The Scarlet Letter (주홍글씨, Byeon Hyeok, 2004)

The Scarlet Letter posterSouth Korea has long had a reputation for being among the most conservative of East Asian nations, perhaps because of a strong Christianising influence, but even so the fact that adultery was only fully decriminalised in 2015 is something of a surprise. Ironically enough the legislation was enacted in the defence of women who enjoyed few legal rights and would be left destitute if their husbands left them, suffering not only the humiliation and social stigma of divorce but also having no independent income and very little possibility of gaining one. Nevertheless it quickly became another tool of social control, branding “harlots” rather than protecting “wives”. Byeon Hyeok’s The Scarlet Letter (주홍글씨, Juhong Geulshi) was released in 2004, which is a whole decade before adultery was removed from the statue books, and draws inspiration from the book of the same name by Nathaniel Hawthorne in which a young woman becomes a social outcast after giving birth to an illegitimate child.

Cocksure policeman Ki-hoon (Han Suk-kyu) lives in a world of his own dominion. Married to the elegant concert cellist Su-hyun (Uhm Ji-won), Ki-hoon is also carrying on an affair with the bohemian nightclub singer Ga-hee (Lee Eun-ju). One fateful day he is called to the scene of a bloody murder. The owner of a photographer’s studio has been found with half his head caved in and the prime suspect is his wife, Kyung-hee (Sung Hyun-ah), who found the body. Once she’s had some time to recover from the shock, Kyung-hee offers up some possible evidence regarding a local photographer who may have been semi-stalking her – something which had caused tension between herself and her husband. The photographer claims Kyung-hee asked him to take the photos, and others besides, but denies he was romantically interested in her or that the couple had been having an affair.

The murder case floats in the background as Ki-hoon’s personal life spirals ever more out of control. Both Su-hyun and Ga-hee are pregnant with his child and it seems inevitable the affair will be exposed. Ki-hoon fears this not out of guilt in causing emotional harm to one or both of his women, but out of a sense that it will be very annoying, inconvenient, and burdensome for him. When his wife does eventually confront him about the affair, Ki-hoon’s response is to ignore it and carry on as normal by acting excited about the baby as if to remind Su-hyun that she is already tied to him and it will be almost impossible for her to leave. Meanwhile, he refuses to give up Ga-hee whose mental state seems to be fracturing under the intense pressure of her need for Ki-hoon and his continuing disregard for the feelings of others.

Ki-hoon is a classic noir hero, wading into a morass of moral ambiguity and hurtling headlong towards an existential reckoning. A late, yet fantastically obvious, twist offers another perspective which the film has no time to expand on so caught up is it in the moral ruining of Ki-hoon in suggesting that oppressive social codes have in some way contributed to this intense situation, forcing three people into an uncomfortable love triangle where everyone has ended up with the wrong partner. Byeon does, however, choose to emphasise “morality” in lending a spiritual slant to Ki-hoon’s fall rather than choosing to attack the social oppression of Korea’s intensely conservative culture in which all the power was in Ki-hoon’s hands (even if he uses it to ruin himself, later left in a state of spiritual emptiness filled only with guilt and shame).

The reckoning comes in a literal evocation of Ki-hoon’s claustrophobic love life in which he finds himself trapped in an inescapable black hole, waiting to find out if he will be released or condemned to suffer an eternity of pain for his various transgressions. Byeon never quite manages to marry his higher purpose to the noir narrative, leaving his avant-garde final set piece out of place in an otherwise straightforward thriller while his final twist falls flat in retreading well worn genre cliches. Frank in terms of its depiction of sex and nudity, The Scarlet Letter takes on an anti-erotic quality, painting its various scenes of actualised sex as passionless acts of compulsion with only those of fantasy somehow imbued with colour and light though its melancholy conclusion suggests even these may carry a heavy price.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Outlaws (범죄도시, Kang Yoon-sung, 2017)

The outlaws posterBack in 2004, a hero cop made the headlines by cleaning up Chinatown when he took into custody 32 known gang members in Seoul’s Garibong district. Based on the real life case, The Outlaws (범죄도시, BumJoedoshi, AKA Crime City), is the debut feature from Kang Yoon-sung in which Ma Dong-seok adds goodhearted yet compromised policeman to his list of increasingly impressive leading performances. Truth be told the role does little to stretch his current range but fits comfortably into Ma’s well worn persona of noble bruiser as he plays fatherly commander to his fiercely loyal team and avuncular mentor to a brave boy in the district who wants to help free the area from the dangerous gang violence which leaves not just businesses but lives under threat.

