Hot Blooded (뜨거운 피, Cheon Myeong-kwan, 2022)

A dejected gangster decides to take the chance on a different kind of life but is soon pulled back into internecine underworld conflict where humanity is weakness and the only prize is a lonely hegemony in Cheon Myeong-kwan’s ‘90s-set thriller, Hot Blooded (뜨거운 피, Ddeugeoun Pi). As much about fathers and sons as it is about uneasy brotherhood, Choi’s adaptation of the novel by Kim Un-su harks back to the classic gangster picture in which the hero proves too noble for his surroundings and finds a single act of compassion provoking nothing more than chaos and misery. 

In the small enclave of Kuam, Busan, Hee-su (Jung Woo) is a petty foot soldier on the cusp of turning 40 who is becoming tired of this way of life. Loyal to his boss, Son (Kim Kap-soo), Hee-su is also aware that times are changing and the boss’ tried and tested approach may no longer meet them. When a vicious gangster, Yong-kang (Choi Moo-sung), returns from exile abroad after fleeing to escape a murder charge, gangland equilibrium is suddenly unbalanced not least by his shift into drug dealing that eventually places him at odds with Hee-su’s gang. After defusing a potential turf war, Hee-su decides he wants out and takes up with booze smuggler Yang-dong in the electric slot machine trade hoping to make enough money to open a small hotel on a nearby island with his longterm girlfriend and her adult son Ami (Lee Hong-nae) who has just been released from prison after falling in with a thuggish gang. 

As he eventually realises, Hee-su has merely ended up as a pawn stuck between Son and Nam, the head of a rival outfit trying to muscle in on their territory. His first problem is that his childhood friend, Chul-jin (Ji Seung-hyun), is a liaison for Nam’s gang. Son explains that only by taking out someone like Chul-jin can they start a negotiation with Nam to nix a gang war before it escalates, but Hee-su cannot bring himself to kill his friend while sufficiently unbalanced by his suggestion that he’s being played by Son as to doubt the old man’s advice. We’re given constant reminders that Chul-jin is a father of young children, while Hee-su has no children of his own but is a surrogate father figure to Ami. Effectively brothers, the two men met as orphans at a government facility and it’s clear that Hee-su sees Son as a man to whom he owes a fatherly debt while Chul-jin may not have any loyalty to anyone besides himself even as he claims that all he wants is to live peacefully with his children just as all Hee-su wants is to open his hotel and live with In-sook (Yoon Ji-hye) and Ami in a less violent environment. 

Hee-su’s decision to leave is a kind a of betrayal in itself, born of a desire to break free of the restrictive codes of gangsterdom and be his own man charting his own future but little realising that his life is still ruled by the laws of the underworld. Later someone asks him what it is he wanted to protect. All he can say is that there was something once, but he’s forgotten what it was. In leaving his gangster family he unwittingly destroys his dreams of forging his own, robbed of the more peaceful life he dreamed of by the chaos and violence of the underworld. The irony is that everyone describes Kuam as a “shithole”, a moribund small-town where even the casino hotel craze which is the centre of the gangster economy may be on its way out. Hee-su can’t really understand why they’re having a turf war over a place no one wants, only to realise it’s just a smokescreen to disguise what it is that’s really worth having and why. 

A late existential speech makes plain Hee-su’s predicament in Yang-kang’s logic that men like him fall to the depths of hell or become kings of all they survey. Yet for Hee-su it’s all much the same, rendered lonely by everything he’s lost while achieving the success craved by so many that is the opposite of what he wanted. It turns out Son may have had a point, the reason he survived so long was his ability to keep calm and play the long game. Hot-headed revenge is a luxury a gangster can’t afford as Hee-su finds out to his cost. “Fathers are all powerless” Chul-jin tries to tell him, though there’s something left of the old Hee-su in his final act of letting a man who betrayed him go because he’s the last in the boss’ bloodline potentially sealing his own fate in some far off act of vengeance. Very much a classic gangster drama in which a noble foot soldier finds himself torn by conflicting loyalties, Hot Blooded proceeds with a weary fatalism leaving its hero a coldblooded ghost which might be a fitting end for a man who once tried to make his fortune selling fake hot peppers.


Hot Blooded screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Bungee Jumping of Their Own (번지점프를 하다, Kim Dae-seung, 2001)

Bungee Jumping on theie own posterLove is a continuous stream, according to the debut film of Kim Dae-seung, Bungee Jumping of Their Own (번지점프를 하다, Bungee Jump Hada). The title may sound whimsical, but it’s less the physical act of fall and rebound we’re talking about here than a spiritual bounce, souls which spring from one body to another and eventually find their way home. Kim presents eternity as one great confluence and love as an enduring bond which survives not only death and time but transcends existence itself. Love is a spiritual cause, but, as the rather muddy philosophy goes on to suggest, perhaps not so free of social mores as it would like to believe itself to be.

In 1983 university student In-woo (Lee Byung-hun) meets the love of his life, Tae-hee (Lee Eun-ju), as she steals a place under his umbrella during a violent rainstorm. Shy and introverted, In-woo waits at the bus stop where Tae-hee abruptly left him hoping to see her again, finally encountering her by chance on his university campus. Despite his diffidence, the pair eventually become a couple and are very happy together but In-woo will shortly have to leave for his military service. He asks Tae-hee to meet him at the station, waiting once again only to be left alone on the platform as the trains fly by.

Flashforward 17 years to the start of a new millennium and In-woo is now a slick, confident man entering middle-age, married to someone else and with a small daughter of his own. He teaches high school and is the kind of inspirational teacher many dream of being, well-respected by his students for his patience and faith as he remains committed to stand up for them no matter what. In-woo might have thought he’d put the memory of Tae-hee to the back of his mind to go on living, but a strange young man, Hyun-bin (Yeo Hyeon-soo), begins to reawaken in him the buried memory of his first love. Seeing echoes of Tae-hee in the young male student, In-woo finds himself facing several different kinds of social and internal pressures to which he had previously given little thought.

Arriving in 2001, Bungee Jumping of Their Own is (sadly) one of the first “mainstream” films to touch on the theme of homosexuality, only the film itself is quite determined to negate any kind of homosexual reading into its central love affair – it is, after all, not “Hyun-bin” that In-woo is falling in love with, but the reincarnated soul of Tae-hee, which is to say a “female” soul and not a male one. Though Kim’s metaphor of existence as a great river through which love endures across time and societies ought to make gender and the physical body an irrelevance, same-sex love is relegated to an inappropriate absurdity. In a playful conversation about reincarnation in which In-woo and Tae-hee pledge their love to one another, In-woo jokingly asks what would happen if he were too were reincarnated as a girl, to which Tae-hee replies that they’d just have to wait for the next reincarnation. Despite the endurance of their love, it is apparently not viable outside of a traditional male/female pairing and any other iteration is tragedy to which the only solution is suicide and the hope for a quick reincarnation to find each other again in more socially appropriate forms.

Nevertheless, Kim does also do his best to criticise a still conservative society’s prejudice against homosexuality though this too has its problematic elements in unwittingly conflating two issues which ideally speaking are better not conflated. In-woo is a teacher falling in love with a boy who is not only a minor but also his student – a situation clearly inappropriate in any and all circumstances. However, the while the crusty old dinosaurs in the staffroom lament the new liberal society and fear being branded sex pests for leering at the girls, claiming it’s their own fault for “looking like that”, In-woo comes in for an especial level of vitriol targeted not at a pervy teacher but simply at a “gay” man while Hyun-bin is gradually ostracised by his friends simply for being the object of his affection and therefore tarred with the gay brush.

Meanwhile, the conflicted In-woo goes to see a doctor to correct his “sickness” only to be told that his responses indicate a “normal” heterosexual man with that caveat that he should also regard his interest in men as a “normal” part of life. Desperate to not to acknowledge his same-sex desire, In-woo becomes violent towards his wife in an effort to reinforce his masculinity, unwilling to discuss with her the real reasons their marriage has always been hollow – not his possible bisexuality, but that he has only ever loved Tae-hee and will only ever love Tae-hee in whichever form she appears.

In-woo makes a point of teaching his students that “different” does not mean “wrong” but it’s apparently not a lesson he’s able to internalise. Kim plays with dualities, idealises imperfect symmetries, and shows us that things which might seem “different” from one perspective are in essence the same, yet he walks back his message of acceptance to emphasise the importance of conforming to social norms rather than allowing the love between Tae-hee and In-woo to exist in the physical world in any other iteration than male/female. Nevertheless, Kim’s true intention of painting love as a continuous stream made possible by cosmic serendipity is a romantic notion difficult to resist and even if his reasoning proves occasionally hollow he has perhaps opened a door towards a greater understanding.


Bungee Jumping on Their Own was screened as part of the Rebels With a Cause series at the Korean Cultural Centre London.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Steel Rain (강철비, Yang Woo-suk, 2017)

Steel Rain posterA little way in to Steel Rain (강철비, Gangchulbi), one of its heroes – a Blue House official, gives a pointed lecture on Korea’s past to some students of Geopolitical History. Fiercely critical of Korea’s previous subjugation by Japan, he laments that his nation was not able to free itself from the Japanese yoke and was awarded its freedom with the end of a wider political conflict which saw the Japanese “empire” collapse. According to Kwak Cheol-u, Korea has never quite lost its cultural admiration for its former colonisers which is why its most prominent corporations – Samsung, Haeundae etc, are all direct competitors with similar Japanese firms (and are only now pushing past them in terms of global market penetration and technological innovation).

Switching tack, he wonders why it is that Japan lost a war and Korea got cut in two by two new “colonising” forces. In his oft observed mantra, Kwak (Kwak Do-won) insists that the citizens of a divided nation suffer more from those who seek to manipulate the division for their own ends than they do from the division itself, which is where we find ourselves in the contemporary era of my button’s bigger than his button in which “capitalist pig dogs” face off against “dirty commies”. Adapting his own webcomic, Yang’s action thriller is among the most recent in a long line of North/South buddy movies and even if its cold-war paranoia feels distinctly old hat, it just goes to prove that everything old is new again.

Eom Cheol-u (Jung Woo-sung), a former North Korean special forces agent, is called back into the fold by his old commander for a very special mission. Tensions are about to boil over in the perpetually precarious state and the Dear Leader’s life is under threat from a suspected coup. Eom is to silence one of the conspirators in return for which he will be given elite status and his family will be well looked after. Unfortunately, the mission does not go to plan and Eom ends up witnessing a missile strike on a welcome meeting at a Chinese managed factory in which the (mostly young and female) employees are murdered in cold blood. Managing to escape with the Dear Leader himself who is seriously wounded, Eom travels over the border along with two young girls. From this point on he’s in conspiracy thriller territory trying to work out just what’s going on and who he can really trust.

The symbolism is rammed home by the fact that our two heroes, Kwak and Eom, have the same first name – Cheol-u, only one uses the characters for “strong friendship” and the other “bright world”. Taken together they paint a pretty picture, brothers in arms despite the political difficulties which place them on differing sides of an arbitrary line drawn up by a foreign power without much consideration for those divided by it. As in many North/South buddy movies of recent times, the North Korean agent displays the best qualities of his nation in his essential “goodness” – a caring husband and father, he executes his mission with maximum efficiency but bears no ill will towards those outside of it and is keen to protect the people of North Korea from almost certain doom should a nuclear war break out between the two peoples. Kwak, by contrast, is more of a schemer whose moral universe is much less black and white. A fluent Mandarin speaker he’s in tight with a North Korean official who keeps trying to talk him into taking a research post at a Chinese university while his family life is somewhat complicated thanks to a divorce from his plastic surgeon wife.

Meanwhile, the film is at pains to point out that Korea became the focus point of the first East/West proxy war and, in Kwak’s view at least, remains insufficiently important in the eyes of its “allies” to merit much direct consideration. Thus our boardroom squabbles are often reduced to the looming face of the American President “advising” the Korean officials on the best course of action while others worry about what Japan is going to think and wonder if the US secretly values the opinion of the Japanese more than the Koreans on the ground. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the government is in a transitionary phase in which a new president has been elected but not sworn in. The crisis may well play out entirely within the old president’s final hours which means that diplomatically he has little to lose and as he is a conservative, might as well milk the situation for all it’s worth. In short, he’s as keen to ruffle diplomatic feathers and bring the situation to a head as everyone else is and war looks more likely than not. The central message is that, as Kwak is fond of implying, governments care little for their people or that millions may die when idea of division is so easily manipulated, especially if it’s not “their” people who will be doing the dying.

Not for nothing is the new president seen reading copy of Willy Brandt’s book on successful reunification, even if he begs his outgoing predecessor to consider the economic impact of any possible change in relations with a Northern neighbour. The North Korean official also warns that China is not keen on the idea of a war seeing as that will necessarily mean an influx of North Korean refugees no one wants to take responsibility for. The cold war may be about to turn hot, but the heroics that cool it down turn out to be of a much less gung-ho nature than might be expected, relying on personal sacrifice and a perhaps outdated code of honour. Nevertheless, the crisis is averted not through macho posturing but through “diplomatic channels” and a careful balancing of powers. Perhaps not so farfetched after all.


Streaming worldwide via Netflix.

Steel Rain will also receive its international festival premiere as the opening night gala of the Udine Far East Film Festival on 20th April.

Far East Film Festival trailer (no subtitles)