Peppermint Candy (박하사탕, Lee Chang-dong, 1999)

Peppermint Candy 4K posterA wise man once said that the tragedy of life is that you have to live it forwards but it can only be understood in reverse. Lee Chang-dong’s second feature, the poignantly titled Peppermint Candy (박하사탕, Bakha Satang), lays bare the wounded innocence of 20th century Korea through the story of one man betrayed by the world in which he lived, eventually destroying himself in a protracted act of self-harm intended as a perverse attempt either at atonement or grudging conformity with a society he could not resist.

Beginning and ending with a picnic, Lee opens in 1999 as a hopelessly drunk Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu) crashes a reunion party he wasn’t technically invited to held to mark 20 years of friendship among former factory workers now approaching middle age. Dressed in a suit which looks somehow wrong on him, Yong-ho hogs the karaoke mic to sing a maudlin song about failed love, dances wildly, and sobs with the crushing hopelessness of a man entirely alone in the world. While his old friends try to reclaim the cheerful atmosphere, he climbs up to a nearby railway bridge where he waits for a train with outstretched arms, screaming “I’m going back” as he prepares to greet it.

Yong-ho does indeed “go back” as the train bears us ceaselessly back into the past, showing us the moments of Yong-ho’s life which struck him like a hammer to the soul and turned him into the defeated figure on the railway bridge, howling into the wind. At 40, Yong-ho is a hollowed out shell of a man, divorced and living in a greenhouse after falling foul of the volatile late ‘90s stock market, subsequently cheated out of all his money and the possibility of a new start by a man he thought was his friend. Given what we later learn about the middle-aged Yong-ho, it’s difficult to believe he had any kind of friends at all, and even if we’re conditioned to pity him as a man already dead he does nothing to earn our sympathy, cheating a poor roadside coffee seller out of a few pennies and then quietly smirking to himself in the safety of his car.

Yet, he begins to soften when a kindly man shows up and tells him that his first love, Sun-im (Moon So-ri) – now apparently this good man’s wife, is close to death and wants to see him one last time never having given up on the man he once was. Given the suit which doesn’t suit him by Sun-Im’s husband so that she won’t realise Yong-ho has made a mess of his life and be upset, Yong-ho stops to pick up a small jar filled with the titular “peppermint candy”, suddenly revealing that perhaps he never quite gave up on that man either and that may be his tragedy.

Before he was an arch capitalist making a few shady bucks in the pre-financial crisis economic boomtown of the newly democratised Korea, Yong-ho was a policeman working for the authoritarian government brutally torturing teenage democracy activists during the dying days of the regime. As a young rookie we see him squeamishly try to resist, only to be pressured into violence and then snap. The suspect fouls Yong-ho’s hand with the kind of smell that never really washes off, but it’s just one more stop on Yong-ho’s journey to spiritual ruination. Finally we reach his breaking point, in Gwangju in 1980, where his soul is forever soiled.

The Gwangju Massacre, in the story of Yong-ho’s life which is also the story of Korea, is the great festering wound which can never be healed. He carries it with him in an intermittent limp that resurfaces at times of emotional difficulty, and convinces himself that he is unworthy of everything good or innocent in the world. He breaks with Sun-im, cruelly betraying her faith in him with a crude gesture that wounds them both equally, mutually understood as a perverse act of kindness. Becoming what he thinks he’s supposed to be, what this society has made him, he wilfully destroys himself in a decades-long act of self harm that leads only back to the train which haunts him throughout all of his encounters, so painfully central to the arc of his life. Literally railroaded by an inexorable fate, Yong-ho lacks the will to resist believing he is no better than the hand he has been dealt but consumed by self-loathing and infinite regret. There is no way back, only forward, but for Yong-ho, and perhaps for Korea, Lee sees only one way out and the soft of heart will not survive it.


