A Boy and Sungreen (보희와 녹양, Ahn Ju-young, 2018)

A boy and sungreen poster 1Figuring out who you are is a normal part of growing up, but if you start to suspect that parts of the puzzle have been kept from you it can become an even more complicated business. The hero of Ahn Ju-young’s delightfully charming debut A Boy and Sungreen (보희와 녹양, Boheewa Nokyang) thought he was doing OK. Maybe he worried that he was a little bit weedy and resented being picked on by the snooty kids at school, but he always had his good friend Nok-yang (Kim Ju-a) to hide behind and she always had his back. Realising that his mum (Shin Dong-mi) may have a new romance on the cards entirely destabilises his worldview, sends his anxiety into overdrive, and reawakens a series of as yet unresolved abandonment issues resulting from losing his father at a young age.

What Bo-hee (Ahn Ji-ho) discovers on “running away” to visit a woman he kind of remembers might be his half-sister, is that his mother might have lied to him and the father he thought was dead might actually still be alive. Together with his best friend Nok-yang, he resolves to investigate and find out if his father is still out there somewhere, if he still thinks of him, what sort of man he might be, and, crucially, why he chose to abandon his son. Still upset with his mother and childishly resentful, Bo-hee avoids going home and installs himself at his “half-sister” Nam-hee’s (Kim So-ra), an air hostess who turns out to be a cousin temporarily taken in by Bo-hee’s mum when she ran away from home as a teenager, where is he is cared for by her surprisingly supportive boyfriend Sung-wook (Seo Hyun-woo).

Tellingly, Sung-wook is also an orphan with no family, raised in an orphanage with no parental models yet easily slipping into a positive paternal role. Both Bo-hee and Nok-yang are being raised in single parent families, Bo-hee believing until recently that his father had died, while Nok-yang lost her mother in childbirth and lives with her salty grandma and distant father. In conservative Korean society they each experience a degree of stigma for not having the “full” complement of parents with some of the snooty kids at school even assuming that’s why they’re friends, but the pair largely rejoice in each other’s company and have learned to pay them no mind.

Meanwhile, Bo-hee is experiencing strange anxiety-like attacks which eventually turn out to be something more serious, but neatly underline his intense adolescent confusion. Finding out his mother has a boyfriend not only forces him to confront his father’s absence, but also deepens the sense of anxious rootlessness he feels as someone without an extended family network. As Nok-yang somewhat insensitively puts it, what if the boyfriend turns out to be an “evil stepmother” and pushes him out of his family home, where will he go then? That kind of thinking is what leads him to track down Nam-hee, “certain” that she won’t turn him away because, he believes, they share the same father.

Despite maintaining an intense belief in the power of blood connection, Bo-hee remains distrustful of the idea of family and uncertain in his own identity. Even his name, which is really just “Boy” like the unnamed protagonist of a young adult novel, bothers him in that is uncomfortably close to slightly rude word, not to mention being somewhat unusual. Nok-yang has an unusual name too, but hers has a lovely, if sad, story behind it about her dad seeing rays of sunshine through the trees on the way home from the hospital and deciding to name her after that, whereas Bo-hee’s seems to be random. Thanks to his quest to track down his dad, Bo-hee finally comes to understand the meaning behind his name and accept himself for himself rather than longing to be just like everyone else.

Like all small children, Bo-hee thought everything that happened in his life was somehow his fault, that his dad left because of something he did or that there was just something wrong with him that his dad couldn’t love. What he realises is that his father’s decision was his father’s and nothing to do with him. It wasn’t his fault that his father left and there is nothing about him that means anyone else in his life is likely to leave without warning. In a roundabout way, looking for his dad helps to rebuild a sense of the family he didn’t think he had, becoming more secure in his relationship with his mother, bonding with Sung-wook and Nam-hee, and remembering that whatever happens he and Nok-yang will always be there for each other.


A Boy and Sungreen was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Bedsore (욕창, Shim Hyejung, 2019)

bedsore posterFamily is supposed to be about mutual responsibility, according to oldest daughter Ji-soo, but in a culture as fiercely patriarchal as Korea’s, there may be differing interpretations of what “responsibility” entails. Shim Hyejung’s A Bedsore (욕창, Yokchang) uses the titular ailment as a metaphor for the festering wounds at the centre of familial relationships, an irritating and potentially dangerous pressure ulcer born of something sitting too long in the same place unaddressed and unresolved. Intensely lonely and unable to connect, the family members struggle with the demands of what it means to be a family and find themselves more often than not guilty and resentful in their filial obligations.

