Swing Kids (스윙키즈, Kang Hyeong-cheol, 2018)

Swing Kids poster 2“Fuck Ideology” the embittered hero of Kang Hyeong-cheol’s Swing Kids (스윙키즈) exclaims, pushing back against his casually cruel commanding officer from the comparative safety of the stage on which he decides to cast off his frustration through a natural love of dance. It may be too much of a truism to suggest you can dance your way to freedom while a very literal prisoner of war, but in any case Kang eventually shows us that sooner or later someone will be along to crush even the smallest of dreams and it may not be the people you’d most expect.

The film opens with a propaganda newsreel that eventually skews pro-North in lamenting the poor conditions at the Koje POW camp where a small civil war recently broke out between those who remain fiercely loyal and those who have been seduced by American freedoms and no longer wish to return. Unfavourably comparing Koje with a camp in the North which is run under strict adherence to the Geneva convention so you’d hardly even think there was a war on at all, the film ends by casting shade on the American forces’ casual cruelty and inability to keep their house in order. The old commander having been sacked, newbie General Roberts (Ross Kettle) is keen to reform the camp’s image and so he hatches on the idea of getting Sergeant Jackson (Jared Grimes), who used to be a Broadway tap dancer, to teach the “commies” the American dance of freedom which seems tailor-made for front page photo sensation.

Jackson is reluctant to take the job but is persuaded when Roberts attempts to threaten him over his complicated personal life which has seen him breaking regulations to earn extra bucks in the hope of getting transferred back to Okinawa where he apparently had a woman he wanted to marry and a child he needed to make legitimate. Time and again we’re told that getting sent to the Korean War is something that happens to soldiers who’ve made mistakes, which might explain why the camp appears to be staffed by a collection of thoroughly unpleasant, incompetent foot soldiers while Roberts himself is mostly interested in raising its profile to save his own reputation.

“Communism, Capitalism. If nobody knew what they were, no one will kill or be killed” a young woman points out, quite reasonably before awkwardly wading into an ill-advised debate over who is more oppressed – ethnic minorities or women in a time of war. Sgt. Jackson who hails from the land of the free had to abandon his dream of the stage because of racism and continues to experience persistent micro aggressions from junior soldiers who refuse to follow his orders. The Korean internees are often no better, throwing up their own racial slurs and parading their cultural ignorance by reserving a special layer of scorn just for him in addition to that they feel for the Americans who have, after all, wandered onto their land and decided to have a war on it while making them join in. Communism and Capitalism, another soldier intones, are concepts made by and for the Russians and Americans, they have precious little to do with him so why are he and his loved ones supposed to die over an ideological disagreement?

Hero of the North Ki-soo (Do Kyung-soo) remains conflicted. He was loyal and truly believed in his cause, but secretly has the heart of a dancer and longs for the freedom of physical movement. He can’t talk to Jackson, or to another of the Swing Kids who is a lonely Chinese soldier who can only speak Mandarin (Kim Min-Ho), but discovers that they do have a shared language in dance and are able to communicate on an elemental level that makes culture an irrelevance. Feisty young woman Yang Pallae (Park Hye-su), who, out of necessity, has learned to speak three additional languages (English, Mandarin, and Japanese), discovers something much the same as she reluctantly begins dancing even though there’s no money it, while lovelorn Kang Byung-sam (Oh Jung-se) wants to dance to become famous because he’s become separated from his wife and thinks that then she’d be able to find him again. 

As Pallae puts it, when she puts the tap shoes on all the awful things go away. Pointedly introducing the big dance number, Jackson describes the Swing Kids as longing for freedom and liberalism while fighting for their rights, speaking as much for himself thoroughly fed up with the manipulative Roberts who seems set to hang the bunch of them out to dry as he is for the disparate collection of dancers whose young lives have been ruined by the chaos of war. “Fuck ideology” indeed, all they want to do is dance but repressive regimes aren’t good with people having fun expressing themselves and so even this small dream seems to grow ever more distant. What started off as a cheerful musical comedy undergoes a decidedly Brechtian tonal shift in its final moments, neatly underlining the terror and unpredictability of life in war but nevertheless extremely hard to reconcile with the inspirational cheerfulness of all that’s gone before. Still for the vast majority of its running time, Swing Kids is a joyful celebration of the universal language of movement and an ode to the power of escapist fantasy in a cruel and confusing world.


