The Bros (부라더, Chang You-jeong, 2017)

The Bros posterTime passes differently in the country. Two brothers from rural Andong thought they’d escaped the relative restrictions of an oddly feudal upbringing, but something keeps pulling them back. Ghosts literal and figural force them to return home, confront each other and their remaining family, and then attempt to come to some kind of acceptance of their places in the grand scheme of things in light of their newly acquired knowledge. The Bros (부라더, Buladeo) stars unlikely siblings Ma Dong-seok and Lee Dong-hwi and is adapted from the stage musical “The Brothers Were Brave” which was also directed by Chang You-jeong. Set in rural Andong, the film is an affectionate, if not entirely sympathetic, portrayal of the fiercely traditional way of life in tiny country towns in which it really still matters who accedes to be the head of a family and women are expected to know their place.

“Estranged” brothers Seok-bong (Ma Dong-seok) and Joo-bong (Lee Dong-hwi) have each skipped out on their familial responsibilities for lives of modern “freedom” in Seoul. Seok-bong is a “treasure hunter” who gives eccentric lessons on archeological ethics to bored students while overspending on the latest tools to aid him in his (permanently unsuccessful) quests, while Joo-bong is an ambitious salaryman whose career runs into a problem after he is accused of “embezzlement” for ruling out the cheapest route for a new road because (unbeknownst to his bosses) it would cut right past his childhood home. Just as Seok-bong realises he’ll have to pay back the outrageous sum of money he “speculated” on new equipment when a civil war breaks out in his prospective dig site, and Jong-boo frets over his workplace blunder, both sons get an unexpected text informing them that their “estranged” father has died and they’re “welcome” to attend the funeral, if they should wish. As both brothers are in need of a getaway plan (and also an opportunity to ask for some financial assistance), they find themselves finally going “home” only to unexpectedly find each other on the road, start bickering in the car, and then accidentally run over a random young woman (Lee Honey) apparently out walking in this otherwise barren and deserted stretch of land.

On their arrival, the brothers are not exactly embraced by their loving family. Nobody really expected to see them and, as it turns out, their grandfather didn’t even realise they’d been invited. The boys’ rural country home is one of fierce traditionality, seemingly cut out of time and existing in the feudal past where people refer to each other via archaic titles and it really seems to matter who is declared “first son” of the family. Both Seok-bong and Joo-bong left the village because they had no interest in all this feudal nonsense and resented the old fashioned authoritarianism which defined their relationships with the apparently tyrannical patriarch they have both come home to bury, if not perhaps to mourn. Seok-bong, in particular, remains extremely resentful towards his late father for the way he treated their mother who, he assumes, must have been very unhappy all her married life.

Rural Andong, it turns out is not a great place for women. The brothers do have a “friend” in the family complex in the form of Mi-bong (Jo Woo-jin) – a policeman recently married to a very nice but often frustrated young lady who has taken to smoking (still considered scandalous in these parts) in secret in order to relieve the stress of being a married woman suddenly expected to undertake all these arcane social responsibilities, which include being “nice” to her overbearing mother-in-law who seems to delight in scolding her for doing everything wrong. In fact Mi-bong’s wife wants to move to Vietnam to get as far away from the family as possible, but  finds it difficult to abandon the feudal way of thinking in wondering what it would be like to be the wife of a “first son”. Women here are supposed to know their place – stay silent, serve the men. When Joo-bong’s “lady friend” from the city shows up unexpectedly, everyone reacts to her as a “potential daughter-in-law” and sets about giving her the third degree which includes a pop quiz on the three duties of an Andong woman which include obeying a father, then a husband, and then presumably a son. In a running joke, no one can even remember the given name of the boys’ mother because she was always just referred to as “first daughter-in-law”.

All in all, it’s no surprise that Seok-bong and Joo-bong wanted to leave but then again, it turns out there was a lot more going on with the family than they were ever privy to know and they have perhaps judged their father unfairly without knowing all the facts. This being a comedy, the central point is the repair of a broken family – firstly in the brothers repairing their bond as they face the crumbling of their individual quests and are forced to work together, unwittingly uncovering the truth about their family history. Meanwhile, they also have to cope with the strange woman they apparently ran over who seems to have lost her memory but has valuable information to impart to each of them. Haunted by the ghosts of home, neither of the boys finds what they originally came for but gets something (arguably) better in rediscovering their roots and experiencing the upsides of familial connection.

