Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno (밤섬해적단 서울불바다, Jung Yoon-suk, 2017)

Bamseom Pirates posterGiven its long and turbulent political history, Korea has become good at the art of the peaceful protest. Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno (밤섬해적단 서울불바다, beomseom Haejeok-dan seoul bulbada) arrives just after another political storm has passed, but trouble once again hovers on the horizon courtesy of noisy neighbours. Yet it’s not so much the literal threat of the Kims in the North that’s the problem, but the way that fear is used and abused to serve certain needs – this is where avant-garde punk duo Bamseom Pirates aim their carefully crafted arrows. Unfortunately for them, they are too clever for their own good and their reliance on sarcasm leaves them frequently misunderstood.

The Bamseom Pirates are drummer Kwon Yong-man and bassist Jang Sung-geon – two young men living the life of starving artists in Korea’s underground music scene. As Jang points out, other bands smash expensive guitars but Bamseom Pirates smash rubbish picked up from around the derelict buildings where they play their shows to small crowds of likeminded youngsters. Though violence is often an integral part of many “punk” scenes, the clashes here are not born of over exuberance or warring factions of bands and their followers but of hired thugs deliberately sent in to make trouble, limiting freedoms of assembly and expression.

Kwon’s lyrics are deliberately incendiary but violence is not in the band’s agenda. Filmed over several years, Jung Yoon-suk’s documentary finds the pair performing at several protests and rallies usually in support of progressive causes including opposing privatisation, and labour reform. Though he is repeatedly pressed to explain himself, Kwon refuses to pin his convictions to the mast of any recognisable political faction, nervously aligning himself with the defunct Progressive Party and then only vaguely in citing an agreement with their progressive causes. This refusal is key to Kwon’s artistic statement as he finds himself attacked from all sides – the left, who might be assumed to be his allies, tear him down for his bourgeois upbringing and education at an elite university, but on the other hand one can’t say anything that sounds too lefty lest one be accused of being a “communist” and therefore North Korean sympathiser.

Bamseom Pirates rely heavily on irony and so they can’t resist pushing this central dichotomy to its natural limit. Thus Kwon’s signature song is called “All Hail Kim Jong-il!”, but as it turns out the song isn’t about that Kim Jong-il at all, but all the other unfortunate people throughout history who share his not particularly uncommon name and are now tainted by association. North Korea being the most taboo issue of the day, it comes up frequently in the band’s songs in which they often point out the uncomfortable truths about their neighbour – in particular, the theoretical benefits of socialism such as workers rights and a welfare state that should be (but aren’t) in place in North Korea but can’t be adopted into the South because of persistent fear of “Communism”. The fear of “Communism” has become a stick with which to beat the progressive cause or really any cause the conservative society does not want to engage with, shutting down all debate and undermining the “democracy” the previous generation fought so hard to win.

This all comes to a head when the band’s manager finds himself falling foul of Korea’s longstanding censorship laws regarding North Korea designed to prevent “acts which benefit the enemy”. Park, a high school friend of Kwon, and a jack of all trades who runs a small indie record label printing CDs for underground bands, is just as acerbic as the boys and frequently makes ironic comments about North Korea on his Twitter account, even once asking the Dear Leader to buy him some chocolate. Nevertheless, when he retweets a North Korean account he’s immediately arrested and brought in for questioning as a possible North Korean sympathiser. His brand of sarcasm is just too subtle for the censor, and he finds himself on the receiving end of an extremely harsh punishment which is in no way helped by Kwon’s honest testimony clarifying their stance on the North.

Park faces prison for making a stupid joke on Twitter while his lawyer sensibly points out that if he had said the same thing in North Korea, he’d already be dead. He would not last five seconds on North Korean soil and clearly has no desire to go there. Rather than simply capture events, Jung leans in on the central irony of the situation in its suggestion that perhaps there’s not as much difference between the democratic South and the despotic North as might be hoped when it comes to encouraging a full and frank freedom of expression.

Yet despite the satirical content of their music, Bamseom Pirates remain refreshingly unpretentious and keen to make fun of themselves as well the current political crisis of the day. There’s no posturing or claim of a great masterplan to change society through the power of punk. The boys just want to play their music to likeminded people and have fun while doing it. This self effacing charm makes their extremely loud and energetic performances a joy to watch, though Jung also captures their anarchic spirit in several music videos accompanied by garish onscreen captions featuring the lyrics plus the explanation that the sound balance has been “deliberately” miscaptured to represent the “imbalances” in modern Korean society and that the band’s various musical mistakes have also been left in in testament to their artistic integrity. Bamseom Pirates do not claim to speak for their generation, but they do all the same as the young fight back against the “mainstream” of a conservative society, refusing to accept the gradual erosions of the freedoms the preceding generation fought so hard for but have failed to protect.


Screened at BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Also screening as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2017 on 5th November at Close-up Film Centre.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tazza: The Hidden Card (타짜-신의 손, Kang Hyung-Chul, 2014)

tazza posterYou gotta know how to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run. Apparently these rules of the table are just as important in the cutthroat world of the Korean card game Hwatu as they are in the rootinest tootinest saloon bar. Like most card games, having the winning hand is less important than the ability to play your opponent and so it’s more a question of who can cheat the best (without actually breaking the rules, or at least being caught doing so) than it is of skill or luck. A second generation sequel to 2006’s Tazza: The High Rollers, The Hidden Card (타짜-신의 손, Tajja: Shinui Son) is a slick, if overlong, journey into the dark, underground world of gambling addicted card players which turns out to be much more shady than the shiny suits and cheesy grins would suggest.

Wisecracking kid Dae-gil (T.O.P) comes into contact with the first film’s fast talking hustler Go (Yu Hae-Jin) and realises he has a talent for trickery. As a young man he gets himself into trouble trying to save a family member from a gangster whom he winds up stabbing meaning he has to go on the run and leave the girl he’s fallen head over heels for, Mina (Shin Se-Kyung), far behind him with only the promise to come back for her when he’s made something of himself. With nothing to fall back on Dae-gil ends up working for cardsharping gangsters in what is really a series of high level con operations. His first problem occurs when he temporarily forsakes the memory of Mina for the attentions of the alluring Mrs. Woo (Lee Honey) who becomes both his secret girlfriend and the gang’s latest mark.

Things do not go to plan and Dae-gil is left carrying the can for the gang’s heavy losses. Getting into trouble with another mark who turns out to be a high level gangster himself, Dae-gil finds out Mina has been sold into prostitution as payment for a family debt but also winds up losing a kidney as recompense for his mounting gambling debts. Now Dae-gil is out for revenge against pretty much everyone, hoping to rescue Mina and win her heart in the process but his adversaries are old hands at this sort of thing and it’s going to take more than a rigged deck to beat them at their own game.

Taking over from the first film’s Choi Dong-hoon, Kang Hyung-chul opts for a slick and charming Oceans 11 inspired aesthetic full of quirky humour and tricky slight of hand photography. With retro musical choices from a smooth cover of Spooky to the ‘80s synth pop kicking in for an exciting car chase, Kang piles on the nostalgia as Dae-gil rides high as a wisecracking conflicted member of this underhanded outfit. Taking inspiration from its manwha roots, The Hidden Card maintains its breezy tone even whilst the atmosphere darkens as Dae-gil taps out with this gangster credit, beaten up, drugged and waking up in a filthy room with a bandaged hand and a crude scar across his abdomen where his kidney used to be. Apparently making a quick recovery from serious surgery, Dae-gil’s discovery of Mina’s fate is likewise another addition to his quest narrative rather than more evidence of the savagery of this trick or be tricked world.

The Hidden Card’s biggest problem is an unavoidable one given its genre – the sheer structural repetitiveness of moving from one card game to another. Lack of familiarity with Hwatu itself is not exactly a problem even if mildly frustrating, but the nature of the way the game is played means that a great deal of screen time is occupied with watching people watching each other, moodily, only to be left unsure of what’s going on or who’s won at the end of it. This is all the more true of the film’s final showdown which brings back a major player from the first instalment in which the stakes have been raised supposedly to “prevent” cheating, but only really aim to make it more “challenging”. Still, away from the gaming table there are enough high octane fist fights and a lengthy car chase to break up the more cerebral thrills.

Undeniably slick and filled with a host of likeable characters offering snappy dialogue and silly humour, Tazza: The Hidden Card is far too long at two and a half hours. Uneven pacing does not help the feeling of scale and a similarly unbalanced plot structure produces a misleading sense of progression. Still, keeping one step ahead of the card sharks is fun in itself and even if the action drags here and there, there is enough character driven drama and ironic comedy to keep things moving right up until the consciously cool finale.


International trailer (English subtitles)