The Closet (클로젯, Kim Kwang-bin, 2020)

Parents in Korean horror films are often uniquely flawed but go to great lengths to redeem themselves through saving their children from supernatural peril. This much is true for the narcissistic hero of Kim Kwang-bin’s grief-stricken ghost story, The Closet (클로젯). The title, perhaps in contrast to its first implications, has a poignant quality as it represents in one sense a place of safety for children trying to protect themselves from the things that frighten them but of course it is no safe place and only leaves them trapped, vulnerable, and traumatised by a world of adult cruelty they are far too innocent to understand. 

Architect Sang-won (Ha Jung-woo) lost his wife in a car accident in which he was driving. He has just bought a large house in the country where it’s quiet and the air is clean to help his young daughter Ina (Heo Yool) recover from her trauma, but his decision is causing trouble in his professional life because his firm prefer their architects to be onsite during in builds and Sang-won obviously needs to be with Ina until he can find a nanny. Ina is generally avoidant around her father, something which probably isn’t helped by her overhearing him blame all his problems on her while arguing with work on the phone, but her personality undergoes an abrupt change after she opens the closet door in her new bedroom, rendering her suddenly cheerful while carrying around a strange doll. 

Sang-won’s first concern is the manky old toy which irritates him because he’d gone to trouble to buy Ina a fancy limited edition doll as a present which she hasn’t played with. Ina is probably ageing out of dolls, and doubtless not that impressed with the supposed pedigree of her father’s gift seeing as neither is she old enough to appreciate a purely decorative present, but in any case Sang-won’s gesture was largely for himself as he proves flagging up how much trouble he went to to get it without, it seems, thinking about what Ina might actually like. When the accident happened, Sang-won was having a minor argument with his wife because he hadn’t made it to Ina’s school concert. He was faintly dismissive, superficially apologetic but clearly unrepentant in choosing his career over his family. Still traumatised over his role in the accident, Sang-won fails to connect with his daughter out of a mix of emotional unavailability, guilt, and intense resentment.

Facing potential humiliation at work on learning he’s been “paired” with a younger architect, Sang-won gets a random local woman to watch Ina, telling her he’ll be away for two months but will visit at weekends. With all of the craziness in the house the “nanny” quits and Ina goes mysteriously missing soon after. Sang-won goes to the police and then the media, but once they catch sight of his medication and mental health profile, he all but becomes a suspect in his daughter’s disappearance, some thinking he killed her and is covering it up and others pitying him as a madman who simply doesn’t remember having harmed his child. An exorcist (Kim Nam-gil), however, has another explanation and Sang-won, though originally sceptical, is forced to trust him because he is the only one who doesn’t think him guilty of murdering his little girl. 

As might be expected, Sang-won’s paternal failures are the root of all his problems. Not only did he neglect his family before the accident, but continues to reject his paternity while rendered a single parent, hoping to palm his daughter off on a nanny so he can go back to concentrating on his career. Questioned by the well-meaning but insensitive exorcist, Sang-won is forced to realise he knows nothing about his little girl. He has no idea if she likes K-pop or if she has any friends. Faced with her continued indifference, he was planning to send her away to an art therapy camp, throwing his hands up in the air and declaring fatherhood too difficult. As the exorcist points out, kids are smart and they know when they aren’t wanted. It’s precisely this feeling of insecurity which has invited in the supernatural. Sang-won will have to prove his paternal love if he truly wants to bring his daughter home. 

The grudge-bearing ghost, it seems, is trying to provide a refuge for all those other children bullied, mistreated, or neglected by the adults who were supposed to protect them, but all Sang-won can do is apologise on behalf of failed fathers everywhere which is, it has to be said, not much of a victory even if refocuses our attention on the true villainy which is sadly much more societal than it is supernatural. In any case, Sang-won doesn’t seem to have changed very much even if he’s had something of a humbling and been superficially restored as a “good” father rededicating himself to raising his daughter. The final sting, however, is perhaps a little on the flippant side even as it reminds us of the evils still lurking in the dark corners of our societies. 


International trailer (English subtitles)

The Man Standing Next (남산의 부장들, Woo Min-ho, 2020)

“You have my full support. Do as you please” so says the dictator, unambiguously manipulative but still somehow inspiring the loyalty of his many underlings perhaps still too wedded to an idea or at least an ideology to countenance moving against him. It turns out that nothing really changes and whether it’s feudal Joseon or the modern nation state, there is intrigue in the court. Neatly adopting the trappings of a ‘70s conspiracy thriller, Woo Min-ho’s The Man Standing Next (남산의 부장들, Namsanui Bujangdeul) explores the events which led to the assassination of President Park Chung-hee, father of the recently deposed president Park Geun-hye, by a member of his own security team. Many of the names have been changed and historical liberties taken, but the lesson seems to be that there is always a man standing next in readiness to inherit the throne. 

