Die Bad (죽거나 혹은 나쁘거나, Ryoo Seung-wan, 2000)

die bad posterRyoo Seung-wan is now one of Korea’s top directors with such high profile box office hits as Berlin File, Veteran, and Battleship Island to his name. Back in 2000, he was just a young punk trying to make his mark in the film industry. Die Bad (죽거나 혹은 나쁘거나, Jukgeona Hokeun Nabbeugeona), Ryoo’s feature debut is, in reality, a series of four connected shorts (some of which were screened individually) telling an all too familiar story of a life ruined in adolescence giving way to a gangland nightmare and a nihilistic struggle for survival. Shot on grainy, low budget 16mm, Ryoo’s aesthetic is clearly influenced by the cinema of Sogo Ishii and perhaps Shinya Tsukamoto in its intensely kinetic, punk rock rhythms but he brings to it a youthful, angry fatalism so often seen in Korean youth drama.

Told in four chapters each of which is filmed with a different conceit, Die Bad is the story of Sung-bin (Park Sung-bin), a young man whose future is derailed after he kills a boy by accident in a pool room scuffle. When he gets out of jail, his father doesn’t want to know him and his friends have moved on but his brother gets him a job in a garage and it seems as if he’s finding his feet. When he comes across a guy getting beaten up in the street, he’s hesitant to get involved – literally seeing the ghost of the boy he killed in amongst the aggressors. Eventually he intercedes and rescues the guy who turns out to be a well connected mobster.

Meanwhile, while Sung-bin was inside, his friend who started the fight that fateful night, Seok-hwan (Ryoo Seung-wan), has become a policeman. Seok-hwan’s little brother, Sang-hwan, is getting involved in the same typically teenage punk violence which defined the adolescence of Sung-bin and Seok-hwan. A police round up engineers a fateful reunion between Seok-hwan and Sung-bin who discovers a way of getting back at the “friend” he feels destroyed his life though targeting the impressionable little brother with big time gangster dreams.

Given the unusual production circumstances behind Die Bad – the decision to incorporate two existing short films and combine them with two new ones to create a single feature, it’s no surprise that it can feel disjointed. The first segment, The Rumble, is pure punk spectacle. Set to a ferocious beat, the camera becomes a protagonist as Ryoo mixes frequent POV shots careering down narrow streets with more abstract sequences of the boys fighting the camera, extreme close-ups and artful contemplations of the awful beauty of violence.

Nightmare continues in more or less the same vein but “grows up” along with Sung-bin, dropping the frenetic, testosterone fuelled pace for a slower kind of melancholy as Sung-bin tries to find his feet as an ex-con in an unforgiving society. The Rumble was an indictment on the hopeless situation of young men without prospects – unlikely to escape through academic success, Sung-bin and Seok-hwan exorcised their feelings of impotence and impossibility through violence, but The Nightmare is its inescapable aftermath in which Sung-bin, having paid for his crimes, is unable to come to terms with his guilt and is haunted by the face of the boy he killed by accident. Given no real hope for a positive future, Sung-bin gives in to the lure of violence and eventually pursues gangland success rather than a life on the straight and narrow.

The ironically titled Modern Men rams this point home in its deliberate contrasting of Sung-bin and Seok-hwan – the gangster and the cop. Ryu moves away from the naturalism of the earlier scenes for a docudrama conceit as both Seok-hwan and Sung-bin’s mentor Tae-hoon give direct to camera interviews talking about their respective careers. Tae-hoon wound up a gangster for similar reasons to Sung-bin, he was a regular punk teen with no prospects who was handy with his fists so he joined a gang where his talents could be of the most use. Seok-hwan joined the police but his job involves a lot of tussling with thugs and there are times he’s not even sure if he’s a policeman or state sponsored gangster. He no longer has hopes or dreams and his only desire is to work hard without encountering any hassle. Both men define themselves through violence, they dress for the fight and chart their success through defeats and conquests. Yet both also claim that their violence is in the name of “maintaining order” even as they create chaos in facing each other.

For the final segment, Die Bad, Ryoo shifts to black and white as the stories of Seok-hwan and Sung-bin reunite. Times have changed, but not all that much. Sang-hwan, Seok-hwan’s little brother, hangs around in arcades with his buddies but Streetfighter soon gives way to Streefighting as the boys determine to work out their youthful frustrations through violence. Sang-hwan, brought up on an image of violence as masculinity is eager to prove himself, and dreams of the glamorous gangster life. Sung-bin, the jaded, reluctant veteran, makes cynical use of Sang-hwan’s desperation to get revenge on his brother for ruining his life by engineering the fight that cost both Sung-bin and his victim their lives. Cop or thug, there are no winners in Ryoo’s violent world in which the disenfranchised masses are encouraged to scrap to the death for the mere crumbs thrown to them. Fiercely kinetic and filled with the fire of youth Ryoo’s debut is an extraordinary meditation on the fatalism of violence as the most intimate, or perhaps the only, means of communication between men.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Ashamed (창피해, AKA Life is Peachy, Kim Soo-hyun, 2011)

ashamedOne of the very earliest films to address female same sex love in Korea, Ashamed (yes, really, but not quite – we’ll get to this later, 창피해, Changpihae, retitled Life is Peachy for US release) had a lot riding on it. Perhaps too much, but does at least manage to outline a convincing, refreshingly ordinary failed love romance even if hampered by a heavy handed structuring device and a lack of chemistry between its leading ladies.

Beginning in the film’s “present”, embittered art professor Jung Ji-woo (Kim Sang-hyeon) is auditioning models for an art project, whereupon she bonds with two students currently undergoing some kind of unresolved drama of their own. Hee-jin (Seo Hyun-jin), Jung’s pupil, has roped in her friend also coincidentally named (Youn) Ji-woo (Kim Hyo-jin) who, as she recounts in a lengthy flashback, she met in odd circumstances whilst drinking with layabouts in an alley. Eventually, Youn Ji-woo confessed to her that she’s attracted to people of the same sex, which has left Hee-jin feeling kind of awkward.

Trying to console her student, Jung encourages the younger woman to recount the story of her own great yet failed romance with a pickpocket named, yes, again (Kang) Ji-woo (Kim Kkobbi). Youn had been leading a dull and unfulfilling life as a shopgirl in a department store, baby sitting middle aged housewives. Disillusioned with her disappointing boyfriends, Yoon has entered a dark place where the thing she’s most sorry about in life is that she won’t be able to witness her own suicide. Accordingly she dresses up one of the department store mannequins in her clothes and pushes it off a roof, only it hits a car below and causes an accident.

Not exactly a traditional “meet-cute”, Youn and Kang first encounter each other surrounded by broken glass and are then handcuffed together by the investigating policeman (Choi Min-Yong) who was also just stabbed by one of Kang’s gang members after he spotted her pickpocketing on the metro. The policeman then randomly takes them to his friend’s Chinese restaurant which affords them an opportunity to escape even if they’re still chained at the wrists.

Though this very improbable situation points to a cute and quirky romance, Ashamed takes a non committal stance as regards to tone, throwing in odd details like strange priests living in the woods and Kang’s constantly unreliable self narratives but then retreating to something more straightforwardly melancholy. Love falls slowly as Youn recounts her lack of satisfaction with men only to find herself strangely attracted to her new handcuffs buddy while she, somewhat rudely, has sex with an ex-boyfriend she invited over for help with Youn lying mortified beside them. Suddenly realising why none of her boyfriends ever worked out, Youn feels, understandably, awkward alone with Kang and her ex and but is encouraged by Kang’s tentative but ultimately decisive grasping of her hand during the taxi journey onwards.

Kim’s attempt to avoid prurience whilst also pushing boundaries for sexual content unavoidably feels tame, hampered by the lack of chemistry between the leading actresses and lingering sense of embarrassment in his choice of camera angles. Though painted as a grand and heartbreaking love affair of a lifetime in the opening sequences, Youn and Kang’s romance never takes on the weight of tragedy or moves much beyond the very ordinary tale of two people who couldn’t make it work. This indeed may be the point, but given the melancholy atmosphere of the the three women discussing lost love on a lonely beach, Youn and Kang’s missed opportunity can’t help but feel slighting underwhelming.

Rather than the strongly negative “ashamed” the meaning of the original Korean might be more generously translated as “shy” or “embarrassed”, at any rate the film does not imply any of its characters have reason to feel shame. The title word surfaces a handful of times, most notably when the loosened up professor declares she has no need for it anymore, and in the final showdown with Kang as Youn attempts to challenge her on her problems with intimacy and commitment but fails to push her into a more honest space. Kang’s sense of “shame”, if that would be the right word, seems to be unconnected to sexuality but has deeper roots in the past which she remains unwilling to reveal. This sense of personal inadequacy fuels Kang’s drifting life as she feels the need to move on each time someone gets too close, afraid or perhaps on some level “ashamed” to commit herself fully.

