I Have a Date with Spring (나와 봄날의 약속, Baek Seung-bin, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

I have a date with springIf the world was going to end tomorrow, which of your many anxieties would you most like to ease before you go? I Have a Date with Spring ( 나와 봄날의 약속, Nawa Bomnalui Yaksok) is, as its name suggests, a hopeful tale despite its apocalyptic pretence as its lonely film director hero learns to accept the looming presence of death in order to move beyond his creative block. He may need aliens and the promise of knowledge from beyond our world to do it, but in contemplating the many ways in which modern life is unsatisfactory, he can perhaps begin to envisage a world in which it might not be so bad to live.

Depressed director Lee Gwi-dong (Kang Ha-Neul) hasn’t made a film in 10 years. The last decade has seen him struggling with the same script, an apocalyptic tale of the end of the world in which three unhappy individuals are visited by omniscient aliens to help them celebrate their birthdays which happen to fall on the day before the Earth will be destroyed. Sitting in a forest on his own birthday, reminding us that he came here to work and not to die, Gwi-dong is shocked to receive a visitation from four mysterious campers, one of whom claims to be a fan of his earlier work.

The picture Gwi-dong (and by extension Baek Seung-bin) paints of modern Korean society is one marked by extreme loneliness and existential isolation. The death obsessed director is currently sporting a large cast on his arm apparently a result of an act of self harm committed in frustration regarding his own sense of disconnection and personal failure. The three “heroes” of his tales within a tale are all also shy, lonely, and increasingly withdrawn, no longer interested in finding escape from their personal imprisonment. A dreamy high school girl longs for the destruction of the world while a middle-aged professor laments his missed opportunities for romance and a harried housewife feels both guilt and regret in remembering she was once the leader of a militant feminist movement back in college.

Each of them is, like Gwi-dong, “celebrating” a birthday but due to their specific personal circumstances they are each celebrating alone as those close to them are either absent or have entirely forgotten. The aliens, not revealing the imminent destruction of the planet, promise each of them something special in return for trust and time but the gifts they deliver are perhaps not altogether welcome despite their original appearance. The lonely high school girl bonds with the middle-aged alien over a shared sense of childish glee in monsters and adventure, relieved simply to hear the word “friend” but still unsure whether she should trust him and follow his instructions. Meanwhile the housewife, ignored at home by her noisy child and indifferent husband, is glad to be recognised once again and have the power of her youth literally returned to her in the form of a gun but remains unsure if she should use it. The professor, on the other hand, is corrupted by his original encounter but grateful for his “mother’s” gift and commits himself to living fully and finding love despite the potential risks.

As the mysterious older lady at the campsite tells Gwi-dong, we’re all doomed anyway so we might as well go nicely, beautifully – if we can. Through each of his various stories, Gwi-dong learns to see the presence of death, the end of all things, as not such a bad thing after all. It will come, bidden not, and so there seems little point in worrying about it now. Suddenly his creative world expands. No longer thinking only of death he conjures hundreds of other universes each filled with their own stories, certain that one day “spring will come”. Oddly optimistic for a film about the end of the world, I Have a Date with Spring makes the case for reaching out in a sometimes cold world even if it risks being devoured by strange space crabs or suddenly developing painful boils (tiny bubbles of love?) all over your body. You have to go sometime, so you might just as well sit back and see what happens. The Earth is a beautiful place, enjoy it while it lasts.


I Have a Date With Spring was screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

International trailer (English captions/subtitles)

Forgotten (기억의 밤, Jang Hang-jun, 2017)

forgotten posterEver wondered if you’re living in a simulacrum? Strangely, the thought isn’t one which occurs to the hero of Jang Hang-jun’s Forgotten (기억의 밤, Gieokui Bam) despite his sense of déjà vu and the uncanny eeriness of his world. Then again, perhaps that’s because he is wilfully complicit in his own life lie, afraid to open the door and confront the ghosts trapped inside his psyche seemingly desperate get out. A tense psychological thriller, Forgotten is also a symbolist drama in which Jin-seok, a man literally trapped in the past, is forced to free himself from a locked room mystery only to discover his own dark truths.

Following some distressed sounds from someone who claims not to be able to remember whatever it is they’re being interrogated about, we find a young man, Jin-seok (Kang Ha-neul), peacefully asleep on his mother’s shoulder as his family drive to their new home. Jin-seok is an anxious young man under a lot of stress studying to retake university exams while his brother, Yoo-seok (Kim Mu-yeol), is the archetypal good Korean son. He is handsome (if a little geeky looking), clever, good at sports, patient and kind. In short Yoo-seok is everyone’s hero, not least his little brother’s, while Jin-seok is a nervous wreck who rarely leaves the house and makes sure to have his discman with him when he does to block out the noise and fury of city life. According to the prominently displayed calendar, it is May 1997.

Things start to go awry when Jin-seok finds out that the house’s previous owner has left some property in the upstairs room which he will collect at a later date. The family aren’t supposed to go in there ’til he does and so the brothers will be sharing a room. Jin-seok is however fascinated by the locked door and the strange noises he thinks he can hear coming from upstairs. Things go from bad to worse when Jin-seok witnesses Yoo-seok being kidnapped in the street only to return 19 days later with no memory of where he’s been. Little by little, Jin-seok comes to doubt that the man who has returned is really his brother, but if he isn’t, then who is he and why is any of this happening?

Like all good gothic mysteries, the first problem is Jin-seok’s supposedly fragile mental state. His family repeatedly check he’s taking his medication and take care to ensure his life is as stress free as possible, apparently afraid that he will relapse into some kind of breakdown the cause of which may be partly the reason that the family has moved to a quieter area. Thus neither he nor we can be sure if everything he experiences is real, a product of his strained mind, or a problem with his medication.

Wedded to this story is the coded past of Korea in 1997 struck by the Asian economic crisis which, the film seems to say, provoked a kind of paranoid madness generalised across society. In this difficult climate in which jobs were scarce and even those in professional occupations faced a significant drop in living standards, extreme solutions began to seem attractive. A young woman and her daughter are murdered and the killer never caught, a little boy orphaned and abandoned by his relatives who keep his family’s money for themselves, a young man resolves to commit a terrible transgression in the hope of saving a loved one, and all because of a tragic accident and some random numbers on a screen. 

Jang Hang-jun turns the relatively low budget to his advantage in creating a world of intense uncanniness, somehow realer than real but never quite right. Gradually peeling back the layers of Jin-seok’s existence to expose the wires below, Jang’s artistry becomes apparent as the world comes into focus albeit presenting a different kind of mystery. Anchored by the impressive performance of a deglammed Kang Ha-neul, Forgotten is as bleak a tragedy as they come. The truth may set one free, but not quite in the way the saying implies and there are some things with which is it impossible to live. The unseen legacy of a traumatic era sends its invisible shockwaves through the present and out into the future, and perhaps the only way to survive them is to avoid opening the door.


Streaming worldwide via Netflix.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Midnight Runners (청년경찰, Kim Joo-hwan, 2017)

b861faaff73e4760fa673b9ca1b1468dffb7a334b9e43caee1065e675364da586d07306fe12f0a8d2f3556ef798dde699b6f2adc283c1ae8d9b53a8d85745de393ee015725bff3c47298edfb94e7f49fThere are many good reasons for applying to Police University, even if many people can’t see them. That aside, the heroes of Kim Joo-hwan’s Midnight Runners (청년경찰, Chungnyeongyungchal) have ended up there not through any particular love of honour and justice, but simply because it was cheap, on the one hand, and because it was different, on the other. An ‘80s-style buddy (not quite) cop comedy, Kim’s followup to the indie leaning Koala is the story of two young men finding their calling once their latent heroism is sparked by witnessing injustice first hand, but it’s also careful to temper its otherwise crowd pleasing narrative of two rookies taking on evil human trafficking gangsters with a dose of background realism.