Swing Kids screens for free in Chicago on Sept. 14 as part of the ninth season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema where actor Jared Grimes is expected to appear for a Q&A. It is also available on US blu-ray courtesy of Well Go USA.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Juror 8 (배심원들, Hong Seung-wan, 2019)

Juror 8 poster 1What is the role of the law in a free and democratic society? In an effort to democratise justice, Korea held its first jury trial in 2008 giving “the people” a voice in the courts. As might be expected the judiciary had its doubts. Where judges and lawyers are best placed to assess the evidence and draw their conclusions, might not ordinary citizens be swayed by emotion or argument? Then again, compassion might be a force sorely lacking in a legal process some might feel to have become too efficient in its keenness to see justice is done speedily, losing all important scrutiny and allowing corruption and complacency to sneak their way in.

Juror 8 (배심원들, Baesimwondeul), a courtroom comedy drama, subtly puts the nation on trial as it asks what the point of the law is if it’s wielded like a blunt object. The case in hand concerns a middle-aged man, Kang Du-sik (Seo Hyun-woo), accused of hitting his elderly mother (Lee Yong-yi) on the head with a hammer and then throwing her off the balcony to disguise the crime. Though the defendant made a confession to police shortly after the incident, he did so vaguely from a hospital bed after being knocked out and now claims he can’t remember the events in question. This presents a problem for the judiciary who had chosen this case for the first jury trial precisely because it seemed so open and shut, all the jury was supposed to do was consider sentencing. Now they’re being asked to consider guilt or innocence and asking lots of awkward questions in what was supposed to be a token effort on behalf of law enforcement to demonstrate that it is listening.

Everything might have gone to plan if it hadn’t been for problematic “Juror 8” Nam-woo (Park Hyung-sik ) who, despite giving some worryingly conservative answers in his interview, instantly sympathises with the suspect and worries that there are too many unanswered questions in the evidence presented. His conviction only strengthens when he wanders off trying to get to the patent office to file sample of a self-defence device he was trying to launch as a business and accidentally meets Kang who seems despondent and frightened, worried he really might be guilty but fundamentally unable to remember.

More cynical minds might ask if Kang’s memory lapse is merely convenient and he hopes to exploit the jury trial to win acquittal through sympathy. Having noticed that Kang has no fingers, Nam-woo insists on a test to see if he is able to swing a hammer only for others to point out that there is no real way to know if he is not physically able to do it or chooses not to to aid his case. Meanwhile, Kang sits sullenly like a defeated ball of pent-up rage, eventually exploding when the jury is handed a letter he claims he was forced to write expressing frustration with his mother’s refusal to sign a legal separation form so that he would be eligible to receive welfare payments.

As his lawyer later puts it, the real villain here is poverty. Kang was raised by a single-mother, something still frowned upon, who had to leave him alone to go out to work. She locked the door from the outside to keep him safe, but that also meant he was unable to escape a house fire and was badly burned at only five years old sustaining prominent facial scarring and the loss of the fingers on both hands which means he is unable to work and cannot easily write. According to the testimony, Kang and his mother argued constantly over money, especially since her job washing dishes at a restaurant came to an end. As her son and dependent, he was unable to claim benefits and wanted, the prosecution claims, to legally sever ties. When his mother refused, they allege that he lost his temper, killed her, and tried to make it look like an accident.

Nam-woo is unconvinced as is another juror whose 30 years as an embalmer tell him that the head wound was unlikely to have been caused by a hammer. Juror 6 is dismissed for speaking out in court, his exuberance held up as an example of teething problems in the jury system, but his words strike a chord with some of the other jurors who wonder if the smug expression on the forensic scientist is there to mask the fact that he didn’t really bother to investigate because there had already been a confession and all he needed to do was “confirm” the police’s findings. Time and again, the jurors accidentally uncover the failings of justice in a system geared towards efficiency. Kang was pushed to confess by police keen to meet their targets, the confession then became basis for deprioritising his case. Or as some of the legal minds put it, they got “sloppy” because there was no sense in devoting time and energy to a matter already closed.

