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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

International trailer (English subtitles)

Piagol (피아골, Lee Kang-cheon, 1955)

piagol poster 1Under the oppressive regime of Park Chung-hee, “anti-communism” became a national policy and all films, at least implicitly, had to display anti-communist sentiment. In the 1950s, however, despite the immediacy of the war’s end, there might have been more room for nuance. Then again, perhaps not. Lee Kang-cheon’s Piagol (피아골), released just two years after the events it depicts, was among the first to concern itself with the North Korean partisans and was subsequently banned for its supposedly sympathetic depiction of communist guerrilla fighters, finally released only with the addition of the South Korean flag superimposed over the closing scene in order to suggest that the sole surviving partisan had decided to walk towards freedom.

Led by hardline Captain Agari (Lee Ye-chun), the partisans are in a sorry state. The truce has been signed and the war is “over” (or, at any rate, as “over” as it is now). They know no further reinforcements from China or the Soviet Union will be forthcoming, but have decided to continue fighting anyway. Holed up on Mount Jiri, the partisans are involved in an internecine guerrilla conflict with the encroaching South Korean and American forces, but are determined to root out “reactionary” elements and have been taking brutal revenge on local villages they believe to have “betrayed” them to the authorities.

Unlike the later anti-communist films, Lee’s partisans are not rabidly evil or gleefully sadistic but they are casually cruel and wilfully heartless. After the escape sequence which opens the film, a roll is called recording a casualty and a lost rifle. Captain Agari is much more worried about the gun than the man, eventually executing the soldier who dropped it after being shot in the arm for dereliction of duty. Agari’s actions are even harder to defend given that he knows there will be no further reinforcements and he’s down to a handful of men already, but neatly exemplify his lack of human feeling and intense need to enforce both dominance and ideological purity.

Convinced that someone in a nearby village is acting as an informant for the South, Captain Agari decides to carry out a raid to rid it of “reactionary” elements, which is a thinly veiled excuse to sack it. Not all of the partisans are entirely on board, especially as some of them hail from this village originally and have family members still living there. During the raid, Lee focuses on cowardly Captain Agari hiding in a nearby temple while Buddhist statues seem to be giving him the hard stare, before shifting to the same temple now in flames. A baby cries and crawls over the half naked body of its mother, raped and left for dead. Meanwhile, teenage recruit Il-dong (Cho Nam-suk) searches for his mum only to find her dying of a bullet wound in the street. Half delirious she asks him why he shot his own mother while all he can do is cradle her as she dies. Cold as ice partisan Ae-ran (Roh Kyung-hee) blows her whistle to tell him to get moving and brushes off the disapproval of sensitive intellectual Chul-soo (Kim Jin-kyu) with an affirmation that all actions to eradicate reactionaries should be praised.

Ae-ran is one of only two female partisans and seems to have something of a vendetta against the other, Soju (Kim Young-hee), who is berated by Captain Agari for being weak and womanly, “too wimpy for the communist party”. Breaking down in tears, Soju is raped by Agari who, a few moments later, is handed a commendation for heroism from the guerrilla commander and has her transferred to HQ out of the way. Unlike Soju, Ae-ran is presented as overly masculine, tough and unforgiving but, crucially, able to defend herself against Agari and successfully resist his advances. She is, however, softened by the quiet expression of desire for sensitive romantic Chul-soo whom she describes as “like a poet in fairyland”, and is unique among the partisans for her eventual acceptance of defeat as she urges to Chul-soo to go down the mountain and surrender to take advantage of the amnesty proposed by Southern forces, remaining reluctant to go herself in believing there is no way back for her after all she has done in the mountains.

Ae-ran has indeed done quite a lot in the mountains and none of it good. Chul-soo may lament that he has already lost his humanity despite being the only partisan to regularly voice dissent, but Ae-ran does not appear to have had very much of it in the first place. Still, she is “a survivor”. Given that we’ve seen them repeatedly commit atrocities and eventually destroy each other out a series of petty resentments, attempts to cover up crimes, and revenge born of sexual jealousy, you could hardly say that the communists have been shown in a very positive light, but audiences at the time failed to identify the film as sufficiently “anti-communist” because they couldn’t be sure that Ae-ran’s ideological disillusionment had led her to choose freedom in the South, rather than it simply being a case of physical desperation. Unlike the anti-communist films of the ‘60s, Lee refuses to demonise the partisans, depicting them as ideologically committed, cruel, and heartless, but also flawed and human as they succumb to despair on realising they have been abandoned by their nation, marooned in the South somewhere between death and freedom. In this at least, they are victims of their ideology, ruined by emotional austerity and betraying their own revolution even as they attempt to enact it.


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

A Bedsore (욕창, Shim Hyejung, 2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Goryeojang (고려장, Kim Ki-young, 1963)

Goryeojang hanging bannerWhat happens to the marginalised in times of trouble? Nothing good, might be the answer. To exist outside of the group, to be in some way other, is to be rendered vulnerable but there can also be a kind of strength in involuntary independence. Like the Japanese Ballad of Narayama, Kim Ki-young’s Goryeojang (고려장) envisages a world in which the old are expected to sacrifice themselves for the young, but unlike either Keisuke Kinoshita or the later Shohei Imamura, Kim struggles to find nobility in adherence to such a cruel and inhuman tradition.

Kim opens with a contemporary TV panel discussion on overpopulation (a key concern of the day) which strays uncomfortably into comparison with vermin, leading one expert to contribute that when short of food rats eat each other in order to survive so perhaps people should too. Moving swiftly on, the host turns to a historian who explains that in the distant past during times of war or famine, there was a tradition of abandoning the over-70s on mountains to reduce the burden on the rest of society.

Kim then shifts to the main narrative which takes place in the feudal “Goryeo” era. During a time of scarcity, a lord married four times already scorns the local shamaness to marry a young and beautiful widow with a young son. The shamaness claims that the lord’s 10 sons from his previous marriages are to blame for the failure of the relationship and vows revenge on the entire family. Meanwhile, new wife Keum (Ju Jeung-ryu) struggles to adjust herself to the household and is warned that none of the previous wives managed to endure it very long. Though the lord accepts her son Guryong as his own and tries to integrate him with his 10 new brothers, the boys fiercely reject him, especially when they hear about the shamaness’ curse which states that he is destined to kill them at some unspecified point in the future. The abuse culminates in an attempt to assassinate Guryong with a snake bite. He survives but is left with a lame leg. Keum realises she cannot stay in the lord’s house, and so he gives her a small plot of land and some money to support herself and her son.

20 years pass, during which time Guryong (Kim Jin-kyu) has managed to make a life for himself but the brothers are still obsessed with getting back the land that was given to him. When they find out that Guryong has amassed enough resources to consider marrying despite the fact that he is disabled and therefore considered undesirable, their rage intensifies. Guryong meanwhile has been trying to keep to himself, but is brokenhearted in unrequited love for a woman, Gannan (Kim Bo-ae), who rejects him because of his disability. He is eventually married off to a woman who is mute, considered a socially acceptable match for both, but the brothers kidnap and rape her in an attempt to extort Guryong for the deeds to the land. Unable to tell anyone what’s happened, she murders her attacker. Faced again with cruel tradition, Guryong does not resist. 

After that, he goes back to minding his own business, but there are customs he will not follow including that of abandoning his mother on the mountain. 15 years later, drought and famine strike again. Keum worries that she is the cause and Guryong’s refusal to take her to the mountain has angered the gods. As supplies dwindle, the brothers make the most of their feudal powers, restricting access to the local well which is technically on their land, exchanging water for potatoes which are the only available source of food. Guryong, meanwhile, has spent the last few years quietly working away and has quite a sizeable crop of his own which makes him a rather wealthy and powerful figure, once again irritating the brothers. It’s at this point that a starving Gannan, now the mother of nine children, reappears and is forced to throw herself on Guryong’s mercy.

Marginalised because of his disability and fatherless status, Guryong has had to learn to survive alone and has prospered because of it, yet others regard him as a potential drain on their resources, an ill omen or harbinger of doom forever associated with the shamaness’ curse. With little to eat, people are forced to put their prejudices to one side but do so superficially. Gannan’s husband, dying of hunger, urges her to seduce Guryong and if possible marry him before he dies so that she won’t have to obey the custom of waiting three years in mourning before marrying again. Gannan is minded to sell her body, if that’s what it takes, but still reluctant to sell it to Guryong. In another case of socially acceptable partnering, she eventually sells one of her children to Keum to raise as a ward – Yeon, who is “imperfect” because of her pockmarked face.

Like Guryong, Yeon is brave and defiant, in some senses emboldened by her difference. She volunteers to go to Guryong because her siblings bully her over her face, but thinks nothing of cheerfully mocking Guryong’s limp or of talking back while playing the part of a servile daughter-in-law. She does, however, remain loyal to Gannan, stealing potatoes to sneak back to her family. The arrangement fails only when Keum decides it’s time to absent herself, that her presence is preventing Guryong uniting with Gannan and her children, but Guryong refuses to swap a mother for a wife and angrily rejects Gannan, beating her and the child believing them to have orchestrated a plot to get rid of Keum.

With the brothers hoarding food and Guryong keeping well out of it, the only solution proposed by the villagers involves the human sacrifice of a child. Guryong struggles to believe that they would really go that far, but finds himself again in the firing line when the brothers frame him for a murder and leave him at the mercy of the shamaness and her sacred tree. Spared only on the condition that he give in and take Keum to the mountain where she will pray for rain, he is forced into complicity with the cruelty of his times but his rage on his return knows no bounds. Realising he has been betrayed once again, he fulfils the shamaness’ prophecy, but is shaken by the words of one of the 10 as he attempts to stay his violence, insisting that they are not bad people and must embrace each other as brothers. He blames everything on the shamaness and her curse, which is of course a matter of a woman scorned. Guryong doesn’t quite buy that, the brothers were cruel to him because they could be even if the root cause was their father’s moral transgressions in his many marriages. He does, however, awaken to the inherent corruption of the world in which he lives embodied by the tyrannical authority of the shamaness and “Divine Spirit” manifested as the tree from which transgressors are hanged.

Kim never closes his framing sequence, the dark humour of the contemporary opening merely an introduction, but obliquely references the April Revolution of 1960 as Guryong takes an axe to the tree and frees himself from the shamaness’ control. According to Guryong, the tree kept the small evil out, but let the big one in. Taking the children by the hand, he leaves. “If there is someone to teach us, we can grow anything”, he tells them, it’s time to plant some seeds. Claiming his own freedom and rejecting his marginalisation, he steps forward into a better world out of the mountain’s shadow and free from the terrible tyranny of “tradition”. 


Goryeojang was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival. The new 4K restoration will also be released on blu-ray by the Korean Film Archive on 14th November.

Youngju (영주, Cha Sung-duk, 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Grass (풀잎들, Hong Sang-soo, 2018)

Grass poster 1You don’t meet nice girls in coffee shops, at least according to the melancholy narrator of a Tom Waits song recalling the flighty lover too free spirited for his wholesome hometown. Like one of the rundown dive bars in Waits’ conceptual universe, the cafe at the centre of Hong Sang-soo’s Grass (풀잎들, Pul-ip-deul) attracts its fair share of lonely drinkers looking for somewhere quiet to pour out their sorrows. Ostensibly a tale of simple eavesdropping abetted by the presence of a laptop, Hong’s narrative is at his most defiantly reflexive as it forces us to question the order of its reality and, in passing, our own.

Unnamed until the closing credits, Areum (Kim Min-hee) sits in a quiet cafe, tucked away in a corner tapping on her laptop and convincing herself she is an invisible observer of the world around her. Listening in on the various conversations of the other customers, she waxes philosophical on life, love, death, and distance by means of a beautifully poetic interior monologue but tells a fellow patron that she is not a writer, only writing, sort of a diary, but not a diary, something unusual for now. The irony is that though Areum feels herself to be far removed from those she is observing, they often complain that they feel “watched” or at any rate anxious under her intense yet abstracted gaze, sometimes challenging her but backing down when faced with her almost total lack of interest in interaction.

The patrons, almost echoes of themselves, are comprised of three couples – one in youth, one middle-age, and one approaching their twilight years. The men drink something cold in a tall glass with a straw, and the women something warm from a pleasantly round cup and saucer. Each of the men is an actor, while at least one of the women is a writer, though all of their conversations have their particular quality of awkwardness with the men largely trying to extract something from the women be it love, or forgiveness, or relief.

Finding herself in an awkward situation familiar to any woman who’s ever tried to work in a coffee shop on her own, Areum is approached by the middle-aged actor (Jung Jin-young) apparently trying to write a screenplay, and propositioned for advice. Having tried and failed to lure his wily writer friend (Kim Sae-byuk) on a 10 day retreat to “collaborate”, he asks Areum if he can come and “observe” her. She turns him down by saying she has a boyfriend, only for the actor to ask to talk to him for his permission, to prove he’s “not some kind of strange guy”.

The older actor (Gi Ju-bong), meanwhile, casually tells his companion (Seo Young-hwa) that he’s recently come out of hospital following a suicide attempt after trying to kill himself for love. Trying to move the conversation on, she tells him that she’s recently moved to a small house near the mountains, but realises her mistake when he fixates on the incidental detail that she’s got a spare room. Brushing off her reticence about a roommate, he repeatedly states that he’s got nowhere else to go in the hope that, as Areum says in her caustic voiceover, she will take pity on him and allow him to live the life of Riley on her dime. The friend is clearly distressed, she doesn’t want this man in her house (her equally strained looks when someone else tries to offer him a room suggest she’s reason to believe he’s trouble) but feels obliged to keep apologising for her refusal to acquiesce to his quite unreasonable request.

According to the maybe fiancée of Areum’s brother, men are cowards when it comes to pain or the need to end things. Areum seems to agree, but has a fairly cynical view on the entirety of human relationships, berating the pair for irresponsibly intending to marry on “love” alone. “We only loved each other” another sad young woman insists while harangued by a drunk middle-aged man intent on blaming her for the suicide of her late lover, neatly reversing the dynamics of the young couple from the cafe arguing about their shared sense of guilt over the death of a friend.

Areum wonders if it’s possible to fall in love with an innocent heart if you’re carrying the weight of someone else’s death. “You insignificant things” she warns the youngsters newly in love “you’ll die someday”, neatly ignoring the fact that so will she. Or perhaps this world will die with her. We begin to wonder if any of this is real or merely a series of manifestations of Areum’s cafe musings, reconstructions of the lives of others imagined from snippets overheard from adjacent tables. Adjacent tables is where Areum’s preferred to be, observing not partaking, a lonely ghost in this haunted cafe where lost souls come to ease their burdens. Yet, finally her resistance crumbles. She accepts an offer of soju and joins the gathering, abandoning her lofty pretensions of distance for a taste of togetherness. “In the end people are emotions…And I long for them now” she realises. “Is it real? It would be nice if it were”.


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Peppermint Candy (박하사탕, Lee Chang-dong, 1999)

Peppermint Candy 4K posterA wise man once said that the tragedy of life is that you have to live it forwards but it can only be understood in reverse. Lee Chang-dong’s second feature, the poignantly titled Peppermint Candy (박하사탕, Bakha Satang), lays bare the wounded innocence of 20th century Korea through the story of one man betrayed by the world in which he lived, eventually destroying himself in a protracted act of self-harm intended as a perverse attempt either at atonement or grudging conformity with a society he could not resist.

Beginning and ending with a picnic, Lee opens in 1999 as a hopelessly drunk Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu) crashes a reunion party he wasn’t technically invited to held to mark 20 years of friendship among former factory workers now approaching middle age. Dressed in a suit which looks somehow wrong on him, Yong-ho hogs the karaoke mic to sing a maudlin song about failed love, dances wildly, and sobs with the crushing hopelessness of a man entirely alone in the world. While his old friends try to reclaim the cheerful atmosphere, he climbs up to a nearby railway bridge where he waits for a train with outstretched arms, screaming “I’m going back” as he prepares to greet it.

Yong-ho does indeed “go back” as the train bears us ceaselessly back into the past, showing us the moments of Yong-ho’s life which struck him like a hammer to the soul and turned him into the defeated figure on the railway bridge, howling into the wind. At 40, Yong-ho is a hollowed out shell of a man, divorced and living in a greenhouse after falling foul of the volatile late ‘90s stock market, subsequently cheated out of all his money and the possibility of a new start by a man he thought was his friend. Given what we later learn about the middle-aged Yong-ho, it’s difficult to believe he had any kind of friends at all, and even if we’re conditioned to pity him as a man already dead he does nothing to earn our sympathy, cheating a poor roadside coffee seller out of a few pennies and then quietly smirking to himself in the safety of his car.

Yet, he begins to soften when a kindly man shows up and tells him that his first love, Sun-im (Moon So-ri) – now apparently this good man’s wife, is close to death and wants to see him one last time never having given up on the man he once was. Given the suit which doesn’t suit him by Sun-Im’s husband so that she won’t realise Yong-ho has made a mess of his life and be upset, Yong-ho stops to pick up a small jar filled with the titular “peppermint candy”, suddenly revealing that perhaps he never quite gave up on that man either and that may be his tragedy.

Before he was an arch capitalist making a few shady bucks in the pre-financial crisis economic boomtown of the newly democratised Korea, Yong-ho was a policeman working for the authoritarian government brutally torturing teenage democracy activists during the dying days of the regime. As a young rookie we see him squeamishly try to resist, only to be pressured into violence and then snap. The suspect fouls Yong-ho’s hand with the kind of smell that never really washes off, but it’s just one more stop on Yong-ho’s journey to spiritual ruination. Finally we reach his breaking point, in Gwangju in 1980, where his soul is forever soiled.

The Gwangju Massacre, in the story of Yong-ho’s life which is also the story of Korea, is the great festering wound which can never be healed. He carries it with him in an intermittent limp that resurfaces at times of emotional difficulty, and convinces himself that he is unworthy of everything good or innocent in the world. He breaks with Sun-im, cruelly betraying her faith in him with a crude gesture that wounds them both equally, mutually understood as a perverse act of kindness. Becoming what he thinks he’s supposed to be, what this society has made him, he wilfully destroys himself in a decades-long act of self harm that leads only back to the train which haunts him throughout all of his encounters, so painfully central to the arc of his life. Literally railroaded by an inexorable fate, Yong-ho lacks the will to resist believing he is no better than the hand he has been dealt but consumed by self-loathing and infinite regret. There is no way back, only forward, but for Yong-ho, and perhaps for Korea, Lee sees only one way out and the soft of heart will not survive it.


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

Trailer (English subtitles)