Psychokinesis (염력, Yeon Sang-ho, 2018)

Psychokenesis posterThe animated world of Yeon Sang-ho is dark and cynical, finding only fear and anger in the hopeless vision of contemporary Korea that his films continue to paint. His first live action feature, Train to Busan, began to see a little light as its jaded protagonist finally rediscovered his humanity while the innocent were eventually allowed to find a degree at least of rescue. Psychokinesis (염력, Yeomlyeok), in once sense, continues the theme in centring itself on another of Korean cinema’s bad dads, one so morally corrupted that he rejects all responsibility to others and lives only for the self-indulgent pleasure of the petty scam. Given superpowers, his thoughts turn to finance but eventually lead to an opportunity to right himself in societal eyes by reconnecting with his estranged daughter and accepting his responsibility as a family man.

Seok-heon (Ryoo Seung-Ryong) left his family when his daughter was only ten years old. These days he makes a living as a (lazy) security guard while supplementing his income by pilfering coffee and toilet paper from the company. After drinking spring water from a mountain shrine which, unbeknownst to him, has recently been struck by a mysterious meteoroid, Seok-heon realises he has developed the power of psychokinesis but is only really interested in how it might benefit him financially. That said, Seok-heon’s thoughts do not turn to crime, but to fame – he thinks it might make a good magic act and has heard there can be a lot of money to be made on the circuit.

Shortly after his magical revelation, Seok-heon gets a call from Ru-mi (Shim Eun-kyung) – his now grown up daughter who had been running her own very successful fried chicken restaurant until the shop was compulsory purchased to make way for a shopping mall intended to cater for Chinese tourists. Ru-mi and some of the other shopkeepers have been engaged in a resistance movement, refusing to let their property be taken until they have received fair compensation. During an altercation with the thugs sent in to evict them by force, Ru-mi’s mother was killed – which why is she called, to invite her long lost father to the funeral. Though Seok-heon is not exactly keen to get involved, he eventually realises that his new found abilities might prove useful and help him restore himself in his daughter’s judgemental eyes.

As in Train to Busan, Seok-heon is a cynical and jaded father but this time he’s one very much down on his luck, one of life’s losers whose decision to accept defeat has been lifelong and total. Faced with Ru-mi’s cohort of resistance members, he publicly refuses to help, pointing out that their battle is doomed to failure and it would be better to just give up now. Ru-mi, apparently still capable of additional disappointment, reminds her father that this is what he does – when things look grim he runs away. Ru-mi refuses to be like her dad, and therefore refuses to give up without a fight.

Yeon once again injects some background social criticism into an otherwise friendly tale of dead beat dads and the power of community. Echoing the Yongsan tragedy, Yeon makes the destruction of a neighbourhood to build a shopping mall for tourists his battleground as Ru-mi and her fellow resistance members hole up behind a barricade throwing Molotov cocktails at the police and trying to avoid a fight with the thugs who work for the corrupt construction company behind the whole affair. To make matters worse, Yeon takes us past the site of so much drama at the film’s conclusion, showing us an empty lot, a scar on the landscape memorialising the senselessness of corporate greed which eventually eats itself and stifles any kind of progress economic or social. Ru-mi and the others are powerless to resist their eviction but insist on the compensation they ought to be entitled to which would allow them to begin their businesses again elsewhere so they can continue to earn a living.

Seok-heon is the archetypal apathetic man who thinks it’s pointless to resist and is content to live in as corrupt a way as his society permits. He refuses his responsibility to others, walking past the cleaner being threatened for taking the “free” coffees from the lobby he convinced her were OK to take whilst lamenting her “stupidity” for inexpert pilfering. Battered and defeated, Seok-heon rejoices in pettiness, getting his kicks by shirking at work and getting one over on the bosses by stealing. His first thought on getting powers isn’t their capacity for good, but nor is it a lust for power or revenge, he merely wants to show off a little and earn big bucks – his crime is petulant self-indulgence, not active villainy. Reuniting with his daughter and witnessing her fighting for something she believes in, Seok-heon begins to rediscover his long buried heroism finally becoming a father worthy of his daughter’s respect.

It’s not all plain sailing however as the corporate stooges are not just thuggish but clever and devious. Figuring out that the twin issues to evicting the protestors are the unsolved murder of Ru-mi’s mother and Seok-heon’s superpowers, they set about undermining both – setting up a patsy for the crime and attempting to blackmail Seok-heon by leaking footage of his powers to the news in the hope that the country turns against him. Unable to explain his unusual abilities, TV news pundits do what they always do – blame North Korea, and insist he must be some kind of spy and/or infiltrator.

Working with a much lower budget, Psychokinesis is a lighter affair than might be expected, essentially mixing a hapless dad narrative with a superhero origin story but with a more cheerful tone than one usually associates with Yeon. As expected, you can’t fight city hall and Seok-heon’s assertion that the battle was always a losing one may prove to be correct but what he discovers is that is not necessarily a reason to just give up and walk away. Even if one plan fails, there may be other ways to “succeed” so long as there are enough people willing to stand up for what’s right whilst holding fast to each other, committed to building something better rather than just to tearing something down.


Psychokinesis is currently streaming worldwide via Netflix.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생, Kim Jee-woon, 2005)

bitterweet life posterAs Boss Kang (Kim Young-chul) tells the hero of Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생, Dalkomhan Insaeng), no matter how well things are going, it only takes one mistake to make it all float away. Like any good film noir, the forces which conspire to ruin the quiet, orderly life of cooler than thou gangster Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) are those of desire as they come in conflict with codes of loyalty and decency. Sun-woo, like many a lonely hitman before him, finally wakes up to the emptiness of his life only to find no point of escape except the one he has often provided for others in precisely the same situation.

Smartly suited, Sun-woo is the trusted manager of the casino bar, Dolce Vita. Taken away from his elegant dessert in the upstairs restaurant, Sun-woo deals with a group of rowdy customers in true gangster fashion by launching in with a series of jump kicks and quickly thrown punches that reveal just why it is Sun-woo rules the roost. Sun-woo’s boss, Kang, has a special mission for his most trusted minion – keep an eye on his much younger girlfriend, Hee-soo (Shin Min-a), while he travels to Shanghai for three days. Kang thinks Hee-soo is having an affair. If she is, Sun-woo’s options are either to call Kang right away or take affirmative action on his own initiative.

Sun-woo investigates, but much to his surprise finds himself taken with Hee-soo. She is indeed having an affair, something which Sun-woo tries to ignore but finally has to be dealt with. A sudden pang of sympathy stops him from contacting Kang or pulling the trigger. Instead he decides to let the pair go on the condition they never see each other again. Thinking it’s all behind him, Sun-woo tries to go back to his regular job but he’s still dealing with the fallout from playing whistleblower on a high ranking gangster’s son.

Kim opens with an arty black and white sequence of tree branches swaying. In the story offered in voice over a disciple asks whether it is the trees or the wind which are moving, but the master replies that is is neither – it is the heart and mind which move. Like the branches, Sun-woo’s heart has begun to stir. Not love exactly, or lust, but movement. Sun-woo gazes at the way Hee-soo’s hair brushes her shoulder, at the way she walks and smiles at him. Listening to her cello rehearsal, his own emotional symphony begins, dangerously unbalancing his previously one-note existence with its identical suits and minimalist apartments.

Yet if Sun-woo’s downfall is Hee-soo and her alluring vitality, it was Kang’s first. An ageing gangster, Kang feels foolish taking up with a young girl but just can’t help himself. He loves the way Hee-soo couldn’t care less about what other people think, but that also worries him because she’ll never care what he thinks. Kang’s childishly romantic gift of a kitschy lamp with two owls huddling together on the base is the perfect symbol of his misplaced hopes – oddly innocent yet ultimately redundant. Notably, the lamp is one of many things shattered when Sun-woo takes Hee-soo’s lover to task.

Realising he has been betrayed, though not quite for the reasons he thinks, Sun-woo vows revenge. Everything has gone wrong, and he no longer believes in any kind of future which has him in it. Pausing only to send a more mature romantic gift to Hee-soo, an elegant lamp she’d admired on one of their shopping trips, he marches off towards certain death no longer caring for own life in his quest for vengeance and retribution. Repeating Kang’s questions back to him, asking for the real reason any of this happened, doesn’t get him very far but even if these two men have shared the same folly, they fail to understand each other even in death.

Returning to the master and his pupil, the closing coda recounts another story in which the pupil wakes up from a dream, weeping. The master asks him if he’s had a nightmare but the pupil says no, he’s had the sweetest of dreams. He’s crying because he’s awake and knows his dream can never come true. Sun-woo too has woken up, he knows there’s nothing for him now except to accept his fate. He has but been asleep, dreaming a sweet dream, and now he must wake and taste life’s bitterness just as he prepares to leave it.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Manhole (맨홀, Shin Jae-young, 2014)

manhole posterFinding the sinister in the commonplace is the key to creating a chilling horror experience, but “finding” it is the key. Attempting to graft something untoward onto a place it can’t take hold is more likely to raise eyebrows than hair or goosebumps. The creators of Korean horror exercise Manhole (맨홀) have decided to make those ubiquitous round discs the subject of their enquiries. They are kind of worrying really aren’t they? Where do they go, what are they for? Only the municipal authorities really know. In this case they go to the lair of a weird serial killer who lives in the shadows and occasionally pulls in pretty girls from above like one of those itazura bank cats after your loose change.