Peppermint Candy was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

EXIT (엑시트, Lee Sang-geun, 2019)

Exit poster 2“Hell Joseon” manifests as “toxic gas” in Lee Sang-geun’s Exit (엑시트). Millennial “slackers” losing out in Korea’s increasingly cutthroat economy find themselves consumed by their own sense of failure while those around them only compound the problem by branding them useless, no-good layabouts, writing off the current generation as lazy rather than acknowledging that the society they have created is often cruel and unforgiving. Yet, oftentimes those “useless” skills learned while having fun are more transferable than one might think and the ability to find innovative solutions to complex problems something not often found in the world of hierarchical corporate drudgery.

30-something Yong-nam (Jo Jung-suk) spends his days in the park surrounded by grannies and has earned the nickname “IBM” – Iron Bar Man, for his athletic pursuits. The local kids have even come up with an origin story for him that his girlfriend must have died after falling off one and so now Yong-nam is some kind of “village idiot” with an overwhelming need to master the monkey bars. The truth is, however, that Yong-nam has nothing much of anything else in his life. His continual failures to find employment are an embarrassment to his family, and even his little nephew (Kim Kang-hoon) is so ashamed of him that he routinely blanks Young-nam in the street. With mum’s (Go Doo-shim) 70th coming up, everyone is very keen that Yong-nam look the part and try not to embarrass them.

Yong-nam is also quite invested in not being an embarrassment because the only reason he booked this fancy restaurant that’s a two hour drive away is that he’s heard his university crush Eui-ju (Im Yoon-ah) works there. Back in uni when they were both members of the rock climbing club, Yong-nam asked Eui-ju out but she was only interested in friendship so he started avoiding her out of embarrassment. Not really any more mature, he lies that he’s a high flying hedge fund manager rather than admit that his life has not been going well. Eui-ju, meanwhile, is the vice-manager of this events centre but shrugs the job off as not much better than part-time when in reality she’s really running the place while her sleazy boss (Kang Ki-young) who’s only in the position because it’s his dad’s company constantly sexually harasses her and shows no signs of taking no for an answer.

When toxic gas floods the city, however, the pair are instantly in their element. They know how to conjure makeshift stretchers from stuff that’s lying around and how to try and draw attention to yourself when you’re in need of rescue, but find their ideas dismissed by Yong-nam’s confused, conventional family members well used to ignoring crazy uncle Yong-nam. To survive they’ll have to trust him and his rock climbing prowess as he shins his way to the top of the building where salvation seems more of a possibility.

Crisis aside, Yong-nam lives in a world of constant anxiety where he’s forever receiving disaster alerts on his phone for things he never thought he’d have to worry about, and his mother spends her evenings diligently copying down ways to prevent cancer from TV documentaries. Yong-nam’s dad (Park In-hwan) would rather chill out with some soap operas, but it seems you can’t drown out existential dread with vicarious drama. Having more or less given up, Young-nam hasn’t even been going to his climbing club. After all, if you can’t get a foot on the ladder, what use is the ability to climb? “Our lives are the disaster” Yong-nam’s similarly troubled friend exclaims, but the sudden threat of toxic gas does at least give the dejected young man motivation to prove himself in demonstrating that his skills are useful, even essential, rather than frivolous or eccentric as his family members previously believed them to be.

Eui-ju, meanwhile, is kept in her place by a combination of sexism and the demands a hierarchical society which prevent her from fulfilling her true potential by convincing her that she has to be polite to her odious boss. Teaming up with Young-nam, the pair work as equals and support each other as they try to find ways to survive. No damsel in distress, Eui-ju is finally able to take an active role in her own destiny while also making sure to save other people along the way, often at the expense of the pair’s own chance to escape.

In a loose moment, Yong-nam declares that he’s only applying for jobs in one of the shiny skyscrapers from now on because those guys probably got saved first, but in the end it’s their plucky never say die spirit which saves them, in more ways than one, as their exploits go viral with their millennial brethren who eventually motivate the drone squad to try and keep them safe. There may be no exit from Hell Joseon, but as Yong-nam and Eui-ju discover, you don’t have to listen when people tell you there’s no way out because the only way is up and you won’t know unless you go.