Ma Seok-do (Ma Dong-seok) is the only force stopping Garibong from descending into a hellish war zone of gang violence and destruction. A local resident, Ma is well respected in the area and knows the territory well enough to navigate its various challenges. Rather than take on the gangs wholesale he attempts to placate them, brokering an uneasy equilibrium which keeps the violence contained and helps to protect ordinary people from its effects. All of that goes out the window when a new threat arrives in the form of vicious gangster Jang Chen (Yoon Kye-sang) and his two minions whose methods are unsubtle in the extreme, ending with rival gang bosses chopped up and placed inside suitcases over nothing more than a trifling gambling debt.

Jang is a new and terrifying threat because he sees no need to play by the “rules”. A peace cannot be brokered with him and he cannot be reasoned with. Ma knows the time has come for action but even with police resources behind him is ill equipped to become, in effect, Garibong’s latest gang leader. To this end he makes a surprising decision – asking the residents for help. The residents, however, remain terrified. How can he ask them to inform on gangsters to whom they’re still paying protection money? Ma’s promise is a big one – to do what no one thought could be done in neutralising the organised crime threat by conducting a mass arrest of foot soldiers from across the gangland spectrum.

Ma Dong-seok makes fantastic use of his trademark sarcasm as the regular neighbourhood guy who also happens to be a top cop. Kang mixes a fair amount of humour into an otherwise dark and violent tale such as the recurrent presence of two lowly pamphleteers who are eventually pressed into more serious service for Ma, his trickery and manipulation of a suspect (which is also a way to save him from a death sentence on being sent back to China), and Ma’s love of drunken karaoke and lamb skewers with the boys. Ma thinks nothing of arming a gangster with a stab vest, setting up another in a public bath, or playing gangland politics for all they’re worth, but when it really counts he’s as straight as they come, protecting the residents of Garibong like the lone sheriff of some outpost town, equal parts officer of the law and disappointed dad.

The incongruously comical tone harks back to the ‘70s maverick cop golden age in which the lines between law breaker and law enforcer were always blurred but you knew who the good guys were because they had all the best lines. If Kang is aiming for this branded mix of grit and humour he doesn’t quite find it and the comedy sometimes undercuts his more serious intentions but it is undeniably good fun all the same. Ma Dong-seok’s warmhearted maverick is quite rightly the star of the show, but his rivalry with Yoon Kye-chang’s Jang Chen fails to ignite with Chen never quite seeming as menacing as intended. Nevertheless even if Kang’s gangland action comedy has little to add to an already crowded arena, it does at least provide a fitting showcase for Ma’s talents in its sarcastic, world weary policeman who may have one foot on the wrong side of the law but always acts in the name of justice.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

 

M (엠, Lee Myung-se, 2007)

“More specific, less poetic” the distressed author hero of Lee Myung-se’s M (엠) repeatedly types after a difficult conversation with his editor. Almost a meta comment on Lee’s process, it’s just as well that it’s advice he didn’t take – M is a noir poem, a metaphor for an artist’s torture, and a living ghost story in which a man shifts between worlds of memory, haunted and hunted by unidentifiable pain. Reality, dream, and madness mingle and merge as a single kernel of confusion causes widespread panic in a desperate writer’s already strained mind.

A young woman haunts the screen, pleading with us to remember her and be sad. She is a dream, a visitation into the mind of blocked writer Han Min-woo (Gang Dong-Won) whose publishers are eagerly awaiting the completion of his next manuscript. Back in the real world, the same young woman appears around Min-woo but seems to be in an entirely different plane of existence, completely invisible to the man she claims to love. Eventually Min-woo enters a mysterious back alley bar and finally engages with the girl, Mimi (Lee Yeon-Hee), before blacking out and forgetting all about the whole thing.

Reality resets once again and we realise Min-woo is about to be married to Eun-hye (Kong Hyo-Jin) – the daughter of a wealthy man who seems to approve of the marriage if not, exactly, Min-woo’s literary career. Min-woo should be happy – he’s getting married to a woman he appears to care for, has been successful in his career, and has everything pretty much set for life at only 29. Min-woo is not happy. Persistent writer’s block means he’s written almost nothing with a deadline approaching, he’s worrying about money, and somehow or other he can’t quite commit to Eun-hye – there is something nagging at his mind, but try as he might he cannot say what.