Grandma Gil-soon (Jeon Gukhyang) is bedridden following a cerebral haemorrhage and largely unable to communicate though obviously very much present. The family has hired a live-in carer/housekeeper to look after her as well take care of the domestic tasks because retired patriarch Chang-sik (Kim Jonggu) is a traditional sort which means he’s entirely unable to fend for himself. The trouble starts when Mrs Yu (Kang Aesim) discovers Gil-soon has a nasty bedsore on her back. Rather than deal with it himself, Chang-chik rings his daughter Ji-soo (Kim Doyoung) to come and look in on them, but despite her obvious distress in worrying that perhaps her mother is not receiving proper care and may be in pain, she is also dealing with a moody teenage daughter and a husband who may be having an affair. She wonders why her dad always calls her and not her brother Moon-soo (Kim Jae-rok) or his wife. And then there’s the golden boy middle brother Yong-soo who was the apple of his father’s eye but has made a mess of his life and is currently living as an undocumented migrant in America after doing a midnight flit.

The most obvious problem in the Kang household is that Chang-sik is a product of his times. He does almost nothing to care for his wife and fully expects that a woman will take care of it and him. When there is a problem, he summons Ji-soo and/or his daughter-in-law, never his son, and expects them to take over. He cannot cook or clean and “requires” a woman to fulfil those functions for him so that he can live like a man. This attitude has perhaps contributed to his ongoing confusion regarding Mrs Yu with whom he is on friendlier terms than might be wise for someone who is technically an employee. Somewhere between authoritarian father and jealous suitor, he grows resentful towards her for going out on her days off and irrationally irritated when he realises she may have a boyfriend, eventually leaving Gil-soon on her own to spy on Mrs Yu in a quiet bar where she likes to go dancing.

Though we might initially feel sorry for Chang-sik because he seems so incredibly lonely now that he can no longer communicate with his wife, he quickly loses our sympathy as we realise that it is largely self-pity and that as lonely as he might be, it must be so much worse for Gil-soon who is often left all alone in her room with no stimulation though we can clearly see that she is present and able to engage with the world around her. Mrs Yu does her best to look after her, but is not a trained carer just someone in desperate need of a job. Being an undocumented Korean-Chinese migrant worker also places her in an awkward position with the miserly Chang-sik who, while not a bad man or abusive employer, does perhaps think he has more leverage to exploit her because of her precarious immigration status. We wonder what Gil-soon’s married life must have been like, and if Chang-sik thinks of her as an individual or merely as a woman to be swapped out and replaced now that she can no longer serve him, especially when he announces a bizarre plan to divorce his wife and marry Mrs Yu to make her a legal citizen and ensure she stays in the household.

That particular bombshell obviously does not go down well with the kids, particularly Ji-soo on whom most of the additional burden of care has fallen. She tries to reason with her dad, but he doubles down on the patriarchal norms, telling her it’s all her fault for not pulling her weight as a daughter while she quite reasonably reminds him he had three children but expects her drop everything and sit by her mother’s bedside 24/7. Like her parents and Mrs Yu, Ji-soo is also lonely even within her own family, pushed out by her teenage daughter who keeps bringing her “friend who is a boy” home to play, and her husband who keeps “working late” and takes private phone calls from a young woman. Meanwhile, Moon-soo’s wife does her best to keep the peace between her husband and the father with whom he so obviously does not get on. Though he feels sorry for his mother, Moon-soo seems to be over this whole family thing and ready to sever ties, but that doesn’t stop the couple having a mini panic about the inheritance if their dad goes ahead and marries Mrs Yu after their mum passes away.

