The Odd Family: Zombie On Sale (기묘한 가족, Lee Min-jae, 2019)

The odd family poster 2It takes a special sort of mind to see a zombie and think “business opportunity”, but that’s exactly the kind of out of the box thinking you’ll find with the the Parks – a very strange family living way out in the countryside. Korean cinema is having a bit of a zombie moment, but they’ve rarely been as amusing as this. The debut feature from Lee Min-jae, The Odd Family: Zombie On Sale (기묘한 가족, Gimyohan Gajok) is a surreal satire of changing family values, the stereotypical strangeness of farm country, and the growing suspicion of underhanded practices in the pharmaceuticals trade.

As an opening voiceover informs us, there have long been rumours of diabetes drug manufacturer Human Bio kidnapping innocent members of the public to test their NoInsulin wonder drug. One day, a young man (Jung Ga-ram) manages to crawl out of a hole in the ground and shuffles zombie-like into the nearest village where he encounters the patriarch of the Park family (Park In-hwan), eventually biting him on the head. The Parks once owned the local petrol station, but with things as they are the business is all dried up and so now they mainly make their living by engineering road traffic “accidents” they can later charge exorbitant fees to fix seeing as they are literally the only place in town. When Mr. Park realises that after getting bitten on the head he’s regained his youthful virility, the family become less afraid of the fairly docile lad and decide to take him in partly with the idea of pimping him out to the other sad old men in town who long for nothing more than to regain their glory days.

Only middle son and recently returned failed salaryman Min-gul (Kim Nam-gil) wonders if there’s something not quite right about the new member of their family, showing the others a brief clip from Train to Busan to get his point across, but even he is temporarily won over by the money making opportunity. Tellingly, no one really stops to wonder if it’s OK to lock a young man up in the shed and make him do your bidding for no remuneration, but then where really is the harm if biting people on the arm makes them feel better about themselves? The harm is he’s a zombie which will eventually become quite a big problem.

Meanwhile, the strange Park family continues to fray at the seams. Youngest daughter Hae-gul (Lee Soo-kyung), an ethereal girl in dungarees with a fondness for pet rabbits she can’t seem to keep alive much longer than a month, takes to the zombie instantly. Naming him “Jong-bi” in a pun on his being a zombie and in keeping with the naming system for her rabbits, she installs him on a mattress right next to the hutch and proceeds to feed him cabbages for which he develops an intense fondness (along with ketchup which is Hae-gul’s personal favourite). Meanwhile oldest son Joon-gul (Jung Jae-young) does his best to keep out of the way while his heavily pregnant wife Nam-joo (Uhm Ji-won) keeps an iron grip on the family finances and the house in general. When everyone starts to wonder if dad is going to turn zombie, filial piety goes out the window but all Mr. Park wants is to jet off to Hawaii and leave the family to deal with the mess on their own.

With the patriarch out of the picture and a new little brother to play with (plus quite a lot of money to buy a new start), the Parks begin to repair themselves and make the “family” anew but the cracks are still there as Min-gul turns out to be more like his dad than he seemed in always looking for the best angle and opportunity to make some money no matter the risks or ethical concerns. Nevertheless, the zombie apocalypse does its best to remind them what’s really important as they find themselves having to work together to come up with a plan for survival. Riffing strongly off wholesome ‘50s Americana and kitschy pop-culture cues, The Odd Family is a charmingly surreal ode to family values in which one family’s money grubbing entrepreneurship almost leads to the end of the world only to paradoxically become its salvation as they prove that there’s nothing so potent as togetherness in combatting existential threat.


The Odd Family: Zombie On Sale was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Poet and the Boy (시인의 사랑, Kim Yang-hee, 2017)

Poet and the Boy posterA poet cries for the sorrow of the world, according to the hero of Kim Yang-hee’s melancholy drama, The Poet and the Boy (시인의 사랑, Sienui Sarang). Unfortunately for him, he lives in his own poet’s world, lonely and disconnected but never knowing the true depth of sadness which would give his verse meaning. Until, that is, he falls in love. Beauty turns out to be a doubled edged sword for a mild mannered yet emotionally brave artist struggling to comprehend his place in the world but discovering that some of it, at least, has already been decided for him.

Hyon Taek-gi (Yang Ik-june) is a 30-something aspiring poet married to a feisty shopkeeper. The couple have been married several years and though they are happy enough together, theirs is a marriage born more of convenience than passion. Having married “late” each has settled in to making the best of things, sure that a greater love will one day blossom between them. Mrs. Hyon (Jeon Hye-jin), feeling an absence in the family home, has been longing for a baby but Taek-gi has never been especially interested in that side of things and isn’t really keen on the idea of becoming a father.

Meanwhile, a brand new donut shop has just opened up in town which is good news for Taek-gi because donuts are one of his favourite things. Unsure whether it’s just his status as a purveyor of sweet goods, Taek-gi develops a fascination with the beautiful boy at the bakery (Jung Ga-ram) which is further inflamed when he accidentally catches sight of him in amorous moment with a female customer. To his mild surprise, Taek-gi finds himself captivated with the male physical form, experiencing feelings and desires he had not even known existed.

As his wife later puts it, a poet’s world is different. Taek-gi stops to appreciate the flowers, watches the children play, and makes a round about detour to a fast food restaurant to observe human life but he doesn’t quite live in the world he inhabits or allow himself to truly experience its beauty. As we first meet him, Taek-gi is writing a poem to open the map of his heart but quickly finds himself lost and wandering, unable to settle on a clear direction and ending up at a disappointingly familiar destination. The poem is interesting but imperfect, somehow hollow and inauthentic.

Taek-gi’s creative block is also an emotional one. What begins with a single moment of captivating beauty expands into something deeper and warmer as the poet gets to know the boy on a more intimate level. Seyun is a troubled young man from an impoverished family caring for his bedridden father while resenting his coldhearted mother. What he sees in Taek-gi is something between friend and father, both wary of and delighting in unsolicited kindness from a virtual stranger. Taek-gi’s wife teases him about his attraction to Seyun, probing him about the nature of their own strange relationship. She wonders if it’s really “love” without intense physical desire – something he has made repeatedly clear that he does not feel for her. Taek-gi insists that it is, citing another romanticised love which remained chaste as further evidence only for his wife to fire back that perhaps all he really wanted was the sadness of unfulfilled longing to complete his poetic world view.

Taek-gi later takes his words back, insisting that what he feels for his wife is not “love” and that their relationship was always doomed to fail. Yet it’s not carnal desire which brings him to this realisation so much a greater motion towards connection. Taek-gi who was always ill-equipped for life and never able to take care of himself, begins to look after the younger man both physically and emotionally asking for nothing in return other than his continued company. Despite his otherworldliness and alienation, there is something uniquely brave in Taek-gi’s willingness to tug on the thread of an unfamiliar feeling, uncertain what it is or might be but determined to find out. Disregarding the conservative values of his society which have led him to embrace conventionality in marrying “late”, supposedly “grateful” that someone allowed him the opportunity to marry at all, Taek-gi moves forward if cautiously, aware that his desires may not be accepted and may present a danger to those around him.

Then again, Taek-gi is a middle-aged man with a series of choices already behind him, many of which entail consequences and responsibilities it would be selfish and irresponsible to break even in the pursuit of individual happiness and fulfilment. Perhaps all he really wants is the grand failed romance that will open the map of his heart through breaking its spine, craving “sadness” to feed his art over “love” to feed his soul. True enough, sorrow does wonders for Taek-gi’s art even if he feels himself trapped by his previous choices and the restrictive social codes of his community but there is also something inescapably poetic in his magnanimity as he prepares to set the thing he loves free in a way he never was and believes he never can be.


