A Distant Place (정말 먼 곳, Park Kun-young, 2020)

A gay couple searching for a far off land of love and acceptance find their rural dream crumbling in Park Kun-young’s melancholy autumn drama, A Distant Place (정말 먼 곳, Jeongmal Meon Gos). As it turns out, you can’t outrun yourself nor an internalised sense of shame and if you can’t find a way to root yourself firmly in the ground you risk losing those close to you lashing out in anger towards a needlessly judgemental society. 

Jin-woo (Kang Gil-woo) is indeed a man on the run, chased out of Seoul by his internalised homophobia and seeking a quieter life in a small mountain town with fewer people around to feel rejected by. Having studied fine art, he now works as a hired hand on a sheep farm where he’s bringing up his daughter Seol (Kim Si-ha) while waiting for his partner, Hyun-min (Hong Kyung), a poet, to join him. Once he arrives, everything goes well for them living a discreet life in the mountains where no one it seems has noticed that they are a couple though as we later realise the farmer, Mr Choi (Ki Joo-bong), and his daughter Moon-kyung (Ki Do-young) have figured it out and little care choosing to say nothing. The real drama begins, however, with another arrival in that of Jin-woo’s estranged twin-sister Eun-young (Lee Sang-hee) who as we discover is actually Seol’s birth mother having abandoned her to Jin-woo only to come back to try and reclaim her having married and opened a cafe. 

Jin-woo’s conflict lies partly in wondering if he’s being selfish in his desire not to return Seol to Eun-young while genuinely believing that a life of isolation in the mountains is better for her longterm future. His ideal is undercut when Seol upsets another child at a formal occasion by snatching his toy away from him, hinting at the costs of her lack of socialisation spending almost all of her time on the farm helping with the sheep or talking with Mr. Choi’s elderly mother (Choi Geum-Soon) who is suffering with advanced dementia. In a certain sense, each of them is trapped by their environment, the elderly grandma seeking escape in her small moments of lucidity. Moon-Kyung is beginning to fear her dreams of escaping small-town life will not come to pass while she has perhaps also missed the boat for becoming a wife or a mother snapped at by her grandmother in a moment of frustration. Her realisation that her crush on Jin-woo is misplaced on finding him in bed with Hyun-min is then a double moment of disillusionment leaving her only the vicarious position of becoming a surrogate mother to Seol who continues to refer to Jin-woo as “mama” rather than father. 

This framing in itself foregrounds the primacy of the traditional family in highlighting both the absence of a female caregiver and then by implication a father while simultaneously feminising Jin-woo as a man who is raising a child as we later find out with another man, if secretly. When the pair are accidentally outed, it not only strains the relationship between the two men but implodes Jin-woo’s dream of discreet country living. Though the townspeople had previously been friendly towards them, they find themselves shunned in town, figures of gossip and ridicule. Having been essentially run out of Seoul by his internalised homophobia, Jin-woo begins to fear he has nowhere left to run. Hyun-min tries to convince him that he’s asking for too much, that they should live quietly and keep the peace, but his shame gets the better of him lashing out that he’s never felt comfortable with Hyun-min around always self-conscious and paranoid about what others may be thinking of him. 

As Hyun-min puts it in a poem, only the hope of a “distant place” keeps them going even as the road ahead crumbles at a rapid pace with the abyss creeping ever closer. While there are small rays of hope in the quiet acceptance of Mr Choi who has come to think of Seol as his own granddaughter, Jin-woo begins to fear that his distant place is beyond his reach and that no matter how far he runs he will never reach a point of comfort or happiness where he can live openly with the man he loves and the little girl he has raised since birth as his daughter. Figures of loneliness and disappointment haunt the otherwise idyllic landscape shattering the nurturing image of a simple life in the country but even as the film opened with an ominous death it ends in new life promising perhaps a new if uncertain dawn. 


A Distant Place screens at Genesis Cinema on 26th May as part of this year’s Queer East.

