Sinkhole (싱크홀, Kim Ji-hoon, 2021)

Financial security is built on shaky ground in Kim Ji-hoon’s harrowing disaster dramedy Sinkhole (싱크홀) in which one man’s home-owning triumph quite literally crumbles beneath his feet. The latest in a recent series of movies lamenting the sometimes lax safety culture of the Korean construction industry, Sinkhole is also a crushing indictment of a society ruled by house prices in which social status is largely defined by the owning of property while the young in particular struggle to climb out of a deep well of societal despair. 

As the film opens, the Park family is about to move in to their new flat, the first they’ve ever owned albeit with a frighteningly large mortgage, in the middle of a seasonal downpour. Only when they arrive, they discover the movers haven’t even started unloading because their apparently irresponsible neighbour Man-su (Cha Seung-won) has inconsiderately parked his car in front of the entrance and isn’t answering his phone. Patriarch Dong-won (Kim Sung-kyun) ends up in an awkward confrontation with the abrasive apartment dweller which is inconvenient because Man-su apparently works in just about every business in the area which means he continues to run into him just about everywhere he goes. 

Anyway, that’s the the least of his problems because, having made this giant investment, Dong-won can’t help thinking there’s something wrong with his new dream home especially when his adorably polite young son Su-chan points out that his marbles roll across the floor of their own accord. Worried they may have a subsidence problem, Dong-won checks his windows open properly and records evidence of ominous cracks in the pavement outside but struggles to get the other residents to agree to maintenance checks in fear that not getting the answer they want will bring down the value of their property. 

Property prices are apparently everything. Homeownership is an unobtainable dream for many, yet Dong-won already feels insecure in his purchase especially as his colleagues seem relatively unimpressed by the fact his flat is in a recently gentrified area and comparatively modest. Bamboozled into hosting a housewarming, he’s mildly embarrassed to realise the view from his balcony is of nicer, much more expensive luxury flats just across the river which are likely to remain far out of his reach. Nevertheless, his colleague, Seung-hyun (Lee Kwang-soo) declares himself jealous in part because he’s still renting a studio flat and feels that dating let alone marriage is impossible without being in a position to get a multi-room apartment. His colleague Eun-ju (Kim Hye-jun) is in the same predicament but prefers to see it as simply being at a certain stage on the ladder.  

This dream of future security is however quite literally built on shaky ground. There are definitely problems with Dong-won’s new apartment which become increasingly severe from the tilting floors to cracked glass and interruptions with the water supply presumably caused by cost-cutting and shoddy construction practices. When the building collapses into a sinkhole, Dong-won is trapped inside with work colleagues Seung-hyun and Eun-ju along with Man-su and his teenage son Seung-tae (Nam Da-reum). Despite the inherent horror of the situation, Kim keeps the atmosphere light as the small band of survivors attempts to manage as best they can, finding an awkward solidarity while trying to attract the attention of the emergency services and eventually making a daring escape using whatever tools are available to them. 

Even so, as much as the small band of almost strangers bond thanks to their desperate circumstances, there is an uncomfortable conservatism at play especially in the film’s treatment of a working class single mother and her son living in an apartment on the floor below Dong-won’s. That aside, Sinkhole offers a fierce criticism of an increasingly consumerist society in which house prices are all anyone talks about and homeownership is the only badge of social success. 11 years of patient sacrifice is swallowed in an instant, sucked into an abyss of corporate malfeasance, while Dong-won is left to climb out of the hole he’s in on his own. It’s small wonder that some of the survivors decide to drop out of the system altogether, ditching the idea of rooted homeownership for nomadic freedom in buying a small caravan rather than participate in the property market or climb the corporate ladder. “Don’t be happy in 10 years, be happy today!” they enthusiastically chant. The entire society is, it seems, sitting on a sinkhole which might give any minute, what’s the point in investing in a future which could disappear from beneath your feet without reason or warning? 


Sinkhole screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Seobok (서복, Lee Yong-ju, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

Without death, would life still have meaning? Lee Yong-ju’s high concept sci-fi thriller Seobok (서복) situates itself in a near future Korea in which the possibility of immortality is tantalisingly close only there are some who would prefer it not to be, fearing that without the driving force of mortal dread humanity will lose its ambition and thereafter slide into internecine greed. Then again, humanity hasn’t needed much of an excuse before. 

When a foreign scientist is murdered by drone the incident is attributed to “terrorists” presumably objecting to his research into stem cell technology and the possibilities of eternal healing. Fearing exposure, NIS agent Ahn (Jo Woo-jin) advises the project move to a secret location and recruits a former associate, Min Ki-hun (Gong Yoo), to act both as a test subject and a bodyguard. Since leaving the service, Ki-hun has been suffering with a terminal brain tumour that leaves him plagued by debilitating headaches and distressing hallucinations. 

Ki-hun is roped in by the promise of a potential cure for his condition brokered by Seobok (Park Bo-gum), a genetically modified clone who cannot die. Speaking to the dubious ethics of the research project, no one quite thinks of Seobok as “human” though he was born in the same way as any other child. “It’s like collecting insulin from a pig” a doctor later scoffs at Ki-hun’s squeamishness witnessing Seobok hooked up to a chair and milked for his lifesaving properties, realising that this may be his life “forever”. Having lived all his life within the lab, Seobok is filled with wonder for the outside world begging Ki-hun to walk a little slower through a market when the pair are forced on the run together so he can take it all in a little better. He has no clothes of his own, cannot use chopsticks, and is left with nothing to do with his time other than think. The scientists refer to him only as a “specimen” refusing to acknowledge his humanity viewing him solely as a test subject. 

Seobok can’t decide if life in the presence of death is worse than the curse of immortality. Already condemned, Ki-hun no longer knows if he wants to live or is merely afraid of dying. The fear of death is itself a kind of weapon, at least according to those against the project, a force which propels mankind forward in imposing an unavoidable deadline as it struggles against its mortality. Ki-hun, meanwhile, regards his tumour as a punishment, a mark of his moral cowardice in failing to stand up to his boss’ duplicitous practices and blaming himself for the death a friend who was silenced for daring to speak to out. In bonding with Seobok he realises he cannot allow the same thing to happen again in choosing to prioritise his own survival over someone else’s life. Seobok, meanwhile, comes to the opposite conclusion in realising that his existence is potentially apocalyptic and that there is no escape for him because he has nowhere else to go other than back to his “home” at the lab despite coming to an understanding that much of his treatment there constitutes abuse. 

Nevertheless, Seobok is fiercely contested by mysterious foreign forces intent either on capturing or destroying him apparently terrified of the implications of a world in which sickness can be instantly cured and death has become a thing of the past. Such a world would, of course, be very bad news for Big Pharma and the medical industry, yet it’s the philosophical arguments which they claim motivate them in a fear of a permanent and destructive anarchy which is more than a little ironic considering what eventually unfolds in their quest to capture Seobok who, as it turns out, has also developed awesome powers of telekinesis. Rather than eternal life, however, it’s death that the two must learn to accept, Ki-hun reckoning with his trauma while coming to terms with his terminal diagnosis, and Seobok by contrast seizing his humanity by rejecting his immortality. 

Essentially a lowkey existential drama, Lee Yong-ju’s high concept sci-fi thriller boasts excellent production design and large scale action set pieces, yet situates itself in a cold world of paranoia and anxiety in which even mortal dread has been effectively weaponised by duplicitous forces intent on playing god in the permanent power vacuum of the modern society.


Seobok streams in Canada until Aug. 25 as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Svaha: The Sixth Finger (사바하, Jang Jae-hyun, 2019)

The thing about prophesies and the prophets who proclaim them, is that they only have power if people choose to believe in them. “Faith” can become a convenient cover for those who’d rather not explain themselves, a mechanism for manipulating sometimes vulnerable people looking for a greater truth or a purpose in their lives. Svaha: The Sixth Finger’s (사바하) dogged pastor is intent on investigating religious crimes and exploiting spiritual charlatans but he of course has his own agenda, that mostly being that he’s keen to get money off his clients who are in turn hoping to bolster their authority by rooting out “heresies”.

Leader of the Far Eastern Religious Research Institute, a kind of religious detective agency employing only himself, an undercover assistant, and a “deaconess” secretary, Pastor Park (Lee Jung-jae) makes his money flagging up dodgy and/or exploitative practices connected with organised religion. According to him, freedom of religion is “overly” protected, and he is alone on the frontlines of a spiritual war against unscrupulous cultists. Though some kind of protestant, he often works for/against the Catholic Church and is good friends with a Buddhist monk who gives him a tip off about a weird sect he can’t get a handle on, Deer Hill. 

Meanwhile, a young girl, Geum-hwa (Lee Jae-in), explains to us that she was born with an “evil” twin clamped to her leg. The twin wasn’t expected to survive, but is still living with Geum-hwa and her family who keep her locked up in a shed like a beast. Rightly or wrongly, Geum-hwa connects her sister with the deaths of her parents which occurred fairly soon after the children were born. Her grandfather, with whom Geum-hwa now lives, never even registered the birth of a second child out of fear and shame, never expecting her to survive this long. When a truck hits a bridge and exposes the hidden body of a murdered teenager, the police start investigating too, eventually leading them to two young men loosely connected with the shady Buddhist cult. 

“This world is one big muddy mess”, according to the cultists at Deer Hill. It’s not difficult to see why people might be looking for spiritual reassurance in such a chaotic world, but it’s exactly that need that places like Deer Hill may be seeking to exploit. Nevertheless, the only thing that Park’s undercover agent turns up is that there doesn’t appear to be anything untoward. Deer Hill doesn’t accept offerings from its members and even gives money away to the needy. Tellingly, the real nitty gritty to Park’s clients is in doctrinal deviation, they only really want to know what kind of Buddhism it is that they do and if it’s in line with broader teachings of the faith. 

A further tip off leads them to the mysterious Je-seok (Jung Dong-hwan), a legendary Buddhist priest who studied in Japan but apparently devoted himself to the Independence movement and is said to have achieved enlightenment. Je-seok’s teachings are dark in the extreme, “Pain is the fruit of faith” goes his mantra, “pain purifies your blood”. He believes that he is the “light” that will conquer the “darkness” by snuffing out “snakes”. One of his disciples, brainwashed as a vulnerable young man and encouraged to do terrible things in the name of good, begins to doubt his teachings when confronted with a possible hole in his logic and the very real human cost of his strategy. 

Not quite as cynical as he seems, Park retains his faith. It’s ironic that all this is taking place at Christmas and centres on the prophesied birth of a child that threatens someone’s sense of personal power. Unlike most, Park has always regarded Christmas as a “sad” holiday, unable to forget that Jesus’ birth was accompanied by the mass murder of innocent baby boys. He wonders where God is now and why he permits these things to happen. Park has faith that God sent Jesus into the world for the greater good, but Je-seok has convinced his followers that the same is true of him, that he has come to banish the darkness and that all their pain and suffering is fuel in a holy war. Their faith has been redirected and misused for the benefit of a false prophet, while his opposite number has been made to live a life of bestial misery solely because of superstitious prejudice. The police is a fairly irrelevant presence in this series of spiritual transgressions, but there is much less clarity to be had in “truth” than one might hope with “faith” the only solution in an increasingly uncertain world.


Svaha: The Sixth Finger is currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories).

International trailer (English subtitles)

Juror 8 (배심원들, Hong Seung-wan, 2019)

Juror 8 poster 1What is the role of the law in a free and democratic society? In an effort to democratise justice, Korea held its first jury trial in 2008 giving “the people” a voice in the courts. As might be expected the judiciary had its doubts. Where judges and lawyers are best placed to assess the evidence and draw their conclusions, might not ordinary citizens be swayed by emotion or argument? Then again, compassion might be a force sorely lacking in a legal process some might feel to have become too efficient in its keenness to see justice is done speedily, losing all important scrutiny and allowing corruption and complacency to sneak their way in.

Juror 8 (배심원들, Baesimwondeul), a courtroom comedy drama, subtly puts the nation on trial as it asks what the point of the law is if it’s wielded like a blunt object. The case in hand concerns a middle-aged man, Kang Du-sik (Seo Hyun-woo), accused of hitting his elderly mother (Lee Yong-yi) on the head with a hammer and then throwing her off the balcony to disguise the crime. Though the defendant made a confession to police shortly after the incident, he did so vaguely from a hospital bed after being knocked out and now claims he can’t remember the events in question. This presents a problem for the judiciary who had chosen this case for the first jury trial precisely because it seemed so open and shut, all the jury was supposed to do was consider sentencing. Now they’re being asked to consider guilt or innocence and asking lots of awkward questions in what was supposed to be a token effort on behalf of law enforcement to demonstrate that it is listening.

Everything might have gone to plan if it hadn’t been for problematic “Juror 8” Nam-woo (Park Hyung-sik ) who, despite giving some worryingly conservative answers in his interview, instantly sympathises with the suspect and worries that there are too many unanswered questions in the evidence presented. His conviction only strengthens when he wanders off trying to get to the patent office to file sample of a self-defence device he was trying to launch as a business and accidentally meets Kang who seems despondent and frightened, worried he really might be guilty but fundamentally unable to remember.

More cynical minds might ask if Kang’s memory lapse is merely convenient and he hopes to exploit the jury trial to win acquittal through sympathy. Having noticed that Kang has no fingers, Nam-woo insists on a test to see if he is able to swing a hammer only for others to point out that there is no real way to know if he is not physically able to do it or chooses not to to aid his case. Meanwhile, Kang sits sullenly like a defeated ball of pent-up rage, eventually exploding when the jury is handed a letter he claims he was forced to write expressing frustration with his mother’s refusal to sign a legal separation form so that he would be eligible to receive welfare payments.

As his lawyer later puts it, the real villain here is poverty. Kang was raised by a single-mother, something still frowned upon, who had to leave him alone to go out to work. She locked the door from the outside to keep him safe, but that also meant he was unable to escape a house fire and was badly burned at only five years old sustaining prominent facial scarring and the loss of the fingers on both hands which means he is unable to work and cannot easily write. According to the testimony, Kang and his mother argued constantly over money, especially since her job washing dishes at a restaurant came to an end. As her son and dependent, he was unable to claim benefits and wanted, the prosecution claims, to legally sever ties. When his mother refused, they allege that he lost his temper, killed her, and tried to make it look like an accident.

Nam-woo is unconvinced as is another juror whose 30 years as an embalmer tell him that the head wound was unlikely to have been caused by a hammer. Juror 6 is dismissed for speaking out in court, his exuberance held up as an example of teething problems in the jury system, but his words strike a chord with some of the other jurors who wonder if the smug expression on the forensic scientist is there to mask the fact that he didn’t really bother to investigate because there had already been a confession and all he needed to do was “confirm” the police’s findings. Time and again, the jurors accidentally uncover the failings of justice in a system geared towards efficiency. Kang was pushed to confess by police keen to meet their targets, the confession then became basis for deprioritising his case. Or as some of the legal minds put it, they got “sloppy” because there was no sense in devoting time and energy to a matter already closed.

The same thing happens in the jury room. The jurors are ordinary people. They have lives waiting for them. Nam-woo wants to file his paperwork for the business loan, another juror has a child to get back to, one is a salaryman with an angry boss on the phone. Everyone has a vested interest in getting this over with as quickly as possible so they can all go home, but they also take their responsibilities seriously – much more seriously than they were intended to. Korea is a conservative society in which it is natural to follow the guidance of the authorities and the collective will, and so it seems natural to everyone that you simply rubber-stamp whatever the judge says. Nam-woo is a bit different, he notices details and he asks awkward questions. “Just go with the flow” the other jurors urge him, “when in doubt follow their lead”, but he wants to do what feels right. The exasperated businessman orders him to fall in with the boss, in this case the judge, but crumbles when another juror asks for his own opinion. He doesn’t have one, because he’s corporate drone and he’s been conditioned to do whatever the boss says without really thinking about it.

In any case, the jury system itself is a bit of a sham. The jury’s opinion is not legally binding, the judge only has to take it under advisement and can overrule. Sympathetic judge Kim (Moon So-ri), defended in her appointment as “strong and resolute like a man”, is fighting her own battles in a male-dominated arena, hoping for a long overdue promotion following the successful handling of this high profile case she only got through lottery. She begins to notice things she might not have when it was just a formality of sentencing a man who had confessed, but she is under pressure to maintain control and authority while demonstrating the magnanimity of the state. The jurors’ deliberations expose their pettiness and snobbery, some taking against Kang just because he lives in the poor part of town, but also their keenness to ensure the law is fair and exists to protect and not to oppress. Genial and humorous, Juror 8 addresses a serious subject with a lightness of touch and a subtlety that gently exposes the shortcomings of its society while placing its faith in “the people” to make a compassionate choice in the face of a fierce pressure to conform.


Juror 8 screens in Chicago on Sept. 12 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema season 9 where director Hong Seung-wan will be in attendance for an introduction and Q&A moderated by Korean cinema expert Darcy Paquet.

Original trailer (English subtitles)