Filled with the strangeness of the village tradition with its mourning suits, wandering monks, shamanic rituals, and uncles who speak only in incomprehensible four character idioms The Bros is an absurd affair but one with its heart in the right place. Chang enlivens the otherwise unremarkable comedic narrative with interesting visual compositions as the mysterious woman seems to drag the brothers away into a pretty fairytale land filled with oversaturated picture book images in which the moon is just a little bit bigger than you’d expect and oddly ‘70s fashions of purple and yellow lend a cheerful and nostalgic air. A comedic tale of family, brotherhood, and the unexpected endurance of feudal tradition, The Bros is a warm and fuzzy tribute to rediscovering one’s roots but also one with unexpected bite in its subtle undercutting of the pervasive misogyny which underpins it.


The Bros is currently available to stream in the UK (and possibly elsewhere) via Netflix.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

The President’s Barber (효자동 이발사, Lim Chan-sang, 2004)

president's barber posterWe each of us live in the midst of history being made, some of us closer to the action than others. Most of us don’t quite realise how close we are or fully understand our role in events until it’s too late, but in any case we’re all just too busy getting on with the business of living to give much thought such grand concepts as history or legacy. Song Kang-ho has made a name for himself playing genial everymen forever at the mercy of historical machinations, but before he was an apathetic Taxi Driver, he was an apathetic barber giving haircuts to a dictator he half imagined was a friend. The President’s Barber (효자동 이발사, Hyojadong Ibalsa) is part journey into the intersection between rosy childhood nostalgia and national trauma, and part subtle political satire on the moral corruptions of authoritarianism but its own soft heartedness is often at odds with the grimness of its purpose.

Sung Han-mo (like the counter for tofu) is a nice but dim sort who has his own barber’s studio right across from the Blue House. As his son (Lee Jae-eung) tells us in his cutsey voice over, Han-mo (Song Kang-ho) is easily led and content to do whatever the village leader tells him to do, including participating in the ongoing corruption surrounding the re-election of despotic president Rhee Syngman. Our narrator, the oddly named Nak-an, was born as a result of a brief indiscretion between his father and an assistant (Moon So-ri) who had, apparently, hoped to marry someone else from her home village if Han-mo hadn’t trapped her with maternity. She wanted wanted an abortion but didn’t find out until after the much publicised five month cut off, meaning Han-mo talked her into staying and little Nak-an acquired the unfortunate nickname of “five months Na-kan”.

The family live happily enough until the mid-1960s when Park Chung-hee stages a coup and declares himself “President for Life”. When Han-mo somehow manages to catch a “North Korean Spy”, he gets himself a commendation and the attention of the authorities (for good or ill). A KCIA agent dutifully turns up and hauls Han-mo off to the Blue House because the president needs a trim…

Park’s reputation underwent something of a rehabilitation for a time. He did, in the minds of those seeking to justify his tyrannical reign, preside over Korea’s economic recovery. Han-mo is one of many to prosper, in his case directly in working indirectly for the regime. Han-mo is a simple man, he doesn’t think about politics but often feels belittled and downtrodden, made a figure of fun by those close to him even whilst remaining a cheerful optimist. He doesn’t take much convincing to hitch his mule to Park’s waggon, enjoying the personal boost in his social standing and finally feeling like a someone in being introduced to the world of the elites even when he is forced to accept that he does not and cannot exist fully within it.

Han-mo cuts hair, chatting away the way a barber does without really realising either that he is a vox pop spy or that he might, at any time, say the wrong thing and land himself in serious trouble. Serious trouble arrives during a heated and extremely bizarre period of political hysteria surrounding the “Marxus” virus – a lamentable episode in which an epidemic of dysentery was blamed on North Korean spies and all those who suffered from the condition taken in for “questioning”. Only when his own family is threatened does Han-mo start to reconsider his role in the affair – his status as a peripheral member of the Blue House team is no help in protecting those close to him and he can no longer pretend he does not know what happens in those basements, and that it happens to ordinary people not just “suspicious” ones.