International trailer (English subtitles)

On the Line (보이스, Kim Gok & Kim Sun, 2021)

“Voice phishing is all about empathy” according to the sociopathic villain at the centre of Kim Gok & Kim Sun’s crime thriller On the Line (보이스, Voice), ironically hinting at his heartless greed leveraging as he admits people’s fear and hope against them and actively revelling in their misery. The Korean title, Voice, hints at the nebulous quality of the scam that in the end a reassuring voice is all people fall for but at the same time there is indeed a lot on the line not least for the embattled hero fighting back against the corruptions of contemporary capitalism.

Former policeman Seo-joon (Byun Yo-han) is currently working a job in construction after being forced out of the police when one of his investigations implicated the son of a prominent person. Finally starting to get back on his feet, he’s offered a big promotion by his supportive boss and is about to buy a house with his wife Miyeon (Won Jin-A) but then everything starts to go wrong. A potential accident threatens Seo-joon’s new sense of success while unbeknownst to him, Miyeon is currently on the phone with a man claiming to be a lawyer friend of his who tells her that he’s been arrested because of a fatality on site but if she sends the lawyer money for a “settlement” Seo-joon will be released with no further consequences. Unable to get in touch with her husband and fooled by number spoofing when she tries to call the site, Miyeon takes out the money intended to pay the deposit on the house and hands it over only realising her mistake when the scammers turn off the jammers they’d hidden at the construction site and Seo-joon rings her back to find out what’s wrong. So shocked is she that gets hit by a car and is in hospital in a coma when Seo-joon learns that his boss got scammed too and has taken his own life in shame in having lost so much money meant for his employees. 

As the open intertitles relate, voice phishing telephone fraud is a rising problem which aside from landing its victims in inescapable debt can ruin lives and relationships not to mention cause intense feelings of humiliation which lead those affected to consider harming themselves. Using vast data sets often fraudulently obtained, the scammers are able to perfectly profile their victims who as the villainous Gwak (Kim Mu-yeol) points out are already living in the “hell” of the contemporary society amid employment and financial crises that leave them feeling desperate enough for help that they don’t ask too many questions of a friendly voice on the phone. The workers at the vast call centre in China operated by gangster Cheon (Park Myung-hoon) are all Korean and many of them pressed by debts some of them even scam victims themselves so damaged by the internecine assault of contemporary capitalism as to have given in and agreed to ruin others just as they have already been ruined.

Seo-joon’s primary goal is to get his money back with a little revenge on the side as he takes the police to task and then leads them by the nose to the gang’s base in China, all that time in construction standing him in good stead as he climbs through lift shafts and ventilation ducts trying to expose the scammers and bring them to justice. The police force is first seen to be hamstrung by the high-tech nature of the case while their hands are tied because the gang is operating out of a foreign sovereign nation but are then kicked into gear by super cop Seo-joon who ironically can act with less restraint for no longer being an official law enforcement officer. 

Even so, it becomes clear this kind of crime isn’t going away even if this particular gang is taken down because the most valuable commodity in the world of today is personal data and there’s more and more of that available with every passing second. There is indeed a lot on the line not least the nature of the contemporary society dragged ever further into a spiralling race to the bottom, the effects of an exploitative social system from the abuse of migrant workers to the anxiety of high unemployment rates and poor working conditions simply more tools to be manipulated by scammers promising a helping hand with a reassuring voice on the phone telling you they have the solution to all your problems but this too involves a small fee, just a tiny investment in your future you’d be foolish not to make. A timely condemnation of the amoral venality of contemporary capitalism, Kim & Kim’s steely thriller sends its hero on a quest for justice both personal and societal while pursuing the duplicitous voices all the way to the end of the line. 


On the Line screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley, San Diego April 22 & 25 as part of this year’s SDAFF Spring Showcase.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Introduction (인트로덕션, Hong Sang-soo, 2021)

A young man struggles to define himself in the shadow of parental expectation in a minor departure from Hong Sang-soo, somehow warmhearted even its icy exteriors and wilful melancholia. As the title perhaps implies, the hero of Introduction (인트로덕션) finds himself in the midst of his life’s prologue while receiving sometimes unwelcome “introductions” from each of his parental figures including one to a prominent but ultimately pompous actor (Ki Joo-bong) apparently a family friend to his divorced parents though adopting only the unsympathetic authoritarianism of the traditional father rather than the empathy the young man seems to seek. 