Rookie recruits to Seoul’s Police University, Gi-jun (Park Seo-joon) and Hee-yeol (Kang Ha-neul) could not be more different. Gi-jun is exasperated by his worried mother’s words of parting, but hugs her goodbye anyway. Hee-yeol’s dad looks on in envy at this touching scene, but asking if he should hug his son too gets a resounding “no” before Hee-yeol begins to walk away, turning back to remind his father to button his coat because it’s cold outside. Gi-jun doesn’t want to get his hair cut because he’s fashion conscious, whereas Hee-yeol doesn’t want his cut because they don’t sterilise the clippers and he doesn’t want to catch a bacterial skin infection. Nevertheless, the pair eventually bond first during lunch as Hee-yeol surrenders his “carcinogenic” sausages to the always hungry Gi-jun, and then when Hee-yeol sprains his ankle during the final endurance test and Gi-jun (eventually) agrees to carry him to the finish line. Not for the first time, Gi-jun’s “selfless” actions to help a person in need earn the pair a few words of praise from their commander who berates the others for running past an injured comrade and thinking only of themselves when the very point of a police officer is to help those in need.

A year a later the pair are firm friends and decide to take a night on the town to find themselves some girlfriends to spend Christmas with. Sadly, they do not find any but they do find crime when they spot a pretty girl in the street and then spend ages arguing about asking for her number only to see her being clubbed over the head and bundled into a black van. Slightly drunk, the boys panic, chase the van, and ring the police but are told to stay put and wait for a patrol car. They figure they can get to the police station faster than a car can get to them but once they do they realise the entire station is being pulled away on another high profile case and no one’s coming. They do what it is they’ve been trained to do, investigate – but what they discover is much darker than anything they’d imagined.

Police in Korean cinema often have a bad rap. It’s nigh on impossible to think of any examples of heroic police officers who both start and finish as unblemished upholders of justice. Midnight Runners, however, attempts to paint a rosier picture of the police force, prompting some to describe it almost as a propagandistic recruiting tool. It helps that Gi-jun and Hee-yeol are still students which means that the idealistic line they’re being fed goes mostly unchallenged (at least until the climactic events prompt them to think again), but there are certainly no beatings, no shady dealings with the underworld, or compromised loyalties in the boys’ innocent quest to rescue a damsel in distress.

The spectre of corruption hovers in the background but on a national, rather than personal, level as the news constantly reports on the kidnapping of a wealthy CEO’s child while a young woman from a troubled background has also gone missing but no one, not even the police who have devoted all their resources to the CEO’s case, is interested. Meanwhile, Gi-jun and Hee-yeol, having just escaped from certain death, attempt to get help from a nearby police box but the shocked jobsworth of a duty officer won’t help them because they don’t have their IDs. The boys’ outrage on being informed that despite all their efforts, the specialist team who handle cases like these won’t even be able to look at it for weeks is instantly understandable, but so is their professor’s kindly rationale that all lives are equal and the squad can’t be expected to dump their current caseload and swap one set of victims for another. The police, so it goes, are heroes caged by increasing bureaucracy which has made them forget the reasons they became policemen in the first place. 

Despite the grim turn the film takes after Gi-jun and Hee-yeol make a shocking discovery as a result of their investigation, Kim keeps things light thanks the boys’ easy, symbiotic relationship filled with private jokes and even a cute secret handshake. Jokey slapstick eventually gives way to hard-hitting action as the rookie officers finally get to try out some of their training and find it effective on entry level street punks, but less so on seasoned brawlers with mean looks in their eyes. Told to “leave things to the grown ups”, Gi-jun and Hee-yeol decide there are things which must be done even it is dangerous and irresponsible because no one else is going to do them (whether that be eating sausages or rescuing young women no one else seems to care about). A strange yet fitting place to make the case for a better, less selfish world, Midnight Runners is a buddy cop throwback which brings the best of the genre’s capacity for humour and action right back with it.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original trailer (English subtitles – select from menu)

