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)

Tazza: The Hidden Card (타짜-신의 손, Kang Hyung-Chul, 2014)

tazza posterYou gotta know how to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run. Apparently these rules of the table are just as important in the cutthroat world of the Korean card game Hwatu as they are in the rootinest tootinest saloon bar. Like most card games, having the winning hand is less important than the ability to play your opponent and so it’s more a question of who can cheat the best (without actually breaking the rules, or at least being caught doing so) than it is of skill or luck. A second generation sequel to 2006’s Tazza: The High Rollers, The Hidden Card (타짜-신의 손, Tajja: Shinui Son) is a slick, if overlong, journey into the dark, underground world of gambling addicted card players which turns out to be much more shady than the shiny suits and cheesy grins would suggest.

Wisecracking kid Dae-gil (T.O.P) comes into contact with the first film’s fast talking hustler Go (Yu Hae-Jin) and realises he has a talent for trickery. As a young man he gets himself into trouble trying to save a family member from a gangster whom he winds up stabbing meaning he has to go on the run and leave the girl he’s fallen head over heels for, Mina (Shin Se-Kyung), far behind him with only the promise to come back for her when he’s made something of himself. With nothing to fall back on Dae-gil ends up working for cardsharping gangsters in what is really a series of high level con operations. His first problem occurs when he temporarily forsakes the memory of Mina for the attentions of the alluring Mrs. Woo (Lee Honey) who becomes both his secret girlfriend and the gang’s latest mark.

Things do not go to plan and Dae-gil is left carrying the can for the gang’s heavy losses. Getting into trouble with another mark who turns out to be a high level gangster himself, Dae-gil finds out Mina has been sold into prostitution as payment for a family debt but also winds up losing a kidney as recompense for his mounting gambling debts. Now Dae-gil is out for revenge against pretty much everyone, hoping to rescue Mina and win her heart in the process but his adversaries are old hands at this sort of thing and it’s going to take more than a rigged deck to beat them at their own game.

Taking over from the first film’s Choi Dong-hoon, Kang Hyung-chul opts for a slick and charming Oceans 11 inspired aesthetic full of quirky humour and tricky slight of hand photography. With retro musical choices from a smooth cover of Spooky to the ‘80s synth pop kicking in for an exciting car chase, Kang piles on the nostalgia as Dae-gil rides high as a wisecracking conflicted member of this underhanded outfit. Taking inspiration from its manwha roots, The Hidden Card maintains its breezy tone even whilst the atmosphere darkens as Dae-gil taps out with this gangster credit, beaten up, drugged and waking up in a filthy room with a bandaged hand and a crude scar across his abdomen where his kidney used to be. Apparently making a quick recovery from serious surgery, Dae-gil’s discovery of Mina’s fate is likewise another addition to his quest narrative rather than more evidence of the savagery of this trick or be tricked world.

The Hidden Card’s biggest problem is an unavoidable one given its genre – the sheer structural repetitiveness of moving from one card game to another. Lack of familiarity with Hwatu itself is not exactly a problem even if mildly frustrating, but the nature of the way the game is played means that a great deal of screen time is occupied with watching people watching each other, moodily, only to be left unsure of what’s going on or who’s won at the end of it. This is all the more true of the film’s final showdown which brings back a major player from the first instalment in which the stakes have been raised supposedly to “prevent” cheating, but only really aim to make it more “challenging”. Still, away from the gaming table there are enough high octane fist fights and a lengthy car chase to break up the more cerebral thrills.

Undeniably slick and filled with a host of likeable characters offering snappy dialogue and silly humour, Tazza: The Hidden Card is far too long at two and a half hours. Uneven pacing does not help the feeling of scale and a similarly unbalanced plot structure produces a misleading sense of progression. Still, keeping one step ahead of the card sharks is fun in itself and even if the action drags here and there, there is enough character driven drama and ironic comedy to keep things moving right up until the consciously cool finale.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Asura: The City of Madness (아수라, Kim Sung-soo, 2016)

asura-poster

Review of Kim Sung-soo’s Asura: The City of Madness first published by UK Anime Network.


Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. It’s a shame the title City of Violence was already taken, Asura: The City of Madness (아수라, Asura) is a place of chaos in which carnage has become currency. Re-teaming with actor Jung Woo-sung fifteen years after Musa the Warrior, Kim Sung-soo’s Asura: The City of Madness is, at heart, B-movie pulp steeped in the hardboiled world of tough guys walking alone through the darkness, but even if film noir’s cynicism is out in force, there’s precious little of its essentially chivalrous mentality to be found in this fiercely amoral universe.

World weary policeman Han (Jung Woo-sung) has been moonlighting as the “gun-dog” of corrupt crime boss mayor, Park (Hwang Jung-min), and soon plans on quitting the legitimate force to work for city hall full time. After helping Park “relocate” an inconvenient witness, Han runs into a problem when another policeman turns up and promptly gets killed, drawing unwanted attention to his shady second job. This also brings him into contact with a righteous prosecutor, Kim (Kwak Do-won), who claims to be hellbent on exposing Park’s not quite legal operations and ousting him from power in the hope of a less corrupt regime emerging. Despite his lofty claims, Kim’s methods are little different from Park’s. Han soon finds himself caught in the middle of a legal cold war as he tries to play both sides one against the other but slowly finds neither worth betraying.

The film’s title, Asura, is inspired by the creatures from Indian mythology who are imbued with immense supernatural power yet consumed by negative emotion, relentlessly battling each other in a quest for material rather than spiritual gain. The very male world of Annam is no different as men trade blows like money and wear their wealth on their faces. There are no good guys in Annam, each is involved in a desperate fight to survive in which none can afford luxuries such as pity or morality. Han emerges as the film’s “hero” not out of any kind of nobility or a desire to do good, but simply in being the least actively bad. Able to see the world for what it is – a hell of chaos and cruelty, Han is, perhaps, the best man his environment allows him to be but this same knowledge eats away at him from the inside as he’s forced to act in a way which betrays his own sense of righteousness.

Annam is a world founded on chaos. The forces which are supposed to represent order are the very ones which perpetuate a state of instability. The police are universally corrupt, either working for themselves or in the pay of larger outside forces, and the municipal authorities are under the control of Park – a vicious, mobbed up, sociopath. Prosecutor Kim who claims to represent the resistance against this cosmology of corruption is not what he seems and is, in fact, another part of the system, willing to resort to blackmail, torture, and trickery in order to achieve his vainglorious goal. Yet for all that, the force that rules is mere chance – the most meaningful deaths occur accidentally, the result of shoddy construction work and high testosterone or in the indecision of betrayal. Death is an inevitability for all living creatures, but these men are, in a sense, already dead, living without love, without honour, and without pity.

Kim Sung-soo makes a point of portraying violence in all of its visceral reality as bones crack and blood flows with sickening vitality. The film is extreme in its representation of what could be termed ordinary violence as men engage as equals in hand to hand combat until the machetes and hacksaws come out to combat the shootout finale, complete with the Korean hallmark corridor fight.

Beautifully shot with a neo-noir aesthetic of the nighttime, neon lit city filled with crime ridden back alleys, Asura: The City of Madness is a grimy, hardboiled tale of internecine violence fuelled by corruption and self serving compliance. The ‘80s style lowkey synth score adds a note of anxiety to the proceedings, hinting towards an almost supernatural presence in this strange city populated by the walking dead and morally bankrupt. An epic of “unheroic” bloodshed, Asura: The City of Violence presents a world which thrives on pain where men ease their suffering by transferring it to others. Bleak and nihilistic in the extreme, this is the hard edge of pulpy B-movie noir in which the men in the shadows wish they were as dark as the city streets, but find themselves imprisoned within a series of private hells which are entirely of their own making.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Violent Prosecutor (검사외전, Lee Il-hyeong, 2016)

112997_47166_106Review of Lee Il-hyeong’s A Violent Prosecutor first published by UK Anime Network.


Police brutality is something of a hot button issue at the moment, so it’s a little disconcerting to see a film like A Violent Prosecutor (검사외전, Geomsawejeon) casting a rogue cop with a penchant for forced confessions as its hero. Then again, the theme plays into the obvious retro charm on offer and the film does, at least, make it plain that violence should have no place in law enforcement. The debut feature from director Lee Il-Hyeong, A Violent Prosecutor has a distinctly ‘70s vibe from its quirky credits sequence to the carefully managed tone which manages to be both serious and not at the same time.

Hwang Jung-min plays hardline prosecutor Byun Jae-wook, feared more than respected because of his willingness (or perhaps eagerness?) to indulge in physical violence in the name of justice. Already known as a trouble maker, Byun’s maverick status is an exploitable weakness and so when he kicks up a fuss trying to expose an obvious cover up, he’s framed for wrongful death after a witness dies in police custody.

Sent to prison among many of the men he helped to put there, Byun quickly finds his feet by providing free legal advice to the guards. Five years later, Byun has become the one of the prison’s top dogs but he’s still intent on clearing his name and nailing the guys who did this to him. Enter suave conman Chi-won (Gang Dong-won) and Byun sees an opening…

Aside from Byun’s problematic approach to his work, he’s definitely one of the good guys as justice, politics, and business have all come together in a whirlwind of mutually beneficial corruption. The whole mess begins during an environmental protest against an industrial complex which is about to be built right next to a bird sanctuary. The evil corporate bozos don’t want any delays so they pay a bunch of gangsters to infiltrate the protest and start a riot to make the environmentalists look like crazed, violent, loonies. Unsurprisingly, public opinion about the development improves following the unpleasant actions of the protestors. The police were just supposed to go along with this (police in Korean films never seem very interested in solving crimes after all), but Byun is different, he smells a rat and he’s not going to roll over and let powerful corporations abuse justice.

Unfortunately, his dedication is not matched by his colleagues who are more interested in their own careers than abstract concepts like truth or justice. Receiving pressure from above and realising Byun can’t be talked down, they decide to take drastic action. One of Byun’s bosses, Kang (Kim Eung-soo), later decides to move into politics, having solidified support through this alliance with the money guys, and is then interested in nothing other than his own success – lying, cheating, and smiling his way to the top. Corruption stemming from the power of monied corporations has become a constant theme in recent Korean cinema and A Violent Prosecutor makes good use of its cinematic background even if treating the subject matter in a necessarily light way.

Essentially, A Violent Prosecutor is a buddy comedy in which the two guys at the centre are kept apart for much of the film. Byun uses his hard won legal knowledge to fight his way out of prison by playing by the book, learning the error of his ways in the process. More often than not, he’s the straight man to Chi-won’s constant scamming as the charming conman comes up with one zany scheme after another trying to keep himself out of trouble whilst also helping Byun enact his plan of revenge. Actor Gang Dong-won is on fine form as the slippery but somehow loveable Chi-won whose main line of work is scamming chaebol daughters out of their inheritances by convincing them he’s a Korean-American Penn State business school graduate, peppering his speech with Americanisms but clueless when challenged on his English. He also deserves bonus points for subverting the “escape from prison dressed as a guard” trope by trying to escape from a corridor full of thugs by blending in with the very men sent to capture him.

Ending in a spectacular, if ridiculous, courtroom finale in which Byun defends himself by forcing a confession in a new, more acceptable way, A Violent Prosecutor delivers the necessary “justice” to all who seek it. Byun learns the error of his ways and accepts that his own violence was at least partly to blame for the way the situation developed, but also ensures that he gets justice for everyone else so that the rich and powerful can’t be allowed to ride roughshod over the people with no one to defend them. A smart buddy comedy, A Violent Prosecutor isn’t exactly the exploitative action fest the title seems to promise but is undoubtedly influenced by the bad cop movies of the ‘70s and excels at finding humour even in the strangest of places.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English Subtitles)

The Himalayas (히말라야, Lee Suk-hoon, 2015)

HimalayasBecause it’s there. As good a reason as any for doing anything but these were the only three words of explanation offered by George Mallory in answer to the question “Why climb Everest?”. In Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, the heroine reacts in a similarly philosophical fashion when asked “Why do you want to dance?” replying with the question “Why do you want to live?”. What makes some people prepared to dance until their feet bleed and their toes break, and sends others to the peaks of snowcapped mountains staring death in the face as they go, is something which cannot be fully explained in words but cannot be denied by those who hear its calling.