Divided into three loose episodes in the life of Youngho (Shin Seokho), Hong’s tripartite tale opens with an almost comic scene of a middle-aged acupuncturist (Kim Young-ho) bargaining with God promising to become a better person if only He helps him get out of some kind of fix. This moment of crisis might be why he’s suddenly asked Youngho, his son with whom he seems to be semi-estranged, to visit him though in a repeated motif we never find out quite what it is he wanted to say because in this case an old friend and famous actor suddenly turns up. Youngho is kept waiting in the waiting room while his girlfriend ironically waits for him at another location. Meanwhile he’s fussed over by his father’s doting receptionist who gives him the sense of familial comfort he lacks with either his mother or father. Suddenly he hugs her, a moment bringing new import to his later argument with the actor in which he rejects the inauthenticity of acting claiming that when he embraces someone it ought to mean something because it would be “morally wrong” to fake that kind of connection. 

The old actor, however, assumes his discomfort is some kind of young person’s puritanism sure that it doesn’t matter if it’s just “acting” or playing around, when a man embraces a woman it’s all “love”. Youngho implies his decision to abandon acting because of its essential inauthenticity is partly romantic jealously on the part of his girlfriend, yet in reality we realise that he is no longer with the woman who waited for him outside the acupuncturist, Juwon (Park Miso), despite having made an impulsive and possibly ill-advised decision to follow her to Berlin after she left to study abroad. Just as Youngho has a series of unsatisfactory “introductions” from mum and dad, Juwon struggles to assert herself in the company of her mother (Seo Young-hwa) despite having travelled to another country where she will it seems be staying with her mother’s close friend (Kim Min-hee). Juwon’s mother fears her friend has changed with age, now in someway younger, immediately asking Juwon to drop the honorifics that instantly divide them as members of different generations while apparently having abandoned conventionality by divorcing to become a bohemian artist. 

During their brief meeting, Youngho also remarks that he thinks his father has “changed” while musing on the idea of asking him for money to come to Berlin as a foreign student to be with Juwon, unwittingly trampling on this small step of freedom Juwon has been able to take away from her mother if only towards an aunt. Hong structures each of his sequences around groups of three people that begin and end with two, the last somehow awkward in its evenness as Youngho invites a male friend (Ha Seong-guk) to dine with his mother (Cho Yoon-hee) and the actor, perhaps sensing that he may need some kind of moral support. He is always, in one sense or another, left out in the cold not quite alone but in his own way lonely, hugging the receptionist but only gazing up at his mother on her hotel balcony literally unreachable in their unbridgeable emotional distance. He waits for her to wave, but she does not. On the beach on an overcast afternoon and not quite alone except perhaps in spirit, Youngho begins to realise that he’ll have to make his own introduction, his parents can’t help him even if they wanted to because they are are also a little lost, confused, and filled with anxiety. “Don’t worry too much” Youngho tells a similarly troubled soul in what turns out to be a dream, but it’s advice he might as well be giving himself looking out over a boundless ocean in contemplation of his life still to come. 


Introduction screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Trailer (Korean subtitles only)

An Old Lady (69세, Lim Sun-ae, 2019)

“Would you say I’m safe in these clothes?” the 69-year-old heroine of Lim Sun-ae’s An Old Lady (69세, 69-Se) asks of a now sympathetic police officer who has just, perhaps slightly inappropriately, complemented her on her always elegant dress sense little knowing it’s little more than ineffectual armour designed to help her feel not just less vulnerable but less culpable in the eyes of those who tell her that she is to blame for her sexual assault at the hands of a healthcare professional. 

Lim opens with a lengthy period of darkness in which we only hear the dialogue between Hyo-jeong (Ye Soo-Jung), an elderly woman receiving her final physiotherapy treatment following a knee operation, and 29-year-old nurse Joong-ho (Kim Joon-Kyung). We can hear Hyo-jeong’s discomfort in her muted replies to Joong-ho’s increasingly inappropriate comments on the beauty of her legs and youthful appearance and though we don’t see what happened next, we’ve heard enough to believe that what she says is true and that she has been assaulted by someone who was supposed to be a position of utmost trust. Though she doesn’t quite explain why, Hyo-jeong asks her live-in partner, Dong-in (Ki Joo-bong) to accompany her to the police station certain that she should report the crime but fearful and needlessly ashamed. The police, however, are not originally sympathetic, giggling slightly when they realise Joong-ho is a handsome 29-year-old man, stunned into disbelief that anyone would rape a 69-year-old let alone someone 40 years their junior. “We won’t make a scene, it’s not a murder” the lead investigator insensitively adds as a means of assuring them he’ll be discreet in his investigations. 

