A Special Lady (미옥, Lee An-gyu, 2017)

A Special Lady posterAll you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun – so goes the age old wisdom. Korean cinema, it has to be said, has been in a fairly progressive mood of late with several high profile female-led action movies to complement the macho melodrama that has become synonymous with the nation’s cinematic output. There has, however, been a slight imbalance in the way these films have been presented – yes, women carry guns and issue roundhouse kicks to the face but they do so out of maternal fire. This obsession with corrupted motherhood finds a natural home in Lee An-gyu’s A Special Lady (미옥, Miok) which puts puts Kim Hye-soo in a blonde wig and then asks her to do pretty much what she did in Coin Locker Girl only more sympathetically.

Na Hyun-jung (Kim Hye-soo) has risen from lowly bar girl and exploited sex worker to be the right-hand woman of mob boss Kim (Choi Moo-sung). Marshalling a collection of (well cared for) high class call girls, her main stock in trade is blackmail – she sends her girls out as honey traps to capture “important” people, bring them back to the “hotel” for illicit “fun”, and film them in the act to compel them to work in the best interests of the gang. The plan usually works, but snotty prosecutor Choi (Lee Hee-joon), who has just returned from his honeymoon after marrying the boss’ daughter, liked to think of himself as having integrity and is hell bent on revenge against the villainous Na. Exploiting weaknesses already exposed within the gang including the stormy romance between Na and ambitious foot soldier Lim (Lee Sun-Kyun), and the return of Na’s illegitimate son with boss Kim whose wife and (legitimate) child were murdered by a rival organisation, Choi sets about taking it down in an unorthodox way as a means of getting his sex tape back but also fulfilling his commitment to “justice”.

The English title, A Special Lady, has an awkward spin to it with its mobster-esque patter hinting at a classy bar girl or much loved peripheral figure. The Korean title which is simply a woman’s name gives a better indication of the tale at hand in its emphasis on loss of innocence, fall, and rebirth as something or someone else. Na is certainly well versed in the gangster world, perfectly equipped to operate within it both in her physical prowess and also in her emotional control, politicking, and ability to strategise, yet she also operates outside of gang structures with many, including Lim who has long been in love with her, resenting that a mere woman holds such a high position with such proximity to Kim.

This marginal status extends to Na’s feminised perspective which reduces her to a figure of ruined motherhood. Na takes care of her girls, as a mother would, entrusting them to another woman who acts as their madam but is fiercely loyal to her, more nanny than henchman. Her major preoccupation is with the son she was forced to give up as an infant after spending time on the inside on behalf of the gang. Joo-hwan (Kim Min-suk) is Kim’s son and heir and the mob boss has been careful to keep him overseas to keep him safe, but either because of persistent parental absence or his gangster genes, the boy keeps getting himself expelled for violent conduct and Kim thinks it’s probably time to bring him home and verse him in his heritage. Na has long wanted to be reunited with her almost grown up son, but he has no idea she is his mother and believes he is the son of Kim’s deceased wife. When Joo-hwan is threatened and then turned against her by vicious rumours, Na will stop at nothing to ensure his safety even if he never knows who she really is.

Na’s descent into ferocious fighting machine, attacking a field full of mobsters with a bone saw, is the rage of a mother whose child is threatened. She doesn’t fight them off because she wants to survive, or for revenge, or simply because they are from a rival gang but because they threaten her children both in the case of one of her girls who happens to be with Na, and of course their targeting of Joo-hwan solely to get to his mother. The world of the film is a persistently misogynistic one – not just in the way women are routinely used as a means to an end by the gangsters, and by Na herself, but in the way that Na struggles to be accepted as a valid member of the gangster hierarchy rather than an adjunct to it as an honorary manager of the female contingent. Lim, who feels displaced by her in his status within the gang, is also desperately in love with Na who seems to return his feelings on some level but ultimately turns him down – something he can not accept, stooping so low as to threaten Na’s child to blackmail her into accepting him despite his intense resentment on finding out about her previous relationship with Kim.