Korea’s most well known mountain climber, Um Hong-gil (Hwang Jung-min), was undoubtedly one who heard the call and The Himalayas (히말라야) is his story (more or less). Based on his real life exploits, the film charts his continuing successes as an international climber until a foot injury forces him to remain on a more usual altitude, but the real heart of the story is in his growing relationship with rookie Moo-taek (Jung Woo) who’s every bit as fearless as he is. Together the pair scale the peaks of the world’s highest mountain ranges until it’s finally time for Hong-gil to hang up his pick and keep his feet on the ground for good.

However, tragedy strikes as one of Hong-gil’s closest friends is suddenly killed after getting caught in an unexpected storm. The mountain ranges of the world are littered with the corpses of unfortunate climbers who got into difficulty and couldn’t be rescued. The bodies remain where they fell, becoming one with mountain itself in a lonely climbers graveyard, frozen and perfect for eternity. Risking your own life to retrieve the lifeless body of a friend may seem like a perverse, irrational thing to do, yet understandable. Wracked with guilt and grief, Hong-gil assembles a team and embarks on a sentimental journey to bring his friend home, and, ironically, learn to let him go.

What starts off as a sports movie with its training sequences and tough coach inspires maverick rookie routine branches off into the classic expeditionary adventure format before falling into its unexpected home genre – the melodrama. Though in one sense a kind of biopic, the realm aim is to get those tears rolling as these brave men and women risk all for glory and comradeship in pushing the limits of the human condition far past their breaking points.

Hong-gil himself is, despite his gruff exterior, a dreamer and idealist in love with the soulful purity of the mountains. His is a journey of self discovery as he tells us that there is no pretence when it comes to mountain climbing. When you’re up there alone, just you and the vast snow covered emptiness, all of your masks and defences fall away. Hong-gil climbs the mountain to explore landscape of his own mind. He also objects to the often uttered phrase “conquer” a mountain as he believes the mountain gives you permission to ascend making this way of thinking disrespectful and even likens the mountain itself to woman when bemoaning Moo-taek’s pointlessly noble romantic gesture by stating that you don’t conquer the “mountain” you console it.

For all that, the real world is ever present as we see in one particularly awkward marketing pitch in which Hong-gil is trotted out as a model to have the prospective sponsor’s logo plastered all over him in the hopes that they will fund an expedition. When someone raises the very sensible point that this could look very bad for them should one of the climbers die with their logo on their chest, the marketing guys slowly start peeling them all off – velcro solves everything, it seems.

The team also becomes a marketing tool for their nation, carrying the Korean flag around with them for any photo opportunities which might present themselves. When tragedy strikes and the remainder of the Korean expeditionary group refuse to go after their fallen friend (the right and practical decision given the weather conditions and the low probability of success), base camp puts out a message over the radio in English pleading for help. The British contingent continue with their crosswords and cups of tea, steadfastly ignoring the emotional mayday call. The Chinese at least begin reassuring each other that it’s far too dangerous to contemplate.

The Himalayas begins as a comedy but the laughs fall away once the tears start rolling. Though it may affect a poetic tone the philosophical meandering is generally at the service of the melodrama which is very much underpinned by male bonding, pride, honour, debt and responsibility. Hong-gil’s “Human Expedition” is one of grief stricken madness but a perfectly understandable one in which he both needs to atone for “abandoning” his mountaineering brother and come to terms with the fact that the death zone has claimed another sacrifice. Often impressively filmed, The Himalayas suffers from its extremely melodramatic, sentimental tone which is only exacerbated by the intrusion of its loud and syrupy score. Anchored by strong performances from its leading players including Hwang Jung-min as the tough yet sensitive Hong-gil and Jung Woo as the young firebrand Moo-taek, The Himalayas spends too long at the destination rather than on the journey and ultimately fails to make either its character drama or expeditionary environment sufficiently engaging.


Seen as part of a teaser programme for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival 2016.

US release trailer: