Svaha: The Sixth Finger (사바하, Jang Jae-hyun, 2019)

The thing about prophesies and the prophets who proclaim them, is that they only have power if people choose to believe in them. “Faith” can become a convenient cover for those who’d rather not explain themselves, a mechanism for manipulating sometimes vulnerable people looking for a greater truth or a purpose in their lives. Svaha: The Sixth Finger’s (사바하) dogged pastor is intent on investigating religious crimes and exploiting spiritual charlatans but he of course has his own agenda, that mostly being that he’s keen to get money off his clients who are in turn hoping to bolster their authority by rooting out “heresies”.

Leader of the Far Eastern Religious Research Institute, a kind of religious detective agency employing only himself, an undercover assistant, and a “deaconess” secretary, Pastor Park (Lee Jung-jae) makes his money flagging up dodgy and/or exploitative practices connected with organised religion. According to him, freedom of religion is “overly” protected, and he is alone on the frontlines of a spiritual war against unscrupulous cultists. Though some kind of protestant, he often works for/against the Catholic Church and is good friends with a Buddhist monk who gives him a tip off about a weird sect he can’t get a handle on, Deer Hill. 

Meanwhile, a young girl, Geum-hwa (Lee Jae-in), explains to us that she was born with an “evil” twin clamped to her leg. The twin wasn’t expected to survive, but is still living with Geum-hwa and her family who keep her locked up in a shed like a beast. Rightly or wrongly, Geum-hwa connects her sister with the deaths of her parents which occurred fairly soon after the children were born. Her grandfather, with whom Geum-hwa now lives, never even registered the birth of a second child out of fear and shame, never expecting her to survive this long. When a truck hits a bridge and exposes the hidden body of a murdered teenager, the police start investigating too, eventually leading them to two young men loosely connected with the shady Buddhist cult. 

“This world is one big muddy mess”, according to the cultists at Deer Hill. It’s not difficult to see why people might be looking for spiritual reassurance in such a chaotic world, but it’s exactly that need that places like Deer Hill may be seeking to exploit. Nevertheless, the only thing that Park’s undercover agent turns up is that there doesn’t appear to be anything untoward. Deer Hill doesn’t accept offerings from its members and even gives money away to the needy. Tellingly, the real nitty gritty to Park’s clients is in doctrinal deviation, they only really want to know what kind of Buddhism it is that they do and if it’s in line with broader teachings of the faith. 

A further tip off leads them to the mysterious Je-seok (Jung Dong-hwan), a legendary Buddhist priest who studied in Japan but apparently devoted himself to the Independence movement and is said to have achieved enlightenment. Je-seok’s teachings are dark in the extreme, “Pain is the fruit of faith” goes his mantra, “pain purifies your blood”. He believes that he is the “light” that will conquer the “darkness” by snuffing out “snakes”. One of his disciples, brainwashed as a vulnerable young man and encouraged to do terrible things in the name of good, begins to doubt his teachings when confronted with a possible hole in his logic and the very real human cost of his strategy. 

Not quite as cynical as he seems, Park retains his faith. It’s ironic that all this is taking place at Christmas and centres on the prophesied birth of a child that threatens someone’s sense of personal power. Unlike most, Park has always regarded Christmas as a “sad” holiday, unable to forget that Jesus’ birth was accompanied by the mass murder of innocent baby boys. He wonders where God is now and why he permits these things to happen. Park has faith that God sent Jesus into the world for the greater good, but Je-seok has convinced his followers that the same is true of him, that he has come to banish the darkness and that all their pain and suffering is fuel in a holy war. Their faith has been redirected and misused for the benefit of a false prophet, while his opposite number has been made to live a life of bestial misery solely because of superstitious prejudice. The police is a fairly irrelevant presence in this series of spiritual transgressions, but there is much less clarity to be had in “truth” than one might hope with “faith” the only solution in an increasingly uncertain world.


Svaha: The Sixth Finger is currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories).

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Sister’s Garden (姉妹의 花園 / 자매의 화원, Shin Sang-ok, 1959)

In melodramas of the post-war era, the good suffer nobly but often find their goodness ill rewarded by an increasingly amoral society. Shin Sang-ok’s A Sister’s Garden (姉妹의 花園 / 자매의 화원, Jamaeui Hwawon) is, perhaps, a little different despite its rather mild critique of a society preparing to head into rampant capitalism, allowing a magnanimous entrepreneur to become the pure hearted saviour of an equally pure woman while her weak willed lover remains petulantly on the sidelines unable to defy outdated social codes to claim his right to happiness. 

