Chorokbam (초록밤, Yoon Seo-jin, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

A small family contends with the persistent unfairness of contemporary Korean society in Yoon Seo-jin’s slow burn indie drama, Chorokbam (초록밤). Translated literally, the title means “green night”, the family often bathed in a neon green that seems to reflect their sense of despair and anguish unable to envisage much of a future for themselves in a world ruled by greed and envy which leaves them little option other than to become insensitive to the joy and pain of others. 

As the film opens, the nightwatchman patriarch is busy giving out parking tickets when he suddenly spots a cat hanging from from a children’s climbing frame. Shocked and feeling pity for the small creature, he cuts it down and buries it by the green light of the moon but finds little sympathy when relating his traumatic discovery to his wife. The nightwatchman’s wife is preoccupied with more practical affairs, irritated by her husband’s annoying habits such as leaving the bathroom door open and not washing his hands after finishing his business, while their grown-up son Won-hyung wants to get married but can’t afford a place to live on his salary as a care worker. When it comes to that, they’re soon to be turfed out themselves because their landlord wants to tear the building down. 

Matters come to a head when the grandfather passes away, the nightwatchman’s sisters getting into an actual physical altercation at the wake while loudly complaining about who did or didn’t pay for the funeral. Totting up the condolence money they accuse supposedly cheapskate guests of freeloading, implying they only turned up for a free meal that they have in a sense stolen. Meanwhile, the sisters also want to ensure that their father’s house is sold quickly so they can divvy up the inheritance. What they realise, however, is that there were things about their father’s life they may not have known which raise questions about moral responsibility when it comes to dealing with the affairs of someone who has died. 

The nightwatchman comes to identify with the strangled cat, though the spectre of hanging seems to loom over the rest of the picture with even the nightwatchman’s wife eventually discovering the body of someone whose death she may unwittingly have contributed to. She complains about her husband’s fecklessness, that he, who barely talks at all, makes her deal with anything unpleasant including his hotheaded sisters. She tells him that she regrets marrying into his “horrible” family and is thoroughly sick of dealing with them only to be pursued by a wounded dog with whom she perhaps also identifies. The nightwatchman’s wife is often excluded from the frame, a disembodied voice from behind a wall as she is as she feeds her husband breakfast and again when he asks her to deal with an emotionally difficult situation in a cafe. The nightwatchman simply smokes by a widow as if physically removing himself from the scene. 

Won-hyung meanwhile becomes increasingly resentful with his friends’ wedding coming up, unable to escape the feeling of belittlement in being unable to marry or move forward with his life with little prospect that anything will change. Yoon frames the family’s dilemmas with a deadpan realism, bathing the everyday grimness of their lives in an putrescent green that suggests there may be no escape from this maddening society where all relationships are built on transaction. The family are doing their best but are also estranged from each other, the nightwatchman barely speaking while his wife is left to deal with the uncertainty of their lives alone. She even laments they’ll likely not see the sisters again until the next person dies because their familial connection is essentially hollow and valueless in a society ruled by money. 

The nightwatchman comes to think of himself as a strangled cat, finding himself facing a noose during a poetic dream sequence that encourages him to think of suicide as the only possible escape from his impossible situation. Bleak in the extreme, Kim’s slow burn drama paints an unflattering portrait of the contemporary society as one in which all hope has long been lost leaving only dread and despair in its wake. 


Chorokbam screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Bring Me Home (나를 찾아줘, Kim Seung-woo, 2019) [Fantasia 2020]

“They were all like me” a drowning man exclaims, trying to justify his inhumanity but gaining only poetic retribution as he finds himself shackled, quite literally, to his crimes. Kim Seung-woo’s debut feature Bring Me Home (나를 찾아줘, Nareul Chajajwo) stars Lady Vengeance herself, Lee Young-ae, in her first big screen leading role since Park Chan-wook’s seminal thriller once again cast as a figure of wounded maternity coming for systemic societal corruption and the savagery born of hopeless desperation in her singleminded determination to retrieve her son and take him with her even if with a dark destination in mind. 

Six years previously, Jung-yeon’s (Lee Young-ae) son Yoon-su vanished from a playground at six years old. Since then, her husband (Park Hae-joon), formerly a teacher, has spent every waking moment looking for him while she works as a hospital nurse where her colleagues describe her as a cool, infinitely professional presence. She continually berates herself for a vague memory of wanting a break from her child, exhausted by the act of caring for him as if she somehow brought this on herself or at any rate gave the universe her permission to take him away. Just when the conditions of her life seemed as if they were about to improve with her husband agreeing to return to work, he is killed in a car accident while pursuing a lead which turned out to be useless anyway, a cruel prank played by insensitive children. Left so totally alone, Jung-yeon begins to consider suicide only to receive another promising lead. A boy who looks like Yoon-su and has a burn on his back and a birthmark behind his ear, is working at a fishing pool in a rural town.

