Hunt (헌트, Lee Jung-jae, 2022)

“How long can you fight violence with violence?” one accidental ally asks another towards the conclusion of actor and star Lee Jung-jae’s 80s-set directorial debut, Hunt (헌트). As the title implies, this is a story of two men stalking each other but also each ironic representatives of an ideological divide both seeking a better future while torn between violent overthrow and peaceful revolution in the dying days of a Cold War in what could be termed its ground zero. 

As the film opens, the South Korean president, a stand-in for an unnamed Chun Doo-hwan, faces mass protest from local Korean-American democracy activists on return to his hotel while on a diplomatic visit to Washington. His security team is itself somewhat compromised in that it is a joint operation between foreign and domestic intelligence teams neither of which have must trust in the other. When it’s discovered that a plot is underway to assassinate the president, foreign intelligence chief Park (Lee Jung-jae) is taken hostage but insists on capturing the suspect only for domestic chief Kim (Jung Woo-sung) to abruptly shoot him, leading Park to wonder if Kim did it to keep him quiet rather than simply to neutralise an immediate threat. Assuming North Korea is most likely behind the plot, each begins to suspect the other is a mysterious double agent known as Donglim. 

What soon becomes apparent is that the two men, the domestic and the foreign, are being pitted against each other by the questionable authority that is the Chun regime. Recently promoted from the military, Kim had in fact instigated Park’s torture in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of the previous president, also a military dictator, Park Chung-hee. Both men appear to be conflicted in their association with an authoritarian government in the wake of widespread state violence including the brutal suppression of the Gwangju Uprising in May 1980. Nevertheless, both are party to acts of torture many of them enacted on teenage democracy activists they routinely smear as communists. 

In short, no one could really blame anyone who wanted to overthrow this brutal regime but as oppressive as it is, it’s also backed by the Americans who would rather keep Chun in power than risk the students’ wishes that the American military pull out of Korea coming to fruition lest it lead to a similar situation in Okinawa, which had only returned to Japanese sovereignty a decade earlier, undermining their ongoing foreign policy goals in Asia. If there is one clear villain, aside from Chun, it’s the shady the international order that is content to watch authoritarian leaders enact violence on their people when it supports their own interests. Nevertheless, it’s also true that Park and Kim’s personal vendetta sparks major diplomatic incidents in two sovereign nations which in any other case would seem primed to turn this cold war hot.

What emerges is a cat and mouse game in which each attempts to unmask the other while on increasingly unstable ground unable even to rely on support from their superiors who in any case answer directly to Chun. It seems there are several factions who would like to unseat him even if they do not necessarily object to authoritarian rule only to persistent state violence against citizens who are more often than not mere children. The differences between Park and Kim are ideological in more ways than one, torn between the belief that only violence can free them from violence and the desire to seek a better solution but each agreeing that assassination is the only viable path to deposing Chun and ushering in a better future despite the failure of the assassination of the previous president to do the same . 

Anchored by strong performances from veteran actors Lee Jung-jae and Jung Woo-sung, the film also features a host of cameos from some of the nation’s top stars including Hwang Jung-min as a manic North Korean airforce defector and Lee Sung-min in a small but pivotal role as a Korean-Japanese asset. With notably high production values and truly astonishing action sequences, Lee excels in capturing the paranoid atmosphere of the conspiracy thriller and an almost unbearable tension between its twin protagonists who will later discover that they are quite literally on the same bus even if they have very different destinations in mind. 


Hunt screened as the opening night gala of this year’s London East Asian Film Festival and arrives in UK cinemas/digital on 4th November courtesy of Altitude Films.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)

Alienoid (외계+인 1부, Choi Dong-hoon, 2022)

According to the strangely warmhearted AI robot at the centre of Choi Dong-hoon’s Alienoid (외계+인 1부), the universe is already finished, destined only to tear itself apart in destructive instability. According to him, his society evolved, became compassionate and forgiving, yet like many others sought to avoid a problem it did not want to deal with in exiling its most dangerous prisoners to the minds of oblivious Earthlings who apparently rarely realise they’re sharing body and soul with an alien killing machine until that is one decides to escape. 

Thunder (Kim Dae-myung), an AI unit accompanying the sullen Guard (Kim Woo-bin) who is also a kind of guardian, paints the aliens as dangerous mutants who live only for violence yet it might be worth considering that their rebellion may be justified as members of an oppressed minority apparently considered harmful to mainstream society were it not for the fact their plan involves poisoning the Earth’s atmosphere to free their brethren while suffocating humanity in the process. Guard is fond of saying that he cares nothing for humans and does not involve himself in human affairs, yet it’s obvious that as much as his duty is to ensure the aliens stay captive he feels a responsibility to protect humanity, coming to care for an infant child Thunder spirited away in compassion after its mother died when the alien hosted inside her tried to escape. 