Min-woo is worried enough to visit a psychiatrist but the doctor offers little more than a bottle of prozac and an instruction to call back in the morning. His mental state is clearly fracturing but even objectively his manner is strange, suddenly shouting or issuing orders in a shocking break from his generally mild mannered exterior. As if the mounting pressure of his overdue manuscript weren’t enough, Min-woo is extremely insecure in his literary talents. He views himself as a successful hack, berating those who dare to praise his work as fans of cheap trash.

Yet his internal world seems to be defined by potboiler hardboiled with its rain drenched streets, foggy avenues, and smokey bars peopled by miserable whiskey drinking men and omniscient bartenders. Describing the process of piecing his fractured mind back together as re-editing a film in which several frames are missing, Min-woo quickly becomes lost inside his own internal landscape, trying to locate the wound to stem the bleed but finding it ever elusive. Mimi is more than a spectral figment of his imagination. A living personification of the living past, her presence haunts him with the power of mystery, like something unforgettable which has long been forgotten.

In the end, Min-woo’s creative madness is a salve for an internal scar but its final resolution may be its own undoing. A love story and a ghost story, Min-woo’s crisis is every man’s obsession with lost love. Guilt mingles with pain and regret but also with existential confusion and unresolvable loss. As he later puts it, you lose things, often the things which are most important to you – it is a part (and a privilege, in someone else’s words) of being alive. You try to bury your pain in oblivion but eventually the things you’ve lost will be returned in unclear or unexpected ways. Min-woo may have made peace with himself (or this aspect of himself), allowed a ghost to bid him goodbye, but then again, perhaps he only dreamed himself free and is forever condemned to remember and be sad.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Pandora (판도라, Park Jung-woo, 2016)

pandora (korean) posterIn a time of crisis, the populace looks to the government to take action and save the innocent from danger. A government, however, is often forced to consider the problem from a different angle – not simply saving lives but how their success or failure, decision-making process, and ability to handle the situation will be viewed by the electorate the next time they are asked who best deserves their faith and respect. Pandora (판도라) arrives at a time of particularly strained relations between the state and its people during which faith in the ruling elite is at an all time low following a tragic disaster badly mishandled and seemingly aided by the government’s failure to ensure public safety. Faced with an encroaching nuclear disaster to which their own failure to heed the warnings has played no small part, Pandora’s officials are left in a difficult position tasked with the dilemma of sacrificing a small town to save a nation or accepting their responsibility to their citizens as named individuals. Unsurprisingly, they are far from united in their final decision.

As the film opens, a group of children marvel at the towers of the new nuclear plant which has just been completed in their previously run down rural town. Not quite understanding what the plant is, they repeat snippets they’ve heard in their parents’ conversations – that the plant is a “rice cooker” that’s going to make them all rich, or it’s a “Pandora’s box” which may unleash untold horrors. Still, they seem excited about this new and futuristic arrival in their dull little village.

Flashforward fifteen years or so and one way or another all the kids now work at the plant, like it or not, because there are no other jobs available. Kang Jae-hyuk (Kim Nam-Gil) is one such conflicted soul who doesn’t disapprove of the plant in itself but has good reason to fear that the powers that be are not taking good enough care seeing that both his father and older brother were killed during a previous incident at the plant some years previously. Jae-hyuk lives with his widowed mother (Kim Young-ae), sister-in-law (Moon Jeong-Hee), and nephew (Bae Gang-Yoo) but is reluctant to marry his long-term girlfriend Yeon-ju (Kim Joo-Hyun) due to his lack of financial stability and growing disillusionment with small town life.

Meanwhile, the wife of the Korean president has been passed a file by a whistle-blower hoping to bypass the corrupt bureaucracy and go directly to the top. The file, compiled by a worried engineer, details all of the many failings at the recently reconfigured plant which has been recklessly rushed into completion without the proper safety checks and required maintenance procedures. Unfortunately the president does not have time to read the report before a 6.1 magnitude earthquake strikes and destabilises the plant to the extent that it edges towards meltdown.

