Happy Ero Christmas (해피 에로 크리스마스, Lee Kun-dong, 2003)

Happy Ero ChristmasMany may feel that we’ve forgotten the true meaning of Christmas, but behind the consumerist frenzy aren’t we all just looking for warmth and connection to help us make it through the cold? Well, maybe not, at least as far as one enterprising old man at the centre of Happy Ero Christmas (해피 에로 크리스마스) would have it, but in Korea Christmas is also a time of romance and so our hapless hero hopes to harness the goodwill of the festive season to make this year truly special.

Rookie cop Byung-ki (Cha Tae-hyun) grew up in a hot spring resort famous for its healing waters and inhabited mostly by tourists and gangsters. As a small child dumped by his dad at the baths, Byung-ki suffered a traumatic incident which has defined the course of his life – a horrible gangster decided to throw him into the super hot pool as a kind of hazing exercise, something which caused him both physical and emotional pain. He swore when he grew up he’d get rid of all the gangsters for good, starting with Suk-doo (Park Yeong-gyu) who has a tattoo of the hot springs map symbol but with musical notes instead of steam on his arm.

Unfortunately, however, mostly what Byung-ki does is dress up as the local police mascot “Polibear” and hand out leaflets while taking care of all the other inconvenient station jobs like sweeping the foyer. When he’s not busy dreaming of crime fighting glory, he’s fantasising about the melancholy young woman at the bowling alley, Min-kyung (Kim Sun-a), with whom he’s dreamily in love though she doesn’t seem to know he exists. Min-kyung, as it happens, has hit a rough patch with her fireman boyfriend she started dating when he rescued her from a fire.

Meanwhile, across town, a sleazy old man claims to have discovered the true meaning of Christmas, and it’s X-rated. Rebranding the holiday “Sexmas”, he wants to make an adult movie about a randy Santa who gets kicked out of Santatown for sleeping with all the other Santas’ wives. Coincidentally, the recently released Suk-doo has decided to open a new club, the Sex Palace, during the holiday, while two sexually frustrated teens try to get dates with trombone players and idly fantasise about the abuse of flatfish by sailors at sea.

Suk-doo doesn’t even really remember Byung-ki and is at a bit of a loss as to why he seems to hate him. He spends his life obsessively rewatching Shunji Iwai’s snowy classic Love Letter and getting well and truly into the Christmas spirit to make up for lost time seeing as he spent the last one inside and found it very depressing. Inconveniently for Byung-ki, Suk-doo too develops a liking for Min-kyung after she accidentally spits on him from the roof of the bowling alley after going up there to have a little cry over her rubbish fireman boyfriend.

The thing is, as Min-kyung says, Suk-doo might not actually be that bad. He’s a sensitive soul who knows how to keep Christmas well, which, to be honest is a lot more than you can say for most of the guys in this town. Byung-ki’s efforts to win her heart are so subtle that she hasn’t even noticed most of them, even when he dutifully drops her home after finding her having a drunken karaoke session and she throws up in his police car. Nevertheless, Suk-doo is still a gangster, and gangsters can be awkward too but they’re a lot more dangerous when they are.

Predictably, some of Byung-ki’s most questionable tactics – going through Min-kyung’s bag after it gets left behind in his car when she throws up, quasi-stalking her, putting up a police alarm button right outside her house to let her know he’s only three minutes away etc are written off as awkward goofiness, something which Min-kyung eventually seems to appreciate after realising Suk-doo’s not so nice after all. Suk-doo, meanwhile, gets a sad back story about his mother supposedly dying on Christmas Day, which also happens to be Min-kyung’s birthday, with a series of awkward implications only later undercut by a late confession. As Byung-ki puts it, everyone dreams something special for Christmas be it a weird erotic escapade, or an innocent romance. Mostly everyone gets what they wanted from Santa’s sleigh, riding off into the snow with a new hope for the future whatever that might hold.


