Steel Rain (강철비, Yang Woo-suk, 2017)

Steel Rain posterA little way in to Steel Rain (강철비, Gangchulbi), one of its heroes – a Blue House official, gives a pointed lecture on Korea’s past to some students of Geopolitical History. Fiercely critical of Korea’s previous subjugation by Japan, he laments that his nation was not able to free itself from the Japanese yoke and was awarded its freedom with the end of a wider political conflict which saw the Japanese “empire” collapse. According to Kwak Cheol-u, Korea has never quite lost its cultural admiration for its former colonisers which is why its most prominent corporations – Samsung, Haeundae etc, are all direct competitors with similar Japanese firms (and are only now pushing past them in terms of global market penetration and technological innovation).

Switching tack, he wonders why it is that Japan lost a war and Korea got cut in two by two new “colonising” forces. In his oft observed mantra, Kwak (Kwak Do-won) insists that the citizens of a divided nation suffer more from those who seek to manipulate the division for their own ends than they do from the division itself, which is where we find ourselves in the contemporary era of my button’s bigger than his button in which “capitalist pig dogs” face off against “dirty commies”. Adapting his own webcomic, Yang’s action thriller is among the most recent in a long line of North/South buddy movies and even if its cold-war paranoia feels distinctly old hat, it just goes to prove that everything old is new again.

Eom Cheol-u (Jung Woo-sung), a former North Korean special forces agent, is called back into the fold by his old commander for a very special mission. Tensions are about to boil over in the perpetually precarious state and the Dear Leader’s life is under threat from a suspected coup. Eom is to silence one of the conspirators in return for which he will be given elite status and his family will be well looked after. Unfortunately, the mission does not go to plan and Eom ends up witnessing a missile strike on a welcome meeting at a Chinese managed factory in which the (mostly young and female) employees are murdered in cold blood. Managing to escape with the Dear Leader himself who is seriously wounded, Eom travels over the border along with two young girls. From this point on he’s in conspiracy thriller territory trying to work out just what’s going on and who he can really trust.

The symbolism is rammed home by the fact that our two heroes, Kwak and Eom, have the same first name – Cheol-u, only one uses the characters for “strong friendship” and the other “bright world”. Taken together they paint a pretty picture, brothers in arms despite the political difficulties which place them on differing sides of an arbitrary line drawn up by a foreign power without much consideration for those divided by it. As in many North/South buddy movies of recent times, the North Korean agent displays the best qualities of his nation in his essential “goodness” – a caring husband and father, he executes his mission with maximum efficiency but bears no ill will towards those outside of it and is keen to protect the people of North Korea from almost certain doom should a nuclear war break out between the two peoples. Kwak, by contrast, is more of a schemer whose moral universe is much less black and white. A fluent Mandarin speaker he’s in tight with a North Korean official who keeps trying to talk him into taking a research post at a Chinese university while his family life is somewhat complicated thanks to a divorce from his plastic surgeon wife.

Meanwhile, the film is at pains to point out that Korea became the focus point of the first East/West proxy war and, in Kwak’s view at least, remains insufficiently important in the eyes of its “allies” to merit much direct consideration. Thus our boardroom squabbles are often reduced to the looming face of the American President “advising” the Korean officials on the best course of action while others worry about what Japan is going to think and wonder if the US secretly values the opinion of the Japanese more than the Koreans on the ground. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the government is in a transitionary phase in which a new president has been elected but not sworn in. The crisis may well play out entirely within the old president’s final hours which means that diplomatically he has little to lose and as he is a conservative, might as well milk the situation for all it’s worth. In short, he’s as keen to ruffle diplomatic feathers and bring the situation to a head as everyone else is and war looks more likely than not. The central message is that, as Kwak is fond of implying, governments care little for their people or that millions may die when idea of division is so easily manipulated, especially if it’s not “their” people who will be doing the dying.

Not for nothing is the new president seen reading copy of Willy Brandt’s book on successful reunification, even if he begs his outgoing predecessor to consider the economic impact of any possible change in relations with a Northern neighbour. The North Korean official also warns that China is not keen on the idea of a war seeing as that will necessarily mean an influx of North Korean refugees no one wants to take responsibility for. The cold war may be about to turn hot, but the heroics that cool it down turn out to be of a much less gung-ho nature than might be expected, relying on personal sacrifice and a perhaps outdated code of honour. Nevertheless, the crisis is averted not through macho posturing but through “diplomatic channels” and a careful balancing of powers. Perhaps not so farfetched after all.


