A Single Spark (아름다운 청년 전태일, Park Kwang-su, 1995)

In the present day, South Korea has become a prosperous society and leading world economy, but the miracle of its modernisation came at a heavy price. Socially committed filmmaker Park Kwang-su’s A Single Spark (아름다운 청년 전태일, Areumdaun cheongnyeon Jeon Tae-il) takes a trip back to the “truly dark days” of the Park Chung-hee dictatorship to expose the exploitation on which the modern society was, and in fact still is, founded, enabled largely by the wilful misuse of a fear of “communism” as manifested in the problematic presence of threat from “the North”.

Park filters his true life tale through the figure of a fictionalised author and activist, Kim (Moon Sung-Keun), who finds himself on the run from the authorities in 1975. Hiding out in a small town in a backroom rented by his pregnant factory worker girlfriend Jung-soon (Kim Sunjae), Kim is working on a biography of a labour rights activist, Jeon Tae-il, who self-immolated in order to protest the failure to properly enforce existing workers’ rights five years’ earlier in 1970.

Switching to crisp black and white, Park paints a bleak picture of working class life in the late 1960s as the oppressive Park Chung-hee regime imposed extreme export goals designed to boost the local economy. We first meet Jeon (Hong Kyeong-in), who was only 22 at the time of his death, selling umbrellas on the street before he is “lucky” enough to get a job in a tailoring factory. Committing himself to working hard and getting on, he is quickly disillusioned with conditions at the plant which has little light or ventilation and often forces its employees to work through the night without adequate breaks for food. When the young woman next to him begins vomiting blood and is sent home but subsequently fired, Jeon becomes radicalised. Told that there are no laws which protect workers, he is surprised to discover that there are but their existence has been wilfully kept from him. The law is written in a language which is almost impossible for him to understand, in highly formal text using Chinese characters which most ordinary Koreans, never mind those like Jeon denied a proper education, struggle to read.

Jeon begins agitating. He takes a copy of the statutes and a series of violations at the factory to those in charge, but no one is interested. Even when he convinces some of the other workers to come with him, the boss is eventually forced to make a token concession of listening to them but ultimately rolls his eyes and says it’s all very well but not good for business. Jeon isn’t asking for anything radical (save the later addition of provision for menstrual leave), only for better ventilation and for the existing laws to be obeyed.

Meanwhile, Kim meditates on his legacy in the dark days of 1975 where anti-communist sentiment runs high in the wake of the end of the Vietnam War. “Anti-communism” and the demonisation of the North were a central part of Park Chung-hee’s right-wing, nationalist military dictatorship and any attempts to form things like unions or left-leaning political associations were quickly decried as “communist”. Kim’s girlfriend Jung-soon is currently involved in trying to set up a union at her factory to combat many of the same kinds of issues that Jeon was fighting five years’ earlier, but she too is under a lot of pressure. Afraid of the authorities and of losing their jobs, many workers refuse to join and even after she reaches her quota the request for recognition is denied. She and the other activists are harassed by factory management beginning with a “friendly” meeting outside her home in which they try to bribe her with money and expensive fruits, and ending with a raid on the building in which some of the workers are holding a protest during which a woman falls ill and the others are badly beaten when they try to get her to a hospital.

Jeon and the others are lectured by management that they should try to feel more “patriotic” and be willing to suffer in order to raise the economy, bribed with false promises that they’ll all be driving luxury cars in 10 years’ time. Meanwhile, a woman coming to collect money from Jeon’s mother angrily exclaims that debtors should take rat poison and die (which seems counterproductive when they owe you money), and the managers dismiss workers’ concerns with the rationale that they obviously “aren’t hungry enough” to put up with starvation wages and poor working conditions. From the vantage point of 1975, Kim meditates on Jeon’s sacrifice as he witnesses the suicide of another young man, Kim Sang-jin – a student who quoted Thomas Jefferson’s words that democracy is an outcome of struggle at a rally at Seoul National University in April 1975 before publicly slashing his belly. He sees the tragedy of Jeon’s death as the “single spark” which lit a fire under the democracy movement, a torch he wants to pick up and keep aflame to guide them towards a better future.

20 years later, Park may be acknowledging that some battles have been won in a newly democratised Korea as Kim looks on with satisfaction in a peaceful marketplace while a student carries the book he has written about Jeon Tae-il under his arm, but implicitly suggests that not enough has changed and the same battles Jeon was fighting are still being fought. A melancholy meditation on political martyrdom, art, and legacy, A Single Spark pays tribute to those who gave their lives for a fairer world but is equally intent that their sacrifice must not be forgotten.


A Single Spark was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Nowhere to Hide (인정사정 볼 것 없다, Lee Myung-se, 1999)

Nowhere to hide posterOne of Korea’s foremost visual stylists, Lee Myung-se’s work has often been under appreciated at the time of its release. His desire to experiment finds fertile ground in the intensely kinetic ode to the police procedural, Nowhere to Hide (인정사정 볼 것 없다, Injeongsajeong bol Geos Eobsda). A tale of cops and robbers, Nowhere to Hide follows a cop who talks too much on the trail of a silent assassin who is, in fact, an expert at hiding in plain sight through the art of disguise. Moving quickly from one intense, beautifully choreographed set piece to the next, Lee draws inspiration from the crime-tinged tragedies of old Hollywood and beyond whilst embracing those of his home nation in the classic twin pairing of actors Ahn Sung-ki as the enigmatic assassin, and Park Joong-hoon as the bullheaded cop hot on his trail.

Lee opens in black and white with Inspector Woo (Park Joong-hoon) in full on gangster mode as he wanders through a ruined landscape, pausing only to tie his shoelace while the pulsing, punkish music continues in the background, before he walks in on an entire room of besuited gangsters and calmly sits down to introduce himself. Sometime later, Sungmin (Ahn Sung-ki), in sunshades and trench coat, patiently bides his time before committing a dramatic murder and making off with a mysterious briefcase.

What follows then is a game of cat and mouse as Woo chases the ghost of Sungmin through dingy back allies and neighbourhood dive bars, taking his more serious partner, Kim (Jang Dong-kun), whose more primary motivations include his family or more particularly his little girl, along for the ride. Woo lives only for his work, drawing more thrill from the chase than he is likely to admit. Through his pursuit of Sungmin, Woo draws closer to a side of himself he hoped to avoid, burying his natural rebelliousness in service of the law. We see him brutally interrogate suspects, even at one point trussing one up like a prize pig and suspending him between two desks in the middle of the police station. It is, in this sense, Woo who is left with “nowhere to hide”. As a young man, he had a violent streak which might well have led him into crime if his father had not pointed him towards the police, but he can no longer claim to be very much different than the quarry he pursues. His true nature has been laid bare by his opposing number.

Woo’s rage and unpredictable energy are tempered by Kim’s evenhandedness, but after a job goes wrong and Kim kills a suspect by mistake he starts to fall apart. Suddenly Woo cannot rely on Kim to save him from himself and then tragically fails to save Kim during another operation, leaving him open to serious injury. His quest is now as much one of vengeance and personal feeling as it is of justice.

Sungmin, by contrast, says not one word in the entirety of the film. A felt presence more than a seen one, he slips in and out of personas, escaping from the scene in various disguises as a figure more of legend than of reality. A close relationship with a bar hostess girlfriend is Woo’s way in to Sungmin’s world, correctly identifying a weakness and pressing it, pursuing a more concrete route to the centre of Sungmin’s existence than simply tracking him through the shady netherworld in which he lives.

The two men run from and mirror each other as pictures of action and stillness, resistance and urgency. Through a relentless pursuit of capture or escape, neither can evade the shadow of himself, each moving closer to their true selves as repressed elements surface and threaten to destroy the whole. Woo and Sungmin are each on a mutually destructive pursuit of the self as much as they are for their own, self defined goals.

Lee frames all of this within his characteristically ironic world view, painting the drama as comedy imbued with its own kind of cartoonish slapstick. Throwing in cinematic homages from a brief nod to Battleship Potemkin to an ending plucked straight out of The Third Man, Lee mixes freeze frames with an odd jump dissolve technique which lends his intensely beautiful choreography an impressionistic, fleeting quality. Two men chase the shadow of the other, engaged in a desperate game of hide and seek, but when the game is up neither may like what they see.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Robbery sequence (dialogue free)