Kim’s multi layered flashback structure mixed with imagined sequences and expressionist scenes inspired by Jung’s artwork proves an unwieldy concept which often detracts more than it gives. With a running time of over two hours and a romance which doesn’t start until many indie films have already ended, Ashamed bites off much more than it can chew but at the same time never fully engages with the most interesting elements of its subject matter. Flawed, if interesting, Ashamed is a bold and worthy effort yet one which falls far short of its target despite the committed performances of its central trio.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해, Jeong Jae-eun, 2001)

take-care-of-my-catThe time after high school is often destabilising as even once close groups of friends find themselves being pulled in all kinds of different directions. So it is for the group of five young women at the centre of Jeong Jae-eun’s debut feature, Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해, Goyangileul Butaghae). All at or around 20, the age of majority in Korea, the girls were a tightly banded unit during high school but have all sought different paths on leaving. Lynchpin Tae-hee (Bae Doo-na) is responsible for trying to keep the gang together through organising regular meet ups but it’s getting harder to get everyone in the same place and minor differences which hardly mattered during school grow ever wider as adulthood sets in.

Cheerful scenes of high school mischief give way to the uncertain present as five old friends prepare to celebrate the 20th birthday of the group’s self appointed star, Hye-joo (Lee Yo-won). Hye-joo, however, has moved on to a high level office job in Seoul and is about to blow off her high school friends to hang out with her possibly sleazy boss, only to revert back to plan A when he cancels on her. Too cowardly to ring her friends in person, Hye-joo leaves the business of calling off the party to the chief organiser, Tae-hee, who rings round letting the other three girls – jobless Ji-young (Ok Ji-young), and half Chinese twins Bi-ryu (Lee Eun-sil) and Ohn-jo (Lee Eun-ju), know (and presumably has to then ring them all back to tell them the party’s back on).

Hye-joo moved farthest away from her roots both in terms of location and of her social ambitions through taking a well paid admin job in the city. Increasingly materialistic and status orientated, her friendship with the other girls suffers as she sees herself as transitioning to a higher social class. Ironically, her views are equally deluded as she continues to believe that her dedication and willingness to work hard can make up for her lack of a degree but quickly finds herself displaced when the next batch of newbies arrive.

This growing desire for material status has also contributed to a seemingly unbridgeable rift with Ji-young whose economic status is the most vulnerable. Orphaned and living in a shack with her elderly grandparents, Ji-young has recently lost her job and is having difficulty finding another one precisely because of her circumstances – one firm even point blank refuses her application because both of her parents are dead and they need a direct family member to vouch for her. Hye-joo is insensitive in the extreme and often flashes her money around whilst rubbing salt in Ji-young’s wounds by emphasising her lack of it and pouring cold water over her ideas of saving money to study abroad. Small digs like these and insisting that all the girls leave their home town to visit her in Seoul (leaving aside the additional costs for Ji-young whom she knows is having difficulty making ends meet) point to Hye-joon’s own sense of neediness and insecurity.

As a result, Ji-young distances herself from her friends, ashamed of her desperation and feeling unable to ask them for help. It is she who finds the cat of the title when she hears it mewing whilst trapped behind debris on her way home. The cat becomes almost a mirror of Ji-young – alone and abandoned on the streets with no one to look after her. Originally, Ji-young tries to give the kitten to Hye-joon as a birthday present only to have it immediately returned. The cat is then passed around among each of the friends looking for a more permanent kind of affection, but finding little in the way of stability.

The longest and most devoted guardian turns out to be Tae-hee who is perhaps most affected by the loss of her friends and changing circumstances. Tae-hee is from a moderately well off middle class family and has been helping out in her father’s business since leaving school (apparently without pay). Despite her lack of worry over material comforts, she finds herself feeling restless and increasingly interested in the “foreign” with dreams of taking off alone for adventures overseas. Her desire for freedom is partly down to her domineering father who simply overrules all of her decisions even down to ordering food in a restaurant. Tae-hee is the only one to reach out to Ji-young when she realises she might be in trouble and is the only one still there for her at the end. Their economic and familial circumstances may be different, but in their desire to escape the confines of the rundown Incheon for something outside of what it might have planned for them, the two girls are a perfect match.

Of the group of friends the twins receive the least attention, hovering on the sidelines, separate from the mini dramas erupting between the insensitive and self obsessed Hye-joo and the increasingly desperate Tae-hee and Ji-young. As a unit of two they have their own little world which seems much happier and more solid than that of any of the other girls and arguably have less need for the immediacy of their old friendships. They are therefore the ideal place to deposit them, in the form of a stray cat finally finding a home. The past has its place – in the past, the memories are warm and fluffy and deserve to be taken care of, but there comes a time you have to surrender full custody and be content to visit from time to time.

An extraordinarily well composed debut feature, Take Care of My Cat has a more European feeling than many a Korean coming of age drama but is filled with realistic detail such as the constant ringing of the girls’ ever present mobile phones and the onscreen representation of their straightforward text based conversation. There’s a kind of sadness associated with the transition from carefree adolescence to the difficult journey into adulthood with each of the girls discovering what it is they want out of life, or more aptly what it is they don’t want. Hye-joo emerges as the quasi-villain of the piece as she makes an obvious, superficial choice to follow the consumerist trend over valuing human relationships though it’s hard not to feel sorry for her when it appears she’s being set up for disappointment. Ending on a note of hopeful uncertainty, Jeong’s debut feature is a hymn to the theme of moving on but is careful to admit the bittersweet quality of a new beginning.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Failan (파이란, Song Hae-sung, 2001)

FailanSometimes God’s comic timing is impeccable. You might hear it said that love transcends death, becomes an eternal force all of its own, but the “love story”, if you can call it that, of the two characters at the centre of Song Hae-sung’s Failan (파이란, Pairan), who, by the way, never actually meet, occurs entirely in the wrong order. It’s one thing to fall in love in a whirlwind only to have that love cruelly snatched away by death what feels like only moments later, but to fall in love with a woman already dead? Fate can be a cruel master.

The titular Failan (Cecilia Cheung) is a migrant from mainland China who’s travelled to Korea in search of her last remaining relatives following the death of her family. Unfortunately, they moved abroad some time ago and no one knows how to contact them. Stuck in Korea, Failan is running out of options but a “kindly” woman suggests a phoney visa marriage so she can legally stay in the country and earn her keep at the same time.

So, she ends up married to the feckless petty gangster-cum-video-store-proprietor Kang-jae (Choi Min-sik). We meet him around a year later and it’s his story we follow for the first half of the film as he gets out of jail after being arrested for selling adult videos to horny teenagers. Kang-jae quickly gets into an argument with his gangster boss, Young-sik (Son Byung-ho), but as they’re also old friends they patch things up over a drink only for the evening to go way south when Young-sik spots a rival gang member and ends up beating him to a bloody pulp whilst in a trance-like rage.

Young-sik is young and ambitious so when the crime is discovered he pleads with Kang-jae to take the rap for him, promising that he’ll buy him that fishing boat he’s always wanted so he can go back to his home town when he gets out. Kang-jae goes home to think it over and gets a knock on the door, two policemen are standing outside only they haven’t come to arrest him – the wife he’d forgotten all about has died. Kang-jae has hit a fork in the road both literal and metaphorical and takes a road trip with his best friend to finally meet his bride in a cold and lonely place.

Failan is almost a plot device in the film that bears her name, but her story is a sad and a hard one. Orphaned and alone she finds scant kindness in her adopted country but the woman who runs the laundry where she ends up working does at least develop an almost maternal feeling for her. Failan feels great gratitude to Kang-jae for agreeing to marry her so she could stay in Korea and is convinced he must be a very good, very kind person. She thinks this largely because she never meets him.

Kang-jae is rubbish at being a gangster. Young-Sik may have a point when he says he doesn’t have the heart for it. Early on, some of the youngsters try and rope him into an extortion scheme where they’re trying to get an old granny to pay back some of her loan. Apparently the granny had once been kind to Kang-jae when he was young and hungry so he doesn’t really put a lot of effort into being menacing towards her which makes him lose face with the young toughs who think of him as a joke anyway. Reading Failan’s letter, it’s the first time that anyone has ever said anything nice about him. The first woman who ever thought he was worth anything at all and she’s already lost to him before he even knew her.

Kang-jae is not a good man, he’s an underling just muddling through without thinking. He leaps from one thing to another always thrashing around landing where falls. He has a vague ambition to get the money together to buy a fishing boat and go home, but he’s not seriously pursing it. Even the group of gangsters he’s involved with are so laughably low rent that they can’t hold on to their completely worthless territory and have to put pressure on old ladies just to get by. After reading Failan’s letter and hearing that someone believed he was better than this, Kang-jae finally wakes up and starts thinking about his life with the ultimate realisation that he doesn’t have to live like this. Unfortunately, he might have just picked the wrong day to start living the rest of his life.