The same thing happens in the jury room. The jurors are ordinary people. They have lives waiting for them. Nam-woo wants to file his paperwork for the business loan, another juror has a child to get back to, one is a salaryman with an angry boss on the phone. Everyone has a vested interest in getting this over with as quickly as possible so they can all go home, but they also take their responsibilities seriously – much more seriously than they were intended to. Korea is a conservative society in which it is natural to follow the guidance of the authorities and the collective will, and so it seems natural to everyone that you simply rubber-stamp whatever the judge says. Nam-woo is a bit different, he notices details and he asks awkward questions. “Just go with the flow” the other jurors urge him, “when in doubt follow their lead”, but he wants to do what feels right. The exasperated businessman orders him to fall in with the boss, in this case the judge, but crumbles when another juror asks for his own opinion. He doesn’t have one, because he’s corporate drone and he’s been conditioned to do whatever the boss says without really thinking about it.

In any case, the jury system itself is a bit of a sham. The jury’s opinion is not legally binding, the judge only has to take it under advisement and can overrule. Sympathetic judge Kim (Moon So-ri), defended in her appointment as “strong and resolute like a man”, is fighting her own battles in a male-dominated arena, hoping for a long overdue promotion following the successful handling of this high profile case she only got through lottery. She begins to notice things she might not have when it was just a formality of sentencing a man who had confessed, but she is under pressure to maintain control and authority while demonstrating the magnanimity of the state. The jurors’ deliberations expose their pettiness and snobbery, some taking against Kang just because he lives in the poor part of town, but also their keenness to ensure the law is fair and exists to protect and not to oppress. Genial and humorous, Juror 8 addresses a serious subject with a lightness of touch and a subtlety that gently exposes the shortcomings of its society while placing its faith in “the people” to make a compassionate choice in the face of a fierce pressure to conform.


Juror 8 screens in Chicago on Sept. 12 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema season 9 where director Hong Seung-wan will be in attendance for an introduction and Q&A moderated by Korean cinema expert Darcy Paquet.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

No Regret (후회하지 않아, Leesong Hee-il, 2006)

No Regret poster“Why do we have to be so miserable?” a frustrated cabaret bar owner exclaims part-way through a harebrained scheme to get both money and revenge against a lover’s betrayal and a relentlessly unfair society. The debut feature from Leesong Hee-il, No Regret (후회하지 않아, Huhoehaji Anha) is regarded as Korea’s first explicitly gay film from an out gay director but is as interested in social disparity and multiple oppressions as it is in contemporary gay life in a sometimes unforgiving Seoul.

Our hero, Su-min (Lee Yeong-hoon), is an orphan recently ejected from the orphanage after turning 18 and leaving high school. Like many young men in his position, Su-min has been effectively hung out to dry and has very little chance of making much of a life for himself. Quietly angry, he works hard in a factory by day, and studies at a cram school at night, hoping to make enough money to apply for college and ensure a better life for himself. He also has another part-time job as a “designated driver”, getting drunk people and their cars back home in one piece. One particular job, however, changes his life forever when he arrives to meet Jae-min (Kim Nam-gil) who, apparently, seems to fall in love with him at first sight. Despite perhaps being flattered, Su-min hesitates but turns down Jae-min’s overtures, either simply afraid and still uncomfortable with his sexuality or resentful of the awkward power dynamic between them.

The problematic power differential raises its head again when Su-min realises that Jae-min is the factory boss’ spoilt chaebol son seconds after learning he and his friend, both of whom are “casual” rather than “regular” employees, have been let go in a mass layoff. Jae-min, still smitten, pulls strings and makes sure Su-min keeps his job, but Su-min isn’t comfortable with being indebted in that way or of taking another man’s place just because the boss has taken a fancy to him so he quits in anger and does his best to shake Jae-min off his trail. Jobs are hard to come by for uneducated poor boys, and after a spell washing dishes proves unsuccessful he finds himself giving in and taking a job in a host bar karaoke box offering illicit sexual services to select clientele.

Su-min, as he later suggests to Jae-min, is perhaps freer than most to embrace his sexuality given that he has no family to disapprove of him. He is, in a sense, dependent on the feeling of solidarity he has with the other orphans, like his ladies’ man roommate who despite offering to take Su-min to a brothel so he’ll realise what he’s missing out on is actually broadly supportive of Su-min’s sexuality, but is afraid more of them discovering his “fall” into sex work than of them realising he is gay which most of them seem to have done already. In any case, it’s perhaps unsurprising that he personally continues to struggle with his sexuality given his extreme youth even after becoming used to life at the club and the financial benefits it can bring.

As the “madame” tells him, though he’s gay himself he doesn’t hire “gay” guys and it remains true that most of the other sex workers are straight men who are only in the business because they have no other way of making money. Jae-min, meanwhile, feels himself at least a prisoner of his privilege as he repeatedly fails to standup to his domineering mother who has arranged a marriage with a suitable young woman despite knowing that her son is gay. Well educated and wealthy, Jae-min has accepted his sexuality but is unable to embrace it or to break free of the patriarchal social codes which insist that, especially considering he is an only child, he has a responsibility to obey his parents’ wishes by living up to their conservative values, marrying a woman, providing an heir, and taking over the company. Jae-min’s mother even later tells him that she doesn’t care if he continues to sleep with men, but that he must marry the woman she’s chosen for appearance’s sake, little caring for the emotional wellbeing of the oblivious fiancée she is about to condemn to a loveless marriage.

Jae-min continues to chase Su-min who continues to rebuff him until finally seduced, but a note of darkness remains at the centre of their relationship in Jae-min’s self loathing and Su-min’s resentful sense of inferiority. An accidental betrayal born of momentary weakness and followed by an eventual breakthrough leads to a very dark place indeed as the wounded parties decide to take misplaced revenge, against an oppressive society as much as against those who have wronged them. Nevertheless, a kind of “equality” is perhaps achieved through wounds given and received giving way to a more openhearted connection albeit one with a dark genesis. An important step forward in representation, Leesong Hee-il’s indie drama is an oddly hopeful romance in which the heroes eventually succeed in becoming themselves in defiance of the societal oppression all around them.


US trailer (English subtitles)

Bloodline (血脈 / 혈맥, Kim Soo-yong, 1963)

Bloodline posterDirector Kim Soo-yong began his career while still in the military shortly after the end of the Korean War, originally making “military films” for the Ministry of Defence’s Film Department. Since his debut in 1958, Kim had directed 19 features before the release of his “breakout” transition into mainstream cinema with Bloodline (血脈 / 혈맥, Hyeolmaek, AKA Kinship) – an early example of the “literary film” with which Kim would become heavily associated. Like much of Kim’s later work, Bloodline is a socially progressive, empathetic look at the lives of everyday people living in very difficult circumstances but trying their best to be their best all the same.

The film opens in 1946, immediately after the end of the Second World War which is also, of course, the end of the Japanese Colonial Period and the beginning of a short-lived Korean post-war democracy. A small shantytown courtyard in Seoul is home to three families – the wealthier Kim Deok-sam (Kim Seung-ho) who was once a successful mining agent in Japan and lives with his grown-up son Geobugi (Shin Seong-il), the tinker “Ggangtong” (Choi Nam-hyun) who lives with his second wife Ongmae (Hwang Jung-seun) and daughter Boksun (Um Aing-ran), and Wonpal (Shin Young-kyun) whose wife (Lee Kyoung-hee) is seriously ill while his daughter (Lee Gyeong-rim) is disabled. Wonpal, a refugee from North Korea, is also responsible for his elderly Christian mother (Song Mi-nam) and younger brother Wonchil (Choi Moo-ryong) who went to university in Japan but has come back with literary aspirations and has so far refused to get a job and help support the family.

The world of 1946 is an immensely chaotic one in which the old order has been destroyed but nothing has yet arrived to take its place. For good or ill, the American occupation has become an essential economic force – Deok-sam is forever urging Geobugi to get a job on the American military base which he believes will pay well both in terms of salary and a series of perks official or otherwise. Meanwhile, Wonchil’s old girlfriend, Oki (Kim Ji-mee), is one of many women who’ve found themselves without support in the desperate post-war economy and has become the mistress of an American serviceman. Like Won-chil she came from the North with nothing and was left with no other option than entering the sex trade as a bar girl – the same fate which awaits Boksun at the behest of her step-mother who plans to sell her to a bar to provide for the family and has been forcing her to learn bawdy folksongs in order to become a fully fledged “gisaeng”. 

Both generations are, to a particular way of thinking, intensely selfish. The old, still bound up with a series of ancient social codes, try to oppress their children in the same way they were oppressed only now they’re in charge and reluctant to cede the little power they have now they finally have it. The parents want their children to do what is best for the “family” regardless of their personal happiness. Deok-sam is determined that his son should get a job with the Americans, Ongmae is determined that Boksun become a bar girl so that she and her husband can live in comfort, while Wonpal just wants to support his wife and daughter but can’t and resents his brother for not helping more. Yet the young people want their freedom and to be a part of the world which is opening up before them. They are filial and want to look after their parents, but reject their oppressive demands especially when it comes to their romantic futures. Ggangtong disagrees with his wife’s decision to sell Boksun and has hatched a plan to marry her off to a nice barber who has asked for her hand and seems to have good prospects, but Boksun is in love with Geobugi and wants to marry him, only he is dragging his feet because he has no money and worries about his father. Geobugi wants to get a job in a nearby factory, but hasn’t had the courage to go against his father’s wishes.

Kim Soo-yong, as unjudgemental as always, places his sympathies firmly with the young as they demand their right to choose while also reserving a right to a fresh start for all – including bar girl Oki who is allowed to simply walk away from her life in the sex trade and into a happier future once the moody Wonchil has learned to accept her past and also reconciled with his brother, literally “repairing” the family home in fixing the hole in the leaky roof through which Wonpal’s wife once used to watch the stars. Meanwhile, Boksun and Geobugi also look forward to their brighter future with jobs in a progressive factory which is friendly, bright, and open. Ggangtong, who resented his wife’s feudal desire to sell their daughter but also tried to arrange her marriage, is the first to see that his era has ended, affirming that the youngsters were right to leave and that the world now belongs to them. Eventually sense is seen, the old give way and accept the desires of the young, realising that they will lose their children if they cannot learn to set them free. The world has changed, mostly for the better, and familial bonds will have to change with it but they will not necessarily have to break if each side is willing to give ground in expectation of a better tomorrow.


Bloodline is available on English subtitled DVD courtesy of the Korean Film Archive in a set which also includes a bilingual booklet featuring an essay by director Kim Soo-yong, and an article about the restoration by the Korean Film Archive’s Kim Ki-ho, as well as full cast and crew credits.

Ode to the Goose (군산: 거위를 노래하다, Zhang Lü, 2018)

15eeddc21a2c46f3992b2b459ee3ceb3Past and present flow as one in Zhang Lü’s elliptical Ode to the Goose (군산: 거위를 노래하다, Gunsan: Geowileul Nolaehada). Making a perhaps controversial point, Zhang sets the majority of his tale in the harbour town of Gunsan which echoes ‘30s Korea when the nation was still brutally oppressed by the Japanese to which the many graphic photographs and monuments on display stand testament. Yet Zhang seems to ask, returning to his favourite theme, if they’re all Koreans no matter where they were born, why are some more oppressed than others?