EXIT was screened as the opening night gala of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

New World (신세계, Park Hoon-jung, 2013)

new world posterUndercover cop dramas have a long history of dealing more delicately with the nature of identity than in just a simple good guy/bad guy dichotomy, but New World’s (신세계, Sinsegye) moody noir setting ensures that the lines are always blurred and there may not in fact be any sides to choose from. Directed by Park Hoon-jung, scriptwriter of I Saw the Devil and The Unjust, New World makes plain that there may not be so much difference between a police officer and a gangster when each acts covertly, breaking their own rules and throwing any idea of honour out of the window in favour of self preservation or aggrandisement. In this worldview the victory of selfishness is assured, the law protects no one – not even its own, and the gangster, well, he only protects himself.

When the “CEO” (Lee Kyoung-young) of the Goldmoon “corporation” is killed in a “freak” car accident, his sudden absence creates a power vacuum in which his prime underlings, supported by their respective factions, vie for the top spot. Unbeknownst to them, police chief Kang (Choi Min-sik) has taken an interest in this suddenly instability in the largest crime syndicate in Korea and intends to launch Operation New World to interfere with the succession and ultimately install his longterm undercover agent in the director’s seat.

Lee Ja-sung (Lee Jung-jae) has been undercover for ten years, during which time he’s become the right hand man to one of the contenders to take over in the flashy Jung Chung (Hwang Jung-min). The opposing number, Lee Joong-gu (Park Sung-woong), is unscrupulous and suspicious – he has it in for Ja-sung and sees the succession as his natural right. Ja-sung, for his part, had assumed the death of the Goldmoon CEO would signal the end of his mission, allowing him to go back to his regular cop life. Soon to be a father, he’s tired of his duplicitous lifestyle and burned out on secret keeping but perhaps so long spent among the gangsters means his more natural home is exactly where he is.

This is certainly a duplicitous world. Grizzled police chief Kang may be on a mission to take down an all powerful crime group, but his methods are anything but orthodox. As usual in deep cover stories, only Kang and one other officer know of Ja-sung’s police background (at least, that’s what he wants Ja-sung to think), but Ja-sung may not be the only undercover operative Kang has on his books. Ja-sung is also sick of Kang’s obsessive surveillance which records the entirety of life in painstaking detail listing everywhere he goes and everything he eats, apparently even down to the sex of his unborn child. No one can be trusted, not even those closest to him, as Kang’s all powerful spy network has eyes and ears in every conceivable place.

Ja-sung’s identity crisis is never the focus of the narrative and a brief coda set three years previously may suggest that he’s already made his choice when comes to picking a side, but then the lines are increasingly blurred between good and bad even when the gangsters are seen committing heinous acts of torture and violence, making their enemies drink cement before dumping them in the nearby harbour. Ja-sung’s friendship with Jung Chung may be the most genuine he’s ever had in contrast to his relationship with Kang in which he remains a tool to be used at will and possibly disposed of at a later date.

Park holds the violence off as long as possible, preferring to focus on the internal psycho-drama rather than the bloody cruelty of the gangster world, but eventually violence is all there is and Park lets go with one expertly choreographed car park corridor fight followed by frenetic lift-set finale. The “New World” that the film posits is a dark and frightening one in which it’s dog eat dog and every man for himself with no room for morality or compassion. When the law fails to uphold its own values, others will prevail, for good or ill.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017. Also screening in Sheffield (13th November), Glasgow (18th November) and Belfast (18th November). New World will also be released on DVD/blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment on their new Montage Pictures sub-label.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Petty Romance (쩨쩨한 로맨스, Kim Jung-hoon, 2010)

petty-romanceKorea is quite good at rom-coms. Consequently they make quite a lot of them and as the standard is comparatively high you have to admire the versatility on offer. Korean romantic comedies are, however, also a little more conservative,  coy even, than those from outside of Asia which makes Petty Romance (쩨쩨한 로맨스,  Jjae Jjae Han Romaenseu) something of an exception in its desire to veer in a more risqué direction. He’s too introverted, she’s too aggressive – they need each other to take the edges off, it’s a familiar story but one that works quite well. Petty Romance does not attempt to bring anything new to the usual formula but does make the most of its leads’ well honed chemistry whilst keeping the melodrama to a minimum.