Our hero is KCIA chief Kim Gyu-peong (Lee Byung-hun), preparing as the film opens to halt Park’s (Lee Sung-min) increasing authoritarianism by assassinating him. A combination of the personal and the political Gyu-peong’s eventual epiphany is precipitated by an old friend’s “defection”. Park Yong-gak (Kwak Do-won), former director of the KCIA which operated as a secret police force propping up Park Chung-hee’s oppressive regime, is giving testimony to an American inquiry into the so-called “Koreagate” scandal in which the KCIA is accused of bribing members of Congress to propagate favourable views of the Korean president and reverse Nixon’s decision to pull US troops from South Korea. Yong-gak uses the opportunity to denounce Park Chung-hee, planning to publish a memoir titled “Traitor of the Revolution” as an exposé of the inner workings of the KCIA.  

Somewhat ironically, Gye-peong and Yong-gak are old comrades who fought together in the “revolution” led by Park in the early 1960s following the ousting of corrupt autocrat Rhee Syngman. Yong-gak has become disillusioned with their cause and with Park himself, but this largely ignores the fact that Park’s revolution was mainly a repackaging of Japanese militarism, something signalled by an exchanged between Park and Gye-pyeong in Japanese to the effect that their days of revolution were their best. All of which makes Yong-gak’s wistful eulogising of a betrayed ideal along with his supposed admiration for democracy somewhat ironic. The essential motivator in their loss of faith, however, is also a militaristic one. They learn firstly that like any dictator Park has been embezzling from the state for years and has a collection of slush funds in Switzerland. That’s not the problem, the problem is that to manage them he’s been running a “private” intelligence service unknown even to the KCIA. They’ve been displaced, and their hurt is personal more than it is political. 

Yong-gak calls Park a traitor to their revolution and objects to the continuing human rights abuses for which he himself as a member of the KCIA has been directly responsible. All of this creates a series of crises for Gye-peong who is torn between loyalty to his old friend and Park while increasingly worried for his own safety. He begins to suspect that Gwak (Lee Hee-joon), Park’s security officer who had not fought with them in the revolution, may be the mysterious “Iago” figure Yong-gak had been warned about by the CIA. Increasingly sidelined, Gye-peong continues to do Park’s dirty work but draws attention to himself in his resistance towards the president’s increasingly militaristic rhetoric. Pro-democracy protests have already broken out in Busan in response to Park’s “unfair” treatment of the city’s governor and the opposition party. Gye-peong advises reinstating the governor with an apology. Gwak says frame the protestors as communists and Northern sympathisers and send in the tanks. “Cambodia killed three million people, is it such a big deal if we kill one or two million?” Gwak blurts out in a quip which seems to catch Park’s attention, the president now thinking himself untouchable. A militarist perhaps but an educated man who speaks good English and gets on well with the Americans, Gye-peong does not see the Khmer Rouge as a source of inspiration nor, like Yong-gak, does he think those values align with the ones he fought for bringing Park to power. 

Then again, even in the immediate chaos of the early ‘60s, it’s difficult to see how you could join that particular revolution without assuming it would come to this. Gye-peong has apparently been OK with human rights abuses and mass oppression, but has been quietly reassuring himself and others that Korea is changing, Park is preparing to move aside, and they are progressing towards democracy. In true conspiracy fashion, Woo paints Gye-peong as a tragic hero, unable to reconcile himself with the choices he has made or the radically different version of the world he is now seeing, but taking what is essentially a personal revenge in return for a slighting from a man to whom he’d given his life. Perhaps in a sense he thinks he’s saving Park from himself, or merely protecting the revolution he fought for from a cruel traitor, but in the end lacks the courage to carry it through. He thought Gwak was his Iago, but he missed the “man standing next” in the shadows. As the April Revolution led only to Park, so Park leads only to Chun and second military coup even more brutal than the last. Nothing really changes, but the next revolution will have to be one enacted by more peaceful means because the spectre of authoritarianism is eclipsed only in the freedom from fear.