Original trailer (extreme low res, no subtitles)

EXIT (엑시트, Lee Sang-geun, 2019)

Exit poster 2“Hell Joseon” manifests as “toxic gas” in Lee Sang-geun’s Exit (엑시트). Millennial “slackers” losing out in Korea’s increasingly cutthroat economy find themselves consumed by their own sense of failure while those around them only compound the problem by branding them useless, no-good layabouts, writing off the current generation as lazy rather than acknowledging that the society they have created is often cruel and unforgiving. Yet, oftentimes those “useless” skills learned while having fun are more transferable than one might think and the ability to find innovative solutions to complex problems something not often found in the world of hierarchical corporate drudgery.

30-something Yong-nam (Jo Jung-suk) spends his days in the park surrounded by grannies and has earned the nickname “IBM” – Iron Bar Man, for his athletic pursuits. The local kids have even come up with an origin story for him that his girlfriend must have died after falling off one and so now Yong-nam is some kind of “village idiot” with an overwhelming need to master the monkey bars. The truth is, however, that Yong-nam has nothing much of anything else in his life. His continual failures to find employment are an embarrassment to his family, and even his little nephew (Kim Kang-hoon) is so ashamed of him that he routinely blanks Young-nam in the street. With mum’s (Go Doo-shim) 70th coming up, everyone is very keen that Yong-nam look the part and try not to embarrass them.

Yong-nam is also quite invested in not being an embarrassment because the only reason he booked this fancy restaurant that’s a two hour drive away is that he’s heard his university crush Eui-ju (Im Yoon-ah) works there. Back in uni when they were both members of the rock climbing club, Yong-nam asked Eui-ju out but she was only interested in friendship so he started avoiding her out of embarrassment. Not really any more mature, he lies that he’s a high flying hedge fund manager rather than admit that his life has not been going well. Eui-ju, meanwhile, is the vice-manager of this events centre but shrugs the job off as not much better than part-time when in reality she’s really running the place while her sleazy boss (Kang Ki-young) who’s only in the position because it’s his dad’s company constantly sexually harasses her and shows no signs of taking no for an answer.

When toxic gas floods the city, however, the pair are instantly in their element. They know how to conjure makeshift stretchers from stuff that’s lying around and how to try and draw attention to yourself when you’re in need of rescue, but find their ideas dismissed by Yong-nam’s confused, conventional family members well used to ignoring crazy uncle Yong-nam. To survive they’ll have to trust him and his rock climbing prowess as he shins his way to the top of the building where salvation seems more of a possibility.

Crisis aside, Yong-nam lives in a world of constant anxiety where he’s forever receiving disaster alerts on his phone for things he never thought he’d have to worry about, and his mother spends her evenings diligently copying down ways to prevent cancer from TV documentaries. Yong-nam’s dad (Park In-hwan) would rather chill out with some soap operas, but it seems you can’t drown out existential dread with vicarious drama. Having more or less given up, Young-nam hasn’t even been going to his climbing club. After all, if you can’t get a foot on the ladder, what use is the ability to climb? “Our lives are the disaster” Yong-nam’s similarly troubled friend exclaims, but the sudden threat of toxic gas does at least give the dejected young man motivation to prove himself in demonstrating that his skills are useful, even essential, rather than frivolous or eccentric as his family members previously believed them to be.

Eui-ju, meanwhile, is kept in her place by a combination of sexism and the demands of a hierarchical society which prevent her from fulfilling her true potential by convincing her that she has to be polite to her odious boss. Teaming up with Young-nam, the pair work as equals and support each other as they try to find ways to survive. No damsel in distress, Eui-ju is finally able to take an active role in her own destiny while also making sure to save other people along the way, often at the expense of the pair’s own chance to escape.

In a loose moment, Yong-nam declares that he’s only applying for jobs in one of the shiny skyscrapers from now on because those guys probably got saved first, but in the end it’s their plucky never say die spirit which saves them, in more ways than one, as their exploits go viral with their millennial brethren who eventually motivate the drone squad to try and keep them safe. There may be no exit from Hell Joseon, but as Yong-nam and Eui-ju discover, you don’t have to listen when people tell you there’s no way out because the only way is up and you won’t know unless you go.


