The Hill of Secrets (비밀의 언덕, Lee Ji-eun, 2022)

A little girl contends with the boundaries of social responsibility, the nature of the contemporary family, classism, and a deep desire to be accepted while confronted by the ambivalent “honesty” of adulthood in Lee Ji-eun’s charming coming-of-age tale, The Hill of Secrets (비밀의 언덕, Bimileui Eondeok). Set in 1996 and filled with nostalgia for simpler times, Lee’s tale of the painful lessons of adolescence is in its own way timeless as the heroine begins to reprocess her complicated relationships with her family while simultaneously preparing to step away from it. 

12-year-old Myeung-eun’s (Moon Seung-ah) problem is that she’s a bit of a snob. Surrounded by children from wealthier families at her school, she feels ashamed of her background and looks down on her working class parents whom she brands “terrible people” for their every man for himself philosophy. When her brother asks their father what their family motto is for a homework assignment, he looks confused and answers that they don’t have one, but her mother jumps in with “give nothing, take nothing” having experienced a moment of outrage when Myeung-eun wanted to donate some money to a struggling family on the television. Her father had insisted that the family is only struggling because they’re lazy and aren’t trying hard enough, reminding her that their lives are hard too but they’ve made their way through buckling down and working without complaint. Myung-eun resents his explanation in part because she thinks he’s selfish and unkind, but also finds it hypocritical in that she sees her father as lazy and irresponsible while her mother is a workaholic who only cares about money and is indifferent to the suffering of those around her. 

To demonstrate that she’s different from her family, Myung-eun has developed conservative social values with a strong aspiration to achieve conventional middle class success as symbolised by the incredibly prim dress she’s forever trying to get her mother to buy for her while she opts for something a little less particular that Myung-eun won’t grow out of too quickly. So ashamed of her family is she, that Myung-eun lies at school telling her teacher that her dad’s an office worker and her mum a housewife while making constant excuses as to why they can’t come to parents’ days. Challenged by her rival, rich kid Kyung-soo, she even goes so far as to bamboozle an executive at a nearby company into an “interview” for her “homework” taking a series of fake photographs while getting a friend’s mother to pose as her own as they cheerfully bake cookies together at home. 

Wanting to knock Kyung-soo off her perch Myung-eun runs for class president and pulls off a shock victory but soon becomes drunk on her power and driven further into a narcissistic drive for approval from her harried teacher. She sets up a secret letterbox so her classmates can make anonymous suggestions, but is actually writing them all herself sometimes using her left hand, different coloured pens, and weird handwriting to cover up her crime. When she fears her brother is about to blow her cover, she gets into a physical fight with a friend accusing her of disrespecting the office of class president, and struggles to accept herself at her new status because of her internalised shame over her class background. 

Yet confronted with the incredible cynicism of transfer student Hye-jin who matter of factly answers the teacher’s question about workers making people happy that her mum makes loads of people happy because she runs a brothel which is why Hye-jin has had to change schools so often, Myung-eun begins to reconsider her notions of honesty and deceit. Hye-jin is tired of hiding her background and really doesn’t care what anyone thinks anymore, while Myung-eun is desperate to keep up an image of conventional respectability rather than admit that her parents sell salted fish at the market. As her teacher later tells her, honesty is not necessarily the best policy and sometimes you might have to lie to protect someone’s feelings but that’s really the opposite of what Myung-eun has been doing. Her lies are all about protecting herself and told out of fear of rejection ironically because she feels rejected by her family who appear disinterested in her successes and indifferent to her feelings. 

But then as her brother tried to remind her, her mother works hard to support their family while crafting a sketchbook of the ideal home she’ll probably never be able to afford. Myung-eun decamps to stay with her mother’s step father and brother who are much more stereotypically respectable than her parents, living in a nicer flat which belonged to her grandmother and outwardly religious. But then again her uncle has the same internalised shame as she does, a failed artist working part-time in construction but putting on a suit and carrying a briefcase when he picks her up from school so that people will assume he’s a middle-class office worker. Her grandfather berates her uncle for not having a proper job while he later reveals that Myung-eun’s rmother’s resentment stems from the fact she’s been supporting both families financially even though her mother has passed away and they aren’t related by blood. Myung-eun’s father complains about his domineering wife, but as his friend points out he’d be lost without her. 

An exercise in rigorous honesty confronts Myung-eun with her true feelings surrounding her family but also with the consequences of her actions as she realises an autobiographically-themed prize-winning essay may end up hurting their feelings while she herself would not necessarily come out of it looking very good. Through her friendship with Hye-jin and her sister, Myung-eun comes to a better understanding of emotional authenticity edging away from her snooty social group who as Hye-jin points out enforce hierarchy by taking turns leaving each other out and beginning to accept herself no longer so desperately in need of external approval having understood a little of the way she fits in to her family. A gentle, nostalgic coming-of-age tale, Lee’s charming debut feature is both a mild critique of deeply ingrained classism and an empathetic contemplation of what it is that “family” really means.


The Hill of Secrets screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Clip (English subtitles)

Coming to You (너에게 가는 길, Byun Gyu-ri, 2021)

South Korea is one of the least progressive Asian nations when it comes to the rights of the LGBTQ+ community who often face social prejudice and outright hostility from the religious right. A counter protestor at a Pride rally in Byun Gyu-ri’s documentary Coming to You (너에게 가는 길, Neoege Ganeun Gil) loudly screams in the face of allies, claiming to love his nation which is why he’s bringing his kids up to be model Korean citizens while insisting, incorrectly, that homosexuality is “illegal” and the Pride goers all need to leave the country as soon as possible. 

