The Dude in Me (내안의 그놈, Kang Hyo-jin, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Dude in Me poster 3“What’s more important than being with your family?” – A cynical crime boss is forced to reconsider his life choices following a series of crises which see him inadvertently swap bodies with a dimwitted high school boy in Kang Hyo-jin’s take on the classic genre, The Dude in Me (내안의 그놈, Naean-ui Geunom). Less a story of two men from different generations learning from each other, Kang’s film leans heavily into patriarchal myths as its jaded hero is given a second chance at youth and discovers he may have made a grave error in choosing to reject love in favour of advancement.

17 years after breaking up with high school sweetheart Mi-sun (Ra Mi-ran), Pan-su is a high flying “businessman” in the newly corporatised world of suited gangster thuggery. Old habits die hard, however, as his current problem is his minion’s failure to put sufficient pressure on the last holdout in an area they’ve earmarked for redevelopment – Jong-gi (Kim Kwang-kyu), the earnest owner of a carpentry firm intent on holding on to the family business. It’s during a visit to Jong-gi’s that Pan-su stops off at a ramen joint he used to go to in his youth, only to discover that the young woman who owned the restaurant all those years ago has moved on which is why his favourite dish doesn’t taste like it used to.

Inside, he gets into a heated debate with the new owner while a portly high school boy, Dong-hyun (Jung Jin-young), who needs to leave in a hurry, discovers he’s lost his wallet. The old lady bamboozles Pan-su into paying for the kid’s (unusually large) meal, assuring him that she has “something in store” for him. That “something” turns out to be Dong-hyun falling from a nearby roof and landing on Pan-su’s head. When Pan-su wakes up, he realises he’s in Dong-hyun’s body while Dong-hyun is presumably still inside his which remains in a coma.

Such is the force of Pan-su’s personality that he’s able to convince his chief underling of his real identity pretty quickly, but it remains a serious problem for him that a once serious gangster is humiliatingly trapped in the body of a misfit high schooler ostracised by all but the equally bullied Hyun-jung (Lee Soo-min) for his pudgy physique and dimwitted cowardice. Pan-su makes little attempt to blend into Dong-hyun’s life, behaving much as he has before and seemingly oblivious to the commotion his newfound boldness provokes in those around him. Though Dong-hyun’s new crazy backbone could be written off as a bizarre side effect of his head injury, the contrasts between the diffident teenager and unpredictable gangster do not end there. Where everything about Pan-su screams control from his obsession with straightening other people’s ties to habitually wiping down surfaces, Dong-hyun is the sort of boy who doesn’t think too far beyond his belly. Indeed, Dong-hyun’s vast appetite does not sit well with Pan-su’s uptight concern for his health even as his new body finds it almost impossible to resist the lure of tasty junk food in truly staggering proportions.

Nevertheless, Pan-su gradually begins to take ownership of Dong-hyun’s body, doing him the “favour” of “improving” it by shedding all that weight and revealing the hot guy trapped inside. Part of the reason he decides to do that is realising that the mother of Dong-hyun’s childhood friend Hyun-jung is none other than love of his life Mi-sun, who seems to have remained single since they broke up around the time in which Hyun-jung must have been conceived. Wielding his newfound hotness as a weapon, he vows to protect Hyun-jung in the most fatherly of ways – by teaching her to protect herself through shared self-defence classes. He will, however, need to sort out a few other problems on his his own, going up up against an entrenched system of delinquency and a dangerously predatory high school prince who likes to invite vulnerable girls to his parties as a form of entertainment.

Meanwhile, he’s still dealing with the ongoing gang war and a series of personal problems relating to his treacherous wife and austere father-in-law who praises “family values” above all else. Living as a high school boy again and realising that he’s got a daughter whose life he has entirely missed out on because of a choice he has always on some level regretted forces Pan-su to wonder if his ill-gotten gains were really worth the lonely, loveless years. Strangely, perhaps only Dong-hyun is brave enough to admit for him that perhaps they weren’t and what he really wants is a warmer kind of “family” than the cold obligation of gangster brotherhood. A quirky tale of softening bad guys and toughening soft ones, The Dude in Me eventually locates a happy medium in the merger of the professional and personal as a new family rises up in Mi-sun’s homely new restaurant filled with warmth and possibility in having rediscovered the simple joys of true human connection.


The Dude in Me was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Underground Rendezvous (만남의 광장, Kim Jong-jin, 2007)

Underground Rendezvous posterAt the very beginning of Kim Jong-jin’s Underground Rendezvous (만남의 광장, Mannamui Gwangjang), a group of kindly villagers in the north of Korea are caught by surprise when they unwittingly help to build the 38th parallel – a series of fortifications which will divide them from one another forevermore. Family members are trapped on different sides of an artificial border by a matter of accident rather than choice, a decision effectively made for them by the Americans and Russians amping up cold war hostility in engineering a proxy war over war-torn Korea.

30 years after the villagers sealed their own fates through being overly helpful, the South Korea of the 1980s is perhaps not so different from its Northern counterpart. A brief hope for democracy had once again been dashed and the land remained under the yoke of a cruel and oppressive dictatorship. Young-tan (Im Chang-jung), a boy from a poor village, is determined to escape his life of poverty by travelling to Seoul and studying to become a teacher. However, within five minutes of exiting the station, his country bumpkin ways see his only suitcase swiped by a street thief. An attempt to report the crime only gets him into trouble and so Young-tan is sent to a “re-education” camp in the mountains. Falling off the back of a truck, he gets lost and eventually ends up in a remote village where they assume, ironically enough, that he is the new teacher they’ve been expecting for the local school. The village, however, has a secret – one that’s set to be exposed thanks to Young-tan’s questions about a beautiful lady he saw bathing at the local watering hole.

Young-tan turns out to be a pretty good teacher, though not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. The village’s big secret is that the divided families were so attached to each other that they each started digging tunnels to the other side shortly after the wall went up and eventually met somewhere in the middle where they’ve built a large cave they use for underground reunions. Apparently existing for 30 years, no one outside of trusted citizens on either side knows about the tunnel’s existence. No one has used it to switch sides, the only purpose of the tunnel is for relatives and friends to mingle freely in defiance of the false division that’s been inflicted on them by outside forces.

Young-tan, however, is fixated on the bathing woman who turns out to be North Korean Sun-mi (Park Jin-hee) – the sister-in-law of the village chief. Thinking only of his crush and also a comparative innocent and devotee of the moral conservatism of ‘80s Korea, Young-tan catches sight of Sun-mi and the village chief and is convinced that the old man is molesting an innocent young maiden. He sets out to convince the villagers of this, little knowing the truth and unwittingly threatening to expose the entire enterprise through failing to understand the implications of his situation.

Kim pulls his punches on both sides of the parallel, only hinting at the oppressions present on each side of the border with Sun-mi fairly free in the North, working as the army propaganda officer in charge of the noisy broadcasts which attempt to tempt South Koreans to embrace the egalitarian “freedoms” on offer to defectors. Meanwhile the villagers in the South live fairly isolated from the unrest felt in the rest of the country, continuing a traditional, rural way of life but are also under the supervision of a local troop of bored army conscripts on the look out for North Korean spies. Nobody wants to defect, though perhaps there’d be little point in any case, but everyone longs for the day when families can all live together happily as they used to free from political interference.

Satire, however, is not quite the main aim. An absurd subplot sees the “real” teacher marooned on his own after taking a detour and accidentally standing on a landmine leaving him rooted to the spot on pain of death, but the majority of the jokes rest on Young-tan’s “misunderstandings” as a village outsider, goodnatured simpleton, and bullheaded idiot. A final coda tries to inject some meaning by hinting at the effects of repurposing the truth for political gain and the tempered happiness of those who get what they wanted only not quite in the way they wanted it, but it’s too little too late to lend weight to the otherwise uninspired attempts at comedy.


