-war era in the wake of a second wave of democratic protest and political turmoil. Even so, dealing with the difficult Park Chung-hee era has remained sensitive with the legacy of life under a repressive regime apparently very much still felt. Woo Min-ho’s Drug King (麻藥王 / 마약왕, Mayakwang) is first and foremost a crime doesn’t pay story, but it’s also a subtle condemnation of authoritarianism and the corruption and cronyism that goes along with it. Painting its hero’s rise as a consequence of the society in which he lives, it perhaps implies the new wind of egalitarian democracy made such amoral venality a thing of the past but then again is at pains to show that nothing really changes when it comes to greed and resentment.

Our hero, Lee Doo-sam (Song Kang-ho), starts out as a jeweller dabbling in smuggling in Busan in 1972. Just as the smuggling business starts to take off, Doo-sam’s boss falls out with his friends in high places and decides to throw him to the wolves while he escapes abroad to safety. Doo-sam, not one to be beaten, starts coming up with ideas. Mobilising his wife (Kim So-jin) to get him out of jail through a combination of bribery and blackmail, he teams up with the area’s smuggling king to act on a tip-off he got from a Korean-Japanese yakuza and begins producing popular drug Crank for export to Japan.

As the opening voice over explains, Crank is a dangerous stimulant developed by the Japanese during the war and given to factory workers and kamikaze pilots because of its ability to eliminate both fear and fatigue. It is also highly addictive and provides an extreme high which have made it a popular recreational drug but, crucially, the real value is economic. The rising Japan is keen to make use of foreign labour, and Korea is keen to up its export capability. This, coupled with poor regulation of the workforce, has led to extreme exploitation in which factory workers are encouraged to hop themselves up on stimulants to keep working overtime for the sake of economic expansion. Thus, the influx of Crank is, in many ways, simply another facet of ongoing Japanese imperialism.

Not that Lee Doo-Sam cares very much about that. An honest prosecutor later puts it to him that he’s contributing to the exploitation of ordinary workers who might earn a few pennies extra for working a few more hours but at the cost of their health and wellbeing, while he gets filthy rich off the back of their misery. Doo-sam is, however, unrepentant. In the beginning he just wanted to provide for his wife, children, and unmarried sisters, but perhaps he also wanted to kick back against his reduced circumstances and he certainly did enjoy playing the big man. In any case, it has paid off. Doo-sam too has friends in high places and they won’t want to let him sit in a police cell for long in case he starts feeling chatty.

Times change, however, and whatever standing and influence Doo-sam thought he’d accrued his life is built on sand. When Park is assassinated by a member of his own security team, all those contacts are pretty much useless because the cronies are now out in the cold. There are protests in the streets and the wind of a new era is already blowing through even if it is still a fair few years away. That bold new era will, it hopes, do away with men like Doo-sam and their way of thinking, eradicating corruption and backhanders in favour of honest meritocracy. Naive, perhaps, and idealistic but it is true enough that Doo-sam is a man whose era has passed him by while he, arrogantly, burned all his bridges and gleefully sacrificed love and friendship on the altar of greed and empty ambition.

Hubris is Doo-sam’s fatal flaw, but he remains a weasel to the end only too keen to sell out his associates in order to save his own skin. He may claim he was only trying to live a “decent” life, but his definition of “decent” may differ wildly from the norm. Nevertheless, perhaps he was just like many scrappy young men of post-war years, desperate, hungry, and left with few honest options to feed his family if one who later found himself corrupted by backstreet “success” and the dubious morals of the world in which he lived which encouraged him to disregard conventional morality in favour of personal gain. Much more about life in Korea in the authoritarian ‘70s than it is about crime, The Drug King is nevertheless an ironic tragedy in which its drug peddling hero eventually enables the birth of a dedicated narcotics squad and helps to dismantle system which allowed him to prosper all while grinning wildly and, presumably, planning his next move.