Streaming worldwide via Netflix.

Steel Rain will also receive its international festival premiere as the opening night gala of the Udine Far East Film Festival on 20th April.

Far East Film Festival trailer (no 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)

Master (마스터, Cho Ui-seok, 2016)

master posterCorruption has become a major theme in Korean cinema. Perhaps understandably given current events, but you’ll have to look hard to find anyone occupying a high level corporate, political, or judicial position who can be counted worthy of public trust in any Korean film from the democratic era. Cho Ui-seok’s Master (마스터) goes further than most in building its case higher and harder as its sleazy, heartless, conman of an antagonist casts himself onto the world stage as some kind of international megastar promising riches to the poor all the while planning to deprive them of what little they have. The forces which oppose him, cerebral cops from the financial fraud devision, may be committed to exposing his criminality but they aren’t above playing his game to do it.

“Entrepreneur” Jin Hyun-pil (Lee Byung-hun), CEO of the One Network financial organisation which is about to make an unprecedented move into investment banking, is in the middle of an energising speech to his investors. He’s booked a massive stadium with lighting and stage effects worthy of a veteran rock star and is doing his best snake oil speech to convince the ordinary people who’ve invested their life savings in his obviously dodgy pyramid scheme that he’s going to make banking great again by handing ownership back to the masses. Many are convinced by his inspirational attitude, but Captain Kim Jae-myung (Gang Dong-won) of the financial crimes division smells a rat. He knows there’s something very wrong here and is determined to bring Jin down before his exploits ruin the lives of even more innocent families just trying to make a better life for themselves.

Their way in is through Jin’s systems guy, Park (Kim Woo-bin), who’s been in on the scam from the beginning but is pretty much amoral and has been working his own angle on the whole thing. Spineless and opportunistic, Park is primed for police manipulation even if it takes him a few flip-flops before he picks any kind of side aside from his own. Kim is after Jin’s mysterious ledger which contains a host of information on his backers which would cause considerable damage to those involved and give the police the kind of leverage they need to expose Jin’s enterprise for what it really is. However, before they can spring the trap, Jin escapes with his ill gotten gains and goes into hiding leaving hundreds of innocent families who’ve fallen victim to his scams destitute, frightened, and humiliated.

Playing against type, Lee Byun-hun inhabits his sleazy, TV evangelist meets cult leader of a villainous conman with relish as he lies, cheats, steals and weasels his way out of trouble. After a potential liability is killed, Jin enjoys his crimson morning smoothie with unusual delight leaving a bright red bloodstain across his upper lip as he ironically mutters “what a shame” watching the news footage of his flunky’s death. Not content with the vast amount of money he stole by exploiting the innocent dreams of people with little else, Jin tries the same thing again abroad, taking his “wife” Mama (Jin Kyung) with him though even she seems to know Jin is not to be trusted and could turn on her at any moment. Cornered, the only words of wisdom Jin has to offer is that perhaps he made a mistake in trying to run to the Philippines, he should have tried Thailand instead.

Starring three of South Korea’s biggest actors, Lee Byun-hun, Gang Dong-won, and Kim Woo-bin, Master takes on an almost tripartite structure as the upper hand passes between the three protagonists. Systems analyst Park is mostly out for himself and switches between each side more times than can be counted before gaining something like a conscience and committing to a particular cause while Kim and Jin mastermind a cat and mouse game advancing and retreating yet stepping further into each other’s territory. The game is an ugly one. Master is a fitting and timely indictment of those who make impossible promises to vulnerable people desperate enough to take the bait in the hope of making a better life for themselves and their families, yet it also fails to capitalise on its themes, preferring to leave them as subtle background elements to the cerebral games of one-upmanship and fractured loyalties between Jin, Kim, and Park. Over long at 143 minutes, Master is unevenly paced yet picks up for its Manila set, action packed finale which is out of keeping with much of what has gone before but ends things on an entertaining, upbeat note as justice is served, wrongs righted, and the truth revealed.


Master was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Familyhood (굿바이 싱글, Kim Tae-gon, 2016)

familyhoodThere are three kinds of actors – those who wait for roles, those who choose roles, and those who make roles for themselves. Ageing actress Go Ju-yeon (Kim Hye-soo) claims to be the third type, but at any rate she’s currently between gigs and facing professional scandals and personal crises from each and every direction. An unusual family drama, Familyhood (굿바이 싱글, Gotbai Singkeul, AKA Goodbye Single) is the coming of age story of a middle aged woman finally forced into adulthood through an unlikely friendship with a pregnant teenage girl.