Of course, it’s sort of our first victim’s fault because she’s dared to go out late at night on her own and committed the cardinal sin of shouting at her over protective father on the phone shortly before realising she’s wandered into a horror movie by mistake. The lights start flickering, everything goes wavy and then you’re being pulled down a manhole. Not cool.

Anyway, the real story is about two sisters. Yeon-seo (Jung Yu-Mi) is now the sole guardian of Soo-jeong (Kim Sae-Ron) following the death of their parents and also seems to be harbouring some kind of guilt over an accident that left Soo-jeong permanently deaf. Perhaps a little over protective as a consequence, Yeon-seo instructs Soo-jeong to stay in their apartment and wait for her to get back. Soo-jeong, however, is old enough to push the boundaries and ventures out alone to meet her sister on her way home with an umbrella. Unfortunately, she catches sight of the killer along the way and is soon trapped in the sewer like everyone else, apparently. Yeon-soo tries to call the police but they aren’t interested so she has little choice but to track her sister’s phone and journey underground herself. She’s joined (well, they’re there at the same time) by the father of the first victim (Choi Duk-Moon) who happens to be a former policeman, now in possession of a gun stolen from a friend also set to make a fateful descent at a later point.

Manhole is a very confused film. Unable to decide who its protagonist(s) is (are), it meanders freely between its disparate plot strands without ever managing to build coherent connections between them. Though the sisters are posited as the main element of the story, they take quite a long time to arrive and are then frequently sidelined in favour of other ongoing developments. Their story is undoubtedly the most interesting as it presents an unusual plot device in which they remain unable to communicate verbally during their attempts to escape from the sewers and it’s nice to see sign language used so ordinarily in a genre film, yet even their meagre backstory is painted in broad strokes and through flashbacks once again making it difficult to fully connect with them as they battle the threat in the shadows.

The role of the killer, Soo-chul (Jung Kyoung-Ho), is also a difficult one as he is neither protagonist nor generic threat but given a small amount of flashback backstory delivered in monologue to his victims which only serves to make him a frustrating presence. Manhole seems as if it has a point to make about families in that Soo-chul is a damaged child of a broken home, both trying to avenge himself and regain what he’s lost by, in a sense, “recreating” a family through his kidnappings. Frequent glances towards the prominently displayed portrait of the ideal family contrast with the other relationships in the film – Jong-ho and his hunt for his missing daughter, and the bond between the two sisters. Both of these family units are also missing elements – the sisters who’ve lost their parents and Jong-ho as a lone father. Neither of the parental figures in the film is fully able to protect their charges despite appearing controlling and over protective prior to the incident though no particular reason seems to be offered for this other than praising parental sacrifice in allowing both to fight all out to protect those closest to them.

What Manhole tries to be is a chase film, confining itself to the sewer environment as its crazed killer crawls around it like the literal beast in the shadows, cocooning victims in clingfilm and wearing bug-like bright red night vision goggles. Though exciting enough the frequent cutaways and over reliance on shaky cam disrupt the claustrophobic atmosphere as do the stereotypical jump scares and framing which feel as predictable as the final sequence of a video game in which the idea is to dodge the falling axes. Muddled and inexpertly photographed, Manhole is a disappointing genre exercise which even the generally strong performances of its cast can’t mask. Still, hardcore genre fans may find more to admire in the gore stained darkness of the oddly accessible sewer network and its lizard-like psycho killer.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Train to Busan (부산행, Yeon Sang-ho, 2016)

Train to BusanMany people all over the world find themselves on the zombie express each day, ready for arrival at drone central, but at least their fellow passengers are of the slack jawed and sleep deprived kind, soon be revived at their chosen destination with the magic elixir known as coffee. The unfortunate passengers on an early morning train to Busan have something much more serious to deal with. The live action debut from one of the leading lights of Korean animation Yeon Sang-ho, Train to Busan (부산행, Busanhaeng) pays homage to the best of the zombie genre providing both high octane action from its fast zombie monsters and subtle political commentary as a humanity’s best and worst qualities battle it out for survival in the most extreme of situations.