International trailer (English subtititles)

Miss & Mrs. Cops (걸캅스, Jung Da-won, 2019)

When the Burning Sun scandal exploded in early 2019 it promised but perhaps did not deliver a reckoning with the generalised misogyny at the heart of a fiercely patriarchal society. Almost a year previously, 12,000 women had assembled at Hyehwa Station to protest the prevalence of “molka” or spy cam pornography in which footage captured of ordinary women through the use of hidden cameras in ladies’ bathrooms, changing areas, and fitting rooms had been uploaded to the internet without their knowledge or consent. Despite all of this, there has been relatively little progress. Miss & Mrs. Cops (걸캅스, Girl Cops), a lighthearted comedy dealing with the weighty issues of molka, date rape, and the indifference with which they are treated by an overwhelmingly male police force obsessed with targets and performance, was filmed before the Burning Sun story broke but drops neatly into the post-scandal society as two women discover that they’re on their own when it comes to taking down a vicious drug gang. 

Mi-young (Ra Mi-ran) was once an ace detective well known for her ice cool arrests, but after marrying a feckless man who repeatedly failed to pass the bar exam she was forced to leave active policing and take an admin job in the complaints department for higher pay. Her sister-in-law, Ji-hye (Lee Sung-kyung), has since joined the force as a rookie officer but has little support amongst her colleagues and is often in trouble for her worryingly aggressive policing which eventually gets her “demoted” to complaints where she ends up working with Mi-young. While they’re busy bickering, a young woman arrives looking lost and confused but is frightened off by a rowdy group of men before she can say anything. As she’s left her phone behind, Mi-young chases after her, but the woman immediately steps out into traffic and is hit by a car. Obviously extremely concerned, Mi-young and Ji-hye get their tech expert colleague to Jang-mi (Choi Soo-young) to help them crack the phone and discover a compromising photo of the young woman posted on an illicit web channel promising to release the full video when it reaches 30,000 likes. 

Talking to her friend, Mi-young and Ji-hye realise that the young woman has tried to take her own life out of shame because of what these men did to her. Yet their attempts to report the matter to the legitimate authorities fall on deaf ears. Ji-hye’s colleagues joke and complain about having to investigate “perverts” instead of doing “real” policing, as if it’s all just meaningless silliness. Back when Mi-young was on the force she was placed into a special woman’s squad dedicated to dealing with crimes against women. Ji-hye quite rightly points out that times have moved on and the woman’s squads were in their own way essentially sexist in that they were created because the male police force did not regard crimes against women as “serious”, nor did they regard female officers as “real” police, so they killed two birds with one stone to allow them to get on with more “important” matters. 

The women realise that they’ll have to deal with this on their own, but even once they do discover that the male officers are only too keen to take the credit for exposing a drug ring while leaving the “peeping toms” to the ladies as not worth their time. Ji-hye’s boss even lets his mask slip in irritatedly suggesting she’s being over emotional because she is a woman and should let the boys get on with their jobs, but it’s only when she has a moment of impassioned rage explaining to them that they’re consistently failing in their duty to protect the women of Korea that they are finally shamed into realising the consequences of their lack of concern. 

Meanwhile, each of the women has been in some way been deliberately obstructed in their career solely for being a woman. Mi-young was forced off the force and is now in danger of losing her complaints job because of budget cuts. An older woman doesn’t tick any boxes on the employment quotas and so they have no reason to keep her. Ji-hye, meanwhile, is ignored by most of her team and left without support, and even Jang-mi, we discover, had NIS training but quit in resentment after they put her on a pointless Twitter monitoring programme. Their much maligned boss was also a part of the woman’s squad and wanted to continue in the police after having children, but they put her in charge of complaints instead. 

Yet Mi-young says she isn’t on the case because of female solidarity but because it makes her so angry that most of the women this happens to, like the woman who stepped in front of a moving car, blame themselves. The woman’s friend blames herself too for getting her friend into a dangerous situation because she convinced her to come to a private party with guys in a club thinking “they seemed OK”. In that sense it’s a shame that the villain concerned turns out to be a drug-addled sociopath who apparently only does the date rape stuff “for fun” because the real reason for all those clicks is data collection, rather than a perfectly ordinary guy who is probably someone’s son, brother, or even husband, not to mention chaebol kid or Kpop star. Still even if a little flippant in presentation (including some extremely unfortunate racist “humour”), Miss & Mrs Cops maybe no Midnight Runners but has its moments as its determined heroines strike back against patriarchal indifference by refusing to give up on justice.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Moving On (남매의 여름밤, Yoon Dan-bi, 2019)

Life is a series of partings, but somehow they never seem to get any easier. The heroine of Yoon Dan-bi’s award-winning debut feature Moving On (남매의 여름밤, Nammaewui Yeoreumbam) seems to have already developed a healthy sense of nostalgia for an irretrievable past despite her young age, acutely aware of her silent grandfather’s aching loneliness though somehow unable to ease it. Yet it’s the complicated business of family that she finds herself sorting out one difficult summer while temporarily displaced, living in a sense in the past as her equally lost father attempts to rediscover some kind of foothold in the modern society by moving back into his childhood home.

