Introduction (인트로덕션, Hong Sang-soo, 2021)

A young man struggles to define himself in the shadow of parental expectation in a minor departure from Hong Sang-soo, somehow warmhearted even its icy exteriors and wilful melancholia. As the title perhaps implies, the hero of Introduction (인트로덕션) finds himself in the midst of his life’s prologue while receiving sometimes unwelcome “introductions” from each of his parental figures including one to a prominent but ultimately pompous actor (Ki Joo-bong) apparently a family friend to his divorced parents though adopting only the unsympathetic authoritarianism of the traditional father rather than the empathy the young man seems to seek. 

Divided into three loose episodes in the life of Youngho (Shin Seokho), Hong’s tripartite tale opens with an almost comic scene of a middle-aged acupuncturist (Kim Young-ho) bargaining with God promising to become a better person if only He helps him get out of some kind of fix. This moment of crisis might be why he’s suddenly asked Youngho, his son with whom he seems to be semi-estranged, to visit him though in a repeated motif we never find out quite what it is he wanted to say because in this case an old friend and famous actor suddenly turns up. Youngho is kept waiting in the waiting room while his girlfriend ironically waits for him at another location. Meanwhile he’s fussed over by his father’s doting receptionist who gives him the sense of familial comfort he lacks with either his mother or father. Suddenly he hugs her, a moment bringing new import to his later argument with the actor in which he rejects the inauthenticity of acting claiming that when he embraces someone it ought to mean something because it would be “morally wrong” to fake that kind of connection. 

The old actor, however, assumes his discomfort is some kind of young person’s puritanism sure that it doesn’t matter if it’s just “acting” or playing around, when a man embraces a woman it’s all “love”. Youngho implies his decision to abandon acting because of its essential inauthenticity is partly romantic jealously on the part of his girlfriend, yet in reality we realise that he is no longer with the woman who waited for him outside the acupuncturist, Juwon (Park Miso), despite having made an impulsive and possibly ill-advised decision to follow her to Berlin after she left to study abroad. Just as Youngho has a series of unsatisfactory “introductions” from mum and dad, Juwon struggles to assert herself in the company of her mother (Seo Young-hwa) despite having travelled to another country where she will it seems be staying with her mother’s close friend (Kim Min-hee). Juwon’s mother fears her friend has changed with age, now in someway younger, immediately asking Juwon to drop the honorifics that instantly divide them as members of different generations while apparently having abandoned conventionality by divorcing to become a bohemian artist. 

During their brief meeting, Youngho also remarks that he thinks his father has “changed” while musing on the idea of asking him for money to come to Berlin as a foreign student to be with Juwon, unwittingly trampling on this small step of freedom Juwon has been able to take away from her mother if only towards an aunt. Hong structures each of his sequences around groups of three people that begin and end with two, the last somehow awkward in its evenness as Youngho invites a male friend (Ha Seong-guk) to dine with his mother (Cho Yoon-hee) and the actor, perhaps sensing that he may need some kind of moral support. He is always, in one sense or another, left out in the cold not quite alone but in his own way lonely, hugging the receptionist but only gazing up at his mother on her hotel balcony literally unreachable in their unbridgeable emotional distance. He waits for her to wave, but she does not. On the beach on an overcast afternoon and not quite alone except perhaps in spirit, Youngho begins to realise that he’ll have to make his own introduction, his parents can’t help him even if they wanted to because they are are also a little lost, confused, and filled with anxiety. “Don’t worry too much” Youngho tells a similarly troubled soul in what turns out to be a dream, but it’s advice he might as well be giving himself looking out over a boundless ocean in contemplation of his life still to come. 


Introduction screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Trailer (Korean subtitles only)

V.I.P. (브이아이피, Park Hoon-jung, 2017)

V.I.P. posterIn New World, Park Hoon-jung provided a bleak overview of creeping corruption with the absolute certainty that the forces of darkness will always win over those of the light, but with V.I.P. (브이아이피) he turns his attentions away from South Korea’s hellish gangland society to examine the effect of geopolitical concerns on the lives of ordinary citizens. He does this by positioning South Korea’s two biggest international concerns – America and The North, as twin manipulators with his home nation caught in the middle, trapped between the need to preserve allies and defend against enemies. The “enemy” here is a sociopathic serial killer allowed to get away with his crimes at home because of his elite status and then again abroad as a key informant of the American intelligence services.

Beginning at the end with a weary man accepting a gun and striding into a rundown building in Hong Kong, Park jumps back a few years to North Korea where an innocent schoolgirl is grabbed by a gang of three boys on a peaceful country road. Not only do they brutally rape and kill the girl, but they even go so far as to massacre her entire family. Police Chief Lee (Park Hee-Soon) identifies the killer as Kim Gwang-il (Lee Jong-Suk), son of a high ranking official. His boss closes the case; Gwang-il is untouchable. Lee is demoted and sent to a fertiliser plant.

A couple of years later similar crimes begin occurring in the South and maverick policeman Chae (Kim Myung-min), temporarily reinstated after being suspended for his violent ways, is handed the case after his superior apparently “commits suicide”. Like Lee, who eventually makes contact with Chae having followed his quarry to the South, Chae identifies Gwang-il and is prevented from arresting him but this time by South Korean intelligence services who were partly responsible for Gwang-il’s defection working closely with America’s CIA and the very greasy Agent Gray (Peter Stormare).

Like many Korean films of recent times the central point of concern is in the ability of the rich and powerful to do whatever they please and get away with it because their special status makes them untouchable. Park scores a double a whammy when he casts his villain both as an elitist and as a North Korean though he draws no connection between life in a brutalising regime and the desire to inflict violence.

This is a violent tale and the violence on show is sickening, often needlessly so. After showing us the aftermath of what happened to the innocent teenage girl in the prologue and then to her entire family including a five year old brother, there was really no need to go into detail but Park eventually includes a horrifying scene of Gwang-il garrotting his victim in an elegant drawing room right underneath the portraits of the Kims hanging proudly on the wall. The scene is problematic for several reasons but the biggest of them is in the depiction of the naked female body covered in blood and bruises while Park’s minions stand naked around her, pale and unstained by her blood, each of the actors carefully hiding their genitals from the camera. The victim, who has no lines other than a final plea not to kill her, is the only real female presence in the film save for one female police officer who is seen briefly and only appears to become another potential victim for Gwang-il.

The real ire is saved not for Gwang-il but for the intelligence services who lack the backbone to stop him. The Americans, or more precisely a need to placate them, are the major motivator – a fact which takes on additional irony considering Gwang-il is the North Korean threat the US is supposed to be helping to mitigate. It remains unclear why the CIA would be allowing Gwang-il free reign to live as a regular citizen given that he supposedly has important information regarding North Korean finances which is the reason the Americans are helping him defect, rather than keeping him safely contained and preventing him from committing heinous crimes all over the world which, apart from anything else, threaten to cause huge embarrassment to everyone involved. Still, Agent Gray lives up to his name in his general sleaziness and the intense implication that he is playing his own long game which may have nothing to do with country or protocol.

Park’s decision to structure the film in several chapters each with a different title card often works against him, taking the momentum of his procedural and occasionally proving confusing. Loosely, Park ties the stories of three men together – the idealistic North Korean officer who wants to see justice done, the grizzled cop with a noble heart, and the conflicted NIS officer realising the unforeseen consequences of his attempts to play politics for career advancement, but he fails to weave their fates into anything more than an extremely pessimistic exploration of hidden geopolitical oppression. Final shootout aside, V.I.P. is a grimy, politically questionable thriller which irritates in its narrative sluggishness and leaves a sour taste in the mouth in its own indifference to its villains’ crimes in favour of his V.I.P. status as the representative of an entirely different existential threat.


Screened at the London East Asia Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)