The Poet and the Boy (시인의 사랑, Kim Yang-hee, 2017)

Poet and the Boy posterA poet cries for the sorrow of the world, according to the hero of Kim Yang-hee’s melancholy drama, The Poet and the Boy (시인의 사랑, Sienui Sarang). Unfortunately for him, he lives in his own poet’s world, lonely and disconnected but never knowing the true depth of sadness which would give his verse meaning. Until, that is, he falls in love. Beauty turns out to be a doubled edged sword for a mild mannered yet emotionally brave artist struggling to comprehend his place in the world but discovering that some of it, at least, has already been decided for him.

Hyon Taek-gi (Yang Ik-june) is a 30-something aspiring poet married to a feisty shopkeeper. The couple have been married several years and though they are happy enough together, theirs is a marriage born more of convenience than passion. Having married “late” each has settled in to making the best of things, sure that a greater love will one day blossom between them. Mrs. Hyon (Jeon Hye-jin), feeling an absence in the family home, has been longing for a baby but Taek-gi has never been especially interested in that side of things and isn’t really keen on the idea of becoming a father.

Meanwhile, a brand new donut shop has just opened up in town which is good news for Taek-gi because donuts are one of his favourite things. Unsure whether it’s just his status as a purveyor of sweet goods, Taek-gi develops a fascination with the beautiful boy at the bakery (Jung Ga-ram) which is further inflamed when he accidentally catches sight of him in amorous moment with a female customer. To his mild surprise, Taek-gi finds himself captivated with the male physical form, experiencing feelings and desires he had not even known existed.

As his wife later puts it, a poet’s world is different. Taek-gi stops to appreciate the flowers, watches the children play, and makes a round about detour to a fast food restaurant to observe human life but he doesn’t quite live in the world he inhabits or allow himself to truly experience its beauty. As we first meet him, Taek-gi is writing a poem to open the map of his heart but quickly finds himself lost and wandering, unable to settle on a clear direction and ending up at a disappointingly familiar destination. The poem is interesting but imperfect, somehow hollow and inauthentic.

Taek-gi’s creative block is also an emotional one. What begins with a single moment of captivating beauty expands into something deeper and warmer as the poet gets to know the boy on a more intimate level. Seyun is a troubled young man from an impoverished family caring for his bedridden father while resenting his coldhearted mother. What he sees in Taek-gi is something between friend and father, both wary of and delighting in unsolicited kindness from a virtual stranger. Taek-gi’s wife teases him about his attraction to Seyun, probing him about the nature of their own strange relationship. She wonders if it’s really “love” without intense physical desire – something he has made repeatedly clear that he does not feel for her. Taek-gi insists that it is, citing another romanticised love which remained chaste as further evidence only for his wife to fire back that perhaps all he really wanted was the sadness of unfulfilled longing to complete his poetic world view.

Taek-gi later takes his words back, insisting that what he feels for his wife is not “love” and that their relationship was always doomed to fail. Yet it’s not carnal desire which brings him to this realisation so much a greater motion towards connection. Taek-gi who was always ill-equipped for life and never able to take care of himself, begins to look after the younger man both physically and emotionally asking for nothing in return other than his continued company. Despite his otherworldliness and alienation, there is something uniquely brave in Taek-gi’s willingness to tug on the thread of an unfamiliar feeling, uncertain what it is or might be but determined to find out. Disregarding the conservative values of his society which have led him to embrace conventionality in marrying “late”, supposedly “grateful” that someone allowed him the opportunity to marry at all, Taek-gi moves forward if cautiously, aware that his desires may not be accepted and may present a danger to those around him.

Then again, Taek-gi is a middle-aged man with a series of choices already behind him, many of which entail consequences and responsibilities it would be selfish and irresponsible to break even in the pursuit of individual happiness and fulfilment. Perhaps all he really wants is the grand failed romance that will open the map of his heart through breaking its spine, craving “sadness” to feed his art over “love” to feed his soul. True enough, sorrow does wonders for Taek-gi’s art even if he feels himself trapped by his previous choices and the restrictive social codes of his community but there is also something inescapably poetic in his magnanimity as he prepares to set the thing he loves free in a way he never was and believes he never can be.