Teenage Ok-ju (Choi Jung-un) takes one last look around her old apartment before her dad Byunggi (Yang Heung-joo) drives them to grandpa’s, a place and indeed man she doesn’t know particularly well. In fact, she’s worried he might not even know they’re coming. When they arrive, it turns out grandpa isn’t there, he’s in hospital after being struck down by heatstroke. As they will every other time we see them bar the last, Ok-ju and her younger brother Dong-ju (Park Seung-joon) enter the house alone, waiting patiently for their father to come back while still not really quite at home, fearful of causing a disturbance in an unfamiliar environment. When they finally return it seems as if Ok-ju’s hunch might have been right, her father asks grandpa for permission to stay to which he merely gives a few words of assent. 

Byunggi paints their stay as something like a summer holiday, which it is in a way, a brief moment of pause while they figure out what to do next. What he hasn’t told the kids is that he’s broke, selling factory second sneakers on the street in an unsuccessful attempt to make ends meet while he studies to pass an exam to get a better job. They’re piling into grandpa’s two-bed, two-storey home because they don’t have money for rent. Yet like any teenage girl Ok-ju has the usual worries. She wants $700 from her father for cosmetic surgery, partly as she later explains to her aunt Mijung (Park Hyun-young) because the boy she’s been seeing only texts her when she texts him leaving her feeling insecure in her looks and mistakenly believing he’d be more proactive if her eyes were more generic. Later she swipes a pair of her dad’s trainers to give to him as a birthday present, trying to buy his attention, and then another trying to sell them to get the money her dad wouldn’t give her not realising the trainers are fake. The awakening she gets is then two-fold, firstly that she made a huge mistake turning to crime and secondly realising that her dad’s a fraud, a failed businessman who’s resorted to peddling knock offs and moving back in with his father because he can’t support his family. 

Meanwhile, she’s still harbouring a great deal of resentment towards her absent mother who has for unknown reasons left the family. She argues with her cheerful brother Dong-ju who still wants to maintain contact with her, angrily accusing him of having no pride when quite the reverse is true. It’s she who is too proud to admit she misses her mother and too hurt to forgive her for her abandonment. She rejects Dong-ju’s right to choose for himself, insisting that he shouldn’t see their mother because she doesn’t want to, trying to enforce sibling solidarity but only further driving a wedge between herself and her brother as she reduces him to tears in the absurdity of her misplaced rage. With father and mother both discredited, only the arrival of aunt Mijung provides an alternative source of adult reliability but aunt Mijung has problems too, sneaking out at night to drink and smoke while contemplating a middle-aged divorce from her possibly abusive husband. 

There’s an odd kind of symmetry in the secondary family that is thrown together at grandpa’s, Ok-ju and Dong-ju younger versions of Byunggi and Mijung living in their childhood home now cast in the parental roles if somewhat awkwardly. They have each in a sense failed, Byunggi unemployed and separated from his wife and Mijung heading for a divorce. They’ve come “home” to be children again, get a reset on middle-aged disappointment while contemplating future loneliness as they consider the problem of grandpa, asking themselves if he might not be better off in a home as his health declines especially after the kids go back to school and they’ll need to hire a carer. Mijung wants to sell, but it’s impossible to sort the desire to do right by dad from the material lure of turfing him out his own house to unlock its hidden equity. Figuring out what’s going on, Ok-ju is further disappointed in her father. After all, it’s just not right. But he fires back at her that stealing his dad’s house out from under him isn’t so different from what she did when she took the shoes, which is a point but maybe not the one he thinks he’s making. 

Still, sometimes events can overtake you. Walking downstairs late one evening Ok-ju is struck by the sight of her grandfather sitting sadly alone listening to a melancholy song from his youth about lost love, overcome with nostalgia and a deep sense of loneliness, a longing for something or someone perhaps the family of bygone days. The Korean title, “a brother and sister’s summer night”, has its sense of poignancy too as the pair are forced to contemplate summer’s end, processing loss as they adjust to the new normal of their unusual family circumstances Ok-ju finding an adult accommodation with disappointment as she prepares to “move on” from this summer interlude into a much less certain world. Shot with warmth and naturalism, Yoon’s debut captures a family on the brink of disintegration but does perhaps find a kind of solidarity in the siblings’ self-reliance as they face the summer night alone but also together. 


