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)

Door Lock (도어락, Lee Kwon, 2018)

Door lock poster 1Behind your own front door, you’re supposed to feel safe but the modern city conspires to ensure no space, not even the most private, can feel completely free from danger. A Korean spin on the Spanish film Sleep Tight, Lee Kwon’s Door Lock (도어락) shifts the focus from perpetrator to victim as it explores each of the many and various ways women are made to feel vulnerable in the still male dominated Korean society.

Kyung-min (Gong Hyo-jin) has more than one reason to feel anxious. A bank clerk on a temporary contract, she’s forever worrying that she’ll soon be out of a job though there is a rumour of permanent employment on the horizon if only she can keep up her efficiency at work. That might be difficult, however, because Kyung-min has not been feeling well. She wakes up groggy and goes through much of the day feeling a little out of things, though perhaps that’s just the city air. Another cause for concern is that she keeps having the eerie feeling that someone’s been in her apartment when she wasn’t there. Fully aware of all the dangers (and perhaps having had problems before), Kyung-min is concerned enough by signs of someone fiddling with her door lock to change the code every few days, and is panicked by someone furiously rattling the door late at night trying to get in.

Like any sensible person, Kyung-min calls the police but they remain unsympathetic to her fears. Knowing she’s called several times before, they write her off as nervous and hysterical or perhaps an attention seeking lonely single woman. Kyung-min, unfortunately for her, has a habit of attracting the attentions of unpleasant men like a customer at the bank, Ki-jung (Jo Bok-rae), who refuses to take no for an answer after inappropriately asking her out during a consultation about his bank account. In an angry rant, Ki-jung accuses her of leading him on, that she flirted with him on purpose to encourage him to take out additional accounting services. Kyung-min feels herself shrinking in wondering if there’s some truth in what he said, instantly blaming herself, as she recalls that the appraisals are in the offing and she wasn’t making enough sales. Her colleague told her to smile more, so maybe she did and this is what comes of it. The situation is only diffused when Kyung-min’s smartly dressed boss steps forward to place a hand on her shoulder and call security on her behalf.

The boss, nice and well mannered as he is, is perhaps another sort of problem as he too has additional interest in Kyung-min that could end up becoming an awkward workplace issue. As it turns out he becomes another sort of crisis entirely which gets Kyung-min mixed up with the police who now assume she herself is the creepy stalker with only the evidence of her previous calls to back up her claim of persistent harassment. The police remain unsympathetic, intent on pinning something on Kyung-min to close the case quickly while dismissing her fears as either lies, psychosis, or hysterical paranoia. Eventually Kyung-min and her best friend Hyo-joo (Kim Ye-won) decide they’re on their own and they’ll have to proactively protect themselves because, it seems, no one else is going to.

The men who routinely approach Kyung-min do so with frustrated entitlement. They disregard her right to refuse for no particular reason and assume it to be a slight, insisting that Kyung-min is a snob who has only rejected them for their working class occupations and relative lack of financial status. Wounded male pride is once again the most dangerous force of them all. In a precarious economic situation of her own, Kyung-min is left feeling as if nowhere is safe in an intensely chauvinistic, rabidly capitalist, and conservative society which encourages her to find fault with herself rather than the world in which she lives that forces her to feel that way. Inequalities, both economic and sexual, are driving violent crime but when it comes down to it the powers that be are relatively uninterested in the fears of single women or in doing more to create a fairer, safer society. They would rather hang fake security cameras that make you feel safe than deal with illicit spy-cams or listen seriously to women’s concerns when they say they feel afraid. A tense and harrowing thriller, Door Lock is also a frighteningly relatable exploration of the fears of modern urban living.


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

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생, Kim Jee-woon, 2005)

bitterweet life posterAs Boss Kang (Kim Young-chul) tells the hero of Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생, Dalkomhan Insaeng), no matter how well things are going, it only takes one mistake to make it all float away. Like any good film noir, the forces which conspire to ruin the quiet, orderly life of cooler than thou gangster Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) are those of desire as they come in conflict with codes of loyalty and decency. Sun-woo, like many a lonely hitman before him, finally wakes up to the emptiness of his life only to find no point of escape except the one he has often provided for others in precisely the same situation.

Smartly suited, Sun-woo is the trusted manager of the casino bar, Dolce Vita. Taken away from his elegant dessert in the upstairs restaurant, Sun-woo deals with a group of rowdy customers in true gangster fashion by launching in with a series of jump kicks and quickly thrown punches that reveal just why it is Sun-woo rules the roost. Sun-woo’s boss, Kang, has a special mission for his most trusted minion – keep an eye on his much younger girlfriend, Hee-soo (Shin Min-a), while he travels to Shanghai for three days. Kang thinks Hee-soo is having an affair. If she is, Sun-woo’s options are either to call Kang right away or take affirmative action on his own initiative.

Sun-woo investigates, but much to his surprise finds himself taken with Hee-soo. She is indeed having an affair, something which Sun-woo tries to ignore but finally has to be dealt with. A sudden pang of sympathy stops him from contacting Kang or pulling the trigger. Instead he decides to let the pair go on the condition they never see each other again. Thinking it’s all behind him, Sun-woo tries to go back to his regular job but he’s still dealing with the fallout from playing whistleblower on a high ranking gangster’s son.

Kim opens with an arty black and white sequence of tree branches swaying. In the story offered in voice over a disciple asks whether it is the trees or the wind which are moving, but the master replies that is is neither – it is the heart and mind which move. Like the branches, Sun-woo’s heart has begun to stir. Not love exactly, or lust, but movement. Sun-woo gazes at the way Hee-soo’s hair brushes her shoulder, at the way she walks and smiles at him. Listening to her cello rehearsal, his own emotional symphony begins, dangerously unbalancing his previously one-note existence with its identical suits and minimalist apartments.

Yet if Sun-woo’s downfall is Hee-soo and her alluring vitality, it was Kang’s first. An ageing gangster, Kang feels foolish taking up with a young girl but just can’t help himself. He loves the way Hee-soo couldn’t care less about what other people think, but that also worries him because she’ll never care what he thinks. Kang’s childishly romantic gift of a kitschy lamp with two owls huddling together on the base is the perfect symbol of his misplaced hopes – oddly innocent yet ultimately redundant. Notably, the lamp is one of many things shattered when Sun-woo takes Hee-soo’s lover to task.

Realising he has been betrayed, though not quite for the reasons he thinks, Sun-woo vows revenge. Everything has gone wrong, and he no longer believes in any kind of future which has him in it. Pausing only to send a more mature romantic gift to Hee-soo, an elegant lamp she’d admired on one of their shopping trips, he marches off towards certain death no longer caring for own life in his quest for vengeance and retribution. Repeating Kang’s questions back to him, asking for the real reason any of this happened, doesn’t get him very far but even if these two men have shared the same folly, they fail to understand each other even in death.

Returning to the master and his pupil, the closing coda recounts another story in which the pupil wakes up from a dream, weeping. The master asks him if he’s had a nightmare but the pupil says no, he’s had the sweetest of dreams. He’s crying because he’s awake and knows his dream can never come true. Sun-woo too has woken up, he knows there’s nothing for him now except to accept his fate. He has but been asleep, dreaming a sweet dream, and now he must wake and taste life’s bitterness just as he prepares to leave it.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Merciless (불한당: 나쁜 놈들의 세상, Byun Sung-hyun, 2017)

merciless posterHeroic bloodshed is alive and well and living in Korea. The strange love child of Na Hyun’s The Prison, and Park Hoon-jung’s New World, the first gangster action drama from Byun Sung-hyun (previously known for light comedies), The Merciless (불한당: 나쁜 놈들의 세상, Boolhandang: Nabbeun Nomdeului Sesang) more than lives up to its name in its noirish depiction of genuine connection undercut by the inevitability of betrayal. Inspired as much by ‘80s Hong Kong cinema with its ambitious, posturing tough guys and dodgy cops as by the more immediate influence of the seminal Infernal Affairs, Byun’s brutal tale of chivalry is, as he freely admits, an exercise in style, but its aesthetics do, at least, help to elevate the otherwise generic narrative.

That would be – the complicated relationship between young rookie Hyun-su (Im Siwan) and grizzled veteran Jae-ho (Sol Kyung-gu). Hyun-su proves himself in prison by besting current champions bringing him to the attention of Jae-ho – the de facto prison king. Sharing similar aspirations, the pair form a tight, brotherly bond as they hatch a not so secret plan to take out Jae-ho’s boss, Ko (Lee Kyoung-young), leaving Jae-ho a clear path to the top spot of a gang engaged in a lucrative smuggling operation run in co-operation with the Russian mob and using the area’s fishing industry as an unlikely cover.

We’re first introduced to Jae-ho through reputation in the film’s darkly comic opening scene in which Ko’s resentful, cowardly nephew Byung-gab (Kim Hee-won), has a strange conversation with a soon to be eliminated colleague. Byung-gab says he finds it hard to eat fish with their tiny eyes staring back at you in judgement. He admires Jae-ho for his ice cold approach to killing, meeting his targets’ gaze and pulling the trigger without a second thought.

Jae-ho is, indeed, merciless, and willing to stop at nothing to ensure his own rise through the criminal underworld. He will, however, not find it so easy to pull that trigger when he’s staring into the eyes of sometime partner Hyun-su. Neither of the two men has been entirely honest with the other, each playing a different angle than it might at first seem but then caught by a genuine feeling of brotherhood and trapped in storm of existential confusion when it comes to their individual end goals. Offering some fatherly advice to Hyun-su, Jae-ho recites a traumatic childhood story and cautions him to trust not the man but the circumstances. Yet there is “trust” of a kind existing between the two men even if it’s only trust in the fact they will surely be betrayed.

Byun rejoices in the abundance of reversals and backstabbings, piling flashbacks on flashbacks to reveal deeper layers and hidden details offering a series of clues as to where Jae-ho and Hyun-su’s difficult path may take them. Truth be told, some of these minor twists are overly signposted and disappointingly obvious given the way they are eventually revealed, but perhaps when the central narrative is so fiendishly convoluted a degree of predictability is necessary.

The Merciless has no real political intentions, but does offer a minor comment on political necessity in its bizarre obsession with the fishing industry. The police know the Russians are involved in drug smuggling and using the local fishing harbour as a front, but as fishing rights are important and the economy of primary importance they’d rather not risk causing a diplomatic incident by rocking the boat, so to speak. The sole female presence in the film (aside from Hyun-su’s sickly mother), determined yet compromised police chief Cheon (Jeon Hye-jin), is the only one not willing to bow to political concerns but her methods are anything other than clean as she plants seemingly vast numbers of undercover cops in Jae-ho’s outfit, only to find herself at the “mercy” of vacillating loyalties.

Heavily stylised, Byun’s action debut does not quite achieve the level of pathos it strives for in an underwhelming emotional finale but still manages to draw out the painful connection between the two anti-heroes as they each experience a final epiphany. An atmosphere of mistrust pervades, as it does in all good film noir, but the central tragedy is not in trust misplaced but trust manifesting as a kind of love between two men engulfed by a web of confusion, betrayal, and corrupted identities.


Screening as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2017 at Regent Street Cinema on 3rd November, 6.30pm. The Merciless will also screen at:

and will be released by StudioCanal on 13th November.

International trailer (English subtitles)