In many ways Failan is a typical melodrama filled with the pain of unrealised love and Fate’s ironic sense of timing. Based on a novel by the modern Japanese master of the tearjerker Jiro Asada (Poppoya), Failan seems engineered to rend hearts with its tale of true love frustrated by time and circumstance where every ounce of hope and goodness is well and truly trodden into the ground by the time the credits roll. Nevertheless, Song keeps things on the right side of schmaltzy, never racking up the misery and heartbreak beyond the threshold of plausibility. Like all the best melodramas, Failan’s sentimentality is sincere and, ultimately, moving. Another sad story of salvation arriving too late, Failan’s tale of tragic, unrealised love is an all too familiar one but effectively told it can’t fail to tear the heart.


You can currently stream Failan via Amazon Video in the US courtesy of Asian Crush, but the Korean R3 DVD and Region A blu-ray both contain English subtitles!

Unsubbed trailer:

Miss Granny (수상한 그녀, Hwang Dong-hyeok, 2014)

131212-001_1401140436597Review of Hwang Dong-hyeok’s age swap comedy Miss Granny (수상한 그녀, Soosanghan Geunyeo) up at UK Anime Network.


Miss Granny is something of a departure for Korean director Hwang Dong-hyeok whose previous two films have both explored fairly weighty subjects firstly in The Father which, based on a true story, features an American adoptee looking for his father only to find him languishing on death row, and more recently in Silenced (also known as The Crucible) which depicted the harrowing, and again true, events that occurred at the Gwangju Inhwa School for the Deaf in which pupils were routinely abused by teachers and staff. So far as we know, Miss Granny is not based on a true story and is a more mainstream comedy in which a “difficult” old lady suddenly finds herself transformed into her 20 year old self.

At the beginning of the film, Oh Mal-soon is a bad tempered 74 year old woman who terrorises everyone around her into submission including her middle aged daughter-in-law who eventually lands up in the hospital with a heart condition that may in part have been brought on by Mal-soon’s constant criticism. Mal-soon’s son faces an impossible choice, ship his mother off to a home and give his wife some peace or risk losing either his marriage or his wife by keeping his mother around. Heartbroken at the thought her son maybe about to abandon her, Mal-soon wanders around the city before deciding to enter a mysterious portrait photographers and dolling herself up for a “funeral photo”. However, when she emerges she’s mysteriously transformed into a lithe and pretty 20 year old! Suddenly young again with potentially a whole life in front of her, what sort of choices will Mal-soon make this time around?

Much of the comedy of Miss Granny centres around the young Mal-soon, renamed Oh Doo-ri after her favourite actress, Audrey Hepburn, speaking and acting as if she really really were a 74 year old woman with all of the freedoms (and the invisibilities) that age grants you. Snapping away in her thick rural dialect and handing out unsolicited advice in the way only a nosy old woman can, Doo-ri is a very strange, and perhaps a slightly frightening, young woman. Undoubtedly, as we find out, Mal-soon has had a difficult life – starting out as an upperclass woman before becoming a young, penniless single mother dependent on the kindness of others and doing everything in her power to ensure that her son will grow up a fine man. Life has made her hard and in turn she makes things hard for all around her.

As a young woman she’s initially much the same yet comes to understand something of who she was and who she is. In her younger days she dreamed of being a singer and even as an old woman was well known for her fine voice. After unexpectedly jumping up to sing at a senior’s event in order to best another old lady rival, she’s “discovered” by a producer who’s tired of all the soulless idol stars who walk across his stage. Doo-ri is exactly what he’s been looking for, a young and pretty face with a voice that’s full of a lifetime’s heartbreak. Here is the real coup of the film – the younger actress, Shim Eun-kyung, reinterprets these classic pop songs from 40 years ago beautifully with exactly the right levels of pain and regret perfectly matching the montage flashbacks to Mal-soon’s youth. Becoming young again, experiencing everything again as if for the first time – opportunity, romance, friendship, Mal-soon finally begins to soften as if some of the harsh years of her original young life had been smoothed away.

Of course, nothing lasts forever and Mal-soon eventually has to make a choice between her newly returned youth and something else precious to her. She comes to understand that however hard it was she’d do it the same all over again because the same things would always have been the most important to her. Though it’s far from original and drags a little in the middle, Miss Granny still proves a warm and funny tale that walks the difficult line between serious and funny with ease and throws in a pretty catchy soundtrack to boot.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.

Also here is one of the musical sequences in the film – I think this is a famous song from the ’70s (?) called White Butterfly. ‘Tis quite beautiful (mild spoilers for the film as it includes a montage of Mal-soon’s youth in the ’60s).