Workaholic fund manager Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is having a series of very bad days. His wife has left him and for unclear reasons, also left their young daughter, Soo-an (Kim Soo-ahn), in her father’s care though apparently wants custody in the ugly divorce battle that now seems inevitable. It’s Soo-an’s birthday but all she wants is to catch a train to Busan to see her mum and if she has to she’ll even go by herself. After his attempt at a birthday present spectacularly backfires, Seok-woo gives in and agrees to take Soo-an to her mother’s before catching the next train back after dropping her off. Unfortunately, they have picked a very bad day to take the train.

Yeon Sang-ho takes his time to build to the central train based set piece but is is careful to create an atmosphere which makes it plain that there is something very wrong with this seemingly everyday set up. After a brief dig about pig farmers losing out to government policy on foot and mouth disease and irresponsible hit and run drivers leaving deer corpses behind them for someone else to deal with, he has a parade of emergency vehicles racing past Seok-Woo and Soo-an on their trip to the station while ash rains down on their car. Seok-woo is still focussed on work though sleepy on the train so he misses Soo-an’s shocked reaction to a station guard being rugby tackled just as the train is leaving while a mass of improbable early morning revellers are trying to break through the line of staff holding them back at the platform steps.

Patient zero bounds onto the train just as the doors close though one wonders why no one is paying much attention to this obviously distressed young woman as she stumbles and writhes around in the train carriage before the virus fully takes hold. Just as we think someone is about to come to her aid, it turns out to be a case of a snooty passenger taking offence at the presence of an “odd person” on the train. The “odd person” turns out to be a homeless guy whose mutterings of “dead, all dead” take on a prophetic air rather than the ramblings of a mad man that the train guards assume them to be.

This kind of stereotypical othering and the selfish refusal to help fellow humans in need is at the very heart of the film. Seok-woo admonishes his goodhearted daughter when she repeatedly makes an effort to be a kind and decent person by giving up her seat for an old lady or wanting to stop and help others escape the zombie onslaught. However, Soo-an’s goodness wins through as she in turn chastises her father and explains that his selfishness and lack of regard for the feelings of other people is the very reason her mother left the family. Even if he begins by cruelly closing the door on the film’s most heroic character and his pregnant wife, Seok-woo gradually begins to develop a sense of social responsibility whether out of simple pragmatism or genuine fellow feeling.

Workaholic fathers with minimal connections to their offspring may be something of a genre trope but, as father-to-be Sang-hwa says, fathers often get a bad rap – making all of the sacrifices and enjoying none of the rewards. In an attempt to show solidarity with Seok-Woo, Sang-hwa assures him that his daughter will understand why he worked so hard all the time when she grows up and reiterates that true fatherhood is about self-sacrifice. This is one sense plays into the earlier themes of Seok-Woo’s self-centred viewpoint in asking if he really is working hard for his family or only wants to been as such, maintaining his own social status and upperclass lifestyle and completing it with a perfectly posed family photo. A father is supposed to protect his daughter and now Soo-an has only him to rely on, if Seok-woo is going ensure her survival he will have to decide what kind of sacrifices he’s prepared to make on her behalf.

If the film has a villain it isn’t the rabid zombie hordes who, after all, are only obeying their programming, it’s personal, corporate, and political greed. The clearest embodiment of this is in the panicked businessman who frequently tries to issue orders to the train staff and insists the train take him to his preferred destination. After trying to get the homeless man thrown off the train early on, the fascistic businessman picks up a lackey in the form of a steward and begins trying to exclude all the “suspicious” people from his general vicinity. Cruel and cowardly, the businessman’s selfish actions only cause more problems for everyone else whilst whipping up unhelpful paranoia among those who will need to work together to survive. Literally feeding even his most loyal comrades to zombies to buy himself time to escape, this egotistical CEO is the perfect metaphor for cannibalistic nature of the capitalist system which is, as Sang-hwa said, content to let the “useless” fall behind.

That’s not to forget the actual undead threat. Yeon Sang-ho’s walking dead take inspiration from his animated work and move quickly with jerky, uncanny movements more like Butoh dancers than the usual stupefied shufflers. The set pieces are expertly choreographed and well shot, maintaining the tension throughout though the increase in scale towards the final stretch is at odds with the leaner, meaner approach of the early scenes. Despite eventually giving in to melodrama in a heavily signposted script, Yeon Sang-ho’s live action debut is an impressive effort making room for his standard social concerns whilst also providing innovative zombie thrills. Yeon Sang-ho’s message is clear, when disaster strikes no one can survive alone, the only chance for salvation lies in altruistic compassion. In the end the best weapon against the darkness is a children’s song as innocence finally triumphs over fear.