Unusually, in a sense, the president is a good man who genuinely wants to do the best for his people even if he sometimes ignores sensible advice out of a desire to protect those on the ground. Unfortunately, he is at the mercy of a corrupt cabinet headed by a scheming prime minister intent on withholding information in order to push the president into cynical decision-making models predicated on the idea of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few but which mainly relate to the needs of the prime minister and his cronies in the nuclear industry.

The man in charge of the plant has only been there a few weeks and has no nuclear industry experience. His second in command is a company man and his loyalty lies with his employers – he needs to keep everything functioning and ensure the plant will not be decommissioned. The only voice of reason is coming from the chief engineer who wrote the whistle blowing report and nobly remains on site throughout the disaster putting himself at grave personal risk trying to ensure the plant does not pose a greater danger to those in the immediate vicinity.

Claiming a desire to avoid mass panic, the government attempts to order a media blackout, giving little or no information to civilians stranded in the town and fitting communications jammers to prevent the spread of information. The town is eventually given an evacuation order and orderly transportation to a shelter but once there the townspeople are kept entirely in the dark. When they become aware of the full implications of the disaster and try to leave independently, they are locked in while officials flee and leave them behind.

Conversely, the emergency services are hemmed in by regulations which state they cannot act because they would be putting themselves at unacceptable risk. Kang Jae-hyuk, despite his earlier irritation with his place of work, abandons his own cynicism to walk back into the disaster zone to help his friends still trapped inside. The president nobly refuses to order anyone to tackle the disaster directly knowing that it would mean certain death but opts to appeal for volunteers willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Unexpectedly, he finds them. The president is well-meaning but ineffectual, the government is corrupt, and the emergency services apparently overburdened with regulation while under-regulated commercial enterprises put lives in danger. The only force which will save the Korean people is the Korean people and its willingness to sacrifice itself for the common good even in the face of such cynical, self-interested greed.

Despite the scale of the disaster, Pandora takes its time, eschewing the kind of black humour which typifies Korean cinema disaster or otherwise. Serious rigour, however, goes out of the window in favour of overwrought melodrama, undermining the underlying messages of widespread societal corruption from corporations cutting corners with no regard for the consequences to politicians playing games with people’s lives. The powers that be have opened Pandora’s Box, but the only thing still trapped inside is men like Kang Jae-hyuk whose disillusioned malaise soon gives way to untempered altruism and eventually offers the only source of hope for his betrayed people.


Original trailer (English subtitles available from menu)

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)

The King (더 킹, Han Jae-rim, 2017)

the king posterAbsolute power corrupts absolutely, but such power is often a matter more of faith than actuality. Coming at an interesting point in time, Han Jae-rim’s The King (더 킹) charts twenty years of Korean history, stopping just short of its present in which a president was deposed by peaceful, democratic means following accusations of corruption. The legal system, as depicted in Korean cinema, is rarely fair or just but The King seems to hint at a broader root cause which transcends personal greed or ambition in an essential brotherhood of dishonour between men, bound by shared treacheries but forever divided by looming betrayal.

Tae-soo (Jo In-sung) is the classic poor boy made good. His mother abandoned the family when he was only six because she couldn’t cope with his father’s rampant criminality. Do bad things and you’ll go to hell, she told her son but perhaps Tae-soo already feels himself to be there and so doesn’t worry so much about those “bad things” that are a normal part of his life. The top fighter at his school, Tae-soo finds his calling when he sees his tough as nails father kneeling on the ground, pleading furiously in front of a skinny bespectacled man wearing a fancy suit. The man is a prosecutor and walks with the swagger of someone whose every action is government backed, his authority is absolute.

Tae-soo knuckles down, starts studying and gets into Seoul University. An accidental brush with the pro-democracy protest movement lands him in the army but thanks to lying about his hometown on his registration form he gets an easy posting meaning he has even more time to study for the bar. Everything seems to fall into place – he qualifies, gets his dream job, even marries a beautiful, intelligent, feisty woman who also happens to come from a wealthy elite family. The poor boy from Mokpo has made it, but prosecuting isn’t all he thought it would be. Tae-soo is a civil servant which means, like it does the world over, that he’s overworked and underpaid. When he rubs up against a dodgy case he’s made an offer he can’t refuse – drop it, and get a promotion to the big leagues where celebrity prosecutors enjoy lavish lifestyles filled with parties, drinks, and pretty girls. He knows it’s not right, but this is what he’s always wanted and Tae-soo is soon seduced.

Tae-soo’s seduction causes him a few pangs of conscience, but he was, as he was assumed to be, easy pickings. The case in question is a sickening if ordinary one – a teacher has molested a pupil but as the teacher is the son of an influential man and the single mother of the girl in question has learning difficulties, the case has been made to go away. Tae-soo is outraged, hauls the man back in, re-opens the case and obtains additional evidence and witness testimonies which confirm the girl’s story and will have the teacher sent to jail. His seduction is easy – they simply offer to make him one of them, and Tae-soo agrees, sacrificing not only this little girl but potentially many others for his own greed and satisfaction.

Tae-soo is redeemed, in a sense, thanks to his association with a childhood friend who helps him out by taking care of the teacher through “unofficial” means. Choi Du-il (Ryu Jun-yeol) is Tae-soo’s flip side, another poor boy done good but this time on the other side of the law. An ambitious gangster, Du-il is also loyal, just, and honourable – at least within a gangster code. The “errand boy” for this group of thuggish lawyers who behave like gangsters while the gangsters act like politicians with literal rather than metaphorical attack dogs, Du-il senses he’s walking a dangerous path to nowhere at all and has only his friendship with Tae-soo to believe in.

The genuine bond between the two men is one of the few redeeming features of Tae-soo’s increasingly compromised existence in which he sells his soul for the false approval of the man he regards as a “King” in the figure of all powerful, amoral chief prosecutor Han (Jung Woo-Sung). Tae-soo’s story is a conventional one of a basically good yet weak man struggling with a choice he’s made against his better judgement yet it’s not until it’s cost him everything he holds dear that he starts to reconsider.

Han Jae-rim weaves in archive footage and musical cues to evoke the changing eras which will be more obvious to Korean audiences – a case in point being the dramatic positioning of the suicide of former president Roh Moo-hyun in 2009. Roh had been a progressive president, often unpopular during his time in office thanks to his inability to pass his policies, and was later tarnished with a corruption scandal but found his reputation posthumously reappraised following his death which was seen both as a declaration of innocence and as a symbol of his deep love for his country and its people. Tae-soo’s change of heart seems to accelerate after Roh’s suicide which drew vast crowds of mourning (and knowing smirks from sleazy prosecutors Han and his sidekick Yang) as his own run in with death prompts a re-evaluation of his place in the grand scheme of things.

The King ends on a rather trite message – that every man is his own king and in the end the choices are all yours (though it seems to hope the choices made will be more altruistic than those of Han, Yang, and the earlier Tae-soo). The power wielded by men like Han is fragile – they need lackies, and if they can’t get them the system crumbles, but they’re also hollow, frightened opportunists who are so desperate they’re even bringing in shady seeming shamans to avoid having to make difficult policy decisions. Tae-soo turns their own tricks back on them with masterstrokes of irony, vowing revenge and perhaps getting it, along with self respect and a re-orientated moral compass but then again, power abhors a vacuum.


Screened as part of a season of teaser screenings for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Spirits’ Homecoming (귀향, Cho Jung-rae, 2016)

sprits-homecomingOf all the awful things that happened in the middle part of the 20th century, the trafficking, incarceration, enslavement and forced prostitution of women and girls from across Asia (including at least 65 Dutch women in what is now known as Indonesia) who were abducted for use as “comfort women” by the Japanese military remains one of the least discussed and most controversial. The issue (arguably) runs most deeply in Korea which had been experiencing a prolonged and often brutal era of colonial rule even prior to the intensification of hostilities in the early 1940s. The torment these women faced did not end with the ceasefire as entrenched social attitudes left them not only with a lifetime of physical and psychological trauma but also internalised shame which made it difficult for them to talk about their experiences even to those closest to them. Now more than ever, it is important that this story be told and the long suffering of these women, many of whom are no longer with us, is finally acknowledged.

In 1943, fourteen year old Jung-min (Kang Hana) is an only child living with her cheerful father and stern mother somewhere in rural Korea. Energetic and headstrong, Jung-min thinks it sport to take a handmade amulet from one of her friends in a game despite her friend’s obvious distress. This earns her another switch beating from her disappointed mother who, regretfully, later makes her a similar amulet of her own. However, the amulet does Jung-min little good in the short term as the soldiers finally arrive and take her away with them to an uncertain destination.