The bedsore becomes a metaphor for all the pent up pressures involved with living in a patriarchal social system which expects women to shoulder all domestic burdens. Even Mrs Yu is only working abroad because her husband in China had a stroke and her son can’t find work so she needs to send money home while someone else looks after her grandson. Chang-sik’s first reaction to Ji-soo’s suggestion that perhaps it might be time to think about putting Gil-soon into a home where she can be cared for properly is to ask “what about me?”, not outraged by the suggestion that he is failing in the duty of caring for his wife or seriously concerned for her welfare, but selfish and self-involved. In the end, Chang-sik will discover his house is full of smoke from a fire that’s been smouldering all these long years and dissipating it may take more than merely opening some windows to let it all air out.


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

Short interview with director Shim Hyejung from the Jeonju International Film Festival.

Youngju (영주, Cha Sung-duk, 2018)

Youngju poster 1In the midst of a changing society, the Korean family has come increasingly under the microscope. Where festival favourite Last Child took a pair of grieving parents and saw them unwittingly bond with the boy involved with their own son’s death, Cha Sung-duk’s sensitive indie debut Youngju (영주) finds an orphaned young woman turning to the man who caused the accident which killed her parents in search of some kind of reparation but unexpectedly discovering him to be good and kind if carrying his own burden. Yearning for the warmth of family, she wonders if it would be alright to leave the past behind and embrace this new chance of togetherness, but the truth will out and once known may make her bright new future an impossibility.

19-year-old Youngju (Kim Hyang-gi) lost her parents five years ago and, despite being a minor under Korean law, is the legal guardian for her 15-year-old brother Youngin (Tang Joon-sang). She’s given up her schooling to do a host of part-time jobs in order to support the pair of them while hoping to save for Youngin’s college education, but she’s also being hounded by a domineering aunt who keeps trying to sell the family home out from under her more it seems out of a sense of greed and entitlement than concern for the kids’ wellbeing. Alternating between telling Youngju she needs to take more responsibility and shutting her down by instructing her to “leave these things up to the adults” the aunt is a problematic presence in the kids’ lives leaving them technically not without family but deprived of the support that Korean society expects a family to provide. On a car ride home, Youngju’s aunt tells her to give up and think of her as a mother, only for Youngju to snap back that she’s no longer a child and has no need of a one. The aunt’s “have it your own way” attitude implies she’s made the right decision, but young as she is Youngju can’t know that it doesn’t matter how old you are, everyone still needs a mother at one time or another.

She begins to find one in an unexpected place after hitting rock bottom when Youngin falls in with a bad crowd and gets himself into trouble. As he’s underage, the matter can be settled with a fine, but the kids don’t have that kind of money and Youngju’s attempts to get it lead only to humiliation and betrayal. Resentful of her circumstances, she decides to track down the truck driver who fell asleep at the wheel and caused the traffic accident that killed her parents, hoping to take some kind of revenge by somehow making him pay. Once there she ends up getting a job in their family-run tofu shop where the man’s wife, Hyang-sook (Kim Ho-jung), takes to her immediately with maternal warmth even jokingly referring to her as her younger daughter with a regular customer while delighting in cooking up extra meals for to take home and share with her “family”.

Of course, what Hyang-sook doesn’t know is that Youngju has no family other than Youngin who is trapped in youth detention until she can get the money to get him out. Though the relationship between the siblings is understandably close because they have no one else, it’s also fraught with difficulty and confusion, Youngin feeling guilty and resentful of his older sister’s sacrifices on his behalf, wondering if she’s ashamed of him for not being more help and for constantly getting into trouble. Youngju, meanwhile, keeps her new work family a secret, merely telling her brother that she got the money she needed from her boss rather than their horrible aunt, replying to his question about why anyone would lend them money out of the goodness of their hearts with only “they’re good people”.

The Kims are indeed “good people”, despite whatever preconceptions Youngju might have had about them. Hyang-sook is good and kind, practicing true Christian values of love and forgiveness. Realising that Youngju meant to steal from them, she simply gives her the money because she can see that she’s a “good kid” and seems to be in some kind of desperate difficulty with which she’d like to help her. Hyang-sook takes the melancholy young woman to her heart like a daughter, but Youngju remains uncertain that her forgiveness could extend to the extent of her lies if she knew the real reason she arrived in their lives. Increasingly guilty, she finds herself feeling that she needs to tell the truth but knowing that if she does the fragile sense of family she’s found with the Kims may be irreparably broken. 

Under the Kims’ influence, Youngju encourages her brother that he too needs to try to be better, that they should try “live a better life”, but he understandably feels betrayed by her desire to look for family somewhere else, rejecting their parents’ memory and siding with the architect of all their misfortune. Having made peace with her own tragedy, Hyang-sook may say there’s no point blaming anyone but obviously feels a deep-seated sense of vicarious guilt that for all her pity may make it impossible for Youngju to return to that same level of intimacy as daughter unconditionally loved and supported by kind and forgiving people. In the opening scene, Youngju jokingly asked her brother which of their parents he’d most like to bring back and picked her dad because he was going to take them to a theme park, but it’s grief for her mother(s) that finally overwhelms her, convincing her perhaps that now she really is alone. Even so, the sun rises again and we get the impression that Youngju will be alright in the end, walking sorrowfully off towards a “better life” but perhaps resolved to doing so with no one by her side.


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Back from the Beat (내가 사는 세상, Choi Changhwan, 2018)

Back from the Beat still 2Artists have a complicated relationship to the earning of money. Some might feel that it’s only right to be “starving”, that if you’ve managed to support yourself through your art or even a regular side job, you must be doing something wrong. All of which ignores the fact that starving is very unpleasant and continually worrying. How can you make your best art when you’re hungry and frightened of losing the roof over your head? The hero of Choi Changhwan’s Back from the Beat (내가 사는 세상, Naega Saneun Sesang) has learned not to sweat the small stuff but is forced to realise that he may have been somewhat complicit in his own lack of success even if the realisation brings him little more than additional misery.

Minkyu (Kwak Minkyu) is a middle-aged man trying to make it as a DJ. He works as a delivery driver in the afternoons and as a barman in the evenings at a hipster music cafe where the owner occasionally lets him take the stage. Meanwhile, his girlfriend, See-eun (Kim See-eun), is an aspiring artist who currently works at an art school preparing high school students for exams.

The trouble begins when both Minkyu and See-eun begin to feel pressure from their respective bosses. Minkyu, a happy so lucky sort of guy, isn’t the type to pay much attention to his final salary so he’s confused when another driver tells him he thinks they’re being diddled because his records and the money he’s been getting don’t match. After a few calculations, Minkyu realises he’s out as much as $70 but isn’t quite sure what to do about it. He doesn’t want to think his boss is a bad guy and is sure it must be a mistake. He’d probably let it go to not rock the boat (much to his girlfriend’s consternation) but his friend wants to fight and Minkyu finds himself swept along with him. The boss says the difference is for “insurance” but when a driver gets injured he’s told there isn’t any – he’ll have to cover his own medical costs and is even liable for replacing the damaged equipment. Smelling a rat the guys visit a labour lawyer and ask their boss to sign a proper employment contract which turns out to be a big mistake. “Freelance” contractors aren’t employees, after all, and so the guys get sacked with no legal protections in place to help them.

Meanwhile, See-eun’s snooty boss Jiyoung (Yoo Jiyoung) has taken against Minkyu and repeatedly tells her to dump him. By any standards this is hugely inappropriate considering Jiyoung is speaking as a boss and not as a friend, poking her nose into See-eun’s private life which is none of her business. The school is continually shorthanded and lacking in students so Jiyoung gets See-eun to supplement artwork for exhibitions, often with short notice and for no additional pay, even sometimes rejecting the finished pieces and demanding they be redone. Matters come to a crunch when Jiyoung announces that she’s taking on new staff, but See-eun will be getting demoted with a significant salary cut because the new teacher has a degree from a university in Seoul which she feels is more “appropriate” for Se-eun’s current position.

Despite her criticism of Minkyu’s naivety, See-eun doesn’t fight back either. Or at least, she begins to fight back but an embarrassing incident eventually sends her the other way. See-eun also finds herself subject to the artist’s dilemma in that she’s continually pressured by the owner of Minkyu’s bar to draw their posters for which he generally “forgets” to pay her. Despite Minkyu’s loyalty towards him, Jihong (Park Jihong) is not well liked and seems to have a reputation for shady conduct and improper labour relations. See-eun wants Minkyu to get Jihong to sign a proper performance contract but he thinks it’s unnecessary because they’re “like brothers”.

Time again, the lines between friend, colleague, boss, and competitor are manipulated to get powerless dreaming youngsters like Minkyu and See-eun to play along in a system which constantly misuses them. In a land where any vague statements about improving working conditions can see you branded “commie” and dismissed, there is little hope out there for those just wanting to survive in order to facilitate their art or greater purpose. A melancholy portrait of the modern starving artist, Choi Changhwan’s feature debut finds little to be optimistic about in world of inescapable exploitations and impossible dreams.


Back from the Beat was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

The Land of Seonghye (성혜의 나라, Jung Hyung-suk, 2018)

Land of Seonghye posterA rapidly developing economy dangles the promise of social mobility, but like a hamster turning endlessly inside an empty wheel, the prize is often unattainable. The young men and women at the centre of Jung Hyung-suk’s The Land of Seonghye (성혜의 나라, Seonghyeui Nara) are caught in an endless struggle of bureaucratic trials, perpetually stepping over each other trying to get one more foot on the ladder to corporate success only for something to catch them by the ankles and pull them back down again. For the unlucky youth of modern Korean society, there may be no way out of its relentless demands other than to retire from the game entirely.

29-year-old Seonghye (Song Ji-in) lives a hand to mouth existence working two part-time jobs – one in a convenience store and the other delivering newspapers. Too tired to sleep, she knocks herself out with tranquillisers and mostly subsists on expired produce from her convenience store job. Meanwhile, she’s taking classes at cram school, trying to improve her TOEIC score, and chasing interviews at corporations in the hope of scoring a permanent position. A health scare underlines the fact that things can’t go on as they are, but there are only two other choices open to Seonghye – give up and go home to work in her parents’ restaurant, or marry her similarly troubled boyfriend Sanghwan (Kang Doo) which necessarily means he gives up on his civil service dreams and gets a regular job somewhere else.

When we first meet Seonghye, she’s sitting alone in a park watching the surreal action of the other visitors rocking back and forth on the exercise swings. Motion without direction seems to accurately sum up Seonghye’s way of life. At 29, she’s facing the facing the prospect that it’s already too late. On the old side for an entry level position, she’s been struggling to secure key interviews but she thinks there’s another reason she isn’t being selected. Some years previously, she’d achieved her dreams with an internship at a major company but she quit before it ended. The reason she left was familiar enough – sexual harassment at the hands of the boss. She reported it. It was ignored. She went to the police and they did nothing. None of the other women backed her up and the working environment became so uncomfortable that she was forced to resign. Working in the convenience store, Songhye runs into an old colleague who reveals that her lecherous boss got a big promotion and is well on the way to mainstream success. Such is life.

Seonghye’s former colleague seems happy enough with her corporate existence, perhaps a little self absorbed and insensitive, not spotting just how uncomfortable Seonghye is with being exposed at her “humiliating” part-time job. Seonghye lies out of embarrassment and tells her former officemate that this is her family’s store and she’s just helping out while she prepares to study abroad. She tells the doctor that she’s a graduate student, too ashamed to admit she’s drowning in the seas of “hell Joseon” all while her solicitous parents remind her she can always come home though doing so feels like accepting defeat from which she might never recover.

Seonghye is far from alone in her troubles. Many of her university friends are in a similar situation, mostly unemployed or in continuous cycles of unpaid “opportunities” which never pay off. Suicide hovers on the horizon as a prideful solution to the impossibility of their lives while others embrace the cruel individualism of the capitalist society, accepting that you will need to betray your friends if you’re going to get ahead. Seonghye doesn’t want that. She doesn’t want to get ahead by throwing bodies to the wolves but the world keeps conspiring against her and soon not even this sort of no life existence will be viable.

Later, Seonghye gets an unexpected windfall for the most terrible of reasons. She has no idea what to do with the money – it is a significant amount, it might be enough to live on frugally (and alone) for a number of years. Should she invest her money wisely and live simply for the rest of her days or keep on running herself into the ground trying to attain corporate success and the social status that goes with it? Seonghye makes her decision. Suddenly her motion has direction once again. She smiles for the first time in a long while, shrugging off the burdens of an oppressive society and embracing her own freedom in the face of its relentless drive.