The Poet and the Boy was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Dark Figure of Crime (암수살인, Kim Tae-kyun, 2018)

Dark Figure of Crime poster 1No matter how accurate statistics relating to criminal activity might be, there are many more acts of violence and immorality which, for various reasons, will go unreported. Criminologists refer to this phenomenon as the “Dark Figure of Crime”. Kim Tae-kyun’s cerebral thriller takes the strangely poetic term as its title (암수살인, Amsusalin) and does indeed revolve around the perfect murder and a man who claims to have completed six of them before abandoning his system and getting himself caught. Yet unlike many cops and robber dramas, Dark Figure of Crime is not about the killer but about the hidden victims who’ve lived a life haunted by the horrible uncertainty of whether their loved ones abandoned them but are alive and well somewhere else, or have fallen victim to some terrible event.

Narcotics officer Kim Hyung-min’s (Kim Yoon-seok) introduction to a new source of information takes a turn for the unexpected when he first starts telling him about having disposed of a body some years ago and then is promptly arrested by Homicide for the murder of his girlfriend. Tae-oh (Ju Ji-hoon) is convicted and sent to prison, but calls Hyung-min and complains that the police framed him when they didn’t need to. Tae-ho murdered his former girlfriend alright, but the evidence the police submitted was faked which has annoyed him. He draws Hyung-min a map to where he buried the “real” evidence just so he can catch the police out acting improperly and embarrass them as well as earn Hyung-min’s trust for the next part of his plan, which is vaguely confessing to another six murders. Hyung-min can’t know if Tae-oh is on the level or just messing with his head but feels as if he has to investigate all the same.

Not everyone understands Hyung-min’s commitment to this strange series of cold cases. After getting himself a transfer to Homicide, Hyung-min’s new boss warns him about another officer who was tricked by a bored felon and ended up losing everything – once a promising policeman he’s now a divorced carpark attendant. A meeting with the former officer yields another warning – men like Tae-ho know the law and they play with it. He’ll get you to investigate crimes B and C for which he knows there won’t be enough evidence, then he’ll use his acquittals to cast doubt on his original conviction. Hyung-min is wary but also hooked. He knows Tae-ho is playing him, but thinks he can win by giving him the opportunity to slip-up and give something away he didn’t quite mean to.

Tae-ho is certainly a dangerous, unhinged young man no matter how much of what he says is actually true. Hyung-min can’t know if any of this is real or just a bizarre game Tae-ho has cooked up because he’s got 15 years and no one ever visits him, but then he starts turning up suspicious absences. As he tells him in a tense conversation late in the game, none of this is really about Tae-ho. Hyung-min couldn’t care less about his big man act and is not impressed by his “crimes” or the ways in which he got away with them though he does want to make sure he never gets out to hurt anyone else. What Hyung-min cares about is the victims whose family members are living with the unresolved trauma of not knowing what happened to their loved ones. Something Tae-ho could quite easily help with if he had a mind to, but seeing as Tae-ho only wants to play games Hyung-min will have to find out on his own, and he will stop at nothing to do so even if he ends up manning a rundown police box in the middle of nowhere for his pains.

Living with a trauma of his own, not even Hyung-min has much faith in the police hence why he needs to complete this case himself – he simply doesn’t believe anyone else will bother. Police in Korean films are universally bumbling and incompetent if not actually corrupt and selfish. Hyung-min is an exception though his opinion of his profession may not be much different to the stereotypes you see in the movies. He doesn’t care about getting a big promotion or being the guy who catches the big fish, he just wants the truth to be known and the past laid to rest so the indirect victims can begin to move on with their lives. The “dark figure of crime” refers not only to the hidden and unresolved, but to the oppressive spectre cast over those left behind with only pain and worry. The terrifying thing is, there may be countless other dangerous people out there whose crimes go undetected not because they’re criminal geniuses but because no one really cares enough to stop them. Subtly subverting serial killer movie norms, Kim pulls the focus from the self-aggrandising villain to remind us of the very real costs of his actions while making a hero of the dogged policeman who refuses to to give in to a societal expectation of indifference.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

1987: When the Day Comes (1987, Jang Joon-hwan, 2017)

fullsizephoto931939The political history of Korea is long and complex and oftentimes sad. The events depicted in 1987: When the Day Comes (1987), pivotal as they were, occurred just 30 years ago. Yet the recent past has also been one marked by protest, public anger, and political scandal though this time around with far less fear or danger. The protests of 1987 were a different story. The rule of Chun Doo-hwan, a military dictator who had seized power following the assassination of the previous dictator, Park Chung-hee, was one of extreme oppression which had already seen a widespread massacre of peaceful protestors by the state in Gwangju in 1980. Chun’s term, under the constitution, was set at seven years after which many hoped for a path to modern democracy but those hopes were dashed when he announced an intention to appoint his successor rather than call a free and fair election.