The man is perhaps an extreme case, but it’s just this kind of aggressive hostility that led two mothers to fear for their children even as they struggled internally to accept their their coming out. Firefighter Nabi had no idea what to think when her only child Hangyeol told her that they hated their body so much it had led to them experiencing suicidal thoughts. Nabi simply thought it was a phase or else that it was born of the discrimination women face in society and told Hangyeol so directly which only added to their mounting depression and sense of impossibility. Air hostess Vivian meanwhile was stunned when her son Yejoon handed her a letter that began “I am a homosexual”. Though she was accustomed to meeting all kinds of people in her work, she couldn’t quite take in what her son had told her and was then fearful that his life would be difficult or lonely going so far as to apologise for having given birth to him. 

Both women have since become staunch defenders of their children’s right to happiness through their involvement with PFLAG, an organisation for parents of LGBTQ+ children yet they are still frustrated by their conservative nation and its slow progress towards equality. Hangyeol’s chief problem is that they are unable to find steady employment because of the mismatch between their identity documents and gender presentation. On trying to get their gender changed from female, which they were assigned at birth, to male, they face several hurdles including an arcane regulation that insists that even as adults those wishing to legally change their gender must have the permission of both parents (the law was abandoned only in 2019). This is obviously difficult for many transgender people who may have become estranged from their families or otherwise not wish to contact them, leaving aside the absurdity of needing to ask for permission for anything at all when over the age of majority. Meanwhile, Hangyeol also struggles because of the narrow criteria which insist that an applicant should have the matching genitalia for the gender they have requested be recognised on the form which is something they are not currently interested in pursuing. Another judge at the district level is however much more sympathetic and does not make the same demand, simply telling Hangyeol that along with their mother’s testimony all the evidence submitted makes it “obvious” that they are male, telling them to go out and live with pride while apologising for their “intolerant” nation.

Vivian’s son Yejoon meanwhile decided to escape the hostile environment in Korea to study abroad in Canada where he hoped he could live openly as a gay man but has discovered that though this is largely true he still feels somewhat out of place as a Korean living in a foreign culture. Vivian admits that she hoped he would stay in Canada though it meant him being apart from her because his life would be much easier there, though Yejoon eventually makes the decision to move home after falling in love with the friend of a friend he met on his last trip back. One of Vivian’s chief worries had been that Yejoon would be lonely. While thankful that he has found someone with whom he can share his life, she realises that being married isn’t the be all and end all yet continues to campaign for the legalisation of same sex marriage so her son can have the same legal rights as anyone else. Yejoon’s boyfriend Seongjun only recently came out to his mother who is obviously on a bit of a learning curve but quickly comes to accept the boys’ relationship and even attends a PFLAG meeting that gives her even more confidence in her decision. 

Still, it’s clear that there is still a lot of prejudice to be overcome. Nabi is at one point hit in the face by an angry protestor at Pride while the police do nothing, and is intensely worried about her child’s wellbeing especially after seeing a report on the news about radical feminists hounding a transgender student out of an all female university. Yejoon and Seongjung have decided that they don’t necessarily want to be flag wavers but are determined to live happily with the support of both their families in spite of whatever social prejudice they may face. As for Vivian and Nabi, they are committed to fighting for their children’s rights, but also breaking with tradition in abandoning the hierarchal nature of the traditional family to stand shoulder to shoulder with them as they do their best to push for social change in an all too conservative nation. 


Coming to You screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hot in Day, Cold at Night (낮에는 덥고 밤에는 춥고, Park Song-yeol, 2021)

Anyone can have a run of bad luck, but when it’s happening to everyone at the same time perhaps it’s time to admit that something isn’t working. The latest film to tackle life on the margins of an increasingly unequal society, Park Song-yeol’s scrappy indie drama Hot in Day, Cold at Night (낮에는 덥고 밤에는 춥고, Naj-eneun deobgo bam-eneun chubgo) follows one ordinary couple who’ve found themselves jobless and are just trying to keep their heads above the water without losing either their dignity or humanity. 

Young-tae (Park Song-yeol) was working as a delivery driver until an accident with his bike left out him out of work and now he can’t seem to find anything else. His wife Jeong-hee (Won Hyangra), formerly a teacher, is also unemployed and in the process of applying for new positions which seem to be thin on the ground. They aren’t proud and are willing to do whatever is available, each of them reeling off a list of all the casual jobs they’ve done including those that are dangerous or exploitative, but they just can’t seem to catch a break. Mainly, they’re on the same page though differ slightly in their approaches to life, Jeong-hee feeling that her softhearted husband is too much of a pushover and shouldn’t always be so understanding when comes to getting what’s he’s owed. 

A case in point being his decision to lend their professional camera to a friend, Myung-su, who pays them a token rental fee and swears to return it in two weeks when he’s made enough money to buy his own but soon stops returning Young-tae’s calls. Unreturned calls become a repeated motif emphasising how money and the shame associated with not having it can disrupt even close and longstanding relationships. Jeong-hee experiences something similar with school friend Mi-sun who calls in a loan but abruptly stops talking to her after what appears to be a slightly dodgy arrangement getting Jeong-hee to sub for her at a school which goes south over a misunderstanding with the address causing Jeong-hee to ruin a good opportunity (and possibly Mi-sun’s reputation) by arriving late. 

