Josée (조제, Kim Jong-kwan, 2020)

When Isshin Inudo’s adaptation of the 1984 short story by Seiko Tanabe Josée, The Tiger and The Fish was released back in 2003, it quickly gained popularity across Asia and is fondly remembered by many as a melancholy love story neatly anticipating the junai boom that would arrive a year later. Nevertheless, almost 20 years on the film’s depiction of disability might seem very of its time while its heavy focus on the male hero’s internal conflict realising that in the end he wasn’t strong enough to fight for love may also seem misplaced. Very loosely inspired by the same short story, Kim Jong-kwan’s Josée (조제) while still largely told from the hero’s point of view does its best to redress the balance in returning agency to the heroine as she resolves to live a freer and more independent life if still to a degree confined by an internal sense of ableism. 

As the film opens, Josée (Han Ji-min) is lying in the road having been thrown out of her electric wheelchair. Student Young-seok (Nam Joo-hyuk) comes to her rescue, grabbing a nearby stool while inspecting the chair only to discover the wheel is broken and the power is out. Thinking quickly he borrows a wheelbarrow from a storeowner and takes both her and the wheelchair back to her home where he’s treated to a meal but also endures Josée’s scorn, she feeling quite ambivalent thinking that she should repay his kindness but also not really wanting to engage with him. Young-seok meanwhile is somewhat captivated by her mystery, later helping her grandmother out after spotting her struggling with a heavy cabinet in the street and thereafter becoming a regular fixture in the young woman’s home. 

Unlike the earlier version, the reasons for Joseé’s largely self-imposed isolation are internal rather than to do with social stigma towards disability or a history of abuse. Nevertheless she harbours a degree of trauma owing to having been abandoned as a child and is reluctant to form close relationships with others which is one reason why she rebuffs Young-seok’s attempts at friendship believing he too would one day leave her while there is also a rather large age gap between them, Young-seok still a student in his early 20s while it appears Josée is at least 10 – 15 years older. Through Young-seok’s intervention Josée discovers that there are systems in place she could go to for support along with community organisations that are keen to help her live independently as an integrated member of society the only reason she had not found them before being her desire for isolation partly caused by the mistaken belief she is wanted by the police. 

Young-seok meanwhile despite his earnest desire to help her is still somewhat immature, naively asking his sometime college girlfriend insensitive questions about her rent and living arrangements while unable to understand the consequences of his actions in carrying on an affair with one of his professors and being exploited by another. Josée accuses him of pitying her which he perhaps does but is also drawn to her because of her sense of mystery discovering that little of what she says of herself is true, merely the expression of the escapist fantasies she uses to overcome the inertia of her life. The irony is that Young-seok is attracted to her precisely because of this quality of otherness and unknowability, while through forming a relationship with him she grows to know and love herself, finally accepting that she is worthy of love if also perhaps viewing herself as a burden as if she would trap Young-seok with her in world of isolation unfairly denying him the right to the fullness of the life. 

Because of her isolation Josée experiences the world differently, living vicariously through books travelling the world in spirit if not in body. Her marginalisation is compounded by her poverty, unable to afford the things that would make her life easier and unaware that there is help available because of her distrust of of authority figures born of her previous experiences which contributes to her desire for solitude. Yet through her relationship with Young-seok she begins to develop a sense of possibility, embracing her independence in driving an adapted car at the film’s conclusion while reconnecting with a childhood friend and his partner not to mention having a little cat to take care of at home. “I’m OK now, I’m not lonely” she offers, if a little sadly, romanticising the memory of love if not its actuality. Imbued with a deep sense of romantic melancholy, Kim’s richly textured drama nevertheless hands agency back to Josée who finally comes to love and accept herself through loving and being loved by another person seizing her independence to live a full and active life but ready to accept the help and support of others as she does so. 


Josée screens 14th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Shades of the Heart (아무도 없는 곳, Kim Jong-kwan, 2021)

“I see hope! Let’s change direction” a distressed woman shouts in a park, “We should follow the wind, let’s hold hands that way you won’t get lost.” Her interjection is perhaps unexpected, in its own way sad, but also a sign offered to the melancholy protagonist of Kim Jong-kwan’s Shades of the Heart (아무도 없는 곳, Amoodo Eobneun Got), a man who has become without quite realising it “someone who waits” yet through encounters serendipitous and otherwise begins to see new paths in front of him, turning a corner into another story.

Novelist Chang-seok (Yeon Woo-Jin) has just returned to Seoul after seven years abroad following the breakdown of his marriage in the UK. He has begun to have strange dreams, seeing an older version of himself and presumably his wife walk away from him and eventually disappear. Yet each of the people he meets is also in someway burdened by a sense of loss or despair, his first meeting with his mother who appears to have some kind of dementia and does not initially recognise him thinking once again she’s on her first date with his father. Her sadness is the loss of past and present but also of future, telling her son on finally recognising him not to smoke so much so he won’t die young like his dad. 

Chang-seok had apparently given up smoking, but is motivated to start again perhaps seeing little point in extending his life, accepting some unusual Indonesian cigarettes from a former colleague now his editor who eventually tells him of her failed love affair with a young exchange student which apparently ended partly because he could not acclimatise himself to the harsh winters of Seoul. The other reason perhaps echoes something in Chang-seok’s own life though also tinged with a different sense of sadness. A serendipitous meeting with a former acquaintance meanwhile takes a turn for the strange, photographer Sung-ha (Kim Sang-Ho) somewhat manic in his ecstasy in having run into Chang-seok explaining that his wife is terminally ill yet a Buddhist monk had told him he’d run into someone he knew who would bring him luck. On the other hand, Sung-ha also shows him a vial of cyanide he’s managed to procure apparently planning to use it to take his own life after his wife dies but now filled with an almost certainly false hope in the strange power of religious mysticism. “I don’t believe in all that, but people.. they need to hang their hope on something” he explains.

Chang-seok may not have much of a sense of hope, but what little he has he’s hung on people or on art. He is forever “waiting” for someone who may or may not arrive or even exist, making notes in his notebook or wandering around the surprisingly lonely streets of Seoul after dark pausing by the now obsolete phone booths filled with the detritus of city life unsure whether or not to make a call. His final conversation is with a woman who tells him that she has no memories of her own, having been robbed of her past, and more, in an accident and now “buys” them off her customers swapping free drinks for personal stories while writing poems about their lives. “No one is coming, but he became someone who waits” she writes of Chang-seok, their meeting oddly mirroring his first in its mixture of fiction and reality along with relationships forged through the exchange of stories true or otherwise. As he’d said, sometimes a made up story can be the more truthful. 

“But they come in the depth of despair, miracles” Sung-ha had added hopefully seconds after saying he didn’t believe in them, each of Chang-seok’s encounters a tiny miracle in itself. Imbued with a deep sense of melancholy and loneliness, Kim’s delicately scripted ethereal drama is an exercise in grief and despair Chang-seok’s sense of fiction and reality beginning to blur even as he begins to find the urge to write again and with it perhaps to live again too. “I see hope!” the woman shouts once more, restored something as she takes her place in a new story, Chang-seok turning the corner and beginning once again to dream. 


Shades of the Heart screens 14th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Worst Woman (최악의 하루, Kim Jong-kwan, 2016)

movie_imageKim Jong-kwan’s award winning unexpected indie box office hit has been given the rather odd English title of Worst Woman (최악의 하루, Choeakui Haru) in contrast with the original Korean which simply means “The Worst Day”. In fact, the film is about two people – an aspiring Korean actress with problems in her personal life, and a Japanese writer visiting for the launch of the Korean translation of his novel, each of whom is indeed having an exceptionally unlucky day. Part walking and talking, part split focus romantic comedy, Worst Woman is a polished piece of indie filmmaking anchored by quality performances and an interesting approach to its material.

Eun-hee (Han Ye-ri) is supposed to be rehearsing for a play but somehow she’s not really into it, much to the consternation of her coach. Heading off to meet up with her vacuous soap star boyfriend, Hyun-Oh (Kwon Yool ), Eun-hee runs into a hopelessly lost Japanese man who asks her for directions but mangles the pronunciation of the address leaving her with little idea of the destination. Nevertheless, Eun-hee eventually helps the mysterious traveller, Ryohei (Ryo Iwase), find the place he’s looking for only to realise he’s been given the completely the wrong time and there’s no one there to meet him. The pair then decide to have coffee together in a nearby cafe before Eun-hee leaves to track down Hyun-oh.