The Poet and the Boy was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Believer (독전, Lee Hae-young, 2018)

Believer posterJohnnie To’s darkly comical tale of a weaselly meth cook with an extremely strong survival instinct and the austere policeman who can’t resist taking his bait might seem perfectly primed for a Korean remake in its innate pessimism and awkward bromance. Lee Hae-young’s Believer (독전, Dokjeon), however, merely borrows the bones of To’s Drug War while doubling down on its central conceit as reckless obsession leads to the undoing of both our heroes, each forced to confront the futility of their respective, mutually dependent quests.

Obsessed with tracking down a mysterious drug lord known only as “Mr. Lee”, narcotics cop Won-ho (Cho Jin-woong) asks a favour from an old informant only to see her murdered, leaving him only a vague clue by tracing an infinity symbol on a crumpled receipt moments before passing away. Warned off the Mr. Lee case, Won-ho finally gets a lead when an explosion at a drug lab brings scorned righthand woman Oh (Kim Sung-ryung) into his office promising to spill the beans in return for protection and immunity. Sadly, Won-ho couldn’t protect her either, but there was another unexpected survivor in the form of low level middleman Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol).

Traumatised by the death of his mother in the same explosion, Rak initially says nothing under interrogation but suddenly wakes up on learning that the lab’s dog also survived and has been rescued by the police. Unlike the “hero” of To’s film, Rak is small fry (if well connected) and is not looking at anything more than significant prison time. Rak may not be fighting for his life but he has a number of reasons for switching sides, especially once Won-ho fills him in on Mr. Lee’s backstory and long history of abrupt purges.

Despite working for the organisation, neither Oh nor Rak had ever met “Mr. Lee”. No one knows anything about them – gender, nationality, name, or location. In fact, there may not even be a Mr. Lee. Perhaps “Mr. Lee” is merely the “god” of drug dealers – an abstract idea almost given flesh but existing in a spiritual sense alone. Nevertheless, the idea of a Mr. Lee has completely captured the heart of compassionate police detective Won-ho whose all encompassing need to find him has already severely destabilised his life. After failing to protect his informant, Won-ho’s complaint against Mr. Lee is now a personal as well as professional one. Not so much out of vengeance (though there is that too), but a need to make the deaths count and his mounting losses meaningful.

Yet as another Mr. Lee contender later puts it, salvation may not be a matter of faith and if your faith has been misplaced, death may be a healing. In believing so deeply in the idea of “Mr. Lee”, Won-ho has given him form and created an idol to be worshipped through devotion. “Brian” (Cha Seung-won), a higher ranking gangster and former preacher chased out of the US for getting his congregation hooked on cocaine, has his own particular brand of faith based problems but subscribes to much the same philosophy. He may really be Mr. Lee (as may anyone), but if he isn’t he’s determined to convince himself he is in order to see himself as something more than the failed son of a chaebol dad who couldn’t hack it in the family business or in the pulpit. Brian would be happy to die as Mr. Lee rather than going on living as “himself”. Won-ho, unable to understand why kids do drugs asks his informant who explains it’s mostly because life is rubbish. Later someone says something similar to Brian, that he’d rather delude himself with the belief that he’s “someone” rather than face the emptiness.

Despite himself, and as Rak is eager to remind him, Won-ho is dependent on his informant for the pursuit of his case. Won-ho is reluctant to trust him even though Rak seems to be actively working to protect him in this extremely dangerous and largely unfamiliar world. Rak, by contrast, is aware he hasn’t won Won-ho’s faith, but assures him that’s OK because Rak trusts him. Rak does indeed seem to have the upper hand along with mysterious motivations and a fishy backstory, but Won-ho’s desperation to get close to Mr. Lee leaves him wide-open, unwilling to trust his guide but too invested to consider cutting him loose. “Belief” becomes its own drug, a transformative ritual act which gradually erodes all other needs and leaves only emptiness in their place. Won-ho can’t even remember why he started chasing Mr. Lee, but all that remains of him is the chase – a true believer suddenly bereft of a cause. Lee Hae-young takes To’s nihilistic cynicism and subverts it with a focus on the personal as both men fight self created images of their individual demons but find themselves unable to escape from their mutually assured identities.


Believer was screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.