Green Fish (초록 물고기, Lee Chang-dong, 1997)

Green Fish poster

You can never go home again. Lee Chang-dong’s debut, Green Fish (초록 물고기, Chorok Mulgogi), is as much a chronicle of his rapidly modernising nation’s gradual loss of innocence as it is that of its melancholy hero, Makdong (Han Suk-kyu), whose simple dream of family harmony is destroyed by the forces of desire and oppression. Perpetually someone’s little brother, Makdong struggles but finds no schoolyard protectors in his ongoing quest for leadership and direction from someone or something external to himself. All he finds is a gradual descent into darkness and criminality in which misplaced loyalties eventually carry the heaviest of penalties.

Returning home from his mandatory military service, still dressed in his warm weather combats, Makdong inhales a taste of freedom by hanging out of the open train doorway. He notices a woman doing the same thing a few doors down. Her red scarf floats away on the breeze and hits Makdong in the face. Later he notices the same woman being hassled by a gang of louts and decides to intervene. Despite his military uniform, Makdong is no great warrior and he’s quickly beaten up and humiliated, retreating to the bathroom where he soaks the woman’s scarf in water and puts it over his bloodied face, inhaling her scent through the fabric as it somehow expresses his otherwise repressed scream.

Vowing revenge for his humiliation Makdong jumps off the train and attacks the louts with a heavy stone trophy, but he mistimes his attack and ends up running after the departing carriages before being forced to abandon all hope of catching up and concentrate on evading the louts who are once again on his tail. On his arrival home, Makdong discovers nothing is as he left it. His family is scattered – father dead, mother going mad, one brother married and a policeman though apparently also a drunk, other brother a wideboy punk, little sister working as a hostess, where there were fields now there are apartment blocks as far as the eye can see, only his older brother with developmental disabilities remains the same. Unable to find work, Makdong chases the scent of the woman on the train, eventually encountering her in the city. Miae (Shim Hye-jin) is a nightclub singer involved with petty gangster Bae Tae-gon (Moon Sung-keun). Remaining close to her, Makdong finds himself drawn ever further into Maie’s self destructive spiral of desire and darkness.

Makdong, whose name literally means “youngest sibling”, is perpetually looking for a family. Turned away from the chaos of his childhood home, he looks for it in the traditional place of the dispossessed male – the gang. Desperate to prove himself and be accepted, Makdong is willing to undergo any kind of pain and humiliation. Given his first job, he sings a snatch of the karaoke song playing in the bar about a prodigal son who disappoints his parents, looks himself in the mirror then hesitates before slamming the stall door shut across his fingers, leaving them swollen and bloodied. He then picks a fight with a rival gangster to give Bae Tae-gon an excuse to settle a score. Bae, solicitous, expresses irritation with Makdong’s act of self-harm but also gives him a leg up into the organisation, something which does not prove universally popular with the already established crew.

Bae’s decision to make Makdong his latest “little brother” (a sort of pun on his name and Bae’s position as the gang’s “big brother”), is mirrored in Bae’s own turbulent relationship with his superior/rival, Yang-gil (Myung Gye-nam). Yang-gil, setting up shop right across from Bae’s establishment, describes Bae disparagingly as a scrappy puppy dog biting at his master’s heels. Much as he feels humiliated by Yang-gil’s authoritative disdain, he refuses to move against him, ordering his guys to back off even though it makes him look weak and diminishes him in the eyes of his followers. Just as Makdong has placed his faith in Bae, Bae’s is already installed in Yang-gil, something which Makdong tragically fails to understand.

Makdong’s loyalty to Bae also presents a conflict in his desire for Miae. A much stereotyped gangster’s moll, Miae is the melancholy nightclub singer familiar from classic noir. Her world is just as ruined and broken as Makdong’s. She wants to leave Bae and his life of violent chaos in which she’s often pimped out to serve his interests, but she’s looking for someone to help her, just as Makdong is looking for someone to defend him. A long train journey brings the pair together in a moment of innocent tenderness, but presented with a choice Makdong choses Bae and his new world of male chivalry over his original act of white knight rescue which brought him to Miae’s attention in the first place. Later he makes another, more final choice, burning Miae’s scarf which he’d been carrying like a talisman all along. The flames reflected in his sunglasses give him eyes of fire, but behind the frames there are tears too as he bids goodbye to one dream in the mistaken belief of buying himself another.