Unexpected action hero status aside, Na becomes nothing more than a figure of corrupted motherhood who must be “repaired” through saving her son and then by retiring to become a more “normal” maternal figure. The debut from Lee An-gyu, A Special Lady features a number of well choreographed action scenes, strikingly composed images, and impressive production design but all too often falls back on tired ideas as its heroine battles valiantly to save her son with the intention of “rescuing” herself in the process.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Coin Locker Girl (차이나타운, Han Jun-hee, 2015)

coin locker girl posterFamily in Korean films, unlike those say of Japan, has always been something of a double edged sword. Coin Locker Girl (차이나타운, AKA Chinatown) takes the idea of “family” and twists it around, bites into it to test its veracity, and offers a wry smirk as the metal begins to bend. Set in Incheon’s Chinatown, Han Jun-hee’s noirish thriller sends its heroine down a series of dark alleyways as she both fights and fights to retain her humanity whilst inhabiting an extremely inhuman world.

Il-young (Kim Go-eun) was found, covered in blood, hidden away in a coin locker, an abandoned child with no clue as to her identity or that of the woman who gave birth to her. Named and taken in by a collection of beggars at the station, she began her life as a street rat though not, perhaps, entirely unloved or friendless. As a young child she was then taken by gangsters working for a fearless female gang boss known as “Mom” (Kim Hye-soo). Mom is not one to suffer fools and feels no compunction in getting rid of those no longer useful to her. She soon puts Il-young to work, pamphleteering, begging, and eventually debt collecting as she grows older under Mom’s watchful eyes. By the time Il-young is almost come of age, she has an older brother and a sister as well as a younger brother with learning difficulties whom Mom still looks after despite her otherwise unsentimental approach to life.

The trouble starts when Mom sends Il-young to collect a debt from the young son of a man who’s skipped the country. Seok-hyeon (Park Bo-gum) is not like the typical clients she’s met before. He opens his door, invites her in, even offers to feed her before she leaves. Il-young finds all of this very strange. She’s never met anyone “nice” before and wonders what his angle is. Seok-hyeon, however, does not appear to have much of an angle aside from perhaps the usual one. Spending a bit of time with him, Il-young begins to develop certain feelings which see her swapping her Mom-style slacks and jackets for pretty summer dresses. Despite his son’s faith in him, Seok-hyeon’s father has not kept his end of the bargain and so Mom decides it’s time to call in the debt by offing Seok-hyeon and harvesting his organs. Il-young has a choice – between the woman she calls “Mom”, and a naive young man she has come to like though he has no place in her kill or be killed world.

One of the most attractive qualities about the young Il-young was that she didn’t exist. No birth certificate and no identity meant that she could be Mom’s to do with as she pleased. Consequently, adolescent Il-young has a more complicated relationship with her “Mom” than most young women but is also acutely aware of the debt of gratitude which is owed, the precariousness of her position, and the reality that she has nowhere else to go should she decide to try and break away from the world in which she has been raised. Never quite sure what her relationship to Mom is, Il-young has come to think of the other children in the same situations as siblings, but again cannot be sure that they feel the same.

Like many a good film noir, the tragedy lies in not completely closing off one’s heart as the harshness of the world dictates. Mom rejects those who are not useful and terminates those who have betrayed her with extreme prejudice, but despite herself she cannot destroy Il-young. Stepping back from her code, her orders are to let Il-young live, condemning her to a fate perhaps worse than death but alive all the same. Mom is betrayed by another child figure enacting a petty act of revenge, but her decision to let Il-young live is the one which threatens to condemn her. Having believed herself an unloved, unwanted child, Il-young is left with two terrible legacies of abandonment and the feeling that she will never leave that coin locker in which she has been trapped since birth. The cycle of maternal sacrifice continues, though Il-young has the opportunity to change her fate by taking charge of it, picking up where Mom left off but with greater compassion even within the confines of her still cruel world.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017. Also screening at Manchester (11 Nov) and Glasgow (16 Nov).

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Red Shoes (분홍신, Kim Yong-gyun, 2005)

the-red-shoesWalk a mile in a man’s shoes, they say, if you really want to understand him. If Kim Yong-gyun’s The Red Shoes (분홍신, Bunhongsin, 2005) is anything to go by, you’d better make sure you ask first and return them to their rightful owner afterwards without fear or covetousness. Loosely based on the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale this Korean take replaces dancing with murder and also mixes in elements from other popular Asian horror movies of the day, most notably Dark Water in its dank and supernaturally tinged dingy apartment setting.

Late one night at a deserted train station in Seoul, a high school girl complains that she’s been waiting ages for her friend to arrive before noticing a pair of hot pink high heels resting incongruously on the platform’s edge. Strangely drawn to them, the girl puts the shoes on only for her friend to turn up and immediately become infatuated with the unexpected footwear herself, suddenly exclaiming that she saw them first. The two fight as the first girl is almost pushed onto the tracks by her friend and all over a random pair of actually quite ugly funny coloured shoes. The eventual winner will come to regret their victory as that night in an otherwise empty train station a teenage girl will loose her footing to a pair of high heels which slowly fill with blood and then disappear leaving only a pair of severed legs behind them.

After this grim opening, we meet another little girl who has definite opinions about her footwear in the form of little Tae-soo who wanted to wear her red shoes to ballet but mum Sun-jae (Kim Hye-soo) says no and they’re already late. Letting Tae-soo learn independence by telling her to make her own way but surreptitiously following her backfires when Tae-soo somehow evades the net leading Sun-jae to head home earlier than expected and discover her husband pleasuring another woman who is also wearing a pair of Sun-jae’s favourite shoes, just to add insult to injury. Next thing you know Sun-jae and Tae-soo have moved into a horrible (but presumably cheap) apartment while they wait for Sun-jae’s new optometrist’s clinic to be finished. It’s all kind of OK, until Sun-jae notices a pair of hot pink high heels all alone on the subway and in obvious need of adoption by a pair of loving feet…

Anyone with a even a passing knowledge of the genre will have figured out the central twist well ahead of time though, strangely, it seems almost irrelevant. The shoes are cursed, but they’re cursed with jealous desire as they both contain the entirety of a scorned woman’s rage and humiliation, and a lingering want for that which has been lost. Spreading like a virus, the shoes pick a host and then target those whom it infects with the need to posses them. This tension manifests itself in odd ways as mother and daughter become rivals in the tug of war over who the rightful owner of the shoes should be. A precocious child, Tae-soo has soon tried on her mother’s new shoes and there after progressed to makeup and pretty dresses. Her mother, rather than using authority or reason to regain her lost treasure, fights with her daughter like a child eventually resorting to violence but with all the force of adulthood. The shoes corrupt even this most innocent and essential of relationships as Sun-jae continues to struggle with maternity as Tae-soo’s overwhelming need to possess the shoes and eclipse her mother’s femininity arrives well ahead of schedule.

Shoes aside, Sun-jae does not seem to be a well woman. Problems with her eyes do not quite explain the flashbacks she’s been experiencing to an apparently traumatic episode in the 1940s in which the shoes seem to feature. She’s also begun having strange waking dreams which involve blood, lots of blood – far more blood than any one body could realistically contain, and bad things happening to Tae-soo. Eventually Sun-jae figures out that the shoes were a bad idea and that there may be other stuff going on in her life that she isn’t exactly aware of, but the extent to which cursed footwear is influencing her behaviour may be open to debate given later (though extremely obvious) revelations.

It just goes to show that misplaced desire can leave you footless and fancy free. Kim does his best to make modern day Seoul a supernaturally scary place, overlaying eerily empty shots of intersections and train stations with gothic infused musical cues whilst having Sun-jae move into the kind of place which only someone trying to disappear would consider. Adding in touches of surrealism from the aesthetically beautiful fantasy sequences to snowing blood, Kim creates the atmosphere of fairy tale whilst allowing for an imbalance of perception in the possibly fracturing mind of his heroine. Despite the often impressive cinematography and strong leading performance from Kim Hye-soo, The Red Shoes never manages to transcend its lack of originality and frequent callbacks to similarly themed genre efforts but nevertheless offers its share of elegantly composed scares even if its internal integrity fails to convince.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Familyhood (굿바이 싱글, Kim Tae-gon, 2016)

familyhoodThere are three kinds of actors – those who wait for roles, those who choose roles, and those who make roles for themselves. Ageing actress Go Ju-yeon (Kim Hye-soo) claims to be the third type, but at any rate she’s currently between gigs and facing professional scandals and personal crises from each and every direction. An unusual family drama, Familyhood (굿바이 싱글, Gotbai Singkeul, AKA Goodbye Single) is the coming of age story of a middle aged woman finally forced into adulthood through an unlikely friendship with a pregnant teenage girl.

A veteran TV star of over twenty years, Go Ju-yeon is perhaps better known for her scandalous relationships with younger men than her onscreen performance. Having worked hard to get where she is, perhaps Ju-yeon is entitled to play the diva, but her “difficult” personality alienates all but her most loyal staff. However, there’s one thing Ju-yeon has been missing – a traditional family life with a loving husband and children. She thinks her latest boyfriend, Ji-hoon (Kwak Si-yang),  a fellow TV star twelve years her junior, may the “the one”, but as it turns out he’s a no good two timing louse using her for her money and star status.

Heartbroken Ju-yeon swears off men forever and decides to buy herself a slice of unconditional love by becoming a mother. Turned down for an adoption because of her obvious unsuitability as evidenced by her appearances in the tabloids and by the fact that she just made this decision a few seconds ago, Ju-yeon figures it’s worth the nine month waiting period to do things the old fashioned way. Unfortunately she’s left it too late as a doctor’s appointment reveals she’s already heading into the menopause. Ju-yeon’s luck changes when she comes to the rescue of a teenage mother in the lift when a more conservative family decides it’s OK to lay into a vulnerable child they don’t even know.

Ju-yeon hits on an idea – buy the girl’s baby and raise it as her own. Dan-ji (Kim Hyun-soo) is an orphan living with her tough as nails older sister so it doesn’t take her long to agree to Ju-yeon’s suggestion even if she has her misgivings. Coming with her own contract prepared detailing her monetary compensation, Dan-ji has given this a lot more thought than the mother in waiting Ju-yeon but a sisterly bond eventually begins to develop between the two women despite the clear instruction to avoid getting attached. However, as Dan-ji’s presence begins to reinvigorate her fortunes, Ju-yeon begins to forget about her original career/romance replacer mission and has less and less time for the surrogate teenage daughter she irresponsibly promised to take care of.

Having lost her mother at a young age and spent all of her adult life in the pampered showbiz arena, Ju-yeon is a forty year old awkward woman child with a severe case of tunnel vision. As Dan-ji points out, Ju-yeon is a pure hearted sort but she’s also selfish and immature, jumping from one thing to the next and never stopping to consider the effect of her actions on those around her. Ju-yeon’s decision to become a mother is a similarly rash and selfish one as she only considers the upside of the boundless love she’s about to receive from this tiny bundle who is duty bound to love her, whilst failing to think about the practicalities of child rearing from the impact on her career and social life to the negative publicity she will receive as a single mother in a still relatively conservative society.

It’s these kinds of double standards which the film seems to want to lay bare as Ju-yeon attempts to come to the rescue of Dan-ji, albeit for selfish motives. Dan-ji, planning to get an abortion, has told no one other than her best friend about the pregnancy and is worried about the school finding out, not least because she is their representative at an inter school art contest. The boy who fathered her child had the temerity to ask if it was his before stealing a ring belonging to his mother to pay for an abortion. He is now off on an international golfing trip representing the country, but Dan-ji is imprisoned, kept out of sight so that Ju-yeon can claim the child is hers. Ju-yeon and Dan-ji first meet when Ju-yeon takes a smug family to task over their decision to loudly criticise Ju-yeon for her “immoral” ways in a hospital lift. After a long journey Ju-yeon will do the same again, only more loudly and even help to win over a few supporters from the collection of conservative mothers waiting for their kids after the art contest.

Kim creates a cosy world filled with calming pastel colours almost as if Ju-yeon really does live in a nursery. Ju-yeon wants to be a mother but still needs mothering herself and mostly gets it from her best friend and stylist Pyung-gu (Ma Dong-seok). Despite vowing to look after Dan-ji at least until her baby is born, it’s Dan-ji who mostly ends up looking after Ju-yeon, providing comfort and comparatively grown up advice whilst Ju-yeon mopes and eats ice-cream. Only when her schemes backfire and Ju-yeon faces losing everything does she finally begin to realise how she’s taken the people in her life for granted. What emerges is a new kind of family in which good friends enjoy food together because they want to eat rather than because someone insisted on cooking. Taking in everything from the ageist sexism of the entertainment industry to teenage pregnancy and neglected children, Kim Tae-gon’s Familyhood is a smart, socially conscious comedy making a heartfelt plea for a more understanding world.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)