In fact, this is in many ways Mr. Bang’s (Kim Seung-ho) story. It’s him we first meet getting off a swanky Korean Air plane signalling his position as a member of a new class of jet-setting elitists. He is, however, kindhearted which is why his first thought is to pay a visit to Dr. Nam (You Chun) who cured him of a serious illness. Unfortunately, Dr. Nam has now been laid low by the same illness himself. His business has suffered, he’s sold his clinic, taken a job at the hospital, and even mortgaged his house to a persistent loanshark. Unfortunately, all the stress has got to him and soon after Bang is able to meet with Dr. Nam he collapses and dies, breathing his last words to his assistant, Sun-cheol (Kim Seok-hun) who had been like a son to him, to the the effect that he has already arranged a marriage for eldest daughter Jeong-hui (Choi Eun-hee) to an artist named Dong-su (Nam Gung-won) and hopes that Sun-cheol will watch over his younger daughter Myeong-hui (Choe Ji-hui) and much younger son Chang-sik (Ahn Sung-ki). 

This last request will cause a series of problems among the young, the first of them being that it’s extraordinarily insensitive because Sun-cheol is himself in love with Jeong-hui who is also in love with him. Both of them are, however, good people which is why Sun-cheol wastes no time telling Jeong-hui about her father’s last words while she is minded to obey them even if her primary concern is the family finances seeing as she is now the sole provider for her siblings and there will be no more money coming in. With the loanshark still breathing down their necks, Jeong-hui is in danger of losing the family home. 

The other major problem is Myeong-hui who unlike her sister is a thoroughly modern woman, thoughtless and selfish in a childish sort of way. Unaware of the family’s financial situation, she hoped to use some of the money from selling the clinic to open a dress shop and is put out to realise there isn’t any because the clinic was only sold to pay off debts. Meanwhile, it’s also quite obvious that Dong-su, an equally naive son of a wealthy family, prefers Myeong-hui and almost certainly intends to marry her not her sister. Dong-su thinks he’s hot stuff in the art world and is going to make a lot of money selling paintings, which is optimistic whichever way you look at it. 

This awkward love square creates a series of problems of its own as Myeong-hui convinces herself that her sister is jealous of her relationship with Dong-su while also knowing that she has been silently in love with Sun-cheol for many years. Sun-cheol, for his part, feels himself indebted to the Nams and allows the debt to come between himself and true entrance to the family through marrying Jeong-hui. He saves their house through selling his own, but times being as they are Jeong-hui still needs to find a job which is another problem because she is an upper middle-class woman raised for marriage. She gave up school to keep house after her mother died and has no qualifications, even if qualifications could help a woman in need find a good job in 1950s Seoul. She asks Bang for help, and he offers her a frankly insulting opportunity as the head hostess at a sleazy bar he owns where businessmen go to have discreet fun without their wives. 

Jeong-hui wasn’t going to take it, but in the end she has little choice, allowing the married Myeong-hui and Dong-su to move into the house to look after Chang-sik while she lives at the bar. Sun-cheol, still afraid to speak his heart, is judgemental and filled with resentment, entirely unsupportive of Jeong-hui’s position or her proactive decision to try and change it even if changing it means hovering on the fringes of the sex trade. Myeong-hui also, perhaps because of her selfishness and naivety, fails to understand the sacrifices her sister has made on her behalf. Worried that Myeong-hui and Dong-su may have re-mortgaged the family home that she is actively debasing herself to save, Jeong-hui asks her sister to reassure her that the deed to the house is safe. Myeong-hui had been thinking of doing just that so she fires back cruelly that Jeong-hui has everything “easy” and can’t understand how hard it is for her, which is a strange thing to say given that Jeong-hui has become a bar girl solely to keep a roof over her sister’s head. 

Myeong-hui and Dong-su continue to make mistakes, Dong-su convincing his friend to embezzle money from his company to plough into the dress shop even though it’s a loan they can’t repay and threatens to get them all in hot water. Jeong-hui has to sort everything out again, but that puts her in further debt to Bang to whom she is already substantially indebted because he convinced her to take a loan to pay back Sun-cheol who didn’t even really want paying back. Uncharitably, Bang’s behaviour looks suspect. He makes a prim upperclass woman degrade herself by plunging her into the sleazy underbelly of a burgeoning economy and then burdens her with debt to be able to manipulate her better. Perhaps he gets a kick out of that, but soon feels guilty seeing someone who so obviously does not belong in one of his bars forced to drink with clients and play nice with the customers. On the other hand, perhaps there really were no better jobs available for a woman without qualifications and he only wanted to help. 

