Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Jeong Yoon-chul, 2017)

Warriors of the Dawn posterSome might say a king is the slave of his people, but then again he is a very well kept slave even if he is no more free than a serf at the mercy of a feudal lord. Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Daeribgoon), set in 1592 during the short-lived Japanese invasion, takes this idea to its heart in playing up the inherent similarities between the oppressed poor who are forced to impersonate the sons of wealthy men too grand for the battlefield, and the Crown Prince unwillingly forced to impersonate the King who has abandoned his people and run away to China to save his own skin. Though the Prince is young and afraid, with the help of his resentful mercenary brethren he begins to find the majesty buried inside himself all along but crucially never forgets what is like to feel oppressed so that he might rule nobly and fairly, unlike his more selfish father.

The tale begins with Tow (Lee Jung-Jae) – a “Proxy Soldier”, one of many from the Northern borderlands where the living is hard. Sons of feudal lords need not risk their lives on the battlefields while there is money to spend and so they buy the service of young men from poor families to stand in for them. The men take the name of the man they’re supposed to be but if they die, their family must send a replacement to serve out the remaining time or pay back the money that was given to them. At this point Tow’s main problem is the Jurchen rebels who’ve decided to live life their own way outside of the system of class hierarchy currently in place in feudal Korea.

The Japanese, however, are pressing on and making gains towards the capital. The King decides to flee, hoping to reach China where the Ming Emperor may be minded to help them. He cannot, however, simply abandon ship and decides to divide the court with the left behind contingent headed by his son, Crown Prince Gwang-hae (Yeo Jin-goo). Gwang-hae is young and inexperienced. Not having had a good relationship with his father, he’s mystified as to why he’s suddenly been given this “honour” but together with a selection of advisors he’s sent on a journey to found a second court at Gonggye, picking up scattered forces along the way. This brings him into contact with Tow and his contingent who become his main defenders.

Having lived a life inside the palace walls, Gwang-hae knows nothing of war or fighting and has brought a selection of books with him hoping to learn on the job. His ineptitude is likened to that of a young recruit to the band of Proxy Soldiers who has been forced to join on the death of his father but has no training and is too squeamish to kill, requiring Tow to come to his rescue as he later does for Gwang-hae. Tow is a born soldier yet reluctant, fully aware that he no longer exists and should he die another man with no name will step into his place with nary a pause. He continues to fight because he has no choice but he also feels an intense bond of brotherhood to his fellow men, something which later extends to Gwang-hae once his latent nobility begins to emerge.

Gwang-hae’s central conflict is between his advisors who council him towards austerity, and his deeper feelings which encourage him to sympathise with the ordinary people he meets along the way whose lives are being ruined thanks to the government’s failure to protect them. As it turns out, Gwang-hae is also low-born, in a sense, and therefore has inherited something of the common touch which separates him from the aloofness of his father. Though he is constantly told to make the “rational” choice he refuses – ordering troops to stop when they attempt to extort food from starving peasants, insisting on evacuating a village to safer ground, and then finally becoming a warrior himself in order to defend his people when no one else would.

Gwang-hae is, perhaps, a warrior for a new dawn and a flag that men like Tow can follow in the quest for a better world in which each man can keep his own name and fight for his own cause rather than that laid down for them by men with money or power. Despite the potential for a more urgent argument, Jeong mostly falls back on standard period aesthetics with overly familiar narrative beats heavily signposted by a subpar script. Warriors of the Dawn cannot decide whether it’s a film about catching the conscience of a king or the noble sacrifice of would be revolutionaries, failing to lend the essential weight to its duel arcs of rebirth and coming of age all of which makes for a long, hard march towards an inevitable conclusion.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

International trilogy (English subtitles)

Eungyo (AKA A Muse, 은교, Jung Ji-woo, 2012)

eungyoStories of old men trying to recapture their lost youth through projecting their fantasies onto pretty young women are not exactly rare and the protagonist of Jung Ji-woo’s Eungyo ( AKA A Muse, 은교) is just as aware as most that his dreams of youthful romance border on the ridiculous. A tale of loss, nostalgia, and jealousy both professional and personal, Eungyo is a poetic exploration of the burdens and benefits of age which are often invisible to those who can only look forwards.

At 70, Lee Jeok-yo (Park Hae-il) is a respected professor and literary giant who lives a quiet and solitary life in an out of the way villa. His only companion is his apprentice-cum-assistant, Seo Ji-woo (Kim Moo-yul), who is currently experiencing a period of success as his genre crossing novel Heart is topping the best seller list. When the pair return home one day to find pretty teenager Eungyo (Kim Go-eun) asleep in their garden chair, it sparks off a three way relationship which sees her working as part-time housekeeper for Jeok-yo.

Eungyo is a lively young girl and brings a little light and laughter into the otherwise stuffy villa but when she runs away from home one stormy night and stays over, the situation changes. Catching sight of Eungyo emerging from Jeok-yo’s bed, Seo jumps to the obvious conclusion and is filled with moral outrage in thinking his aged boss is conducting an inappropriate relationship with a schoolgirl. Or, perhaps, Seo himself is attracted to the girl and is angry that Jeok-yo has once again “beaten” him and proved himself superior on the fields of both literature and romance. Eungyo’s presence deepens the divide between master and pupil, threatening to change both of their lives forever.

Jeok-yo is under no illusions and never contemplates the idea of real relationship with Eungyo. His life had been a quiet and solitary one, though there’s little indication exactly how he felt about that. What is clear is that Jeok-yo dislikes his ageing body and the loss of his youth. In his fantasy romance, Jeok-yo is young, running and playing like a naive teenager in love but as soon as he wakes up the spell is broken, he’s old again and the idyllic world he’d conjured for himself no longer exists.

Even if he dreams another world for himself, Jeok-yo is perfectly aware of how things are in this one. Ji-woo, by contrast, attempts to solve all his problems by deluding himself into believing his future is brighter than it really is. His professional relationship with Jeok-yo turns out to have an unexpected dimension and Ji-woo’s literary success is a hollow pillow for his self esteem. Insecure about his talent, especially in comparison to his mentor, Ji-woo sets about casting himself as morally superior through his objection to Eungyo’s new role in their lives but this too is a thinly veiled way of trying to eclipse his master. All Ji-woo has to offer is his youth but even this cannot heal his loneliness and lack of self worth.

Eungyo becomes a symbol of something else for both men but she is also a young woman with a number of problems of her own. Faced with an apparently difficult home environment, Eungyo is seeking a connection from these two men but her borderline status as an adolescent girl means that the water is always coloured with both men viewing her as a potential lover rather than a child in need of shelter. Coming to admire Jeok-yo for his poetic soul and literary talent and siding with him against Ji-woo, Eungyo later makes a self destructive decision which ends her relationship with both men.

There are no happy endings here, even if the idea of a “happy ending” is not quite as ironic as in Jung’s previous film centring on marital infidelity, Happy End. Nobody gets what they wanted or what the audience wanted for them and each end up unable to come back from the whirlwind of self destruction which they’ve each helped to generate. A nuanced character piece in which age competes with youth, loss competes with gain, success competes with personal fulfilment, and true feeling is sacrificed for a relief from loneliness, Eungyo is deceptively named not for the young woman at its centre but for the collection of hopes, dreams and aspects of self which each of the men have imbued her with, eclipsing the real woman with an imagined prize and losing her in the process.


International trailer (English subtitles)