The sad truth is Yoon-su or not, the “family” running the fishing pool have “adopted” two displaced children which they use for slave labour, cruelly abusing them both physically and sexually. It’s this essential act of inhumanity which alerts the corrupted community to the danger presented by Jung-yeon. They could give the boy back, claim the reward, and hope she asks no more questions, but the likelihood is all their dirty dealings would be exposed and then they’d have to replace him. Corrupt policeman Sgt. Hong (Yoo Jae-myung) who for some reason seems to be in charge of the fishing pool is confident he can make all of this go away, pretending to be sympathetic to Jung-yeon’s search but insisting that there is no such boy while introducing her to the landlady’s “son” , keeping “Minsu” chained up in the shed. 

Sgt. Hong is fond of reminding people that he works for the government, a symbol of corrupt and oppressive authority obsessed with maintaining his own status as the man in charge apparently insecure in his sense of control. He claims that he was only able to do the things that he has done because no one really cared. Hundreds of people came through and saw Minsu, none of them said anything until another officer noticed that he looked quite like the boy on the news and was struck by the large reward on offer. The same officer accepted a pay off not to say anything, but apparently took the money and talked anyway. Even Jung-yeon’s brother-in-law tries to get money out of her and then comes up with an elaborate ruse to get his hands on the reward after accidentally being given the tip-off. The only one of the gang to treat Minsu with any sort of compassion eventually turns against Jung-yeon out of fear, citing the economic precariousness of the town. He’s worried that their business will be ruined, more shops will close, and as an ex-con he’ll never find another job which is a problem because he wants money to make sure his son goes to university so he doesn’t end up like him. 

“The living must go on living” another of the gang agrees, indifferent to the costs or the consequences of their actions through it’s difficult to see how their desire to save the town could ever justify their treatment of these displaced children, dehumanising Minsu because of his learning difficulties. Jung-yeon finds one of her fliers pasted on a pillar partially covered by another one for missing dog while the gang’s most deranged member keeps his own wanted poster listing rape and murder on the wall of his shack as if it were some kind of commendation. Hinting at a dark history of missing children as evidenced in one young man’s (Lee Won-geun) recollections of being adopted abroad mistakenly believing that his parents had abandoned him, Bring Me Home eventually descends into archetypal pulp for its misty finale, returning to the mythic vistas of desolation in which it began with the dishevelled Jung-yeon walking the shore of life and death consumed by futility in the depths of her maternal guilt, but does perhaps offer a glimmer of hope in the crushing irony of its final revelations. 


Bring Me Home streamed as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 (82년생 김지영, Kim Do-young, 2019)

In authoritarian regimes, dissidence is merely reframed as “mental illness”. Those who speak out are simply dismissed as “mad”, to be pitied for their inability to feel the love the state has for them or to understand that their policies are good, and right, and just. They must be healed, made to see the truth. When Cho Nam-joo’s Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 (82년생 김지영, 82 Nyeonsaeng Kim Ji-young) was published in South Korea it created a cultural schism in a still fiercely patriarchal society, provoking a sustained backlash from conservative commentators while resonating strongly with female readers. The film adaptation directed by Kim Do-young necessarily diverges from the structure of the novel, but once again sees its heroine driven quietly out of her mind by an oppressive society while encouraged to doubt herself for her desire to seek personal fulfilment, as if those who believe in sexual equality are somehow “mad”, treacherous, and ultimately dangerous to the social order. 

When we first meet everywoman Kim Ji-Young (Jung Yu-mi) she’s in her mid-30s, a housewife with a young daughter. She seems harried, a little frantic and tired but perhaps that’s only to be expected caring for a small child. Her husband, Dae-hyeon (Gong Yoo), however is beginning to worry there’s something seriously wrong. Ji-young has been having dissociative episodes in which she speaks about herself in the third person as if possessed by someone else. Matters come to a head when the condition manifests itself at the home of Dae-hyeon’s parents during the New Year celebrations where Ji-young talks back to her mother-in-law, upset that she’s treated like a servant as soon as Dae-hyeon’s sister and her family arrive, snapping that she both is and has a daughter too and that her mother-in-law should have let her leave before her own daughter turned up so she could visit her mother. Dae-hyeon makes his excuses, later calling to apologise and explain that Ji-young is “ill” and so it would be better if they could give her some space, and drives to Ji-young’s parents where she falls deeply asleep and is thereafter unable to remember what happened at her in-laws’ or understand why Dae-hyeon’s mother didn’t pack them off with a boot full of food as she usually would. 