Currently streaming on Netflix UK (and possibly other territories)

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Secret Reunion (의형제 / 義兄弟, Jang Hoon, 2010)

secret reunion posterStrangely enough, North Koreans in South Korean films are often marked by a naive nobility, filled with all the “goodness” that is otherwise so absent from the hypocritical egalitarianism of the nation that raised them. Jang Hoon’s Secret Reunion (의형제 / 義兄弟, Uihyeongjae) is a perfect example of the ongoing trend in its direct contrasting of a pure hearted North Korean operative betrayed by his comrades, and the cynical NIS officer who turns to a shady career in the private sector when a botched operation gets him fired. An interesting look at North/South relations, Secret Reunion is equal parts buddy cop comedy and probing thriller but places the heartfelt connection between its perfectly mirrored protagonists firmly at its centre.

North Korean agent Song (Gang Dong-won) reads a bedtime story to his unborn child over a telephone whilst preparing for an operation south of the border, while NIS officer Lee (Song Kang-ho) bickers with his wife about their daughter’s education. Song, along with another agent, Tae-soo (Yoon Hee-seok), is to meet a top North Korean hitman known as Shadow (Jeon Kuk-Hwan) and assist in his mission to take out a prominent North Korean defector. Horrified by Shadow’s abrupt murder of the target’s wife and mother-in-law, Song draws on Shadow in defence of the man’s young son whom Shadow has also marked for death and places himself in the firing line in the process but is “saved” when Lee and the NIS turn up following a tip-off from Tae-soo who has betrayed them. Lee and Song briefly catch sight of each other but the operation is a bust which allows both Shadow and Song to escape whilst causing mass civilian casualties from stray police bullets and general panic.

Six years later Lee, fired from the NIS and divorced by his wife, spots Song again during his shady line of work as a finder of missing persons which often sees him tracking down runaway mail order brides from Vietnam. Unable to go home after being branded a traitor, Song is living as a casual labourer under a false South Korean identity. Unbeknownst to Lee he recognises the NIS agent but is unaware Lee has recognised him, especially when he offers him a job at his “company”. Song, intrigued, accepts in the hope of getting enough money together to bring his family to the South while Lee is hoping Song will lead him to Shadow and path back into the NIS but despite their best efforts the two men begin to develop a deep and warm understanding of each other even whilst working at cross purposes.

Song and Lee are indeed mirror images. When we first meet Song he’s eagerly embracing his role as a father and lamenting the fact that he cannot be with his pregnant wife while promising to be home soon. Lee, by contrast, argues with his wife over the phone and abruptly hangs up to go back to police business. Neither man is able to have the close and loving relationship with their daughters they would like – Song because he cannot return home and worries for the safety of his family, and Lee because his wife has remarried and moved to England. Lee’s loss of family is a personal failure first and foremost, but also a consequence of the botched operation in which Song escaped – hence Lee’s desire to capture Song is also part payback for ruining his life, but one which is frustrated by his gradual awakening to Song’s uncomplicated pureheartedness and identification with his own separation from his wife and child.

Song’s nobility is used against him by the heartless North Korean hitman, Shadow, who decries the “pathetic Southerners ruled by emotion” and warns Song that the “Great Nation cannot tolerate someone so fragile” when taken to task over his heartless murder of the defector’s South Korean family members. Lee, the NIS agent, resorts to barely legal immorality when stripped of his authority in becoming a finder of missing persons. The work largely involves tracking down trafficked women who’ve been tricked into coming to South Korea to marry rich and handsome men but often find themselves shackled to cruel husbands who regard them as slaves to be beaten and tortured. Yet Lee sends them back, knowing exactly what will happen to them when he does – something which Song refuses to allow. Despite coming from a brutalising regime, Song has retained his innate humanity, battles injustice and (tries to) protect the weak where Lee, a police officer in a (recently) democratic developed nation, quips about the nature of capitalism being learning to find happiness in stealing the wealth of others and is content to make himself complicit in a system he otherwise does not condone.

Despite their differences the two men come to see themselves in the other, discovering the better qualities of an “enemy” and becoming conflicted in anticipating the day when they will eventually have to confront the secrets they’ve been keeping. Jang keeps the tension high as Lee and Song play each other while Shadow dances around in the background, presumably playing a game which is entirely his own. Nevertheless the bonds of brotherhood between North and South are firmly repaired in Lee and Song’s eventual transition to blood brothers, restoring their severed familial connections whilst building and strengthening new ones.


International trailer (English subtitles)