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)

Red Carpet (레드카펫, Park Bum-soo, 2014)

red carpet posterExpectation is a heavy burden for a film. Not just the hopes built by excessive hype, but the way it chooses to define itself in advance. Of course, particularly with big budget studio movies it’s marketing men who decide all that rather than filmmakers but still, it’s hard to escape the feeling of confusion when the way a film was marketed works against its true nature. For a film like Red Carpet (레드카펫), an indie rom-com with a strangely innocent heart, it cuts both ways. The salacious hook is that this is a story of porno hell – tortured artists, egotistical men, and abused women. This is couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, Red Carpet is deeper than it seems, asking real questions about the place of the porn industry in a modern society and attacking our own unfair and hypocritical judgements on its existence.

Park Jun-woo (Yoon Kye-Sang) is a lifelong cinephile who dreams of making award winning films he can watch on a Sunday afternoon with his parents, but life has been unkind to him and so he’s been working in the adult video industry for the last ten years. His life changes when he arrives home one day to find a strange young woman waiting there who accuses him of being a prowler and repeatedly hits him over the head with a frying pan. When the police get involved and take Jun-woo’s side seeing as he has the proper documentation it’s revealed that the woman, who has just returned for an extended period living in Spain, has been duped by a housing scam. Jung-woo, being the kindly soul he is, lets the woman, Eun-soo (Koh Joon-hee), live with him until she figures things out. Eun-soo is also a former child actress keen to get back into the profession and takes a keen interest in some of Jung-woo’s scripts never knowing exactly what kind of films it is that he really makes…

Though the setting is the porn industry, director Park makes sure to keep things light and humorous, showing the reality of adult video making but avoiding directly displaying it on the screen. Jung-woo’s work is almost entirely themed around porn parodies of famous movies as in the first shoot we witness where we gradually realise that the whole thing is Oldboy remade as a sex film (apparently including the corridor hammer fight, though no one’s figured out what to do with that yet). More amazing titles follow including the amusing “Inspect Her Gadget”.

Jung-woo may be conflicted about his career as a porn director, longing for the chance to make more “serious” films, but the rest of the crew is fairly happy with their choice of profession. This is, after all, just a job the same as any other. No one here is forced to work in the porn industry. There are no gangsters, no women trapped, abused, or forcibly hooked on drugs to keep them compliant. Everyone here seems to have made a free choice to engage in this type of work and is free to stop anytime they choose.

The problem, in this sense, is ours. Jung-woo and the crew face constant social stigma for what they do. At several points someone (well, always a man) is asked if they watch porn – to which they sheepishly admit, giving the impression that it is something they rarely do and are ashamed of doing. This central fallacy is the entire problem, everyone is watching the films Jung-woo makes – probably thousands more people have watched his adult movies online than have seen the legit movie which was plagiarised from a script that he wrote but was not allowed to direct because he didn’t have the “experience”. Yet everyone disapproves of pornography, tries to deny they watch it, and has the impression that people who make these films are in some way damaged or perverted. Enjoying a meal together in a restaurant, the gang are accosted by a “fan” who asks for a photo with a “famous actress” only to suddenly grab her breast. Just because she’s an actress in adult movies, the man thinks it’s OK to grab her  – “she sells her body”, so what’s the problem? The man, who obviously watches porn, does not think of the people who make it as other human beings but as commercial products existing only for his pleasure.

Jung-woo, in a sense, thinks this too but doesn’t quite realise until he’s made to read out a statement at a press conference in which he’s supposed to apologise for his “unethical” behaviour but refuses, avowing that neither himself or his crew has ever felt ashamed of the work they do. Jung-woo’s dreams are directly contrasted with Eun-soo’s as she works hard to become a legitimate actress all the while loosing her individual freedom to the marketing concerns of her agency and facing the prospect of being forced to abandon Jung-woo, whom she has come to care for, in order to keep her new career and avoid the “scandal” of being in any way associated with the porn industry.

Even if it seems like people such as Jung-woo are not allowed their dreams, it can still all work out in the end as long you’re true to yourself and accepting of everything you are and were. Jung-woo’s early career was harmed by an unscrupulous competitor who stole Jung-woo’s shot and took the credit himself but his “success” may only be temporary because he’s living a lie of artistic integrity while Jung-woo and Eun-soo have maintained their authenticity even when it looked like it may cost them everything they wanted. Improbably sweet and charming, Red Carpet is an innocent love story in which dreams come true through hard work, perseverance, and compromise but finally through truthfulness in the refusal to be shamed for simply being what you are.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Paju (파주, Park Chan-ok, 2009)

pajuPaju (파주) is the name of a city in the far north of Korea, not far from “the” North, to be precise. Like the characters who inhabit it, Paju is a in a state of flux. Recently invaded by gangsters in the pay of developers, the old landscape is in ruins, awaiting the arrival of the future but fearing an uncertain dawn. Told across four time periods, Paju begins with Eun-mo’s (Seo Woo) return from a self imposed three year exile in India, trying to atone for something she does not understand. Much of this has to do with her brother-in-law, Joong-shik (Lee Sun-kyun), an local activist and school teacher with a troubled past. Love lands unwelcomely at the feet of two people each unable to make us of it in this melancholy coming of age tale shot through with tragic irony.

To begin at the beginning, eight years prior to Eun-mo’s return from India, Joong-sik is hiding from the police in the home of his first love, now the wife of a comrade who, unlike Joong-sik, is serving time for unspecified political crimes. After Ja-young (Kim Bo-kyung) returns home from failing to see her husband in prison and aggressively ignores Joong-shik, he somehow manages to seduce her only for a tragic accident to befall her young son while the couple are busy in the bedroom.

Guilt ridden, Joong-sik runs away to religious friends in Paju in an attempt to evade the police and the unpleasant domestic mess he’s just created back in the city. Whilst there he meets the teenage Eun-mo and ends up marrying her older sister, Eun-su (Shim Yi-young). When Eun-su is killed in an accident, the pair end up living together as a family but Eun-mo’s growing maturity and Joong-sik’s past traumas conspire to ensure the nature of their relationship is, like their environment, in constant flux.

Joong-shik is a man with an uncertain outlook. Believing himself to be bad, he’s constantly trying to overcompensate in goodness by participating in church activities and getting involved in social activism. His political activity is more born out of a desire to appear to care, than actual caring, as he later confesses to Eun-mo. He got involved because he thought it was “cool”, stayed out of loyalty, and finally continues because he doesn’t know how to stop even though he thinks the struggle is pointless. Joong-shik is man who’s convinced himself he doesn’t deserve what he wants, so he avoids wanting anything at all and has become hollow as a result.

It may be this quality of vagueness that sets Eun-mo’s alarm bells ringing, aside from the obvious intrusion of a stranger into her necessarily close relationship with her older sister who is her last remaining relative following the deaths of their parents. Eun-su seems overjoyed in her unexpected marriage but cracks appear when Joong-shik remains unwilling to consummate the union. Ironically enough, Eun-su has a series of burn scars across her back which she speculates is the cause of Joong-shik’s aversion. Joong-shik does indeed have a habit of “burning” other people – from the accidental scalding of Ja-young’s son to Eun-su’s eventual fiery death of which her scars are a grim foreshadowing. This fear of being the harbinger of misfortune is perhaps why he finds honesty such a difficult concept, even if his main aim is to protect those he truly cares about from being burned by a truth which only he possesses.

With a touch of Antonioni inspired astuteness, Park begins the film in thick fog as Eun-mo attempts to chart her way back home to a town she no longer quite knows. The mist eventually lifts but Eun-mo spends the rest of the film lost in the haze, perpetually prevented from seeing anything clearly. Realising Joong-shik has lied to her about the circumstances of her sister’s death she becomes increasingly suspicious of him just as she’s forced to confront her (she judges) inappropriate feelings for a man who is technically a relative even if she didn’t suspect him of contributing to whatever it is that really happened to Eun-su. Each is hiding something, unwilling to reveal themselves fully to the other, intentionally blurring the world around them and damaging their own vision in the process.

Anchored by a stand out performance from actress Seo Woo in the difficult role of the emotionally fragile Eun-mo, Paju is a sad tale of the corrosive effects of guilt and unresolved longing. Eun-mo has returned home in search of answers to questions to she’s too afraid to ask, whereas Joong-shik has too many answers to questions he never stops examining. Sacrifices are made as Eun-mo and Joong-shik attempt to move forward but once again find themselves facing different directions as Eun-mo looks to the future and Joong-shik to the past. Beautifully shot with an intriguing non-linear structure, Paju is an ambitious indie drama realised with unusual skill and genuinely affecting human emotion.


International trailer (English subtitles) – WARNING! Contains major spoilers.