The low level satire derives from Han-mo’s background presence becoming foreground as a very personal spat between a couple of high ranking Blue House staffers gathers in intensity before exploding into events which will have profound, though short-lived, consequences for Korean political history. Han-mo sadly takes down his portrait of Park hanging in pride of place in his shop and replaces it with one of Chun Doo-hwan (who was bald). Still a simple man he has, at least, learned his lesson and prepares to turn down the “honour” of shaving a dictator’s chin. Korea, the film seems to unsubtly hint, is finding its feet again though there will be another long reckoning before it, like Han-mo and his family, is finally able to free itself of the militarist yoke.


Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Jeong Yoon-chul, 2017)

Warriors of the Dawn posterSome might say a king is the slave of his people, but then again he is a very well kept slave even if he is no more free than a serf at the mercy of a feudal lord. Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Daeribgoon), set in 1592 during the short-lived Japanese invasion, takes this idea to its heart in playing up the inherent similarities between the oppressed poor who are forced to impersonate the sons of wealthy men too grand for the battlefield, and the Crown Prince unwillingly forced to impersonate the King who has abandoned his people and run away to China to save his own skin. Though the Prince is young and afraid, with the help of his resentful mercenary brethren he begins to find the majesty buried inside himself all along but crucially never forgets what is like to feel oppressed so that he might rule nobly and fairly, unlike his more selfish father.

The tale begins with Tow (Lee Jung-Jae) – a “Proxy Soldier”, one of many from the Northern borderlands where the living is hard. Sons of feudal lords need not risk their lives on the battlefields while there is money to spend and so they buy the service of young men from poor families to stand in for them. The men take the name of the man they’re supposed to be but if they die, their family must send a replacement to serve out the remaining time or pay back the money that was given to them. At this point Tow’s main problem is the Jurchen rebels who’ve decided to live life their own way outside of the system of class hierarchy currently in place in feudal Korea.

The Japanese, however, are pressing on and making gains towards the capital. The King decides to flee, hoping to reach China where the Ming Emperor may be minded to help them. He cannot, however, simply abandon ship and decides to divide the court with the left behind contingent headed by his son, Crown Prince Gwang-hae (Yeo Jin-goo). Gwang-hae is young and inexperienced. Not having had a good relationship with his father, he’s mystified as to why he’s suddenly been given this “honour” but together with a selection of advisors he’s sent on a journey to found a second court at Gonggye, picking up scattered forces along the way. This brings him into contact with Tow and his contingent who become his main defenders.

Having lived a life inside the palace walls, Gwang-hae knows nothing of war or fighting and has brought a selection of books with him hoping to learn on the job. His ineptitude is likened to that of a young recruit to the band of Proxy Soldiers who has been forced to join on the death of his father but has no training and is too squeamish to kill, requiring Tow to come to his rescue as he later does for Gwang-hae. Tow is a born soldier yet reluctant, fully aware that he no longer exists and should he die another man with no name will step into his place with nary a pause. He continues to fight because he has no choice but he also feels an intense bond of brotherhood to his fellow men, something which later extends to Gwang-hae once his latent nobility begins to emerge.

Gwang-hae’s central conflict is between his advisors who council him towards austerity, and his deeper feelings which encourage him to sympathise with the ordinary people he meets along the way whose lives are being ruined thanks to the government’s failure to protect them. As it turns out, Gwang-hae is also low-born, in a sense, and therefore has inherited something of the common touch which separates him from the aloofness of his father. Though he is constantly told to make the “rational” choice he refuses – ordering troops to stop when they attempt to extort food from starving peasants, insisting on evacuating a village to safer ground, and then finally becoming a warrior himself in order to defend his people when no one else would.

Gwang-hae is, perhaps, a warrior for a new dawn and a flag that men like Tow can follow in the quest for a better world in which each man can keep his own name and fight for his own cause rather than that laid down for them by men with money or power. Despite the potential for a more urgent argument, Jeong mostly falls back on standard period aesthetics with overly familiar narrative beats heavily signposted by a subpar script. Warriors of the Dawn cannot decide whether it’s a film about catching the conscience of a king or the noble sacrifice of would be revolutionaries, failing to lend the essential weight to its duel arcs of rebirth and coming of age all of which makes for a long, hard march towards an inevitable conclusion.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

International trilogy (English subtitles)