There is something a little curious in the fact these alien beings have chosen to live in what is our present day when according to them time is not linear but happening all at once and they appear to have the ability to travel through it at will, even stashing mutant criminals back in the 14th century where a Taoist dosa magician, “The Marvellous Muruk” (Ryu Jun-yeol) is on the hunt for the Divine Blade and a young woman who “shoots thunder” (Kim Tae-ri). Alien technology may seem like magic even if rooted in “science”, but feudal Korea is a place of majestic fantasy in which wizardry is apparently very real to the extent that a pair of powerful sorcerers tour the land hawking magical supplies such as random sutra stickers and mirrors that enlarge whatever passes through them to mysteriously masked warrior monks. Yet as we can see the girl who shoots thunder is merely welding a pistol, a kind of halfway house of technology which seems like strange magic to the people of Goryeo but nothing more than a child’s toy to the laser-wielding robotic aliens. 

In any case, Choi eventually connects these two worlds bridged by temporal conspiracy as if implying that the future’s salvation lies only in the past. Guard is forced to reflect that their strange act of colonial imperialism in secretly implanting alien prisoners in human minds may have been misguided when challenged by his plucky little girl (Choi Yu-ri) who has already realised there’s something a little different about her distant dad while the fact she’s effectively being raised by two men passes as incidental detail even as the Guard is stalked by her best friend’s apparently smitten aunt (Lee Honey). 

This being the first instalment in a two part film, there is a notable lack of resolution in its closing moments though Choi excels in world building running from hard sci-fi to feudalistic fantasy imbued with the strange magic of technology and underpinned by an interrogation humanity as the heroes battle through time looking for a way to repair an “unstable” world ruled by greed and violence and largely find it in each other. While the chief thrill may come from the incongruity of a young woman firing a pistol in the age of the crossbow (not to mention blasting her way out of a coffin), Choi packs in a series of innovative action sequences shot with a knowing irony as Muruk faces off against the masked monks in the past while the Guard and Thunder try their best to keep the aliens at bay with their high tech weaponry, shooting electric pulses from their palms and dodging lasers but still making a last ditch attempt by leaping at the enemy spaceship and trying to stab it in the heart. Whether this disordered world can be stabilised through a moment of cosmic connection will have to wait for part two, but this opening instalment at least is quite literally a charming affair.


Alienoid is in US cinemas from Aug. 26 courtesy of Well Go USA.

US trailer (English subtitles)

Collectors (도굴, Park Jung-bae, 2020)

“Grave Robber” is ordinarily not a nice thing to call someone, let alone to be, yet the heroes of Park Jung-bae’s Collectors (도굴, Do-gul) are just that if in effect more like cultural Robin Hoods robbing the dead to reclaim the past than heartless thieves interested only in profit. Operating with a “this should be in a museum!” mentality, these grave robbers have a variety of motives, among them revenge both personal and national, as they take aim at lingering historical betrayals stemming back to the days of Japanese colonialism. 

As the film opens, intrepid thief Dong-gu (Lee Je-hoon) manages to trick a pair of Buddhist monks suspicious on the grounds that he’s a bit handsome for the religious life into letting him “guard” a pagoda that’s set for imminent dismantling in order to nab a precious miniature Buddha located inside. What puzzles the authorities is that Dong-gu leaves obvious evidence of the theft along with a trademark chocopie wrapper which suggests he wants everyone to know how clever he is. This may be true, Dong-gu is quite smug about his obvious abilities as a tomb raider, but he may also have ulterior motives in play. As a duplicitous broker points, out, however, it’s surprisingly difficult to make money trafficking artefacts because they are simply to famous to be sold openly meaning thieves and fences are all dependent on a small pool of super rich “collectors” with whom they have personal relationships or else are stealing to order. 

Stepping back a little, what this means is that not only are those like Dong-gu robbing the dead and selling their affects on the black market, but that they are in a sense traitors to their nation often selling these precious historical artefacts to foreigners and most problematically to the Japanese, ironically enough grave robbers themselves in having looted half the country during the colonial era. It will come as little surprise that the main villain Jin Sang-gil (Song Young-chang), a hotel entrepreneur and head of the Korea Cultural Asset Foundation, in fact owes his inherited wealth to his family having sold artefacts to the Japanese from 1910 onwards, and himself is keeping a large selection of plundered treasures in an ultra secure vault underneath his offices. 

The Buddha brings Dong-gu into Jin’s orbit, first made an offer by his gangster underling Gwang-chul (Lee Sung-wook) who is, perhaps conveniently, Chinese-Korean hailing from Yanbian, and then by his smart assistant Sae-hee (Shin Hye-sun) who is fluent in English, Chinese, and Japanese acting as a broker for wealthy Japanese clients which is how she finances Dong-gu’s upcoming operation to steal an ancient frieze from a grave located in what is now technically China but was then Korean. Dong-gu, meanwhile, despite claiming he got into grave robbing because he realised he’d never be able to buy a house working “like regular people do”, is remarkably uninterested in the money refusing Sae-hee’s “gift” of a fancy car, and instantly losing his fee in the hotel casino. As we later realise, what he seems to want is for the artefacts to be returned to their rightful owners, the Korean people. 

To complete his heist he recruits a series of “experts” including the slightly nerdy souvenir peddler nicknamed “Dr. Jones” (Jo Woo-jin) who even dresses like Indy himself, as well as a former miner recently released from prison renowned for his tunnelling abilities. Dong-gu’s methods are traditional in the extreme, locating the entrance to a burial mound by tasting the soil looking for traces of decomposing flesh, while his sister Hye-ri (Park Se-wan) is much more technologically advanced making frequent use of drones and angering her father and brother by drilling a tiny hole in the Buddha to insert a GPS tracker hoping to figure out what Jin is doing with the artefacts. In a touch of irony, the vault has itself been designed to mimic the security features of an ancient tomb if updated with biometric eye scanning and fingerprint technology topped off with a good old-fashioned key, but as it turns out there’s no security system that can protect you from betrayal especially if you’re generally unpleasant and no one trusts you anyway. 

Dong-gu’s target, however, is a royal tomb located in the centre of Gangnam from which he intends to steal the “Excalibur of Joseon” appealing to Jin’s sense of hubris, leaning into a kind of mythical prophecy in which he’d become a contemporary hero ruling over all Korea as the wielder of the sword. Taking in some additional social commentary in which the government has chosen to improve their approval ratings through spending money buffing up a tomb while when the guys try to rent a subbasement the flirtatious realtor admits the rents are low in this area because it often floods only to shake off some of her disapproval when they tell her they’re part of the restoration team, the central message is that the historical relics of Korea’s past belong to the Korean people, not to the shady businessmen further corrupting an already compromised economy, nor to former colonial powers. Sometimes, it seems to say, digging up the past is a necessary act of national reclamation. 


Collectors screens 13th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Book of Fish (자산어보, Lee Joon-ik, 2021)

An “evil learning sinner” and a young man fixated on Neo-Buddhist thought develop an unlikely friendship while compiling an encyclopaedia about sea life in Lee Joon-ik’s contemplative period drama, The Book of Fish (자산어보, Jasaneobo). Like those of Hur Jin-ho’s Forbidden Dream, the hero of Lee’s historical tale of competing ideologies dreams of a classless future but is exiled from mainstream society not for his revolutionary rejection of a Confucianist hierarchal society but for his embrace of Western learning and religion. 

Like his two brothers, Chung Yak-jeon (Sol Kyung-gu) reluctantly joins the imperial court but later falls foul of intrigue when the progressive king falls only to be replaced by his underage son controlled by the more conservative dowager empress. Having converted to Christianity, Yak-jeon and his brothers are faced with execution but unexpectedly reprieved when the oldest agrees to renounce Catholicism and root out other secret Christians. Yak-jeon is then exiled to a remote island while his better known brother, the poet Yak-yong (Ryu Seung-ryong), is sent to the mountains. On his arrival, the local governor introduces Yak-jeon as a “traitor” and instructs the islanders not to be too friendly with him but island people do not have it in them to be unjustly unkind and so Yak-jeon is, if warily, welcomed into their community. “He maybe be a traitor, but he’s still a guest” his new landlady (Lee Jung-eun) explains as she prepares him some of the local seafood. 

Yet Yak-jeon encounters resistance from an unexpected source, intellectual fisherman Chang-dae (Byun Yo-han) who goes to great lengths to acquire scholarly books despite his otherwise low level of education. Somewhat patronisingly, Yak-jeong offers to tutor him, but Chang-dae is a rigid thinker who believes the world is going to hell because people have forgotten their Confucian ideals so he’s no desire to be taught by a treacherous “evil learner” or be sucked in to his dangerous Catholicism. Surprisingly, however, for a man who risked death rather than renounce his religion, Yak-jeong is no fanatic and in fact does not appear to practice Christianity at any point while living on the island. What he professes is that Eastern and Western thought need not be enemies but can go hand in hand while a rigid adherence to any particular doctrine is what constitutes danger. 