UK release trailer:

The Himalayas (히말라야, Lee Suk-hoon, 2015)

HimalayasBecause it’s there. As good a reason as any for doing anything but these were the only three words of explanation offered by George Mallory in answer to the question “Why climb Everest?”. In Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, the heroine reacts in a similarly philosophical fashion when asked “Why do you want to dance?” replying with the question “Why do you want to live?”. What makes some people prepared to dance until their feet bleed and their toes break, and sends others to the peaks of snowcapped mountains staring death in the face as they go, is something which cannot be fully explained in words but cannot be denied by those who hear its calling.

Korea’s most well known mountain climber, Um Hong-gil (Hwang Jung-min), was undoubtedly one who heard the call and The Himalayas (히말라야) is his story (more or less). Based on his real life exploits, the film charts his continuing successes as an international climber until a foot injury forces him to remain on a more usual altitude, but the real heart of the story is in his growing relationship with rookie Moo-taek (Jung Woo) who’s every bit as fearless as he is. Together the pair scale the peaks of the world’s highest mountain ranges until it’s finally time for Hong-gil to hang up his pick and keep his feet on the ground for good.

However, tragedy strikes as one of Hong-gil’s closest friends is suddenly killed after getting caught in an unexpected storm. The mountain ranges of the world are littered with the corpses of unfortunate climbers who got into difficulty and couldn’t be rescued. The bodies remain where they fell, becoming one with mountain itself in a lonely climbers graveyard, frozen and perfect for eternity. Risking your own life to retrieve the lifeless body of a friend may seem like a perverse, irrational thing to do, yet understandable. Wracked with guilt and grief, Hong-gil assembles a team and embarks on a sentimental journey to bring his friend home, and, ironically, learn to let him go.

What starts off as a sports movie with its training sequences and tough coach inspires maverick rookie routine branches off into the classic expeditionary adventure format before falling into its unexpected home genre – the melodrama. Though in one sense a kind of biopic, the realm aim is to get those tears rolling as these brave men and women risk all for glory and comradeship in pushing the limits of the human condition far past their breaking points.

Hong-gil himself is, despite his gruff exterior, a dreamer and idealist in love with the soulful purity of the mountains. His is a journey of self discovery as he tells us that there is no pretence when it comes to mountain climbing. When you’re up there alone, just you and the vast snow covered emptiness, all of your masks and defences fall away. Hong-gil climbs the mountain to explore landscape of his own mind. He also objects to the often uttered phrase “conquer” a mountain as he believes the mountain gives you permission to ascend making this way of thinking disrespectful and even likens the mountain itself to woman when bemoaning Moo-taek’s pointlessly noble romantic gesture by stating that you don’t conquer the “mountain” you console it.

For all that, the real world is ever present as we see in one particularly awkward marketing pitch in which Hong-gil is trotted out as a model to have the prospective sponsor’s logo plastered all over him in the hopes that they will fund an expedition. When someone raises the very sensible point that this could look very bad for them should one of the climbers die with their logo on their chest, the marketing guys slowly start peeling them all off – velcro solves everything, it seems.

The team also becomes a marketing tool for their nation, carrying the Korean flag around with them for any photo opportunities which might present themselves. When tragedy strikes and the remainder of the Korean expeditionary group refuse to go after their fallen friend (the right and practical decision given the weather conditions and the low probability of success), base camp puts out a message over the radio in English pleading for help. The British contingent continue with their crosswords and cups of tea, steadfastly ignoring the emotional mayday call. The Chinese at least begin reassuring each other that it’s far too dangerous to contemplate.

The Himalayas begins as a comedy but the laughs fall away once the tears start rolling. Though it may affect a poetic tone the philosophical meandering is generally at the service of the melodrama which is very much underpinned by male bonding, pride, honour, debt and responsibility. Hong-gil’s “Human Expedition” is one of grief stricken madness but a perfectly understandable one in which he both needs to atone for “abandoning” his mountaineering brother and come to terms with the fact that the death zone has claimed another sacrifice. Often impressively filmed, The Himalayas suffers from its extremely melodramatic, sentimental tone which is only exacerbated by the intrusion of its loud and syrupy score. Anchored by strong performances from its leading players including Hwang Jung-min as the tough yet sensitive Hong-gil and Jung Woo as the young firebrand Moo-taek, The Himalayas spends too long at the destination rather than on the journey and ultimately fails to make either its character drama or expeditionary environment sufficiently engaging.


Seen as part of a teaser programme for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival 2016.

US release trailer: