Daughter of Fire (불의 딸, Im Kwon-taek, 1983)

“Doctor, is it possible in our modern society for someone to suffer from that kind of illness?” the conflicted hero of Im Kwon-taek’s Daughter of Fire (불의 딸, Bul-ui ttal) asks his psychologist, plagued by nightmares of the mother who abandoned him at 11 and suffering what seems to him to be the call to shamanism, only what place could such a backward and superstitious practice have in “our modern society?”. In many ways, it’s exactly that question which Im seems to find so essential, implying in a sense that even in the politically repressive but increasingly prosperous Korea of the late ‘70s that they have perhaps lost something of their essential Koreanness in their abandonment of their ancestral beliefs in favour of modern “sophistication”.

Listening to his troubles, the disinterested psychiatrist reassures Hae-joon that it’s just a “minor neurosis” caused by “frustration” which can easily be cured. On his way home, however, Hae-joon is accosted by an older woman dressed in shaman’s clothing who addresses him as a son, reminding him that he has the blood of shamans running in his veins and try as he might he’ll never be able to escape it. Her intervention perhaps links back to an earlier encounter with the pastor at his wife’s church who explained to him that his wife is at the end of her tether, embarrassed by his lack of faith believing that it reflects badly on her as a religious woman hoping to lead others towards the lord if she cannot at least count her husband among the saved. So great is her distress that she has apparently even considered divorce. This is perhaps one reason Hae-joon is so keen to exorcise his shamanistic desires, though it’s also clear that his presence in his home is intensely resented, his wife later only warmly greeting him by hoping that he’ll be able to let go of his “dark and diabolical life” for something brighter and more cheerful, ie her religion though the grey uniformity and intense oppression of her practice only make her words seem more ironic. 

The pressing problem in his family is that his daughter is also sickly, seemingly with whatever it is which afflicts Hae-joon. She has begun sleepwalking and later suffers with fits and seizures which to a certain way of thinking imply the onset of her shamanistic consciousness. Hae-joon’s Christian family, in a touch of extreme irony, are convinced that an exorcism in the form of a laying on of hands will cure her, yet they like many others view the ritualised religious practice of the shaman as a backward relic of the superstitious past. The ironic juxtaposition is rammed home when Hae-joon is sent to cover a supposed miracle for his newspaper that his wife and her friends from church regard as the second act of Moses, standing ramrod straight and singing hymns while a noisy festival of shamanic song and dance occurs further along the beach apparently a rite to appease both the sea god and the vengeful spirit of an old woman accidentally left behind when her community migrated to another island to escape an onslaught of tigers. Stuck in the middle, Hae-joon exasperatedly explains to his photographer that this parting of the seas isn’t any kind of miracle at all, merely a natural result of low tide revealing that which would normally be hidden. 

Yet despite his unsatisfactory visit with the psychologist, Hae-joon becomes increasingly convinced that only by finding his mother can he come to understand what it is that afflicts him. Speaking to the various men who knew her from the step-father he later ran away from to escape his abuse after his mother disappeared, to a blacksmith who cared for him as an infant, and the men she knew after, Hae-joon begins to understand something of her elemental rage. Driven “mad” by the murder of her lover by the Japanese under the occupation, she wandered the land looking for fire to exorcise her suffering only later to lose that too when the oppressive Park Chung-hee regime outlawed shamanism entirely in his push towards modernity. Consumed by the fires of the times in which she lived, there was no place in which she could be at peace and nor will there be for Hae-joon or for his daughter until they embrace the legacy of shamanism within. 

“Shamanism will not disappear and die” Hae-joon later adds, now able to see that there is or at least could be a place for it in “our modern society” or perhaps that it’s the modern society which must change in order to accommodate it. Despite his long association with depictions of Buddhism, it is the shaman which Im considered the foundation of Korean culture, something he evidently thinks in danger to the perils of a false “modernity”, Hae-joon eventually professing his concerns that without it Korea will forever be oppressed by foreign influence. Only by accepting the shaman within himself can he hope to find freedom in an oppressive society. 


Daughter of Fire streams in the UK until 11th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

No Regret (후회하지 않아, Leesong Hee-il, 2006)

No Regret poster“Why do we have to be so miserable?” a frustrated cabaret bar owner exclaims part-way through a harebrained scheme to get both money and revenge against a lover’s betrayal and a relentlessly unfair society. The debut feature from Leesong Hee-il, No Regret (후회하지 않아, Huhoehaji Anha) is regarded as Korea’s first explicitly gay film from an out gay director but is as interested in social disparity and multiple oppressions as it is in contemporary gay life in a sometimes unforgiving Seoul.