Moving On streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Secret Zoo (해치지않아, Son Jae-gon, 2020)

A corporate stooge begins to reassess his life choices in Son Jae-gon’s capitalist satire, Secret Zoo (해치지않아, Haechijianha). As someone belatedly points out, no matter how nice you make the enclosure, you can’t get away from the fact you’re in jail and aspiring lawyer Tae-soo (Ahn Jae-hong) might have to admit that he’s no more free than the animals he’s sent to oversee (or not, as we’ll find out) when he’s randomly sent to take over a failed wildlife park at the behest of his shady boss. 

Currently a temp working out his probation at top three legal firm JH Law, Tae-soo is desperate to be taken on as a full-time employee but as he explains to his sister who wants to sue some thugs bullying her son, that largely means he’s basically just an errand boy taking care of the unreasonable demands of their incarcerated clients who are in the main chaebol sons accused of fraud and embezzlement. JH Law is under siege from protestors angry at their role in perpetuating chaebol influence and siding with large conglomerates to frustrate workers’ rights and enable exploitative working practices. Yet it’s not squeamishness that he’s wound up working for such an awful company that has Tae-soo too embarrassed to attend the reunion for the “third rate” uni he graduated from, but shame that he is only a temp not a full-time employee. That’s part of the reason he instantly accepts a strange offer from his boss to head up Dongsan Park with the promise that he’ll be taken on as a regular employee in Mergers and Acquisitions if he can turn it around in three months. 

When he arrives, however, Tae-soo gets something of a shock. Most of the park’s most valuable animals have already been seized by its creditors, and international safeguards regarding the trafficking of live animals ensure that he cannot simply buy more within the three month time limit. After being surprised by a stuffed tiger while drunk after the welcome party and catching sight of some photos from a mascot day Tae-soo has a bright idea. They’ll simply have hyperrealistic costumes made and sit in the enclosures themselves keeping far enough away that the customers hopefully won’t know the difference. After all, when someone tells you’re visiting a zoo it probably doesn’t occur to you to question whether the animals are “real”.

Secret Zoo, or more accurately a zoo with a secret, is on one level a mild satire on public perception and fake news. You hear the word zoo and have a set of expectations. Unless something happens to convince you otherwise, your brain naturally smoothes over any minor issues you might have because it would be ridiculous for someone to “fake” a zoo. Despite the evidence of his eyes, the only thing the corporate stooge sent to inspect finds suspicious is the animals’ “funny” names which all end in the same syllable. The zoo becomes an unexpected viral phenomenon when Tae-soo, wearing the polar bear suit, is snapped drinking Coca-Cola just like the advert but even then no one questions the idea that he’s not a real polar bear, or that it’s perhaps not ethical for a polar bear to be drinking Coca-Cola in the first place or for guests to be throwing objects into the enclosures and especially not with the intention of harming the animals. 

Only conflicted doctor So-won (Kang So-ra) questions the zoo ideology, pointing out that however nice they make the enclosures it’s still a prison for animals that they are in essence exploiting. Secret Zoo is at pains to make a direct comparison between Tae-soo caught in the corporate cage of modern-day capitalism and the animals he’s impersonating as prisoners of the world in which they live. Tae-soo’s shady boss is, as might be expected, essentially corrupt. As Tae-soo begins to figure out, if this job were important he wouldn’t be doing it, he’s been sent because he’s desperate and expendable while his boss snidely remarks that it’s not a job to be done by someone “brought up soft” hinting at the class snobbery that further oppresses him as a “weed” coming up from a “third class” university. 

So desperate to achieve conventional success by becoming a member of the elitist club, Tae-soo doesn’t really question what it takes to get there until bonding with the employees and becoming invested in the idea of saving the zoo only to discover that his shady boss never really meant to “save” it anyway. Yet the only solution on offer is it seems merely a nicer cage which in power rests firmly with the same corrupt chaebols only now persuaded that it’s in their interest to be more socially responsible as a means of improving their personal brand which of course merely enables them to continue their exploitative business practices even if implying that Tae-soo too has a modicum of power in the ability to manipulate them. Black Nose, the polar bear driven mad by confinement, cannot be returned to the wild but regains his “freedom” in a polar bear sanctuary in frosty Canada, Dr. So-won too freeing herself of her problematic need to protect him by keeping him close. Tae-soo getting a dose of his own medicine in being observed by a young couple who press him for a selfie as the director of that “fake zoo” seems to have gained a little more awareness of what it’s like to live in the enclosure of an inherently corrupt social system akin to corporate feudalism but like Black Nose has perhaps at least improved the quality of his captivity. 


International trailer (English subtitles)

Beauty Water (기기괴괴 성형수, Cho Kyung-hun, 2020)

“Nothing matters more than being beautiful” according to an ironic statement made by a crazed revenger apparently both consumed by and resentful of South Korea’s obsession with conventional “beauty” standards. Beauty may well be in the eye of the beholder, but in this case the beholder has a noticeably conformist eye which is why it’s become something of a running joke that every manufactured pop star, model, or actress, has the same face. Not to be considered “beautiful” is to be relegated to a kind of underclass in which one’s thoughts and achievements are not accounted credible to the extent that employment prospects and class status are often dependent on meeting closely controlled constructs of physical beauty. Though it is true that men are also increasingly subject to these same definitions of attractiveness, they are not usually faced with the same kind of “invisible wall”, as the heroine of Cho Kyung-hun’s animation Beauty Water (기기괴괴 성형수, Gigigoegoe Seonghyeongsu) later puts it, which so limits a woman’s prospects in the fiercely patriarchal society. 

Yaeji (Moon Nam-sook) is a case in point. Ironically working as a makeup artist, she is regularly insulted by those around her including diva of the moment Miri (Kim Bo-young) who has her banished from the room, not wanting to see such an “ugly pig” so early in the morning. Only new recruit actor Ji-hoon (Jang Min-hyeok) treats her with any kind of kindness, remarking on the peculiar beauty of her eyes and later suggesting they do his makeup in a quiet corridor so she won’t be subject to Miri’s green room tantrums. Unexpectedly asked to fill-in for an absent extra sitting at a table laden with food, she later finds herself going viral, branded a “greedy fatty” online while journalists start bothering her at home trying to get her side of the story. She locks herself away in her room and refuses to come out. It’s then that she receives a mysterious text message followed by a parcel containing “Beauty Water”, an experimental substance which claims it can make even the least attractive of people “beautiful”.

“I just want to be loved” Yaeji plaintively claims, fully believing love is something you cannot have when you are not beautiful. Tragically she later realises that she was loved after all in recalling her parents’ reassurances during a traumatic childhood episode in which she came second in a ballet competition convinced that she danced better than the other girl but lost out because of her “ugliness”, but rather than learning to love herself in rejection of socially defined notions of conventional attractiveness Yaeji goes down the dark path of the quick fix entrusting her future to Beauty Water. She rebrands herself as Sul-hye and embarks on the cynical life of a vacuous influencer, dating various wealthy men but dismissing them all in her caustic interior monologue now confident enough to feel she can do better but leveraging only her looks in order to catch a useful man rather than trying to forge a life of independence. She is now fully a prisoner of the oppressive and tightly regimented gender-based social codes of a fiercely patriarchal society. 

Nevertheless, in the grand tradition of experimental serums, Beauty Water changes her soul as well as her face. Obsessed with the pursuit of perfection in beauty, Sul-hye becomes increasingly violent and aggressive, bullying her parents into lending her money for extra treatment by holding them responsible for giving birth to an unattractive child. We hear TV reports of young women in their 20s going missing and half-wonder if Sul-hye herself or someone like her, another victim of Beauty Water, may be responsible, but equally we see that the entire entertainment industry which Sul-hye is now trying to enter as another means of attaining success and fulfilment is entirely built on the exploitation of female “beauty” which is itself used as a means of control. Ji-hoon, apparently kind and sensitive, retires from showbiz because he can’t live with its manipulative cruelty and warns Sul-hye about Miri’s manager whom he believes bought Miri her career through pimping her out to “powerful” men and then embezzled all her money. Miri has since gone mysteriously missing. 

Finally we’re shown that appearances can be deceptive, that the “beautiful” are not always nice, nor exceptional in any other way than their physical appearance, and are unfairly prized by a superficial society. Judged for her purchases at the convenience store Yaeji stumbles on the way home while her building’s security guard offers no help, only the rude instruction that she should lose some weight then she’d be able to walk better. Meeting Sul-hye, the same guard reacts quite differently. Suddenly nothing is too much trouble, which might just be a problem of the opposite order in its vaguely threatening creepiness but just goes to show the extent to which a woman like Yaeji is held in contempt while those like Sul-hye are placed on a pedestal. 

Internalising a sense of shame and inadequacy in “failing” to meet these “arbitrary” standards, Yaeji is content to destroy in order to remake herself. “Say goodbye to the face you know”, Beauty Water’s instructional video teases before descending into surreal gore as a woman literally slices away her ugly facade to expose the beauty hidden beneath. Reminiscent of Perfect Blue, Beauty Water’s B-movie sensibilities send Yaeji/Sul-hye into increasingly paranoid and uncertain territory, desperate to remain “beautiful” so that she might be loved but never learning to love herself while quietly murdering her essential self to attain a soulless image of idealised beauty. A late swerve into an unintended transphobia nevertheless undermines the central messages of the dangers inherent in society’s obsession with aesthetic perfection as the heroine struggles to escape her internalised shame only in an extreme act of self-destructive masking. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mermaid Unlimited (인어전설, O Muel, 2017)

Venal city corporatism meets traditional Jeju culture in O Muel’s quirky comedy Mermaid Unlimited (인어전설, Ineojeonseol). An island movie showcasing the laidback charms of a disappearing way of life through those of the haenyo divers, Mermaid Unlimited is also an early example of cinema’s recent fascination with the art of synchronised swimming in which this most organised of sports helps a troubled young woman get a much needed reset in her life thanks to the down-home wisdom of the island aunties and the healing waters of Jeju.

A well-meaning government body has come up with a plan to promote synchronised swimming by getting a team of traditional haenyo divers as a warm up act before a national competition to be held in Jeju in the hope of making the sport “more accessible”. Former national team member Ga-yeon (Kang Rae-yeon) is under a lot of pressure to get a medal, not least to dispel the doubts of a hostile suit upset at having been passed over for project lead. In any case, she recommends an old colleague, Yeong-ju (Jeon Hye-Bin), who was the leading light of their old squad to coach the island ladies so they can perform a routine as requested by the PR people. However, there are several issues with this plan. The first being that village chief Bongseok (Lee Kyung-joon) has been a little over enthusiastic in agreeing to the idea seeing as there are very few remaining haenyo in the local area and many of them are understandably getting on in years. Meanwhile, Yeong-ju is in the middle of an extended personal crisis and is in fact a functioning alcoholic. 

Nevertheless, her appearance on the island immediately causes a commotion not least with Bongseok who is instantly smitten. She is herself, however, not perhaps convinced, instantly earning the ire of the defacto leader of the haenyo, the feisty and foulmouthed Okja (Moon Hee-kyung), after thoughtlessly describing the women as a load of old grannies, doubtful if they are really worthy of her precious “water ballet”. What ensues is a less than genial face off as the two women try to prove themselves queen of the seas through a petty competition which ends inconclusively and with a degree of drama but does eventually broker a kind of solidarity if only as they slag off their useless menfolk. In any case, the island ladies begin training in earnest while attempting to deal with their own quirky island problems. 

The island is certainly home to a fair few characters from Bongseok, smitten and overexcited while slightly clueless as to what the project entails (selling his empty swimming pool as bound to fill up next time it rains), to Okja’s wayward son Mansoo (Eo Sung-wook) and his bad romance, the pregnant haenyo who wants to give birth the old-fashioned way, a strange shanmaness and her son who has learning difficulties, and the young woman who desperately wants to become a haenyo despite her mother’s objections. Yeong-ju had a point when she suggested there weren’t many younger women around, most of the haenyo are indeed middle aged or older, and it’s fair to say this is a way of life fast disappearing. Okja laments that they haven’t been able to catch much lately, and later we hear of the building of a sea wall which may be having a detrimental affect on sea life so much so that there are reports of an elderly diver from a few villages over going missing at sea while protesting. Even so, the old women remain fiercely proud of their island culture and determined to protect it, seeing in the synchronised swimming exercise a way to show off their existence, something which perhaps mildly backfires bringing an influx of foreign tourists to the island hoping get the haenyo experience much to the confusion of the underprepared though very excited Bongseok. 

Through her friendship with Okja and the gentle support of the other island ladies who’ve seen enough of life to be unjudgemental, Yeong-ju begins to work through her unresolved trauma and alcohol issues while falling in love with island life and the traditional haenyo culture. A gentle ode to the wholesome charms of Jeju with its beautiful ocean vistas and hard spun rural wisdom, Mermaid Unlimited makes the case not only for the power of female solidarity but of bodies in unison as a means of existential healing through shared endeavour. 


Mermaid Unlimited streams in Poland until 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Loser’s Adventure (튼튼이의 모험, Ko Bong-soo, 2018)

Three aimless young men attempt to shake off small-town despair through the medium of high school wrestling in Ko Bong-soo’s underdog indie sports comedy Loser’s Adventure (튼튼이의 모험, Teunteuniui Moheom). Unkind as it may be to say, the young men are or at least feel themselves to be “losers”, each battling a sense of hopelessness dealing with difficult family circumstances and desperate to escape “this pathetic life” as one terms it for the comparatively brighter lights of Seoul. 

