What a Man Wants (바람 바람 바람, Lee Byeong-heon, 2018)

What a man Wants posterMarriage, eh? Bit of a rollercoaster. Lee Byeong-heon’s sex farce What a Man Wants (바람 바람 바람, Baram Baram Baram) takes two ordinary couples and exposes the various hypocrisies which underpin their existences as they battle boredom and excitement in turn before finally figuring out exactly which relationship(s) they would ideally like to be in full time. The sexual politics are distinctly old fashioned, as is the male fantasy wish fulfilment at the film’s centre, but Lee chooses wryness over cynicism in asking if a little infidelity here and there might actually strengthen an otherwise shaky connection.

Seok-guen (Lee Sung-min) used to design rollercoasters all over the world, but now he drives a taxi on Jeju and gets his kicks “picking up” fares. That’s not to say he doesn’t love his wife, the patient Dam-deok (Jang Young-Nam), but he enjoys the thrill of the chase and favours instant gratification over the patient pleasures of married life. Seok-guen is often aided and abetted in his assignations by his straight laced brother-in-law, Bong-soo (Shin Ha-kyun), who is married to Seuk-guen’s forthright sister, Mi-young (Song Ji-hyo). Bong-soo doesn’t really approve of Seok-guen’s carrying on and doesn’t see the appeal of extra-marital affairs, but realises he has little choice other than to help Seok-guen out or risk his family life imploding. The couples live next-door to one another and are extremely close.

The trouble starts when Seok-guen tries to pick up the alluring Jenny (Lee El) at a pool bar. Bong-soo, not normally smitten, is seemingly hit by a lightening bolt and finds himself suddenly fantasising about another woman. Seok-guen had long been urging Bong-soo to have an affair (which is odd seeing as Bong-soo is married to his little sister), but he probably hadn’t envisaged him stealing Jenny out from under him. Flattered when Jenny starts paying him attention, Bong-soo succumbs only to make a rookie mistake of going home with her panties in his jacket pocket. Bong-soo takes revenge for years of being an alibi and blames the whole thing on Seok-guen who is mock thrown out by Dam-deok though she only really means to teach him a lesson rather than get rid of him for good.

The problem with Jenny is she’s not really real. She’s an embodiment of a male fantasy that might as well have been conjured up by the otherwise dull Bong-soo. With her sexy outfits, self consciously cute way of speaking, and frankly unbelievable interest in a boring failed restaurateur you really have to wonder if she’s not some kind of spy or a master criminal lining up a mark (except that neither Seok-guen or Bong-soo have any money). Sadly, no. She’s just the archetypal sexpot ripped straight from a ‘70s farce with little more to her character than sauciness with a side order of harlotry, despite the valiant efforts of actress Lee El who attempts to imbue her later emotional scenes with depth and sincerity to make up for her underwritten role. Jenny repeatedly claims to know what men “want” and then gives it to them, like some sort of temptress from a folktale, never allowed to express what it is she might “want” but only ever hanging around to be “won” by one of the two guys.

Bong-soo and Seok-guen undergo a role reversal when an unexpected tragedy forces Seok-gun to reassess his philandering ways while Bong-soo becomes a practiced adulterer. The marriage of Mi-young and Bong-soo is already on shaky ground – their sex life is all but dead and they’ve been having trouble conceiving. Mi-young is addicted to social media while Bong-soo spends his spare time building LEGO models, and in addition to being marital partners they also co-own an “Italian” restaurant which Bong-soo has long wanted to turn into a Chinese one (he trained as a Chinese chef) but Mi-young continually ignores his dream despite the fact that the restaurant is permanently empty and about to go bankrupt. Partly mid-life crisis, Bong-soo’s affair is motivated by a need to reassert his “manhood” while Jenny flatters him, strokes his ego, and does all the “wifely” things the “bossy” Mi-young refuses to do.

Yet just as Seok-guen said they would, Bong-soo’s fortunes improve thanks his to philandering – he becomes a better chef, the business takes off, and Mi-young (paradoxically) seems to develop more faith him as well as additional respect for his increasing “manliness”. Both men, through their interactions with the almost non-existent Jenny, are then forced to consider what, or who, it is they really want though Lee’s message seems to be that there are “secrets” in every marriage and perhaps it’s better not to ask too many questions if you want to maintain a happy married life. Cynical, though gleefully so, What a Man Wants is a salty affair but one which ultimately places its faith in “love” to find its way home despite the messiness of the journey.


