The Map Against the World (고산자, 대동여지도, Kang Woo-suk, 2016)

map-against-the-worldThe map is not the territory – as the old adage goes. There’s always a difference between the thing itself and the perception of it but, as the “hero” of The Map Against the World (고산자, 대동여지도, Gosanja, Daedongyeojido) points out, if you’re about to set off on a long journey it’s a good idea to not to rely on a linear map else you’ll run out of good shoes long before you reach your destination. Kim Jeong-ho (Cha Seung-Won) was, apparently, a real person (though little is known about him) who set out to make a proper map of the Korean peninsula after a cartographic error led to the death of his father and many other men from his village when they ran out of resources crossing what they thought was one mountain but turned out to be one mountain range.

The difficulty here is that The Map Around the World pivots around a man who is so crazed and obsessive in his quest that he causes serious problems not only for himself in a difficult political climate, but also for those close to him whose lives he ruins through neglect and abandonment. Is he a hero for following his dreams even though they cost others so dearly? The film seems to say yes, but it’s a difficult message to swallow.

Ever since Kim Jeong-ho’s father died, he’s been obsessed with the idea of creating an accurate map of the Korean peninsula from end to end including the “Dokdo” (or which ever name you wish to use) islands. Consequently, he spends much of his life wandering around on his own which has made him a bit strange. Returning home after a four year absence, Jeong-ho does not seem to be aware that time has been passing even in Seoul and his little daughter, Soon-sil (Nam Ji-hyun), is now all grown up. Jeong-ho also has a kind of relationship with his neighbour, Mrs. Yeonju (Shin Dong-mi), who has been looking after Soon-sil but it’s all a bit awkward.

Aside from Jeong-ho’s terrible performance as a family man, the main intrigue centres around his big philosophy – open access to information for everyone from the nobleman to the peasant. In order to make sure maps remain as accurate as possible, he’s hit on the idea of producing woodblocks so they can be reproduced en masse with fewer errors and then sold to anyone who wants one so that people are free to travel wherever they wish. This is an extraordinarily destabilising idea in the increasingly paranoid world of the late Joseon era under the Regent Heungseon Daewongun (Yu Jun-sang). The woodblocks are dangerous because the elites do not wish the common man to possess that kind of knowledge, would rather people did not travel very much, and there is always the old “national security” fear in which the rulers assert the danger of spies and invaders getting their hands on such an accurate guide to the terrain.

Of course, Heungseon Daewongun ruling as a Regent for his young son means there is also a simmering battle for power running in the background as second tier nobles snap away at each other trying to increase their status in the hope of making a bid for the big chair. Heungseon Daewongun has reason enough to be paranoid but his rule is an austere one in which all foreign elements are to be eliminated in their entirety.

Kim Jeong-ho’s world is difficult and often frightening but Jeong-ho cares for nothing but maps aside from the idea of the free exchange of information. The early part of the film is, broadly, a quirky comedy about an amiable eccentric laughing his way out of trouble whilst evading debt collectors and trying to earn the forgiveness of the women he’s abandoned with nary a word for the last four years.

Jokes about Jeong-ho’s awkward relationship with his neighbour, mild irritation with the idea that his now grown up daughter has a boyfriend, and buddy comedy with the guy helping him carve the woodblocks suddenly seem out of place when the film descends into a morass of cruelty and horror with no apparent warning. Jeong-ho himself is beaten by authorities determined to obtain his maps by underhanded means seeing as Jeong-ho wants them to be available to the people and therefore refuses to surrender them into the “care” of the state. When that doesn’t work, he places himself in line for more harassment, but that’s nothing compared to what happens when a secret sect of Christians (banned for fear of foreignness) is uncovered in the village. Brutally tortured and instructed to denounce others, the villagers are then publicly beheaded. Suddenly, maps don’t seem so important any more.

Nevertheless, Jeong-ho quickly gets over the stubbornness that has cost him the things he held most dear (aside, it seems, from maps) to get right back out there and do some hardcore cartography. The film ends on an oddly upbeat note as Jeong-ho ventures forth on another adventure, edging ever closer to completing his mission, but even if he is about to make his “dream” come true, that same dream has just got a number of people killed. Jeong-ho’s quest to make the maps available to all could be seen as resistance to the oppressiveness of the state, but it isn’t, he just really likes maps and thinks you should too. The Gangchi (otherwise known as “Japanese” sealions, apparently hunted into extinction by Japanese fishermen in the 1970s) frolic happily off the waters of Dokdo as Jeong-ho approaches, but it hardly seems like a cause for celebration.

Over long and tonally inconsistent, The Map Against the World is a frustrating and often dull experience. Hold the map against the world and see what you see, errors and imperfections everywhere. Yet fighting oppression through cartography is a difficult task, and when it comes down to it a map against the world is not enough on its own. Filled with picturesque shots of Korea’s natural beauty, The Map Against the World displays generally high production values but can’t decide if it’s the story of a valiant revolutionary waging a cultural war for freedom of information in the middle of a paranoid dictatorship, or just a film about a madman trying to map ever changing terrain. Jeong-ho’s quest may be a noble one, but his single minded determination and willingness to sacrifice other people’s lives in its service is far from heroic leaving the film’s bittersweet finale feeling very hollow indeed.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Failan (파이란, Song Hae-sung, 2001)

FailanSometimes God’s comic timing is impeccable. You might hear it said that love transcends death, becomes an eternal force all of its own, but the “love story”, if you can call it that, of the two characters at the centre of Song Hae-sung’s Failan (파이란, Pairan), who, by the way, never actually meet, occurs entirely in the wrong order. It’s one thing to fall in love in a whirlwind only to have that love cruelly snatched away by death what feels like only moments later, but to fall in love with a woman already dead? Fate can be a cruel master.

The titular Failan (Cecilia Cheung) is a migrant from mainland China who’s travelled to Korea in search of her last remaining relatives following the death of her family. Unfortunately, they moved abroad some time ago and no one knows how to contact them. Stuck in Korea, Failan is running out of options but a “kindly” woman suggests a phoney visa marriage so she can legally stay in the country and earn her keep at the same time.

So, she ends up married to the feckless petty gangster-cum-video-store-proprietor Kang-jae (Choi Min-sik). We meet him around a year later and it’s his story we follow for the first half of the film as he gets out of jail after being arrested for selling adult videos to horny teenagers. Kang-jae quickly gets into an argument with his gangster boss, Young-sik (Son Byung-ho), but as they’re also old friends they patch things up over a drink only for the evening to go way south when Young-sik spots a rival gang member and ends up beating him to a bloody pulp whilst in a trance-like rage.

Young-sik is young and ambitious so when the crime is discovered he pleads with Kang-jae to take the rap for him, promising that he’ll buy him that fishing boat he’s always wanted so he can go back to his home town when he gets out. Kang-jae goes home to think it over and gets a knock on the door, two policemen are standing outside only they haven’t come to arrest him – the wife he’d forgotten all about has died. Kang-jae has hit a fork in the road both literal and metaphorical and takes a road trip with his best friend to finally meet his bride in a cold and lonely place.

Failan is almost a plot device in the film that bears her name, but her story is a sad and a hard one. Orphaned and alone she finds scant kindness in her adopted country but the woman who runs the laundry where she ends up working does at least develop an almost maternal feeling for her. Failan feels great gratitude to Kang-jae for agreeing to marry her so she could stay in Korea and is convinced he must be a very good, very kind person. She thinks this largely because she never meets him.

Kang-jae is rubbish at being a gangster. Young-Sik may have a point when he says he doesn’t have the heart for it. Early on, some of the youngsters try and rope him into an extortion scheme where they’re trying to get an old granny to pay back some of her loan. Apparently the granny had once been kind to Kang-jae when he was young and hungry so he doesn’t really put a lot of effort into being menacing towards her which makes him lose face with the young toughs who think of him as a joke anyway. Reading Failan’s letter, it’s the first time that anyone has ever said anything nice about him. The first woman who ever thought he was worth anything at all and she’s already lost to him before he even knew her.

Kang-jae is not a good man, he’s an underling just muddling through without thinking. He leaps from one thing to another always thrashing around landing where falls. He has a vague ambition to get the money together to buy a fishing boat and go home, but he’s not seriously pursing it. Even the group of gangsters he’s involved with are so laughably low rent that they can’t hold on to their completely worthless territory and have to put pressure on old ladies just to get by. After reading Failan’s letter and hearing that someone believed he was better than this, Kang-jae finally wakes up and starts thinking about his life with the ultimate realisation that he doesn’t have to live like this. Unfortunately, he might have just picked the wrong day to start living the rest of his life.

In many ways Failan is a typical melodrama filled with the pain of unrealised love and Fate’s ironic sense of timing. Based on a novel by the modern Japanese master of the tearjerker Jiro Asada (Poppoya), Failan seems engineered to rend hearts with its tale of true love frustrated by time and circumstance where every ounce of hope and goodness is well and truly trodden into the ground by the time the credits roll. Nevertheless, Song keeps things on the right side of schmaltzy, never racking up the misery and heartbreak beyond the threshold of plausibility. Like all the best melodramas, Failan’s sentimentality is sincere and, ultimately, moving. Another sad story of salvation arriving too late, Failan’s tale of tragic, unrealised love is an all too familiar one but effectively told it can’t fail to tear the heart.


You can currently stream Failan via Amazon Video in the US courtesy of Asian Crush, but the Korean R3 DVD and Region A blu-ray both contain English subtitles!

Unsubbed trailer: