Little Forest (리틀 포레스트, Yim Soon-rye, 2018)

Little forest korean posterWhen you don’t know what to do, you go home. The logic seems sound and indeed the idea is common in many cultures, but the heroine of Little Forest (리틀 포레스트) has gone home to an empty, snow covered house with the intention of burying herself away rather than basking the unconditional support of the people who raised her. Yim Soon-rye, leading light of the Korean New Wave, takes the original manga by Daisuke Igurashi which was previously adapted as a two-part, four hour exploration of Japanese rural life by Junichi Mori, and relocates it to Korea finding that urban malaise and youthful indecision are from isolated phenomena.

Hye-won (Kim Tae-ri) has come home “for a few days”. What she wants is to be alone for a while, to take a time out from her life before trying to figure out what to do next. Accordingly, as she’s in hiding, she didn’t want anyone to know she’s here but perspicacious aunt Bok-soon has spotted smoke on the horizon and come running. Bok-soon thought that Hye-won’s long absent mother who abandoned her in the last year of high school might have been making a rare visit and is surprised to find her daughter instead, though perhaps not quite so much as you’d think. Nothing stays secret for long in a village, and Hye-won’s return is soon discovered first by the slightly unwelcome attention of the older village ladies and then by her treasured childhood friends, Eun-sook (Jin Ki-joo) and Jae-ha (Ryu Jun-yeol) who gives her a pet dog to look after in the hope that she will be eventually decide to stay for good.

Hye-Won faces many of the same problems as the heroine of Mori’s Japanese adaptation, but whereas Ichiko had come back in defeat and heartbreak, Hye-won’s flight is mostly pride mixed with fear and awkwardness. She admires Jae-ha who once lived in the city but eventually came home to be himself, rejecting the conformist salaryman life to be his own his boss, but knows deep down that her decision to retreat to the country is a cowardly attempt to delay dealing with the problems of adult life. After her mother left, Hye-won went to Seoul for university where she, along with her boyfriend, was studying for a teaching exam which only he passed. Wounded, Hye-Won has run away. Refusing her boyfriend’s calls and cocooning herself inside her childhood home she delays the inevitable breakup conversion along with the galling need to congratulate him on his exam success while silently nursing her own humiliating failure to match him.

Rather than the strained relationship Ichiko had with her long absent mother, Hye-won’s feelings run more towards a healthy competition – she wants to exceed her mother in all things but most especially as a cook. Unsatisfied with the tasteless pre-packaged nature of big city food, Hye-won came home because she was hungry, spiritually but also physically. Rejoicing in nature’s bounty, she finds new and exciting ways to cook the various fruits and vegetables grown by her own hand, living closely with the land and running with the rhythms of the seasons. In Seoul she ate cold food all alone, at home she shares her table with her two friends eager to see what she’s come up with to combat the latest glut while filling their souls with the warmth of friendship.

Despite her mild resentment and lingering anger towards her mother for disappearing so abruptly, Hye-won eventually comes to a kind of acceptance, realising that her mother’s “little forest” was raising her but seeing as she declared to her intention to repot herself somewhere else, her mother’s work was done and now it’s time for Hye-won to find her own little forest and set about tending to that. Still unsure if she’s in the country because that’s where she needs to be or is merely afraid to leave and risk failure, Hye-won eventually finds the strength move forward, breaking out of her extended period of hibernation to look for her answers wherever they may lie. Filled with the joy of home cooking and soulful down-home wisdom, Little Forest adapts itself well enough to the Korean climate, finding that life in the country, hard as is it may be, offers its own rewards in the simple pleasures of unconditional friendship and the natural freedom to enjoy all nature has to offer.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

1987: When the Day Comes (1987, Jang Joon-hwan, 2017)

fullsizephoto931939The political history of Korea is long and complex and oftentimes sad. The events depicted in 1987: When the Day Comes (1987), pivotal as they were, occurred just 30 years ago. Yet the recent past has also been one marked by protest, public anger, and political scandal though this time around with far less fear or danger. The protests of 1987 were a different story. The rule of Chun Doo-hwan, a military dictator who had seized power following the assassination of the previous dictator, Park Chung-hee, was one of extreme oppression which had already seen a widespread massacre of peaceful protestors by the state in Gwangju in 1980. Chun’s term, under the constitution, was set at seven years after which many hoped for a path to modern democracy but those hopes were dashed when he announced an intention to appoint his successor rather than call a free and fair election.