Packed into a freight train with other similarly aged girls in the same situation, Jung-min is able to keep her cool and bonds with the girl next to her, Young-hee (Seo Mi-ji), who is already physically ill aside from the additional stress. Far from the shoe factory one of the girls had imagined, this collection of children is bound for a military brothel where they will be required to speak only Japanese, remaining within their tiny rooms which store only a mattress and water bucket, and endure repeated rape and violence at the hands of their captors.

Running parallel to the 1943 narrative is a jump forward to 1991 around the time in which the government finally decides to address the comfort woman issue with calls for registration so that all women affected may apply for any available compensation. Young-ok (Son Sook), now an older woman making a living from textiles and sewing amulets just like Jung-min’s, is only one of these women. Through her friendship with a shaman and her protege Eun-kyung (Choi Ri), Young-ok finds her thoughts returning to the past once again.

The younger Koreans of 1943 had known only the Japanese occupation, were educated in Japanese, and had been taught that they were “true countrymen” as one Jung-min’s friends puts it. Jung-min’s carefree, rural town is almost untouched by politics as Korean is spoken freely, folk traditions permitted, Arirang sung in the fields, and teenage girls wander around freely with no one to say to much about it. All this ends one day when the soldiers arrive, forcibly abducting Jung-min and any other young woman in the area without even a word of explanation to their parents or families. Despite the gradual erosion of their cultural identity, these women are now members of a subjugated nation so far below those of mainland birth that they barely qualify as people at all.

The treatment that these women undergo, many of them only children, is truly horrific from repeated rape to physical violence, starvation, and the ever present threat of death. Only Japanese is to be spoken in the camp which houses women and girls from both Korea and China, watched over by a Korean middle man and a Japanese madam. Allowed out of their fetid rooms for brief periods of respite (or later different kinds of work) the girls attempt to make the most of things, singing folk songs and remembering happier times. There is no real possibility of escape other than that found by one of the girls who has already gone mad after one of the visiting troops brought her own brother with it.

Indeed, there is no true escape even after the war’s end. Seeing the testimony of another former comfort woman on the television and hearing news of the programme to register women affected by wartime atrocity both for purposes of research and possible compensation, Young-ok is motivated to speak out. When she approaches a young man at the post-office to ask for the relevant forms, her nerves fail her, only to overhear the behind the counter conversation about the comfort women programme. It seems, there have been no claimants so far. The man behind the desk is unsurprised but also childishly amused. “You’d have to be some kind of loony to come out with all that kind of thing” he says, “it’s a bit…well…isn’t it?”. Not only have these women suffered immense physical and psychological trauma, they’ve also been forced into internalised shame thanks to conservative social attitudes regarding purity and surrender.

In this way, Spirits’ Homecoming (귀향, Kwihyang) stops being about Japan and Korea but becomes a wider commentary about the place of women in society and, more specifically, what happens to women in time of war. Many of the soldiers remark that the girls remind them of their sisters, yet they still go ahead with the things they do, treating these women as little more than receptacles for the fluids of their lust and rage, not much more sentient than a metal bucket. The Japanese soldiers are fairly one dimensional in their evilness, save for one who has the courage to say no, but his decision to help the girls brings only disaster for all, himself included. Berated as “bitches” for the Japanese army, the girls are denied any kind of agency and, should they outlive their usefulness, are taken off to a “better place” which smacks of the old lie told to children whose beloved dog has been taken to live a happier life “on a farm”.

Nothing can be said or done to repair what was done to these young women or return any of the things which were taken from them, but at least in telling their story there can be a kind of restitution and an end to the ongoing shame which continues to engulf their lives even though they themselves were always blameless. In reality many of these girls never got to come home, a fact which the shamanistic rites at the film’s conclusion intend to rectify, allowing Young-ok a chance to reconnect with a fallen friend whose spirit is finally guided homeward to the peaceful family life of the pre-war years. A necessarily difficult watch, Spirits’ Homecoming is a sensitive treatment of its horrific subject matter which, even if edging towards the sentimental, is resolutely unafraid to lay bare the degree of suffering inflicted on these women not only during the wartime years but throughout the rest of their lives.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)