In depicting the climactic events of that summer, Jang Joon-hwan begins with chaos as a doctor is summoned to a mysterious room where a young man lies unconscious in a pool of water. The police have gone too far, and boy has died during interrogation. Aware of the potential danger of the public finding out that the state has in effect murdered a suspect in an act of torture, the head of the ACIB, Park (Kim Yun-seok), orders the body to be quickly cremated. This, however, needs a certificate signed by a prosecutor and Prosecutor Choi (Ha Jung-woo) is fed up with the ACIB and unwilling to cooperate especially as he smells a rat with the cause of death for a healthy 22-year-old listed as a “heart attack”. Not wanting to be on the wrong side of it if it does get out, Choi refuses the cremation and orders an autopsy which in itself triggers a series of other events eventually bringing the government to its knees.

The state remains cruel and duplicitous. The death of Park Jong-chul (Yeo Jin-goo) would become a catalyst and a rallying call, not just for the injustice of it but for the injustice of covering it up. Park’s family are denied their basic rights, his mother and sister literally dragged away from the morgue screaming while his traumatised father looks on in silent agony. They say that Park was a communist, that he died of fear because he weak while claiming all along to have done no wrong. Only when the “truth” begins to emerge does the ACIB decide to hang a few of its guys out to dry, urging them to “patriotically” take one for the team and head to prison for a while with a hefty compensation package to help sweeten the deal.

The death in custody becomes just one event in a situation spiralling out of control. Paranoid in the extreme, the Chun regime is also working on bringing down a “North Korean Spy Network” controlled by a democracy activist on the run who, unbeknownst to them, is also working with the Catholic Church who will eventually prove pivotal in delivering the truth to the people. Meanwhile, the press has also decided to jump ship, ignoring the government’s carefully crafted guidelines in favour of running actual news. Chun’s iron grip is slipping.

Jang’s biggest takeaway is that corrupt regimes crumble when enough people find the strength to go on saying no. It begins with Choi refusing to stamp a certificate then travels to the reporter who won’t back down, passes on to the secret revolutionaries bravely carrying messages at great personal costs, the not so secret clergy who perhaps have more protection to speak their minds (up to a point) than most, and of course the students in the streets who risked their lives to build a better future. One of the few completely fictional characters, the niece (Kim Tae-ri) of a prison guard (Yu Hae-jin) charged with conveying messages to an activist in hiding, proves the most illuminating in her inward struggle towards the democratisation movement. Afraid of the consequences and preferring to remain politically apathetic, she is eventually radicalised through witnessing the brutality of the regime first hand and suffering personal loss because of it.

Playing out as a taut thriller, 1987: When the Day Comes has a lived in authenticity from the motif of being constantly deprived of one shoe by a cruel and absurd regime to the deadly serious ridiculousness of men like Park who hate “the enemy” enough to destroy the thing they claim to love in pursuit of it. Timely and filled with melancholy nostalgia, Jang’s depiction of the pivotal events of 30 years ago is also a rallying cry in itself and an important reminder that the fight for justice is never truly won.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Asura: The City of Madness (아수라, Kim Sung-soo, 2016)

asura-poster

Review of Kim Sung-soo’s Asura: The City of Madness first published by UK Anime Network.


Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. It’s a shame the title City of Violence was already taken, Asura: The City of Madness (아수라, Asura) is a place of chaos in which carnage has become currency. Re-teaming with actor Jung Woo-sung fifteen years after Musa the Warrior, Kim Sung-soo’s Asura: The City of Madness is, at heart, B-movie pulp steeped in the hardboiled world of tough guys walking alone through the darkness, but even if film noir’s cynicism is out in force, there’s precious little of its essentially chivalrous mentality to be found in this fiercely amoral universe.