Ultimately, Bang turns out to be the good guy, falling in altruistic, selfless love with the innocent Jeong-hui who always does the right thing and acts with absolute integrity. Debt, once again messes everything up. Bang decides to propose to Jeong-hui, which practically speaking is a good option in the situation, but makes it clear that he is not forcing her and will continue to help and support her whatever she decides. But how is Jeong-hui to refuse someone who has been so “kind” to her without a sense of betrayal? Sun-cheol, meanwhile, is prevented from declaring his feelings because of the “debt” he feels he owes to the Nam family, not quite good enough for Jeong-hui but also the custodian of her father’s last words which were that she should marry Dong-su. Myeong-hui and Dong-su meanwhile think only of themselves, acting with selfish recklessness. Only when Jeong-hui comes through for Myeong-hui and tells her of Bang’s proposal does she begin to grow up and realise that her sister may throw away her own happiness for the sake of her family’s in marrying a rich old man out of a sense of hopelessness and obligation. 

Contrary to other melodramas, the solution is Bang’s and Bang’s alone. He makes the decision to release the youngsters from patriarchal control by essentially canceling out Dr. Nam’s last wishes by telling Jeong-hui that she should try to be happy with Sun-cheol while giving her the financial means to do so by gifting her the bar to run as her own, making her both business owner and career woman as well as wife. He absents himself in recognition that age has to give way to youth, pushing the youngsters to pursue personal happiness rather than serve outdated ideas of duty or filial obligation. Jeong-hui’s goodness wins out, but only because it was recognised by Bang who decides to set her free by cancelling not only her literal debt, but the entire idea of indebtedness in giving her permission to seek her own happiness rather than feeling obliged to prioritise that of others. 


A Sister’s Garden is the third of three films included in the Korean Film Archive’s Shin Sang-ok’s Melodramas from the 1950s box set. It is also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Dongsimcho (동심초, Shin Sang-ok, 1959)

The Korea of 1959 was one of change, but the hardest thing to change is oneself and oftentimes the biggest obstacle to personal happiness is the fear of pursuing it. The pure hearted heroine of Shin Sang-ok’s Dongsimcho (동심초) describes herself as “a woman who thirsts for love, yet foolishly gives in to fear first”. A war widow, she’s fed up with society’s constant prejudice but too afraid of what they might think if she chose to choose love, embrace her desire, and marry again for no other reason than personal happiness. Yet for all that she’s a mother with a grown up daughter, she’s a woman too, and young, only 38, but nevertheless consigned to a life of loneliness because of a series of outdated social codes. 

When we first meet Suk-hee (Choi Eun-hee) she’s rushing to the station but arrives too late and can only watch the man she loves board a train through an iron gate that perpetually divides them. Her husband having died in the Korean War, Suk-hee once had a dress shop but was conned out of all her money and the business failed. The kind hearted brother of a friend, Sang-gyu (Kim Jin-gyu), helped her out. Through the course of his managing her affairs, they became close and fell in love, but Sang-gyu is now engaged to the boss’ daughter, Ok-ju (Do Keum-bong), and their romance seems more impossible than ever. 

Suk-hee never quite dares to hope that Sang-gyu might break off his engagement, decide against a bright middle-class future, and start again with her. She’s an old fashioned kind of woman. Despite the fact she once owned a dress shop, she only ever wears hanbok and lives in an improbably spacious Korean-style house alone with her college student daughter, Kyeong-hee (Um Aing-ran), and a maid. The debt that exists between herself and Sang-gyu is the force that both binds them and keeps them apart. The money rots their relationship, but neither of them want it to be repaid because then they’d have no more excuse to continue meeting. They are both perfectly aware of each other’s feelings but entirely unable to acknowledge them because in some sense they already know that their future is impossible. 

On discovering her mother’s “secret”, Kyeong-hee is mildly scandalised, confronted by the realisation that a mother is also a woman just as she is now. She worries about the moral ambiguities of her mother’s position and of what people might say, but quickly reconsiders, deciding to be happy for her and actively support her chances of a happier future. As a younger woman coming of age in the post-war era, Kyeong-hee feels freer to shake off social convention and strike out for personal happiness rather than being content to be miserable while upholding a series of social codes which lead only to additional suffering. 