Facing his end, Makdong rings home and reminisces about a story of idealised childhood innocence in which he spent a day at the river with his siblings, trying to catch the green fish of the title from under a railway bridge. Earlier on the family had another picnic in a similar spot which quickly degenerated into a chaotic family spat with the trains passing ominously behind them. The world that Makdong wants is already fading, he is, in some sense, already its ghost and the future has no place for him. His dreams were small – a modest family restaurant, and a return to the warmth and security he felt as a child surrounded by unconditional love. His family, however, no longer support him, he is alone and unloved. The world has moved past him like a train leaving the station, Makdong runs but he can’t catch up. The future belongs to those who can move fast enough to adapt to the new reality of modern Korean life, not to old romantics like Makdong who still believe in archaic ideals of family and brotherhood. Yet, there is something of that old world remaining in the posthumous fulfilment of Makdong’s only wish, even if he himself is not permitted to witness it.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Cabaret scene (no subtitles)

A Taxi Driver (택시 운전사, Jang Hoon, 2017)

A Taxi Driver PosterIn these (generally) well connected days of mass communication when every major event is live broadcast to the world at large, it’s difficult to remember a time when dreadful things might be happening the next town over yet no one knows (or perhaps dares to ask). Until 1979, Korea had been under the control of an oppressive dictatorship which was brought to a sudden and bloody end by the murder of the president, Park Chung-hee, at the hands of one of his aides. Though the democracy movement had been growing, hopes of installing a modern governmental system were dashed with the accession of the de facto president, General Chun Doo-hwan, who reinstated martial law, placing troops on the streets on the pretext of a possible North Korean invasion. In an event known as the Gwanjgu Uprising, a long term peaceful protest led by the area’s large student population was brutally suppressed with large numbers dead or wounded by government soldiers.

Meanwhile, in Seoul, regular Joe taxi driver Kim Man-seob (Song Kang-ho) is trying to go about his everyday business and is finding all of this protesting very irritating, especially when he is forced to swerve to avoid a young man running from riot police and breaks the wing mirror on his otherwise pristine vehicle. Man-seob thinks these kids don’t know they’re born, if they’d spent time abroad like he did in Saudi Arabia, they’d know that few places are quite as nice as Korea is. A single father raising his young daughter alone, Man-seob’s major worry is money. He’s four months behind on his rent and his daughter keeps getting into fights with the landlord’s son. Actually, the rent might not be such a pressing problem seeing as Man-seob’s landlord is a close friend and colleague – close enough for him to cheekily ask to borrow the money to “pay” it so his friend’s wife will stop being so mean. When he overhears another driver boasting that he’s picked up an improbably large fare that’s exactly the same amount as the money Man-seob owes, Man-seob bluffs his way into stealing it out from under him. Man-seob, however, has not stopped to consider why a foreigner wants to pay him an insane amount of money to drive from Seoul to provincial Gwangju.

Like many in the Korea of 1980, Man-seob is a man just trying to get by. He has his private sorrows, but largely avoids thinking about the big picture. To him, the Seoul protest movement has become such normal inconvenience that he keeps cream in his car to help cope with the smell of the smoke bombs. He thinks all of this rancour is just kids out of control and will eventually blow over when order is restored.

Others feel differently. A BBC journalist relocated from Korea to Tokyo describes the situation as “tense” and avows that this time something may be about to break. Tokyo in 1980 is a nice place to live, but extremely boring if you’re an international journalist and so German reporter Peter (Thomas Kretschmann) catches the next flight out with the intention of investigating the rumours of state sponsored violence coming out Gwangju.

Though Man-seob’s original motivation is the money, the events he witnesses in Gwangju have a profound effect on the way he sees his country. Bypassing roadblocks and sneaking into a city under lockdown, Man-seob and Peter witness acts of extreme violence as the army deploys smoke grenades, beatings, and bullets on a peaceful assembly of ordinary people. Prior to the military’s intervention, the atmosphere is joyful and welcoming. The people of Gwangju dance and sing, share meals with each other, and all are excited about the idea of real social change. This juxtaposition of joy and kindness with such brutal and uncompromising cruelty eventually awakens Man-seob’s wider consciousness, forcing him to rethink some early advice he gave to his daughter concerning her difficult relationship with the little boy next-door to the effect that non-reaction is often the best reaction.

Rather than focus on the Uprising itself, Joon presents it at ground level through the eyes of the previously blind Man-seob and the jaded Peter. Inspired by real events though heavily fictionalised (despite a search which continued until his death, Peter was never able to discover the true identity of the taxi driver who had helped him), A Taxi Driver (택시 운전사, Taxi Woonjunsa) is a testament to the everyman’s historical importance which, even if occasionally contrived, speaks with a quiet power in the gradual reawakening of a self-centred man’s sense of honour and personal responsibility.


A Taxi Driver was screened as the sixth teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival 2017. Tickets for the next and final film, The Villainess which screens along with the official programme launch at Regent Street Cinema on 11th September, are on sale now.

Original trailer (English 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)

Gangnam Blues (강남 1970, Yoo Ha, 2015)

gangnam-bluesYoo ha takes us back to the 1970s for some Gangnam Blues (강남 1970, Gangnam 1970) in a sorry tale of fatherless men caught up in dangerous times of ambition and avarice, very much at the bottom of the heap and about to be eclipsed by the “new world” currently under construction. Back then, Gangnam really was all just fields, owned by farmers soon to be cheated out of their ancestral lands by enterprising gangsters engaged in a complicated series of land grab manoeuvres, anticipating the eventual expansion of the bursting at the seams capital. Far from the shining city of today, Gangnam was a wasteland frontier town, the sort of place where a man can make a name for himself trading on his wits and his fists alone.

In 1970, Jong-dae (Lee Min-ho) and Yong-ki (Kim Rae-won), sworn brothers from the same orphanage, are two street rats trying to survive in straightened times. When the shack they were squatting in is demolished and they come in to contact with a petty gangster, Kang (Jung Jin-young), the pair end up getting a one off job as thugs sent to smash up a political rally but get separated when the police arrive. Jong-dae finds himself taken in by Kang and his daughter Seon-hye (Kim Seol-hyun AKA Seolhyun) as a surrogate son and brother, repaying their affection by saving Kang’s life during an assassination attempt which later prompts his decision to retire from the criminal world altogether. Yong-ki joins the rival gang instead and seems to be making a success of himself but both find themselves at the mercy of an increasingly corrupt, dishonourable system hellbent on progress but only for the few.

Gangnam Blues has an overly complex, intricate narrative overlaying the generic brotherhood and betrayal theme that runs through the film. Dipping into a particularly dark period of history, Yoo is not afraid to step back into those difficult days marked by both rapid progress and increasing inequality furthered by complicated systems of interconnected corruption. The gangsters are at the service of the politicians but it’s always debatable who is running the show. Jong-dae’s participation in the land grab scheme is painted as amusing cleverness (at least at first) but little attention is paid to the farmers who are being “convinced” to sell their land off cheaply to gangsters who are each competing for the prime sections. Modern day Gangnam was built on blood and extortion, by men like Jong-dae and Yong-ki, even in the knowledge that they will be discarded as soon as their usefulness has been exhausted.

Jong-dae and Yong-ki are the bottom of the pile, orphaned and without family connections they have only each other to rely on yet their brotherly bond is repeatedly tested. The ‘70s Philippine folk song, Anak by Freddie Aguilar, which forms the film’s major musical motif has some very poignant lyrics about parents and their children but neither Jong-dae nor Yong-ki are able to find the kind of family they’re looking for. Both end up opting for the fraternal bond of a crime syndicate to replicate the kind of support usually offered by the family unit with Jong-dae finding a father figure in Kang who eventually takes him into his household as a son outside of the criminal world, and Yong-ki eventually marrying and soon to become a father himself. Forced into crime by their poverty, each becomes an outcast, permanently shut out from the thing they most want even whilst living a life of material comfort.

Yoo opts for a highly stylised approach filled with beautifully photographed, expertly choreographed scenes of violence including the traditional mass brawl in the rain, and a sequence of intercut killings each artfully sprayed with blood. Lee Min-ho acquits himself well enough in his first leading role as the noble hearted gangster Jong-dae with quality support from Kim Rae-won as the much less noble Yong-ki though the superfluity of secondary characters leads to an avoidable lack of depth. Relative newcomer Kim Seoul-hyun also does well with her underwritten role of the film’s most tragic character even if her domestic violence themed subplot seems like one too many. Another classic slice of gangster action from Korea, Gangnam Blues is an unflinching look back at a difficult era with uncanny echoes of the present day, and a suitably period tinged tale of melancholy ‘70s bleakness in which brotherhood and honour are merely words misused by men trying to justify their own ambitions.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Freddie Aguilar’s Anak as featured in the film:

Ode to My Father (국제시장, JK Yoon, 2014)

ode_to_my_father_stillReview of JK Yoon’s Ode to My Father (국제시장, Gukjeshijang) – first published by UK Anime Network.


Of late, we’ve seen a lot of films attempt to trace the history of a nation through the story of one man and his family which ultimately becomes a metaphor for the that of the land itself. Many of these have come from China which shares something of the turbulent history that has affected the Korean peninsula over the last hundred years. In Ode to My Father, director JK Youn has tried to pay tribute both to his own father and to all the fathers of modern Korea who underwent great difficulties and suffered immensely in the hope of building a better, happier, future for their own children.

Mostly we view events from the point of view of Duk-soo – an old man at the beginning of the film who has made a success of himself and is surrounded by a large, loving family though seems to retain a kind of unresolved sadness. When we travel back with him, he’s just a small boy fleeing his homeland with his parents and siblings. As the oldest, he’s put in charge of his sister only to have her cruelly snatched away from him during the final escape. This event colours the rest of Duk-soo’s life as he carries with him both the tremendous guilt of having failed to protect his sister and of losing his father has he went back to look for her. The remaining family members gather together at the small imported goods shop belonging to an aunt which becomes another motif of the film.

Growing into manhood, Duk-soo is now the man of the house with both his siblings and his mother to provide for. Making countless sacrifices which see him abandoning his own dreams and travelling abroad to seek better paid work – first in the coalmines of West Germany and later the warzone of Vietnam, Duk-soo puts his family before himself every single time. Working tirelessly, Duk-soo grows up but inside he’s forever the little boy on a boat watching his father drift away him and desperately hoping he’ll some day miraculously turn up at the shop with a smile and an improbable story.

This is a story of painful separations and the shockwaves they send through the rest of one’s life and of all the lives throughout history. Having fled the Chinese and the communists in the North, Duk-soo and his family are excited about the prospect of being able to go home at the “end” of the war. However, this is a war which is still not technically over, merely suspended by a truce, and Duk-soo will never see his hometown again. Eventually, during the ‘80s, 30 years since Duk-soo was separated from his father and sister, a nationwide campaign is held to try and re-unite family members forced apart by the traumatic events of the 1950s. Entire squares in the city are covered with people desperately looking for each other wearing signs with their relatives’ names and point of last sighting, clothing etc all in the hope of finally finding each other again. Needless to say, some of these people are luckier than others and there are tears of both joy and sadness.

Still, all in all, Duk-soo and South Korea made a success of themselves even if there’s a resulting ache from the great wound which has split the nation in two. Much of the story is universal – a father’s love for his family, but Ode to My Father will obviously speak loudest to Koreans who can identify more strongly with the historical context. Yoon has also injected some humorous incidents involving real life Korean historical celebrities which may mystify international viewers even if they’re sign posted well enough that one gets the gist of it anyway.

Unabashedly sentimental and oftentimes overblown, Ode to My Father nevertheless succeeds in tugging at the heartstrings in all the intended ways. A paean to the post war generation and all that they endured in building the modern Korea that their children could live in without fear or hunger, Ode to My Father is in the end far too sugary but also, it has to be said, affecting.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.