Dae-hyeon’s mother Mrs. Jeong is an embodiment of the various ways women oppress other women in that she is extremely conservative and overbearing, giving Ji-young an unironic floral apron (free from a bank) as a New Year present, and continually resenting her for being her precious son’s wife. When Dae-hyeon tries to help out with the washing up, Mrs. Jeong is scandalised and Ji-young tries to swat him away out of embarrassment while her mother-in-law mutters about modern men, subtly suggesting that Ji-young must be a bad wife if her husband has to pitch in with housework. She does something similar later when she finds out that Dae-hyeon has offered to take paternity leave so that Ji-young can go back to work in the hope that it will help alleviate some of her malaise, destructively yelling at Ji-young over the phone that she’s ruining her son’s precious career, that what she’s doing is selfish and “mad” in rejecting her proper roles as wife and mother. Chastened, even Ji-young then finds herself telling others that Mrs. Jeong has a point, there’s nothing wrong with her housewife life and she wouldn’t earn as much as Dae-hyeon so perhaps it’s not practical for her to go back to work, but also admitting that she sometimes feels trapped. 

Her own mother, Mi-sook (Kim Mi-kyung), points out that Ji-young studied hard too and had a good job before she gave it up to become a mother so it’s not unreasonable to suggest that they look for some kind of balance in the relationship, but is left feeling responsible in that she unwittingly brought her daughter up with the cognitive dissonance of living in a patriarchal society. Mi-sook wanted to be a teacher, but had to give up her education to pay her brothers’ school fees. Ji-young’s sister Eun-young (Gong Min-jung) had to give up her dreams too becoming a teacher for the steady paycheque, while their affable brother Ji-seok (Kim Sung-cheol) was indulged to infinity and allowed to do whatever he pleased. Only Eun-young has been able to some extent to escape the pattern by remaining unmarried, otherwise we can see a long line of thwarted female ambition, women like Mi-sook forced to sacrifice their hopes and dreams but hoping that their daughters wouldn’t have to. 

Meanwhile, Ji-young can’t win. She takes her daughter to the park and is gossiped about by sleazy businessmen who think women like her have it too easy, living off their husband’s salaries failing to appreciate that work done at home is still work. Dae-hyeon does indeed seem to be a “modern” man, good and kind and genuinely concerned for his wife while also guilty that he has contributed to her “madness” through their married life, but he’s also a product of a patriarchal society and largely unaware of his privilege or its effects no matter how much he struggles against his programming. At work, he’s surrounded by sleazy guys who crack sexist jokes and bitch about their wives while attending sexual harassment workshops which are almost offensive in their superficiality. 

Chief Kim (Park Sung-yeon), Ji-young’s boss and mentor, finds herself in a similar position, derided as a coldhearted ballbuster by the male members of staff who criticise her for allowing someone else to raise her child while she works, while her boss openly insults her during a meeting and is pissed off when she tricks him into admitting he’s been inappropriate. She however laments that she’s trapped in the middle, feeling that she’s “failing” at being a mother while knowing that she’s approaching the glass ceiling, and Ji-young’s colleague complains that it’s taken her much longer to get a promotion than the men who joined alongside her. If all that weren’t enough, they also have to contend with the knowledge that the male office workers have been swapping footage from illegal spy cams placed in the ladies’ loos by a rogue security guard. 

Ji-young flashes back to the various instances of sexism and harassment she’s experienced in her life from being saved as a schoolgirl from an attacker on a bus by an older woman (Yeom Hye-ran) coming to her rescue when all her dad could do was blame her, insisting that it’s her responsibility to keep herself safe not men’s responsibility to behave appropriately, to being questioned why her wrist hurt when women have rice cookers now by a male doctor, and her grandmother telling her girls must be quiet and calm. She internalises a sense of misogyny that forces her to question herself, that perhaps she is at fault in feeling trapped because others found an exit she fears she lacked the ability to find. After a lifetime of patriarchal gaslighting, Ji-young is being driven quietly out of her mind by the cognitive dissonance of feeling so unhappy in having achieved so much “success”. Kim Do-young engineers for her a more positive future than Cho Nam-joo had done in her novel, but makes it all too plain that in escaping the madness of the modern patriarchy you might just have to go “crazy”.


Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app until Sept. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It will also be screened in London on 10th September at Genesis Cinema as a teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Microhabitat (소공녀, Jeon Go-woon, 2017)

Microhabitat posterIs there a “right” or, by implication, “wrong” way to live your life? The heroine of Jeon Go-woon’s debut feature Microhabitat (소공녀, Sogongnyeo) is determined to live by her own rules, but her unconventional approach to life in competitive Korean society is not treated with the same kind of universal acceptance with which she treats each and every person she meets on her meandering path towards fulfilment. Life is conspiring to take away even the smallest pleasures which make existence bearable, but small pleasures are sometimes all life is about and perhaps the only thing really worth fighting for.