New Trial (재심, Kim Tae-yun, 2017)

new trialIt’s a strange paradox that in a land defined by corruption of the legal system, your only hope my lie in a new trial. So it is for the hero of Kim Tae-yun’s latest film. Inspired by a real life miscarriage of justice (a case which was in fact still continuing at the time of filming), New Trial (재심, Jaesim) takes aim at everything from social inequality to unscrupulous lawyers and abuse of police power. A teenager pays dearly for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, not only losing 10 years of his life but the entire possibility of his future now that he’s forever branded a criminal. That’s aside from leaving his ageing (now blind mother) alone with no means of support and the additional burden of trying to clear her son’s name.

In the year 2000, reckless teen Hyeon-woo (Kang Ha-Neul) gets himself mixed up in the stabbing of a taxi driver. Despite sticking around to do his civic duty, he gets arrested, tried, talked into a false plea bargain confession and serves 10 years behind bars. Hyeon-woo might have been released after serving his time but he’s not the carefree kid he was before. Sullen, angry, and an ex-con without qualifications, he can’t find a job and has the additional burden of trying to care for his now blind mother. Even if he technically confessed to the crime because his conviction was inevitable and he wanted to get out faster so his mother wasn’t left alone, Hyeon-woo has his hopes permanently fixed on a retrial so he can clear his name once and for all.

Enter shady lawyer Park Jun-young (Jung Woo). Park is not your usual pick for a social justice case. He became a lawyer for the big bucks and macho posturing. After he loses a big case, incurs numerous debts, and is left by his wife and child, Park joins a big firm on a pro-bono basis, hoping to pick up a big client, impress them and get another permanent position. Thus he stumbles on Hyeon-woo’s case and, given the notoriety of the incident, thinks there may be some mileage in it.

Park may start off as the cynical, winner takes all school of legally savvy but morally bankrupt attorney but the more he looks into Hyeon-woo’s case the angrier he finds himself getting. Not only was Hyeon-woo betrayed by the police who knew the identity of the real killer but chose to scapegoat a poor boy instead, but he was also ordered to pay vast sums in compensation to the victim’s family. Saddled with an irreparable debt for a crime he did not commit, Hyeon-woo has reason for his passive aggressive defeatism and lack of faith in Park but gradually begins to come back to life when provided with real hope of achieving his goal of a new trial.

Yet much of the drama revolves around the two as they negotiate an uneasy trust. Hyeon-woo has been let down before by men in who said they could help only to make a speedy exit taking Hyeon-woo’s hard won money and faith in the future with them. Park starts off claiming Hyeon-woo’s guilt or innocence is an irrelevant detail, all that matters to him is winning the case and thereby getting his career back on track. Flitting through periods of winning and losing faith in each other the two are eventually able to come together in their common goal, each working for justice not just for Hyeon-woo but for all the other Hyeon-woos betrayed by political and judicial corruption.

The real life case which inspired New Trial is still not settled but the man who inspired the originally slippery Park has gone on to become Korea’s new trial king – coming to the rescue of those who find themselves at the mercy of shady forces and railroaded into paying for something they did not do. Park finds few allies in his new quest for social justice, and none among the ranks of the swanky lawyer elites he was so desperate to join, but every movement needs a leader and perhaps this one starts with a man called Park and a massive change of heart.


New Trial was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet (동주, Lee Joon-ik, 2016)

2016-03-12-1457751627-4889573Review of Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet (동주, Dong-ju) first published by UK Anime Network.


Lee Joon-ik’s previous film, The Throne, was a big budget period affair examining the well known story of tragic prince Sado who was, in a sense, murdered by his own nation as personified by his  father, the king, for failing to bow to a tyrannous regime. Lee’s followup, Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet, charts a similarly melancholy path in its exploration of the life and times of its titular wordsmith, unhappily born into an age of anti-intellectual fervour with only the desire to write verses. Yet another of the recent films to address the Korea’s colonial history, Dong-ju, like its hero, may be the most contemplative as it raises a number of questions not only about the nature of resistance but also of its intrinsic values.

