Idol (우상, Lee Su-jin, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Idol poster 1“Getting others to trust something is more important, not what they choose to believe” advises a cynical politician a little way into Lee Su-jin’s Idol (우상, Woosang). Image is indeed everything. Who are you more likely to believe – the slick, seemingly upstanding politician who’s done everything “right”, or an ageing, inarticulate aircon repairman with bleach blond hair? Two fathers go to bat for their sons, if in very different ways, but only one can emerge “victorious” in their strangely symmetrical endeavours.

Lee opens with a voice-over taken from a speech later in the film belonging to bereaved father Yoo (Sol Kyung-gu) in which he confesses that as his son Bu-nam (Lee Woo-hyun), who had severe learning difficulties, grew older, he found himself having to masturbate him to prevent him harming himself trying to calm his sexual urges. Yoo’s words play over his opposite number’s return home from a research trip to Japan. Koo (Han Suk-kyu) is a politician and former herbalist with a special interest in nuclear power. Ambitious, he spends much of his time travelling for business while his wife (Kang Mal-geum) cares for their wayward adolescent son, Johan (Jo Byung-gyu). A panicked text message warning that Johan has got himself into trouble again gets ignored, but when he arrives home Koo knows he has to act. Johan has knocked someone over and rather than take them to hospital, he’s brought the body back home.

A series of quick calculations tells him that the “best” option is for Johan to turn himself in, despite his wife’s insistence that they simply get rid of the body. He drives the corpse back to the scene and dumps it, gets rid of the original car, and then drives his son to the police station before expressing contrition in front of the cameras. That would have been that if it weren’t for Yoo’s dogged determination to find out what happened to his boy, and the fact that Bu-nam’s “wife” Ryeon-hwa (Chun Woo-hee), an undocumented former sex worker from China, managed to escape meaning there are loose ends Koo knows he needs to tie up.

“This rotting smell” Ryeon-hwa exclaims on putting a number of things together. There is something undoubtedly corrupt in Koo’s superficially smooth world of neatly pressed suits and sharp haircuts. Stagnant water swells around him, along with the murky swirl blood, as he contemplates the best way out of his present predicament. Everything here is stained, marked, or scarred as if hinting at the darkness beneath gradually seeping through.

Yoo, meanwhile, perhaps knows he lives in a “dirty” world and though he never claims to be completely clean himself, is fully aware of the implications of his actions. A widowed father, he tried to do the best for his disabled son. He offered him relief in ways others would find perverse in a strange gesture of fatherly love, finally deciding to get him a wife in the hope of putting an end to such degradation for them both only to regret his decision when he realises Bu-nam may not have died if he’d just stayed home. Koo, meanwhile, tries less to protect his son than himself, weighing up that the boy will most likely get a slap on the wrist and he’ll come out of it looking better because he behaved “honestly” and in line with the law. To get elected he will stop at nothing to preserve the image of properness, even if it means he must get his hands “dirty”.

In that essential ruthlessness, he may have something in common with the jaded Ryeon-hwa whose sister warns Yoo not to trust her because “her nature is different”. Like Koo, she has done terrible things but done them to survive rather than to prosper. Her marriage to Bu-nam might seem like no prize, but it was better than the life she was leaving behind and, crucially, a guaranteed path to Korean citizenship assuming Yoo eventually filled in the marriage papers properly.

Yoo just wants “justice”, but ruthless men like Koo who care about little other than image are not about to let him get it, which is why he finds himself trotted out as a superficial ally to bolster Koo’s appearance at the polls in return for Ryeon-hwa’s “assured” safety. In the end, all Koo’s scheming blows up in his face, but, Lee seems to say, the image always survives and men like Koo know how to spin it to their advantage while men like Yoo will always be at the mercy of the system. A bleak, often confusing, noirish thriller, Idol plunges a knife deep into the heart of societal corruption but finds that truth often matters less than the semblance of it in a society which idolises the superficial.


Idol was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Microhabitat (소공녀, Jeon Go-woon, 2017)

Microhabitat posterIs there a “right” or, by implication, “wrong” way to live your life? The heroine of Jeon Go-woon’s debut feature Microhabitat (소공녀, Sogongnyeo) is determined to live by her own rules, but her unconventional approach to life in competitive Korean society is not treated with the same kind of universal acceptance with which she treats each and every person she meets on her meandering path towards fulfilment. Life is conspiring to take away even the smallest pleasures which make existence bearable, but small pleasures are sometimes all life is about and perhaps the only thing really worth fighting for.

At 31 years old, Miso (Esom) lives what might outwardly be thought of as a miserable existence. Working as a cleaner she exists hand to mouth and is able to afford only a tiny, unheated, one room apartment in a run down part of the city. Her life is tightly budgeted and whatever else anyone might say about the way she lives, Miso is not irresponsible and refuses to get into debt. It is therefore a huge problem when a New Year price hike threatens to push her beloved cigarettes out of her reach. If that weren’t worrying enough, her landlord is also jacking up the rent. Staring intently at her accounts book, Miso contemplates a life without cigarettes and whiskey and then takes a look around her before deciding to strike through the line marked “rent”. Packing her most essential belongings into a couple of suitcases, she decides to make herself temporarily homeless and reliant on the kindness of former friends now virtual strangers whom she hopes will be minded to repay past kindnesses by putting her up for a while.

Miso’s plight is symptomatic of many in her generation who feel they’ve lost out in Korea’s relentlessly competitive, conformist, and conservative society, but her fate also bears out something of a persistent social stigma directed at those without means or family. Unlike the friends she decides to track down, Miso never graduated university – she lost her parents young and then ran out of money, but then she isn’t particularly bitter about something she was powerless to control. Miso’s small pleasures are also ones generally marked off limits to “nice” young women who generally do not smoke or drink and the old fashioned austerity mentality sees nothing good in a “self indulgent” need to enjoy life by “wasting” money on “frivolous” things if you claim not to be able to find the money to pay your rent. Some would say Miso has her priorities all wrong and has messed up her life by getting trapped in the world of casual labour and still being single at such an advanced age, conveniently ignoring the fact that much of the social order functions solely to keep women like her in their place so the higher ups can prosper.

Miso, however, would probably listen patiently to their concerns before calmly brushing them off. She is happy – to an extent, at least, with her minimalist life. She doesn’t need a fancy apartment or a swanky car, she only wants her cigarettes, her whisky, and her boyfriend Hansol (Ahn Jae-Hong) – an aspiring manhwa artist who feels broadly the same but is starting to get frustrated with his own precarious economic circumstances and present inability to offer the degree of economic support which would mean the pair could move in together. The first friend she tracks down, Mun-young (Kang Jin-a), has become a workaholic salary woman who self administers saline drips at work to increase her productivity and declines to put Miso up on the grounds having someone around when she’s not there makes her uncomfortable. Each of her old bandmates has opted for the conventional life but it has not served them well – keyboardist Hyun-jung (Kim Gook-hee) is unhappily married and trapped in a home of oppressive silence, Dae-yong (Lee Sung-wook) is a brokenhearted wreck whose wife has left him after less than eight months of marriage, vocalist Roki (Choi Deok-moon) has a strange relationship with his parents, and former guitarist Jung-mi (Kim Jae-hwa) has thrown herself headlong into stepford wife territory going quietly mad through boredom and insecurity in the palatial apartment that belongs to her husband’s family.

For various reasons, Miso understands that she can’t stay with her friends very long though she tries to help each of them as best she can while she’s around. She cleans their apartments, cooks them nutritious meals, keeps them company and listens to their problems though few of them take the trouble to really ask her why it is she is in the position she is in or how they might be able to help beyond providing temporary shelter. Surprised by one of her wealthy clients who is unexpectedly at home during cleaning time and seems to be distressed, Miso does her best to comfort her, making it clear that she does not disapprove of her client’s lifestyle and thinks she has nothing in particular to be ashamed of. The client, vowing to leave her present occupation behind, feels quietly terrible that her decision inevitably means Miso will lose her job but Miso genuinely means it when she says she’s happy for her client and hopes she will be able to attain her dreams.

Forced to leave the memory of each of her friends behind, Miso’s world seems to shrink until even her beloved whisky now seems like it will be out of her reach. Jeon Go-woon is unafraid to lay bare Miso’s bleak prospects, though she depicts them in an often humorous light as Miso goes apartment hunting in the darkest and dingiest part of Seoul, striding up endless flights of stairs to rooms with increasingly tiny windows before landing at the only realistic possibility in a filthy attic space with no electricity. Still, Miso remains undaunted. She is free, beholden to no one, and retains her kind heart even as she becomes a cypher to us, lost under the grey skies of an indifferent city until she alone becomes the tiny light on its ever expanding horizons.


Microhabitat screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 10th July, 6.30pm.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

How to Steal a Dog (개를 훔치는 완벽한 방법, Kim Sung-ho, 2014)

how to steal a dog posterEverything seems so simple to children. The logic maybe surreal, but it is direct. Problems have solutions and there are clear pathways to achieve them even if they seem odd to a more adult way of thinking. Perhaps we’d all be better off if we thought about social issues in the same way children do, though naivety and innocence often prove blindspots in otherwise solid plans. How to Steal a Dog (개를 훔치는 완벽한 방법, Gaereul Hoomchineun Wanbyeokhan Bangbub) is basically a heist movie in which two adorable little girls plan to kidnap a beloved pooch from a rich old lady who will then be only too happy to part with her millions to get it back but it’s also a subtle social satire on class relations and the economic causes of family breakdown in modern Korea.

Little Ji-soo (Lee Re) tries her best to put brave face on it, but at home everything’s gone wrong. In fact, they don’t even have a home any more – Ji-soo’s dad’s pizza business failed and he’s run off and left them. Evicted, the family have been living in the old pizza van while Ji-soo’s mum (Kang Hye-jung) has convinced an old flame (Lee Chun-hee) to give her a job as a waitress in a posh cafe. It’s approaching crunch time because Ji-soo’s birthday is coming up and the other kids are expecting to be invited to a party at a house Ji-soo doesn’t have. When she spots an ad for a lost dog which promises a reward, Ji-soo strikes on an idea. Together with a new found friend (Lee Ji-won), she hatches a complicated plan to steal the beloved dog of the grumpy old lady (Kim Hye-ja) who owns the cafe where her mother works and extort enough money to buy a lovely new house for her family where she can have her birthday in style.

Ji-soo’s worldview is both cheerfully innocent and extremely cynical. Sad and lonely with her dad gone, she blames her mother’s fecklessness for their present plight, berating her lack of practicality and failure to get her kids into a proper home in good time. Playing the sensible one for her family of three, Ji-soo is always on the look out for scams and trickery, assuming most people are up to something especially when it comes to innocent little girls. Hence she quickly has the number of the local pizza boy (Lee Hong-ki) who takes orders for family size pizzas but writes regular on the order slips and then pockets the difference from the unsuspecting customer. When she spots an ad in an estate agent’s window for houses at 5 million won she becomes fixated on gaining exactly that amount of money, thinking “per three square metre” is the name of an area and little knowing that 5 million won won’t even buy you a front porch in Seoul let alone an entire house.

Though living in a van is not exactly pleasant, Ji-soo’s problem is more one of social shame than it is of actual discomfort. All the kids at school have already been indoctrinated with class competitiveness and everyone is still talking about the last birthday party, the subject of which is getting a little nervous in case Ji-soo’s house turns out to be nicer than his. No one knows Ji-soo’s dad has run off and they’re living in a van, even the teacher seems curious enough about Ji-soo’s putative birthday party to actively remind her about it and enquire when she plans to make some kind of announcement to her schoolmates.

Thankfully, Ji-soon does eventually learn that money and status aren’t everything. The mean old lady turns out just to be sad and lonely, filled with regrets about a mistake made in her past. The scary homeless man (Choi Min-soo) turns out to be a goodhearted free spirit, and Ji-soo’s mum finally finds her feet after buckling down in an honest yet low paying job which requires a lot of early morning starts. From Ji-soo’s point of view, adults are still a bit rubbish but everything seems to be working out for the best. Oddly pure hearted for a story about dognapping, How to Steal a Dog is a charming, whimsical adventure in which a little girl’s faith in the goodness of the world is finally rewarded, even if not quite in the way she imagined.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Manhole (맨홀, Shin Jae-young, 2014)

manhole posterFinding the sinister in the commonplace is the key to creating a chilling horror experience, but “finding” it is the key. Attempting to graft something untoward onto a place it can’t take hold is more likely to raise eyebrows than hair or goosebumps. The creators of Korean horror exercise Manhole (맨홀) have decided to make those ubiquitous round discs the subject of their enquiries. They are kind of worrying really aren’t they? Where do they go, what are they for? Only the municipal authorities really know. In this case they go to the lair of a weird serial killer who lives in the shadows and occasionally pulls in pretty girls from above like one of those itazura bank cats after your loose change.

Of course, it’s sort of our first victim’s fault because she’s dared to go out late at night on her own and committed the cardinal sin of shouting at her over protective father on the phone shortly before realising she’s wandered into a horror movie by mistake. The lights start flickering, everything goes wavy and then you’re being pulled down a manhole. Not cool.

Anyway, the real story is about two sisters. Yeon-seo (Jung Yu-Mi) is now the sole guardian of Soo-jeong (Kim Sae-Ron) following the death of their parents and also seems to be harbouring some kind of guilt over an accident that left Soo-jeong permanently deaf. Perhaps a little over protective as a consequence, Yeon-seo instructs Soo-jeong to stay in their apartment and wait for her to get back. Soo-jeong, however, is old enough to push the boundaries and ventures out alone to meet her sister on her way home with an umbrella. Unfortunately, she catches sight of the killer along the way and is soon trapped in the sewer like everyone else, apparently. Yeon-soo tries to call the police but they aren’t interested so she has little choice but to track her sister’s phone and journey underground herself. She’s joined (well, they’re there at the same time) by the father of the first victim (Choi Duk-Moon) who happens to be a former policeman, now in possession of a gun stolen from a friend also set to make a fateful descent at a later point.

Manhole is a very confused film. Unable to decide who its protagonist(s) is (are), it meanders freely between its disparate plot strands without ever managing to build coherent connections between them. Though the sisters are posited as the main element of the story, they take quite a long time to arrive and are then frequently sidelined in favour of other ongoing developments. Their story is undoubtedly the most interesting as it presents an unusual plot device in which they remain unable to communicate verbally during their attempts to escape from the sewers and it’s nice to see sign language used so ordinarily in a genre film, yet even their meagre backstory is painted in broad strokes and through flashbacks once again making it difficult to fully connect with them as they battle the threat in the shadows.

The role of the killer, Soo-chul (Jung Kyoung-Ho), is also a difficult one as he is neither protagonist nor generic threat but given a small amount of flashback backstory delivered in monologue to his victims which only serves to make him a frustrating presence. Manhole seems as if it has a point to make about families in that Soo-chul is a damaged child of a broken home, both trying to avenge himself and regain what he’s lost by, in a sense, “recreating” a family through his kidnappings. Frequent glances towards the prominently displayed portrait of the ideal family contrast with the other relationships in the film – Jong-ho and his hunt for his missing daughter, and the bond between the two sisters. Both of these family units are also missing elements – the sisters who’ve lost their parents and Jong-ho as a lone father. Neither of the parental figures in the film is fully able to protect their charges despite appearing controlling and over protective prior to the incident though no particular reason seems to be offered for this other than praising parental sacrifice in allowing both to fight all out to protect those closest to them.

What Manhole tries to be is a chase film, confining itself to the sewer environment as its crazed killer crawls around it like the literal beast in the shadows, cocooning victims in clingfilm and wearing bug-like bright red night vision goggles. Though exciting enough the frequent cutaways and over reliance on shaky cam disrupt the claustrophobic atmosphere as do the stereotypical jump scares and framing which feel as predictable as the final sequence of a video game in which the idea is to dodge the falling axes. Muddled and inexpertly photographed, Manhole is a disappointing genre exercise which even the generally strong performances of its cast can’t mask. Still, hardcore genre fans may find more to admire in the gore stained darkness of the oddly accessible sewer network and its lizard-like psycho killer.


International trailer (English subtitles)