EXIT was screened as the opening night gala of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Extreme Job (극한직업, Lee Byeong-heon, 2019)

Extreme Job poster 2Another in the increasingly popular trend of multi-territory simultaneous productions, Twenty director Lee Byeong-heon’s Extreme Job (극한직업, Geukan Jigeop) shares its premise with recent Chinese hit Lobster Cop but swaps low budget zaniness for the kind of high concept comedy that dominated Korean cinema in the 2000s. Where the Chinese version was perhaps bold in making its law enforcers look like idiots, the Korean version is very much in the long tradition of idiotic but sincere policemen eventually making good, if perhaps more by accident than design.

The film opens with Chief Go (Ryu Seung-ryong) dangling on a window washing wire and making small talk with his quarry who then manages to get away leaving Go quite literally spinning in the wind. The rest of the team give chase, but the guy eventually ends up in a bad way with the gang’s exploits causing a multi-car pileup and a significant amount of public damage for which Go and his team are now responsible. Facing the threat of disbandment, the team senses opportunity when they get a lead on the Korean HQ of a notorious international drug gang and vow to break the case before a rival squad to prove their worth as police officers.

Bedding in for a 24-hr stakeout, Go & co hole up in a small fried chicken restaurant which happens to be right next to the bad guys’ hide-out only to discover the moribund eatery will soon be closing. The good news is the property is up for sale and Chief Go, borrowing the life savings of rookie Jae-hoon (Gong Myung), decides it’s worth the investment to crack the case. The only problem is, despite having been the only visitors for days, the guys keep getting interrupted by potential customers and are forced to open the chicken shop for real as a cover with the secretly excited officer Ma (Jin Seon-kyu) as chief fryer. Ma’s family recipe rib sauce proves an unexpected hit with chicken lovers and so a new food sensation is born, which is an inconvenience when you’re trying to balance running a restaurant with taking down a drug den.

Like Lobster Cop, Extreme Job satirises modish internet success as something as down to earth and ordinary as fried chicken becomes the latest foodie sensation. So taken with their success are they, that the guys begin to forget about the drug dealers in order to facilitate their chicken business all the while conveniently forgetting that they’re technically moonlighting even if it’s in service of an active investigation (albeit one they weren’t actually assigned to). Deciding that they’ve gone too far the guys raise the price to extreme levels, but that only makes the problem worse as does an attempt to rebuff the attentions of a foodie TV programme who then take against them and attempt to ruin their reputation at the worst possible moment.

Meanwhile, Go’s loyal wife is pleased with the extra money coming in but also suspicious. She doesn’t really like him being a policeman – mostly because his nickname is “zombie” on account of all the times he’s nearly died, but she probably wouldn’t want to be married to a chicken shop manager either. For some reason, owning a chicken shop seems to be a shameful occupation that everyone is embarrassed about, though through his unexpected business success Go eventually learns to embrace his inner chicken man and become a better police officer because of it.

The one officer intent on watching the bad guys finds himself excluded from the group as the others regard him as a shirker for not helping out with the chicken business. Nevertheless, in true cop comedy fashion, it’s team work that counts as the guys come to understand their complimentary strengths and start working together as a unit so they can take down the drug dealers if in bumblingly idiosyncratic fashion. As if to ram the point home, Lee closes with Leslie Cheung’s iconic theme from A Better Tomorrow running in the background to remind us that this has all been about brotherhood, togetherness, and holding the line as much as it’s been about fried chicken success. Slapstick laughs collide with ironic familial comedy and a dose of mild social commentary as the bumbling cops eventually make good by embracing their inner chicken men and reclaiming their dignity in the process.


