The Slug (태어나길 잘했어, Choi Jin-young, 2020)

“My name is Park Chunhee. I’m a little…drenched.” “From the weight of life?” asks a fellow sufferer a little too excitedly. “In sweat” she flatly replies, though in her case less from existential anxiety than a persistent medical condition she finds so embarrassing it prevents her leading a fulfilling life. Although, it seems, that’s not the only reason that Park Chunhee has found herself arrested since the age of 15. A whimsical tale of growing self-acceptance, Choi Jin-young’s The Slug (태어나길 잘했어, Taeeonagil Jalhaesseo) reconnects its lonely, defeated soon-to-be middle aged heroine with her teenage counterpart to make both sense of and peace with the past in order to “find purpose and meaning somewhere in this world”.

We first meet Chunhee (Kang Jin-a / Park Hye-jin) in 1998, shortly after the Asian Financial Crisis, entering the home of her uncle (Ko Jo-yeong) and aunt (Kim Geum-sun) following the funeral of her parents. It seems although the family has agreed to take her in, little thought has been given to her place within the household. Her cousin Yura (Kim Yeon-woo) flat out refuses to share her room while her aunt is reluctant to allow her to use the room of her son Wonseok (Lim Ho-jun / Yoo Gyeong-san) who is away at university in case he should come back. Slightly exasperated, grandma (Byeon Joong-hee) agrees she can come in with her, but her uncle has another idea – the attic crawlspace, according her aunt freezing and rat infested and though he offers to fix it up it’s clear he won’t be doing it himself and doesn’t want to pay. Nevertheless, it’s where she ends up staying, hidden away and treated quite literally as a poor relation with no one but grandma showing her the slightest bit of affection. 

20 years later, Chunhee is still living in the house though apparently alone. Her attic room is more or less unchanged, pinups of a teenage Prince William still affixed to her windowsill along with a family photo. She finds strange companionship in an errant slug crawling on the wall, partly in the trail she leaves after herself because of her excessive sweating that caused her aunt to be forever berating her to mop the floor after she passed through in socks. These days she makes ends meet by pealing copious amounts of garlic for a local restaurant while saving up for an operation to cure her sweating. After being mysteriously struck by lightning, however, her life becomes even stranger as she’s haunted by the younger version of herself and plagued with flashbacks to her teenage trauma.

Besides the sweating, Chunhee’s problem seems to lie in the conviction that her life is worthless and it would have been better if she had died along with her parents but best if she were never born at all. After accidentally wandering into a weird support group under the name of “Time to Face Myself” she ends up bonding with a similarly dejected man who has developed a stammer after being beaten by his father and regrets that his life has been a series of missed opportunities as a consequence. Yet she still doubts that she has a right to love or happiness, convinced that people don’t like her and that she is a toxic person destined to make others unhappy. Only by reconnecting with the younger Chunhee and bonding with the kind yet awkward Juhwang (Hong Sang-pyo) does she begin to see that it was never her fault, she was not in the wrong, and has as much right to life as anyone else.

Originally changing the locks because it’s her house and she doesn’t want anyone else inside, Chunhee finally manages to escape her strange limbo land even as her feckless family members flounder, Wonseok apparently ruined by his failed revolution while her uncle died a failed poet and Yura apparently became an unsuccessful film director. “Life is cold” Chunhee is reminded by a new friend engineered by her innate kindness, realising that though she feared being alone alone is all she’s ever been. Nevertheless, her new connections have perhaps in a sense liberated her, given her courage to face herself and rediscover a sense of self worth that gives her the confidence to venture out into the world in search of answers walking towards a large heart comprised of several smaller ones as she embarks on an existential quest for meaning open to whatever it is that awaits her.


The Slug screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Three Sisters (세자매, Lee Seung-won, 2020)

Lee Seung-won’s lightly humorous family drama is not an adaptation of the Chekhov play, but like its namesake does find Three Sisters (세자매, Se Jamae) trapped in the past, their lives “messed up” by the demands of living in a patriarchal society. A showcase for the three actresses at its centre, Lee’s drama works towards a gradual sisterly solidarity brokered by an awkward confrontation with the source of all their trauma but also lays bare the radiating consequences of unchecked male failure as the three women struggle to lead successful adult lives in the shadow of their childhood suffering. 

Opening with a black and white sequence in which two young girls run hand in hand quite clearly away from something bad rather than just for the joy of it, Lee switches to the present day in which oldest sister Hee-sook (Kim Sun-young) is an anxious middle-aged woman perpetually making apology for her existence, while middle sister Mi-yeon (Moon So-ri) is a cooly controlled deaconess and mother of two, and little sister Mi-ok (Jang Yoon-ju) is an unstable drunk and struggling playwright married to a moderately wealthy greengrocer with a teenage son from a previous marriage. 