Growing up in a Korean religious settlement in Manchuria, Dong-ju (Kang Ha-neul) and his cousin Mong-gyu (Park Jung-min) have been largely cushioned from the effects of the Japanese occupation, but are aware it’s only a matter of time before their village loses its special status and is swallowed by the powers at be. Both boys have literary aspirations with the more bombastic Mong-gyu opting for prose and the dreamier Dong-ju committed to the far less well received world of poetry. Firm friends as they are, literary rivalry aside, each is bound for a different course as Mong-gyu becomes increasingly involved with the independence movement whereas Dong-ju’s rebellion remains largely on the page.

After travelling to Japan as students, both Dong-ju and Mong-gyu are arrested for insurrection and incarcerated in the notorious Fukuoka prison where they are used as human subjects for experimentation. Regularly dosed with mysterious injections which blister the skin and weaken the constitution, neither lives long enough to see the return of their nation’s sovereignty just a few weeks later with Japan’s defeat at the end of the war.

Beginning with Dong-ju’s prison interrogation, the film is largely told through flashback as it follows the course of Dong-ju’s life from his adolescence in the village to domestic university and finally to Japan where he faces constant threat as an alien Korean in the land of the oppressor. Both he and Mong-gyu are committed to the idea that conscientious literature can change the world, even founding a student magazine dedicated to progressive texts. Mong-gyu, however, does not place the same faith in the art of poetry as does his friend, and eventually decides to head to China to join the left-wing arm of the Resistance movement in exile, only to become disillusioned with their extreme tactics.

Despite his loss of faith in Communist dogma, Mong-gyu remains committed to the idea of direct action and the eventual ushering in of the egalitarian revolution preceded by the expulsion of the Japanese. Far from opposing the draft of Korean students into the Japanese army, Mong-gyu plans to harness it to fill the army with capable, trained fifth columnists who will use the skills they learn in a foreign army to retake their homeland. After a brush with the ruling regime, Dong-ju tries to join the more active side of the resistance alongside his friend but is rebuffed. Mong-gyu knows his friend is not a born soldier and is much more valuable as a poet than on the front lines.

Dong-ju’s poetry is often not overtly political, anti-Japanese, or even anti-colonialist, but it is written in Korean – a daring act of political resistance in itself. During this era, Japanese was the dominant language, used in all official institutions and most schools (Dong-ju and Mong-gyu’s excluded because of its special religious status). One of the problems Dong-ju faces during his interrogation is that he delayed adopting a Japanese name much longer than was wise and subsequently continued to disseminate literature in Korean. When language is suppressed and nationhood denied to the extent that even names have been erased, what other means is there to reclaim an identity other than literature, and of literature what more powerful than poetry?

Dong-ju’s resistance to the brutalisation of of an oppressive regime is entirely internal. He writes in his native language about the things which matter, of his loneliness and youthful anxiety much of which is born of the uncertainty of his times. During his interrogation he is forced to sign a confession of his “crimes”, which he does, but with equal amounts of pride and shame as he wonders if his commitment to literature was time well spent when his comrades were dying in the streets. Was it responsible of him to commit himself to poetry rather than to medicine with all of its more immediately humanitarian benefits, or should he have thrown away the pen for the gun and joined the combatants in the armed struggle?

Mong-gyu, by contrast, feels only shame when he signs his papers which amount to a list of failed manifesto promises. Yes, he did plan all of these things but realised none of them, placing the lives of his friends in jeopardy as his did so. Perhaps he, like Dong-ju, should have agitated for social change through culture, rather than trying to fight an empire using only the empire’s cast offs.

