A Lonely Island in the Distant Sea (절해고도, Kim Mi-young, 2021)

A dejected artist finds himself reconsidering his life’s choices when his teenage daughter drops out of education to become a Buddhist nun and he falls in love with a forthright professor in Kim Mi-young’s contemplative drama, A Lonely Island in the Distant Sea (절해고도, Jeolhaegodo). Though the title could easily enough refer to the hero himself, it echoes the sense of impossible longing symbolised by an island he could see but did not travel to though there was no real reason preventing him save his own feelings. In any case, the island and the day on which he saw it have become lodged in his memory as a nostalgic image of irresolvable desire. 

Now in early middle-age, Yun-cheol (Park Jong-hwan) is an unsuccessful sculptor who feels he has failed to live up to the promise of his youth and mainly earns his keep through commercial work such as crafting replicas of the solar system for a local museum. Divorced from his workaholic wife, he’s called in by his daughter Gina’s (Lee Yeon) school when they object to some admittedly disturbing artwork she had drawn on a series of roller blinds without permission. Yun-cheol is less concerned with the fact the paintings suggest that Gina is experiencing some kind of mental anguish than the school’s reaction to them, her teacher admitting that they took the blinds out and burned them. His anger is directed towards their wilful destruction of a work of art because it seemed to them more akin to vandalism or destruction of their property. Describing Gina as “mean”, they imply that they will ask her to leave suggesting that she would benefit from a different environment. In many ways that’s how Gina feels too, eventually revealing that she has decided to leave education altogether and later giving up her art to practice Buddhism. 

It’s the idea of abandoning her obvious talent that Yun-cheol struggles to understand. As a young man, he’d also considered becoming a monk or even a Catholic priest as, as he describes it, “safe paths for lost souls” if he failed to realise his ambitions of becoming an artist. Discovering that his daughter had had the same dilemma, even if she took a different path, shakes his sense of self in realising that his internal conflict was not unique. While trying to understand Gina’s desire to renounce the world, he begins to fall in love with a free spirited professor and cancer survivor but Ji-young (Kang Kyung-heon) is not prepared to wait around for him to sort himself out on his own and is quickly tired of his tendency to retreat into isolation rather than face his problems. Having learned only half a lesson, he later moves into Gina’s retreat where he is eventually asked to leave by the head nun bluntly who tells him that he is not suited for the monastic life. 

It may be that Yun-cheol exists outside of regular society because of his unusual upbringing in a mountain shack with his similarly isolated father, yet he struggles with himself and his relationship to art while seemingly unable to build lasting relationships with people as if they too were islands in a distant sea he could only gaze at from afar. He tells his daughter he would never abandon her in the way his mother had him but in a sense he might have done so in having lost the will to live amid his intense loneliness and lack of artistic fulfilment. Nevertheless, his growth comes in a kind of acceptance in acknowledging Gina’s choice to become a nun along with Ji-young’s declining heath and desire for isolation. 

When he had first met her, Yun-cheol had responded to Ji-young’s lecture about a would-be-revolutionary who did not go through with his cause by asking her why he would seek to implode the world in which he lived though this is the same thing Yun-cheol eventually does in his own mini-revolution choosing new paths in middle age whether in fear and regret or in search of possibility. A mystical meeting with a maternal wild boar helps to give him clarity though it seems he is forever destined to be a lonely island looking out at a distant sea filled with an unanswerable longing.


A Lonely Island in the Distant Sea screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hunt (헌트, Lee Jung-jae, 2022)

“How long can you fight violence with violence?” one accidental ally asks another towards the conclusion of actor and star Lee Jung-jae’s 80s-set directorial debut, Hunt (헌트). As the title implies, this is a story of two men stalking each other but also each ironic representatives of an ideological divide both seeking a better future while torn between violent overthrow and peaceful revolution in the dying days of a Cold War in what could be termed its ground zero. 

As the film opens, the South Korean president, a stand-in for an unnamed Chun Doo-hwan, faces mass protest from local Korean-American democracy activists on return to his hotel while on a diplomatic visit to Washington. His security team is itself somewhat compromised in that it is a joint operation between foreign and domestic intelligence teams neither of which have must trust in the other. When it’s discovered that a plot is underway to assassinate the president, foreign intelligence chief Park (Lee Jung-jae) is taken hostage but insists on capturing the suspect only for domestic chief Kim (Jung Woo-sung) to abruptly shoot him, leading Park to wonder if Kim did it to keep him quiet rather than simply to neutralise an immediate threat. Assuming North Korea is most likely behind the plot, each begins to suspect the other is a mysterious double agent known as Donglim. 

What soon becomes apparent is that the two men, the domestic and the foreign, are being pitted against each other by the questionable authority that is the Chun regime. Recently promoted from the military, Kim had in fact instigated Park’s torture in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of the previous president, also a military dictator, Park Chung-hee. Both men appear to be conflicted in their association with an authoritarian government in the wake of widespread state violence including the brutal suppression of the Gwangju Uprising in May 1980. Nevertheless, both are party to acts of torture many of them enacted on teenage democracy activists they routinely smear as communists. 

In short, no one could really blame anyone who wanted to overthrow this brutal regime but as oppressive as it is, it’s also backed by the Americans who would rather keep Chun in power than risk the students’ wishes that the American military pull out of Korea coming to fruition lest it lead to a similar situation in Okinawa, which had only returned to Japanese sovereignty a decade earlier, undermining their ongoing foreign policy goals in Asia. If there is one clear villain, aside from Chun, it’s the shady the international order that is content to watch authoritarian leaders enact violence on their people when it supports their own interests. Nevertheless, it’s also true that Park and Kim’s personal vendetta sparks major diplomatic incidents in two sovereign nations which in any other case would seem primed to turn this cold war hot.

What emerges is a cat and mouse game in which each attempts to unmask the other while on increasingly unstable ground unable even to rely on support from their superiors who in any case answer directly to Chun. It seems there are several factions who would like to unseat him even if they do not necessarily object to authoritarian rule only to persistent state violence against citizens who are more often than not mere children. The differences between Park and Kim are ideological in more ways than one, torn between the belief that only violence can free them from violence and the desire to seek a better solution but each agreeing that assassination is the only viable path to deposing Chun and ushering in a better future despite the failure of the assassination of the previous president to do the same . 

Anchored by strong performances from veteran actors Lee Jung-jae and Jung Woo-sung, the film also features a host of cameos from some of the nation’s top stars including Hwang Jung-min as a manic North Korean airforce defector and Lee Sung-min in a small but pivotal role as a Korean-Japanese asset. With notably high production values and truly astonishing action sequences, Lee excels in capturing the paranoid atmosphere of the conspiracy thriller and an almost unbearable tension between its twin protagonists who will later discover that they are quite literally on the same bus even if they have very different destinations in mind. 


Hunt screened as the opening night gala of this year’s London East Asian Film Festival and arrives in UK cinemas/digital on 4th November courtesy of Altitude Films.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)