A veteran TV star of over twenty years, Go Ju-yeon is perhaps better known for her scandalous relationships with younger men than her onscreen performance. Having worked hard to get where she is, perhaps Ju-yeon is entitled to play the diva, but her “difficult” personality alienates all but her most loyal staff. However, there’s one thing Ju-yeon has been missing – a traditional family life with a loving husband and children. She thinks her latest boyfriend, Ji-hoon (Kwak Si-yang),  a fellow TV star twelve years her junior, may the “the one”, but as it turns out he’s a no good two timing louse using her for her money and star status.

Heartbroken Ju-yeon swears off men forever and decides to buy herself a slice of unconditional love by becoming a mother. Turned down for an adoption because of her obvious unsuitability as evidenced by her appearances in the tabloids and by the fact that she just made this decision a few seconds ago, Ju-yeon figures it’s worth the nine month waiting period to do things the old fashioned way. Unfortunately she’s left it too late as a doctor’s appointment reveals she’s already heading into the menopause. Ju-yeon’s luck changes when she comes to the rescue of a teenage mother in the lift when a more conservative family decides it’s OK to lay into a vulnerable child they don’t even know.

Ju-yeon hits on an idea – buy the girl’s baby and raise it as her own. Dan-ji (Kim Hyun-soo) is an orphan living with her tough as nails older sister so it doesn’t take her long to agree to Ju-yeon’s suggestion even if she has her misgivings. Coming with her own contract prepared detailing her monetary compensation, Dan-ji has given this a lot more thought than the mother in waiting Ju-yeon but a sisterly bond eventually begins to develop between the two women despite the clear instruction to avoid getting attached. However, as Dan-ji’s presence begins to reinvigorate her fortunes, Ju-yeon begins to forget about her original career/romance replacer mission and has less and less time for the surrogate teenage daughter she irresponsibly promised to take care of.

Having lost her mother at a young age and spent all of her adult life in the pampered showbiz arena, Ju-yeon is a forty year old awkward woman child with a severe case of tunnel vision. As Dan-ji points out, Ju-yeon is a pure hearted sort but she’s also selfish and immature, jumping from one thing to the next and never stopping to consider the effect of her actions on those around her. Ju-yeon’s decision to become a mother is a similarly rash and selfish one as she only considers the upside of the boundless love she’s about to receive from this tiny bundle who is duty bound to love her, whilst failing to think about the practicalities of child rearing from the impact on her career and social life to the negative publicity she will receive as a single mother in a still relatively conservative society.

It’s these kinds of double standards which the film seems to want to lay bare as Ju-yeon attempts to come to the rescue of Dan-ji, albeit for selfish motives. Dan-ji, planning to get an abortion, has told no one other than her best friend about the pregnancy and is worried about the school finding out, not least because she is their representative at an inter school art contest. The boy who fathered her child had the temerity to ask if it was his before stealing a ring belonging to his mother to pay for an abortion. He is now off on an international golfing trip representing the country, but Dan-ji is imprisoned, kept out of sight so that Ju-yeon can claim the child is hers. Ju-yeon and Dan-ji first meet when Ju-yeon takes a smug family to task over their decision to loudly criticise Ju-yeon for her “immoral” ways in a hospital lift. After a long journey Ju-yeon will do the same again, only more loudly and even help to win over a few supporters from the collection of conservative mothers waiting for their kids after the art contest.

Kim creates a cosy world filled with calming pastel colours almost as if Ju-yeon really does live in a nursery. Ju-yeon wants to be a mother but still needs mothering herself and mostly gets it from her best friend and stylist Pyung-gu (Ma Dong-seok). Despite vowing to look after Dan-ji at least until her baby is born, it’s Dan-ji who mostly ends up looking after Ju-yeon, providing comfort and comparatively grown up advice whilst Ju-yeon mopes and eats ice-cream. Only when her schemes backfire and Ju-yeon faces losing everything does she finally begin to realise how she’s taken the people in her life for granted. What emerges is a new kind of family in which good friends enjoy food together because they want to eat rather than because someone insisted on cooking. Taking in everything from the ageist sexism of the entertainment industry to teenage pregnancy and neglected children, Kim Tae-gon’s Familyhood is a smart, socially conscious comedy making a heartfelt plea for a more understanding world.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)