This Charming Girl (여자, 정혜, Lee Yoon-ki, 2004)

This Charming GirlIt’s strange how, even in this increasingly interconnected world, our relationships with those around us are often wilfully superficial. Trapped within our own self-obsessed perspectives, we often fail to see beneath the surface of social conformity to realise that others are also lonely or troubled, wishing someone would see them but also afraid to make plain the various ways they don’t measure up to a social ideal. The heroine of Lee Yoon-ki’s This Charming Girl (여자, 정혜, Yeoja, Jeong-hye) is just such a woman – “charming” in her perfectly composed exterior, in many ways an embodiment of traditional femininity in her near invisibility as she gets on with her life and work quietly and with efficiency. There are however tiny cracks in the surface of her ordered existence that betray an ongoing, perhaps incurable anxiety.

Jeong-hae (Kim Ji-soo), a young woman in her late twenties, has an ordinary job working on the counter in the local post-office. As we later find out, she was once married but walked out on her new husband on their wedding night and, following the death of her mother, lives alone in the same apartment she has lived in all her life. Despite being well liked at work and taking lunch with the office ladies, Jeong-hae is perhaps not quite part of the group and finds it hard to relate to her noisy colleagues who gossip about her behind her back and when all is said and done probably regard her as a fellow employee rather than friend. Jeong-hae’s days are mostly spent alone, her interactions with others outside of work extend only to awkward telephone conversations with an unkind aunt, and an angry neighbour complaining about her extremely loud alarm clock.

Despite her shyness and self-imposed isolation, Jeong-hae is a kind and caring person with a gentle, nurturing personality. In the absence of human connection, she lovingly tends to her plants but is wary of taking on responsibility for more complex creatures and it’s only after a few mornings of noticing a melancholy, mewling kitten on her way to the bus stop that she decides to pick it up and take it to a vet. Suddenly being a cat owner has a profound impact on Jeong-hae’s way of life even if the skittish creature echoes her own sense of mistrust born of previous trauma in insisting on hiding under the sofa. Bonding with a living creature brings back painful memories of her traumatic past which threaten to impede her new sense of forward motion even as she attempts to outrun them.

The kitten isn’t the only stray Jong-hae picks up, later she takes pity on a sad young man who became involved in a drunken bar fight and alienated all his friends. Generally speaking, for reasons we later come to understand, Jeong-hae is wary of men and of male physicality. A rare visit to a shoe shop provoked by an unpleasant meeting with her ex-husband who has only got back in touch to express how much she hurt him by walking out without explanation, makes plain her distress even with perhaps “ordinary” everyday interactions. Though she does her best to endure it, Jeong-hae’s discomfort with the salesman’s hard sell tactics as he uses overfamiliar language and roughly manhandles her feet into a pair of sandals (which do not really suit her) eventually results in an extremely rare instance of self-assertion as she tells the assistant off, politely, before stopping to advise the woman behind the counter that perhaps men should not be selling women’s shoes or at any rate they should treat their customers as “people” rather than sales targets. Nevertheless, something about the drunken young man tells her that he is not a threat, only another person who seems to be in a dark place and probably in need of a stranger’s ear.

It’s perhaps this same sense of “recognition” that prompts her into making an extremely forward and uncharacteristically bold overture towards a shy young writer (Hwang Jung-min) who comes to the post office regularly to send off his manuscripts. If we get the sense that Jeong-hae is a mostly invisible person, then the writer is much the same. We catch sight of him often in the background, shopping in convenience stores, sitting at outdoor tables, waiting to cross the road. He’s the kind of person that perhaps only someone like Jeong-hae, equally invisible, a supernumerary even within her own world, might recognise. The tragedy is that Jeong-hae has a lot of love to give but has been robbed of the knowledge of how to give it safely thanks a traumatic incident in her past in which her innocence and naivety were abused by a person of trust who left her with no one to turn to for protection and a deeply internalised sense of shame and rage.

Her traumatic memories surround her like living beings, occupying the same space, occasionally poking their heads into her everyday life to remind her of an unpleasant association she couldn’t forget if she tried. Jeong-hae no longer sleeps, she naps fitfully on the sofa or wanders around all night at markets and cafes; she craves connection, but cannot access it. Thanks to the cat, the ex, the writer, even the overbearing shoe shop assistant and drunk man, she begins to find a way forward even if it pushes her towards an equally dangerous conclusion, and suddenly perhaps it’s not quite all so hopeless as it seemed.


This Charming Girl was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Lucid Dream (루시드 드림, Kim Joon-sung, 2017)

lucid dream posterA relatively rare phenomenon, a lucid dream is one in which the dreamer is aware they are asleep and “awake” enough to influence the outcome. Rather than using the ability to probe some kind of existential question, Korean science fiction thriller Lucid Dream (루시드 드림) focusses on the evidence gathering possibilities, going one step further than hypnotic regression to revisit old memories and zoom in on previously missed details.

Dae-ho (Ko Soo) is an investigative reporter currently in hot water over a controversial story. He’s also a doting single father to a little boy, Min-woo (Kim Kang-Hoon), who resolves to put his work aside for a day to take his son to an amusement park. Tragedy strikes as Dae-ho is busy having words with a paparazzo and then notices Min-woo has disappeared from his horse on the carousel. Catching sight of Min-woo walking off with another man, Dae-ho collapses, a tranquilliser dart sticking out of his leg. Dae-ho searches for his son with no concrete leads until, three years later, he hears about the possibilities of lucid dreaming and attempts to figure out exactly what happened that day by reliving it in his sleep.

Lucid Dream begins in true conspiracy thriller mode by introducing Dae-ho’s past as a controversial journalist responsible for ruining prominent businessmen by exposing their corruptions and manipulations of the laws everyone else is expected to abide by, but this potentially rich seam of social commentary is cut off in full flow as paternal concerns take centrestage.

Dae-ho is a single dad raising Min-woo alone with the help of a friendly nanny. Although he tells Min-woo his mother is “in America” no concrete information is given regarding her whereabouts though the fact that she is never heard from after Min-woo’s disappearance suggests she may be somewhere further away. Apparently a devoted and good father from the very beginning, Dae-ho will stop at nothing to find out what’s happened to his son. Three years on he remains distraught and desperate, willing to try anything that might help him uncover the truth. He finds an ally in the policeman handling his case who is in a similar predicament as his own daughter lies in a hospital bed, born with serious medical abnormalities. The true paternal love, determination, and sacrifice of men who are already good and devoted fathers raising pleasant, uncomplicated children define the drama as others attempt to subvert that same love in choosing to sacrifice one child in favour of another.

Though Dae-ho originally assumes the plot is directed at him alone, possibly revenge for his exposés, the truth is darker and moves towards child trafficking and the trade in illicitly harvested organs though this too is mostly glossed over in favour of competing parental needs. The men who’ve taken Min-woo veer between amoral gangsters and those who can’t stomach the outcome of their actions ultimately deciding to rebel against their own side, and even if the real perpetrator turns out to be someone not so different from Dae-ho, there can be little justification in this dark flip side to Dae-ho’s all encompassing paternal love.

The central premise of dreams and memory is an interesting one, but largely squandered by the increasingly dull narrative progression in which Dae-ho moves from clue to clue in linear fashion and along predictable genre lines. Most viewers even remotely familiar with similarly themed films will have correctly identified the villain right away thanks to the heavily signposted script, and will necessarily be disappointed by the rather predictable yet action packed finale.

Dae-ho travels through dream states, eventually learning to invade the dreams of others thanks to the guidance of a mysterious shared dreamer but the application is inconsistent and relegated to plot device only. The finale takes place within a dream and with the stakes heightened as it becomes clear death inside someone else’s mind results in death outside it, but the imagery remains clichéd as Dae-ho battles the villain inside a rapidly disintegrating building before being forced into a literal leap of faith. Despite the surface level grimness of the story, Lucid Dream remains firmly in mainstream thriller territory with under developed characters, dead end sub plots, and a satisfying if not entirely earned moment of final closure. It is, however, also a rare example of a broadly happy ending in a Korean procedural, in which a father’s love can and does save the day, if not the film.


Original trailer (English subtitles)