Microhabitat (소공녀, Jeon Go-woon, 2017)

Microhabitat posterIs there a “right” or, by implication, “wrong” way to live your life? The heroine of Jeon Go-woon’s debut feature Microhabitat (소공녀, Sogongnyeo) is determined to live by her own rules, but her unconventional approach to life in competitive Korean society is not treated with the same kind of universal acceptance with which she treats each and every person she meets on her meandering path towards fulfilment. Life is conspiring to take away even the smallest pleasures which make existence bearable, but small pleasures are sometimes all life is about and perhaps the only thing really worth fighting for.

At 31 years old, Miso (Esom) lives what might outwardly be thought of as a miserable existence. Working as a cleaner she exists hand to mouth and is able to afford only a tiny, unheated, one room apartment in a run down part of the city. Her life is tightly budgeted and whatever else anyone might say about the way she lives, Miso is not irresponsible and refuses to get into debt. It is therefore a huge problem when a New Year price hike threatens to push her beloved cigarettes out of her reach. If that weren’t worrying enough, her landlord is also jacking up the rent. Staring intently at her accounts book, Miso contemplates a life without cigarettes and whiskey and then takes a look around her before deciding to strike through the line marked “rent”. Packing her most essential belongings into a couple of suitcases, she decides to make herself temporarily homeless and reliant on the kindness of former friends now virtual strangers whom she hopes will be minded to repay past kindnesses by putting her up for a while.

Miso’s plight is symptomatic of many in her generation who feel they’ve lost out in Korea’s relentlessly competitive, conformist, and conservative society, but her fate also bears out something of a persistent social stigma directed at those without means or family. Unlike the friends she decides to track down, Miso never graduated university – she lost her parents young and then ran out of money, but then she isn’t particularly bitter about something she was powerless to control. Miso’s small pleasures are also ones generally marked off limits to “nice” young women who generally do not smoke or drink and the old fashioned austerity mentality sees nothing good in a “self indulgent” need to enjoy life by “wasting” money on “frivolous” things if you claim not to be able to find the money to pay your rent. Some would say Miso has her priorities all wrong and has messed up her life by getting trapped in the world of casual labour and still being single at such an advanced age, conveniently ignoring the fact that much of the social order functions solely to keep women like her in their place so the higher ups can prosper.

Miso, however, would probably listen patiently to their concerns before calmly brushing them off. She is happy – to an extent, at least, with her minimalist life. She doesn’t need a fancy apartment or a swanky car, she only wants her cigarettes, her whisky, and her boyfriend Hansol (Ahn Jae-Hong) – an aspiring manhwa artist who feels broadly the same but is starting to get frustrated with his own precarious economic circumstances and present inability to offer the degree of economic support which would mean the pair could move in together. The first friend she tracks down, Mun-young (Kang Jin-a), has become a workaholic salary woman who self administers saline drips at work to increase her productivity and declines to put Miso up on the grounds having someone around when she’s not there makes her uncomfortable. Each of her old bandmates has opted for the conventional life but it has not served them well – keyboardist Hyun-jung (Kim Gook-hee) is unhappily married and trapped in a home of oppressive silence, Dae-yong (Lee Sung-wook) is a brokenhearted wreck whose wife has left him after less than eight months of marriage, vocalist Roki (Choi Deok-moon) has a strange relationship with his parents, and former guitarist Jung-mi (Kim Jae-hwa) has thrown herself headlong into stepford wife territory going quietly mad through boredom and insecurity in the palatial apartment that belongs to her husband’s family.

For various reasons, Miso understands that she can’t stay with her friends very long though she tries to help each of them as best she can while she’s around. She cleans their apartments, cooks them nutritious meals, keeps them company and listens to their problems though few of them take the trouble to really ask her why it is she is in the position she is in or how they might be able to help beyond providing temporary shelter. Surprised by one of her wealthy clients who is unexpectedly at home during cleaning time and seems to be distressed, Miso does her best to comfort her, making it clear that she does not disapprove of her client’s lifestyle and thinks she has nothing in particular to be ashamed of. The client, vowing to leave her present occupation behind, feels quietly terrible that her decision inevitably means Miso will lose her job but Miso genuinely means it when she says she’s happy for her client and hopes she will be able to attain her dreams.

Forced to leave the memory of each of her friends behind, Miso’s world seems to shrink until even her beloved whisky now seems like it will be out of her reach. Jeon Go-woon is unafraid to lay bare Miso’s bleak prospects, though she depicts them in an often humorous light as Miso goes apartment hunting in the darkest and dingiest part of Seoul, striding up endless flights of stairs to rooms with increasingly tiny windows before landing at the only realistic possibility in a filthy attic space with no electricity. Still, Miso remains undaunted. She is free, beholden to no one, and retains her kind heart even as she becomes a cypher to us, lost under the grey skies of an indifferent city until she alone becomes the tiny light on its ever expanding horizons.


Microhabitat screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 10th July, 6.30pm.

Original trailer (no 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)