#Alive (#살아있다, Cho Il-hyung, 2020)

Is solidarity really the answer to alienation? The latest in a short line of zombie-related crisis movies, Cho Il-hyung’s oddly prescient #Alive (#살아있다, #Saraitda) presses directly into what it means to live in a time of isolation as its already introverted hero discovers the existential dread of true aloneness, orphaned by his society and quite literally surrounded by cannibalistic threat only to rediscover the desire for life in the company of others vowing to survive not out of obligation but individual will. 

A young man in his 20s, Jun-u (Yoo Ah-in) lives at home with his parents and seems to be a virtual shut-in not quite supporting himself as a pro-gamer/vlogger. He ought to be in his element when he turns on his television one day to discover that a violent riot has apparently erupted all over the city, apparently spreading like a virus which causes aggressive behaviour and cannibalistic frenzy. Unfortunately, Jun-u’s parents left early that morning and didn’t have time to prepare food, leaving him money to go out for groceries but obviously it’s too late for that now and it looks like they won’t be coming home. Jun-u is entirely alone, and all the more so when his usual lines of communication are cut. 

Like the thematically similar EXIT, with which #Alive shares its faith in mountaineering, #Alive concerns itself less with the zombie threat than with youthful alienation and a sense of hopeless despair. Jun-u ought to be in his element, but finds himself ill-equipped for surviving the apocalypse given that he lacks basic adult life skills and those he does possess are now ironically unhelpful. Resourceful as he is, he remembers a smartphone app that would help him communicate via FM radio and all he’d need would be a standard earphone jack only all his earphones are wireless. Making the most of his unstable connection he uploads a single photo of himself holding his address written on the side of a cardboard box with the hashtag #I_MUST_SURVIVE to his Instagram in the hope that someone will see him but becomes increasingly despondent as his food and resources dwindle and he receives a disturbing voicemail which suggests his family may not have escaped the disaster. 

Hitting rock bottom he considers taking his own life but is saved by a literal light in the darkness, a laser shone from an opposing apartment signalling another presence he had previously missed. Believing he was alone in the world, Jun-u lost the will to live and faced with the prospect of waiting to starve to death or venturing out among the zombie hoards chose the only agency available to him in deciding the time and manner of his death. Realising he is not alone restores his desire for life, yet Yu-bin (Park Shin-hye), though much more well prepared, is also dealing with her own trauma in the face of crisis in the memory of a climbing fall that leaves her additionally anxious and fearful of physical risk. Where Jun-u flounders, lamenting as so many of us has in recent years, that no one seems to know what’s going on, the news continually flashing the same info screen while telling viewers only to stay home, Yu-bin has constructed a mini fort complete with a series of booby traps perhaps content in her independence having resolved to live and glad to have discovered she is not entirely alone. 

In contrast to disaster movie tropes, the pair instantly bond in their shared bounce back from despair, developing unconventional means of communication while Yu-bin willingly shares her food stash which in turn gives Jun-u the courage to venture outside for supplies. Eventually reuniting they do their best to withstand the zombie hoards, standing in as they are for the various anxieties which otherwise surround and oppress them, only to find themselves betrayed, worried that perhaps they have after all been abandoned and that no one is there looking out for them. Their salvation lies in their connection, the derided social media proving a lifeline that both affirms their existence and restores a sense of community that returns their safety, airlifting them from the locus of despair finally #Alive and returned to the world secure in the knowledge that they are not alone.

Netflix trailer (English subtitles)

Stateless Things (줄탁동시, Kim Kyung-Mook, 2011)

“We looked everywhere for a place for us to stay, but we could not find it anywhere” one of the twin heroes of Kim Kyung-mook’s indie drama Stateless Things (줄탁동시, Jooltak Dongshi) confesses. As the title suggests, Kim’s eventually surrealist drama follows those who no longer have a home and are instead condemned to wander the margins of an unforgiving city. Finding only loneliness and exploitation they long for an escape and perhaps find one if only in a moment of eclipse. 

Shooting in a more naturalistic, documentary style, Kim first focusses on the figure of Jun (Paul Lee), a young North Korean refugee who lost his mother in the crossing and his father to another woman in Busan. He works in a petrol station but is treated with disdain by his boss who has his eye on his female colleague, Soon-hee (Kim Sae-Byuk), who is a member of the Korean minority in China where most of her family reside. Though originally hostile towards each other, each wary of their mutual isolation and concurrent vulnerability, the pair later bond in a shared resentment of their boss who exploits Jun physically for his labour and seeks to exploit Soon-hee sexually. After each saving the other from the nefarious boss, the pair have no choice but to go on the run taking in a series of tourist spots while looking for another place to settle. 

Meanwhile, across town, a young gay man, Hyun (Yeom Hyun-Joon), is a virtual prisoner in the home of his wealthy, married and closeted lover. He looks out across the midnight city and dances sadly alone in a luxury apartment in the sky while occasionally venturing out to meet other men, mostly older, who similarly only intend to exploit his body. “You have nowhere to go.” the exasperated Sung-woo/Sung-hoon (Lim Hyung-Guk) insists, thrown into jealous anxiety on visiting the flat and finding Hyun absent, yet he cannot really offer him a “home” and is all too aware of the transactional nature of their relationship. Though Hyun is also in a sense “stateless”, he has a power over Sung-woo and is able to wield his youth and beauty like a weapon if one he may not fully be able to control. In any case, he too is excluded from the mainstream society by virtue of his sexuality and socio-economic background. 

When Soon-hee and Jun visit a temple, he remarks on the incongruity of seeing a painting that features both a sun and a moon. She explains a folktale to him in which sun and moon are embodiments of siblings who climbed a rope into the sky to escape a hungry tiger. In his diary, Hyun also envisages a pair of twins one opening a door with his right hand as the other closes it with his left. In the surrealist sequence which closes the film, after a title card that appears 90 minutes in, the two men blur into one another as if they shared the same soul in an almost literal eclipse of the self. Kim nevertheless characterises them as sun and moon who cannot ordinarily share the same space. Jun occupies a world of street level sunniness until the light finally begins to dim leaving him alone in a dusky, rain-soaked city. Hyun meanwhile lives by night in his high rise apartment, a prisoner of luxury who flirts with danger for a sense of escape. 

Then again we might ask if Jun and Hyun are two sides of one whole, a sun and moon protecting the king who finds himself an exile. Kim shifts to scenes of emptiness, rooms without presence and streets without life as if the two men were ghosts of themselves hovering above a rootless Seoul, the sense of eeriness only deepened by Kim’s lengthy takes as he follows Jun walking a lonely path towards nowhere in particular because in the end he too has nowhere to go. Departing from the realism with which the film opened, the final sequence gives way to a kind of rebirth if only one of wandering that leaves its heroes at the mercy of a society continually unwilling to recognise their personhood. 

Stateless Things screened as part of this year’s Queer East .

Trailer (English subtitles)

King and the Clown (왕의 남자, Lee Joon-ik, 2005)

The feudal order conspires against everyone from minstrel to king in Lee Joon-ik’s Shakespearean historical epic, King and the Clown (왕의 남자, Wang-ui Namja). The Korean title might translate to the equally ambiguous “The King’s Man”, but in any case invites the question of who it is that is the “king” and who the “clown” though in practice it might not matter because their roles are to a degree interchangeable. Nevertheless, a minstrel’s attempt to transgress class boundaries eventually leads to tragedy but also perhaps defiance in his seizing of the little freedom that is given to him. 

The oppressiveness of the system is emphasised in the opening text which explains the historical background and reveals that the king of this story was considered a tyrant, though also thought to be sensitive and intelligent, while permanently damaged by the early death of his mother who was forced to take her own life because of machinations in the court. The King (Jung Jin-young) himself rails at the system complaining that he has no real power and is largely unable to overrule the advice of his courtiers who remain loyal to his late father and simultaneously force him to obey the rule of a man who is already dead. In this internecine feudal society, not even the king is free. 

This might in a sense explain his tyranny, borne both of an anxiety over the precarity of his rule (the text also reveals that he was deposed by his courtiers shortly after the film concludes) and is otherwise engaged in a kind of frustrated boundary pushing. At heart, he is a wounded and petulant child. His eventual decision to participate in the clown show put on by Jang-saeng (Kam Woo-sung) and his troupe of jesters hints at his mental instability and growing inability to discern reality from fantasy, or to a point perhaps there is no true “reality” for a king and so the distinction no longer matters as there is no real difference for him between a man “dying” in a play and dying for real. 

For Jang-saeng, however, there is a difference. He and his brother-in-arms Gong-gil (Lee Joon-gi) are technically on the run after Gong-gil ended up killing their manager to defend Jang-saeng who had tried to protect him from exploitation in being pimped out as a male sex worker to earn extra money for the company. It’s Jang-saeng who hits on the lucrative opportunities of satire after teaming up with three other minstrels in the capital and hearing tales of the King’s scandalous sex life. This obviously gets him into hot water with the authorities, though Jang-saeng talks himself out of trouble by convincing conflicted courtier Cheo-seon (Jang Hang-seon) to allow them to perform before the King who actively enjoys being mocked and brings the clowns into the palace to entertain him at his pleasure causing a further rift with his conservative courtiers who do not enjoy having their dirty dealings exposed through bawdy street theatre. 

The repeated visual motif of the tightrope emphasises the fine line Jang-saeng is walking as a commoner in the court. Cheo-seon had hoped their performance would show the King the extent of the corruption among his courtiers, but the results leave Jang-seong conflicted as he sees men die as a result of his comedy while failing in his primary goal of protecting Gong-gil from exploitation as he quickly becomes a favourite of the King again endangering their position as they become a target for the King’s mistress (Kang Sung-yeon), a former sex worker who had like them used her natural gifts to transgress the boundaries of class. Cheo-seon complains that it’s the King’s “lust for a boy” which has corrupted the court, while Jang-seong’s resentment may otherwise be unwarranted as Gong-gil appears to like and pity the King and may have come to his own decision about advancing his fortunes despite Jang-seong’s assertion that there are some things that should not be sold.  

But as Jang-seong comes to realise, all around the tightrope is an abyss. “Never knew a fool who knew his place” Jang-seong wrote in one of his plays and that is in someways his tragedy, that he dared to challenge the social order but in the end could not overcome it and neither could the King. Even so he may find a kind of freedom in seeking escape from a cruel and oppressive society in the only way that is available to him. “The world’s but a stage. Kingly is he who struts for a while, then exits in style” Jang-seong exclaims, a “sightless fool” who finally knows where he stands.

King and the Clown screened as part of this year’s Queer East .

Trailer (English subtitles)

A Man and a Gisaeng (남자와 기생, Shim Wu-seob, 1969)

Under the authoritarian regime of Park Chung-hee, Korean Cinema was subject to increasingly stringent censorship and film was seen as an important means of moral instruction. The central message behind Shim Wu-seob’s raucous comedy A Man and a Gisaeng (남자와 기생, Namjawa Gisaeng) is that a man should be faithful to his family and avoid the double betrayal represented by drinking in the company of women which fritters away financial security and endangers his relationship with his wife. Yet the film is also subversive despite the underlying conservative message in making a mockery of so-called “traditional” gender roles.

Indeed, the film’s very thesis is that men are weak and women are strong. The men visit who gisaeng appear to have done so to reaffirm their dominant masculinity through their financial power in essentially paying women to be subservient towards them. Yet the gisaeng themselves are fully in control of the game they are playing as one makes clear when she tells a drunken businessman off after he gets handsy with her. She reminds him that a gisaeng is a person too, not a doll to be played with, and when he doesn’t listen she gets up and leaves proving who it is that has the upper hand in this situation. All the businessman can do is splutter and threaten the otherwise mild-mannered male manager. 

The hero’s boss, Heo (Heo Jang-gang), is a henpecked husband who visits gisaeng as a means of escape from his domineering wife (Do Kum-bong) who punishes him like a child. He asks Tae-ho (Gu Bong-Seo) to resign after catching him sitting at his desk darning socks to earn extra money and though it might be perfectly reasonable to fire an employee for brazenly doing another job on company time, Heo mainly lets him go because of his unmanliness. Tae-ho is a fully domesticated man who does work traditionally regarded as “feminine” in taking in sewing and looking after all of the domestic tasks such as cooking and cleaning as a “maternal” figure to his younger sister Tae-suk (Kim Chung-ja) who is then depicted as “manly” in her mastery of martial arts. 

It quickly becomes clear that the “effeminate” man Tae-ho is the film’s strongest character and the only one largely in control of his circumstances. He agrees to become a gisaeng partly because he needs to earn money after being fired, but also he claims as a “joke” before committing himself to punishing men who neglect their duty to their families by shaming them into changing their behaviour as he largely does with Heo who, bizarrely, develops a fascination with Tae-ho’s gisaeng persona San-wol as she apparently reminds him of the first love he was prevented from marrying because of her family’s disapproval. 

The gender subversion is in essence the joke, but there are also constant hints that it might not be and Tae-ho’s female persona is also authentic, not least among them the music cues which are extremely ironic. For example, the melody of “Don’t Fence Me In” plays over Tae-ho at the house of gisaeng, as do the strains of “Nature Boy” which also hint at a validation of Tae-ho’s expression of femininity. Before being fired, Tae-ho tells Heo that he’s repressing himself and it isn’t good for him, and there is a (joking) suggestion in the final scenes that Heo’s attraction to San-wol is partly born of her seeming masculinity. He did indeed unwittingly appreciate a drag performance from Tae-ho’s queer-coded musician friend, after all.

It’s also possible to read Heo’s reunion with his wife as a new appreciation for her own “masculine” qualities in her capacity to dominate him even if the film simultaneously suggests that the role of a “good wife” is to offer “affection” to her husband and if the husband visits gisaeng it’s the wife’s fault for not giving it to him. Even so, what the film’s conclusion implies is closer to a rebalancing than might be expected in allowing Jeong-mi, the gisaeng with whom Tae-ho falls in love to counter any suggestion of queerness, to open her own shop as an independent woman pursuing a relationship with Tae-ho who is then a travelling salesmen selling cosmetics. Jeong-mi asks Tae-ho to give up “knitting” before they get married which would signal a remasculinisation, but Tae-suk, though dressing in a more feminine fashion to meet her in-laws, is not directly asked to give up Taekwondo and it seems that her fiancé appreciates her feistiness rather than seeking to soften it. Even Heo’s wife if seeming more cheerful has not given up control in their marriage despite her own drag experience in the gisaeng house yet their relationship is now considered “repaired”. “Traditional” gender roles have ostensibly been reaffirmed, Heo’s marriage is saved and both Tae-ho and his sister are about to marry, but they’ve also been subverted and redefined in unexpected ways. Some of this may only be possible because A Man and a Gisaeng is an absurd comedy of the kind Shim was known for, but it nevertheless hints at an underlying plea for greater social freedom in an authoritarian era. 

A Man and a Gisaeng screened as part of this year’s Queer East .

Jeong-sun (정순, Jeong Ji-hye, 2022)

“Is it a crime to be old?” a middle-aged woman asks after finding herself the centre of scandal in Jeong Ji-hye’s timely drama, Jeong-sun (정순). Surrounded by an ageist and misogynistic society, Jeong-sun has always bided her time and played by the rules but is acutely aware of her predicament as an older woman knowing that if she loses her factory job no one else will hire her and therefore submits herself to all the petty microaggressions of life on the margins. 

Chief among them would be her obnoxious floor manager Do-yun, little more than a teenager with a clipboard and an inflated sense of his own importance. She and the other women gossip about Do-yun’s dubious love life which partially relies on abusing his authority to date factory girls whom he gives preferential treatment and then discards once he’s bored. There’s also a rumour going around that the managers plan to fire some of the older workers like Jeong-sun after hiring permanent employees while a generational divide is developing between the full timers and the college students who turn up for the summer and secretly think they’re better than this. Jeong-sun accidentally offends one of them by playfully making fun of her putting on makeup in the changing room given that they’re all about to put on identical white uniforms and go through decontamination to head to the factory floor. 

The irony is that she begins to bond with new employee Yeong-su out of their shared sense of alienation as marginalised middle-aged people. Around her age, Yeong-su previously worked casual jobs in construction but has switched to the factory because of knee damage caused by years of manual labour. His physical injury has further damaged his sense of masculinity leaving him deeply insecure and desperate for approval from other men including that from the continually obnoxious Do-yun. When Do-yun asks him if he has a girlfriend, Yeong-su sheepishly replies that he’s too old for all that only for Do-yun to insultingly add that he doubts he has the time or money considering he just works on the shop floor. When Jeong-su’s daughter Yu-jin (Yoon Geumseona) and her fiancé ask her if she might have a boyfriend, Jeong-sun gives a similar reply seemingly feeling a degree of shame about being an older woman daring to date. She tells Yeong-su that they should slow down because she’s embarrassed to hear the other workers gossiping about them, but Yeong-su takes it the wrong away assuming that she too looks down on him for being a penniless factory worker with not much to his name.  

It’s this combination of ageism and sexism that gradually destroys their relationship. Mocked by Do-yun who calls him a “naive” man, Yeong-su shows him a video Jeong-sun had allowed him to take of her singing in her underwear in a moment of empowerment. Soon, it’s leaked online and Jeong-sun becomes the talk of the town, a figure of fun just for being a middle-aged woman embracing her sexuality. While the younger women laugh at her, Jeong-sun’s daughter and friends are universally sympathetic as is the policeman Yu-jin reports the incident to, but she later finds that not even the police really take the case seriously despite Jeong-sun’s increasingly precarious mental state. “I’m sorry to say this, but younger females are usually the victim” the policeman adds as they push Jeong-sun to settle, implying that no one’s all that interested in Jeong-su’s video and the taboo incident is somewhat embarrassing even to him. Yeong-su meanwhile offers a pleading “apology” before trying to convince Jeong-sun not to press charges because he’ll never work again with bad knees and a criminal record. 

Yeong-su said he’d move away and that it would all blow over, but Jeong-sun later catches sight of him laughing and joking with Do-yun and the other guys from the factory very much one of the boys. Her life has been ruined, but they’ve got off scot free. “Why should I stay put?” Jeong-sun finally asks in directly standing up to Do-yun who is after all a cowardly boy who bullies other men to bolster his fragile sense of masculinity. He responds by calling her a “crazy bitch” while she destroys his false authority and plays him at his own game, somehow taking something back if only in a moment of self-destruction. Where she finds herself is literally in the driving seat of her own life, seizing the opportunity for freedom and independence that comes with age but also the breaking of a spell that had been designed to keep her in her place. 

Jeong-sun screened as part of this year’s Red Lotus Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Switch (스위치, Ma Dae-yun, 2023)

An egotistical actor is given an unexpected lesson in what it is that makes life worth living when he’s suddenly transported to a parallel world in Ma Dae-yun’s charming Christmas dramedy, Switch (스위치). Rather than the body swap comedy the title might suggest, Ma’s warmhearted morality tale is a more a meditation on what might have been and may be again while contemplating the emptiness of a life of fame and riches when there’s no one to share it with. 

“What matters more than money?” top star Park Kang (Kwon Sang-Woo) chuckles after telling his manager he’ll accept a job he just described in quite insulting terms after being informed it comes with a hefty paycheque. Kang is currently riding high. He’s become enormously successful and even a recent sex scandal involving his co-star in a TV drama has only boosted his profile. Yet he tells his analyst that he can’t sleep and attributes it to “depression and anxiety”. He treats those around him poorly and most particularly his long suffering best friend from his fringe theatre days, Joe Yoon (Oh Jung-Se) who now works as his manager, while struggling to accept his loneliness and meditating on lost love in the memory of the woman he broke up with in order to chase stardom. 

After getting into a weird taxi one Christmas Eve, he’s suddenly granted the “wish” of getting to find out what would have happened if he’d made a different choice. After waking up in an unfamiliar house he discovers that he’s married with two children and slumming it fringe theatre while Joe Yoon is now the superstar having aced the audition Kang ran out on to chase Soo-hyun (Lee Min-Jung) to the airport and convince her not to leave. Of course, Kang is originally quite unhappy about all of this. He doesn’t understand why no one recognises him anymore and resents that he’s suddenly subject to the rules of “ordinary” people again after a decade as a pampered star. In his acceptance speech after winning an award, he’d stated his intention to “forget” his roots as a humble actor and embrace his new role as a member of the showbiz elite fully demonstrating his sense of alienation and insecurity along with his intense loneliness. As the taxi driver had said, Kang has “everything”. He’s achieved his dreams and lives the high life he’d always dreamed of, yet he’s deeply unhappy.

But his “new” life immediately challenges his sense of masculinity in realising that he has little power without money and is in fact financially dependent on Soo-hyun whom he may also have robbed of a bright future by preventing her from studying abroad and achieving success as an artist. Meanwhile he looks down on himself for continuing to follow his artistic dreams in fringe theatre when his plays attract few audiences members and make little money. Just as Joe Yoon had become his manager, so he ends up getting a taste of what it’s like trying to manage a “star” while coming to appreciate that Joe Yoon may be feeling just as lonely and unfulfilled as he once had. 

Yet even as Kang settles into his new life as a husband and father while slowly rebuilding his acting career though a combination of talent, supportive friendship, and good luck, he fails to learn the right lessons continuing to yearn for external validation through material success. He spends money on fancy dinners and tries to move the family into a swanky apartment in Seoul without realising that he’s already got a “home” in the quaint little provincial house he and Soo-hyun set up together filled with memories (that admittedly he doesn’t actually have) of the children when they were small. Slowly, he begins to look beyond himself while developing a new sense of security that means he doesn’t need to chase status-based affirmation in empty materialism but now has a new sense of what’s really important. A charming season morality tale with a little more than a hint of A Christmas Carol, Ma’s gentle drama never suggests that success itself is wrong or that Kang must give up his movie star persona to become a happy everyman but only insists that true happiness is brokered by treating others well and being treated well in return much more than it is by consumerist success.

Switch screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley April 22/24 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase.

International trailer (English subtitles)

XX+XY (Lee Soh-Yoon, 2022)

According to the voiceover narration that opens Lee Soh-yoon’s lighthearted teen drama XX+XY, we live in an age of choices yet sometimes choice can itself be a burden. At least that’s how Jay comes to see it having been born intersex but encouraged to think that at some point they’re going to have to choose whether to live as a man or a woman as if those are the only options or the choice to continuing living just as they are is not available to them. 

In essence many of their problems could be solved by reducing social dependence on the gender binary. Having been mainly home schooled, Jay has decided to attend a regular high school in part to help them figure out who they are through interacting with other teenagers who, they discover, are also struggling with many of the same questions in trying to decide who they’ll be. Yet for Jay, there’s also the issue of social stigma surrounding the reality of their life as an intersex person which is little understood by the world around them. When their identity is exposed by a malicious person, Jay’s teacher sighs and asks “Why didn’t you hide it better?”, prompting their response that their identity is not something shameful that needs to be concealed while suggesting that the school is on one level at least failing in their duty of care in refusing to protect them from the fallout of being outed which is in part their fault in stemming from the indiscretion of a teacher. 

The idea that they have something to hide is also particularly hurtful to Jay because of their unusual family circumstances given that they were adopted by a couple in a happy marriage of convenience between a closeted gay man and a woman otherwise uninterested in marriage. Their father’s partner now also lives with them and is very much a part of the family as can be seen in cheerful family photo they have hanging on their living room wall. Jay’s father tells them that he wants them to live in a world where they can love freely without fear of judgement or of feeling forced into the kind of arrangement he and their mother have made, their happy partnership not withstanding. On the other hand, it’s also he who first raises the potentially problematic idea that Jay should decide their binary gender based on their sexual orientation only to be firmly slapped down by their mother. 

This is partly the thesis of the film, that Jay is figuring themselves out based on their feelings towards two potential suitors in childhood best friend Sera who’s always known that Jay is intersex and the smitten Wooram who fell for Jay thinking they were a girl and then confused by their more masculine presentation on arrival at school. As Sera later points out, Jay never directly states they are a boy but everyone assumes them to be one because they are wearing a boy’s school uniform and have short hair. It is the school that force Jay to make a concrete choice because of its persistent gender segregation which extends from uniforms, single sex bathrooms, and classroom cliques to different activities for boys and girls in PE. Jay has to make a choice because they have to pick a bathroom, only using the men’s means there’s no bins to dispose of sanitary pads forcing Jay to carry them around until they can find a place to discreetly dispose of them. The boys in Jay’s class are jealous of their popularity with girls, while immaturely gossiping about another boy they regard as effeminate and possibly gay because he is “small” and hangs out with the girls a lot. 

Meanwhile, the conservative attitudes towards sex and romance held by the school and society at large are also in themselves counterproductive. Teens try to buy condoms to be responsible but are turned away because they don’t have ID or a note from their parents and are even shouted at by a nosy old lady at the checkout all of which has them wondering if they should just go ahead without protection rather than giving up on the idea. When Jay’s intersex identity is revealed online, the teachers are more concerned about the concurrent rumour that they and Sera have slept together rather than the breaching of Jay’s privacy, only interested in what the other parents might say or that Jay’s identity on its own may negatively affect their reputation aside from the developing sex scandal. 

In any case supported by their new friends, Jay gains the confidence to believe that they, and everyone else, are good enough as they are and that there isn’t any point in worrying about the people who won’t accept them as they are now. The film may still imply that there’s a binary choice to be made and that whoever Jay decides to pursue romantically has a large impact on it, but nevertheless affirms Jay’s identity as it is and makes clear that it’s they who have a free right to define themselves independently of any social mores or commonly held beliefs. Warmhearted and generous of spirit, Lee’s teen drama finds that largely the kids alright treating each other with kindness and respect when given the opportunity to do so and only waiting for the adult world to catch up. 

XX+XY screened as part of this year’s BFI Flare.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Home from Home (아이를 위한 아이, Lee Seung-hwan, 2022)

Unexpectedly reunited with his estranged father, a young man is confronted with a series of choices on leaving the care system in Lee Seung-hwan’s darkly comic coming-of-age drama A Home from Home (아이를 위한 아이, Ayireul Wihan Ayi). The Korean title may mean something more like a child looking after a child, but the English also neatly encapsulates the hero’s dilemma on being ejected from the orphanage where he has lived for most of his life into a new “family” home with two strangers he hardly knows at all. 

Do-yun (Hyeon Woo-Seok) is about to come of age. In less than a month he will have to leave the orphanage where he lives and has nowhere else to go. Working as a takeaway delivery driver, he is acutely aware of the prejudice directed towards those who have no families with both his boss and unreasonable customers making jibes about how they expect no better from someone who “wasn’t raised properly”. Prejudice is one reason he longs to leave Korea for the promise of Australia, explaining that there he’ll simply be “Korean” rather than an “orphan” and will be able to build an independent life for himself. All his plans are scuppered, however, when a man turns up at the orphanage claiming to be his estranged father and offering to take him in. 

Understandably resentful, Do-yun is persuaded to accept the offer and discovers that he has a younger half-brother, Jae-min (Park Sang-Hoon). Seung-won (Jung Woong-In), his father, claims that he gave up Do-yun for Jae-min wanting to remarry after his first wife died but apparently unable to take his first son with him. That might be reason enough to resent Jae-min, but Do-yun doesn’t particularly only wanting to save enough money to get to Australia and leave the family behind. The problem is that Seung-won soon passes away leaving Do-yun with a still deeper sense of loss and resentment while wondering if Seung-won only returned to claim him because he needed someone to look after Jae-min in his absence. Only 20 years old, he ends up becoming Jae-min’s guardian and despite himself decides to put his Australian dreams on hold to look him. 

Becoming an accidental “father” so young does indeed force Do-yun to grow up quickly, learning to cook (well, divide a microwave dinner onto plates) and keep the apartment Seung-won left them tidy. Perhaps he’d have had to figure all that out for himself alone on leaving the orphanage and having to manage on his wages from the delivery job, but there is also a lingering resentment that he’s putting his life on hold for a “brother” he didn’t know until a few weeks previously wondering what sort of responsibility he really bears for him even as he begins to ease into a sense of familial comfort he had never known before. Even so, an unexpected revelation sees him questioning himself further and trying to figure out whether he really belongs with Jae-min at all or should cut his losses and go to Australia anyway. 

In an odd way, he comes to view his new familial relationship as “just another prison” while jealous of Jae-min’s opportunities and yearning for independent freedom. Meanwhile, he finds himself targeted once again by exploitative adults in the form of a gold-digging aunt and her obnoxious husband intent on getting their hands on Jae-min’s inheritance, and scammed out of money he’d saved for his new life abroad by another “brother” he’d grown up with in the orphanage. What he wants is to make a decision that’s his own rather than being railroaded by the circumstances of his life or manipulated by forces beyond his control but also begins to develop a genuine familial connection with Jae-min even while remaining mildly distrustful and trying to figure out where it is that he truly belongs. Exploring the effects of a societal prejudice against orphanhood as well as the practical and emotional difficulties faced by those who are abruptly ejected from the care system into an uncaring world, Lee’s strangely cheerful drama finds two young men searching for support but finally discovering they may have only themselves to rely on. 

A Home from Home streams in the US until March 31st as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema Season 16.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Good morning (안녕하세요, Cha Bong-ju, 2022)

A lonely young woman finds a new place to belong while discovering the meaning of life after being taken in by a cheerful community of patients at a hospice for those with terminal illness in Cha Bong-ju’s lighthearted drama Good Morning (안녕하세요, Annyeonghaseyo). “Good morning” is to the patients an affirmation of life and way of greeting the new day as gift rather than a burden as the heroine had come to see it while unable to escape her sense of hopelessness and futility.

High schooler Su-mi’s (Kim Hwan-hee) desire to end her life is born largely of the circumstances she finds herself in as an orphan. Not only is she rejected by others her age who mock her for having no family, but she is trapped in an exploitative situation at a care facility where she is molested by the man who’s supposed to be taking care of her and also forced to work in his restaurant where she is expected to put up with inappropriate behaviour by drunken customers. Even if she were able to continue enduring it, she knows that she will soon come of age at which point she will be roughly ejected from the care system and expected to support herself with no further help available to her. It’s this sense of hopelessness that brings her to a nearby bridge from which she intends to jump only to be stopped by a middle-aged woman, Seo-jin (Yoo Sun), who manages to talk her down largely by promising that she will show her how to die.

That is in a sense what she does. Seo-jin works in a hospice caring for those with terminal illnesses who have each come to an acceptance of death and their path towards it. The patients are determined to live out their remaining days as best they can, remaining cheerful and committing themselves to accomplishing something be it learning English, writing a book, or finishing a painting. Su-mi bonds most closely with an elderly man (Lee Soon-jae) who had been illiterate and is working hard to learn to read and write while he still has time. What she discovers is that it is possible to find meaning in life even in the shadow of death, and that what gives her own life meaning is the sense of community she experiences at the hospice allowing her to feel part of a large family which had been denied to her during her time in the care system. 

“You just need to give them a little attention” Su-mi advises of some struggling plants at Seo-jin’s apartment, herself blossoming under the attention Seo-jin and the patients are paying to her, though there may be something a little uncomfortable in the suggestion that Seo-jin may have been partly at fault for a traumatic event in her past in assuming that things grow on their own as long you provide adequate nutrition. She blames herself for not paying enough attention and failing to realise that there was something wrong until it was too late only latterly understanding that like the plants people need more than simple sustenance to grow. Nevertheless, she and Su-mi gradually help each other to rediscover joy and happiness in life while forming a familial bond that restores something to each of them and grants them the ability to move forward into a happier future. 

