Unstoppable (성난황소, Kim Min-ho, 2018)

Unstoppable poster 5Can a person ever really change? The answer might be more complex than it seems but then again, you might not quite want them to change as much as you might think you do. Ma Dong-seok is quickly becoming Korean cinema’s MVP, in the genre stakes at least, and has begun to make a career for himself as a big hearted teddy bear of a man with gigantic heavy fists. It’s a legacy he very much embraces in the oddly light hearted Unstoppable (성난황소, Seongnan Hwangso) which sees him play a former gangster gone straight whose latent violent streak is reawakened when he becomes a warrior for love.

Dong-cheol (Ma Dong-seok) was once a notorious tough guy but gave up the streets when he met “an angel”, nurse Ji-soo (Song Ji-hyo), and married her. These days, he works a regular low pay labour job at the fish market but is always dreaming of better things which is why he’s constantly getting scammed by the latest get rich quick scheme proposed by one of his dodgy friends. The trouble starts when Dong-cheol is rear ended by some shady types and gets out of his car to ask for insurance details. Sensing danger but now fully reformed, Dong-cheol remains calm and refuses to engage but Ji-soo isn’t having any of it. She verbally lays into the gangsters and insists on compensation. When Dong-cheol returns home to find his apartment in disarray after arguing with Ji-soo about his unwise financial decisions during a birthday dinner at a fancy restaurant they can’t afford, he has an inkling about what may have occurred but finds the police slow and unsympathetic leaving him to take matters into his own hands.

Unlike many a similarly themed action drama, Unstoppable is keen to emphasise the sweet and innocent love between Dong-cheol and Ji-soo with even the climactic argument between them neutered shortly before Ji-soo is taken. Dong-cheol is not a violent man at heart, but is prepared to meet violence with violence where necessary and he does not like to lose. He takes damage, but never gives up the fight not because he’s angry and hellbent on revenge but because he loves his wife and is desperate to make sure nothing bad happens to her while he is around to prevent it. Meanwhile, Ji-soo is far from a damsel in distress. Refusing to be cowed, she keeps her wits about her and protects the other women kidnapped by the gang while she looks for a way to escape.

The fact is, there seem to have been a lot of unexplained disappearances of young women in this city – something which Dong-cheol becomes aware of while hanging around the police station, yet the authorities have not made much headway on the case. Dong-cheol quickly works out that he’s potentially dealing with an organised crime network which makes its money out of trafficking kidnapped women all over Asia and that, unlike himself, the families of these women largely opted to take the “compensation” money left in their place by the gangsters rather than fight back. This in itself annoys him, though not quite as much as being forced to play the gangsters’ game in order to maximise the chances of getting to Ji-soo before it’s too late.

What quickly becomes apparent to flamboyant gangster Ki-tae (Kim Sung-oh) is that he’s made quite a big mistake, even if that mistake might be more fun than hassle. Ji-soo is not the victim type and her husband will stop at nothing to get her back which means he’s fighting a war on two fronts, both surprised and somewhat amused to be met with such unexpected resistance. Still, Dong-cheol is determined to barrel through fists flying while his bumbling sidekicks – old comrade Choon-sik (Park Ji-hwan) and fast talking fixer Gomsajang (Kim Min-jae), handle the investigation from the sidelines. Undercutting the essential darkness of the “lone vigilante takes on heinous human trafficking ring” narrative with warmhearted humour, Unstoppable proves an ideal vehicle for the increasingly popular Ma Dong-seok which finds unexpected sweetness in the genuine connection between its perfectly matched husband and wife team.


Unstoppable was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Birthday (생일, Lee Jong-un, 2019)

Birthday posterOn 16th April 2014, a ferry carrying mostly teenagers on a school trip sank taking 304 passengers and crew down with it. The Sewol Ferry tragedy was to have profound ramifications, asking a series of questions as to corporate and political corruption in the society which had permitted such an accident to happen and then failed to mount an effective rescue. In the five years since, many films have probed the causes and implications of the tragedy, but Lee Jong-un’s Birthday (생일, Saengil) is not so much interested in the incident itself as in the nature of grief and all the more so when it takes place across a national canvas.

Lee picks up three years after the sinking as husband and father Jung-il (Sol Kyung-gu) returns to Korea after five years of working away in Vietnam. So disconnected is he from his family, that he was only vaguely aware that they had moved and has trouble finding the new apartment. When he gets there, his wife Soon-nam (Jeon Do-yeon) pretends to be out, sending Jung-il back to stay with his understanding sister who tries to fill him in on the various reasons he might not be welcome at his own door.

The loss of the couple’s oldest child, Su-ho (Yoon Chan-young), in the ferry tragedy is only gradually revealed though it’s clear that there is an absence in the family home. Soon-nam has kept Su-ho’s room exactly as he left it – school uniform hanging on the wardrobe door, unfinished school work on the desk, post-its seemingly everywhere. Meanwhile, youngest daughter Ye-sol (Kim Bo-min) is often left to her own devices while Soon-nam buries herself in work and shuts out everything that reminds her that her son is never coming home.

While some of the other parents have formed a tightly bonded community forged by shared grief and anger, Soon-nam wants no part of it. Invited to a gathering after bumping into other parents at the memorial site, she lasts barely a few minutes before accusing them of turning their suffering into an excuse for frivolity. It’s not as if she could ever forget what happened to her son, but when the ferry tragedy is on every street corner, on the radio, on the news, it becomes impossible to ignore. Soon-nam wants her grief to herself. Her son and her loss. She isn’t interested in sharing him with anyone else, be that an increasingly angry society or her little girl who is now terrified of water and worried about her mum.

Jung-il, burdened with guilt for having abandoned his family, tries to address his grief in a more positive sense by re-embracing his role as a father to Ye-sol who was so small when he left that she doesn’t really remember him. Though Lee is not particularly interested in the political ramifications of the tragedy, she does subtly point the finger at the effects of economic pressure on the ordinary family which have seen Jung-il exile himself abroad and Soon-nam working so hard just to keep her head above water that Ye-sol is caught in the middle. Jung-il wasn’t there when his family needed him, and there’s precious little he can do for them now other than try to be around.

The other members of the support group have been holding birthday parties for some of the kids who passed away, turning the solemnity of a memorial service into a celebration of life. Soon-nam is against the idea – she would rather save the day for herself in private commemoration, but Jung-il is broadly in favour. Probed, he has to admit he barely knew the young man his son was becoming and that this party might be the only way to reconnect with the boy he lost. A passport that will never be stamped, colleges that will never be applied to, weddings that will never take place – the finality of the loss is crippling, but in holding the birthday parties those left behind are able to find a kind of acceptance in shared remembrance and a confirmation that their loved ones were loved and will continue to be loved even in their absence. A sensitive yet uncompromising exploration of the sometimes forgotten personal dimension to a national tragedy, Birthday is a beautifully complex evocation of learning to live with loss and a strangely uplifting, cathartic experience.


Birthday was screened as the opening night gala of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Psychokinesis (염력, Yeon Sang-ho, 2018)

Psychokenesis posterThe animated world of Yeon Sang-ho is dark and cynical, finding only fear and anger in the hopeless vision of contemporary Korea that his films continue to paint. His first live action feature, Train to Busan, began to see a little light as its jaded protagonist finally rediscovered his humanity while the innocent were eventually allowed to find a degree at least of rescue. Psychokinesis (염력, Yeomlyeok), in once sense, continues the theme in centring itself on another of Korean cinema’s bad dads, one so morally corrupted that he rejects all responsibility to others and lives only for the self-indulgent pleasure of the petty scam. Given superpowers, his thoughts turn to finance but eventually lead to an opportunity to right himself in societal eyes by reconnecting with his estranged daughter and accepting his responsibility as a family man.