Only slightly younger than Suk-hee, Sang-gyu is beginning to feel the same. His widowed older sister, Suk-hee’s friend, has turned to religion to escape her loneliness while staking all of her hopes on Sang-gyu’s economic success. It’s she who’s set him up with the marriage to Ok-ju and is pressuring him to accept it because it will assure her own future seeing as she is obviously not planning to defy convention and remarry. Sang-gyu, however, is filled with doubts. Eventually he tells his associate, Gi-cheol (Kim Seok-hoon), that he cannot go through with the marriage, adding that he doesn’t want advice or a warning he merely needed to tell someone. In a strange coincidence, Gi-cheol was once Kyeong-hee’s tutor, and has a surprisingly conservative attitude. Questioned by Ok-ju, he tells her to “act more lovingly” to cure Sang-gyu’s obvious lack of enthusiasm for their relationship, explaining that love doesn’t just happen but is a result of concerted effort. He tells Sang-gyu that he’s being childish and irresponsible and should think about “social ethics and morality”. In short, he should forget about the past and marry Ok-ju like a good boy. But Sang-gyu quite reasonably asks him who’s going to be responsible for what happens after that. If he marries Ok-ju now, he will merely be condemning her to a cold and loveless marriage filled with intense resentment in which the spectre of the woman he loved and lost will always stand between them. 

Kyeong-hee unexpectedly arrives part way through the conversation having followed Gi-cheol with whom she has perhaps also begun to fall in love despite the difference in their attitudes. She jumps in to defend Suk-hee, taking Sang-gyu’s side in berating Gi-cheol for insulting her mother, asking if he thinks a woman like her has no worth. Her mother is a woman too, and though she was originally confused and scandalised, after getting to know Sang-gyu and giving it some thought she’d like to give them her blessing though of course they don’t need it. Kyeong-hee is still young enough to fight for love, and the world in which she lives gives her the courage to believe it might be possible. 

The generation gap between herself and her mother, who it has to be remembered is only 38, cold not be more obvious. Suk-hee struggles against herself. She loves Sang-gyu, but the world tells her that it’s wrong and she must deny her feelings for the sake of social propriety. She can’t stand the way people look down on war widows, and she’s too afraid to give them any more ammunition. Given the relative mildness of the sanction on their relationship, in moral terms at least, it would be easy enough to read it as a metaphor for something else, especially with the repeatedly pregnant dialogue about the pain of not being permitted to marry the person that you love, that no one has the right to judge others for their personal lives, Sangyu’s sister’s aside about being “one of those people”, and finally Sang-gyu’s rather strange confession to Ok-ju that he “may have a personality disorder” in being unable to give up on his love for Suk-hee. It is definitely the case, however, that the gate that stands between them is a rigid an unforgiving society which denies love in fear of disrupting the social order.  

Suk-hee feels guilty not only for her feelings, but feeling as if she’s getting in the way of Sang-gyu’s bright and rightful future. Meanwhile, no one seems to give much thought to poor Ok-ju, used as a pawn by all while pinning for Sang-gyu despite her conviction that he’s in love with someone else and will never truly be with her. Even Gi-cheol implies it’s her own fault not being “loving” enough, while she is left with nothing but sympathy for Suk-hee as another woman forever separated from Sang-gyu because of what other people think. This world is not, it seems, entirely ready for love. Suk-hee makes the “right” choice by many people’s reckoning, one filled with nobility and self sacrifice, yet it’s a choice that becomes increasingly impossible to accept and stands only in stark condemnation of the society which convinced her that misery was virtue. 


Dongsimcho is the second of three films included in the Korean Film Archive’s Shin Sang-ok’s Melodramas from the 1950s box set. It is also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

A College Woman’s Confession (어느 女大生의 告白 / 어느 여대생의 고백, Shin Sang-ok, 1958)

Five years after the end of the Korean War, South Korean society was both economically unstable and battling the increasingly authoritarian government of Rhee Syngman. Nevertheless, there was perhaps an aspiration for a brighter democratic future which many hoped would materialise after the protests which eventually brought down Rhee’s regime in 1960 but unfortunately led only to the even more repressive Park Chung-hee era. Released in the same year as Flower in Hell, Shin Sang-ok’s A College Woman’s Confession (어느 女大生의 告白 / 어느 여대생의 고백, Eoneu Yeodaesaengui Gobaek) is perhaps a reflection of that aspiration in its broadly humanist condemnation of an inherently unfair, rigidly patriarchal society which forces good people to act in ways which offend their sense of justice solely in order to survive. 

From a poor family, law student So-young (Choi Eun-hee) finds herself in dire straits after her grandmother who’d been supporting her and paying her tuition fees suddenly dies. She tries to find a part-time job that will let her carry on with her studies, but is either turned away or placed in difficult situations with men who abuse her trust. A sleazy boss interviewing her for a secretarial position pauses after hearing she’s a student after part-time work to suggest a “night job”, crudely leaning over as he offers her money to become his mistress. So-young slaps him across the face and leaves, but faces something much the same from the husband of her landlady who promises to stop pressuring her for the back rent in return for sexual favours. She turns him down too, but even though he backs off in fear she’ll tell his wife that he tried it on, his suddenly relaxed attitude only makes her landlady suspicious. 

At her wits end and about to quit school, So-young turns to her comparatively better off friend Hee-sook (Kim Sook-il) who dreams of becoming a novelist. Hee-sook brings up a diary she’s been reading that was found in some old furniture sold to her family’s store which recounts the sad life story of a girl who was seduced and betrayed by a man who left her to marry a wealthy woman. With too much time on her hands, Hee-sook has identified the man in the diary as prominent politician Choi Rim (Kim Seung-ho) and taken it upon herself to send him a letter telling him that he has a daughter named So-young from the love of his youth. Despite the fact that the diary says the woman’s baby died, Hee-sook suggests So-young pose as Choi’s long lost daughter so he’ll support her through the rest of uni. So-young is not convinced, but finds herself heading over to visit Choi after exhausting all her other options and being reluctant to go back to the boarding house without money. Choi absentmindedly turns her away, only to think better of it and send his secretary after her, but she ends up getting hit by a car trying to avoid yet another creepy old man who sees her in distress in the street and offers her money for sex. 

Creepy men are indeed everywhere. Even the wily Hee-sook finds herself bothered by an unpleasant man in a cafe who repeatedly pesters her even after she makes a point of ignoring him and pointedly switches seats. He doesn’t give up even after So-young arrives, abruptly offering to buy both women dinner, after which Hee-sook ushers So-young out declaring that this cafe is too “weird” to stay in any longer. Men are, it seems, content to exploit the desperation of vulnerable women for their own satisfaction. As So-young puts it in trying to defend another woman after she’s successfully become a lawyer, “vulgar men see women only as objects to satisfy their sexual desires”. 

This feeds back in to the sin the otherwise kindhearted Choi is trying to expiate. He made a choice in his youth, sometime in the colonial era, to abandon a woman he claimed to love to make a dynastic match. Though it’s not clear whether or not he knew there was a child, he seems to harbour a deep sense of guilt over his decision to essentially use two women in different ways. Faced with the “resurfacing” of So-young, he immediately explains everything to his wife (Yoo Gye-seon) but tries to pass it off as “all in the past” while earnestly asking her to help him make amends by accepting So-young into their home in place of the daughter they apparently lost. She fires back at him that it must be very convenient for men who can forget about things that are “all in the past” while women have to live the rest of their lives with the harm that they cause. Choi doesn’t argue with her, but nor does he ask for forgiveness, only understanding. Mrs. Choi answers that she ought to tell him no in revenge for the all the wrongs he’s done her (this appears not to be a terribly happy marriage), but agrees that it’s not So-young’s fault and so of course she can come because “it’s the right thing to do as a human being”. 

Mrs. Choi, however, remains suspicious, unconvinced by So-young’s story but also by her distance from her. That could of course be explained by embarrassment in being the child of the “other woman”, but Mrs. Choi is right to sense guilt in her reserve as she becomes ever more conflicted about the necessity of deceiving people who have been nothing but kind to her. It’s this sense of guilt which is intensified after she becomes a lawyer and achieves her dream of helping other disadvantaged women by defending a single-mother, much like the woman from the diary, who was seduced and betrayed by a man whom she later killed in a crime of passion. In her passionate defence of the extremely repentant Soon-hee (Hwang Jung-seun) is who is around the same age as she is, So-young reflects on the relative similarities between them and that the only reason they are standing in their respective positions is circumstance. 

“The purpose of the law is not only punishment but to awaken goodness in all our hearts” So-young reminds the judges, determined to offer “an earnest plea on behalf of desperate women”. Soon-hee admits her guilt and asks for no leniency, but is brought to tears as So-young outlines the social factors which explain why she found herself stabbing the man who had caused her so much suffering and then got on with his life without giving her a second thought. Her only transgression being sex before marriage, Soon-hee did everything else right but was condemned to a life of poverty and forced to consider sex work in order to buy medicine for her sickly baby. As a pure hearted woman, she can’t go through with it and considers robbery instead (apparently a “lesser” crime) only to bump into an old friend but be too ashamed to ask her for help. 

Earlier on, after her graduation ceremony, So-young had explained her ambitions to help women and children in poverty to Choi’s kindly secretary Sang-ho (Choi Hyeon) who has obviously taken a liking to her. He’s broadly supportive, but reminds her that if she wants to improve society perhaps she should think about fostering greater social change through political action (as he is perhaps doing), but she shakes her head and points out that he’s never known what it is to be hungry or desperate and that there are people who need the kind of help that only she can give them, such as women like Soon-hee. Yet in defending another woman she’s reminded only of her own “sin” in having wilfully deceived Choi and his wife, burdened by the need to keep her secret and convinced the only thing she can do is to confess all. 

Yet Mrs. Choi proves unexpectedly supportive, explaining that she’s known all along that So-young lied and has come to love her as a daughter anyway. She can see how happy she makes Choi who is proud and excited to have such an amazing young woman in his life, and finding out the truth would only break his heart. So-young’s confession would be for herself alone, to ease her own conscience, while the burden of carrying this secret is perhaps the price of her happiness. In an odd way, So-young has repaired their marriage, and with her success in the courts has perhaps completed the integration of their family with the implication that Sang-ho may later join it too. Fiercely condemning the evils of a patriarchal society, A College Woman’s Confession suggests that the literal truth might not be as important as the emotional, and that a rigid morality serves no one, while offering the vision of a brighter, more equal society founded on compassion and understanding rather than cold authoritarian paternalism. 


A College Woman’s Confession is the first of three films included in the Korean Film Archive’s Shin Sang-ok’s Melodramas from the 1950s box set. It is also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Sunshine Family (Kim Tai-sik, 2019)

Sometimes it’s easy to lose track of what’s really important while chasing illusionary success, but you’ll remember soon enough if you hit a crisis. So it is for the members of the “Sunshine Family”, the Mapalads currently living overseas in Seoul where dad works for a travel company. The Mapalads are finally preparing to move back to Manila with a house already paid for, but when dad has an accident in his car it throws all of their plans into disarray. Yet in needing to come together to combat adversity, the family is in a sense repaired as they each come to appreciate each other for who they are while remembering that they have a collective responsibility. 

That “accident” occurs one Christmas while dad Don (Nonie Buencamino) is driving home after a work/leaving party. He’s had a little bit too much to drink and is distracted by a phone call from his boss when a woman suddenly jumps out into the road and collides with his car. Don is obviously upset, hugging the oversize snowman plushie he was travelling with for comfort as he stops to check on the woman who he is certain is either dead or at least in a very bad way. Frightened of getting into trouble he drives off and leaves her, calling his dependable wife Sonya (Shamaine Buencamino) for support. 

Sonya, understandably unamused, berates her husband for never having cared enough for his family. If only he hadn’t spent so much time drinking with colleagues, playing golf, and singing karaoke, he might not have got himself into this kind of mess. Sonya hijacks a passing forklift truck and shifts the damaged vehicle into their home through a window, planning to dismember it to hide the evidence of Don’s transgression so they can all go home together as planned. 

As in most family dramas, it’s Sonya who has a plan and is determined to ensure the survival of the family. Unlike the 1992 Japanese comedy Hit-and-Run Family which apparently inspired the film, the Mapalads are strangers in a strange land though they’ve also become estranged from each other while Sonya feels increasingly unappreciated seeing as her kids are growing up and her husband is always working. As Don later points out, the crisis gives her a new sense of purpose as she formulates a series of ingenious plans to cover up Don’s crime. “Nothing is important if we’re not together” she tells him. Family means leave no man behind. 

Don, meanwhile, is forced to confront a potential failure of paternity. It is indeed he who has endangered the integrity of his family through his carelessness, but he’ll also have to admit that he’s been neglecting his responsibilities in a mistaken belief that bringing home the bacon is all that’s required of a “good father”. He hasn’t noticed that his wife is lonely and unhappy, or that his children each have secrets of their own. His waking up to all of those facts is a gradual, not always positive process, but eventually leads him to realise that it’s time for him to be a “real” father which obviously means recommitting to his family. 