As a counsellor later points out, rape victims are forced to prove the accusation even when there is clear video evidence. The problems Hyo-jeong faces are the same as any other woman, but they are compounded by her age and most particularly by the spectre of dementia which is both wielded as a weapon by Joong-ho who admits to the sex but claims it was consensual, and by the police who must proceed as if her testimony may not be reliable. Hyo-jeong didn’t known Joong-ho’s name to report it and claims not to have known him previously, but he tells investigators he met her at a Christmas market and in fact recommended his hospital to her. In many senses, this is irrelevant. Meeting someone once and taking them up on a recommendation does not amount to consenting to a sexual relationship and there’s no evidence of their meeting on any subsequent occasion, but the inability to remember it clouds Hyo-jeong’s mind leaving her wondering if she really could have known him and begun some kind of romance and then simply forgotten about it. 

Dementia is a key tool in the gaslighting of the elderly who, when they ask legitimate questions about their healthcare or financial circumstances are simply told that their memory is faulty and everyone believes it because they’re old. Ageism is something both Hyo-jeong and Dong-in are repeatedly forced to face, berated by the young for being slow or in the way and watching as others seem to step in and assume authority over them as if they were children who can’t look after themselves. Hyo-jeong bears her troubles with quiet grace, but Joong-ho’s abuse of his position is all the more egregious because it leaves her afraid to seek medical treatment despite being in great pain. The police struggle to believe a young man would rape an old woman, but fail to spot that a predator has most likely installed himself in a line of work in which he is likely to meet vulnerable people who cannot fight back because of the physical impairments they are receiving treatment for, knowing that should they complain he can easily dismiss their claims as a figment of an elderly imagination. Hyo-jeong is only able to force him to admit inappropriate sexual contact because she preserved material evidence in not wanting to deal with her soiled hospital gown. 

“It drowns you little by little, life is really stubborn” she later tells an unrepentant Joong-ho complaining about having his life “ruined” by her desire for justice, and we can see that she has also had tragedy in her life that perhaps prevents her from asserting herself. Though living with Dong-in and working in his shop, she stubbornly continues to call him “Mr. Nam”, and the situation is indeed complicated by the irony that the pair met when she was his care nurse while he was recuperating in a hospital. The police didn’t quite like it that these two elderly people live together but aren’t married, and there are obviously problems with Dong-in’s resentful lawyer son (Kim Tae-hoon) who declares that it’s fine for his widowed father to live with a woman but he doesn’t see why he should take an interest in her private life. Nevertheless he later comes up with a legal tip that they should be prosecuting Joong-ho on a charge of assaulting someone with an age-related disability which might make it easier to get through the courts. Hyo-jeong doubts herself and backs off, Dong-in uncomfortably shifting into a mild chauvinism as he tries his best to protect her while outraged that someone like Joong-ho can just carry on living his life after what it is he’s done, continuing to provide medical care to other vulnerable women. 

Yet through her ordeal Hyo-jeong perhaps finds the strength to step into her self. “Telling my story isn’t easy. But this is me taking a step into the sun”, she says now more grounded and less minded to run away, ready to face the past as well as the future in having accepted herself for all that she is. A fierce condemnation of an ageist, patriarchal society, An Old Lady eventually allows its oppressed heroine to free herself not through revenge but through the simple act of refusing to be silent in the face of injustice. 


International trailer (English subtitles)

Hotel by the River (강변 호텔, Hong Sang-soo, 2018)

Hotel by the river posterTaking an extended sojourn in the melancholy world of European gothic, Hong Sang-soo takes Death to task in the Bergmanesque Hotel by the River (강변 호텔, Gangbyun Hotel). Shifting away from formal experimentation to something much more straightforward, even traditional, Hong maintains his love of dualities and unexpected symmetry as he places an elderly poet in the grip of his own mortality side by side with a young woman dealing with the emotional fallout of having been involved with a man whose heart had frozen. Beautiful but barren, the snowbound landscape points to an inner winter where hope of an invincible summer has long since passed, leaving only regret and futility in its place.

Our hero, Younghwan (Ki Joo-bong), is about to do “something foolish” once again. Feeling the icy fingers of Death on his shoulders, he’s invited his two estranged adult sons to visit him in a small hotel where he has been staying at the grace of the management. Meanwhile, he spends his days composing a last poem and gazing idly at the snow-covered vista below which is where he catches sight of a beautiful young woman with a visible wound on her hand. Like Younghwan, the young woman, Sanghee (Kim Min-hee), is here in retreat though hers is of a more immediate kind. Broken hearted over lost love, she’s invited a close friend, Yeonju (Song Seon-mi), to help her through, making a sad vacation of a trying time.

Feeling his mortality, Younghwan’s desire to see his sons is born more of a poetic sensibility and a need to put his affairs in order than it is of any great paternal affection. “Men are incapable of grasping love”, Yeonju intones from two tables over after she and Sanghee accidentally become the only other diners in a quiet eatery not far enough from the depressing hotel. Meanwhile, Younghwan is trying to excuse his decision to walk out on his family when his sons were small through love as a life philosophy, that real love must be pursued at all costs even if it fails. He claims he left the boys’ mother because it would be wrong to stay out of a sense of “guilt” alone, but his lack of remorse for the hurt his individualised actions have wrought makes his justifications hollow.

Hurt is where we find Sanghee whose internalised suffering is neatly externalised in her wounded hand. Literally “burned” in love, she is one woman among many misused by a weak willed and insensitive man much like Younghwan himself. Yet where Younghwan wallows, superficially rejects his responsibility, and frostily tries to reconnect with his sons, Sanghee heals herself with the warmth of friendship, hibernating her way towards wholeness as if waiting for the winter sun. Younghwan sees beauty in the inviolability of snow, but Sanghee sees life even here and she values it. If the magpies can make a nest even in the depths of winter, there must be hope for her too.

Younghwan has no hope, for he knows his days are over. An aesthete, he is captivated by the beauty of the two young women, repeatedly complimenting them on their attractiveness and eventually deciding to dedicate his final poem only to them after doubling back on his distant sons to return for more drinks with softer companionship. The poem is harsh and self lacerating, a confession of sorts but one made to a neutral audience and lamenting the oppressive forces of futility he subconsciously blames for an inability to pursue emotional authenticity.

Even Younghwan’s sons are mere echoes of himself – Byungsoo (Yu Jun-sang), the melancholy artist too afraid to pursue female companionship, and Kyungsoo (Kwon Hae-hyo), a dejected middle-aged salaryman too ashamed to tell his father that his marriage has failed. In a piece of parting advice, Younghwa expounds on the meaning behind Byungsoo’s name – “byung” as in “side by side”, intended not only as a literal hope that the brothers would always be close (something which does not seem to have come to pass), but also to echo Younghwa’s two minds life philosophy. One mind capable of conceiving of heaven, and the other to walk the ground. One mind will try to conquer the other but, Younghwan counsels, you mustn’t let it. His advocacy for balance in all things only further reinforces his failure to achieve it. Younghwan’s former wife describes him as an “absolute monster with no redeeming human features” which seems like a stretch given the broken, lonely old man before us but might well have been true in his youth full of a poet’s fire untempered by age’s regret.

The ironically named “Heimat” hotel is of course a temporary refuge, existing almost out of time with its old fashioned decor and atmosphere of faded grandeur. Younghwan is staying here for free on the invitation of a fan whose ardor eventually fades. A guest who’s outstayed his welcome, Younghwan is resolved to the coming end of his world, anticipating release if not redemption but lingering on until his day is done filled only with regret for life’s futility and its many disappointments. Hotel by the River finds Hong at his most poetic, but also at his most melancholy in a fatalistic reckoning which finds no escape from its eerie snowbound beauty.


Hotel by the River was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)