Extreme Job was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Vanished (사라진 밤, Lee Chang-hee, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

The Vanished posterThe past refuses to die in The Vanished (사라진 밤, Sarajin Bam) – Lee Chang-hee’s remake of the 2012 Spanish thriller, The Body. Ghosts, of one sort or another, torment both of our male leads – a dogged policeman and increasingly unhinged husband, as they try to solve the mystery of a disappearing corpse whilst each battling a degree of latent resentment towards various forces of social oppression. A tale of conflicting bids for vengeance, The Vanished pits an emasculated trophy husband against a controlling career woman wife while the forces of order look on in disapproval but then all is not quite as it seems and perhaps this is not the story we first assumed it to be.

The horror-inflected tale begins in a morgue on a rainy night as a disinterested security guard becomes unexpectedly spooked by his surroundings. Discovering one of the trays open and a body missing, the guard panics and feels himself stalked by something undead before being clubbed on the back of the head and knocked out. Maverick cop with a traumatic past Woo Joong-sik (Kim Sang-Kyung) arrives on the scene and discovers the missing cadaver belonged to prominent businesswoman Yoon Seol-hee (Kim Hee-Ae). The cause of death is thought to have been a heart attack brought on by her workaholic lifestyle but Joong-sik isn’t so sure. He hauls in the “trophy husband” – improbably good-looking university professor and sometime employee of Seol-hee’s pharmaceuticals company, Jin-han (Kim Kang-Woo). Jin-han has come straight from the flat of his pregnant mistress and is understandably on edge as every move he makes only further incriminates him in the “death” of his wife.

Increasingly unhinged, Jin-han is certain that Seol-hee is not really dead and has embarked on an elaborate plan of revenge for his affair with a student, Hye-jin (Han Ji-An). Lee wastes no time in confirming that Jin-han had at least intended to do away with his wife. Jin-han was apparently no longer interested in her money and would have wanted a divorce but believed his wife to be a ruthless woman who would never willingly let him go. Using an experimental anaesthesia drug, he hoped to get rid of her undetected but now fears that she has somehow woken up and wants her revenge. What Jin-han wanted, he claims, was his freedom – Seol-hee, an older career woman, bought him with trinkets, belittles his work, and refuses him all agency. He was tired of playing the toy boy and wanted his life back and so he chose to reassert his manhood through murder.

Of course, all is not quite as it seems. Through Joon-sik’s investigations, Jin-han comes to believe that perhaps Seol-hee planned the whole thing – anticipating that he would try to use the drug against her and engineering a situation in which she would fake her own death just to get back at him. Whether a ghost or not, Seol-hee haunts him, threatens his happy future with the sweet and innocent Hye-jin who calls him professor and respects him as a learned man, and seems set to achieve her goal if only by driving Jin-han out of his mind with worry and confusion.

Meanwhile, Joon-sik is battling another series of oppressive presences in the form a grudge against “the wealthy” possibly relating to a mysterious traumatic incident from his past, and a boss who wants him to find the missing body as quickly as possible and then forget the whole thing given the fact that Seol-hee and Jin-han had been a “celebrity couple” which makes all of this quite embarrassing for everyone. The two men end up engaged in a cat and mouse game as Jin-han becomes convinced that he’s the real victim in all this and is at the centre of an elaborate conspiracy leaving his pregnant girlfriend alone and vulnerable, while Joon-sik continues to push him towards confessing that he took the body and hid it possibly in some kind of fugue state.

“The body” is perhaps a better title as the concept itself comes in for constant reappraisal and we gradually understand that not everyone is talking about the same thing, leaving aside the complete erasure of Seol-hee as a woman with a name who may have been murdered by a vengeful husband (as unpleasant as she is later shown to be) in favour of viewing her simply as a nameless corpse or grudge bearing ghost. Twists pile on twists and history rewrites itself, but the buried past will someday be unearthed and justice served, if with a side order of irony.


The Vanished was screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

Forever the Moment (우리 생애 최고의 순간, Yim Soon-rye, 2008)

forever the moment posterSports is one of society’s acceptable obsessions. Devotion to a football team, intense knowledge of baseball stats, and idolatry of athletes is not only respected, it is often required for any kind cultural fluency in the society in which one lives. Sportsmen and women, however, can become a disposable commodity. This is after all why the pay for sports stars is so high – the career is temporary. A brief moment in the spotlight can earn a top athlete a multitude of promotional contracts and role model status to hundreds of sporty kids, but when the music stops everyone loses interest. The heroes of Yim Soon-rye’s Forever the Moment (우리 생애 최고의 순간, Woori Saengae Chwegoui Soongan) achieved their 15 seconds of fame when the Korean women’s handball team won a couple of gold medals in the ‘90s before the sport returned to relative obscurity. Despite being gold medal winners, the women are in a precarious position, left without professional team contracts and lacking the necessary qualifications and experience to find well paid work outside of the sports world.

Yim frames her story around the 2004 Olympic Games in which the Korean women’s handball team came back from a disastrous slump to reach the final only to go home with silver after a penalty shootout defeat to Denmark. Mi-sook (Moon So-ri) was part of the gold medal winning 1992 team and is now a wife and mother. Her financial circumstances, however, are strained. When the supermarket handball team she’s been playing for is disbanded, Mi-sook counts herself lucky to get a job on the shop floor. Her husband (Sung Ji-ru), formerly a top male handball player, has been conned out of all his money by an unscrupulous business partner and is currently on the run from debt collectors leaving her a virtual single parent and desperate for money.

Money is the reason she eventually decides to come back to the Korean Women’s Olympic handball team. Mi-sook’s one time rival, Hye-kyeong (Kim Jung-eun), has been parachuted in to coach the Korean Olympic hopefuls after a successful run coaching in Japan. The team is in a sorry state – filled with inexperienced youngsters, it will need serious work to even qualify for the upcoming games let alone reach the podium. Hye-kyeong decides to get some of her old medal winning team-mates back to bring some strength to the ranks even if they’re all a little past their prime. Despite her best efforts, Hye-kyeong is soon sidelined for male coach (and old flame) Ahn Pil-seung (Uhm Tae-woong) who decides to junk the “Korean method” which uses speed as a weapon against the taller European challengers, and embark on a “science-based” European training regimen.

Yim deliberately moves away from the classic sports movie formula, eschewing the training montage and including only one lengthy match at the film’s climax. Forever the Moment prefers to concentrate on the internal struggles of its scrappy, underdog team the best hopes of which are middle-aged women with children whom society often writes off. Hye-kyeong is an earnest, driven woman who’s made a successful life for herself as a sports professional after her court life has come to a natural end, but she still loses out because she got divorced – the bigwigs are nervous about the proposition of a “divorced” woman occupying a “public” position, something that would hardly come up if she were a man. Made “acting coach”, Hye-kyeong is given hardly any time at all to prove herself before the experiment of “allowing” a woman to coach women is ruled unsuccessful and a man with little experience given full budgetary backing to replace her.

Hye-kyeong’s battles with Ahn may eventually take on the expected romantic dimension but it’s the relationships between the other players which become the film’s spine. Mi-sook has always made a point of distancing herself from handball, regarding it simply as a paycheck rather than a vocation – something which seems all the more relevant thanks to her ongoing troubles with her absent husband who is rapidly sinking into a breakdown over his humiliation and inability to support his wife and child. Struggling through adversity and working hard to achieve a physical goal, the teammates discover new strengths, growing as people and as athletes in their quest to be ready for the all important Athens games.

Forever the Moment is another in the long line of Korean films which celebrate the achievements Koreans can make when they come together and work hard to achieve their goal. As in real life, the Korean Women’s Olympic Handball Team are robbed of their final victory by circumstance and accident, but coming second becomes a victory in itself because of everything it took to get there. Less a sports movie than a subversive comment on the way women are often cast aside or underestimated, Forever the Moment is a tribute to the power of hard work and team spirit which becomes its own reward even when one falls short of the goal.


Original 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)