The film opens with the hero, struggling poet Yoon-young (Park Hae-il), standing in front of a street map, lost in his mother’s home town. He is then joined by a slightly older woman, Song-hyun (Moon So-ri), whom he has apparently asked to accompany him to Gunsan on a whim without really explaining why. Still hung over from the night before, they stop off at an odd little noodle joint run by an elegant older woman (Moon Sook) who seems oddly fascinated by their strange chemistry. Yoon-young, innocently enough, makes conversation by asking about her home town only for her to shut him down. “What home town?” she fires back, “home is where you settle”.

Later we discover she speaks fluent Japanese, cheerfully conversing with the autistic daughter of the inn owner (Park So-dam) where the couple eventually stay after being judged “lucky” enough to be allowed in. The daughter of Japanese-Korean parents apparently “returned” from Fukuoka, the girl rarely speaks to strangers and only ever in Japanese, though she seems to take a liking to Yoon-young and is keen to try and connect with him, making sure he is always well taken care of while Song-hyun has turned her attentions to the girl’s father, melancholy widower Mr. Lee (Jung Jin-young) who likes to take photographs but only ever of landscapes and not of people.

The Lees are Korean too, even if one of them only speaks Japanese and they run a Japanese-style inn in the middle of a moribund museum to colonial horror (the local shrine even has a comfort woman statue standing in the back). Meanwhile, a passerby mistakes Song-hyun for a Chinese-Korean woman she once knew and insists on speaking to her in Yanbian dialect which Song-hyun, as we later learn, is unable to understand even if there is a Chinese-Korean connection in her family history. Song-hyun muses that had her grandfather, like his brother, chosen to stay in Manchuria after the war then she’d be Chinese-Korean too, as would famed poet of the colonial era Yun Dong-ju if he hadn’t died a political prisoner in a Japanese jail in Fukuoka which is, coincidentally, where the Lees were “from”. It is all “coincidental”.

So why does Yoon-young’s “right wing nut job” (as Song-hyun calls him) father hate Chinese-Koreans so much, blaming them for all the faults of the modern nation and decrying those who left for Shanghai with the Independence Movement as traitorous communist collaborators? A whimsical prequel (or a kind of re-imagining) of the Gunsan incident sees Yoon-young walking through his own “hometown” while a man who probably is not actually Chinese-Korean himself and may just be out to claim a buck or two, holds a rally for the rights of “foreign” Koreans in order to avoid exploitative employment practices and affirm that Koreans from other parts are the same as Koreans from Korea. Are “native” Koreans perhaps oppressing “non-native” ones in the same way that they were oppressed by the Japanese? In practical terms no, obviously not – there are no essential horrors here, but there is deeply ingrained prejudice and wilful exploitation. Interestingly enough, despite his conservatism, Yoon-young’s dad had him attend Chinese language classes, if ones that were run by the Taiwanese who are obviously not “communist” but were also formerly a Japanese colony.

Meanwhile, Yoon-young’s life takes him on a curious symmetry in which everything reminds him of something else. He repeatedly asks the women he meets if they’ve met before, experiences eerily similar moments in Gunsan and at home, and continues to look for connections between himself and a world of universal poetry stretching from the classical Chinese of the film’s title to the melancholy odes of Yun Dong-ju, writing in his “native” language in defiance of colonial authority. Dualities predominate – beauty/horror, attraction/indifference, silence/language, here/there, then/now, but through it all there is commonality. Yoon-young’s failure to communicate leaves him feeling defeated and depressed, trapped in a self-imposed exile while the gregarious Song-hyun gleefully moves forward little caring of the costs. Whimsical and “ambiguous”, Zhang’s playful poetry is difficult to parse but nevertheless carries an essential warmth in its reassuring familiarities and openhearted commitment to the universality of human connections.


Ode to the Goose was screened as the latest teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival. Tickets are already on sale for the next and final teaser screening, Kokdu, which will take place at Regent Street Cinema on 16th September.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Moon in the Hidden Woods (숲에 숨은 달, Takahiro Umehara, 2018) [Fantasia 2019]

The Moon in the Hidden Woods posterNight is dark, but when you have the moon to light the way there is always the hope of a better tomorrow. When all hope is gone, how are you supposed go on? For a small group of villagers, the answer is to do the best they can, staving off the darkness with determination and guile. Directed by Japan’s Takahiro Umehara making his directorial debut, The Moon in the Hidden Woods (숲에 숨은 달, sup-e sum-eun dal) is a story about learning how to survive the darkness but also an oblique allegory about authoritarian corruption and the power that comes with embracing your essential identity. 

As the wise old granny tells us at the beginning, long ago the Moon watched over the villagers, protecting them from the terror of night, but then it suddenly disappeared. A terrifying monster, Muju, wrapped the night sky in red, devouring misfortunes and sending fearsome minions to plague mankind. Warriors set out to look for the Moon, but none returned. Meanwhile others learned how to profit from the new world and saw no need for a return to the past until gradually people forgot there had ever been a Moon to begin with.

One such profiteer was the evil Count Tar, who is determined to marry the Princess Navillera very much against her will. Escaping to the city, Navillera finds herself coming to the rescue of a musical trio caught up in an unfair competition to win some mystic water to use in their harvest festival, and making use of her telepathic super powers and natural musical ability at the same time. The Nova Folk Band are a small group of illegal meteor hunters from the village who are more interested in survival than they are in intrigue, but are nevertheless some of the only people still looking for the Moon. In any case, they end up taking Navillera with them as they flee, not quite believing that she is a princess and the intended bride of their tyrannical ruler.

While in the village, Navillera gets a crash course in class conflict, never having left the palace before and spent her entire life in a lavish comfort she assumed was available to all. This quickly puts her into conflict with musician Janggu who deeply resents the “spoiled” entitlement that sees her asking for extravagant luxuries like meat, fruit, and honey, while being entirely unused to farm work. She does, however, try her best even mucking in with the other villagers where she can but is obviously unable to contribute to the same degree given that she has never had to do a day’s work in all her life. Meanwhile, as Janggu points out, the gang have gone out hunting meteors full in the knowledge that it’s illegal because they need them to survive. The princess objects to their reckless lawbreaking, affirming that the kingdom will protect them with ore only for Janggu to point out an ore is worth half the year’s harvest and the only reason you’re not allowed to hunt meteors is so that the unscrupulous powers that be can sell you an alternative and thereby keep a grip on their power by keeping the poor in their place. Suddenly, Muju isn’t looking so much like a scary red monster but an eerie metaphor for late stage capitalism.

Meanwhile, the Navillera is also busy trying to escape an oppression she wasn’t even quite aware of in her attempt to reject the intentions of Tar. Through her time in the village, Navillera begins to lose heart, fearing that her cosseted life has left her powerless without skills or talents. What she discovers, however, is that she has a natural ability for dance that finds a perfect home in the cheerful village where such things are praised and becomes the key both to restoring her essential identity and defeating Muju to rediscover the Moon.

In opposition to the “nothingness” that Muju represents, Navillera draws strength from the camaraderie of the villagers as they adopt her as one of their own, urging her not to give in and marry the evil Tar but to join them in their rebellion, choosing the “path of life” as the joyous music of the villagers finally breaks the stronghold of Muju’s austerity. Finally seeing the light of a better tomorrow, the villagers look back on the past with stoical eyes, recognising that mankind’s greed gave rise to Muju and resolving to forgive those who were merely weak rather than actively evil in order to live on in the light of a new world. A perfect blend of Korean fantasy and Nausicaa-esque steampunk, The Moon in the Hidden Woods is a cheerful ode to the importance of hope and the pure joy of musical expression in a sometimes harsh existence.


The Moon in the Hidden Woods was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English/korean/Japanese captions)

Money (돈, Park Noo-ri, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

money poster 1“Could you ask him something for me,” the beleaguered yet victorious protagonist of Park Noo-ri’s Money (돈, Don) eventually asks, “what was he going to use the money for?”. Wealth is, quite literally it seems, a numbers game for the villainous Ticket (Yoo Ji-tae) whose favourite hobby is destabilising the global stock market just for kicks. As for Cho Il-hyun (Ryu Jun-yeol), well, he just wanted to get rich, but where does getting rich get you in the end? There’s only so much money you can spend and being rich can make you lonely in ways you might not expect.