What a Man Wants was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

International trailer (English subtitles)

I Can Speak (아이 캔 스피크, Kim Hyun-seok, 2017)

I Can Speak posterGenre in Korean cinema has always been a more fluid affair than it might be elsewhere, but careering from zany generational comedy to affecting historical drama is perhaps a bold choice. I Can Speak (아이 캔 스피크) is, in many ways, the story of an old woman’s personal revolution as she finds herself repurposing her “Goblin Granny” credentials to pursue justice for a great evil she spent a lifetime hiding from, but it’s also an unabashedly political attack on a legacy of unresolved national trauma. Nevertheless, despite its slightly awkward straddling of cheeky comedy and heartrending melodrama, I Can Speak does at least manage to lay bare a series of entrenched social problems affecting all areas of modern Korean society while also making a fairly uncontroversial (at home at least) political point.

Park Min-jae (Lee Je-hoon) has just transferred to the local council offices in a rundown area of Seoul. Seeing as he’s new and very by the book, he doesn’t know that everyone in the office is terrified of “Goblin Granny” (Na Moon-hee)  – an old woman who turns up every single day with a list of complaints and things around the neighbourhood that could do with being fixed. Min-jae, unaware of Goblin Granny’s fortitude, attempts to deal with her complaints in a bureaucratic manner. He is no match for Ok-boon’s bloodymindedness, but his straightforward approach eventually earns her respect.

Ok-boon is the sort of old woman familiar to many municipal offices in that she is essentially lonely and comes in to complain about things just to make her presence felt. She does have a few friends, however – one being the lady who runs the local convenience store, and the other a woman of around her own age who can speak fluent English. Ok-boon decides she ought to learn English too and enrols in an expensive cram school but is abruptly kicked out of the class which is almost entirely filled with youngsters because of her old lady ways. On the way out, however, she runs into Min-jae who was there to check that his extremely high TOEIC scores were still valid. Ok-boon manages to talk Min-jae into giving her English lessons in return for decreasing the burden on the municipal offices by making fewer complaints.

I Can Speak begins firmly in the realms of bureaucratic comedy as the council workers find themselves cowering in front of Goblin Granny while simultaneously enjoying their cushy jobs for life which require almost no effort in their daily activities. Some in the community assume Ok-boon is a horrible old busybody who likes making trouble and pulling other people up on their various social failings but her community patrols come from a good place. The woman who runs a small stall in the market assumes Ok-boon reported her to the police for selling alcohol to a minor but that’s not the sort of thing that Ok-boon would think worth reporting, which is why she doesn’t think much of breaking city regulations to enjoy a drink outside her friend’s shop. Everything she reports is because she genuinely worries someone may get hurt and her main area of concern is with the strange goings on around the market which is earmarked for “regeneration”. Her concerns are not unfounded as she discovers when she overhears some of the council workers talking about taking backhanders to push the redevelopment through while making use of “external labour” in the form of shady gangsters tasked with clearing the area so the ordinary people who live in the old fashioned neighbourhood will consent to quietly move away. Perhaps because no one ever stood up for her, or because she’s sick of being pushed around, Ok-boon is not going to go quietly nor is she going to allow any of her friends to be taken away without a fight.

Ok-boon is perhaps attempting to fight something else, something she has been afraid to revisit for most of her life. The fact is that Ok-boon was one of many Korean women forcibly abducted by the Japanese army at the end of the Second World War and subjected to heinous, inhuman treatment as sex slave in one of the many “comfort woman stations” which existed throughout Japanese occupied territory. After the war, she was disowned by her family who saw only shame in her suffering and insisted she tell no one what had happened in fear of damaging her family’s reputation. One of the reasons Ok-boon wants to learn English is to be able to talk to her little brother again who she has not seen since they were children and has apparently forgotten how to speak Korean after spending a lifetime in the US.

English does however give her back something that she’d lost in the form of a familial relationship with the otherwise closed off Min-jae who is also raising a teenage brother (Sung Yoo-bin) following the death of their parents. It is true enough that it is sometimes easier to talk about painful things in a second language – something Min-jae demonstrates when he shifts into English to talk about his mother’s death. Abandoning Korean allows Ok-boon to begin dismantling the internalised shaming which has kept her a prisoner all these years, too afraid to talk about what happened in the war in case she be rejected all over again. Her worst fears seem to have come true when her old friends learn about her past, but what they feel for her is empathy rather than shame, hurt that Ok-boon was never able to confide in them and unsure what it is they should say to her now.

