Innocent Witness (증인, Lee Han, 2019)

Innocent Witness poster“Are you a good person?” asks the confused girl at the centre of Lee Han’s Innocent Witness (증인, Jeungin). Her question comes after a series of surprising revelations which have left her questioning all of her relationships and the nature of the world itself, yet it’s one that’s largely impossible to answer. Formerly idealistic lawyer Soon-ho (Jung Woo-sung) thinks he’s been given the kind of case he can get behind, but as usual nothing is quite as it seems and if he wants to get to the truth of the matter he’ll have to learn to think differently.

Soon-ho began his career as an activist lawyer working for NGOs, but now he’s “sold out” to join an elite law firm with a dodgy reputation in order to pay back debts his father unwisely guaranteed for a friend. Because of his precarious financial status, Soon-ho has put-off marriage and relationships, despite his father’s nagging, believing them to be out of his reach and is conflicted by his recent career choices which leave him on the opposite side from old friends. When he’s handed a pro-bono case to defend a housekeeper (Yum Hye-ran) accused of murdering her employer he thinks it’s the best of both worlds. All the evidence points to suicide, but there’s a witness testimony which suggests otherwise. Seeing as the testimony is from a 15-year-old autistic girl who witnessed the crime from across the street, Soon-ho feels he can easily have it discounted.

Like many in the film, Soon-ho doesn’t know much about autism and writes Ji-woo (Kim Hyang-gi) off as “mentally impaired”, believing that will be enough for the jury to disregard her testimony especially as it so strongly conflicts with the rest of the evidence. Refused permission to meet with her in person, Soon-ho begins trying to befriend Ji-woo on the way home from school and eventually comes to realise that she is highly intelligent if easily distracted and uneasy in social situations. What he discovers is not that Ji-woo is unable to communicate with the world, but that the world is unwilling to communicate with her. If he wants to bond, he will need to learn her language and earn her trust.

Trust maybe he hard to come by as he witnesses the minor aggressions she goes through every day like the horrible boys at school who taunt her mercilessly and the supposed friend bullying her in secret, not to mention a world full of barking dogs and ringing telephones. When he finally puts her on the stand, his own co-defence chair reads out passages from a book about autism which describe it as a “mental disability” before painting her as a deranged idiot who probably half-imagined what she saw from things she’d seen on television – an act which has profound ethical implications in eroding Ji-woo’s sense of self. Ji-woo told Soon-ho she wanted to be a lawyer because lawyers are good people who help those in need, but Soon-ho has to ask himself whose interest destroying a 15-year-old girl on the stand is really serving.

The law firm Soon-ho joined does seem to be a sleazy one. Despite hiring him to improve their image, Soon-ho’s boss tells him that his new clients won’t be comfortable with him unless he gets himself a little “dirty” while inviting him to awkward parties with call girls in high class hotels. Meanwhile, Soon-ho remains conflicted – especially after potentially losing a 20-year friendship through saying the wrong thing to a still idealistic lawyer and passing it off as an attempt to be “realistic”. Realism is one thing, but Soon-ho seems to have given up and decided if you can’t beat them join them. His dad, sensing his son’s unease, writes him an impassioned letter in which he tells him that the most important thing in life is to be happy with yourself, everything else you can figure out later.

Realising his mistake, Soon-ho begins to see the light. Through bonding with Ji-woo, he learns that seeing things differently can be advantage and that society should have a place for everyone where they shouldn’t have to worry about being themselves. Tellingly, no one ever bothered to ask Ji-woo about the most important part of evidence in her testimony because they all had too many prejudices about her delivery. Only Soon-ho, having bothered to get to know her, was able see what it was that she wan’t saying. The film perhaps missteps when it has Ji-woo come to the conclusion that she can’t be a lawyer because of her autism, but otherwise presents a sensitive portrayal of a society trying to be better in accommodating difference and doing it with empathetic positivity while subtly waving a finger at the self-serving forces of conservative corruption.


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

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)