Manhwa artist Jeong Bae (Lee Sun-kyun) is not having much success with his latest project. In fact, his publishing house has been using his submitted drafts as scrap paper. He’s also got a problem in that a gallery owning friend of his late father has been the caretaker of a precious painting left to him in his father’s will but now wants to call in a loan or sell it to get the money back and so Jeong bae is in desperate need of fast cash.

Across town, Da-rim (Choi Kang-hee) has managed to bag a writing gig on her friend’s woman’s magazine but finds herself out of her depth working on a sex advice column when she has no direct experience of love or dating. Given the axe by her friend and living with her moody twin brother to whom she owes money, Da-rim is also in need of something to sink her teeth in to.

When a friend of Bae’s lets him know about a new competition with a $100,000 cash prize it sounds like just what he needs. The only snag is the competition is for “adult” manhwa which has not generally been Bae’s thing. Taking his editor’s advice, Bae decides to work with a writer but most of his interviewees are not exactly what he’s looking for. Da-rim with her “experience” in translation and publishing, as well as her unusual forthrightness concerning the subject matter very much fits the bill.

Kim doesn’t waste much time in getting the two together though their love/hate relationship is a definite slow boil as both Bae and Da-rim spend most of their partnership playing each other to try and get the upper hand. Bae’s trouble, according to his editor, is a talent for action but a failure with narrative – hence the need for a writer. Da-rim, by contrast, has altogether too much imagination coupled with the kind of arrogance which masks insecurity. Having blagged her way into the job, Da-rim spends most of her time ensuring that she’s in a superior position to Bae so that he will have to do most of the work while she enjoys freshly made coffee ordered to distract him from the fact that she has no idea what she’s doing.

Despite coming up with a promising storyline about a sex obsessed female assassin, Da-rim’s naivety is palpable in her attempts to come up with a suitably “adult” atmosphere. Disney-esque scenarios of handsome princes and desert islands, even if spiced up (in the most innocent of ways), isn’t quite striking the tone for the kind of prize winning raunchy manga that the pair are aiming for. Pushed further, Da-rim’s extrapolations from “research” are so unrealistic as to set Bae’s alarm bells ringing but offered with such insistence as to have him momentarily doubt himself.

Kim makes good use of manhwa as a visual device allowing him to include slightly more erotic content than usual in a Korean romantic comedy in an entirely “safe” way. Refreshingly he keeps the usual plot devices to a minimum though there is the “sibling mistaken for lover”, “mistimed job offer,” and “aggressive rival” to contend with, even if the major barriers are entirely centred around the personalities of the protagonists who are each fairly self involved in their own particular ways. Despite making good use of the chemistry generated by previous collaborators Lee Sun-kyun and Choi Kang-hee, Petty Romance lives up to its name in providing enough low-key drama to keep rom-com fans happy but never quite moves beyond the confines of its genre.


Available to stream on Mubi (UK) until 15th March 2017 courtesy of Terracotta Distribution.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Yellow Sea (황해, Na Hong-Jin, 2010)

yellow sea korean posterReview of Na Hong-Jin’s The Yellow Sea (황해, Hwang Hae, AKA The Murderer) – revised form of a piece first published by UK Anime Network in March 2012.


Gu-Nam (Ha Jung-Woo) is a taxi driver with a gambling problem. If the gambling wasn’t enough to get him into trouble, he’s also in debt to some gangsters over the money for his wife’s passage to South Korea. His wife was meant to be sending the money she’d make there back to him and their daughter to help pay off the debt, but no one’s heard from her in months. The obvious assumption is that she’s made a new life for herself and doesn’t want to be found, but Gu-Nam can’t quite bring himself to believe it. As a Joseonjok – a Chinese Korean from the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Gu-Nam had little chance of living an honest and prosperous life. Disowned by both China and Korea, many Joseonjoks are forced to resort to criminality in order to survive.

Just as it seems things are about to hit a crisis point, Gu-Nam receives an interesting job opportunity. Myung-ga (Kim Yun-Seok), the dog seller at the market, suggests Gu-Nam go to South Korea, kill a prominent businessman, look for his wife and return back to China (with the businessman’s thumb for proof). Assuming all goes well, Gu-nam will receive the pin number for an account with 57,000 Yuan, maybe return with his wife in tow or at least find out once and for all what the situation is between them, and finally get these gangsters off his back.

Still, sneaking into South Korea and committing a murder – it’s a big ask, and first off Gu-Nam rejects the idea out of hand but one conversation with his decidedly tough mother later and Gu-Nam has accepted. However, when he gets to Korea he finds things aren’t as simple as Myung-Ga made out. There seems to be a much bigger game in play than Gu-nam bargained for and it’s not long before he’s running from the police, gangsters, and just about everyone else.

If there’s one thing there’s a lot of in this film, it’s running. It’s difficult to think of another film that manages to make a good old fashioned foot chase quite so exciting. The set pieces are astonishing – multi-car pile-ups, police driving into and over each other, an extended chase sequence through a cargo boat – the list goes on, all with Gu-nam running desperately towards the camera. Propelled by pure survival instinct and later an intense need for revenge and an explanation, Gu-nam keeps running no matter what is coming for him.

One of those things is, of course, Myung-ga who’s now got a total mess on his hands that’s threatening to derail all of his current business arrangements (well, except the dog selling – something to fall back on). If there’s another thing there’s a lot of in this film, it’s stabbing (and later axing). Luckily for him, it seems Myung-ga is something of an expert at this as we find out in one scene where we see him, badly wounded, enter a room full of angry gangsters – the camera cuts away and we return to find all of the gangsters seemingly dead with very little fuss. He even tries to kill someone with a lamb bone at one point! Myung-ga is certainly not someone one would want to be meeting on a dark night (or ever buy a dog from). He is though, one of the most compelling film villains of recent years.

Speaking of stabbings, The Yellow Sea is a very violent and extremely bloody film. If you’re well versed in Korean crime dramas, you might be aware that South Korea has very tight gun laws, so much so that not even the toughest gangsters carry guns. Consequently what you have here is a lot of people sneaking around trying to get the drop on each other to stick the knife (or occasionally, hatchet) in. Obviously, it’s much quieter than gunfire but also much messier and much more physical. The only guns in the film are those which belong to the police, who are largely depicted as bumbling idiots who can’t tell one end of a gun from the other.

This Bounty Films release (distributed by Eureka in the UK) is the shorter 140 minute ‘Director’s Cut’. There is, however, some controversy about whether it really is a director’s cut or an international version prepared by the film’s co-producers Fox International. For the record, it runs about sixteen minutes shorter than the version seen in Korea. Despite being the shorter version, The Yellow River does still feel a little long at times and really pushes the ideal running time for a thriller of this kind. Nevertheless it does manage to keep the momentum going throughout and even has a streak of morbid humour running right through it.

A sad meditation on the futility of life, particularly for those who find themselves at the bottom of the pile and are forced to scrap like dogs for the little other people have left behind, The Yellow Sea is an exciting addition to the recent wave of Korean crime thrillers. Following on from his impressive debut The Chaser, The Yellow Sea certainly catapults director Na Hong-jin right into the top tier of Korean cinema.


The Yellow Sea is available on DVD and blu-ray from Eureka in the UK and on DVD from 20th Century Fox in the US.