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 Chaser (추격자, Na Hong-jin, 2008)

The chaser movie posterWhen it comes to law enforcement in Korea (at least in the movies), your best bet may actually be other criminals or “concerned citizens” as the police are mostly to be found napping or busy trying to cover up for a previous mistake. The Chaser (추격자, Chugyeogja) continues this grand tradition in taking inspiration from the real life serial murder crime spree of Yoo Young-chul , eventually brought to justice in 2005 after pimps came together and got suspicious enough to make contact with a friendly police officer.

Former cop turned petty pimp Joong-ho (Kim Yun-seok) has a problem. His girls keep skipping out on their debts. Or so he thinks – rousing one of his last remaining “employees”, Mi-jin (Seo Young-hee), from her sickbed (and unbeknownst to him calling her away from her seven year old daughter), Joong-ho finds a phone belonging to a missing girl and realises the last number called is the same as the one he’s about to send Mi-jin off to. Suspicious, Joong-ho rediscovers his detective skills and notices this particular number all over his books. Thinking the john is kidnapping his girls to sell them on, Joong-ho hatches a plan to track Mi-jin and have a word with this bozo but unsurprisingly nothing goes to plan. Mi-jin has fallen into the grip of a vicious serial killer, Young-min (Ha Jung-woo), but may still be alive if only Joong-ho can find her in time.

Joong-ho is not a good guy. Maybe he’s not the worst of his kind but as a former law enforcement official turned unsentimental exploiter of women, Joong-ho is an unlikely saviour. His primary motivation is, unsurprisingly, commercial as the look of concern he gives to one of his ladies encountering a dangerous client betrays, the kind of irritation a taxi driver might display on noticing a large scratch on his expensive car rather than a recognition of the pain and suffering those cuts and bruises bear witness to. He never stops to consider that something untoward has befallen the missing women and is, in one sense, relieved when he thinks they’ve been sold on rather than just skipping out on him. Throughout his quest to find Mi-jin which sees him forming an unexpected paternal bond with her young daughter, Joong-ho begins to rediscover his humanity as he’s forced to confront the similarities between himself and this deranged psycho killer.

Like his real life counterpart, Young-min, is a sexually frustrated misogynist who begins his social revenge through killing off the wealthy before moving on to the less easily missed including local prostitutes which is what ultimately proves his downfall when the various area pimps begin to connect the dots. In actuality it turns out Young-min has previously been questioned in connection with a murder but was released due to lack of evidence. Likewise, this time around the police are not very interested in capturing him and Young-min is once again returned to society due to some political concerns which result in pressure from above. As if having charmed luck with the police weren’t enough, Young-min also exploits the other cornerstone of South Korean society – the church, through which he recruits his victims, subverting their trusting religiosity with his violent perversion.

For a film which largely lives on the chase, winding through the darkened, rain drenched backstreets of downtown Seoul, Na adds in plenty of twists and turns as the case proceeds down one dingy alleyway after another. Joong-ho’s gradual reawakening as a human being rather than cold blooded human trafficker is accompanied by the gradual reveal of his counterpart’s dangerous need for validation through violence but also by the realisation of his total powerlessness in the face of such a nebulous and faceless threat. The police won’t help (perhaps if they’d investigated those parking violations a little more assiduously all of this could have been avoided), the Church is just an ironic distraction, and the politicians are busy squabbling amongst themselves. Joong-ho is an unlikely figure of salvation, but he remains the last best hope for justice so long as he can avoid becoming that which he seeks.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Bluebeard (해빙, Lee Soo-youn, 2017)

bluebeardIf you think you might have moved in above a modern-day Sweeney Todd, what should you do? Lee Soo-youn’s follow-up to 2003’s The Uninvited, Bluebeard (해빙, Haebing), provides a few easy lessons in the wrong way to cope with such an extreme situation as its increasingly confused and incriminated hero becomes convinced that his butcher landlord’s senile father is responsible for a still unsolved spate of serial killings. Rather than move, go to the police, or pretend not to have noticed, self-absorbed doctor Seung-hoon (Cho Jin-woong) drives himself half mad with fear and worry, certain that the strange father and son duo from downstairs have begun to suspect that he suspects.

Seung-hoon has only just moved into this very modest apartment after a recent setback in his career and personal life. Once the owner of an upscale practice in Seoul’s trendy Gangnam (not usually known for its doctor’s surgeries), Seung-hoon is bankrupt, divorced, and working as a colonoscopy specialist in a local clinic which just happens to be situated in a run down industrial town that everyone knows the name of because it’s that place where all those murders happened.

Used to better things, Seung-hoon finds his new job boring and annoying. Though members of staff at the clinic including pretty nurse Mi-yeon (Lee Chung-ah) do their best to make him feel at home, Seung-hoon spends all his time alone staring into space and eating snacks in the treatment room rather than enjoying proper meals with the others in a nearby cafe. Despite being a bookish looking guy, Seung-hoon hasn’t much taste for literature but loves his mystery novels. When his landlord’s family use him as a connection to get the elderly patriarch in for a scan, it sparks a crisis in Seung-hoon’s already strained mind. Midway through the treatment, the old guy starts muttering about dumping body parts in a lake. Is he just senile and dragging something up from the news or a movie, is Seung-hoon’s overactive imagination coupled with a steady stream of grisly police procedurals playing tricks on him, or is this diminished yet creepy old duffer really responsible for a series of brutal killings?

The original Korean title means something like “ice melting” which gives a better indication of Lee’s intentions as long-buried evidence is unearthed by changing weather both mental and physical. Bluebeard, for those who don’t know, is a creepy horror story told to children in which a horrible old man imprisons and then murders all his wives. Seung-hoon’s suspicions are further aroused by the fact that all of the women associated with the guys downstairs seem to disappear. Then again, they are quite strange, so perhaps their wives really did just leave without warning.

Seung-hoon’s wife appears to have left him high and dry preferring to stay behind in the city rather than accompany him to this grim one horse murder town. The couple’s son wants to go to summer camp in Canada but Seung-hoon can’t quite afford it in his present difficulties. Now afraid to go home because of his creepy neighbours, Seung-hoon spends his nights curled up in the office where he accidentally discovers another employee’s morphine pilfering habit. Pushed to the edge, Seung-hoon’s mind starts to crack. Less concerned with the murderer than Seung-hoon’s fracturing mental state, Bluebeard neatly frames its hero whilst blithely wondering if he’s accidentally framing himself. Presented with a series of alternate histories, Seung-hoon’s memories seem increasingly unreliable and his paranoid, irrational behaviour less justifiable. When the ice melts the truth will be exposed, but it looks like it might be a long, cold winter for Seung-hoon.

Lee takes her time but builds an eerie, dread filled atmosphere where everything seems strange, suspect, and frightening. Seung-hoon has already hit rock bottom and may not have been such a great guy in the first place, but his descent into psychotic desperation and terrified paranoia is at the heart of the story which hinges on whether his suspicions are correct or if he’s simply read too many detective novels and has too much time on his hands now that he’s all alone. Anchored by a stand out performance from Cho, Bluebeard is an intricately designed, fascinatingly complex psychological thriller which carries its grimly ironic sense of the absurd right through to the cynical closing coda.


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

International trailer (English subtitles)

Train to Busan (부산행, Yeon Sang-ho, 2016)

Train to BusanMany people all over the world find themselves on the zombie express each day, ready for arrival at drone central, but at least their fellow passengers are of the slack jawed and sleep deprived kind, soon be revived at their chosen destination with the magic elixir known as coffee. The unfortunate passengers on an early morning train to Busan have something much more serious to deal with. The live action debut from one of the leading lights of Korean animation Yeon Sang-ho, Train to Busan (부산행, Busanhaeng) pays homage to the best of the zombie genre providing both high octane action from its fast zombie monsters and subtle political commentary as a humanity’s best and worst qualities battle it out for survival in the most extreme of situations.

Workaholic fund manager Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is having a series of very bad days. His wife has left him and for unclear reasons, also left their young daughter, Soo-an (Kim Soo-ahn), in her father’s care though apparently wants custody in the ugly divorce battle that now seems inevitable. It’s Soo-an’s birthday but all she wants is to catch a train to Busan to see her mum and if she has to she’ll even go by herself. After his attempt at a birthday present spectacularly backfires, Seok-woo gives in and agrees to take Soo-an to her mother’s before catching the next train back after dropping her off. Unfortunately, they have picked a very bad day to take the train.