At this point their paths diverge but each is in for a disastrous day. Eun-hee argues with Hyun-oh about a previous (married) boyfriend before teasing him about his decision to wear a face mask and sunglasses “in case someone recognises him” (hilariously, he still gets snapped when a passing woman realises only a celebrity would be wearing such an attention seeking disguise). The playful argument suddenly turns ugly when Hyun-oh calls Eun-hee by another girl’s name leading her to dump him on the spot and leave as quickly as possible. Moping around, she posts a picture of the view from the park on Twitter which “concerns” the aforementioned married ex-boyfriend, Woon-Chul (Lee Hee-joon), who also wants to take Eun-hee for coffee in an attempt to rehash the past.

Meanwhile, Ryohei has finally met up with his publisher but quickly discovers his book launch is not all that it seemed to be. Not only has the venue changed, but only two people have turned up (and even that was an accident). Making the best of things, Ryohei takes the “guests” to a nearby coffee shop and attempts to talk to them about literature with mixed results. The apologetic publisher is Ryohei’s biggest supporter, translating the book himself and determined to share it with his fellow countrymen, but has problems of his own which mean that the Korean edition of Ryohei’s novel is set to remain on the shelf a little longer.

Chatting awkwardly in English in the cafe, Eun-hee asks Ryohei what he does for a living to which he jokingly replies that he “lies”. His job is, in essence, to make things up – he’s a novelist, albeit one with only a single book to his name. Eun-hee laughs and says she’s same, only she’s an actress, and like Ryohei she is not yet famous or even particularly successful. In fact, Eun-hee has been giving the performance of her life off stage where lying has become something of a bad habit. Though she had told Hyun-oh about her relationship with Woon-chul, even explaining that he was a married man, it appears that perhaps she hadn’t been sharing the whole truth with either man. Needless to say, her taste in men has not served her well and the choice between the petty and self obsessed Hyun-oh and the possessive, persistent and obsessive Woon-chul may not be worth making.

If Eun-hee’s romantic difficulties undermine her sense of self confidence, Ryohei gets a professional dressing down from a bilingual journalist (Choi Yu-hwa) who claims to be a fan of his work but has serious questions about his approach to character. Why, she asks him, does he create such violent and sadistic scenarios and then allow his characters to suffer within them. If the writer is god, does he not owe it to his creations to show a little benevolence? Ryohei is a put out to receive such an underhanded criticism during an interview, especially as he doesn’t consider himself to be a cruel person, but now realises that perhaps his world view is a little bleaker than he’d previously thought.

Both having experienced one of those days which throw everything else into stark relief, the pair run into each other again at twilight in the picturesque Namsan Park. Eun-hee revisits the opening monologue from her play, now managing to breathe life into the lines informed by her recent experiences, before reuniting with Ryohei and making another surprising suggestion – that they set off on a long walk along the park trail which she has never managed to complete. The opening narration from Ryohei told us that he’d been dreaming a lot of his home town and had, unusually, come up with a story idea whilst travelling. Smarting from the criticisms of the journalist and realising many of the characters he’s denied a happy ending to are slightly lost, essentially nice women just like Eun-hee, Ryohei decides that it’s time to make an exception. He imagines the same place he is right now, only it’s snowing and a woman is looking nervously back along the path. This time there is no need to worry, he doesn’t know all the details yet, but this woman is definitely going to be happy, at least someday.

Featuring a light jazz score and indie-style straightforward direction, Worst Woman recalls both the distant irony of Hong Sang-soo and other recent cross-cultural romances such as A Midsummer’s Fantasia (which also starred leading man Ryo Iwase) and Hong’s own Hill of Freedom. A tale of city serendipity, the film makes use of constant reoccurring motifs from coffee shops and national parks to professional insecurity and confused relationships but even if Eun-hee has been playing the role of herself with both of the men in her life, her connection with Ryohei seems to have a more authentic quality. Light yet poignant and filled with sophisticated comic touches, Worst Woman is a delightful late summer romance which ends on a refreshingly upbeat, open ended, note careful to leave the door open for these two frustrated artists to make the best of their worst day.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)