Su-mi does learn “how to die” from the patients at the hospice, but what she’s really learning is how to live. The elderly man reminds her to live well and die without regret, making the most of every day doing what she wants to do and being happy while Su-mi gains a new perspective on life and death as she begins to step into herself gaining new confidence as a member of a community. Gentle and heartfelt, Cha’s lighthearted drama necessarily tackles some dark themes from suicide and terminal illness to the stigmatisation of orphanhood, difficulties experienced by those placed into the care system, and the inertia that can take hold while dealing with grief and loss but manages to lean towards the sunlight in embracing the healing qualities of relationships between people which give life its meaning.

Good morning streams in the US until March 31st as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema Season 16.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Peafowl (공작새, Byun Sung-bin, 2022)

A trans woman begins to step into herself after reclaiming her traditional culture to make peace with the past in Byun Sung-bin’s poignant indie drama, Peafowl (공작새, Gongjaksae). At once situating itself in the heartland of a society struggling to adapt to the pace of change, the film suggests that only by reintegrating her Koreanness can the heroine become fully herself even as the spirit of the father who rejected her softly tells her to dance her dance.

Myung (Choi Hae-jun), whose name as she later says means “not too light not too dark”, is a trans woman living in Seoul hoping to earn a large amount of money to pay for her surgery through winning a waacking dance competition. Shortly before she performs, she receives an unsettling telephone call and narrowly loses the dance off against a Taiwanese competitor while a judge explains that she lacks a colour of her own. It’s then that a childhood friend, Woo-gi (Kim Woo-kyum), contacts her to let her know that her estranged father Duk-gil (Ki Joo-bong) has passed away and asks her to come to the funeral. Myung first says she won’t go, but later does only to be berated by her overbearing, conservative uncle who ironically causes a scene by loudly exclaiming that a man shouldn’t be going around with long hair or wearing makeup. He even introduces her as Duk-gil’s son to an older relative who is otherwise much more sympathetic and even asks her with surprise why she’s wearing a male mourning outfit rather than the more appropriate one for women. 

It’s the uncle, a symbol of oppressive middle-aged patriarchal power, that is the real problem. Most other people are either broadly supportive or too polite to say anything of Myung’s changed appearance while her teenage nephew Bo-suk (Go Jae-hyun) simply accepts her and quickly refers to Myung as “sis” despite his mother’s obvious discomfort. It is however the uncle who is in charge, continuing to misgender and insult Myung especially once Woo-gi reveals that it was Duk-gil’s dying wish for Myung to lead the funerary rites at his 49th day memorial service. Myung doesn’t really want to participate but is tempted after Woo-gi suggests there’s a sizeable inheritance to be had if she agrees. 

It’s clear that Myung had good reason to resent her father, holding up her hand and revealing a large burn scar she’s since had tattooed with with a beautiful peacock feather. The feather motif is repeated throughout as a kind of symbol of Myung’s hidden beauty which she will eventually learn to reveal through the fusion of the traditional art of shamanistic ritual and her contemporary waacker dance moves, yet it’s also linked to the image of her father as a man she never understood and may never have really known whose relationship with her was shaped by the legacy of homophobic prejudice in ways she could never have imagined. The truth that she discovers reminds her that there have always been people like her even within this very “traditional” society, while the twin revelation that her cousin is gay and struggling in many of the same ways she has proves there always will be. As Woo-gi reminds her, her grandfather’s tree looks like it’s dead but is kept alive by its connections with others much like people are, pointing out that rituals accept everyone without prejudice or exception. 

Only after making peace with her conflicted aunt and showing her overbearing uncle the error of his ways can Myung begin to reclaim herself in reintegrating her traditional culture to gain the colour she was lacking and become fully herself as she performs the ritual along with a waacker dance that quite literally sets fire to the oppressive quality of tradition as mediated by men like her uncle who weaponise it to preserve their own privilege. Shot in classic 4:3, Byun neatly contrasts the vibrancy of Seoul nightlife with the oppressive dullness of life in the village, but also highlights the various similarities in the colour and noise of a shamanistic ceremony which as Myung discovers moves to a beat not dissimilar to waacker as she watches her friends dance in a club with the movements of traditional shamanism. In a way, Myung does indeed burn it all down but does so positively, finally coming to an understanding of her father and her history while reclaiming her traditional culture along with the right to do with it whatever she wishes.

Peafowl screened as part of BFI Flare 2023. It will also be screening at Genesis Cinema, London on April 20 as part of this year’s Queer East.

Trailer (English subtitles)