OK! Madam (오케이 마담, Lee Cheol-ha, 2020)

“If I have to die I’ll die in business class” a passenger insists, refusing her hijacker’s instructions to move to the more egalitarian section of the plane. Partly a social comedy in which a cast of disparate individuals respond in their idiosyncratic ways to an airborne hostage crisis, Lee Cheol-ha’s Ok! Madam (오케이 마담) is also an unconventional family drama in which an impoverished family go to great lengths to save their very first family holiday. 

Mum Mi-young (Uhm Jung-hwa) runs a successful twisted doughnut stand at the market, while her husband Seok-hwan (Park Sung-woong) is an in-demand IT expert. Yet financially the family is strained with Mi-young apparently exasperated that Seok-hwan keeps wasting money buying vitamin drinks in the hope of winning giveaway prizes. When they finally get lucky and win a dream trip to Hawaii, the couple are originally over the moon only for the penny pinching Mi-young to reconsider. Perhaps it’s irresponsible to take time off from their businesses and selling the prize online would be the more sensible option. When their daughter, Nari, complains that the other kids make fun of her because of her parents’ professions and the fact she’s never been abroad, however, Mi-young reconsiders. She may later regret that, as their dream family getaway is quite literally hijacked by North Korean spies who believe a fugitive former agent may be aboard their plane. 

Lee keeps up a sense of suspense as to the identity of the former North Korean agent even if the twist is a fairly obvious one. The other passengers on the plane are a minor microcosm of the contemporary society, one of the most vocal a feisty mother-in-law who’s forced her son’s wife on a long haul flight in the final trimester of her pregnancy so she can give birth on American soil and guarantee her child US citizenship. Other passengers meanwhile gossip about a famous actress while an arrogant politician constantly throws his weight about and an old man travelling to meet family bitterly regrets starting a conversation with Seok-hwan. 

Much of the comedy rests, ironically, on class disparity as the penny pinching Mi-young resolves to make the most of her unexpected upgrade to business class on learning everything’s free while the snooty mother-in-law quips about trying to engineer her grandchild’s access to American citizenship only to wonder if they might end up being born North Korean. Seok-hwan even jokingly brands his wife a “communist” for her financial austerity as she contemplates passing up personal pleasure for financial gain, while North Korean agents targeting the plane are eventually torn apart by infighting with some determining to sell off the rogue agent rather than simply capture them alive as instructed. 

Nevertheless, the main draw is the awesome fighting skills of Mi-young who finds herself donning a stewardess outfit and taking out the bad guys aboard the unexpectedly cavernous aircraft. Simultaneously enforcing and undercutting conventional gender norms, Mi-young had forced her daughter to learn ballet against her will even though Nari would rather learn taekwondo and is always watching action movies on TV. In a meta touch, an actress confesses that it’s just her face someone else does the actual fighting while Mi-young effortlessly takes out rows of bad guys who, it is has to be said, are not much of an advert for North Korean special forces. 

The hostage crisis in its own way brings the family closer together as they fight not only to save the plane, and everybody’s lives, but their dream Hawaiian holiday. Discovering mutual secrets and past lives, even encountering an old flame, the couple enter a deeper level of intimacy while remaining true to themselves and solidifying their family bond, little Nari’s taekwondo dreams apparently coming true after witnessing her mum showing off her action star credentials. At heart a slapstick comedy with a touch of ironic farce, OK! Madam rejoices in sending up national stereotypes from the clueless penny pinching housewife to the feckless competition-obsessed husband, celebrity obsessives, and self-absorbed politicians but also insists the most ordinary of people have hidden talents they’ll have no hesitation exposing when their loved ones are in danger. 


OK! Madam screens on July 5/7/9 as part of this year’s Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF)

International trailer (English subtitles)

Revivre (화장, Im Kwon-taek, 2015)

revivreThe 102nd film from veteran Korean film director Im Kwon-taek may appear close to the bone in its depictions death, suffering, and the long look back on a life filled with the quiet kind of love but Revivre (화장, Hwajang) is anything but afraid to ask the questions most would not want to hear as the light dwindles. The inner journey is just too hazy, as one man puts it, unknowingly commenting on the human condition, yet Im does manage bring us nicely into focus, if only for a moment.

Oh (Ahn Sung-ki), a successful salaryman working in marketing for a cosmetics company, finds himself slightly adrift as the brain tumour his wife, Jin-kyung (Kim Ho-Jung), had previously suffered from resurfaces. The treatment this time is apparently not as successful leading to prolonged hospitals stays as Jin-kyung’s condition deteriorates and she begins to require a greater level of medical care. While all of this is going on, Oh is still very much dedicated to his work but has also begun to indulge in an old man’s folly, fantasising about the pretty new girl at the office.

Much of Revivre is concerned with Oh’s inner life, the things he does not say (which are many because Oh is a quiet sort of man). Ahn Sung-ki captures this quality well in playing Oh with a kind of blankness that could be the numbing sensation of grief or an extension of his ordinarily reserved nature. This makes his impromptu verbal attack on the figure of his fixation, Choo Eun-joo (Kim Gyu-ri), all the more unexpected though his remorse over having acted in such an out of character way may actually help to generate a kind of relationship between the pair albeit more of a paternal than romantic one.

Oh’s continuing fixation on Eun-joo, the woman who becomes the accidental focus of his world even though his wife lying dies in a hospital, is intended to be a fantasy and nothing more. An early dream sequence sees Oh participating in an elaborate traditional funeral taking place in a desert in which all of the mourners are dressed in black, except, of course, for Eun-joo – the only fixed point of reference, clothed in vibrant purple and smiling back at him in contrast to the solemn faces of the other guests, each staring at the floor. In the real world time slows down for him as Eun-joo dances youthfully in a nightclub and as he leaves the party early, her’s is the lone still face, haunting him as he looks back at the other revellers still enjoying themselves heartily even outside the club.

Indeed, “looking back” with all of its various advantages and disadvantages becomes another central theme as Oh becomes a kind of Orpheus descending into his own personal hell in the hope of dragging back his departed Eurydice – an idea neatly recreated in one of the film’s few outright fantasy sequences in which Oh dreams himself into an avant-garde dance show. Like Orpheus, Oh cannot help but look back though he risks losing all in the process. What Eun-joo represents for him is perhaps not the woman herself but an image of his own youth and a desire to live again as he once lived before. The present and the past begin to overlap for him, Eun-joo becomes the future he cannot touch as well as the returning spectre of a past he cannot return to.

Oh’s daughter asks him at one point if he ever really loved her mother. His reaction to losing his wife is, it has to be said, restrained, practical. Yet this question is answered with an immediate cut to Oh helping his wife to the bathroom, performing the most intimate of tasks with unwavering devotion. As his wife fades, Oh’s fantasies become a shield against the growing fears of his own mortality as his body also begins to fail him. The melancholy sense of loss and loneliness coupled with the inevitability of the passage of time pervade as each of Oh’s points of reference slips away from him at exactly the same time.

Im opts for a non-linear approach beginning with Jin-kyung’s passing and thereafter moving freely, reflecting Oh’s fleeting memories and interior confusion as he deals with such a traumatic, life altering event. Neatly framing Oh’s dilemma within his work in which he faces a choice of sticking with the current marketing strategy or striking out in a bold new direction, Im plays with the eternal theme of transient beauty in a society which prizes bodily perfection above all else. The film’s Korean title plays on a pun involving a homonym which means both “cremation” and “makeup” perhaps harking back to the central theme that you dig a grave for yourself if you attach the wrong sort of importance to the impermanent, but is in a sense ironic as one represents a final acceptance and the other an attempt to hold off the inevitable. Poetic and intensely moving, Revivre is another characteristically multilayered effort from Im, still at his full strength even in this late career effort.


International trailer (English subtitles/captions)