World weary policeman Han (Jung Woo-sung) has been moonlighting as the “gun-dog” of corrupt crime boss mayor, Park (Hwang Jung-min), and soon plans on quitting the legitimate force to work for city hall full time. After helping Park “relocate” an inconvenient witness, Han runs into a problem when another policeman turns up and promptly gets killed, drawing unwanted attention to his shady second job. This also brings him into contact with a righteous prosecutor, Kim (Kwak Do-won), who claims to be hellbent on exposing Park’s not quite legal operations and ousting him from power in the hope of a less corrupt regime emerging. Despite his lofty claims, Kim’s methods are little different from Park’s. Han soon finds himself caught in the middle of a legal cold war as he tries to play both sides one against the other but slowly finds neither worth betraying.

The film’s title, Asura, is inspired by the creatures from Indian mythology who are imbued with immense supernatural power yet consumed by negative emotion, relentlessly battling each other in a quest for material rather than spiritual gain. The very male world of Annam is no different as men trade blows like money and wear their wealth on their faces. There are no good guys in Annam, each is involved in a desperate fight to survive in which none can afford luxuries such as pity or morality. Han emerges as the film’s “hero” not out of any kind of nobility or a desire to do good, but simply in being the least actively bad. Able to see the world for what it is – a hell of chaos and cruelty, Han is, perhaps, the best man his environment allows him to be but this same knowledge eats away at him from the inside as he’s forced to act in a way which betrays his own sense of righteousness.

Annam is a world founded on chaos. The forces which are supposed to represent order are the very ones which perpetuate a state of instability. The police are universally corrupt, either working for themselves or in the pay of larger outside forces, and the municipal authorities are under the control of Park – a vicious, mobbed up, sociopath. Prosecutor Kim who claims to represent the resistance against this cosmology of corruption is not what he seems and is, in fact, another part of the system, willing to resort to blackmail, torture, and trickery in order to achieve his vainglorious goal. Yet for all that, the force that rules is mere chance – the most meaningful deaths occur accidentally, the result of shoddy construction work and high testosterone or in the indecision of betrayal. Death is an inevitability for all living creatures, but these men are, in a sense, already dead, living without love, without honour, and without pity.

Kim Sung-soo makes a point of portraying violence in all of its visceral reality as bones crack and blood flows with sickening vitality. The film is extreme in its representation of what could be termed ordinary violence as men engage as equals in hand to hand combat until the machetes and hacksaws come out to combat the shootout finale, complete with the Korean hallmark corridor fight.

Beautifully shot with a neo-noir aesthetic of the nighttime, neon lit city filled with crime ridden back alleys, Asura: The City of Madness is a grimy, hardboiled tale of internecine violence fuelled by corruption and self serving compliance. The ‘80s style lowkey synth score adds a note of anxiety to the proceedings, hinting towards an almost supernatural presence in this strange city populated by the walking dead and morally bankrupt. An epic of “unheroic” bloodshed, Asura: The City of Violence presents a world which thrives on pain where men ease their suffering by transferring it to others. Bleak and nihilistic in the extreme, this is the hard edge of pulpy B-movie noir in which the men in the shadows wish they were as dark as the city streets, but find themselves imprisoned within a series of private hells which are entirely of their own making.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Violent Prosecutor (검사외전, Lee Il-hyeong, 2016)

112997_47166_106Review of Lee Il-hyeong’s A Violent Prosecutor first published by UK Anime Network.


Police brutality is something of a hot button issue at the moment, so it’s a little disconcerting to see a film like A Violent Prosecutor (검사외전, Geomsawejeon) casting a rogue cop with a penchant for forced confessions as its hero. Then again, the theme plays into the obvious retro charm on offer and the film does, at least, make it plain that violence should have no place in law enforcement. The debut feature from director Lee Il-Hyeong, A Violent Prosecutor has a distinctly ‘70s vibe from its quirky credits sequence to the carefully managed tone which manages to be both serious and not at the same time.