Currently available to stream online via Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Key tracks from the (fantastic) soundtrack:

Jung Hoon-Hee – Flower Road

Kim Jung Mi – Wind

EXIT (엑시트, Lee Sang-geun, 2019)

Exit poster 2“Hell Joseon” manifests as “toxic gas” in Lee Sang-geun’s Exit (엑시트). Millennial “slackers” losing out in Korea’s increasingly cutthroat economy find themselves consumed by their own sense of failure while those around them only compound the problem by branding them useless, no-good layabouts, writing off the current generation as lazy rather than acknowledging that the society they have created is often cruel and unforgiving. Yet, oftentimes those “useless” skills learned while having fun are more transferable than one might think and the ability to find innovative solutions to complex problems something not often found in the world of hierarchical corporate drudgery.

30-something Yong-nam (Jo Jung-suk) spends his days in the park surrounded by grannies and has earned the nickname “IBM” – Iron Bar Man, for his athletic pursuits. The local kids have even come up with an origin story for him that his girlfriend must have died after falling off one and so now Yong-nam is some kind of “village idiot” with an overwhelming need to master the monkey bars. The truth is, however, that Yong-nam has nothing much of anything else in his life. His continual failures to find employment are an embarrassment to his family, and even his little nephew (Kim Kang-hoon) is so ashamed of him that he routinely blanks Young-nam in the street. With mum’s (Go Doo-shim) 70th coming up, everyone is very keen that Yong-nam look the part and try not to embarrass them.

Yong-nam is also quite invested in not being an embarrassment because the only reason he booked this fancy restaurant that’s a two hour drive away is that he’s heard his university crush Eui-ju (Im Yoon-ah) works there. Back in uni when they were both members of the rock climbing club, Yong-nam asked Eui-ju out but she was only interested in friendship so he started avoiding her out of embarrassment. Not really any more mature, he lies that he’s a high flying hedge fund manager rather than admit that his life has not been going well. Eui-ju, meanwhile, is the vice-manager of this events centre but shrugs the job off as not much better than part-time when in reality she’s really running the place while her sleazy boss (Kang Ki-young) who’s only in the position because it’s his dad’s company constantly sexually harasses her and shows no signs of taking no for an answer.

When toxic gas floods the city, however, the pair are instantly in their element. They know how to conjure makeshift stretchers from stuff that’s lying around and how to try and draw attention to yourself when you’re in need of rescue, but find their ideas dismissed by Yong-nam’s confused, conventional family members well used to ignoring crazy uncle Yong-nam. To survive they’ll have to trust him and his rock climbing prowess as he shins his way to the top of the building where salvation seems more of a possibility.

Crisis aside, Yong-nam lives in a world of constant anxiety where he’s forever receiving disaster alerts on his phone for things he never thought he’d have to worry about, and his mother spends her evenings diligently copying down ways to prevent cancer from TV documentaries. Yong-nam’s dad (Park In-hwan) would rather chill out with some soap operas, but it seems you can’t drown out existential dread with vicarious drama. Having more or less given up, Young-nam hasn’t even been going to his climbing club. After all, if you can’t get a foot on the ladder, what use is the ability to climb? “Our lives are the disaster” Yong-nam’s similarly troubled friend exclaims, but the sudden threat of toxic gas does at least give the dejected young man motivation to prove himself in demonstrating that his skills are useful, even essential, rather than frivolous or eccentric as his family members previously believed them to be.

Eui-ju, meanwhile, is kept in her place by a combination of sexism and the demands of a hierarchical society which prevent her from fulfilling her true potential by convincing her that she has to be polite to her odious boss. Teaming up with Young-nam, the pair work as equals and support each other as they try to find ways to survive. No damsel in distress, Eui-ju is finally able to take an active role in her own destiny while also making sure to save other people along the way, often at the expense of the pair’s own chance to escape.

In a loose moment, Yong-nam declares that he’s only applying for jobs in one of the shiny skyscrapers from now on because those guys probably got saved first, but in the end it’s their plucky never say die spirit which saves them, in more ways than one, as their exploits go viral with their millennial brethren who eventually motivate the drone squad to try and keep them safe. There may be no exit from Hell Joseon, but as Yong-nam and Eui-ju discover, you don’t have to listen when people tell you there’s no way out because the only way is up and you won’t know unless you go.