They have all quite obviously chosen different methods in effort to suppress the effects of their childhood trauma, raised as we later realise in a violent home abused by their drunken father but apparently expected to put up with it out of filial piety. A half-sister Hee-sook finds herself apologising for anything and everything, filled with intense shame for her very existence. Mi-yeon by contrast has chosen order, devoutly religious she maintains high standards for her family but is filled with barely repressed rage unable it seems to express any other emotion. On realising that her professor husband (Jo Han-chul) is having a highly inappropriate affair with a much younger student she reacts with both violence and cunning, unilaterally putting a stop to his philandering while subtly letting him know that she knows and has dealt with it. Further emasculated, he tries to get some kind of normal reaction from her, hoping she will shout or hit him but she continues in the same calm and controlled fashion as if nothing had happened. Meanwhile, in another echo of her father’s violence she finds herself taking out her frustrations on her young daughter, Ha-eun (Kyung Daeun), who rebels against her need for order by refusing to say grace. 

Mi-ok by contrast has in a sense chosen chaos, drinking herself into oblivion while often ringing Mi-yeon in intense confusion unable to recall a seemingly unimportant detail from their mutual past. Taking on the big sister role, Mi-yeon finds herself in a similar position with Hee-sook who apparently doesn’t remember an event that was important to her of their dining together in the same cafe they are currently visiting back when she first came to the city and Hee-sook worked in a nearby office. Later the three sisters will attempt to visit another cafe that Mi-ok had struggled to remember but will find it closed, their past perhaps locked to them but in a sense also pushing them towards a happier future as they reaffirm their sisterly bonds after living lives of highly individualised suffering. 

Failed by a feckless father, the three women find themselves at the mercy of problematic men Hee-sook apparently re-victimised as the wife of an abusive partner who returns periodically to extort money and undermine her self-esteem, while Mi-yeon attempts to evade subjugation by dominating her husband only to find him rebelling against her through an extra-marital affair. Only Mi-ok seems to have made a better marriage to a mild-mannered, patient and caring husband but is also accused of marrying him for his money while taken to task by others for her “failure” to play the part of the conventional wife and mother, her ability to do so perhaps corrupted by her traumatic childhood. “Just treat them with love” Mi-yeon ironically advises seconds after unfairly scolding her own daughter, simultaneously explaining that no one learns to be a mother, though of course in some senses they do, and that anyone can be one as long as they work at it. Nevertheless, after confronting the source of all their pain and suffering the three women manage to rediscover a sense of solidarity that perhaps allows them to reclaim their agency and live better, more fulfilling lives free of the shadow of the past. 


Three Sisters screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Beyond You (그대 너머에, Park Hong-min, 2020)

Ever feel like there’s something you just can’t remember, a strange prickling like an ant crawling across the back of your mind? The frustrated director at the centre of Park Hong-min’s Beyond You (그대 너머에, Geudae Neomeoe) is beginning to experience something similar though perhaps it isn’t quite his memory at all. Returning five years after the experimental thriller Alone, Park’s existential melodrama begins in Hong Sang-soo territory with its caddish director and constant repetition but quickly veers off into the realms of the metaphysical as he contemplates memory and legacy through the prism of dementia. 

After a brief prologue in which an ant ventures off from its colony and is later swept into a local bin, Park opens with a strange sequence in which film director Kyung-ho (Kim Kwon-hoo) sobs on a bench next to a shrine while another man who is either sitting on his lap or somehow occupying the same space seems entirely oblivious of his existence. In any case, Kyung-ho has been waiting for Ji-yeon (Yoon Hey-ri), a young woman who is the daughter of his first love In-sook (Oh Mine) and has recently begun corresponding with him over some writing that her mother had done concerning their past relationship. It comes as something of a surprise, however, when Ji-yeon boldly suggests he might be her father, reacting with horror when she asks him to take paternity test. Taking the hint, Ji-yeon soon leaves apologising for her sudden intrusion after explaining that her mother has early onset Alzheimer’s and has spoken of him often aside from the episode contained in the writing. 

Thereafter Kyung-ho chases after her, thinking perhaps he’s been rude or over hasty shocked to think that he might have had a daughter he never knew about though later confessing he had in a sense “forgotten” In-sook not having really thought about her in the intervening 20 years since they last saw each other. He finds himself wandering around the dreamlike backstreets of the city chasing the image of Ji-yeon only for her to finally track him down and haunt him directly by emerging from a cupboard in his room when he refuses to open his door. This scenario directly mirrors his later incursion into the subconscious of In-sook, invited by Ji-yeon who is currently unable to enter because her mother does not remember her, complaining about a “strange woman” hanging round outside. 

Ji-yeon’s preoccupation is with the nature of her existence if she is not remembered by her mother and therefore not a part of her conscious world. Kyung-ho goes inside, in a sense, to rescue her only to find In-sook suddenly struck by a moment of existential attack pulling piles of papers out of her cupboards as she searches for the memory of her daughter she is unable to retrieve. Yet as she hinted in the dream narrative she’d explained to the “real” Ji-yeon, In-sook looks for her daughter every day, eventually finding her even if she fails to recognise and associate Ji-yeon with the fragmentary image in her mind. 

Kyung-ho, perhaps selfishly not wanting the bother of a secret daughter, is forever telling In-sook that it’s OK to forget him, as if his space could be freed up for Ji-yeon to enter yet through his dream odyssey he begins to lose himself. Or at least, perhaps this is all part of the screenplay Kyung-ho is attempting to write which is dismissed as dull and self-obsessed by his producer who advises him write something that other people will find “fun”. He tries teaming up with a screenwriter, explaining that “nobody wants to hear my story so I really want to tell it” but she too tells him that he might be better off just filming himself. The meetings repeat with small differences, but never go in his favour until he finds himself a ghost witnessing them from the outside. Just as Ji-yeon wasn’t sure she really existed outside of her mother’s writings, Kyung-ho begins to doubt his own reality while trapped inside the meta-dimensions of his unfinished screenplay.  

Park’s rather convoluted machinations may prove frustratingly incoherent, lacking internal consistency while insisting on the logic of dreams as the hero effectively haunts himself, but are perhaps explained in that early ant metaphor in a small creature’s attempt to venture away from the crowd only to end up feeling lonely, falling into despair and then attempting to crawl its way out. “Wherever you go no one will recognise you” Kyung-ho is told, yet his tragedy may be that he fails to recognise himself even as he chases fleeting visions in the minds of others searching for existential validation in shared memory. 


Beyond You screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Minari (미나리, Lee Isaac Chung, 2020)

“Remember what we said when we got married? That we’d go to America and save each other. Instead all we do is fight” admits the failing patriarch at the centre of Lee Isaac Chung’s touching semi-autobiographical family drama Minari (미나리). Less a treatise on the elusiveness of the American Dream or the immigrant experience, Chung’s primary preoccupation is with the family itself seen partly through the eyes of the young David but also with the hindsight of adulthood in reconsidering the frustrated hopes and dreams of his parents as they find themselves divided not only by the fear and loneliness of trying to build a life in another country but by stubborn male pride and conflicting desires. 

The Yi family arrive for their new life in convoy, patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) leading in front driving a removal van and mother Monica (Han Ye-ri) following behind driving the family car with daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) in the passenger seat and son David (Alan Kim) in the back. Pulling up into the huge empty field to find a rundown trailer home which doesn’t even have steps up to the door, Monica is non-plussed. “This is not what you promised” she admonishes her husband with a force that suggests it isn’t the first time he’s disappointed her. Jacob, however, believes he’s found the new Garden of Eden, intending to root his family in the “best dirt in America”. His big dream is to plug a gap in the market by farming Korean fruit and veg to sell to the ever expanding diaspora community. 

Monica meanwhile is unconvinced, more concerned with immediate matters of practicality wondering if it’s really wise to have brought their son who has a heart condition out into the virtual wilderness an hour away from the nearest hospital. While making progress on the farm, the couple make ends meet with the same job they were doing back in California, sexing chickens, at which Jacob is apparently a dab hand while Monica struggles but is told that her efficiency is “good enough” for Arkansas. While he dreams, she concentrates on getting better at the job believing that if sexing chickens for the rest of her life is all there is it’s fine as long as its feeds their family. But Jacob remains stubbornly obsessed with making the farm a success no matter what it costs. Male chicks get discarded because in the end they have little use, they don’t taste good and they don’t lay eggs. “They need to see me succeed at something” he eventually tells his wife of the children even as she considers leaving him, too obsessed with his sense of male pride to admit the idea of failure. The last man who tried to farm his land apparently felt much the same, eventually taking his own life rather than live with the humiliation when the farm failed. 

“We can’t save each other” Monica concludes, realising that Jacob has chosen the farm or more accurately himself and his pride over their family and that she alone is in that sense shouldering the burden of their shared endeavour. Believing that his wife is most likely lonely, Jacob consents to inviting her mother to live with them (apparently a frequent source of their arguments), grandma Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) remembering a sentimental love song that they’d liked when they were first married but like the love itself have apparently forgotten. Her presence at first disrupts and then perhaps heals the fracturing family through an injection of Koreanness, her “foreignness” thoroughly alienating youngest son David who is forced to share a room with her but complains that she “smells like Korea” and refuses to drink the traditional herbal concoction she prepares for him. She doesn’t fit his Americanised image of the traditional “grandma” as a warm and cuddly woman who bakes cookies and tells stories. Direct if not severe, Soon-ja plays cards, swears liberally, and wears men’s underwear while enthusiastically watching the wrestling on television. David only begins to warm to her when she takes his side against his authoritarian father even though he’d played a rather cruel trick on her. 

Nevertheless it’s grandma who perhaps saves the family in the end, planting her minari seeds from Korea at a nearby creek, explaining that they grow best wild and are a versatile source of sustenance for anyone and everyone. Mother and father do in fact save each other, quite literally, as Jacob finally chooses his wife over his farm while little David’s condition unexpectedly improves, the hole in his heart beginning to repair itself even as his family faces greater strain. A tender tale of familial, cultural, and emotional integration Minari eventually finds peace and comfort in the resilience of the family unit held together by a grandmother’s foresight and the rediscovery of a long buried love. 


Minari is available to stream in the UK from 2nd April courtesy of Altitude Films.

UK Trailer

Search Out (서치 아웃, Kwak Jung, 2020)

A trio of disillusioned youngsters kick back against Hell Joseon by chasing down an internet serial killer in Kwak Jung’s dark cyber thriller, Search Out (서치 아웃). As the title implies, the three are each looking for something to tell them that they still have time, their dreams are still achievable, and their lives are worth living, yet as they discover there are those keen to convince them otherwise including a mysterious online presence who seemingly takes advantage of those already in despair and pushes them towards a dark and irreversible decision. 

The hero, Jun-hyeok (Kim Sung-cheol), is currently job hunting while working part-time in a convenience store. His best friend, Seong-min (Lee Si-eon) is desperate to join the police force but having trouble passing the civil service exams. To pass the time, Jun-hyeok also does odd jobs for people who need help under the pseudonym “Genie” via his social media accounts, but when he’s unexpectedly approached by a woman in the same boarding house who tells him that she’s in a dark place and needs someone to talk to, he turns her down out of embarrassment afraid that his “real” identity might be exposed and ashamed to admit that “Genie” is just regular guy who can’t get a job. Unfortunately, however, the young woman is later found dead in an apparent suicide. 

Consumed with guilt, Jun-hyeok tries to ease his conscience but accidentally stumbles across a weird account the young woman had been interacting with shortly before she died. “Ereshkigal” asks all the wrong questions of those already in a dark place, probing them about the meaning of life and whether their lives are really worth living before, as Jun-hyeok later realises, blackmailing them into completing various “missions”. Paradoxically, Jun-hyeok’s quest to stop the mysterious online threat is partly a way of absolving himself of guilt while simultaneously fighting back against those same feelings of despair that he too feels as a young man who can’t seem to get his foot on the ladder, rudely insulted by a cocky high school kid for being an “adult” still doing a student’s job. 

Seong-min feels much the same, indulging his love of justice as a man who just wants to protect and serve and feels it’s unfair he’s being prevented from doing so because he struggles with paperwork when his true strengths lie in the field. Turning to a private detective when the police won’t listen to them, the guys team up with frustrated hacker Noo-rie (Heo Ga-yoon) who like them also feels as if she’s stagnating, slumming it with a shady job at the detective agency when she obviously has major IT skills. A psychiatrist Jun-hyeok meets through his Genie job warns them that the killer may be leveraging his victims’ feelings of despair to convince them that the only way to escape suffering is through death. Despite himself, it’s a sentiment that Jun-hyeok can well understand. 

Like other young people his age, he attempts to mask his sense of loneliness through social media, another weakness the killer sees fit to exploit. Yet as a potential suspect later points out, “it’s fun to peek at others’ private lives” exposing himself as a banal voyeur while simultaneously revealing the unexpected vulnerability of those who live online. In any case, the final revelations are perhaps expected, and not, in the way they bare out the inequalities of the contemporary Korean society. Jun-hyeok starts to wonder if it really was all his fault from the very beginning as his own not quite innocent but largely accidental moment of social media notoriety may have had unintended, unforeseen consequences even as he sought a kind of justice in exposing wrongdoing by the rich and powerful. 

Nevertheless, as Seong-min is fond of saying, “you must do what’s right. You must bring justice”. Others might argue that it’s “natural to kill others to survive”, but the trio at least prefer mutual solidarity as they work together to take down the killer while fighting their own demons along with the continued indifference of the authorities which are supposed to protect them. Partly a treatise on why you should be more careful about what you post online and how you interact with others in general, Kwak’s steely thriller is also a story of three young people searching out a reason to live and finding it largely in each other as they come to an acceptance of life’s ambiguities but also of their right to define them for themselves. 


Search Out streams in the US March 24 – 28 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Voice of Silence (소리도 없이, Hong Eui-jeong, 2020)

“Once you join a family, you have to pitch in, right?” the aphorism-loving protagonist of Hong Eui-jeong’s disturbingly warmhearted crime caper Voice of Silence (소리도 없이, Sorido Eopsi) explains to a little girl who has recently come into his “care” as she dutifully begins massaging the earth towards a half-buried body. Partly an exploration of the family bond and its propensity to arise even in the most duplicitous of circumstances, Hong’s ironically cheerful drama is also a mild condemnation of the modern society and its capacity to push good people to do bad things in its infinite oppressions. 

Egg farmer Chang-bok (Yoo Jae-myung), for example, is a man of faith who places great stock in protestant virtues of hard work and humility. Yet he sees no irony in the sign reading “Today’s honest sweat is tomorrow’s happiness” on the wall of a disused barn where he carries out his second job preparing torture victims for gangsters and then disposing of the bodies even going so far as to say a little prayer for them, bible in hand, as he places them into shallow graves in the forest. He and his mute partner Tae-in (Yoo Ah-in) dutifully wait outside as the violence takes place, rejecting entirely their sense of complicity with the corruption of the gangster world viewing themselves only as providing a service and taking pride in providing it well.

Nevertheless, when their “manager” pays them an unexpected visit and gives them an unusual assignment of “looking after” a person for a few days they can hardly refuse even as Chang-bok reminds him it’s not in their job description. Contrary to expectation, however, the “person” turns out not to be sequestered gangster but an 11-year-old girl, Cho-hee (Moon Seung-ah), whose father is haggling over a ransom payment. When the manager is consumed by the same system he previously operated, it leaves them with a problem. They can’t simply let the girl go because the kidnappers want their cut, but the father won’t pay up and so the only other option is handing her over to child traffickers. Chang-bok and more particularly Tae-in would rather that didn’t happen, but on the other hand they aren’t really doing too much to actively prevent it. 

Just as Chang-bok and and Tae-in are “egg farmers”, the child traffickers run their business out of a moribund chicken farm. The rural economy is apparently not faring so well in the modern society. Yet Hong’s countryside vistas are presented as an idyllic paradise with bluer than blue, cloudless skies and fields of verdant green. Then again those who live off the land are perhaps most aware of its compromises and of the price of survival. Chang-bok is fond of spouting vaguely religious aphorisms such as “whatever you do, do your best and be humble. Always be thankful for what you have”, later blaming his predicament on his recent laxity in attending church, but evidently sees no contradiction between his creed and way of life. He doesn’t want to hand Cho-hee over the child traffickers, but he won’t resist it either merely seeing it as an inevitable consequence of events already in play in which he is but a passive participant. 

Tae-in, meanwhile, though literally voiceless is beginning to reject his passivity. Apparently raised by Chang-bok from infancy, he is currently a guardian to a mysterious “sister”, Moon-joo (Lee Ga-eun) around 15 years younger than he is though no mention is made of their parents or what might have happened to them. Charged with taking care of Cho-hee he finds himself developing a paternal fondness for her while she quite unexpectedly slides neatly into his home, bringing a strangely maternal if perhaps in its own way problematic order in tidying the place up and giving Tae-il a more concrete sense of familial rootedness. When the pair picked her up, they wondered if Cho-hee’s father was haggling over the ransom amount because the kidnappers took his daughter when they meant to take his son. Chang-bok is morally outraged, believing sons and daughters should be treated the same and shocked a father would’t immediately do everything he could to protect his little girl. But Cho-hee knows only too well that they value her brother more and in fact doubts her father will help her. She carries these old fashioned patriarchal values into Tae-in’s village home, brushing Moon-joo’s rather feral hair, teaching her to fold clothes away neatly, instructing her to speak more politely to her brother and not to start eating until he has taken his first bite. 

Despite themselves, the four become an accidental family cheerfully enjoying ice lollies on a hot summer’s day trying to figure out a polaroid camera which has been bought for a slightly less happy purpose. There is perhaps an idea that Cho-hee might simply not return to her wealthy, urban family in which she feels unwanted and inferior but stay here in the more “innocent” countryside where the people are “honest”, value their daughters the same as their sons (even the child traffickers apparently charge the same discriminating only by age and blood type), and bury their bodies together. Chang-bok and Tae-in aren’t bad people, just members of a corrupt society who’ve internalised a sense of powerlessness that encourages them to be “humble” and complicit doing what they can to survive. Each marginalised by disability, Chang-bok walking with a pronounced limp and Tae-in rendered impotent by his inability to speak, they do not want to turn to “crime” but are trapped at the bottom of the social hierarchy and dependent on the illicit economy. Is Cho-hee any worse off with them than with the father who wouldn’t pay to get her back? The jury is most definitely out. 


Voice of Silence streamed as part of the Glasgow Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Our Midnight (아워 미드나잇, Lim Jung-eun, 2020)

Should you continue following your dreams or accept defeat and “grow up” into a conventional adulthood with a steady job, marriage, and comfortable home? The hero of Lim Jung-eun’s Our Midnight (아워 미드나잇) is reluctant to give up on his acting dreams while his friends look down on him in bemusement, all secretly miserable in the regular corporate careers they’ve opted for partly for practical reasons but also because of intense social pressure. Meanwhile, across town a young woman finds herself dealing with the other side of the same problem struggling under the weight of patriarchal norms in which it becomes impossible to separate the personal and the professional. Approaching the same bridge from opposite directions, the pair of youngsters begin to find a sense of peace in shared anxiety emerging from the heavy gloom of a midnight city into a brighter light of day. 

Now in his 30s, Jihoon (Lee Seung-hun) is still an “aspiring” actor trapped in exploitative part-time work in which he has to actively fight to be paid the money he is rightfully owed. He finds himself hanging out in the old rehearsal room from his student days as if nothing had changed in the decade since he graduated. Meanwhile, his nine-year relationship with Areum (Han Hae-in) which began when they were both student actors is about to come to an abrupt end. She’s already “grown up” with a regular job earning real money and is sick of Jihoon’s fecklessness. Areum wants to get married and settle down, but not with Jihoon. Approaching another uni friend now apparently a civil servant (Lim Young-woo), Jihoon is offered a strange new job which ironically reflects the pressures of the world in which he lives. In order to combat Seoul’s notoriously high suicide rate, an experimental programme is being set up in which a squad of samaritans will patrol the local bridges overnight looking for people who seem to be in distress and may be thinking of taking their own lives. 

As one of the other employees points out, if you’re in a dark place perhaps the last thing you want is some guy turning up with a series of platitudes about how you’ll feel better in the morning but all Jihoon has to do is wander round at night so he might as well give it a try. His new role, however, may also feed into his hero complex while allowing him the opportunity to rehearse for real life in the streets. It’s on one nighttime voyage that he first encounters Eunyoung (Park Seo-eun) as she collapses on the bridge after mournfully peering out over the edge. As he later discovers, Eunyoung is a lower grade office worker who is facing workplace discrimination and career insecurity after experiencing domestic violence in her relationship with a co-worker. After reporting the matter to the police, she finds her own job in jeopardy, the older male bosses concluding she is the one at fault for causing embarrassment by dragging this taboo matter into the light while her abuser presumably gets a free pass to continue his career without further penalty. 

In any case, it seems that Jihoon’s friends aren’t faring much better in the world of work, one lamenting that Jihoon has it made because he’s living the way he chooses while another exclaims that his life is about to end because he’s getting married. In a coffee shop, he overhears a cynical businessman on the phone to his boss about scapegoating a middle-aged woman for a workplace mistake presumably to avoid keeping her on the books. Still in his hero mode, Jihoon eventually decides to say something and let the woman know she’s being manipulated, but his intervention is of little use. Like Eunyoung, the woman realises her lack of agency in the corporate hierarchy and accepts that she’s losing her job whatever happens so she might as well take the blame with the money. After all, she’s unlikely to find another position very easily in Korea’s famously difficult employment market. 

All in all, it isn’t difficult to understand why so many people are pushed towards ending their own lives, crushed by the various pressures of Hell Joseon. Yet through their midnight walk through the strangely empty streets the pair begin to generate a kind of solidarity, literally role playing their way out of mutual despair as they each stand up to those who try to keep them down be it an abusive partner and internalised shame or dismissive friends and family who disapprove of those who refuse to follow the accepted path to conventional success. A black and white odyssey through a depressed city, Our Midnight throws up its strangely colourful title card in a vibrant yellow and purple at the half hour mark, allowing its wandering heroes finally to board the train out of despair through mutual acceptance crossing the bridge together into a brighter, less oppressive existence. 


Our Midnight streamed as part of the Glasgow Film Festival.

The Swordsman (검객, Choi Jae-hoon, 2020)

“Is this all there is to being a soldier?” a jaded young man asks of an apparently reluctant mentor as he, also reluctantly it seems, prepares to betray his king merely because the balance of power has shifted. Drawing heavily from wuxia and chanbara, Choi Jae-hoon’s The Swordsman (검객, Geomgaek) once again takes on the futility of violence as the two men who might each lay claim to the title attempt to escape the complicated world of Joseon politics but find themselves unable to escape the legacy of the blade while facing an internal debate as to how to protect that which is most precious to them.

Loosely “inspired by true events” as the opening title card insists, the action opens in 1623 with King Gwanghae (Jang Hyun-sung) fleeing the palace in the wake of insurrection. Like pretty much every other ruler, he’s been accused of murdering his siblings to usurp the throne and has lost the the support of the army, including his personal swordsman Min Seung-ho (Jung Man-sik), after instructing his generals to surrender to the enemy. Valiantly protected by lone defender Tae-yul (Jang Hyuk), Gwanghae makes the ultimate sacrifice for his people and agrees to go quietly pausing only to secretly entrust his infant daughter to the last man standing. 

Flashforward 15 years or so and Tae-yul is now a mountain recluse raising his teenage daughter Tae-ok (Kim Hyun-soo) alone in hiding from nefarious forces. The problem is that his eyesight is now failing and a trip to the physician to acquire medicine proves fruitless when it turns out such rare substances are available only to those with connections. Tae-ok wants to take up an offer from a local lord to become his foster daughter in order to get her father the medicine, but he is understandably reluctant. Meanwhile, a new threat has arrived in town in the form of thuggish Qing slave traders apparently intent on further disrupting the already unbalanced Joseon political situation which is divided in support of the Ming. 