Unlike most of his fellow brokers, Cho Il-hyun is an ordinary lad from the country. His parents own a small raspberry farm and he didn’t graduate from an elite university or benefit from good connections, yet somehow he’s here and determined to make a success of himself. In fact, his only selling point is that he’s committed the registration numbers of all the firms on the company books to memory, and his ongoing nervousness and inferiority complex is making it hard for him to pick up the job. A semi-serious rookie mistake lands the team in a hole and costs everyone their bonuses, which is when veteran broker Yoon (Kim Min-Jae) steps in to offer Il-hyun a way out through connecting him with a shady middle-man named “The Ticket” who can set him up with some killer deals to get him back on the board.

Il-hyun isn’t stupid and he knows this isn’t quite on the level, but he’s desperate to get into the elite financial world and willing to cheat to make it happen. As might be expected his new found “success” quickly goes to his head as he “invests” in swanky apartments and luxury accessories, while his sweet and humble teacher girlfriend eventually dumps him after he starts showering her with expensive gifts and acting like an entitled elitist. It’s not until some of his fellow brokers who also seem to have ties to Ticket start dying in mysterious circumstances that Il-hyun begins to wonder if he might be in over his head.

Unlike other similarly themed financial thrillers, it’s not the effects of stock market manipulation on ordinary people which eventually wake Il-hyun up from his ultra capitalist dream (those are are never even referenced save a brief reflective shot at the end), but cold hard self-interest as he finally realises he is just a patsy Ticket can easily stub out when he’s done with him. Yoon only hooked him up in the first place because he knew he’d be desperate to take the bait in order to avoid repeated workplace humiliation and probably being let go at the end of his probationary period. What he’s chasing isn’t just “money” but esteem and access to the elite high life that a poor boy from a raspberry farm might have assumed entirely out of his reach.

It’s difficult to escape the note of class-based resentment in Il-hyun’s sneering instruction to his mother that she should “stop living in poverty” when she has the audacity to try and offer him some homemade chicken soup from ancient Tupperware, and it’s largely a sense of inferiority which drives him when he eventually decides to take his revenge on the omnipotent Ticket. Yet there’s a strangely co-dependent bond between the two men which becomes increasingly difficult pin down as they wilfully dance around each other.

The world of high finance is, unfortunately, a very male and homosocial one in which business is often conducted in night-clubs and massage parlours surrounded by pretty women. There is only one female broker on Il-hyun’s team. The guys refer to her as “Barbie” and gossip about how exactly she might have got to her position while she also becomes a kind of trophy conquest for Il-hyun as he climbs the corporate ladder. Meanwhile, there is also an inescapably homoerotic component to Il-hyun’s business dealings which sees him flirt and then enjoy a holiday (b)romance with a Korean-American hedge fund manager (Daniel Henney) he meets at a bar in the Bahamas, and wilfully strip off in front of Ticket ostensibly to prove he isn’t wearing a wire while dogged financial crimes investigator Ji-cheol (Jo Woo-jin) stalks him with the fury of a jilted lover.

Obsessed with “winning” in one sense or another, Il-hyun does not so much redeem himself as simply emerge victorious (though possibly at great cost). Even his late in the game make up with Chaebol best friend Woo-sung (Kim Jae-young), who actually turns out to be thoroughly decent and principled (perhaps because unlike Il-hyun he was born with wealth, status, and a good name and so does not need to care about acquiring them), is mostly self-interest rather than born of genuine feeling. In answer to some of Il-hyun’s early qualms, Ticket tells him that in finance the border between legal and illegal is murky at best and it may in fact be “immoral” not to exploit it. What Il-hyun wanted wasn’t so much “money” but what it represents – freedom, the freedom from “labour” and from from the anxiety of poverty. Life is long and there are plenty of things to enjoy, he exclaims at the height of his superficial success, but the party can only last so long. What was the money for? Who knows. Really, it’s beside the point.


Money was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)