The Foul King (반칙왕, Kim Jee-woon, 2000)

A dejected office worker seeks release from a mundane life of constant degradation as a masked wrestler but finds himself ultimately unable to escape the headlock of the corporate society in Kim Jee-woon’s pro wrestling farce The Foul King (반칙왕, Banchikwang). As the title may suggest, you might have to play a little dirty in order to claw back some dignity but then perhaps everyone’s struggling to free themselves from something be it old debts, middle-aged disappointment, or complicity with the dubious business practices of turn of the century capitalism. 

Even before he enters the ring, Dae-ho (Song Kang-ho) is wrestling, fighting his way onto and out of a packed rush hour train only to arrive at work a few minutes late to be given a passive aggressive dressing down from his boss (Song Young-chang) during the morning pep talk. His boss then in absurd fashion corners him in the gents and places him in a headlock while telling him off some more just to ram the message home. Poor Dae-ho finds this so humiliating that all he really thinks of is a short term solution of learning how to evade his boss’ control while mooning over his attractive desk mate Miss Jo and further berating himself for being too shy to ask her out. His other problem is that he’s not very good at his job as a low-level bank cashier. He and his work friend Doo-sik (Jung Woong-in) are bottom in the office rankings for failing to secure any new accounts.

Trapped between his abusive boss and dismissive father (Shin Goo) with whom he still lives, Dae-ho finds himself both emasculated and infantilised while continuing to indulge childhood fantasies drifting off into a dream sequence in which he is Elvis in the wrestling ring trying to impress Miss Jo but still defeated by his giant bug of a boss. He first turns to a friend who teaches Taekwondo to children but he tells him Taekwondo is a “mental discipline” while a real martial artist would never end up in a headlock anyway. But then as if by magic he wanders past a moribund wrestling gym and ventures inside only for the coach, Jang (Jang Jin-young), to throw him out for being a bit odd. Threatened by a gangster into training up a comic relief character specialising in cheating to bolster the profile of another wrestler, Yubiho (Kim Su-ro), hoping to drum up publicity for a Japan tour, Jang relents remembering Dae-ho’s manic rank about his love for classic heel Ultra Tiger Mask as seen on TV decades earlier. 

Being a heel is not quite what Dae-ho had in mind, after all what he wants is to figure out how to escape a headlock yet he finds himself bizarrely in his element if a little clumsily rejoicing in moustache twirling villainy, cartoonish pranks, and comic pratfalls. He begins to grow in confidence but also overreaches, managing to teach a gang of youths (amusingly standing under a huge mural ironically reading “Korea! Fighting!”) a lesson and redeeming his sense of masculine pride after a defeat while making a total drunken fool of himself in his unrequited love for Miss Jo at the office karaoke party once again getting pummelled by his boss. While Dae-ho turns to wrestling in search of freedom and personal fulfilment, Doo-sik tries to regain his self-respect by doing the right thing refusing to be a part of his boss’ obviously dodgy business practices while threatening to blow the whistle if like Dae-ho perhaps realising that there is no way to beat this system while remaining inside it. 

Dae-ho discovers that he gains confidence by putting on a mask, specially the Ultra Tiger Mask worn by his childhood hero, while “winning” in the ring through “cheating” getting audience laughs with zany cartoon stunts. Only when the mask is torn by an unnecessarily aggressive Yubiho does he enter full on rage mode attempting to take revenge for his constant belittlement by ignoring the script to teach Yubiho a lesson as the pair of them brawl all over the stadium making weapons of random chairs and even at one point the session bell itself. Yet in a real sense Dae-ho never really achieves much of anything, scoring a symbolic victory in provoking a tie but never figuring out how to escape the corporate headlock while continuing to be bullied by his boss, rendered entirely powerless within the hierarchal corporatised society of early 2000s Korea. A darkly comic take on existential futility, Foul King meditates on the compromises inherent in playing the game Dae-ho ironically finding confidence in wilful humiliation as a dishonourable heel while unable to escape his constant degradation wrestling for agency within the confines of his regular office worker life. 


The Foul King streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Crazy Romance (가장 보통의 연애, Kim Han-gyeol, 2019)

Can you find love in a crazy world? According to Crazy Romance (가장 보통의 연애, Gajang Botong-ui Yeonae), yes and then again no. The Korean title translates as something like the most ordinary of romances, which, considering what we’re about to see, is in someways quite depressing. Achingly contemporary in its Ephron-esque air of sophistication, Crazy Romance nevertheless lays bare the costs to both men and women of living in a rabidly patriarchal, misogynistic society.

Our heroine, Sun-young (Gong Hyo-jin), has just joined a small advertising company in what many seem to feel is an unexpected step down in her career. At the awkward welcome drinks she’s asked a series of inappropriate, sexist questions, but her claims of not currently having a boyfriend are quickly disproved when a young man barges into the restaurant with flowers and abruptly proposes to her. It seems, Sun-young had attempted to break up with him that very morning, but he refused to listen and has now caused embarrassment at her job (which he expects her to quit anyway because they’ll be getting married). Meanwhile, Jae-hoon (Kim Rae-won) wasn’t really paying attention because he’s had too much to drink and is obsessively texting his ex who hasn’t replied in months. 

Jae-hoon’s alcoholism doesn’t seem to have affected his work, but has become a talking point around the office. The day after the party we see him wake up on the floor of his apartment surrounded by the detritus of drinking including, for some reason, several bags of corn on the cob, not to mention a cat which is apparently not his but might as well be now. Ever since his engagement ended, he’s been unable to move on, getting blackout drunk nearly every night and texting his ex who resolutely ignores him (not that you can blame her).

We can immediately see that there is not much difference in practical terms between Sun-young’s abusive ex Dong-hwa (Ji Il-joo) and Jae-hoon who is being positioned as the unfairly maligned nice guy, derided for his maudlin romanticism in being unable to forget his past love even though, as we alter discover, he broke off the engagement because she cheated on him while he was busy working hard for their future, neglecting their relationship as he fulfilled what he saw as his male responsibility to provide financial stability. Jae-hoon does, however, leave it at drunk texting and while privately resenting the fact she never replies, does not become dangerously obsessive, belligerent, or threatening as Dong-hwa later does in refusing to accept that Sun-young has ended their relationship. Nevertheless, witnessing their intense encounter in the car park and perhaps projecting, Jae-hoon tells Sun-young that he feels she’s been unfair to Dong-hwa who is after all “trying very hard” while implying that it’s romantic disappointment that has led to the apparent downgrade in her career prospects in the wake of derailed marriage plans. 

Jae-hoon’s embittered tone might suggest he’s mildly intimidated by Sun-young’s previously successful track record, but it is in a manner of speaking romantic disappointment which has done for her career in that Sun-young is now incredibly sick of having to deal with misogynistic workplace practices and persistent sexual harassment. Finding out the truth, Jae-hoon is outraged on her behalf but contributes to an ironic kind of victim blaming in berating her for not defending herself, as if she had the same right of recourse as he would have in her situation which of course she does not. As they bond in a shared sense of romantic disillusionment, the other team members start to turn against Sun-young, branding her a workplace hussy, while she in turn points out the hypocrisy of their interoffice gossip where everyone has a secret nickname from an employee everyone assumes is gay but is afraid to come out (he might have good reason, judging by his colleagues’ snide comments), to a female office worker’s decades-long unrequited love for their now married boss who is frequently derided for being thoroughly henpecked which is why he forces them into unnecessary company bonding sessions so he won’t have to go home and spend time with his family. 

The problem is that romance, or at least being vulnerable, is still embarrassing even in your 30s which is why everyone has to at least pretend to be drunk to pursue it. Both Jae-hoon and Sun-young are offered extremely problematic dating advice which effectively normalises abusive behaviour, childishly incapable of any kind of emotional honestly as they awkwardly spar with each other while their exes hover in the background. Sun-young tries to take Jae-hoon to task for his hypocrisy, pointing out that he thinks of himself as “better” than all the other useless men, but ultimately the film more or less agrees with him even if clear that he’s still a product of a misogynistic society and extremely self-centred while also genuinely nice as proved when we realise how he ended up with all that random corn. While he is maudlin and romantic, Sun-young is (understandably) cynical, but her spiky aggressiveness finds far less favour even if she is perhaps the one finally in charge of the direction of their relationship. Nevertheless, Crazy Romance cannot help but reinforce contemporary conservative social codes even as it critiques them, insisting that ordinary love is in itself crazy because the world is mad.


Crazy Romance is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Prison (프리즌, Na Hyun, 2017)

prison poster bigPrison can be a paradise if you’re doing it right, at least if you’re a top gangster in the movies. Na Hyun’s The Prison (프리즌) paints an interesting picture of incarceration and the way it links into his nation’s infinitely corrupt power structures. When investigators wonder why a crime spree suddenly came to an end, one of the frequently offered explanations is that the perpetrator was most likely arrested for another crime but what if you could turn this obviously solid alibi to your advantage and get those already behind bars to do your dirty work for you?

Disgraced policeman Song Yoo-gun (Kim Rae-Won) has wound up imprisoned alongside several of the men he himself helped put away. Like many cops who suddenly find themselves on the other side of the bars, Yoo-gun’s life is not easy. Badly beaten, tortured, and threatened with amputation Yoo-gun eventually starts fighting back and seizes the most likely path to prison survival – allying himself with the inside’s big guy, Jung Ik-ho (Han Suk-Kyu). Ik-ho, a notorious gangster famous for eating the eyeballs of his enemies, is the one who’s really in charge around here, not least because he’s the one running the gang of prison based hitmen trotted out to take care of the bad guys’ hit list.

What starts out as an intriguing idea quickly descends into predictability as Yoo-gun and Ik-ho face off against each other, finding common ground and camaraderie but ultimately existing on the plains of good and evil. Yoo-gun has his own reasons for landing himself in prison but his policeman’s heart still loves truth and justice even if he’s forced to become a prisoner whilst in prison. While he goes along with Ik-ho’s crimes, joining in the violence and intimidation he practices, he also wants to take Ik-ho down even if it means becoming him in the process.

While the interplay between the two men forms the central axis of the film as they develop an odd kind of grudging friendship which may still end on the point of a knife at any moment, Na tries his best to recreate the world of the grim ‘80s action thriller. Technically speaking, The Prison is set in the ‘90s (not that viewers outside of Korea would notice aside from the external lack of mobile phones, computers, internet etc) but wants to be the kind of tough, bruisy, fight heavy action movie they don’t make any more in which a righteous hero defeats a large-scale conspiracy by jump kicking hoodlums. He almost succeeds in this aim, but never quite manages to anchor the ongoing background conspiracy elements with the intense pugilism of the prison environment.

Yoo-gun and Ik-ho are obviously a special case but aside from their efforts, prison life in Korea is not too bad – the guards are OK, the warden is ineffectual, and the inmates are running the show. Nevertheless the prison is the centre of the conspiracy as elite bad guys take advantage of put upon poor ones who’ve found themselves thrown inside thanks to ongoing social inequality, trading cushy conditions to guys who’re never getting out in return for committing state sponsored crimes. Needless to say, someone is trying to expose the conspiracy which would be very bad news for everyone but rubbing them out might prove counter productive in the extreme.

Na lets the in-house shenanigans drag on far too long, pitching fight after fight but failing to make any of his punches land with the satisfaction they seem to expect. Flirting with the interplay between Yoo-gun and Ik-ho in wondering how far Yoo-gun is prepared to go or whether he is destined to become his criminal mentor rather than destroy him, Na never fully engages with the central idea preferring to focus on the action at the expense of character, psychology, or the corruption which underlines the rest of the film. Nevertheless The Prison does have the requisite levels of high-octane fights and impressive set pieces including the fiery if predictable prison riot finale. Life behind bars isn’t all it’s cracked up to be after all, the corrupt elites of Korea will have to actually pay people to off their enemies. Predictable and poorly paced, The Prison is best when it sticks to throwing punches but might be more fun if it placed them a little better.


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

International trailer (English subtitles)

Veteran (베테랑, Ryoo Seung-wan, 2015)

1439210220_베테랑1Review of Ryoo Seung-wan’s Veteran (베테랑) – first published on UK Anime Network.


One of the top Korean box office hits of 2015, Ryoo Seung-wan’s Veteran is a glorious throw back to the uncomplicated days of ‘80s buddy cop crime comedy thrillers. A little less than subtle in its social commentary, Veteran nevertheless takes aim at corrupt corporate culture and the second generation rich kids who inherit daddy’s company but are filled with an apathetic, bored arrogance that is mostly their own.

Seo Do-cheol (Hwang Jung-min) is, as one other officer puts it, the kind of police officer who joined the force just to beat people up. He loves to fight and isn’t afraid of initiating a little “resisting arrest” action just to make things run a little more smoothly. However, when he strikes up a friendship with a put upon truck driver and his cute as a button son only to miss a crucial telephone call that eventually lands said truck driver in the hospital, Do-cheol’s sense of social justice is inflamed. After trying to join a trade union, Bae, the truck driver, is unceremoniously let go from his company. On taking his complaint directly to the head of Sin Jin Trading, play boy rich kid Tae-oh, Bae is subjected to the most cruel and humiliating “interview” of his life before apparently attempting to commit suicide after having realised the utter hopelessness of his situation. Incensed on his new friend’s behalf, Do-cheol is determined to take down these arrogant corporatists what ever the costs may be!

Veteran makes no secret of its retro roots. It even opens with a joyously fun sequence set to Blondie’s 1979 disco hit, Heart of Glass. Like those classic ‘80s movies, Veteran manages to mix in a background level of mischievous comedy which adds to the overall feeling of effortless cool that fills the film even when things look as if they might be about to take a darker turn. The action sequences are each exquisitely choreographed and filled with sight gags as the fight crazy Do-cheol turns just about any random object that appears to be close to hand into an improbable weapon.

Make no mistake about it either, this is a fight heavy film. Though Veteran has a very masculine feeling, it is to some degree evened out by the supreme Miss Bong whose high class high kicks can take out even the toughest opponents and seem to have most of her teammates looking on in awe, and the withering gaze of Do-cheol’s put upon wife who seems determined to remind him that he’s not some delinquent punk anymore but a respectable police officer with a wife and child who could benefit from a little more consideration.

Indeed, Tae-oh and his henchmen aren’t above going after policemen’s wives in an effort to get them to back off. Though this initial overture begins with an attempt at straightforward bribery (brilliantly dealt with by  Mrs. Seo who proves more than a match more the arrogant lackeys), there is a hint of future violence if the situation is not resolved. Tae-oh is a spoiled, psychopathic rich kid who lacks any kind of empathy for any other living thing and actively lives to inflict pain on others in order to breathe his own superiority. Probably he’s got issues galore following in his successful father’s footsteps and essentially having not much else to do but here he’s just an evil bastard who delights in torturing poor folk and thinks he can do whatever he likes just because he has money (and as far as the film would have it he is not wrong in that assumption).

He also loves to fight and finally meets his match in the long form finale sequence in which everything is decided in a no holds barred fist fight between maverick cop and good guy Do-cheol and irredeemable but good looking villain Tae-oh. Veteran never scores any points for subtlety and if it has any drawbacks it’s that its characterisations tend to be on the large side but what it does offer is good, old fashioned (in a good way) action comedy that has you cheering for its team of bumbling yet surprisingly decent cops from the get go. Luckily it seems Veteran already has a couple of sequels in the pipeline and if they’re anywhere near as enjoyable as the first film another new classic franchise may have just been born.


Reviewed at the first London East Asia Film Festival and the London Korean Film Festival.