Yeon Sang-ho takes his time to build to the central train based set piece but is is careful to create an atmosphere which makes it plain that there is something very wrong with this seemingly everyday set up. After a brief dig about pig farmers losing out to government policy on foot and mouth disease and irresponsible hit and run drivers leaving deer corpses behind them for someone else to deal with, he has a parade of emergency vehicles racing past Seok-Woo and Soo-an on their trip to the station while ash rains down on their car. Seok-woo is still focussed on work though sleepy on the train so he misses Soo-an’s shocked reaction to a station guard being rugby tackled just as the train is leaving while a mass of improbable early morning revellers are trying to break through the line of staff holding them back at the platform steps.

Patient zero bounds onto the train just as the doors close though one wonders why no one is paying much attention to this obviously distressed young woman as she stumbles and writhes around in the train carriage before the virus fully takes hold. Just as we think someone is about to come to her aid, it turns out to be a case of a snooty passenger taking offence at the presence of an “odd person” on the train. The “odd person” turns out to be a homeless guy whose mutterings of “dead, all dead” take on a prophetic air rather than the ramblings of a mad man that the train guards assume them to be.

This kind of stereotypical othering and the selfish refusal to help fellow humans in need is at the very heart of the film. Seok-woo admonishes his goodhearted daughter when she repeatedly makes an effort to be a kind and decent person by giving up her seat for an old lady or wanting to stop and help others escape the zombie onslaught. However, Soo-an’s goodness wins through as she in turn chastises her father and explains that his selfishness and lack of regard for the feelings of other people is the very reason her mother left the family. Even if he begins by cruelly closing the door on the film’s most heroic character and his pregnant wife, Seok-woo gradually begins to develop a sense of social responsibility whether out of simple pragmatism or genuine fellow feeling.

Workaholic fathers with minimal connections to their offspring may be something of a genre trope but, as father-to-be Sang-hwa says, fathers often get a bad rap – making all of the sacrifices and enjoying none of the rewards. In an attempt to show solidarity with Seok-Woo, Sang-hwa assures him that his daughter will understand why he worked so hard all the time when she grows up and reiterates that true fatherhood is about self-sacrifice. This is one sense plays into the earlier themes of Seok-Woo’s self-centred viewpoint in asking if he really is working hard for his family or only wants to been as such, maintaining his own social status and upperclass lifestyle and completing it with a perfectly posed family photo. A father is supposed to protect his daughter and now Soo-an has only him to rely on, if Seok-woo is going ensure her survival he will have to decide what kind of sacrifices he’s prepared to make on her behalf.

If the film has a villain it isn’t the rabid zombie hordes who, after all, are only obeying their programming, it’s personal, corporate, and political greed. The clearest embodiment of this is in the panicked businessman who frequently tries to issue orders to the train staff and insists the train take him to his preferred destination. After trying to get the homeless man thrown off the train early on, the fascistic businessman picks up a lackey in the form of a steward and begins trying to exclude all the “suspicious” people from his general vicinity. Cruel and cowardly, the businessman’s selfish actions only cause more problems for everyone else whilst whipping up unhelpful paranoia among those who will need to work together to survive. Literally feeding even his most loyal comrades to zombies to buy himself time to escape, this egotistical CEO is the perfect metaphor for cannibalistic nature of the capitalist system which is, as Sang-hwa said, content to let the “useless” fall behind.

That’s not to forget the actual undead threat. Yeon Sang-ho’s walking dead take inspiration from his animated work and move quickly with jerky, uncanny movements more like Butoh dancers than the usual stupefied shufflers. The set pieces are expertly choreographed and well shot, maintaining the tension throughout though the increase in scale towards the final stretch is at odds with the leaner, meaner approach of the early scenes. Despite eventually giving in to melodrama in a heavily signposted script, Yeon Sang-ho’s live action debut is an impressive effort making room for his standard social concerns whilst also providing innovative zombie thrills. Yeon Sang-ho’s message is clear, when disaster strikes no one can survive alone, the only chance for salvation lies in altruistic compassion. In the end the best weapon against the darkness is a children’s song as innocence finally triumphs over fear.


UK release trailer:

The Bow (활, Kim Ki-duk, 2005)

The bowKim Ki-duk is not known for his conventional approach to morality but even so his 12th feature, The Bow (활, Hwal), takes things to a whole new level of uncomfortable complexity. While nowhere near as extreme as some of Kim’s other work, The Bow takes the form of a fable as an old man and a young girl remain locked inside a mutually dependent relationship which, one way to another, is about to change forever.

The old man owns a fishing boat on which he lives with a young girl most assume to be his granddaughter. This theory is quickly disproved by the old man’s obsession with his wall calendar on which he excitedly crosses of the dates, making a note of how many there are left until the circled day on which is marked the word “wedding”. Whose wedding, one is apt to ask but the obvious answer is the correct one. The old man plans to marry the young girl on her 17th birthday. Having “found” her ten years ago, he’s been patiently raising her and now awaits his reward. It’s not clear if he has actually asked the girl, who seems to look to him as a paternal rather than romantic figure, but at any rate the relationship between them seems fairly solid at this point.

That is until one fateful day a young and handsome student boards the boat and immediately captures the girl’s attention. Having been cooped up here for ten a whole years seeing no one other than the old man and the guys who come to fish, the girl is instantly smitten – just like Miranda laying eyes on Ferdinand for the very first time. The old man is worried – is he about to lose his prize bride to a young buck? With the fateful day approaching, the girl becomes increasingly cold and rebellious towards her father/husband-to-be, though which direction she will eventually choose is anyone’s guess.

The old man is very protective of his charge, taking out his bow and arrow when the other guys on the boat try it on (and some take the chase to quite unpleasant places) but perhaps that’s more about defending his property from spoilage than it is about saving a defenceless girl from a traumatic situation. Neither the girl nor the old man speak very much, occasionally one whispers to the other who then passes the message on via another whisper to whomever it was intended for. Perhaps they genuinely have no need for talking but at any rate the girl never voices any objections to her life on the boat and the only signs of rejection given are a sullen look, rebellious courting of the customers and finally a good old fashioned slap to the face.

The bow of the title is both a weapon and a musical instrument when the string is tightened over a drum rather than across an arrow. The artist and the warrior are truly two sides of the same coin, swapping drums for arrows as the occasion calls. The old man, who is more or less cast as the protagonist of the tale meeting a final swan song, has all these qualities. A rough sea hand, he lives a life of isolation alone with the girl on a boat in the middle of the sea, the music their only form of entertainment. As well as the fishing business, the man also tells the fortunes of his customers by firing arrows at a picture of a Buddhist deity while the girl rides a swing in front. The boat itself is a world entire, with its own rules and rituals – all things are contained inside of it, violence mixed with beauty and love mixed with fear.

It’s ironic in one sense that the girl’s would be rescuer is another man with less prurient designs, but still designs all the same, on her as a woman. That she’s apparently lived on this boat for ten years with people coming and going all the time and with no great attempts to maintain a convenient excuse is shocking in itself. Whether the relationship between the old man is entirely genuine or born of a kind of Stockholm syndrome is a matter for debate, but Kim opts not to fully explore the uncomfortable elements of this unusual situation in favour of casting the old man as a kind of love fool.

Though actually featuring much more dialogue than the average Kim film, The Bow is at heart a symbolic exercise which becomes a complex and extended Buddhist metaphor. Playing out like a boat bound The Tempest, the old man becomes Prospero with a bow rather than a staff and as a prophet rather than a magician. The student, like Ferdinand, shatters their peace by bringing the outside world into their idyll with all of its pleasures and complications. The old man faces a choice, burn his books and abandon his kingdom or keep his daughter/wife-to-be fearful enough to stay with him rather than the young man who offers her, literally, the world, which she has never known. Kim descends into a surrealist frenzy as the finale approaches, culminating either in a beyond the grave consummation of true love or a spiritual rape, depending on your point of view. Whichever you choose, The Bow is both a complex and poetic exploration of human relationships but one that proves unpalatable and, ultimately, hollow.


Original English language trailer (dialogue free, English text)