In perhaps a change from the norm, that’s also true for the kids who need to rediscover a sense of solidarity and acceptance in the family unit. Oldest and now grownup daughter Shine (Sue Ramirez) has been secretly dating a Korean policeman (Shinwoo), which presents a dilemma now that the family is set on moving back home. She’s worried her conservative father might not accept her new love, but the situation is of course further complicated by the ongoing crisis and his proximity to law enforcement. Meanwhile, little Max (Marco Masa) has been caught wearing lipstick at school. Sonya doesn’t understand why that’s a problem but the school seem to think it’s not appropriate and might cause offence to other pupils. Always keen to support her kids, Sonya puts on her Wonder Woman outfit to tell Max that it’s OK to be different, and in any case his family will always love him no matter what, while also doing her best to react to her daughter’s romantic crisis in a broadly supportive manner. 

In fact, the family also end up adding an additional member in the form of the old grandpa from next-door (Han Tae-il) who has mild dementia and keeps wandering off because his daughter-in-law (Park Se-jin) isn’t very invested in looking after him. Eventually, everyone is wearing overalls and helping to dismantle the car, a symbol of the empty consumerism which has divided them. Don, meanwhile, is torn about the best way to serve his family – do the “right” thing and turn himself in, or continue covering up his crime so they can all go home to the Philippines together. In predictable fashion, the crisis resolves itself with the help of benevolent law enforcement, while even the nosy neighbour from next-door seems like she might have learned some lessons about familial bonding or at least be about to move past a crisis of her own. Thanks to their brush with crime, the Mapalads have rediscovered the meaning of family and can finally go “home” at last. 


Sunshine Family was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Way Back Home (비밀의 정원, Park Sun-joo, 2019)

Can you ever really “move on” from trauma, or do you simply have to learn to live with it? The heroine of Park Sun-joo’s Way Back Home (비밀의 정원, Bimil-eui Jeong-won) thought she’d made peace with the past by trying her best to forget it, but an unwelcome intrusion reminds her that it’s not only the echoes of something terrible that happened to her when she was very young that shaped her life, but everything that happened afterwards. Now preparing to move into a new phase, she realises that in order to start a new family she’ll have to repair her fractured relations with the old. 

As a high school student, Jeong-won (Han Woo-yun) was abducted and raped by a stranger who was never caught. 10 years later, she’s in her mid-20s and is preparing to move into a family home with her husband, Sang-u (Jun Suk-ho), a carpenter who works with her uncle (Yoo Jae-myung) and aunt (Yum Hye-ran) in their studio while she also has a job as a swimming instructor. The couple are currently trying for a baby, but Jeong-won recently had a miscarriage and fears that the assault may have affected her ability to bear a child despite the doctor’s assurances that there is nothing medically wrong. Then, she gets an unexpected phone call from a detective in her hometown informing her that they’ve had a hit on the DNA from her case and think they’ve caught the man who raped her but need her to come in and verify a few details. 

Not really wanting to revisit the past she’d convinced herself she’d moved on from, Jeong-won ignores the policeman’s calls but after he contacts her mother (Oh Min-ae) and turns up at her door, alerting Sang-u, she has no choice but to face the matter head on. Sang-u is understandably blindsided, not quite sure how to deal with this very sensitive new information, wanting to be there for his wife but frustrated that she doesn’t seem to want him involved. He tries to talk to her about it, but she flatly explains that it’s not something she’s prepared to discuss with him. 

Intellectually understanding that his wife needs space, Sang-u can’t help but feel shut out, hurt that Jeong-won doesn’t feel comfortable allowing him into this extremely vulnerable space. Jeong-won begins to pull away, pretending that everything’s fine, getting on with packing for their move as if nothing had happened. Meanwhile, he begins to piece things together, realising that her past trauma must have something to do with her strained relationships with her mother and So-hui (Jung Da-eun), the younger sister she always seems to be reluctant to see. 

The traumatic event in itself is not the central source of Jeong-won’s suffering but the sense of rejection she felt from her family along with an internalised shame. Jeong-won’s mother sent her to live with her uncle and aunt because she thought it might be easier to move on in a different environment, but all Jeong-won felt was that her family no longer wanted her around. Jeong-won’s aunt thinks the reason she doesn’t want to see So-hui, who is around 10 years younger and therefore around the age she was at the time of the attack, is resentment in feeling that her mother sent her away to protect her younger sister from the social stigma of being involved with a case of sexual assault, but as might be expected the situation is far more emotionally complex than anyone is able to intuitively understand. 

So-hui, meanwhile, is also hurt, travelling to the city on her own to make sure her sister is alright because she isn’t answering her calls. Fearing rejection, Jeong-won distances herself from Sang-u, mourning the relationship she had with him which was founded partly on the fact he didn’t know and therefore existed in world in which the assault had never happened. She resents being worried over because other people’s concern only reminds her of her victimhood. During his summing up at the trial, the prosecution lawyer argues that Jeong-won’s life stopped in 2008 while her attacker went on living guilt free, leaving her to suffer alone. Jeong-won might not quite agree with that assessment, she thought she’d moved on and lived an otherwise happy, normal life despite the terrible thing which happened to her, but if she wants to move forward she will indeed have to face not only the source of her trauma but the familial fracturing which followed it, finding the way back home through emotional openness and understanding along with a willingness to be vulnerable in a place of safety.


Way Back Home screens on March 11/15 as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Introduction to the film by director Park Sun-joo from the Busan International Film Festival (activate English subtitles from the subtitle button)

Yellow Ribbon (당신의 사월, Ju Hyun-sook, 2019)

On 16th April, 2014, a ferry en route from Incheon to Jeju Island sank taking the lives of 304 passengers many of whom were high school students on a school trip. The Sewol Ferry Disaster went on to have wide-scale political ramifications, eventually feeding into the discontent with the government of Park Geun-hye who, it was discovered, had been uncontactable for seven hours during the height of the crisis, later refusing to account for her whereabouts. Ju Hyun-sook’s documentary Yellow Ribbon (당신의 사월, Dangsin-eui Sawol) is, in some senses, usual in that it follows not those directly bereaved by the tragedy but those caught on its edges, ordinary men and women who find themselves haunted by national trauma. 

What each so clearly recalls is the sense of helplessness that they felt as bystanders watching from the shore. All of them believed the passengers would be rescued, no one envisioned a tragedy unfolding, and so they were lulled into a false sense of security by the media’s mistaken reports that everyone had been saved. Fisherman Lee Ok-young was among the first to realise that the information being given out by the media was incorrect when he sailed out towards the ferry and saw the shadows of those trapped inside. In fact, many of those who were rescued from the wreck were saved by good samaritan boats who came to help, Korea’s coastguard didn’t show up until 40 minutes later. Ok-young is, however, among the most directly affected, later finding the body of one of the students caught on a rope he was using for seaweed farming. 

Ever present in the background, usually taking photos, is the young woman’s father – a constant reminder of the scale of the tragedy. It was dignity of the families which first struck Park Cheol-woo, the owner of a coffee shop in Korea’s political centre near the presidential residence of the Blue House. Hearing that the families were due to make a visit, he felt very strongly that they must be protected. Jung Ju-yeon, a woman in her 50s working in human rights education, felt something much the same and decided to participate in the protests alongside the bereaved parents in a show of solidarity. 

The government, meanwhile, continued to pursue its authoritarian line allowing pundits to brush off the disaster as no different from a traffic accident while trying the shame the protestors into silence. Hoping to blacken his name, the conservative press discredited a hunger striking father by bringing up the fact he was divorced, as if lying the tragedy at his own feet in an attempt to deflect the government’s responsibility for the failure to protect the children. The sense of abnegated responsibility is something which continues to weigh on teacher Jo Su-jin who finds herself meditating on the selfless teachers who sacrificed their lives trying to save their students. She wonders what she would have done in their position, reflecting on the choices which must have passed through their minds knowing that they too had family waiting for them.  

Park Cheol-woo wishes he could forget, but is haunted by the spectre of the tragedy, as is the husband of Jung Ju-yeon who was hired to create a series of illustrations and forced to relive the pain and suffering of all who were involved. The weight of indignation eventually fed into the Candlelight Protests which ultimately brought down the government of Park Geun-hye but the feelings of helplessness have not dissipated because justice has not been served and too many unanswered questions remain. There are no explanations for the confluence of circumstances which allowed the tragedy to happen, nor for the failure of authority which proved itself incapable of protecting its citizens.

Yet there are signs of hope. Lee Yu-kyeong was a high school student herself when the tragedy occurred, watching helplessly on a TV screen as hundreds of other kids just like her lost their lives. They trusted the authorities to protect them and they did as they were told, but the authorities let them down. Lee Yu-kyeong is now an archival studies student, hoping to contribute by honouring their memories, making sure they are never forgotten so that nothing like this ever happens again. Yellow Ribbon is a document of national trauma, but also perhaps of healing as those touched by tragedy attempt to look forward by building a safer society founded on a sense of mutual protection. 


Yellow Ribbon screens in Amsterdam on March 6/8 as part of this year’s CinemAsia Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Introduction by director Ju Hyun-sook from the Busan International Film Festival (activate English subtitles by pressing subtitle button)