EXIT was screened as the opening night gala of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Intimate Strangers (완벽한 타인, Lee Jae-kyoo, 2018)

Intimate Strangers poster 1Middle-aged malaise and technophobia collide with potentially catastrophic consequences in brutal comedy of manners Intimate Strangers (완벽한 타인, Wanbyeokhan Tain). The hugely popular Italian film Perfetti Sconosciuti has already been remade in several territories, proving the universality of its conceit. The Korean edition, cleaving closely to the original, demonstrates once again that nowhere is safe in the modern wired world where public and private personas are beginning to blur as lives lived online become realer than real.

The action takes place (almost) entirely within a swanky Seoul apartment owned by plastic surgeon Seok-ho (Cho Jin-woong) and his psychiatrist wife Ye-jin (Kim Ji-soo). The couple, along with their teenage daughter (Ji Woo), have been living in the apartment for some time but haven’t gotten around to inviting their dearest friends so this evening’s celebration will be something like a belated housewarming. The other guests will be friends of Seok-ho’s from all the way back in elementary school – elite lawyer Tae-soo (Yoo Hae-jin) and his wife Soo-hyun (Yum Jung-ah), “entrepreneur” Joon-mo (Lee Seo-jin) and his much younger wife Se-kyung (Song Ha-yoon), and recently divorced Young-bae (Yoon Kyung-ho) who is supposed to be bringing his new girlfriend, but disappoints everyone by turning up alone. Part way through the evening, Ye-jin suggests a kind of party game in which they’ll all put their phones face up on the table and agree to share any messages or calls that come in. Of course, this is a game you can’t afford to refuse to play lest everyone think you’ve something to hide, but total honesty is not always advisable even amongst friends.

Despite their supposed intimacy built up over a couple of decades of similar evenings and get togethers, everyone is very much in public mode and maintaining appropriate levels of decorum. Which is why Tae-soo and Soo-hyun are at great pains to hide the fact their relationship is at breaking point thanks to the recent arrival of Tae-soo’s mother while Ye-jin and Seok-ho also have obvious problems, especially when it comes to the upbringing of their teenage daughter. Despite being a psychiatrist with full knowledge of boundaries and the harm that can be done crossing them, Ye-jin has been going through her daughter’s things and not liking what she finds. Nevertheless, everyone wants to have a pleasant evening, so the fights are on hold and politeness very much in the ascendent.

And then the phones start ringing. It might be a matter of debate exactly how much privacy one should want or expect in a marriage, with friends, or from the world in general, but everyone has something or other they’d rather wasn’t brought up at a dinner party and so showcasing one’s phone is likely to be quite a bad idea. That might be the attraction of the game, but no one seriously wants marital breakdown across the dinner table, nor do they want to hear about medical procedures, outings they weren’t invited to, workplace drama, or familial strife.

The messages, as pregnant with melodrama as they might be, begin to expose the simmering conflicts between this now disparate group of “friends”. The petty class resentments and awkward political differences that politeness sees fit to gloss over become harder to ignore when flashed up by an inconvenient notification or a call the other party is not aware is being broadcast (breaching their privacy too in the process). Realising secrets have been kept from you can be hurtful, but it’s even worse realising that you disappoint yourself in proving exactly why the secret was kept in the first place.

It’s tempting to blame everything on technology, that if no one had a phone no one would be hurt but the truth is that married or not everyone has a right to their secrets and a separate, individual life to which no one but themselves is privy. Perhaps it isn’t so much lies which are the enemy, but the expectation of intimacy and that sharing your life with someone necessarily means the entirety of it. In any case, the film (like the other incarnations) opts for an ironic ending which undoes everything which had gone before, erasing the awkwardness of exposed secrets with a return to a more comfortable reality in which everyone is superficially happier pretending to be happy in blissful ignorance. Perhaps sometimes it really is better not to ask too many questions.


Intimate Strangers was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)