Chang-dae had insisted that he studied “to become a better human” but he also has a large class chip on his shoulder as the illegitimate son of a nobleman who refuses to acknowledge him, fully aware that as a “lowborn” man he is not allowed to take the civil service exam and in any case would not have the money to buy his way in to the court. Despite later professing egalitarianism, Yak-jeong treats the islanders, and particular Chang-dae, with a degree of superiority extremely irritated by Chang-dae’s refusal to become his pupil in the slight of his elite status often making reference to his “low birth”. Confessing his desire for a classless society with no emperor, however, Yak-jeong encounters unexpected resistance as the young man finds it impossible to envisage a world free of social hierarchy based on rights of birth and swings back towards desiring the approval of his elite father in the determination to climb the ladder rather than pull it down. 

Chang-dae finds himself caught between two fathers who embody two differing ways of being, Yak-jeong advising him to think for himself rather than blindly follow Confucianist thought, while his father encourages him to towards the court and the infinite corruptions of the feudal order. Chang-dae does begin to interrogate some of the more persistently problematic elements of Confucian teaching including its views on women and entrenched social hierarchy but also feels insecure and desperately desires conventional success and entrance into a world he thinks unfairly denied to him. Once there, however, he discovers he cannot submit himself to duplicities of feudalism. The islanders are being taxed to into oblivion, not only is there a random counter-intuitive tax on pine trees but the government is also extracting taxes from the family members of the deceased as well as newborn babies while cutting sand into the rice rations it promises in return. His father and superiors laugh at him for his squeamishness, seeing nothing at all wrong in the right of the elite to exploit the poor. Trying to blow a whistle, Chang-dae is reminded that the courtly system is an extension of the monarchy, and so criticising a lord is the same as criticising the king which is to say an act of treason. 

Having been accused of treason himself, Yak-jeong declines to enact his revolutionary ideas penning only a couple of books during his time in exile in contrast to his brother who published many treatises on effective government. Yak-jeong explains he dare not risk writing his real views which is why he’s immersed himself in the beauty of the natural world, exercising his curiosity writing about fish while making use of Chang-dae’s vast knowledge of the sea. The two men develop a loose paternal bond but are later separated by conflicting desires, Chang-dae eventually choosing conventional success over personal integrity only to regret his decision on being confronted with the duplicities of the feudal order. Shot in a crisp black and white save for two brief flashes of colour and inspired by traditional ink painting, Lee’s contemplative drama finds itself at a fracture point of enlightenment as two men debate the relative limits of knowledge along with the most effective way to resist a cruel and oppressive social order but eventually discover only wilful self exile as Chang-dae learns to re-embrace his roots as an islander along with the openminded simplicity of Yak-jeong’s doctrine of catholicity in learning. 


The Book of Fish screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

Seobok (서복, Lee Yong-ju, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

Without death, would life still have meaning? Lee Yong-ju’s high concept sci-fi thriller Seobok (서복) situates itself in a near future Korea in which the possibility of immortality is tantalisingly close only there are some who would prefer it not to be, fearing that without the driving force of mortal dread humanity will lose its ambition and thereafter slide into internecine greed. Then again, humanity hasn’t needed much of an excuse before. 

When a foreign scientist is murdered by drone the incident is attributed to “terrorists” presumably objecting to his research into stem cell technology and the possibilities of eternal healing. Fearing exposure, NIS agent Ahn (Jo Woo-jin) advises the project move to a secret location and recruits a former associate, Min Ki-hun (Gong Yoo), to act both as a test subject and a bodyguard. Since leaving the service, Ki-hun has been suffering with a terminal brain tumour that leaves him plagued by debilitating headaches and distressing hallucinations. 

Ki-hun is roped in by the promise of a potential cure for his condition brokered by Seobok (Park Bo-gum), a genetically modified clone who cannot die. Speaking to the dubious ethics of the research project, no one quite thinks of Seobok as “human” though he was born in the same way as any other child. “It’s like collecting insulin from a pig” a doctor later scoffs at Ki-hun’s squeamishness witnessing Seobok hooked up to a chair and milked for his lifesaving properties, realising that this may be his life “forever”. Having lived all his life within the lab, Seobok is filled with wonder for the outside world begging Ki-hun to walk a little slower through a market when the pair are forced on the run together so he can take it all in a little better. He has no clothes of his own, cannot use chopsticks, and is left with nothing to do with his time other than think. The scientists refer to him only as a “specimen” refusing to acknowledge his humanity viewing him solely as a test subject. 

Seobok can’t decide if life in the presence of death is worse than the curse of immortality. Already condemned, Ki-hun no longer knows if he wants to live or is merely afraid of dying. The fear of death is itself a kind of weapon, at least according to those against the project, a force which propels mankind forward in imposing an unavoidable deadline as it struggles against its mortality. Ki-hun, meanwhile, regards his tumour as a punishment, a mark of his moral cowardice in failing to stand up to his boss’ duplicitous practices and blaming himself for the death a friend who was silenced for daring to speak to out. In bonding with Seobok he realises he cannot allow the same thing to happen again in choosing to prioritise his own survival over someone else’s life. Seobok, meanwhile, comes to the opposite conclusion in realising that his existence is potentially apocalyptic and that there is no escape for him because he has nowhere else to go other than back to his “home” at the lab despite coming to an understanding that much of his treatment there constitutes abuse. 

Nevertheless, Seobok is fiercely contested by mysterious foreign forces intent either on capturing or destroying him apparently terrified of the implications of a world in which sickness can be instantly cured and death has become a thing of the past. Such a world would, of course, be very bad news for Big Pharma and the medical industry, yet it’s the philosophical arguments which they claim motivate them in a fear of a permanent and destructive anarchy which is more than a little ironic considering what eventually unfolds in their quest to capture Seobok who, as it turns out, has also developed awesome powers of telekinesis. Rather than eternal life, however, it’s death that the two must learn to accept, Ki-hun reckoning with his trauma while coming to terms with his terminal diagnosis, and Seobok by contrast seizing his humanity by rejecting his immortality. 

Essentially a lowkey existential drama, Lee Yong-ju’s high concept sci-fi thriller boasts excellent production design and large scale action set pieces, yet situates itself in a cold world of paranoia and anxiety in which even mortal dread has been effectively weaponised by duplicitous forces intent on playing god in the permanent power vacuum of the modern society.


Seobok streams in Canada until Aug. 25 as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

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

The Battle: Roar to Victory (봉오동 전투, Won Shin-yeon, 2019)

The Battle roar to voctory poster 1Besides seeing the birth of Korean cinema, 1919 was something of a flashpoint in the nation’s 20th century history. Japan had annexed Korea in 1910, thereafter instituting an increasingly brutal colonialist regime. On March 1, 1919 the people rose up in an act of mass protest inspired by the provision for “Self-Determination” included in US president Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points speech outlining a path towards enduring peace. Though the protest was peaceful, it was quickly suppressed by Japanese troops resulting in thousands of deaths and mass incarcerations.

The Battle: Roar to Victory (봉오동 전투, Bongodong Jeontoo) situates itself a year after the protest as the Independence Movement began to intensify, and is inspired by real life events apparently often absent from the textbooks in which several factions eventually came together to wipe out an “elite’ squad of Japanese troops which had been put together to take down guerrilla Resistance fighters. Our heroes have been charged with collecting money from a fundraiser and conveying it to the Independence Movement in exile in Shanghai but are drawn into a wider battle against Japanese brutality on their way.

The Japanese colonial forces are indeed brutal, if often cowardly. When we first meet crazed commander Yasukawa (Kazuki Kitamura), he’s butchering a tiger in some kind of symbolic act of intense barbarity. To smoke out the Resistance fundraiser, the Japanese military begin razing villages, killing the men and raping the women, even going so far as to shoot small children for sport. When veteran Resistance fighter Hae-cheol (Yoo Hae-jin) raids a command post, he makes a point of taking a hostage who himself seems to be a teenage recruit. Hae-cheol lets the boy live not only out of a sense of compassion, but also because he wants him to take what he’s seen back to Japan, including the aftermath of a Japanese assault on an ordinary Korean village.

Yukio (Kotaro Daigo), as the boy later gives his name, is, unlike his fellow officers, conflicted and confused. Apparently a member of the elite himself, the son of a prominent military figure, Yukio gave up a bright academic future to join the army and find out what it is that Japan does with its advanced weaponry. Asked what he thinks now that he’s seen for himself, he says that he’s ashamed, that his worst fears have been confirmed. According to Yukio, his nation is suffering from an intense inferiority complex which is leading it to commit acts of extreme barbarity in order convince itself it is equal to any other imperial power.

The Japanese officers veer from the crazed, bloodthirsty Yasukawa who views his mission as some kind of hunting expedition, to the merely weak and cowardly. The Independence fighters, however, come from all over Korea speaking many dialects (some less mutually intelligible than others) and with many different motivations but all with the desire to free their country from Japanese oppression. Ace captain Jang-ha (Ryu Jun-yeol) is a born soldier, but those who support him are largely street fighters and “bandits” not always welcomed into the movement by the so-called intellectual “nobles” running the show from a position of social superiority. Then again, as Hae-cheol puts it, no one can be sure how many guerrilla soldiers there are because any farmer is a potential sleeper agent.

In any case, the Resistance fighters pursue their mission selflessly, manipulating the complacent Japanese troops to lure them into a mass ambush while trying to ensure the money still makes its way to Shanghai to preserve the movement. Despite the “Roar to Victory” subtitle, it’s important to note that the Independence Movement was still in a nascent state and would continue opposing Japanese oppression until Korea’s liberation at the end of the war. Covering the legendary battle of Battle of Fengwudong, the film ends with forward motion as the Resistance commander (a late and great cameo from a giant of Korean cinema) points ahead towards the next target, the well known Battle of Cheongsanri, in which the Japanese military reportedly suffered over 1200 casualties at the hands of Independence forces. Overly gory and lacking in subtlety, The Battle: Roar to Victory is unabashedly patriotic but does its best to suggest the costs and compromises of guerrilla warfare as its selfless heroes put aside their differences to fight for a better Korea.


The Battle: Roar to Victory was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Money (돈, Park Noo-ri, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

money poster 1“Could you ask him something for me,” the beleaguered yet victorious protagonist of Park Noo-ri’s Money (돈, Don) eventually asks, “what was he going to use the money for?”. Wealth is, quite literally it seems, a numbers game for the villainous Ticket (Yoo Ji-tae) whose favourite hobby is destabilising the global stock market just for kicks. As for Cho Il-hyun (Ryu Jun-yeol), well, he just wanted to get rich, but where does getting rich get you in the end? There’s only so much money you can spend and being rich can make you lonely in ways you might not expect.

Unlike most of his fellow brokers, Cho Il-hyun is an ordinary lad from the country. His parents own a small raspberry farm and he didn’t graduate from an elite university or benefit from good connections, yet somehow he’s here and determined to make a success of himself. In fact, his only selling point is that he’s committed the registration numbers of all the firms on the company books to memory, and his ongoing nervousness and inferiority complex is making it hard for him to pick up the job. A semi-serious rookie mistake lands the team in a hole and costs everyone their bonuses, which is when veteran broker Yoon (Kim Min-Jae) steps in to offer Il-hyun a way out through connecting him with a shady middle-man named “The Ticket” who can set him up with some killer deals to get him back on the board.

Il-hyun isn’t stupid and he knows this isn’t quite on the level, but he’s desperate to get into the elite financial world and willing to cheat to make it happen. As might be expected his new found “success” quickly goes to his head as he “invests” in swanky apartments and luxury accessories, while his sweet and humble teacher girlfriend eventually dumps him after he starts showering her with expensive gifts and acting like an entitled elitist. It’s not until some of his fellow brokers who also seem to have ties to Ticket start dying in mysterious circumstances that Il-hyun begins to wonder if he might be in over his head.

Unlike other similarly themed financial thrillers, it’s not the effects of stock market manipulation on ordinary people which eventually wake Il-hyun up from his ultra capitalist dream (those are are never even referenced save a brief reflective shot at the end), but cold hard self-interest as he finally realises he is just a patsy Ticket can easily stub out when he’s done with him. Yoon only hooked him up in the first place because he knew he’d be desperate to take the bait in order to avoid repeated workplace humiliation and probably being let go at the end of his probationary period. What he’s chasing isn’t just “money” but esteem and access to the elite high life that a poor boy from a raspberry farm might have assumed entirely out of his reach.

It’s difficult to escape the note of class-based resentment in Il-hyun’s sneering instruction to his mother that she should “stop living in poverty” when she has the audacity to try and offer him some homemade chicken soup from ancient Tupperware, and it’s largely a sense of inferiority which drives him when he eventually decides to take his revenge on the omnipotent Ticket. Yet there’s a strangely co-dependent bond between the two men which becomes increasingly difficult pin down as they wilfully dance around each other.

The world of high finance is, unfortunately, a very male and homosocial one in which business is often conducted in night-clubs and massage parlours surrounded by pretty women. There is only one female broker on Il-hyun’s team. The guys refer to her as “Barbie” and gossip about how exactly she might have got to her position while she also becomes a kind of trophy conquest for Il-hyun as he climbs the corporate ladder. Meanwhile, there is also an inescapably homoerotic component to Il-hyun’s business dealings which sees him flirt and then enjoy a holiday (b)romance with a Korean-American hedge fund manager (Daniel Henney) he meets at a bar in the Bahamas, and wilfully strip off in front of Ticket ostensibly to prove he isn’t wearing a wire while dogged financial crimes investigator Ji-cheol (Jo Woo-jin) stalks him with the fury of a jilted lover.

Obsessed with “winning” in one sense or another, Il-hyun does not so much redeem himself as simply emerge victorious (though possibly at great cost). Even his late in the game make up with Chaebol best friend Woo-sung (Kim Jae-young), who actually turns out to be thoroughly decent and principled (perhaps because unlike Il-hyun he was born with wealth, status, and a good name and so does not need to care about acquiring them), is mostly self-interest rather than born of genuine feeling. In answer to some of Il-hyun’s early qualms, Ticket tells him that in finance the border between legal and illegal is murky at best and it may in fact be “immoral” not to exploit it. What Il-hyun wanted wasn’t so much “money” but what it represents – freedom, the freedom from “labour” and from from the anxiety of poverty. Life is long and there are plenty of things to enjoy, he exclaims at the height of his superficial success, but the party can only last so long. What was the money for? Who knows. Really, it’s beside the point.


Money was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Rampant (창궐, Kim Sung-hoon, 2018)

Rampant posterKorean cinema has well and truly fallen in love with zombies. You might have heard of zombie kings lingering on while ambitious underlings run the show to ensure their own succession, but you’ve never seen one quite like this. Kim Sung-hoon’s Rampant (창궐, Changgwol), arriving mere months before similarly themed Netflix TV show Kingdom, sends the zombie apocalypse back to the Joseon-era. Incorporating the political intrigue and courtly machinations the genre is known for, Rampant is ultimately less a tale of battling undead threat than of fighting for a humane future ruled over by a good king who purifies the kingdom and commits himself to the service of his people.

Our hero, Ganglim (Hyun Bin), was raised among the Qing and feels himself to be more Chinese than Korean – he isn’t even very comfortable with the language and wants nothing more than to go “home” where all the pretty ladies are. The reason he’s come “back” to Korea is that his brother, the Crown Prince (Kim Tae-woo), feared for his safety and asked Ganglim to escort his pregnant wife to the Qing out of harm’s way. The major problem is that the elderly king is weak and many in his court believe he has failed to stand up to the Qing, damaging Korean sovereignty. Unbeknownst to Ganglim, the Crown Prince has already committed suicide to take responsibility for a treasonous plot to usurp the king using firepower purchased from the Dutch. Inconveniently, this also means that Ganglim is now heir to the throne which is very much not something he is particularly interested in. Romantic as he is, however, he can’t pass up the chance to avenge his brother’s death while fulfilling his dying wish of saving his wife and unborn child.

Meanwhile, that Dutch ship was carrying more than guns. Strange flesh eating “night demons” have overrun the harbour town of Jemulpo and are slowly staggering forward under the cover of darkness ravaging as they go. Wandering into the fray, Ganglim is eventually accosted by a band of “rebels” previously loyal to his brother who, alone, are busy defending the innocent townspeople by disposing of the zombie corpses before they can do more harm.

Ganglim too is originally unwilling to help, not quite believing the tale he’s been told and then affirming that it’s not much to do with him while he concentrates on concluding his mission so he can get back to Qing. Nevertheless he gradually begins to accept his responsibility through realising it affords him an opportunity to be dashing and heroic. Meanwhile, there is conspiracy afoot in the court. Evil defence minister Kim Ja-joon (Jang Dong-gun) is still intent on seizing the throne to create a new Korea free of Qing of influence and is not above using the zombie threat as a part of his plan.

The conflict is then the familiar one of good kings and bad, or the rightful heir and an unscrupulous usurper. Ganglim, a self-centred libertine who thinks of little else than beautiful women, is not looking for the kind of responsibility which comes with a crown which of course makes him the perfect person to inherit it. Little by little, beginning to care for his small band of rebels and the townspeople they help to save, Ganglim embraces his nobility and commits himself to the service of his people. The king, he discovers, is a servant of his subjects – not the other way around as Kim would have it. Watching the old world burn, he vows to build a better one founded on more egalitarian principles with fairness and accountability at its centre.