Hwang Jung-min plays hardline prosecutor Byun Jae-wook, feared more than respected because of his willingness (or perhaps eagerness?) to indulge in physical violence in the name of justice. Already known as a trouble maker, Byun’s maverick status is an exploitable weakness and so when he kicks up a fuss trying to expose an obvious cover up, he’s framed for wrongful death after a witness dies in police custody.

Sent to prison among many of the men he helped to put there, Byun quickly finds his feet by providing free legal advice to the guards. Five years later, Byun has become the one of the prison’s top dogs but he’s still intent on clearing his name and nailing the guys who did this to him. Enter suave conman Chi-won (Gang Dong-won) and Byun sees an opening…

Aside from Byun’s problematic approach to his work, he’s definitely one of the good guys as justice, politics, and business have all come together in a whirlwind of mutually beneficial corruption. The whole mess begins during an environmental protest against an industrial complex which is about to be built right next to a bird sanctuary. The evil corporate bozos don’t want any delays so they pay a bunch of gangsters to infiltrate the protest and start a riot to make the environmentalists look like crazed, violent, loonies. Unsurprisingly, public opinion about the development improves following the unpleasant actions of the protestors. The police were just supposed to go along with this (police in Korean films never seem very interested in solving crimes after all), but Byun is different, he smells a rat and he’s not going to roll over and let powerful corporations abuse justice.

Unfortunately, his dedication is not matched by his colleagues who are more interested in their own careers than abstract concepts like truth or justice. Receiving pressure from above and realising Byun can’t be talked down, they decide to take drastic action. One of Byun’s bosses, Kang (Kim Eung-soo), later decides to move into politics, having solidified support through this alliance with the money guys, and is then interested in nothing other than his own success – lying, cheating, and smiling his way to the top. Corruption stemming from the power of monied corporations has become a constant theme in recent Korean cinema and A Violent Prosecutor makes good use of its cinematic background even if treating the subject matter in a necessarily light way.

Essentially, A Violent Prosecutor is a buddy comedy in which the two guys at the centre are kept apart for much of the film. Byun uses his hard won legal knowledge to fight his way out of prison by playing by the book, learning the error of his ways in the process. More often than not, he’s the straight man to Chi-won’s constant scamming as the charming conman comes up with one zany scheme after another trying to keep himself out of trouble whilst also helping Byun enact his plan of revenge. Actor Gang Dong-won is on fine form as the slippery but somehow loveable Chi-won whose main line of work is scamming chaebol daughters out of their inheritances by convincing them he’s a Korean-American Penn State business school graduate, peppering his speech with Americanisms but clueless when challenged on his English. He also deserves bonus points for subverting the “escape from prison dressed as a guard” trope by trying to escape from a corridor full of thugs by blending in with the very men sent to capture him.

Ending in a spectacular, if ridiculous, courtroom finale in which Byun defends himself by forcing a confession in a new, more acceptable way, A Violent Prosecutor delivers the necessary “justice” to all who seek it. Byun learns the error of his ways and accepts that his own violence was at least partly to blame for the way the situation developed, but also ensures that he gets justice for everyone else so that the rich and powerful can’t be allowed to ride roughshod over the people with no one to defend them. A smart buddy comedy, A Violent Prosecutor isn’t exactly the exploitative action fest the title seems to promise but is undoubtedly influenced by the bad cop movies of the ‘70s and excels at finding humour even in the strangest of places.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English Subtitles)

One Way Trip (글로리데이, Choi Jeong-yeol, 2016)

one-way-trip-posterReview of Choi Jeong-yeol’s One Way Trip first published by UK Anime Network.


Young men just trying to do the right thing often end up losing out in the long run – so it is for the four best friends at the centre of Choi Jeong-yeol’s One Way Trip (글로리데이, AKA Glory Day). Caught right on the liminal divide between adolescence and adulthood, each of the four has a different path set before him, not entirely of their own choosing. De facto leader Young-bi (Ji Soo) seems the most directionless of the four but as the only one with a driving license he’s found an old banger of a van and got the guys together for one last road trip before Sang-woo (Suho) enlists in the military. Joined by city councilman’s son Ji-gong (Ryoo Joon-Yeol) and Doo-man (Kim Hee-Chan), a reluctant baseball player, the boys take off for the last real trip of their adolescent lives.

Things do not go to plan as the opening sequence features the guys furiously running away from the police, more worried about their parents finding out than any more serious consequences, but tragedy strikes when Sang-woo is knocked over in a hit and run accident. With Sang-woo unconscious in the hospital, the remaining three guys find themselves locked up on assault charges which later graduate murder. How did their peaceful trip turn out like this?

Told largely through flashbacks explaining both the events of that night and the guys lives, One Way Trip examines the effect of a traumatic incident on each of the boys as they find their friendship coming under increasing pressure. Hanging around near the harbour, the guys spot a couple having a domestic dispute in a nearby car before the man drags the woman outside and proceeds to accuse her of having an affair whilst becoming increasingly violent. Headstrong Young-bi decides to intervene but goes too far in picking a fight with the guy while the woman gets herself to safety. When the violent husband falls into a nearby boat, the guys get scared and run off but the battered wife has already called the police who wind up chasing them through the town.

Panicking in the police station, distraught Young-bi gets himself into even more trouble sending their case straight up to the detectives. Though originally sympathetic, the police change their tune when it turns out that the woman involved is a high profile TV news reader. In an attempt to protect her reputation, she refuses to back the boys’ story and implicates them in the murder of her husband. The police, not overly interested in the finer details of the case, want a speedy resolution – a desire which is only echoed from further up where head office is getting pressure from the media.

These are all nice, ordinary kids who’ve never been in any kind of trouble before but suddenly they’re being encouraged to turn on each other and engineer the best possible outcome for themselves as individuals. Ji-gong’s mother (Moon Hee-kyung) is a prim woman most worried about what the neighbours will think, not to mention the impact on her husband’s political career. Doo-man’s father (Yoo Ha-bok) is even more panicked than his son and immediately starts making every conceivable kind of fuss at the police station, including attempted bribery. Young-bi, by contrast, has no one to speak for him as the only responsible adult is his older brother (Kim Dong-wan) – his father is already in jail. To the other parents, the answer is obvious, blame it on the no good delinquent their “nice” kid has been lead astray by and forget about the whole thing.

Though these boys are almost men, they have very little control over their own lives which continue to be dictated by parental expectation. Ji-gong’s overbearing mother locks him in the house to try and force him to study while Doo-man’s father ignores his pleas that he can’t stand playing baseball and is sick of all the other players resentment because they know he’s only on the team because his father put him there. Young-bi has no firm parental input but his feelings about his family circumstances are what lead him to try and help a woman in peril, as well as the reason he loses his temper so quickly. Sang-woo, the most blameless among the boys, has only his grandmother whom he wanted to spare a life of hardship by serving in the military followed by a solid government guaranteed job afterwards.

Fear and external pressures start to work their magic on the three previously innocent guys who thought they were doing something good but have ended up paying the price. Heartbreak and betrayal are the order of the day as money, power, and influence will always win out over justice, goodness and friendship. Injustice is the force that governs the world, Young-bi thought he was doing the right thing by coming to the aid of a woman under attack only for everyone else to tell him he should have just minded his own business and not gotten involved. Bookended scenes of the four guys together having fun on the beach only reinforce the stark contrast between their youthful innocence, naively believing in friendship and the essential goodness of helping others, and their post-trip awakening to the self-centred indifference of the adult world.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer:

The Map Against the World (고산자, 대동여지도, Kang Woo-suk, 2016)

map-against-the-worldThe map is not the territory – as the old adage goes. There’s always a difference between the thing itself and the perception of it but, as the “hero” of The Map Against the World (고산자, 대동여지도, Gosanja, Daedongyeojido) points out, if you’re about to set off on a long journey it’s a good idea to not to rely on a linear map else you’ll run out of good shoes long before you reach your destination. Kim Jeong-ho (Cha Seung-Won) was, apparently, a real person (though little is known about him) who set out to make a proper map of the Korean peninsula after a cartographic error led to the death of his father and many other men from his village when they ran out of resources crossing what they thought was one mountain but turned out to be one mountain range.

The difficulty here is that The Map Around the World pivots around a man who is so crazed and obsessive in his quest that he causes serious problems not only for himself in a difficult political climate, but also for those close to him whose lives he ruins through neglect and abandonment. Is he a hero for following his dreams even though they cost others so dearly? The film seems to say yes, but it’s a difficult message to swallow.

Ever since Kim Jeong-ho’s father died, he’s been obsessed with the idea of creating an accurate map of the Korean peninsula from end to end including the “Dokdo” (or which ever name you wish to use) islands. Consequently, he spends much of his life wandering around on his own which has made him a bit strange. Returning home after a four year absence, Jeong-ho does not seem to be aware that time has been passing even in Seoul and his little daughter, Soon-sil (Nam Ji-hyun), is now all grown up. Jeong-ho also has a kind of relationship with his neighbour, Mrs. Yeonju (Shin Dong-mi), who has been looking after Soon-sil but it’s all a bit awkward.

Aside from Jeong-ho’s terrible performance as a family man, the main intrigue centres around his big philosophy – open access to information for everyone from the nobleman to the peasant. In order to make sure maps remain as accurate as possible, he’s hit on the idea of producing woodblocks so they can be reproduced en masse with fewer errors and then sold to anyone who wants one so that people are free to travel wherever they wish. This is an extraordinarily destabilising idea in the increasingly paranoid world of the late Joseon era under the Regent Heungseon Daewongun (Yu Jun-sang). The woodblocks are dangerous because the elites do not wish the common man to possess that kind of knowledge, would rather people did not travel very much, and there is always the old “national security” fear in which the rulers assert the danger of spies and invaders getting their hands on such an accurate guide to the terrain.

Of course, Heungseon Daewongun ruling as a Regent for his young son means there is also a simmering battle for power running in the background as second tier nobles snap away at each other trying to increase their status in the hope of making a bid for the big chair. Heungseon Daewongun has reason enough to be paranoid but his rule is an austere one in which all foreign elements are to be eliminated in their entirety.

Kim Jeong-ho’s world is difficult and often frightening but Jeong-ho cares for nothing but maps aside from the idea of the free exchange of information. The early part of the film is, broadly, a quirky comedy about an amiable eccentric laughing his way out of trouble whilst evading debt collectors and trying to earn the forgiveness of the women he’s abandoned with nary a word for the last four years.

Jokes about Jeong-ho’s awkward relationship with his neighbour, mild irritation with the idea that his now grown up daughter has a boyfriend, and buddy comedy with the guy helping him carve the woodblocks suddenly seem out of place when the film descends into a morass of cruelty and horror with no apparent warning. Jeong-ho himself is beaten by authorities determined to obtain his maps by underhanded means seeing as Jeong-ho wants them to be available to the people and therefore refuses to surrender them into the “care” of the state. When that doesn’t work, he places himself in line for more harassment, but that’s nothing compared to what happens when a secret sect of Christians (banned for fear of foreignness) is uncovered in the village. Brutally tortured and instructed to denounce others, the villagers are then publicly beheaded. Suddenly, maps don’t seem so important any more.

Nevertheless, Jeong-ho quickly gets over the stubbornness that has cost him the things he held most dear (aside, it seems, from maps) to get right back out there and do some hardcore cartography. The film ends on an oddly upbeat note as Jeong-ho ventures forth on another adventure, edging ever closer to completing his mission, but even if he is about to make his “dream” come true, that same dream has just got a number of people killed. Jeong-ho’s quest to make the maps available to all could be seen as resistance to the oppressiveness of the state, but it isn’t, he just really likes maps and thinks you should too. The Gangchi (otherwise known as “Japanese” sealions, apparently hunted into extinction by Japanese fishermen in the 1970s) frolic happily off the waters of Dokdo as Jeong-ho approaches, but it hardly seems like a cause for celebration.

Over long and tonally inconsistent, The Map Against the World is a frustrating and often dull experience. Hold the map against the world and see what you see, errors and imperfections everywhere. Yet fighting oppression through cartography is a difficult task, and when it comes down to it a map against the world is not enough on its own. Filled with picturesque shots of Korea’s natural beauty, The Map Against the World displays generally high production values but can’t decide if it’s the story of a valiant revolutionary waging a cultural war for freedom of information in the middle of a paranoid dictatorship, or just a film about a madman trying to map ever changing terrain. Jeong-ho’s quest may be a noble one, but his single minded determination and willingness to sacrifice other people’s lives in its service is far from heroic leaving the film’s bittersweet finale feeling very hollow indeed.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)