Seok-heon (Ryoo Seung-Ryong) left his family when his daughter was only ten years old. These days he makes a living as a (lazy) security guard while supplementing his income by pilfering coffee and toilet paper from the company. After drinking spring water from a mountain shrine which, unbeknownst to him, has recently been struck by a mysterious meteoroid, Seok-heon realises he has developed the power of psychokinesis but is only really interested in how it might benefit him financially. That said, Seok-heon’s thoughts do not turn to crime, but to fame – he thinks it might make a good magic act and has heard there can be a lot of money to be made on the circuit.

Shortly after his magical revelation, Seok-heon gets a call from Ru-mi (Shim Eun-kyung) – his now grown up daughter who had been running her own very successful fried chicken restaurant until the shop was compulsory purchased to make way for a shopping mall intended to cater for Chinese tourists. Ru-mi and some of the other shopkeepers have been engaged in a resistance movement, refusing to let their property be taken until they have received fair compensation. During an altercation with the thugs sent in to evict them by force, Ru-mi’s mother was killed – which why is she called, to invite her long lost father to the funeral. Though Seok-heon is not exactly keen to get involved, he eventually realises that his new found abilities might prove useful and help him restore himself in his daughter’s judgemental eyes.

As in Train to Busan, Seok-heon is a cynical and jaded father but this time he’s one very much down on his luck, one of life’s losers whose decision to accept defeat has been lifelong and total. Faced with Ru-mi’s cohort of resistance members, he publicly refuses to help, pointing out that their battle is doomed to failure and it would be better to just give up now. Ru-mi, apparently still capable of additional disappointment, reminds her father that this is what he does – when things look grim he runs away. Ru-mi refuses to be like her dad, and therefore refuses to give up without a fight.

Yeon once again injects some background social criticism into an otherwise friendly tale of dead beat dads and the power of community. Echoing the Yongsan tragedy, Yeon makes the destruction of a neighbourhood to build a shopping mall for tourists his battleground as Ru-mi and her fellow resistance members hole up behind a barricade throwing Molotov cocktails at the police and trying to avoid a fight with the thugs who work for the corrupt construction company behind the whole affair. To make matters worse, Yeon takes us past the site of so much drama at the film’s conclusion, showing us an empty lot, a scar on the landscape memorialising the senselessness of corporate greed which eventually eats itself and stifles any kind of progress economic or social. Ru-mi and the others are powerless to resist their eviction but insist on the compensation they ought to be entitled to which would allow them to begin their businesses again elsewhere so they can continue to earn a living.

Seok-heon is the archetypal apathetic man who thinks it’s pointless to resist and is content to live in as corrupt a way as his society permits. He refuses his responsibility to others, walking past the cleaner being threatened for taking the “free” coffees from the lobby he convinced her were OK to take whilst lamenting her “stupidity” for inexpert pilfering. Battered and defeated, Seok-heon rejoices in pettiness, getting his kicks by shirking at work and getting one over on the bosses by stealing. His first thought on getting powers isn’t their capacity for good, but nor is it a lust for power or revenge, he merely wants to show off a little and earn big bucks – his crime is petulant self-indulgence, not active villainy. Reuniting with his daughter and witnessing her fighting for something she believes in, Seok-heon begins to rediscover his long buried heroism finally becoming a father worthy of his daughter’s respect.

It’s not all plain sailing however as the corporate stooges are not just thuggish but clever and devious. Figuring out that the twin issues to evicting the protestors are the unsolved murder of Ru-mi’s mother and Seok-heon’s superpowers, they set about undermining both – setting up a patsy for the crime and attempting to blackmail Seok-heon by leaking footage of his powers to the news in the hope that the country turns against him. Unable to explain his unusual abilities, TV news pundits do what they always do – blame North Korea, and insist he must be some kind of spy and/or infiltrator.

Working with a much lower budget, Psychokinesis is a lighter affair than might be expected, essentially mixing a hapless dad narrative with a superhero origin story but with a more cheerful tone than one usually associates with Yeon. As expected, you can’t fight city hall and Seok-heon’s assertion that the battle was always a losing one may prove to be correct but what he discovers is that is not necessarily a reason to just give up and walk away. Even if one plan fails, there may be other ways to “succeed” so long as there are enough people willing to stand up for what’s right whilst holding fast to each other, committed to building something better rather than just to tearing something down.


Psychokinesis is currently streaming worldwide via Netflix.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

26 Years (26년, Cho Geun-hyun, 2012)

26 Years posterA society says a lot about itself in the way it treats its villains. Chun Doo-hwan was a brutal dictator who came to power as a result of a violent counter coup which encompassed the now notorious murder of ordinary citizens by agents of the state in Gwangju in May 1980. Chun’s reign eventually came to an end with the successful conclusion of the democratisation movement which gave birth to the modern democratic state of South Korea that is, at present, in the aftermath of dealing with another unpopular leader deposed through peaceful, democratic means. Though originally sentenced to death Chun’s punishment was later commuted. He has never paid the massive fine that was imposed upon him as symbolic recompense for his acts of terror and vast web of corruption. .

The five men and women at the centre of 26 Years (26년, Nyeon) have not forgotten the face of Chun Doo-hwan (Jang Gwang), identified only as “that man”, and are among the many frustrated by his refusal to take responsibility for his actions. A former soldier remorseful for his role in the events (Lee Geung-young) recruits an olympic sharpshooter (Han Hye-jin) whose mother was killed by a stray bullet, a gangland thug (Jin Goo) whose father was tortured and murdered by security forces driving his mother into madness, and a policeman (Im Seulong) who lost his sister running away from a demonstration, as well as his son (Bae Soo-bin), to assist in a plan to force the former general to apologise for his crimes and, if he refuses, enact their own justice.

Spoilers aside, Chun Doo-hwan is still very much alive and the events of 26 Years are inspired by an entirely fictionalised webmanga though it is true that Chun lives in an L-shaped compound protected by perimeter walls and a small army of police and security forces presumably at great cost to the Korean tax payer. He has never apologised for his actions regarding the Gwangju massacre and continues to blame the “rioters” in insisting that the soldiers had no choice but to fire back in self defence. That such a politically sensitive film could be made about a figure who is still alive, let alone that it would become a major box office success and crowd funding phenomenon is a small miracle in itself but speaks to the deep rift this troubled period of recent history provokes in the minds of the contemporary society.

First time director Cho opens with the events of 1980 but in highly stylised animation rather than live action. There is something in the sketchy quality of the artwork that perfectly evokes the ambivalence of the entire enterprise, of not quite wanting to look at events which are so hard to see. See we do as bystanders are cruelly struck by stray bullets, soldiers panic and shoot, and the left behind search desperately for their missing loved ones but find only tragedy and pain. Reverting to live action for 1983 onwards, Cho then takes us through the next 20 years noting landmarks as he goes – the ever present terror of Chun on TV screens everywhere, his eventual fall and the restoration of democracy, Chun’s pardoning and eventual yet accidental house imprisonment for his own security.

The wounds remain unhealed, festering without resolution. While protestors make their voices heard, a room full of supporters fall to their knees before a resurgent Chun standing proud before them. Chun remains unrepentant, cruelly so in Cho’s dramatisation, shaking off the body of a fallen bodyguard like a slobbering dog, caring nothing for his people and thinking only of his own survival.

Cho keeps the tension high as the small band of traumatised youngsters attempts to confront their nation’s difficult history head on, finding both resistance and camaraderie yet fighting internal conflict all the way. Avoiding easy answers, 26 Years is among the most direct attempts Korean cinema has made to reckon with the traumatic recent past, mixing high octane action with a melancholy consideration of the effects of a national trauma but it also finds itself in a moment of indecision, refusing the ending narrative demands in favour of an intake of breath followed by a weary exhale of weighty resignation.


Currently available to stream via Netflix.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Love+Sling (레슬러, Kim Dae-woong, 2018)

Love+Sling poster“Free yourself!” cries the oblivious father at the centre of Kim Dae-woong’s wrestling themed family comedy, Love+Sling (레슬러, Lesseulleo). In truth, this is wrestling of the emotional rather than the physical kind as the closeness of a father and son comes under pressure not only from advancing maturity but the unexpected intervention of the girl next door. Vicarious dreams, generational resentments, unusual sensitivity, unaddressed trauma, and self-imposed limitations all come into play when age and youth lock horns, each hoping to come out on top but eventually being knocked back to a healthier place of personal equality born of mutual understanding.

Cheerful widower Gui-bo (Yoo Hae-jin) and his son Sung-woong (Kim Min-jae) have an extremely close relationship seeing as it’s just been the two of them since Gui-bo’s wife passed away from illness when Sung-woong was small. By way of support, they are also extremely friendly with their upstairs neighbours whom they think of as extended family. In his youth, Gui-bo was a champion wrestler with Olympic dreams which he gave up to become a family man but has now passed on to Sung-woong whom he is training to become a national athlete. Meanwhile, Sung-woong is nursing a small crush on girl next door Ga-young (Lee Sung-kyung) but his plans of confessing his love after winning the big contest are dashed when she makes a big confession of her own. She’s long been carrying a torch for Gui-bo and wants Sung-woong to help her win him over.

Ga-young’s awkward confession sets off a series of uncomfortable reactions in Sung-woong. First of all he’s understandably shocked, jealous, and resentful yet also forced to realise that Ga-young’s having a crush on him is not really his father’s fault. The extremely close relationship they’d always enjoyed becomes strained for reasons that Gui-bo is unable to understand, believing that his son is just at a difficult age and under a lot of pressure thanks to his training. Gui-bo still thinks of Ga-young as the little girl from next door and is in no way romantically interested in her though when he finally learns of her intentions, he tries to do his best not to hurt her feelings, letting her down gently in the knowledge that this kind of misplaced love is just a part of growing up that she will someday likely be very embarrassed about.

Nevertheless, Sung-woong does not enjoy thinking of his own father as a romantic rival and is forced is to reassess the rest of their relationship in the face of this disturbing fact. Sung-woong can’t remember if he wrestles because he likes it, or he only did it to make his dad happy. Gui-bo insists he only encouraged his son to wrestle because he enjoyed it, but there is an unavoidable implication that he’s forced his own failed dreams onto the shoulders of his son who risks disappointing him if he is unable to achieve them. Sung-woong can’t help but resent the unfair parental expectations he’s lived under his all life, not least because they leave him uncertain, never really knowing if he has a dream of his own or has been prevented from forming one in having lived such a blinkered existence.

The burden of parental expectation is not one that can be easily shaken off. Middle-aged father Gui-bo is still under constant pressure from his own mother to remarry despite his frequent protestations. In a painful conversation after an argument with Sung-woong, Gui-bo turns to his mother to muse on the difficulties of raising a child only for her turn his words back on him in another veiled criticism of his refusal to conform to her vision of a successful future. Lamenting that his mother never listens, Gui-bo attempts to talk to his son but makes exactly the same mistake and gets his own words thrown back at him, finally realising he is no better and is incapable of allowing Sung-woong a safe space to voice his concerns without launching into a mini lecture of self-centred and unsolicited life advice.

Sung-woong’s increasing resentment threatens to tank not only his relationship with his father but also Ga-young’s with her family and the easiness that had existed between the two houses. Father and son had been all too close, locked in a mutually dependent cycle of filial responsibilities that threatened to prevent either of them ever moving forward. Like a wrestler trapped on the mat, each man has to free himself by accepting his own individual identity while allowing others to do the same. Only by a literal grappling can each man find the strength to release the other so that they might both regain the freedom to become the most authentic versions of themselves. A gentle, empathetic take on family mores and the pains of growing up no matter what age you are, Love+Sling finds space for the changing nature of a paternal bond which does not so much break as bend under the weight of mutual recognition.


Love+Sling was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Memoir of a Murderer (살인자의 기억법, Won Shin-yeon, 2017)

memoir of a murderer posterMemory, particularly traumatic memory, coupled with the inability to overcome painful truths through the act of forgetting, has a become an essential part of Korean cinema. The “hero” at the centre of Won Shin-yeon’s Memoir of a Murderer (살인자의 기억법, Salinjaui Gieokbeob), adapted from the novel by Kim Young-Ha, literally cannot remember his past crimes – he is suffering from dementia possibly brought on by brain damage sustained in an accident 17 years previously. The inability to remember is not the same as forgetting, and forgetting is not the same as ignoring, but there are some truths so essential that a superficial inability to recall them does not destroy their power.

Byung-su (Sol Kyung-gu) was once a serial killer. That is to say, he was the “noble” kind of serial killer who only killed “bad” people (in his own moral judgment) such as instigators of domestic violence, heartless loan sharks, or people who harm animals. These days Byung-su is a successful vet living with his grown-up daughter, Eun-hee (Seol Hyun). Having recently confirmed that he has Alzheimer’s, the doctor says possibly a result of trauma from that earlier car crash, Byung-su does not know what to do for the best seeing as he’ll have to give up work. An unexpected collision with a young man in a swanky silver car, Min Tae-ju (Kim Nam-Gil), gives Byung-su something else to think about when he notices what looks like blood dripping from the boot. Locking eyes with the man in question, Byun-su knows instantly that Tae-ju is just like him – a killer, probably the man behind a series of unsolved murders. Byung-su might have let this go as a matter of professional courtesy were it not for a few nagging doubts – did Tae-ju see in him what he saw in Tae-ju, and if he did will Eun-hee, who is a perfect match with the currently known victims in the unsolved serial killing case, be in additional danger due to her father’s accidental encounter?

Then again, did any of that actually happen? Byung-su’s rapidly deteriorating memory cannot be relied upon. Perhaps there was no crash, perhaps there was no body or the body was that of a deer, perhaps Byung-su is simply mixing up his original car crash with something more metaphorical. In an effort to help him remember where he is, Eun-hee has given her father a dictaphone so he can leave himself messages of things he might forget – when he took his medication, places he needs to go, the names of people he met but can’t remember. Unbeknownst to her, Byung-su has already engaged himself in a wider program of remembering by trying to write down his own life story, including all the grisly details of his serial killing past, in a kind of memoir on his computer. Though Byung-su struggles to remember details or ensure he has everything clearly the way it really happened, muscle memory speaks for itself and his body will never forget its murderous past. Freed from the moderating force of Byung-su’s remaining humanity, Byung-su worries what his body may do on his behalf while his mind is absent.

Byung-su positions himself as morally good, believing that his mission of killing “bad” people is a kind of service to humanity. When he begins to doubt himself, that perhaps he is both the old serial killer and the new but has “forgotten” his most recent victims, his justification starts to fall apart. Almost a father and son, Byung-su and his suspect come from different generations and grew up in very different political and social circumstances, yet both carry the scars of domestic violence. Violent fathers beget violent sons yet Byung-su, he believes, has chosen a better path in ridding the world of bullies whereas his opposing number has chosen to blame the victim in preying on the weak.

Alzheimer’s leaves Byung-su permanently vulnerable, not least to self betrayal, rendering him unable to even recognise his enemy or remember why it was he seems to suspect him. Despite the inability to remember, Byung-su retains his instinctive suspicion of Tae-ju, but is unable to evade the possibility that his misgivings are a mix of self-projection and a more natural paternal wariness. His world is in constant shift between realities founded on imperfect memory. Not until he has faced the truth in all its ugliness can he hope to reorder his existence. The act of forgetting cannot solve all one’s problems – the absence of superficial pain merely provokes a kind of numbness while the root causes remain. Byung-su cannot kill the killer in himself, and is condemned to chase his own ghost through various unrealities until it finally catches up with him. Filled with (extremely) dark humour and oddly warm naturalistic detail, Memoir of a Murderer operates on a deeper level than it first might appear, stepping away from literal truths in favour of metaphorical ones but finding little of either.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Battleship Island (군함도, Ryoo Seung-Wan, 2017)

battleship island posterKorean cinema has been in a reflective mood of late. The ongoing series of colonial era dramas have sometimes leaned towards uncomfortable and uncompromising nationalism but among the more recent, there has also been an attempt to ask more serious questions about collaboration and capitulation of ordinary people living under a brutal and often cruel regime. While Age of Shadows dramatised this particular problem through the conflicted figure of a former resistance fighter turned Japanese military police offer, The Battleship Island (군함도, Goonhamdo) goes further in its depiction of those who dedicated themselves entirely to the Japanese Empire and were willing to oppress their fellow Koreans to do so. That is not to ignore the hellish conditions which define the very idea of Hashima as an off shore labour camp where depravity rules, exploitation is hidden, and the camp commander is free to run his ship however he sees fit.

In early 1945 Korea is still under Japanese colonial rule and ordinary Koreans are liable for conscription into the Imperial Japanese army whether they like it or not. Gang-ok (Hwang Jung-min) and his daughter Sohee (Kim Soo-ahn) are members of a popular jazz band but Gang-ok has a habit of getting himself into trouble and so they are tricked into getting on a boat to Japan hoping for a safer, more lucrative life. Where they end up is Hashima – otherwise known as “Battleship Island”. Gang-ok and Sohee are separated with Gang-ok stripped of his musical instruments and Sohee, who is only a child, carted off with the other women destined for the “comfort station”.

Ryoo wastes little time demonstrating the immense evil buried in places like Hashima. A deep seam coal mine in the middle of the sea, the island is a fortress prison from which escape is impossible. Early on, three small boys decide to flee after their friend is killed in a cave-in only for one to be shot and the other two drowned by the lazy soldiers of a Japanese patrol boat who couldn’t be bothered to fish them out of the water. The miners are beaten, starved, tortured and manipulated into submission knowing that capitulation is their best route to survival. Not only are these men the subjects of forced labour, they are also made liable for the “costs” involved in their own enslavement with the bill for their transportation, food, clothes, and tools deducted from their “wages” which are supposed to be paid into their bank accounts for access on release. Those killed whilst working are supposed to receive compensation for their families but as will later be revealed, systematic corruption means their families may not even know their loved ones are dead let alone that they are being denied the money rightfully owed to them.

Things get even worse for little Sohee who is forced into a kimono and smothered with makeup to “entertain” some of the Japanese officers on the island. She manages to buy herself some time when she realises the Korean record the camp commander puts on to “comfort” the “comfort women” is one she is actually singing on. This new discovery earns her and her father a slightly improved status in the camp though she may not be safe for long. Gang-ok has already reverted to his tried and tested methods for getting out of sticky situations, making himself a kind of camp fixer aided by his ability to speak Japanese.

The Korean prisoners are represented by a former resistance leader, Yoon Hak-chul (Lee Kyoung-young), who offers rousing speeches in public but privately is not quite all he seems. Gang-ok gets himself mixed up in a Resistance operation run by an OSS (Song Joong-ki) plant on site to rescue Yoon who eventually uncovers several inconvenient truths which make his mission something of a non-starter. Yoon’s empty rhetoric and self serving grandeur represent the worst of the spiritual crimes discovered on Hashima but there is equal ire for the turncoat Koreans who act as enforcers for the Japanese, issuing beatings and siding with their oppressors in the desperation to escape their oppression. Tragically believing themselves to have switched sides, the turncoats never realise that the Japanese hold them in even lower regard than those they have betrayed.

It is hard to avoid the obvious nationalistic overtones as the Japanese remain a one dimensional evil, smirking away as they run roughshod over human rights, prepare to barter little girls and send boys into dangerous potholes all in the name of industry. At one point Gang-ok cuts an Imperial Japanese flag in half to make the all important ramp which will help the captive Koreans escape the island before being summarily murdered to destroy evidence of Japanese war crimes which is a neat kind of visual symbolism, but also very on the nose. Once again, the message is that Koreans can do impossible things when they work together, as the impressively staged, horrifically bloody finale demonstrates, but as Ryoo also reminds us there no “heroes”, only ordinary people doing the best they can in trying times. 


Currently on limited UK cinema release!

Original trailer (English subtitles)