The zombies become a kind of metaphor for the corruption which is literally devouring the kingdom and must be purified by Ganglim’s righteous fire. Kim’s revolution has destabilised the nation through unexpected foreign influence which he, ironically, attempts to turn to his advantage little caring if it costs the lives of his fellow Koreans who are, after all, only peasants and therefore not really worth caring about. Kim Sung-hoon brings painterly aesthetics to the classically inspired tale of true kings and righteous hearts while letting the zombies do their thing in true genre fashion as Joseon prepares to save itself from the rot within by beheading the monster before before it has a chance to bite.


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

International trailer (English subtitles)

Default (국가부도의 날, Choi Kook-hee, 2018)

Default poster 1The Korean economic miracle came to an abrupt halt in 1997. In an event the media labelled “the day of national humiliation”, the Korean government went to the IMF for a bailout in order to avoid bankruptcy. So, what went wrong? Choi Kook-hee’s Default (국가부도의 날, Gukga-budo-eui Nal) looks back at the fateful seven days before the country would go bust, asking serious questions about why it found itself in this position and why it chose to opt for external assistance rather than fix its own problems. The answer is, as always, a mix of disaster capitalism, incompetency, and a healthy disinterest in the lives of the less well off.

As if to signal its hubris, the Korea of 1997 is busy celebrating its accession to the OECD and emergence on the world stage as a major player, escaping post-war austerity once and for all. Young Koreans have embraced consumerism with gusto. Luxury goods and foreign travel are becoming increasingly popular with the government insisting everything is on the up and up. However, listeners to Son Sook’s Woman’s Era are telling a different story – cafes not getting customers, businesses going under, people not getting paid. With the Asian Financial Crisis mounting, the Korean Won is being hit hard and the government does not have the reserves to cover its debts. A high ranking Bank of Korea official, Si-hyun (Kim Hye-soo), has concluded that the nation has one week to find a solution before everything comes to a grinding halt.

Meanwhile, self-interested merchant banker Yoon (Yoo Ah-in) has come to the same conclusion on his own but his aims are very different. Where Shi-hyun sees crisis, Yoon sees opportunity. He quits his job and starts calling up wealthy clients with an innovative pitch. Explaining to them that the country is about to go bust, he outlines a plan to short the government which will make them a lot of money though at the expense of those without who will be hung out to dry when it all goes to hell.

As Yoon tells his investors, the trouble is that the entirety of the modern Korean Economy is built on lies. An underling is tasked with explaining the crisis to the president in simple terms, only for Si-hyun to grimly suggest he tell him “we spent borrowed money like it was water hoping to get an extension and here we are”. Factory owner Gap-soo (Heo Joon-ho) is excited to receive a large order from a major department store, but put off when he realises that they intend to pay him with a promissory note. The department store CEO belittles his concerns, implying that he can’t be much of a player if he doesn’t know that’s how business is done these days. Gap-soo’s partner is all for it and so they sign, but when banks go bust promissory notes become worthless and they need ready cash to pay their staff and suppliers.

Si-hyun tries to make the case for saving the economy to protect the working classes but her advice falls on deaf ears. Often the only woman in the room, Si-hyun is dismissed as a “secretary” while the all male officials make a point of talking to her male assistant and accusing her of being “sentimental” when she points out that people will starve if they put their plan into action. The conclusion that she gradually comes to is that the crisis is an elaborate game being played by elites for their own gain at the expense of ordinary men and women all across the country. Odious finance ministers prioritise saving the Chaebols, warning their friends and cronies, while deliberately running down the clock so the country will have no other option than running to the IMF full in the knowledge that an IMF bailout comes with considerable strings which will vastly constrain their sovereignty and economic freedom – effectively handing control over to the Americans who will use it as an excuse to extend their own business interests by insisting on destructive labour reforms which will devastate the working classes.

Si-hyun’s exasperation leaves her making a last ditch effort to get the government to see sense only for the IMF negotiator (Vincent Cassel) to make her removal another of his red lines, her plain speaking instantly deemed “inappropriate”. Meanwhile, Yoon’s headlong descent into amoral profiteering begins to prick at his conscience even as he tries to justify his actions to himself. 20 years later, it might seem as if the crisis is over but its effects are very much still felt. Gap-soo’s factory may have survived, but it’s running on exploited foreign labour while the Chaebols continue to run rampant over the increasingly unequal Korean economy. None of the problems have been solved and another crisis is always on the horizon. Tense and infuriating, Default is a story of moral as well as financial bankruptcy which places the blame firmly on systemic corruption and the undue influence of self-interested elites while acknowledging that little has changed in the last 20 years leaving the little guy very much at the mercy of capricious Chaebol politics.


Default was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It will also be screened as the next teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival on 20th May at Regent Street Cinema, 7pm.

International trailer (English subtitles)