Young-tae has his own series of interview disappointments, Myung-su getting him an opportunity through the “relative of an acquaintance’s friend” which takes a turn for the strange when the interviewer starts asking awkward questions such as whether Young-tae has any sick relatives at home because people apparently take too much time off claiming they have to take care of someone who’s ill. Another possibility sees a friend call out of the blue after 20 years which predictably turns out to be linked to a pyramid scheme.  “My identity just vanishes” Young-tae exclaims of all his soulless causal jobs, “your self-esteem just gets destroyed”. He takes a job as a proxy driver but is faced either with the tedious talk of much wealthier customers throwing their money around in the back or else harangued by drunken fares who don’t agree with this driving practice or the route he’s chosen. 

There is only so much anyone can take though Young-tae’s threshold is higher than most, keeping his cool and trying to get on with his work in the hope that happier days are coming. “There’s no such thing as easy money” he concedes, even as Jeong-hee goes behind his back to take out an ill-advised loan from loansharks who send passive aggressive messages wishing her “peace and wellbeing” while breathing down her neck for the repayments before going so far as to turn up at her mother’s door looking for money. The fact that Jeong-hee didn’t just ask her mother for help in the first place hints the secondary effects of their poverty in their intense embarrassment which further isolates them from wider society even if they hadn’t fallen out with most of their friends over money. A primary motivator for Jeong-hee getting the loan is seeing all her siblings, who each have several children, preparing gifts and money for her mother’s birthday which is something they as a couple were unable to do though it’s Young-tae who appears to feel the most awkward, guilty to be eating food at the party while bringing no gift even if that shouldn’t really be the way it works. 

Young-tae is the sort of person who likes to do things properly and sees the best in people but even he starts to feel like a mug on realising that Myung-su sold his camera ages ago, insisting he pay him back fairly and a little more for the betrayal only to feel guilty and give him back some of the money. Myung-su just accepts it without even offering an apology for acting in such a reprehensible manner but is later seen to have bought a new car which doesn’t tally with his claims of absolute desperation. It’s enough to drive anybody crazy, but really what can you do? Young-tae meditates on petty revenge, but eventually thinks better of it. It wouldn’t make any difference anyway. Quite obviously made for a shoestring and imperfect in execution, the film’s scrappiness perfectly matches that of its heroes who find themselves just muddling along trying live comfortable lives in one the world’s richest cities but discovering little more than loneliness and disappointment. 


Hot in Day, Cold at Night screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Guimoon: The Lightless Door (귀문, Sim Deok-geun, 2021)

A collection of lost souls find themselves trapped between this world and the next in Sim Deok-geun’s eerie haunted house horror, Guimoon: The Lightless Door (귀문, Guimoon). On a literal quest to exorcise his demons, the hero traverses an impossible and elliptical passage attempting to atone for his sins while freeing others from a similar burden yet finally finds himself becoming his quarry as kind of jailor or perhaps guardian spirit making sure that doors which should never be opened remain forever closed not least to the morbidly curious. 

Do-jin’s (Kim Kang-woo) troubles begin when he casts off his destiny as a shaman leaving his ageing mother to battle a powerful spirit said to belong to a mass killer who suddenly snapped one day and murdered all the guests at small community centre. When the building is torn down, workers discover a body bricked up in the walls which seems almost untouched. Do-jin’s mother is brought in to exorcise the evil spirits but is finally overpowered, a dark presence causing her to stab herself in the neck. Overcome with guilt and apparently “harassed” by his mother’s ghost, Do-jin resolves to atone by releasing each of the spirits killed by the murderous custodian and solving the mystery of the body in the walls in the hope of releasing his mother’s soul so that she can move on to the afterlife and stop nagging him from beyond the grave. 

The “Guimoon” is a kind of portal open on the turn of the year by the lunar calendar. Dojin intends to venture through it assuming it will be easy enough to nix a few ghosts and then come home but soon finds himself lost in a world of uncertain time and forever looping corridors. He meant to travel to the afterlife of 1990, but his world is soon disrupted by the arrival of three university students from 1996 who really shouldn’t be here. Armed with a video camera, they are dead set on crafting their own found footage horror in the hope of winning a competition so one of them won’t have to drop out of school. For the students, this world is “real”. They entered it voluntarily and as far as they are concerned are wandering round a derelict building, not really believing it to be “cursed” or haunted in any way. But for Do-jin it’s a liminal and unreal space he has entered for a specific purpose and from which he hopes to expel those who should have left long before. 

Yet even in trying to solve the mystery, Do-jin concentrates his efforts on Seok-ho (Jang Jae-ho), the shovel-wielding custodian, taking a kind of register of the other guests while knowing little about them. He soon discovers that Seok-ho may not quite be the boogeyman he first thought him to be, realising that his sudden descent into homicidal mania may not have been of his own volition. The solution he edges towards hints at the ironically named community centre as a nexus of trauma, a nightmare world created by an entity trying to escape its suffering and finding empowerment in taking control of its oppressors. 