Our hero, Su-min (Lee Yeong-hoon), is an orphan recently ejected from the orphanage after turning 18 and leaving high school. Like many young men in his position, Su-min has been effectively hung out to dry and has very little chance of making much of a life for himself. Quietly angry, he works hard in a factory by day, and studies at a cram school at night, hoping to make enough money to apply for college and ensure a better life for himself. He also has another part-time job as a “designated driver”, getting drunk people and their cars back home in one piece. One particular job, however, changes his life forever when he arrives to meet Jae-min (Kim Nam-gil) who, apparently, seems to fall in love with him at first sight. Despite perhaps being flattered, Su-min hesitates but turns down Jae-min’s overtures, either simply afraid and still uncomfortable with his sexuality or resentful of the awkward power dynamic between them.

The problematic power differential raises its head again when Su-min realises that Jae-min is the factory boss’ spoilt chaebol son seconds after learning he and his friend, both of whom are “casual” rather than “regular” employees, have been let go in a mass layoff. Jae-min, still smitten, pulls strings and makes sure Su-min keeps his job, but Su-min isn’t comfortable with being indebted in that way or of taking another man’s place just because the boss has taken a fancy to him so he quits in anger and does his best to shake Jae-min off his trail. Jobs are hard to come by for uneducated poor boys, and after a spell washing dishes proves unsuccessful he finds himself giving in and taking a job in a host bar karaoke box offering illicit sexual services to select clientele.

Su-min, as he later suggests to Jae-min, is perhaps freer than most to embrace his sexuality given that he has no family to disapprove of him. He is, in a sense, dependent on the feeling of solidarity he has with the other orphans, like his ladies’ man roommate who despite offering to take Su-min to a brothel so he’ll realise what he’s missing out on is actually broadly supportive of Su-min’s sexuality, but is afraid more of them discovering his “fall” into sex work than of them realising he is gay which most of them seem to have done already. In any case, it’s perhaps unsurprising that he personally continues to struggle with his sexuality given his extreme youth even after becoming used to life at the club and the financial benefits it can bring.

As the “madame” tells him, though he’s gay himself he doesn’t hire “gay” guys and it remains true that most of the other sex workers are straight men who are only in the business because they have no other way of making money. Jae-min, meanwhile, feels himself at least a prisoner of his privilege as he repeatedly fails to standup to his domineering mother who has arranged a marriage with a suitable young woman despite knowing that her son is gay. Well educated and wealthy, Jae-min has accepted his sexuality but is unable to embrace it or to break free of the patriarchal social codes which insist that, especially considering he is an only child, he has a responsibility to obey his parents’ wishes by living up to their conservative values, marrying a woman, providing an heir, and taking over the company. Jae-min’s mother even later tells him that she doesn’t care if he continues to sleep with men, but that he must marry the woman she’s chosen for appearance’s sake, little caring for the emotional wellbeing of the oblivious fiancée she is about to condemn to a loveless marriage.

Jae-min continues to chase Su-min who continues to rebuff him until finally seduced, but a note of darkness remains at the centre of their relationship in Jae-min’s self loathing and Su-min’s resentful sense of inferiority. An accidental betrayal born of momentary weakness and followed by an eventual breakthrough leads to a very dark place indeed as the wounded parties decide to take misplaced revenge, against an oppressive society as much as against those who have wronged them. Nevertheless, a kind of “equality” is perhaps achieved through wounds given and received giving way to a more openhearted connection albeit one with a dark genesis. An important step forward in representation, Leesong Hee-il’s indie drama is an oddly hopeful romance in which the heroes eventually succeed in becoming themselves in defiance of the societal oppression all around them.


US trailer (English subtitles)

Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해, Jeong Jae-eun, 2001)

take-care-of-my-catThe time after high school is often destabilising as even once close groups of friends find themselves being pulled in all kinds of different directions. So it is for the group of five young women at the centre of Jeong Jae-eun’s debut feature, Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해, Goyangileul Butaghae). All at or around 20, the age of majority in Korea, the girls were a tightly banded unit during high school but have all sought different paths on leaving. Lynchpin Tae-hee (Bae Doo-na) is responsible for trying to keep the gang together through organising regular meet ups but it’s getting harder to get everyone in the same place and minor differences which hardly mattered during school grow ever wider as adulthood sets in.

Cheerful scenes of high school mischief give way to the uncertain present as five old friends prepare to celebrate the 20th birthday of the group’s self appointed star, Hye-joo (Lee Yo-won). Hye-joo, however, has moved on to a high level office job in Seoul and is about to blow off her high school friends to hang out with her possibly sleazy boss, only to revert back to plan A when he cancels on her. Too cowardly to ring her friends in person, Hye-joo leaves the business of calling off the party to the chief organiser, Tae-hee, who rings round letting the other three girls – jobless Ji-young (Ok Ji-young), and half Chinese twins Bi-ryu (Lee Eun-sil) and Ohn-jo (Lee Eun-ju), know (and presumably has to then ring them all back to tell them the party’s back on).

Hye-joo moved farthest away from her roots both in terms of location and of her social ambitions through taking a well paid admin job in the city. Increasingly materialistic and status orientated, her friendship with the other girls suffers as she sees herself as transitioning to a higher social class. Ironically, her views are equally deluded as she continues to believe that her dedication and willingness to work hard can make up for her lack of a degree but quickly finds herself displaced when the next batch of newbies arrive.

This growing desire for material status has also contributed to a seemingly unbridgeable rift with Ji-young whose economic status is the most vulnerable. Orphaned and living in a shack with her elderly grandparents, Ji-young has recently lost her job and is having difficulty finding another one precisely because of her circumstances – one firm even point blank refuses her application because both of her parents are dead and they need a direct family member to vouch for her. Hye-joo is insensitive in the extreme and often flashes her money around whilst rubbing salt in Ji-young’s wounds by emphasising her lack of it and pouring cold water over her ideas of saving money to study abroad. Small digs like these and insisting that all the girls leave their home town to visit her in Seoul (leaving aside the additional costs for Ji-young whom she knows is having difficulty making ends meet) point to Hye-joon’s own sense of neediness and insecurity.

As a result, Ji-young distances herself from her friends, ashamed of her desperation and feeling unable to ask them for help. It is she who finds the cat of the title when she hears it mewing whilst trapped behind debris on her way home. The cat becomes almost a mirror of Ji-young – alone and abandoned on the streets with no one to look after her. Originally, Ji-young tries to give the kitten to Hye-joon as a birthday present only to have it immediately returned. The cat is then passed around among each of the friends looking for a more permanent kind of affection, but finding little in the way of stability.

The longest and most devoted guardian turns out to be Tae-hee who is perhaps most affected by the loss of her friends and changing circumstances. Tae-hee is from a moderately well off middle class family and has been helping out in her father’s business since leaving school (apparently without pay). Despite her lack of worry over material comforts, she finds herself feeling restless and increasingly interested in the “foreign” with dreams of taking off alone for adventures overseas. Her desire for freedom is partly down to her domineering father who simply overrules all of her decisions even down to ordering food in a restaurant. Tae-hee is the only one to reach out to Ji-young when she realises she might be in trouble and is the only one still there for her at the end. Their economic and familial circumstances may be different, but in their desire to escape the confines of the rundown Incheon for something outside of what it might have planned for them, the two girls are a perfect match.

Of the group of friends the twins receive the least attention, hovering on the sidelines, separate from the mini dramas erupting between the insensitive and self obsessed Hye-joo and the increasingly desperate Tae-hee and Ji-young. As a unit of two they have their own little world which seems much happier and more solid than that of any of the other girls and arguably have less need for the immediacy of their old friendships. They are therefore the ideal place to deposit them, in the form of a stray cat finally finding a home. The past has its place – in the past, the memories are warm and fluffy and deserve to be taken care of, but there comes a time you have to surrender full custody and be content to visit from time to time.

An extraordinarily well composed debut feature, Take Care of My Cat has a more European feeling than many a Korean coming of age drama but is filled with realistic detail such as the constant ringing of the girls’ ever present mobile phones and the onscreen representation of their straightforward text based conversation. There’s a kind of sadness associated with the transition from carefree adolescence to the difficult journey into adulthood with each of the girls discovering what it is they want out of life, or more aptly what it is they don’t want. Hye-joo emerges as the quasi-villain of the piece as she makes an obvious, superficial choice to follow the consumerist trend over valuing human relationships though it’s hard not to feel sorry for her when it appears she’s being set up for disappointment. Ending on a note of hopeful uncertainty, Jeong’s debut feature is a hymn to the theme of moving on but is careful to admit the bittersweet quality of a new beginning.


International trailer (English subtitles)