Kingmaker (킹메이커, Byun Sung-hyun, 2022)

It’s the political paradox. You can’t do anything without getting elected but to get elected you might have to abandon whatever it was you wanted to do in the first place. Loosely based on the real life figures of Kim Dae-jung and his political strategist Eom Chang-rok, the heroes of Byun Sung-hyun’s Kingmaker (킹메이커) are obsessed with the question of whether the ends justify the means and if it’s possible to maintain integrity in politics when the game itself is crooked while the film suggests that in the end you will have to live with your choices and your compromises either way and if it’s a better world you want to build perhaps you can’t get there by cheating your way to paradise.

The son of a North Korean migrant, Seo Chang-dae (Lee Sun-kyun) is an embittered and frustrated pharmacist with a talent for spin. When his friend complains about a neighbour stealing his eggs from his chicken coop and denying all knowledge because he’s well connected and knows he can get away with it, Chang-dae’s advice is to plant one of his own chickens in the other guy’s coop and catch him red handed. Impressed by the impassioned political speechmaking of labour activist Kim Woon-bum (Sol Kyung-gu), he writes him a letter offering his services and then marches down to his office to convince him that he is the guy to break his losing streak and finally get him elected so they can “change the damned world”. 

The problem is that all of Chang-dae’s ideas are like the chicken scam, built on the manipulation of the truth, but you can’t deny that they work. He plays the other side, the increasingly authoritarian regime of Park Chung-hee, at their own game, getting some of their guys to dress up as the opposing party and then set about offending a bunch of farmers by being generally condescending and entitled. They stage fights and perform thuggish violence to leave the impression that Park’s guys are oppressive fascists while asking for the “gifts” the Park regime had given out to curry favour back to further infuriate potential voters. Later some of their own guys turn up with the same gifts to send the message that they’re making up for all Park’s mistakes. At one point, Chang-dae even suggests staging an attack on Woon-bum’s person to gain voter sympathy, an idea which is met with total disdain by Woon-bum and his team many of whom are at least conflicted with Chang-dae’s underhanded tactics. 

But then as he points out, if they want to create a better, freer Korea in which people can speak their minds without fear then they have to get elected first. It may be naive to assume that you can behave like this and then give it all up when finally in office, but Chang-dae at least is committed to the idea that the ends justify the means. Woon-bum meanwhile is worried that Chang-dae has lost sight of what the ends are and is solely focussed on winning at any cost. He has an opposing number in slimy intelligence agent Lee (Jo Woo-Jin) who serves Park in much the same way Chang-dae serves Woon-bum, but Chang-dae fatally misunderstands him, failing to appreciate that for Lee Park’s “revolution” is also a just cause for which he is fighting just as Chang-dae is fighting for freedom and democracy. In an uncomfortable touch, Lee seems to be coded as gay with his slightly effeminate manner and tendency towards intimate physical contact adding an additional layer to his gradual seduction of Chang-dae whose friendship with Woon-bum also has its homoerotoic qualities in its quiet intensity. 

The final dilemma lies in asking whether or not Woon-bum could have won the pivotal election of 1971, preventing Park from further altering the constitution to cement his dictatorship and eventually declaring himself president for life, if he had not parted ways with Chang-dae and tried to win more “honestly”. If so, would they have set Korea on a path towards the better world they envisaged or would they have proved little different, their integrity already compromised by everything they did to get there poisoning their vision for the future? The fact that history repeats itself, Woon-bum and his former rival Young-ho (Yoo Jae-myung) splitting the vote during the first “democratic” presidential election and allowing Chun Doo-hwan’s chosen successor to win, perhaps suggests the latter. In any case, it’s Chang-dae who has to live with his choices in having betrayed himself, as Woon-bum had feared too obsessed with winning to remember why he was playing in the first place. “All my ideas about justice were brought down by my own hand” he’s forced to admit, left only with self-loathing defeat in his supposed victory. Some things don’t change, there is intrigue in the court, but “putting ambition before integrity will get you nowhere” as Chang-dae learns to his cost. 


Kingmaker screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

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)

A Hard Day (끝까지 간다, Kim Sung-hoon, 2014)

2014 - A Hard Day (still 2)In an unprecedented level of activity, here is another review up on UK-anime.net – this time Korean black comedy crime thriller, A Hard Day (끝까지 간다, Kkeutkkaji Ganda) which was shown at the London Film Festival and the London Korean Film Festival and is now out on DVD from Studio Canal.


For most people, a “hard day” probably means things like not being able to find a parking space, missing your train, the office coffee machine being broken and your boss having a mental breakdown right on the office floor but for not-totally-honest-but-sort-of-OK Seoul policeman Gun-su “hard” doesn’t quite begin to cover it.

Gun-su is driving furiously and arguing with his wife on the phone because he’s skipped out on his own mother’s funeral to rush to “an important work matter” which just happens to be that he has the only key to a drawer which contains some dodgy stuff it would have been better for internal affairs not to find – and internal affairs are on their way to have a look right now. So pre-occupied with the funeral, probable career ending misery and the possibility of dropping his fellow squad members right in it, Gun-su is driving way too fast. Consequently he hits something which turns out to be man. Totally stressed out by this point, Gun-su does the most sensible thing possible and puts the body in the boot of his car and continues on to the police station. Just when he thinks he’s finally gotten away with these very difficult circumstances, things only get worse as the guy the he knocked over turns out to be the wanted felon his now disgraced team have been assigned to track down. Oh, and then it turns out somebody saw him take the body too and is keen on a spot of blackmail. Really, you couldn’t make it up!

Some might say the Korean crime thriller format is all played out by this point, but what A Hard Day brings to the genre is a slice of totally black humour that you rarely see these days. Gun-su is obviously not an honest guy, but he’s not a criminal mastermind either and his fairly haphazard way of finding interesting solutions to serious problems is a joy to watch. This isn’t the first film where someone happens on the idea of hiding a body in a coffin, but it might be the first where said person uses a set of yellow balloons to block a security camera, his daughter’s remote control soldier to pull a body through an air conditioning duct and his shoelaces to prize the wooden nails out of his own mother’s coffin to safely deposit an inconvenient corpse inside. Gun-su (mostly) manages to stay one step ahead of whatever’s coming for him, albeit almost by accident and with Clouseau like ability to emerge unscathed from every deadly scrape. He’s definitely only slightly on the right side of the law but still you can’t help willing him on in his ever more dastardly deeds as he tries to outwit his mysterious opponent.

Though it does run a little long, refreshingly the plot remains fairly tight though it is literally one thing after another for poor old Gun-su. A blackly comic police thriller, A Hard Day isn’t claiming to be anything other than a genre piece but it does what it does with a healthy degree of style and confidence. The action scenes are well done and often fairly spectacular but they never dominate the film, taking a back seat to some cleverly crafted character dynamics. Frequent Hong Sang-soo collaborator Lee Sung-kyun excels as the slippery Gun-su whose chief weapon is his utter desperation while his nemesis, played by Cho Jing-woong, turns in an appropriately menacing turn as a seemingly omniscient master criminal.

Yes, A Hard Day contains a number of standard genre tropes that some may call clichés, but it uses them with such finesse that impossible not to be entertained by them. Bumbling, corrupt policemen come up against unstoppable criminals only to find their detective bones reactivating at exactly the wrong moment and threatening to make everything ten times worse while the situation snowballs all around them. However, A Hard Day also has its cheeky and subversive side and ends on a brilliantly a-moralistic note that one doesn’t normally associate with Korean cinema in particular. It may not be the most original of films, but A Hard Day is heaps of morbidly comic fun!