The Land of Seonghye was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Hit the Night (밤치기, Jeong Ga-young, 2017)

Hit the Night posterFollowing her impressive, Hong Sang-soo inspired debut Bitch on the Beach, Jeong Ga-young returns with a similarly structured exploration of modern relationships though now in a suitably fuzzy colour rather than Bitch’s artful black and white. Once again, Jeong plays a meta version of herself – this time a writer/director ostensibly researching a screenplay but perhaps obfuscating her true motives even as she makes visible her innermost anxieties for her invisible audience.

Hit the Night (밤치기, bam-chi-gi) follows Ga-young (Jeong Ga-young) as she takes a young man, Jin-hyeok (Park Jong-hwan), out on the town. The pair have dinner together, but they aren’t a couple, or even really friends – Ga-young has bought Jin-hyeok’s time on the pretext of interviewing him to get background information for a screenplay she is writing. Jin-hyeok wants to be helpful and has committed to answering Ga-young’s questions as frankly as possible. Her questions are, however, extremely personal from the outset as she begins asking him about his masturbation habits almost before they’ve even sat down. As the night wears on and the drinks keep flowing, Jin-hyeok begins to smell a rat, wondering why it is Ga-young is so interested in his sex life when it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the various screenplays she outlines to him. Ga-young is indeed trying it on, her pretext of “research” a mere ruse and means towards seduction.

It has to be said that the situation is indeed creepy and Jin-hyeok has every right to be upset and offended, especially as he has repeatedly made clear to Ga-young that he has a girlfriend and is not interested in her. If Ga-young were a man taking a young woman out for dinner, plying her with drinks, asking increasingly suggestive and inappropriate questions and all on false pretences she would not be looking very good at all (much, indeed, like a classic Hong Sang-soo hero), not to mention the fact that money has already changed hands.

Nevertheless, despite his irritation Jin-hyeok decides to stay, progressing to a karaoke box rather than simply going home only to leave abruptly after palming Ga-young off on a lonely friend. Despite Jin-hyeok’s slightly underhanded machinations, there is less calculation and a clear possibility for genuine feeling between Ga-young and the other man, but she remains too fixated on her failed conquest and the idealised, unattainable fantasy romance to take a chance on an organic connection with a cheerful guy who likes movies and has his own well developed life philosophy.

Jeong’s approach is meta in the extreme – she repeatedly tells us the ongoing arc of the movie by referencing other movies while also reinforcing her intentions by foregrounding the various ideas for screenplays which Ga-young describes to Jin-hyeok. Her movie titled “Best Ending Ever” ironically has no ending while its hero aims to make a film in which all the characters speak their own fates in a conclusion that “won’t leave you hanging”, but real life is never quite so neat and there are no clean cut, narratively satisfying conclusions to be had in a “film” which is still ongoing.

Ironically enough, unlike the heroine of Bitch on the Beach, Jeong’s screenwriter makes a performance of control she never quite possesses, ceding ground to the earnest Jin-hyeok as he picks her up on her unethical practices and makes frequent attempts to reflect the inappropriate questioning back on her. Ga-young finds herself on the back foot, trying to manipulate Jin-hyeok into abandoning his principles and betraying his girlfriend even as her mask of unflappable frankness begins to slip. Yet Jin-hyeok, even if remaining steadfast in his moral goodness, finds himself captivated by Ga-young’s surprising candour while perhaps more ambivalent about her unusually predatory behaviour. With her short hair and plain, boyish clothes Ga-young adopts an aggressive, “male” persona, pursuing rather than being pursued, and using all of the same tactics that would generally be used against her only for Jin-hyeok to punch a hole through her artifice and expose the very insecurities it was designed to mask.

Not done with her meta messaging, Jeong “ends” on a Days of Being Wild inspired epilogue in which she meticulously dons her chosen persona before setting off to meet Jin-hyeok. This is a film without an ending because in its end is its beginning. Ga-young finds herself running in circles pursuing unrealistic ideals destined to end in frustrated defeat while ignoring the various “realities” which present themselves to her as she sets her sights on the “best ending ever” rather than the emotionally satisfying conclusion.