“I was always here” one of the lonely souls proclaims, while Do-jin and the students find themselves locked in, prevented from leaving by a literal absence of exits. While the students eventually turn against each other, seeking escape by submitting themselves the malicious evil of the entity haunting the centre, Do-jin does his best to complete his quest of vanquishing the ghosts with his shaman’s dagger but is eventually brought to a cruel realisation in a maddening series of loops and repetitions which only lead towards a door which should never be opened. In some ways frustratingly oblique, Sim Deok-geun’s eerie meta horror is an exercise in found footage psychology in which the lost wander lonely corridors while searching for an elusive truth they may already know but have perhaps forgotten. On a night between two worlds lit by a blood red moon, Do-jin ventures into a labyrinth to save his mother’s soul but comes to realise that if you walk through the door between life and death you may discover that there is no exit from existential torment.


Guimoon: The Lightless Door screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Gyeong-ah’s Daughter (경아의 딸, Kim Jung-eun, 2022)

“It’s not your fault. And it’s not mine either.” a young woman declares, finally freeing herself of internalised shame while trying to live under the oppressively patriarchal social codes of contemporary Korea in Kim Jung-eun’s quietly enraged drama, Gyeong-ah’s Daughter (경아의 딸, Gyeongaheui Ddal). As the title implies, the film is as much about parents and children and the various ways the older generation unwittingly fail the younger in mistakingly clinging to the conservative ideas that defined their own youth but bring nothing but misery to all as it is about the pervasive misogyny of the modern society. 

Pushed to the edge, Yeon-su (Ha Yoon-Kyung) exclaims that she cannot bear being Gyeong-ah’s (Kim Jung-Young) daughter sick of her overly possessive, controlling parenting along with her initial failure to support her during one of the most miserable moments of her life. As the film opens, Gyeong-ah facetimes her daughter and the pair chat cheerfully for a while even though Gyeong-ah criticises Yeon-su’s new haircut as she shows her around her new apartment showing off the cheerful lights she’s stringed above her bed. But then, the conversation takes a turn for the strange with Gyeong-ah suddenly insisting that Yeon-su prove she is alone, taking the phone to the bathroom to show her there’s no one hiding in there and then even out in the hall in the event that she knew her mother might ask. We can well understand why Yeon-su, who is a grown woman about to start her first job as a high school teacher, might prefer to keep her mother at arm’s length unwilling to take the trouble of sharing her private life with her.  

It’s this sense of distance that informs Gyeong-ah’s reaction when she suddenly receives a strange video from an unknown number and realises that it is a sex tape featuring her daughter. First of all she feels betrayed that Gyeong-ah lied to her when she repeatedly, and invasively, asked if she had a boyfriend while otherwise badgering her about not being married. But then she also feels ashamed, horrified, to see her daughter engage in behaviour that she views as somehow sordid. When Gyeong-ah confronts Yeon-su she blames her, disgusted that her adult daughter was sexually active in the first place but doubly so that she allowed herself to be filmed while doing it. 

The fact that Yeon-su knew her boyfriend, Sang-hyun (Kim Woo-Kyum), was filming and did not stop him is brought up repeatedly as if this is all her fault for being so stupid or perhaps perverse to have agreed to it. As we discover, Yeon-su broke up with Sang-hyun because he was possessive and controlling a fact he proved by continuing to harass her with relentless text messages and phone calls to which she did not respond. Eventually he turns up at her place of work with flowers and does not take well to Yeon-su’s attempt to explain that his actions are not “romantic” but have actively frightened her. As she gets into a taxi to leave, he further threatens her by giving the cab driver her address reminding her that he knows where she lives while making it clear to him that she’s his woman. “What a reliable boyfriend” the driver quips, chuckling that he probably suspects he might kidnap her. Yeon-su wisely decides to go to her mother’s instead, only to get another earful about the dangers of staying out too late alone. 

Sang-hyun’s decision to send the sex tape to all of Yeon-su’s close contacts including Gyeong-ah is another attempt to exercise control over her life as act of revenge in being scorned. A sense of patriarchal entitlement seems to surround her. When a (negative) pregnancy test is found at the school, the principal mutters about conducting some kind of witch hunt on the look out for teenage lovers adding that “girls today are shameless” as if the boy bears no responsibility or else is simply led astray by a “bad” girl who should be taught a lesson in feminine purity. Later in a cafe, Gyeong-ah hears a man remark that he’s “popular with women at work”, when he makes a move they can’t resist him. Unable to cope with rejection, Sang-hyun destroys Yeon-su’s life yet faces no consequences of his own. She can no longer bear to be looked at, distancing herself from her friends and taking a leave of absence from her job barely leaving a tiny one-room apartment and forced to pay exorbitant sums to a data security company to try and erase the video from the internet knowing it will never really be “over” because someone could always just reupload it. 

On going to the police she’s again asked if she consented to the video being filmed and told that in practice no one really gets convicted for these crimes because they just say their phone was stolen or that they were hacked. Even Yeon-su’s lawyer later pressures her to settle out of court while she’s further harassed by Sang-hyun’s otherwise well-meaning mother who is forced to realise that she’s raised such a fragile boy. Gyeong-ah in turn is forced to reckon with her maternal failures, that though Yeon-su had supported her through her abusive marriage she was not there when she needed her and in fact tried to reinforce the same oppressive social codes that caused her nothing but misery all through her life. When the report of a woman who had killed her husband after long years abuse being sentenced to a lengthy prison term plays on the television in a cafe, even Gyeong-ah’s best friend exclaims that a woman should stick with her husband no matter what unable to understand what might have motivated the woman’s actions. 

Yet Gyeong-ah continues to ask her daughter why she’s not married, forcing her into this selfsame cycle of abuse and control. The old man that Gyeong-ah looks after has several sons, yet they’ve hired a middle-aged woman to look after him while his daughter, a successful lawyer, looks in occasionally and beats herself up that she’s somehow failing in her duty of care. She explains that she didn’t want to get married, but might have liked to have children, eventually sympathising with Gyeong-ah’s dilemma and offering some free life and legal advice to an increasingly depressed Yeon-su, though Gyeong-ah had perhaps judged her implying that she was wrong to choose a career over becoming a wife and mother. Gyeong-ah is beginning to realise the mistake in her complicity, but as Yeon-su says it’s not her fault and nothing good will come of it until each of them learns to stop blaming themselves so they can move on with their lives. When Gyeong-ah finally removes the family portrait from her wall and leaves it out for the bin men, just as Yeon-su had tried to do with the remnants of her relationship with Sang-hyun, it’s as if she’s freeing herself from the outdated patriarchal social codes that convinced her she had no right to resist or claim her own agency over her life. Yeon-su has perhaps taught her a valuable lesson while rediscovering her self-confidence and fighting back against the sheer entitlement of the fragile men that thought it was their right to ruin her life by shaming her into submission. 


Gyeong-ah’s Daughter screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Emergency Declaration (비상선언, Han Jae-rim, 2021)

“Disasters are arbitrary” admits a pundit commenting on a potential air disaster, “people became victims for being in a certain place at a certain time”. “We were caught in a disaster that none of us wanted” the pilot later echoes while explaining that they have chosen to exercise what little control is left to them in making their own decision as to how they intend to deal with the hand that fate has dealt them. Han Jae-rim’s Emergency Declaration (비상선언, Bisang Seoneon) harks back to classic disaster pictures of the 1970s such as genre archetype Airport but also meditates on Korea’s place in the contemporary global order along with the rights and wrongs of exercising one’s own judgement when it goes against all practical advice. 

The disaster in this case begins with a mad scientist, Ryu (Im Si-wan), who decides to kill as many people as possible along with himself by releasing a deadly virus he tweaked to make even more lethal aboard a commercial airliner. Later it’s suggested that Ryu had some kind of breakdown after the death of his mother, also a microbiologist, who had a domineering influence on his life which does seem to play into an uncomfortable trope of blaming the mother for everything that goes wrong with a child though Ryu’s resentment is in part towards the pharmaceuticals company he claims fired him unfairly. As in many recent Korean films, a strong undercurrent of anti-Americanism runs throughout, the international pharmaceuticals company with an American CEO refusing to assist the Korean police’s inquires not wishing to admit that they illegally procured a deadly virus from the Middle East and then allowed Ryu to get hold of it illicitly. This also of course means that they are slow to grant access to a potential antidote/vaccine despite carrying both. Meanwhile, the plane is later turned back from Honolulu and prohibited from landing anywhere on US territory because of the uncertainty surrounding the infected on board. 

The plane in effect becomes a kind of plague ship that takes on additional significance during an era of pandemic. Having been rejected by the US, the plane tries to land in Japan but is also refused permission and later threatened by the Japanese Self Defence Forces who even open fire on it and threaten to shoot the plane down if it does not leave Japanese airspace. The official response is more nuanced than it had been with the Americans, a politician expressing his regret and sympathy with the people of Korea but also emphasising that their responsibility is towards the people of Japan and that as they cannot be sure the treatment will work on Ryu’s mutated variant, they cannot allow the plane to land. As the opening titles explain, an Emergency Declaration is a sacred aviation rule that means no one should be refusing them help, yet they do begging the question of what it really means if in the end the authorities can just choose to ignore it. 

But then again, it seems that not even Korea is fully onboard with accepting the plane back onto Korean soil. With news quickly spreading via social media, mass protests erupt from those who brand it a “biochemical missile” and would rather it be shot down than risk contaminating the wider population while counterprotests insist that there are many Korean people onboard and it’s only right that they be allowed to return home and be cared for by the authorities. The authorities are however torn, unwilling to admit they’re considering simply allowing 150 people to die for the greater good leaving only the Transport Minister (Jeon Do-yeon) to exercise her own judgement in arguing for the plane landing with quarantine procedures in place. 

Former pilot Jae-hyuk (Lee Byung-hun), a passenger on the flight with his little girl who suffers from eczema, is later tasked with exercising his own judgement in deciding whether to land the plane at a closer airport he feels is safer or try to hold out until the destination recommended by the authorities despite dwindling fuel supplies. The plane disaster is Jae-hyuk’s redemption arc allowing him to overcome past trauma in having made a similar decision before which led to the deaths of two cabin crew thanks to the selfishness of passengers who blocked exits trying to retrieve their luggage before escaping. One thing that wasn’t so much of an issue in the ’70s is that passengers are now able to receive information in real time via their phones thanks to onboard wireless, meaning that they learn all about the virus, the cure, and that the cure might not work independently giving rise to even more chaos and confusion and presenting a serious threat to traditional disaster management techniques. Nevertheless, they too eventually exercise their own judgement in coming to the conclusion that perhaps it is better if they choose not to land rather than risk infecting their friends and family.

The passengers on the plane do not blame those on the ground accepting that they are simply afraid. “You can’t just save yourselves” a particularly paranoid passenger is fond of saying completely oblivious to the fact that’s what he’s been trying to do with a pointless insistence in segregating the infected aboard a plane that exclusively uses recycled air only to completely reverse his thinking on hearing the plane may make an emergency landing in which case the rear of the plane, where the infected are, is safer. It is in the end a radical act of self-sacrifice by a policeman on the ground (Song Kang-ho) that paves the way to a happier solution for all but could just as easily have turned out differently. Disasters are arbitrary after all, at least as long as you aren’t the one causing them. Counterintuitively, the message may be that your government might not help you and others certainly won’t, but if you’re making your own emergency declaration you have the right to exercise your own judgement in the knowledge that either way you’ll have to answer for your decision.  


Emergency Declaration is released in the US on Digital, Blu-ray, and DVD on Nov. 29 courtesy of Well Go USA.

Clip (English subtitles)

A Lonely Island in the Distant Sea (절해고도, Kim Mi-young, 2021)

A dejected artist finds himself reconsidering his life’s choices when his teenage daughter drops out of education to become a Buddhist nun and he falls in love with a forthright professor in Kim Mi-young’s contemplative drama, A Lonely Island in the Distant Sea (절해고도, Jeolhaegodo). Though the title could easily enough refer to the hero himself, it echoes the sense of impossible longing symbolised by an island he could see but did not travel to though there was no real reason preventing him save his own feelings. In any case, the island and the day on which he saw it have become lodged in his memory as a nostalgic image of irresolvable desire. 

Now in early middle-age, Yun-cheol (Park Jong-hwan) is an unsuccessful sculptor who feels he has failed to live up to the promise of his youth and mainly earns his keep through commercial work such as crafting replicas of the solar system for a local museum. Divorced from his workaholic wife, he’s called in by his daughter Gina’s (Lee Yeon) school when they object to some admittedly disturbing artwork she had drawn on a series of roller blinds without permission. Yun-cheol is less concerned with the fact the paintings suggest that Gina is experiencing some kind of mental anguish than the school’s reaction to them, her teacher admitting that they took the blinds out and burned them. His anger is directed towards their wilful destruction of a work of art because it seemed to them more akin to vandalism or destruction of their property. Describing Gina as “mean”, they imply that they will ask her to leave suggesting that she would benefit from a different environment. In many ways that’s how Gina feels too, eventually revealing that she has decided to leave education altogether and later giving up her art to practice Buddhism. 

It’s the idea of abandoning her obvious talent that Yun-cheol struggles to understand. As a young man, he’d also considered becoming a monk or even a Catholic priest as, as he describes it, “safe paths for lost souls” if he failed to realise his ambitions of becoming an artist. Discovering that his daughter had had the same dilemma, even if she took a different path, shakes his sense of self in realising that his internal conflict was not unique. While trying to understand Gina’s desire to renounce the world, he begins to fall in love with a free spirited professor and cancer survivor but Ji-young (Kang Kyung-heon) is not prepared to wait around for him to sort himself out on his own and is quickly tired of his tendency to retreat into isolation rather than face his problems. Having learned only half a lesson, he later moves into Gina’s retreat where he is eventually asked to leave by the head nun bluntly who tells him that he is not suited for the monastic life. 

It may be that Yun-cheol exists outside of regular society because of his unusual upbringing in a mountain shack with his similarly isolated father, yet he struggles with himself and his relationship to art while seemingly unable to build lasting relationships with people as if they too were islands in a distant sea he could only gaze at from afar. He tells his daughter he would never abandon her in the way his mother had him but in a sense he might have done so in having lost the will to live amid his intense loneliness and lack of artistic fulfilment. Nevertheless, his growth comes in a kind of acceptance in acknowledging Gina’s choice to become a nun along with Ji-young’s declining heath and desire for isolation. 

When he had first met her, Yun-cheol had responded to Ji-young’s lecture about a would-be-revolutionary who did not go through with his cause by asking her why he would seek to implode the world in which he lived though this is the same thing Yun-cheol eventually does in his own mini-revolution choosing new paths in middle age whether in fear and regret or in search of possibility. A mystical meeting with a maternal wild boar helps to give him clarity though it seems he is forever destined to be a lonely island looking out at a distant sea filled with an unanswerable longing.


A Lonely Island in the Distant Sea screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Walk Up (탑, Hong Sang-soo, 2022)

“Really all of us are like that. We’re different when we go out” an older woman tries to console, ”you want to believe that the person you see at home is the real him”. The second remark may come out more cuttingly than she means it, unsubtly suggesting that really you never know anyone and the intimacy you might believe exists within a family is just a performance. The director at the centre of Hong Sang-soo’s Walk Up (탑, tab) is indeed several different people with several different women across multiple floors of a small building owned by an old friend, Mrs Kim (Lee Hye-young), with whom he repeatedly checks in across the space of several years. 

Distance does seem to define Byungsoo’s (Kwon Hae-hyo) existence. When he turns up at Mrs Kim’s the first time, it’s with his daughter, Jung-soo (Park Mi-so), whom he later reveals he had not seen for five years. Jung-soo is there trying to make a connection, hoping Mrs Kim will take her on as an apprentice interior designer having experienced a moment of crisis on leaving art school and discovering that “art has nothing to do with money”. That’s also a problem that repeatedly plagues Byungsoo. During their conversation he’s called away to a meeting with a film producer, and later reveals that a project has fallen through after the funding was pulled at the last minute. Byungsoo embarks on a small rant about the commercialisation of the film industry in which artistic decisions are overruled by investors and no one really cares anymore about whether the film is any good only if it’s going to make money. 

Jungsoo had described her father as “feminine” and “domesticated” during her early childhood before her parents’ divorce, explaining that he seemed to change after his film career took off. Where once he’d been content to spend time a home, suddenly he was out all the time partying with actresses. Jungsoo seems to regard this personality shift as a kind of betrayal, hurt by Mrs Kim’s suggestion that Byungsoo may have been repressing himself at home and the “real” Byungsoo was the one who liked to go out on the town. Then again, people can be many things at once and perhaps there’s no one “real” Byungsoo so much as there’s the Byungsoo of the moment. Sunhee (Song Seon-mi), another failed painter who now runs a restaurant on the second floor, panders to his wounded ego repeatedly telling him how much she likes his films, though mostly for the things they’re not, and that she hopes that he will go on making films for many years to come. 

But it’s obvious that Byungsoo is deeply insecure, eventually drifting into an affair with Sunhee and living with her in the second floor apartment having taken a break from filmmaking due to ill health. He bristles when she tells him she’s going to visit a friend who slighted him on a previous occasion and tries to guilt her into not going, repeatedly texting her while she’s out to a degree that seems uncomfortably possessive and controlling. Yet he eventually ends up hugging his pillow and admitting to himself that perhaps he’s no good at relationships and deep down gets along better on his own. Even so, he later ends up with a third woman, an estate agent, who brings him wild ginseng to help with his health worries while he moves up to the studenty top floor flat which while barely big enough to turn around in comes with a spacious roofgarden. By this point his relationship with Mrs Kim, who basically begged him to move in when he first visited with Jungsoo, has clearly become strained, she perhaps also a little hurt in appearing to have carried a torch for him while hinting at feeling trapped in an unsatisfying marriage as the building itself continues on a course of disrepair. 

Mrs Kim too appears to have differing personas as she shuffles between the floors of the building she owns while each of the episodes replays with only slight differences and subject to the consequences of the last. Failed artists moving to Jeju to start again becomes a repeated theme, though it’s as if Byungsoo is resisting the pattern, talking of buying a dog with Sunhee when they relocate but then putting it off for another three years while they save money. By the time he’s made it to the top floor it’s like he’s hit rock bottom, raving about a vision from God telling him to move to Jeju and make 12 films while still ostensibly on an extended break from filmmaking. Shooting once again in a crisp black and white, Hong finally brings us back to where we came in leading us to wonder how much of what we’ve just seen really happened and how much was just a kind of thought experiment created by a bored and insecure director feeling maudlin and trying to figure himself out while his career collapses around his ears. Maybe you have to go up so you can come back down, but it doesn’t seem to leave you any less lonely as the melancholy Byungsoo discovers smoking a solitary cigarette looking up at the house from outside as if trying to decide where exactly he belongs. 


Walk Up screens at Ultrastar Mission Valley on Nov. 9 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Trailer

The Novelist’s Film (소설가의 영화, Hong Sang-soo, 2022)

Once again in a meta mood, Hong Sang-soo’s The Novelist’s Film (소설가의 영화, Soseolgaui Yeonghwa) seems to be peopled by those who’ve already given up. The heroine’s friend has given up her writing career to run a small-town bookshop while she herself is struggling with writer’s block, her friend’s assistant has given up acting to learn sign language, and a movie star she later meets has apparently retired because she doesn’t feel the desire to act anymore. In similar fashion a director declares that some have perceived a shift in his career that leads him to concede that he just doesn’t feel the sense of “compulsion” that used to drive him and his work may have become freer and more authentic as a result. 

As usual, Hong may partly be taking about himself, about his relationship to filmmaking and to his muse Kim Min-hee who is herself given a meta moment when berated by the director, Park (Kwon Hae-hyo), who tells her that her decision to retire is a “waste” of her talent only to be shouted at by blocked novelist Junhee (Lee Hye-young) who is hoping to make a film in order to rejuvenate her creative mojo. Junhee tells Park in no uncertain terms that Kilsoo is not a child and if this is the choice she’s made he ought to respect it, circling back to the offensiveness of the word “waste” and its various implications. The situation is so awkward that it leads Park’s wife to leave it all together, but it’s true enough that after this outburst Junhee seems to find a more comfortable relationship with Kilsoo than with any of her old acquaintances as they bond in mutual admiration and shared creative endeavour. 

It’s with a sense of tension that the film opens, Junhee venturing into the bookshop run by an old friend (Seo Young-hwa) only overhear a heated argument between her friend and a younger assistant, Hyunwoo. As so often with Hong the nature of the relationship is unclear, the argument intimate in quality not really the kind one has with an employee or casual acquaintance and so awkward that Junhee decides to wait outside until it’s over. In any case, Junhee’s manner even with the friend she’s deliberately tracked down and come to see is somewhat accusatory and passive aggressive as if hurt by her friend’s decision to abruptly drop out of contact apparently having given up writing and intending to cut herself off from her city life in its entirety.