At 31 years old, Miso (Esom) lives what might outwardly be thought of as a miserable existence. Working as a cleaner she exists hand to mouth and is able to afford only a tiny, unheated, one room apartment in a run down part of the city. Her life is tightly budgeted and whatever else anyone might say about the way she lives, Miso is not irresponsible and refuses to get into debt. It is therefore a huge problem when a New Year price hike threatens to push her beloved cigarettes out of her reach. If that weren’t worrying enough, her landlord is also jacking up the rent. Staring intently at her accounts book, Miso contemplates a life without cigarettes and whiskey and then takes a look around her before deciding to strike through the line marked “rent”. Packing her most essential belongings into a couple of suitcases, she decides to make herself temporarily homeless and reliant on the kindness of former friends now virtual strangers whom she hopes will be minded to repay past kindnesses by putting her up for a while.

Miso’s plight is symptomatic of many in her generation who feel they’ve lost out in Korea’s relentlessly competitive, conformist, and conservative society, but her fate also bears out something of a persistent social stigma directed at those without means or family. Unlike the friends she decides to track down, Miso never graduated university – she lost her parents young and then ran out of money, but then she isn’t particularly bitter about something she was powerless to control. Miso’s small pleasures are also ones generally marked off limits to “nice” young women who generally do not smoke or drink and the old fashioned austerity mentality sees nothing good in a “self indulgent” need to enjoy life by “wasting” money on “frivolous” things if you claim not to be able to find the money to pay your rent. Some would say Miso has her priorities all wrong and has messed up her life by getting trapped in the world of casual labour and still being single at such an advanced age, conveniently ignoring the fact that much of the social order functions solely to keep women like her in their place so the higher ups can prosper.

Miso, however, would probably listen patiently to their concerns before calmly brushing them off. She is happy – to an extent, at least, with her minimalist life. She doesn’t need a fancy apartment or a swanky car, she only wants her cigarettes, her whisky, and her boyfriend Hansol (Ahn Jae-Hong) – an aspiring manhwa artist who feels broadly the same but is starting to get frustrated with his own precarious economic circumstances and present inability to offer the degree of economic support which would mean the pair could move in together. The first friend she tracks down, Mun-young (Kang Jin-a), has become a workaholic salary woman who self administers saline drips at work to increase her productivity and declines to put Miso up on the grounds having someone around when she’s not there makes her uncomfortable. Each of her old bandmates has opted for the conventional life but it has not served them well – keyboardist Hyun-jung (Kim Gook-hee) is unhappily married and trapped in a home of oppressive silence, Dae-yong (Lee Sung-wook) is a brokenhearted wreck whose wife has left him after less than eight months of marriage, vocalist Roki (Choi Deok-moon) has a strange relationship with his parents, and former guitarist Jung-mi (Kim Jae-hwa) has thrown herself headlong into stepford wife territory going quietly mad through boredom and insecurity in the palatial apartment that belongs to her husband’s family.

For various reasons, Miso understands that she can’t stay with her friends very long though she tries to help each of them as best she can while she’s around. She cleans their apartments, cooks them nutritious meals, keeps them company and listens to their problems though few of them take the trouble to really ask her why it is she is in the position she is in or how they might be able to help beyond providing temporary shelter. Surprised by one of her wealthy clients who is unexpectedly at home during cleaning time and seems to be distressed, Miso does her best to comfort her, making it clear that she does not disapprove of her client’s lifestyle and thinks she has nothing in particular to be ashamed of. The client, vowing to leave her present occupation behind, feels quietly terrible that her decision inevitably means Miso will lose her job but Miso genuinely means it when she says she’s happy for her client and hopes she will be able to attain her dreams.

Forced to leave the memory of each of her friends behind, Miso’s world seems to shrink until even her beloved whisky now seems like it will be out of her reach. Jeon Go-woon is unafraid to lay bare Miso’s bleak prospects, though she depicts them in an often humorous light as Miso goes apartment hunting in the darkest and dingiest part of Seoul, striding up endless flights of stairs to rooms with increasingly tiny windows before landing at the only realistic possibility in a filthy attic space with no electricity. Still, Miso remains undaunted. She is free, beholden to no one, and retains her kind heart even as she becomes a cypher to us, lost under the grey skies of an indifferent city until she alone becomes the tiny light on its ever expanding horizons.


Microhabitat screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 10th July, 6.30pm.

Original trailer (no subtitles)