Ok-boon learns that she “can speak” – not only English but that she has the right to talk about all the things that happened to her and the long-lasting effect they have had on her life, that she has nothing to be ashamed of and has a responsibility to ensure nothing like this ever happens again. English becomes a bridge not only between her past and future, but across cultures and eras as she finds herself bonding with a Dutch woman giving a testimony much similar to her own and receiving the same kind of ignorant, offensive questions from the American law makers as well as cruel taunts from a very undiplomatic Japanese delegation. Undoubtedly, the final sequence is a very pointed, almost propagandistic attack on persistent Japanese intransigence but then its central tenet is hard to argue with. Tonally uneven, and perhaps guilty of exploiting such a sensitive issue for what is otherwise a standard old lady regains her mojo comedy, I Can Speak is an affecting, if strange affair, which nevertheless makes a virtue of learning to find the strength to stand up for others even if it causes personal pain.


I Can Speak screens at the New York Asian Film Festival on 12th July, 6.30pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles/captions)

Pandora (판도라, Park Jung-woo, 2016)

pandora (korean) posterIn a time of crisis, the populace looks to the government to take action and save the innocent from danger. A government, however, is often forced to consider the problem from a different angle – not simply saving lives but how their success or failure, decision-making process, and ability to handle the situation will be viewed by the electorate the next time they are asked who best deserves their faith and respect. Pandora (판도라) arrives at a time of particularly strained relations between the state and its people during which faith in the ruling elite is at an all time low following a tragic disaster badly mishandled and seemingly aided by the government’s failure to ensure public safety. Faced with an encroaching nuclear disaster to which their own failure to heed the warnings has played no small part, Pandora’s officials are left in a difficult position tasked with the dilemma of sacrificing a small town to save a nation or accepting their responsibility to their citizens as named individuals. Unsurprisingly, they are far from united in their final decision.

As the film opens, a group of children marvel at the towers of the new nuclear plant which has just been completed in their previously run down rural town. Not quite understanding what the plant is, they repeat snippets they’ve heard in their parents’ conversations – that the plant is a “rice cooker” that’s going to make them all rich, or it’s a “Pandora’s box” which may unleash untold horrors. Still, they seem excited about this new and futuristic arrival in their dull little village.

Flashforward fifteen years or so and one way or another all the kids now work at the plant, like it or not, because there are no other jobs available. Kang Jae-hyuk (Kim Nam-Gil) is one such conflicted soul who doesn’t disapprove of the plant in itself but has good reason to fear that the powers that be are not taking good enough care seeing that both his father and older brother were killed during a previous incident at the plant some years previously. Jae-hyuk lives with his widowed mother (Kim Young-ae), sister-in-law (Moon Jeong-Hee), and nephew (Bae Gang-Yoo) but is reluctant to marry his long-term girlfriend Yeon-ju (Kim Joo-Hyun) due to his lack of financial stability and growing disillusionment with small town life.

Meanwhile, the wife of the Korean president has been passed a file by a whistle-blower hoping to bypass the corrupt bureaucracy and go directly to the top. The file, compiled by a worried engineer, details all of the many failings at the recently reconfigured plant which has been recklessly rushed into completion without the proper safety checks and required maintenance procedures. Unfortunately the president does not have time to read the report before a 6.1 magnitude earthquake strikes and destabilises the plant to the extent that it edges towards meltdown.

Unusually, in a sense, the president is a good man who genuinely wants to do the best for his people even if he sometimes ignores sensible advice out of a desire to protect those on the ground. Unfortunately, he is at the mercy of a corrupt cabinet headed by a scheming prime minister intent on withholding information in order to push the president into cynical decision-making models predicated on the idea of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few but which mainly relate to the needs of the prime minister and his cronies in the nuclear industry.

The man in charge of the plant has only been there a few weeks and has no nuclear industry experience. His second in command is a company man and his loyalty lies with his employers – he needs to keep everything functioning and ensure the plant will not be decommissioned. The only voice of reason is coming from the chief engineer who wrote the whistle blowing report and nobly remains on site throughout the disaster putting himself at grave personal risk trying to ensure the plant does not pose a greater danger to those in the immediate vicinity.

Claiming a desire to avoid mass panic, the government attempts to order a media blackout, giving little or no information to civilians stranded in the town and fitting communications jammers to prevent the spread of information. The town is eventually given an evacuation order and orderly transportation to a shelter but once there the townspeople are kept entirely in the dark. When they become aware of the full implications of the disaster and try to leave independently, they are locked in while officials flee and leave them behind.

Conversely, the emergency services are hemmed in by regulations which state they cannot act because they would be putting themselves at unacceptable risk. Kang Jae-hyuk, despite his earlier irritation with his place of work, abandons his own cynicism to walk back into the disaster zone to help his friends still trapped inside. The president nobly refuses to order anyone to tackle the disaster directly knowing that it would mean certain death but opts to appeal for volunteers willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Unexpectedly, he finds them. The president is well-meaning but ineffectual, the government is corrupt, and the emergency services apparently overburdened with regulation while under-regulated commercial enterprises put lives in danger. The only force which will save the Korean people is the Korean people and its willingness to sacrifice itself for the common good even in the face of such cynical, self-interested greed.

Despite the scale of the disaster, Pandora takes its time, eschewing the kind of black humour which typifies Korean cinema disaster or otherwise. Serious rigour, however, goes out of the window in favour of overwrought melodrama, undermining the underlying messages of widespread societal corruption from corporations cutting corners with no regard for the consequences to politicians playing games with people’s lives. The powers that be have opened Pandora’s Box, but the only thing still trapped inside is men like Kang Jae-hyuk whose disillusioned malaise soon gives way to untempered altruism and eventually offers the only source of hope for his betrayed people.


Original trailer (English subtitles available from menu)

Derailed (두 남자, Lee Sung-tae, 2016)

derailed posterThe best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, as the old saying goes, but for four down at heels street kids even their meagre attempts to evade a desperate situation land them in even more trouble than they’ve ever been in before. The debut feature from director Lee Sung-tae, Derailed (두 남자, Doo Namja) is bleak and gritty though underpinned by an ironic sense of love and connection which is itself often “derailed” or subverted as genuine feeling becomes a tool to be exploited in the ongoing war between those fighting amongst themselves to get a hand on the bottom rung of the ladder.

A makeshift family of four homeless kids and runaways made up of two teenage couples fights to survive in the backstreets of Seoul. With no practical means to support themselves, Jun-il (Minho), his girlfriend Ga-young (Da-eun), friend Bon-gil (Lee You-jin) and Bon-gil’s girlfriend Min-kyung (Baek Soo-min) are often forced to resort to low-level crime just to get something to eat. Running low on supplies the gang try to steal a car but the plan goes awry when an old enemy, the former boyfriend of Ga-young who blames Jun-il for the prison sentence he’s just been released from, arrives prompting the gang to flee.

Out of options their next plan is a dangerous, possibly unpleasant one – a prostitution scam. Ga-young being a little braver than Min-kyung puts herself forward as the bait and waits for a randy guy with underage tastes to pick her up in a dingy back alley before taking her to a hotel. Once there she needs to text the boys who will march in, rescue her, and blackmail the John. What they didn’t reckon on was that their target would be a big guy and a petty thug operating on the fringes of the sex trade. The boys manage to knock the irritated bruiser, Hyung-seok (Ma Dong-Seok), out and the gang steals his wheels too but they’ve messed with the wrong guy. Hyung-seok calls his buddies, tracks them down, roughs them up and then makes them an offer they can’t refuse. In payment for the damage, inconvenience, and humiliation, Ga-young can work off the debt in one of his “karaoke bars”. Or, he could break Jun-il’s face, choice is theirs.

Jun-il begins the film with a voiceover about his life on the streets. “Being nice is being stupid” he tells us. He has a point. When you’re trapped at the bottom it’s every man for himself, you can’t trust anyone and kindness is always a weakness. Yet Jun-il is “nice”, in a sense. The unofficial daddy of the group, he takes care of the others and refuses to leave anyone behind, hungry, or afraid. It’s no surprise then that he feels so personally responsible for the fate that’s befallen his girlfriend, Ga-young. Despite Ga-young’s pleas to keep himself safe and take care of the others, Jun-il goes to great lengths to try and get the money to buy her back by paying off the impossibly high debt.

Hyung-seok, despite running a chain of seedy “karaoke bars” which straddle the line between providing female company and outright prostitution is also a committed family man with beloved teenage daughter of his own. Apparently, Hyung-seok’s business enterprises have taken a tumble recently, enough to have his wife complaining though it seems unclear if she knows exactly what her husband’s line of work entails. This crisis could not have come at a worse time for him but even if he expresses surprise, concern, and mild outrage that Ga-young’s mother tells him to get lost when he threatens to harm her daughter unless she pays up, Hyung-seok does not seem to see the link between this vulnerable teenager and his own elegantly attired little girl.

To make matters worse, Hyung-seok eventually teams up with the gang’s arch nemesis, Ga-young’s ex, to destroy the band of four as thoroughly as possible. The eventual intervention of the police is perhaps useful and well-meaning, but merely adds another motivating force to this already complicated set of intersecting vendettas. Trapped between a traumatic past and a hopeless future, these are kids whose lives have become so completely derailed that there is almost no possibility of righting them. Family betrays, love fails, friendship collapses, being nice is being stupid but in a world filled with so much corruption it might just be the only chance left.


Derailed was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)