Stellar: A Magical Ride (스텔라, Kwon Soo-kyung, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

A cynical man learns to forgive the father he resented for abandoning him while on a road trip in his banged up ‘80s Hyundai Stellar in Kwon Soo-kyung’s quirky dramedy, Stellar: A Magical Ride (스텔라, Stellar). Not everyone is suited to being a parent, as he’s fond of saying not incorrectly, but even if his father’s love was imperfect it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there and just because he feels his own father failed him it doesn’t mean he’d do the same to his own child.

Young-bae (Son Ho-jun) makes a living repossessing luxury cars on behalf of shady gangsters. After unwisely entrusting a Lamborghini to his childhood friend Dong-sik (Lee Kyu-hyung) who now runs a logistics company, Young-bae’s life is derailed when he goes awol leaving him to deal with his violent boss. Meanwhile, he’s just found out his wife might be pregnant after stumbling on a pregnancy test in their bathroom and his sister has been in contact to let him know their estranged father has passed away. After the gangsters track him down to the funeral, he manages to make a daring escape by taking off in his father’s old Hyundai Stellar which is not exactly the most ideal getaway vehicle seeing as Young-bae struggles to get it over 30 and the driver’s side door doesn’t open anymore. 

In a way there might be a reason for that, Young-bae both driver and passenger as he shifts over into his father’s old seat at the wheel. For some reason he finds himself talking to the car without really understanding why while the car itself always seems to come to his rescue just at the right moment as a magical twinkling plays in the background. It’s difficult to avoid the interpretation that the car is possessed by his father’s spirit, though it may equally be the manifestations of Young-bae’s childhood memories as he remembers a happier time in his life when he spent time with his father in the car which he described as his family’s “star”. 

“Becoming a father is easy, but living as one is hard” Dong-sik laments having been somewhat humiliated in front of his own kids little knowing that Young-bae is facing just this dilemma as he tries to come to terms with impending fatherhood. As an older man looking back on traumatic childhood memories, he gains a new perspective if perhaps still struggling to forgive his father for abandoning him only later coming to the realisation that he may have shown his love in a different way in thinking that the best thing for his family might be to remove himself from it. 

The root cause of all these problems is however debt. Young-bae resents his father for getting into trouble with loansharks after a traffic accident disrupted his taxi business, while the reason Dong-sik double-crossed him with the car is because he is deeply in debt himself. Even a farmer’s wife he meets explains that they’re alive because they can’t die, now in masses of debt following several poor harvests and the onset of her husband’s lumbago. Young-bae technically makes a living off debt given that the reason most of these cars are being repossessed is that their owners have fallen into financial difficulty. One such man Young-bae targets is currently living in the car when he tries to repossess it having lost his life savings and everything he owned trying to pay for medical treatment for his wife. Young-bae unsympathetically tells him that he hates irresponsible and incompetent fathers projecting memories of his own onto him while unable to show any kind of compassion or mercy for the difficulties he is facing. As the film opens, he helps save a man who was planning to take his own life but only so he can get his signature on the repossession papers before he passes away. 

Literally having to take his father’s perspective by sitting in the driving seat of his car while interrupted by nostalgic songs from the tape deck which seems to have a mind of its own, Young-bae comes to an acceptance of paternity while making peace with his father’s memory. A quirky road trip movie with a series of strange characters who all have important lessons for Young-bae about the nature of friendship and family, Stellar is certainly a magical ride through frustrated grief and paternal anxiety finally arriving at a place of warmth and safety free of past trauma and resentment in the driving seat of a beaten up family car. 


Stellar: A Magical Ride screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Mermaid Unlimited (인어전설, O Muel, 2017)

Venal city corporatism meets traditional Jeju culture in O Muel’s quirky comedy Mermaid Unlimited (인어전설, Ineojeonseol). An island movie showcasing the laidback charms of a disappearing way of life through those of the haenyo divers, Mermaid Unlimited is also an early example of cinema’s recent fascination with the art of synchronised swimming in which this most organised of sports helps a troubled young woman get a much needed reset in her life thanks to the down-home wisdom of the island aunties and the healing waters of Jeju.

A well-meaning government body has come up with a plan to promote synchronised swimming by getting a team of traditional haenyo divers as a warm up act before a national competition to be held in Jeju in the hope of making the sport “more accessible”. Former national team member Ga-yeon (Kang Rae-yeon) is under a lot of pressure to get a medal, not least to dispel the doubts of a hostile suit upset at having been passed over for project lead. In any case, she recommends an old colleague, Yeong-ju (Jeon Hye-Bin), who was the leading light of their old squad to coach the island ladies so they can perform a routine as requested by the PR people. However, there are several issues with this plan. The first being that village chief Bongseok (Lee Kyung-joon) has been a little over enthusiastic in agreeing to the idea seeing as there are very few remaining haenyo in the local area and many of them are understandably getting on in years. Meanwhile, Yeong-ju is in the middle of an extended personal crisis and is in fact a functioning alcoholic. 

Nevertheless, her appearance on the island immediately causes a commotion not least with Bongseok who is instantly smitten. She is herself, however, not perhaps convinced, instantly earning the ire of the defacto leader of the haenyo, the feisty and foulmouthed Okja (Moon Hee-kyung), after thoughtlessly describing the women as a load of old grannies, doubtful if they are really worthy of her precious “water ballet”. What ensues is a less than genial face off as the two women try to prove themselves queen of the seas through a petty competition which ends inconclusively and with a degree of drama but does eventually broker a kind of solidarity if only as they slag off their useless menfolk. In any case, the island ladies begin training in earnest while attempting to deal with their own quirky island problems. 

The island is certainly home to a fair few characters from Bongseok, smitten and overexcited while slightly clueless as to what the project entails (selling his empty swimming pool as bound to fill up next time it rains), to Okja’s wayward son Mansoo (Eo Sung-wook) and his bad romance, the pregnant haenyo who wants to give birth the old-fashioned way, a strange shanmaness and her son who has learning difficulties, and the young woman who desperately wants to become a haenyo despite her mother’s objections. Yeong-ju had a point when she suggested there weren’t many younger women around, most of the haenyo are indeed middle aged or older, and it’s fair to say this is a way of life fast disappearing. Okja laments that they haven’t been able to catch much lately, and later we hear of the building of a sea wall which may be having a detrimental affect on sea life so much so that there are reports of an elderly diver from a few villages over going missing at sea while protesting. Even so, the old women remain fiercely proud of their island culture and determined to protect it, seeing in the synchronised swimming exercise a way to show off their existence, something which perhaps mildly backfires bringing an influx of foreign tourists to the island hoping get the haenyo experience much to the confusion of the underprepared though very excited Bongseok. 

Through her friendship with Okja and the gentle support of the other island ladies who’ve seen enough of life to be unjudgemental, Yeong-ju begins to work through her unresolved trauma and alcohol issues while falling in love with island life and the traditional haenyo culture. A gentle ode to the wholesome charms of Jeju with its beautiful ocean vistas and hard spun rural wisdom, Mermaid Unlimited makes the case not only for the power of female solidarity but of bodies in unison as a means of existential healing through shared endeavour. 


Mermaid Unlimited streams in Poland until 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Piagol (피아골, Lee Kang-cheon, 1955)

piagol poster 1Under the oppressive regime of Park Chung-hee, “anti-communism” became a national policy and all films, at least implicitly, had to display anti-communist sentiment. In the 1950s, however, despite the immediacy of the war’s end, there might have been more room for nuance. Then again, perhaps not. Lee Kang-cheon’s Piagol (피아골), released just two years after the events it depicts, was among the first to concern itself with the North Korean partisans and was subsequently banned for its supposedly sympathetic depiction of communist guerrilla fighters, finally released only with the addition of the South Korean flag superimposed over the closing scene in order to suggest that the sole surviving partisan had decided to walk towards freedom.

Led by hardline Captain Agari (Lee Ye-chun), the partisans are in a sorry state. The truce has been signed and the war is “over” (or, at any rate, as “over” as it is now). They know no further reinforcements from China or the Soviet Union will be forthcoming, but have decided to continue fighting anyway. Holed up on Mount Jiri, the partisans are involved in an internecine guerrilla conflict with the encroaching South Korean and American forces, but are determined to root out “reactionary” elements and have been taking brutal revenge on local villages they believe to have “betrayed” them to the authorities.

Unlike the later anti-communist films, Lee’s partisans are not rabidly evil or gleefully sadistic but they are casually cruel and wilfully heartless. After the escape sequence which opens the film, a roll is called recording a casualty and a lost rifle. Captain Agari is much more worried about the gun than the man, eventually executing the soldier who dropped it after being shot in the arm for dereliction of duty. Agari’s actions are even harder to defend given that he knows there will be no further reinforcements and he’s down to a handful of men already, but neatly exemplify his lack of human feeling and intense need to enforce both dominance and ideological purity.

Convinced that someone in a nearby village is acting as an informant for the South, Captain Agari decides to carry out a raid to rid it of “reactionary” elements, which is a thinly veiled excuse to sack it. Not all of the partisans are entirely on board, especially as some of them hail from this village originally and have family members still living there. During the raid, Lee focuses on cowardly Captain Agari hiding in a nearby temple while Buddhist statues seem to be giving him the hard stare, before shifting to the same temple now in flames. A baby cries and crawls over the half naked body of its mother, raped and left for dead. Meanwhile, teenage recruit Il-dong (Cho Nam-suk) searches for his mum only to find her dying of a bullet wound in the street. Half delirious she asks him why he shot his own mother while all he can do is cradle her as she dies. Cold as ice partisan Ae-ran (Roh Kyung-hee) blows her whistle to tell him to get moving and brushes off the disapproval of sensitive intellectual Chul-soo (Kim Jin-kyu) with an affirmation that all actions to eradicate reactionaries should be praised.

Ae-ran is one of only two female partisans and seems to have something of a vendetta against the other, Soju (Kim Young-hee), who is berated by Captain Agari for being weak and womanly, “too wimpy for the communist party”. Breaking down in tears, Soju is raped by Agari who, a few moments later, is handed a commendation for heroism from the guerrilla commander and has her transferred to HQ out of the way. Unlike Soju, Ae-ran is presented as overly masculine, tough and unforgiving but, crucially, able to defend herself against Agari and successfully resist his advances. She is, however, softened by the quiet expression of desire for sensitive romantic Chul-soo whom she describes as “like a poet in fairyland”, and is unique among the partisans for her eventual acceptance of defeat as she urges to Chul-soo to go down the mountain and surrender to take advantage of the amnesty proposed by Southern forces, remaining reluctant to go herself in believing there is no way back for her after all she has done in the mountains.

Ae-ran has indeed done quite a lot in the mountains and none of it good. Chul-soo may lament that he has already lost his humanity despite being the only partisan to regularly voice dissent, but Ae-ran does not appear to have had very much of it in the first place. Still, she is “a survivor”. Given that we’ve seen them repeatedly commit atrocities and eventually destroy each other out a series of petty resentments, attempts to cover up crimes, and revenge born of sexual jealousy, you could hardly say that the communists have been shown in a very positive light, but audiences at the time failed to identify the film as sufficiently “anti-communist” because they couldn’t be sure that Ae-ran’s ideological disillusionment had led her to choose freedom in the South, rather than it simply being a case of physical desperation. Unlike the anti-communist films of the ‘60s, Lee refuses to demonise the partisans, depicting them as ideologically committed, cruel, and heartless, but also flawed and human as they succumb to despair on realising they have been abandoned by their nation, marooned in the South somewhere between death and freedom. In this at least, they are victims of their ideology, ruined by emotional austerity and betraying their own revolution even as they attempt to enact it.


Piagol was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.