Birthday (생일, Lee Jong-un, 2019)

Birthday posterOn 16th April 2014, a ferry carrying mostly teenagers on a school trip sank taking 304 passengers and crew down with it. The Sewol Ferry tragedy was to have profound ramifications, asking a series of questions as to corporate and political corruption in the society which had permitted such an accident to happen and then failed to mount an effective rescue. In the five years since, many films have probed the causes and implications of the tragedy, but Lee Jong-un’s Birthday (생일, Saengil) is not so much interested in the incident itself as in the nature of grief and all the more so when it takes place across a national canvas.

Lee picks up three years after the sinking as husband and father Jung-il (Sol Kyung-gu) returns to Korea after five years of working away in Vietnam. So disconnected is he from his family, that he was only vaguely aware that they had moved and has trouble finding the new apartment. When he gets there, his wife Soon-nam (Jeon Do-yeon) pretends to be out, sending Jung-il back to stay with his understanding sister who tries to fill him in on the various reasons he might not be welcome at his own door.

The loss of the couple’s oldest child, Su-ho (Yoon Chan-young), in the ferry tragedy is only gradually revealed though it’s clear that there is an absence in the family home. Soon-nam has kept Su-ho’s room exactly as he left it – school uniform hanging on the wardrobe door, unfinished school work on the desk, post-its seemingly everywhere. Meanwhile, youngest daughter Ye-sol (Kim Bo-min) is often left to her own devices while Soon-nam buries herself in work and shuts out everything that reminds her that her son is never coming home.

While some of the other parents have formed a tightly bonded community forged by shared grief and anger, Soon-nam wants no part of it. Invited to a gathering after bumping into other parents at the memorial site, she lasts barely a few minutes before accusing them of turning their suffering into an excuse for frivolity. It’s not as if she could ever forget what happened to her son, but when the ferry tragedy is on every street corner, on the radio, on the news, it becomes impossible to ignore. Soon-nam wants her grief to herself. Her son and her loss. She isn’t interested in sharing him with anyone else, be that an increasingly angry society or her little girl who is now terrified of water and worried about her mum.

Jung-il, burdened with guilt for having abandoned his family, tries to address his grief in a more positive sense by re-embracing his role as a father to Ye-sol who was so small when he left that she doesn’t really remember him. Though Lee is not particularly interested in the political ramifications of the tragedy, she does subtly point the finger at the effects of economic pressure on the ordinary family which have seen Jung-il exile himself abroad and Soon-nam working so hard just to keep her head above water that Ye-sol is caught in the middle. Jung-il wasn’t there when his family needed him, and there’s precious little he can do for them now other than try to be around.

The other members of the support group have been holding birthday parties for some of the kids who passed away, turning the solemnity of a memorial service into a celebration of life. Soon-nam is against the idea – she would rather save the day for herself in private commemoration, but Jung-il is broadly in favour. Probed, he has to admit he barely knew the young man his son was becoming and that this party might be the only way to reconnect with the boy he lost. A passport that will never be stamped, colleges that will never be applied to, weddings that will never take place – the finality of the loss is crippling, but in holding the birthday parties those left behind are able to find a kind of acceptance in shared remembrance and a confirmation that their loved ones were loved and will continue to be loved even in their absence. A sensitive yet uncompromising exploration of the sometimes forgotten personal dimension to a national tragedy, Birthday is a beautifully complex evocation of learning to live with loss and a strangely uplifting, cathartic experience.


Birthday was screened as the opening night gala of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Chase (반드시 잡는다, Kim Hong-sun, 2017)

The Chase posterKorea may not quite be facing such an ageing population crisis as neighbouring nations, but old age has become a persistent cinematic preoccupation. We’ve seen old women still engaging in acts of prostitution to support themselves in the absence of family (and indeed the state), serial killers becoming dangerously confused, and ageing grandmother’s attempt to see the beauty in a world that seems to be descending into chaos. What The Chase (반드시 잡는다 Bandeusi Jabneunda) shows us is that the elderly do at least have time on their hands that could well be used for fighting crime and protecting the vulnerable.

If you were appointing elderly street guardians, you probably wouldn’t pick Deok-soo (Baek Yoon-sik). A curmudgeonly landlord with a conviction that everyone is out to diddle him on their rent, Deok-soo complains loudly when a body is found in a nearby area because it’s going to damage property prices. People who are supposed to die should just die, he exclaims, that’s patriotism! You can bet your bottom dollar Deok-soo voted for Park Geun-hye, but despite his grumpy exterior he has a soft heart as one of his young charges reveals when she reminds him that he’s never thrown anyone out just because they didn’t pay up. Deok-soo has taken quite a (paternal) liking to Ji-eun (Kim Hye-in), a young woman living alone away from family in one of his horrible little apartments. Aside from her rent arrears and tendency to let her mixed up friend stay over so often that she virtually lives there, Ji-eun is one of Deok-soo’s favourite tenants.

Which is perhaps why he gets himself so involved when she suddenly goes missing after a shock discovery is made in her flat. Other than the first body which got Deok-soo so worked up, a few other elderly people have been passing away in lonely deaths which, sadly, isn’t particularly suspicious save that the pattern matches that from an unsolved serial murder case from 30 years ago which began with the killing of old people and then progressed to sexually aggravated murder of young women with long dark hair – just like Ji-eun.

Aside from the ongoing serial killer plot, director Kim Hong-sun makes space for depicting the various problems faced by the elderly in contemporary Korea. The first problems are loneliness and dislocation caused by separation from family members – many of the older people Deok-soo is familiar with have children overseas whom they have all but lost touch with. The second problem is economic – Deok-soo’s flats are dirt cheap for a reason and mostly inhabited by the very young and the very old, i.e. people without a lot of “disposable” income. Being elderly, they often can’t find jobs and don’t have access to a proper pension leading many to take to the streets protesting for rights for the aged including that to work or to be given state support. Deok-soo is lucky with income from renting the apartments, but he also works as a locksmith which brings in a few extra pennies. Being Deok-soo he isn’t particularly worried about other people less lucky than himself, so he rolls his eyes at the protests but is worried enough by the lonely deaths to ask one of his tenants to look in on him every now and then to avoid becoming one.

Meanwhile, Deok-soo has become “friends” with a retired police detective who’s convinced the serial killer he failed to catch 30 years ago is back. Worried that Ji-eun may end up among his victims, Deok-soo begins investigating, unwittingly getting himself mixed up in a dark and confusing world of old school hardboiled only Pyeong-dal (Sung Dong-il) is not quite as worthy a guide as he seemed. Walking around like a maverick cop from a violent ‘70s action movie, Pyeong-dal is convinced he knows who the killer is but he is old and unsteady and his mind is not perhaps reliable.

Then again a persistent subplot seems to argue that the young have no respect for age, are selfish and corrupt, thinking only of short term pleasures and forgetting that they too will one day be old with no one around to look after them. No one takes Deok-soo and Pyeong-dal seriously, they are after all just grumpy old men that everyone wants to get rid of as quickly as possible. They do, however, (paradoxically) have time to indulge in “silly” ideas that the young do not have and are, therefore, perfectly positioned to take down a serial killer who preys on the weak and vulnerable including old men like them and pretty young girls like Ji-eun. Old guys have still got it, at least according to The Chase, though they might have got there faster if only they’d cut the young whippersnappers some slack.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Also available to stream on Netflix.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Cart (카트, Boo Ji-young, 2014)

cartUp until very recently, many of us lucky enough to live in nations with entrenched labour laws have had the luxury of taking them for granted. Mandated breaks, holidays, sick pay, strictly regulated working hours and overtime directives – we know our rights, and when we feel they’re being infringed we can go to our union representatives or a government ombudsman to get our grievances heard. If they won’t listen, we have the right to strike. Anyone who’s been paying attention to recent Korean cinema will know that this is not the case everywhere and even trying to join a union can not only lead to charges of communism and loss of employment but effective blacklisting too. Cart (카트), inspired by real events, is the story of one group of women’s attempt to fight back against an absurdly arbitrary and cruel system which forces them to accept constant mistreatment only to treat their contractual agreements with cavalier contempt.