In depicting the climactic events of that summer, Jang Joon-hwan begins with chaos as a doctor is summoned to a mysterious room where a young man lies unconscious in a pool of water. The police have gone too far, and boy has died during interrogation. Aware of the potential danger of the public finding out that the state has in effect murdered a suspect in an act of torture, the head of the ACIB, Park (Kim Yun-seok), orders the body to be quickly cremated. This, however, needs a certificate signed by a prosecutor and Prosecutor Choi (Ha Jung-woo) is fed up with the ACIB and unwilling to cooperate especially as he smells a rat with the cause of death for a healthy 22-year-old listed as a “heart attack”. Not wanting to be on the wrong side of it if it does get out, Choi refuses the cremation and orders an autopsy which in itself triggers a series of other events eventually bringing the government to its knees.

The state remains cruel and duplicitous. The death of Park Jong-chul (Yeo Jin-goo) would become a catalyst and a rallying call, not just for the injustice of it but for the injustice of covering it up. Park’s family are denied their basic rights, his mother and sister literally dragged away from the morgue screaming while his traumatised father looks on in silent agony. They say that Park was a communist, that he died of fear because he weak while claiming all along to have done no wrong. Only when the “truth” begins to emerge does the ACIB decide to hang a few of its guys out to dry, urging them to “patriotically” take one for the team and head to prison for a while with a hefty compensation package to help sweeten the deal.

The death in custody becomes just one event in a situation spiralling out of control. Paranoid in the extreme, the Chun regime is also working on bringing down a “North Korean Spy Network” controlled by a democracy activist on the run who, unbeknownst to them, is also working with the Catholic Church who will eventually prove pivotal in delivering the truth to the people. Meanwhile, the press has also decided to jump ship, ignoring the government’s carefully crafted guidelines in favour of running actual news. Chun’s iron grip is slipping.

Jang’s biggest takeaway is that corrupt regimes crumble when enough people find the strength to go on saying no. It begins with Choi refusing to stamp a certificate then travels to the reporter who won’t back down, passes on to the secret revolutionaries bravely carrying messages at great personal costs, the not so secret clergy who perhaps have more protection to speak their minds (up to a point) than most, and of course the students in the streets who risked their lives to build a better future. One of the few completely fictional characters, the niece (Kim Tae-ri) of a prison guard (Yu Hae-jin) charged with conveying messages to an activist in hiding, proves the most illuminating in her inward struggle towards the democratisation movement. Afraid of the consequences and preferring to remain politically apathetic, she is eventually radicalised through witnessing the brutality of the regime first hand and suffering personal loss because of it.

Playing out as a taut thriller, 1987: When the Day Comes has a lived in authenticity from the motif of being constantly deprived of one shoe by a cruel and absurd regime to the deadly serious ridiculousness of men like Park who hate “the enemy” enough to destroy the thing they claim to love in pursuit of it. Timely and filled with melancholy nostalgia, Jang’s depiction of the pivotal events of 30 years ago is also a rallying cry in itself and an important reminder that the fight for justice is never truly won.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Handmaiden (아가씨, Park Chan-wook, 2016)

handmaiden.jpgPark Chan-wook has something of a track record when it comes to bending literary sources in unexpected ways – who else would have thought of adding vampires to Thérèse Raquin and actually managed to make it work? In The Handmaiden (아가씨, Agasshi), his first return to Korean filmmaking after Stoker’s foray into American Gothic, Park adapts Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith – a Dickensian tale of love and the multilayered con, and relocates it to 1930s Korea under Japanese rule.

Ambivalent attitudes to the Japanese is a key element exploited by a ruthless conman posing as “Count Fujiwara” (Ha Jung-woo) in order to seduce a lonely heiress. To complete his elaborate plan, he needs the help of pickpocket extraordinaire, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-Ri), whom he will install as a maid in the household so she can subtly sell the virtues of the dashing nobleman to the innocent flower trapped in a well of opulence.

On arriving at the curiously constructed mansion which is an elegant architectural mix of Korean, Japanese, and English country estate, Sook-hee is quite literally out of place in the upperclass environment a world away from her home in a den of petty of thieves doubling as a baby farm. Another thing she had not quite banked on was that her new mistress, Hideko (Kim Min-hee), would be quite so pretty. A serious spanner is thrown in the works as a mutual attraction builds up between the two women who, for reasons which become apparent, are being pulled in separate directions by other desires.

Park retains Waters’ tripartite structure even if he jettisons the final plot reveal for a less intricate tale of liberation and escape. Beginning with Sook-hee’s narrative he introduces us to the first layer of the con but also to Sook-hee and her down and dirty home in the criminal underworld. Chosen by the Count for her supposed lack of intellect and innocent naivety, Sook-hee is not quite at home among her family either. Both believing the promise that the babies they collect and sell in Japan will be going on to better lives and lamenting the cruelty of the whole business in wanting to mother the lot of them, Sook-hee is soft presence yet she also wants to prove herself as adept at criminality as her legendary, now deceased, mother.

It’s this essential warmth which eventually attracts Hideko’s attention. The much talked about tooth filing scene in which Sook-hee takes out a thimble to soften a lacerating sharpness in her mistress’ mouth is not just notable for the oddly erotic quality born of the obvious suggestive motion, unavoidable intimacy created by the closeness of bodies, and the growing desire of fleeting, furtive glances, but for its essential kindness. Moving into Hideko’s perspective for the second chapter, more is learned about her damaged past filled with cruelty and abuse. Orphaned and brought to Japan as a small child by her pornography obsessed uncle so that he might train her to entertain him with readings of erotic literature before he eventually marries her to inherit the family fortune, Hideko has never known anything as simple as unguarded goodness.

Caught up in a long con, the choice remains whether to blow cover and declare one’s hand or play the thing through to the end, however painful it may be. Park takes a different route than in the original novel which makes both of its heroines the victims of someone else’s avaricious plot of revenge against the cruelty of an unequal world, eventually reinforcing their bond by a shared rejection of their victimhood, but even when their passions eventually erupt the lovemaking begins as a another “con” where Sook-hee takes on the role of the Count, “educating” the assumedly “innocent” Hideko in the ways of desire.

Trapped within an oppressive gilded cage of a prison, Hideko has become the embodiment of desire for her cruel and eccentric uncle and the groups of men he invites to listen to her read erotic literature as if reciting a classical play. Complete with sideshows of sex dolls and theatrical scenery, Hideko is forced to act out the scenes from the books as an actress on the stage for an audience rapt in silence. Unable to escape alone, Hideko is offered new hope by Sook-hee’s straightforward outrage which allows the pair to destroy or repurpose the instruments of their oppression for their own pleasure. This is, in essence, their form of revenge in which they simply remove themselves from an abusive environment leaving the men behind to wonder at what’s gone wrong and later to destroy themselves without any additional help.

Filled with a gothic sense of impossible desires and uncertain judgements, The Handmaiden is unafraid of the genre’s melodramatic roots but is all the better for it. Beautifully photographed, this opulent world of swishing ball gowns and gloved hands is undercut by the ugliness of quisling collaborator Kouzuki and his basement of horrors. Erotically charged but ultimately driven by love, The Handmaiden is another unconventionally romantic effort from Park albeit one coloured by his characteristic sense of gothic darkness.


Reviewed at 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)