The political context in itself is only subtly conveyed, though this is a rare period drama in which the focus is only tangentially on courtly intrigue in the suggestions that constant machinations by ambitious lords have undermined the notions of soldierly honour and loyalty that ordinarily support the feudal system. The conflicted Min, a man of the sword, retires from the court because he isn’t certain he acted correctly in his actions towards Gwanghae and fears he was merely manipulated as he later is by bloodthirsty slave trader Gurantai (Joe Taslim). Gurantai and his henchmen seem to be on the look out solely for a worthy opponent to satiate their boredom, threatening an entire kingdom in the process. Tae-yul, by contrast, has renounced the way of the sword altogether and attempted to isolate himself from worldly violence in order to better protect his daughter only to find himself dragged down from the mountain by her love for him in insisting he find the means to fix his eyes. 

When Tae-ok is kidnapped by Gurantai who has figured out who she is (in one sense or another), Tae-yul enters full on Taken mode determined to save both the girl herself and reclaim this relic of an earlier, purer world to which she is perhaps the heir pausing only to free a few slaves on his way. Operating on a much lower budget than your average period drama, Choi shoots mainly in a shaky handheld maintaining an indieish aesthetic in keeping with the rough and ready quality of the narrative which seems to draw equally from Hollywood westerns, Hong Kong wuxia, and Japanese samurai movies in its relentless drive towards the final showdown. Making a few points about he changing nature of the times and the futility of violence, the minions of a venal lord are eventually cutdown by rows of Qing armed with rifles while they flounder helplessly with only their blades, swordsmanship itself now an obsolete art though apparently one still valuable to bored, insecure leaders such as Gurantai. Nevertheless, the expertly choreographed action scenes have a mounting intensity from Tae-yul’s early refusal to unsheathe his distinctive double-edged blade to the merciless killing of a female bystander at the film’s conclusion. Ending with an ironic return to the world, apparently now changed, The Swordsman kicks back against feudal hypocrisies while its blinded hero uses the only weapons available to him in order to protect what he considers to be worth protecting. 


The Swordsman streamed as part of the Glasgow Film Festival.

US trailer (English subtitles)

Da Capo (다시 만난 날들, Shim Chan-yang, 2020)

Do what you love and never work a day in your life is what everyone says, but turning your passion into a job can be a soul-destroying process. The hero of Shim Chan-yang’s Da Capo (다시 만난 날들, Dasi Mannan Naldeul) is beginning to wonder if it’s all worth it and whether the reason he’s not getting ahead is his own pig headedness or the increasingly soulless music industry apparently only interested in “catchy tunes” and “simple love songs”. Feeling maudlin he’s beginning to dwell on what it was he loved about music in the first place and realising perhaps it wasn’t about the tunes after all. 

Approaching 30, Tae-il (Isaac Hong) has recently returned from abroad and is currently slogging it out as a singer-songwriter in Seoul. Handed a potential opportunity in a card from a powerful A&R woman best known for managing a top idol, he ponders trying to write a generic pop song but keeps stumbling over a simple lyric about the sea thinking back on his days in a high school band and the friends he may never see again. Taking a visit back to his home town for inspiration brings him into contact with former bandmate Ji-won (Jang Ha-eun) now working as a guitar teacher at her uncle’s music academy, and a collection of nerdy yet passionate kids hoping to hit no. 1 on the Billboard charts with their innovative fusion of nu-metal, post-grunge, and traditional Korean instrumentation (to be added at a later date). 

Though perhaps harbouring a little resentment over Tae-il’s apparently abrupt departure overseas, Ji-won allows him to stay on her sofa while helping him figure out how to finish his simple pop song, a plaintive ballad about lost love and regret. Secretly, he may be looking down on her a little, thinking she’s failed in someway slumming it as a guitar teacher in their old home town but unlike him Ji-won has maintained her passion for music while honing all her skills. She later reveals that she once had a recording contract but eventually decided against it, having realised it wasn’t all about the music and apparently not wanting the rubbish that goes with chart success. Tae-il, however, isn’t so sure especially after the song they wrote together is optioned by the A&R woman though attending the meeting means breaking a promise to the kids he helped to mentor to be there for them at their big concert. 

Like Ji-won, the kids are all full of the joy of music even if they’ve slightly contradictory ideas, lead singer Deok-ho (Seo Young-jae) simultaneously penning grisly death metal lyrics yet wanting mainstream acclaim. Deok-ho apparently decided rock was his thing because the girl he liked liked it, but now she likes hip hop and an older, thuggish sort of boy. He doesn’t take kindly to Tae-il’s taking their metal beat and reconfiguring it as coffeeshop lo-fi, but eventually comes round and takes his advice about authentic songwriting, allowing each of his buddies the chance to shine in putting the track together as a team. 

Meanwhile, Tae-il finds himself relegated to the back of a music video in a garish New Wave outfit, standing in front of an inflatable flamingo, and handed a guitar with no strings in a pointed piece of symbolism especially as he realises they’ve added a rap section just to spice it up a bit. Observing the kids at the beginning of their musical journey and thinking back on his days in a high school band he begins to realise that what he liked about making music was the excitement of collaboration and the gentle camaraderie of after-jam dinners. Perhaps Ji-won has it right and all the rubbish isn’t worth it when you can just stay home and make music with your friends without caring too much about pleasing the commercial aspirations of A&R execs looking for the distinctive generic. Not quite a romance and surprisingly uninterested in the band’s concert journey, Shim’s soulful drama allows its two old friends the space to find new equilibrium brokered by their shared love of music while gleefully ceding ground to the eager youngsters as they too bond through common endeavour discovering the pure joy of creative connection and emotional harmonies. 


Da Capo streamed as part of the Glasgow Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Start-Up (시동, Choi Jung-yol, 2019)

Two young men experience a failure to launch in Choi Jung-yol’s Start-Up (시동, Sidong), a much gentler coming of age tale than his 2016 feature debut One Way Trip. Like the earlier film, however, Start-Up finds its two heroes pulled in different directions while experiencing the same dilemmas, these being in the main a kind of toxic masculinity that sees them in part reject their respective maternal figures in internalised shame as sons who feel they should be but are fundamentally incapable of taking of care of them and perhaps concluding that their only familial connection must be disappointed and resentful.

We can see the boys’ sense of futility in the opening sequence in which they literally fail to kickstart a scooter that 18-year-old Taek-il (Park Jung-min), the hero, has somehow managed to buy on the internet but seems to be a dud. Eventually they wind up having an accident and being taken to the police station where Taek-il’s mother Jeong-hye (Yum Jung-ah) has to bail them out leaving even the desk officers looking quite embarrassed as she takes Taek-il to task for his irresponsibility, disappointed to learn he spent money intended for lessons to help him (belatedly) get his high school diploma on the useless scooter. He tells her he’s dropped out of school and has no interest uni, fiercely resenting her refusal to accept his decision while unwisely cutting in that she doesn’t have the money to send him anyway which earns him one of her trademark volleyball slaps. 

Taek-il’s unwise words perhaps hint at part of the reason he’s rejecting the life his mother wants for him in that he knows how much she’s suffered and sacrificed on his behalf and doesn’t want to add to her burden by encouraging her to overwork herself to pay for college when he doesn’t think he’s worth it anyway. Of course, he can’t say any of this to her, and she can’t tell him she only wants the best for him, so they alternate between silence and blazing rows with Taek-il retreating into peaceful visions of life on a desert island when everything gets too hard. Wanting to prove himself independent, he ends up running away but doesn’t have money to get very far so ends up working in a Chinese noodle restaurant in provincial Gun-san. 

His friend Sang-pil (Jung Hae-in), meanwhile, is an orphan living with his elderly grandmother (Go Doo-shim) who appears to be suffering from dementia and has been supporting the pair of them by peeling chestnuts. Like Taek-il, Sang-Pil desperately wants to be able to take care of his grandmother and make her life as easy as possible but is largely out of options which might be why he lets a shady friend, Dong-hwa (Yoon Kyung-ho), introduce him to his “company” which turns out to be a local loansharking gang for which Dong-hwa is an enforcer and debt collector. Sang-pil tells Taek-il that he’s got a job “in finance”, and though he’s conflicted enjoys the sense of self worth he gains as a working man earning money to look after grandma. He is too naive to realise that the first family they visit is aggressively nice to Dong-hwa because he’s probably been less than nice to them in the past, coming away with the mistaken idea that the job’s not so bad and people are grateful for the “service” they’re providing. 

A repeated gag sees both boys getting repeatedly beaten up, literally struck down every time they attempt to move forward. Taek-il finds himself punched in the stomach by an amateur boxer with problems of her own and thereafter knocked around by the eccentric chef at the Chinese restaurant (Ma Dong-seok), while Sang-pil is finally awakened to the dark side of his new job when he’s thrown through a glass doorway by a drunken client very clearly at the end of his tether. The answer is less fighting back than it is standing together and up for oneself as the boys begin to make mutual decisions about the future directions of their lives and the kind of men they’d like to be even if they still don’t quite know where they’re going. 

Start-Up’s genesis as an online webmanga might help to explain its myriad unresolved plot strands including the backstory of the mysterious boxing high school girl (Choi Sung-eun) who appears to have lost or become estranged from her family but ends up becoming the surrogate daughter of the kindly man who owns the Chinese restaurant (Kim Jong-Soo) which seems to be a haven for lost people of all ages looking for a place to call home, while Jeong-hye’s past success as a volleyball star is resolved as little more than an awkward punchline and her desire to start her own business which she is then swindled out of presented as something done solely for her son rather than for herself. The difficult economic circumstances of contemporary South Korea are certainly a factor in the boys’ malaise and general sense of hopelessness but it’s less Hell Joseon that’s trapping them than a complex web of familial love and resentment coupled with their desire as a young men to feel in control of their own lives rather than being constrained by parental expectation. “You should decide where to go first” Taek-il is repeatedly told, but when it comes right down to it the most important thing is figuring out how to start the engine, everything else you can figure out later.


International trailer (English subtitles)