Hit the Night was screened as part of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival and will also be screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival on 6th November 2018, 6.30pm at the ICA where director Jeong Ga-young will be present for a Q&A.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Tiger in Winter (호랑이보다 무서운 겨울손님, Lee Kwang-kuk, 2018)

Tiger in Winter poster“Life just keeps getting harder” sighs a weary policeman charged with extracting a coherent statement from an accidental hero who only wants to talk about a tiger. Lee Kwang-kuk’s third feature, A Tiger in Winter (호랑이보다 무서운 겨울손님, Horangiboda Museoun Gyeoulsonnim), is in some ways a more conventional exercise in comparison with the time bending reflexivity of his earlier work, but the journey he takes us on is similarly circular as a melancholy young man finds himself chased out of his natural habitat and cast adrift, outside of his comfort zone too resentful to crawl back into a familiar cage but too afraid to embrace his freedom. 

On the day a tiger escapes from the zoo, Gyeong-yu (Lee Jin-wook), a failed writer, “loses” his day job and has to temporarily vacate his apartment because his girlfriend’s parents are coming to visit and she evidently hasn’t told them she is “living in sin”. Gyeong-yu offers to stay and meet them, but bristles when his girlfriend wonders if he’s ready to make a firm a commitment. He packs and leaves, planning to return in a few days’ time when the coast is clear. Decamping to a friend’s place, Gyeong-yu continues his night “job” as a designated driver which brings him into contact with an old girlfriend – Yoo-jung (Ko Hyun-jung), who is also a writer and apparently successful but suffering from an extended bout of writer’s block and has descended into a self destructive spiral of alcohol fuelled existential desperation.

After reconnecting with Gyeong-yu, Yoo-jung pulls down a book he once gave her from her well stocked bookcase – a Korean translation of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway’s hero fights his age as manifested in a powerful marlin and dreams of youth in the lions of Africa. The film’s English title, “A Tiger in Winter”, is perhaps a mild pun on “The Lion in Winter” which again tells of a once proud old man struggling to deal with his bodily decline, only Gyeong-yu is still young even if he feels himself diminished and brought low by life. Unlike the old man, he has stopped fighting and accepted his defeat. He no longer writes and flounders aimlessly, running away from the things that frighten him without aim or purpose. The loosed tiger is a manifestation of the fears Gyeong-yu refuses to fight which render him both physically and artistically impotent.

Writing, or perhaps art of any kind, becomes its own kind of vice – a dangerous addition, a need which must be sated or displaced without which the rest of life remains hollow. Unable to satisfy her need for creation, Yoo-jung has crumbled under the pressure of her own expectations and retreated into the comforting world of the permanently tipsy even whilst knowing that the alcohol itself inhibits her ability to create and forever separates her from that which would make her whole. She wants to stop, throws away her soju, but can’t move past her inability to face herself and resolve her creative doubts. Yoo-jung wants the quick fix, and like any addict, she is past caring about the harm she might do to herself and others in the pursuit of it.

Gyeong-yu, meanwhile, almost wallows in his degradation as he allows himself to be belittled by the customers who call for his services and insist on treating him like a servant. Designated driving doesn’t seem like a particularly safe arrangement for either party – many of Gyeong-yu’s customers are extremely drunk and willingly allowing a man they don’t know to drive them somewhere in their own car while they are barely conscious, while conversely many refuse to pay or accuse Gyeong-yu of damaging the car while berating him for acting in an insufficiently humble manner. Yet it’s not humiliation that knocks Gyeong-yu out of his stupor but trauma and a direct confrontation with someone else’s despair.

Tigers lurk everywhere, though when Gyeong-yu finally learns to look his in the eye it’s a very cute and non-threatening sort of tiger which perhaps makes him feel foolish for having evaded it for so long. Lee may not be playing with time in his usual fashion, but he sends Gyeong-yu retreating into the past all the same in an attempt to hide from his fears only to discover you can’t walk backwards into the future. An exploration of the destructive power of the creative urge, the soul crushing inertia of artistic block, and the continuing rootlessness of a life lived in flight, A Tiger in Winter is another beautifully poetic character drama from Lee whose world weary optimism loses nothing in its seeming simplicity.


A Tiger in Winter was screened as the final teaser for the London Korean Film Festival which will open on 1st November with Microhabitat. The full programme for this year’s event is now available on the official website – tickets on sale soon!

International trailer (English subtitles)