Her encounter with the director is similar in that she seems clearly annoyed with him, firstly pretending not to recognise his wife then accusing of them of deliberately hiding from her at a popular tourist attraction. Picking up on the vibes, he asks her if she’s still upset with him over a project to adapt one of her novels that fell through. She says she isn’t but is obviously annoyed about something while his wife elaborates on his creative process and the ways she thinks he and it have changed. Then again the wife is also a little strange, introducing herself to Kilsoo, whom they’ve randomly bumped into in a park, as someone who lives with director Park rather than as his wife answering Kilsoo’s question of how long she’s lived with him with a very matter of fact 30 years. Junhee is similarly vague about the extent of her relationship with an ageing poet and former drinking buddy (Gi Ju-bong) with whom she had herself lost touch or perhaps partially ghosted when his interest turned romantic. We hear brief snippets about Kilsoo’s personal life, an allusion to scandal and drinking problem but never see her offscreen husband, only his filmmaker nephew (Ha Seong-guk). 

Yet the the serendipitous connection between Kilsoo and Junhee allows each of them to reignite their creative spark while generating an unexpected friendship. The film novelist envisions is scripted but intended to capture something of Kilsoo as she is while ostensibly playing a character, exposing the reality of the vague relationships by cutting through artifice to the truth. In another series of meta comments, the poet reminds her she needs a hook to draw the audience in but she simply tells him she’ll figure that bit out later because the story is in its way irrelevant. “He writes what he lives” she later says of him, a little dismissively. In any case, the film she makes takes on another meta quality, Hong himself perhaps behind a camera as Kim Min-hee and another woman gather flowers eventually ending with a mutual declaration of love and a sudden burst of colour in what has been a static and monochrome affair which hints at the sense of freedom and comfort Hong like the director may have found in new artistic connection. 


The Novelist’s Film screens at Ultrastar Mission Valley on Nov. 4/7 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

US release trailer (English subtitles)

Hunt (헌트, Lee Jung-jae, 2022)

“How long can you fight violence with violence?” one accidental ally asks another towards the conclusion of actor and star Lee Jung-jae’s 80s-set directorial debut, Hunt (헌트). As the title implies, this is a story of two men stalking each other but also each ironic representatives of an ideological divide both seeking a better future while torn between violent overthrow and peaceful revolution in the dying days of a Cold War in what could be termed its ground zero. 

As the film opens, the South Korean president, a stand-in for an unnamed Chun Doo-hwan, faces mass protest from local Korean-American democracy activists on return to his hotel while on a diplomatic visit to Washington. His security team is itself somewhat compromised in that it is a joint operation between foreign and domestic intelligence teams neither of which have must trust in the other. When it’s discovered that a plot is underway to assassinate the president, foreign intelligence chief Park (Lee Jung-jae) is taken hostage but insists on capturing the suspect only for domestic chief Kim (Jung Woo-sung) to abruptly shoot him, leading Park to wonder if Kim did it to keep him quiet rather than simply to neutralise an immediate threat. Assuming North Korea is most likely behind the plot, each begins to suspect the other is a mysterious double agent known as Donglim. 

What soon becomes apparent is that the two men, the domestic and the foreign, are being pitted against each other by the questionable authority that is the Chun regime. Recently promoted from the military, Kim had in fact instigated Park’s torture in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of the previous president, also a military dictator, Park Chung-hee. Both men appear to be conflicted in their association with an authoritarian government in the wake of widespread state violence including the brutal suppression of the Gwangju Uprising in May 1980. Nevertheless, both are party to acts of torture many of them enacted on teenage democracy activists they routinely smear as communists. 

In short, no one could really blame anyone who wanted to overthrow this brutal regime but as oppressive as it is, it’s also backed by the Americans who would rather keep Chun in power than risk the students’ wishes that the American military pull out of Korea coming to fruition lest it lead to a similar situation in Okinawa, which had only returned to Japanese sovereignty a decade earlier, undermining their ongoing foreign policy goals in Asia. If there is one clear villain, aside from Chun, it’s the shady the international order that is content to watch authoritarian leaders enact violence on their people when it supports their own interests. Nevertheless, it’s also true that Park and Kim’s personal vendetta sparks major diplomatic incidents in two sovereign nations which in any other case would seem primed to turn this cold war hot.

What emerges is a cat and mouse game in which each attempts to unmask the other while on increasingly unstable ground unable even to rely on support from their superiors who in any case answer directly to Chun. It seems there are several factions who would like to unseat him even if they do not necessarily object to authoritarian rule only to persistent state violence against citizens who are more often than not mere children. The differences between Park and Kim are ideological in more ways than one, torn between the belief that only violence can free them from violence and the desire to seek a better solution but each agreeing that assassination is the only viable path to deposing Chun and ushering in a better future despite the failure of the assassination of the previous president to do the same . 

Anchored by strong performances from veteran actors Lee Jung-jae and Jung Woo-sung, the film also features a host of cameos from some of the nation’s top stars including Hwang Jung-min as a manic North Korean airforce defector and Lee Sung-min in a small but pivotal role as a Korean-Japanese asset. With notably high production values and truly astonishing action sequences, Lee excels in capturing the paranoid atmosphere of the conspiracy thriller and an almost unbearable tension between its twin protagonists who will later discover that they are quite literally on the same bus even if they have very different destinations in mind. 


Hunt screened as the opening night gala of this year’s London East Asian Film Festival and arrives in UK cinemas/digital on 4th November courtesy of Altitude Films.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)