There are no real answers to these questions, Korea regained its independence thanks to the collapse of the Japanese overseas empire rather than armed insurrection or the gradual enlightenment of the citizenry. Both men are left with a lingering sense of shame and impotence at having been unable to accomplish more in their cruelly shortened lives. Yet as for Dong-ju, there is rebellion enough in his poetry which bares all of his own soul as he suffered the torment of a poet forbidden from poetry, writing in a language proscribed by those that would seek to destroy the essence of his culture.

Filming in a crisp, washed out black and white, Lee imbues his world with a sense of melancholy and lost potential as two young men find themselves at the mercy of their times, fighting for their own independence as distinct from that of their nation but once again being denied. A necessarily sombre film unafraid to acknowledge the darkest edges of the colonial period, Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet is a celebration of the enduring power of the poetic form as exemplified by Dong-ju’s beautifully heartbreaking lines.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Twenty (스물, Lee Byeong-heon, 2015)

Twenty Movie PosterReview of Lee Byeong-heon’s Twenty (스물, Seumool) up at UK Anime Network. I really felt so old watching this film.


The age at which you become “an adult” varies according to your culture but in Korea, as in Japan, at 20 you become fully grown up with all the rights and responsibilities that carries. The three guys at the centre of the Korean film Twenty are just walking through this magic doorway which marks the end of their childhoods and the beginning of their adult lives. The road has forked for them and they have to decide which path to take. However, they’ll have to take their minds off the opposite sex long enough to make a decision.

To state the obvious, Twenty is aimed at a very specific audience and is likely to please a certain group of people very well whilst leaving others a little lost and bemused. It stars a collection of popular and very good looking younger Korean actors and actresses and is largely about what it’s like to be on the cusp of adulthood in contemporary Korea. What it’s not is a hard hitting drama. The target audience for this movie is people who are in their teens or early twenties, so they know what it is to be young, now. They just want to laugh along or sympathise with others in a similar position.

We meet the three guys, Chi-ho (popular rich kid), Dong-woo (put upon poor boy), and Gyung-Jae (doing OK middle class guy) towards the end of their high school years. The boys became friends after falling for the same girl who eventually picked Chi-ho but being boys they had a fist fight about it and are now bonded for their rest of their lives. In many ways they’re quite different, Chi-ho is rich, good looking and only interested in girls whereas Dong-woo comes from quite an impoverished background which means he’ll find it difficult to pursue his studies past high school because he needs to be supporting his mother and siblings. Gyung-Jae is almost the protagonist and is a typical middle class boy who’ll go to college and probably do alright for himself. He’s also a typical “nice guy” with a selection of fairly ordinary romantic issues (bar one interesting aspect which is raised but never followed up on) but being pretty level headed he’ll almost certainly get over it.

At twenty they have the whole of their lives ahead of them – or they kind of do given the fairly restrictive nature of Korean society. Chi-ho just thinks about sex. His parents are rich so he just lives in a perpetual adolescence where he hasn’t applied for university but hasn’t decided on a job either. He watches lots of movies and mopes but honestly he’s just a bit lost and afraid to admit it. Dong-woo wants to be a manga artist and decides to repeat the last year of high school whilst continuing to work all the other hours to support his family all the while feeling guilty about trying to pursue his dream rather than accepting the offer of a steady office job at his uncle’s company. Gyung-Jae actually has it pretty easy as his problems are just the normal sort of romantic growing pains everybody goes through and realising that makes them a little easier for him.

The film is not really a serious examination of the problems young people face. Even the eventual looming of military service is treated in quite a matter of fact way. Twenty is more of a celebration of being young and that it’s OK to be a bit lost and stupid when you’ve just left school. It gets surprisingly crude given that it’s aimed at a comparatively conservative Korean audience but generally gets away with it thanks to its cheeky tone. Undoubtedly hilarious in places (the “fist fight” finale in a Chinese restaurant being a late highlight) Twenty is a film that will play best to those around the same age as its protagonists in real terms and truthfully doesn’t offer so much for those who are already little older but it is nevertheless very funny and likely to entertain Korean idol fans of any age.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.