Sun-hee (Yum Jung-ah) is a loyal employee at the Mart. She’s had zero penalty points for five whole years and has been told that she’s about to be transferred from a temp worker contract to a regular employee position. Run more like a cult than a supermarket, the Mart’s workers all wear pristine blue and white uniforms and recite the dramatic sounding company credo every morning, vowing to increase sales whilst honouring customer service, and are instructed to say “Welcome Beloved Customer!” to each and every visitor. Eager to take on extra overtime with no extra pay and always at the beck and call of brusque manager Choi (Lee Seung-joon), Sun-hee is respected by her colleagues but perhaps not always liked as her goody two-shoes persona both makes them look bad and encourages the management to continue taking advantage.

Sun-hee’s dreams are about to crumble when the evil corporate suits at HQ decide it would be cheaper to fire all the temp workers and use outsourced labour instead. Despite all her long years of hard work and sacrifice, not only is she not getting her secure position, she might not have a job at all. Some of the other women decide they’ve had enough with their poor working conditions and it’s worth taking the chance on forming a union to fight head office together. Sun-hee is reluctant but is eventually convinced to become one of the spokespeople, after all, if they won’t listen to miss five years no penalties, who will they listen to?

It’s worth asking the question why all these terrible jobs with low pay and frequently exploitative conditions are being done exclusively by women. All of the workers on temporary contracts are female from the cleaning staff to the shelf stackers and cashiers, but all come from different backgrounds from young university graduates to old ladies and ordinary working wives and mothers. The management is unwilling to listen to the concerns of their staff because they are “only women”, “working for pocket money” and should just be grateful that the store gave them something to do rather than being bored at home. Pointing out that many of these women are single mothers or live in difficult economic circumstances meaning they need that money to eat would likely not go down well with these fiercely conservative, wealthy executives whose only response is to tell the women not to be so silly and to stop making a fuss over nothing because the men have business to do.

After just ignoring the women fails and they decide to go on strike eventually occupying the store for a longterm sit in, the company go on the image offensive, offering minor concessions including the reinstatement of some, but not all, workers and other small improvements designed to guilt some of the employees with more pressing circumstances to cross the picket line. Eventually, they go to the extreme measures of employing armed thugs and riot police to remove the women by force. In contrast with other similarly themed films from other countries, there is no attempt to get the press onside to expose the company’s workings and the only news reports seen in the film are extremely biased, painting the women as selfish loonies making trouble for everyone by refusing to shut up and accept the status quo.

Following a fairly standard trajectory, the main narrative thrust is the gradual blossoming of near brainwashed and timid employee Sun-hee into a firebrand campaigner for social justice. Through being encouraged to stand up for the other women, Sun-hee becomes concerned not just with her own treatment but the general working environment in Korea. This new found indignation also helps rebuild her relationship with her sullen teenage son after he experiences some workplace discrimination of his own which his mother is able to sort out for him now that she is not prepared to simply smile, nod, and apologise every time someone attempts to get their own way through intimidation.

Cart treats an important issue with the kind of levity and interpersonal drama which make it primed for a screen one hit rather than a later night run in screen five catering to those already aware of the issues. It probably isn’t going to agitate for any direct social change and according to the final caption the outcome of the original incident was more of a bittersweet accomplishment rather than an outright victory. Still, the fight goes on, even if you find yourself ramming a supermarket trolley into a riot officer’s shield to get the message across – an effect which Cart mimics in its quest to ensure as many people as possible get the memo that the time for passive acceptance has long since passed.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)