In his last year of high school, Choon-gil (Kim Choong-gil) is now the only member of the wrestling club seeing as everyone else has long since drifted away and, in fact, the coach (Ko Sung-hwan) quit ages ago to drive a bus because he enjoys being able to earn a living. Choon-gil, however, refuses to give up and has been writing daily letters to the head of the wrestling federation in the hope that he’ll somehow be able to resurrect his sporting dreams while trying to convince his conflicted friend Jin-kwon (Baek Seung-hwan) to rejoin the team. While Choon-gil lives alone with his authoritarian, alcoholic father, Jin-kwan has a mild complex about his widowed Filipina mother and her relationship with the dance-loving boss at her job in a junk shop. Hyuk-jun (Shin Min-jae), meanwhile, is a tough guy dandy living with an older brother and and sister in the absence of parents. A petty delinquent and a member of the faintly ridiculous “Black Tiger” gang, Hyuk-jun thinks wrestling’s a bit naff and is offended when his brother tries to give him an ultimatum to start studying hairdressing at his sister’s salon or pick a sport to get good at with the hope of getting a scholarship to uni. 

None of our guys is particularly bright, they know they’re unlikely to make it out through their academic prowess and probably they don’t really think wrestling is going to take them anywhere either but it’s at least something. The most sceptical of the boys, Jin-kwan reminds Choon-gil that he isn’t even very good at the sport and the only reason they took it up in the first place was because the coach semi-adopted them as the surrogate father they each needed at the time. Nevertheless, he’s determined to do whatever it takes to make his wrestling dreams come true. He is however, in for a shock as it turns out that the building holding the wrestling gym is due to be demolished in the imminent future. For some reason moved by Choon-gil’s pleas, the coach calls in a few favours and manages to get the guys listed on an upcoming tournament with the hope that if they don’t lose too badly it will show that the moribund club has promise and is worth saving. 

The irony is that as hard as he trains Choon-gil just doesn’t have much of an aptitude for the sport. He adopts the position of a mentor to new recruit Hyuk-jun, but annoyingly enough he turns out to be something of a natural, while Jin-kwon, the skinniest of the boys though also the tallest, resents the coach’s constant pressure to lose more weight. They are each, as it turns out, at the mercy of their essential character flaws, Choon-gil the hardworking dreamer who just doesn’t have it, Jin-kwan timid and struggling against himself, and Hyuk-jun talented but hotheaded and self-sabotaging in allowing his emotions to get the better of him. 

Still, they do not give up. No one really rates their chances, Choon-gil’s violent, drunken father even attempts to disown him for his love of wrestling, insisting that he become a bus driver instead for the steady paycheque, while Jin-kwan is openly mocked by his sister and Hyun-juk’s dream of starting a business in Seoul is derided both by his brother and by the Black Tigers who continue to plague him even after he tells them that wrestling’s cool after all and they’re all just a bunch of small town losers. The jury’s out on whether the guys can wrestle themselves free of their sense of impossibility and despair, not to mention their sometimes unsupportive family members, but they have perhaps at least found an outlet for their frustration not to mention a surrogate fraternity as they continue on their “loser’s journey” together looking for an exit from the disappointing small town future. 


Loser’s Adventure streams in Poland until 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Dust and Ashes (축복의 집, Park Hee-kwon, 2019)

“People are property of the government from the cradle to the grave, since it’s all over they give it back to you” a corrupt policeman ironically explains handing over a dodgy document designed to help a desperate young woman subvert her tragedy. Stark in execution, Park Hee-kwon’s near wordless exploration of urban poverty Dust and Ashes (축복의 집, Chuk-bok-eui Jip) finds its heroine resorting to the unthinkable in a simple quest to survive while trapped in a world collapsing all around her. 

As we first meet Hae-su (Ahn So-yo), she’s leaving her factory job which evidently involves substances so toxic that she washes right away and scrubs her jacket clean ready for the next day before leaving for her other gig, scrubbing barbecue grills at a restaurant. She keeps trying to call someone who doesn’t pick up and walks home through the darkened streets, pausing so long outside the door we wonder if she’s gone to see whoever it is who won’t return her calls but eventually lets herself in with a key and walks quickly to the bathroom without turning on the light as if there’s something in there she doesn’t want to see.

Perhaps we begin to doubt Hae-su, somewhat uncertain of what has actually happened, but we can also see that she is griefstricken and nervous, driven to extremes in the depths of her despair. She must necessarily have known what was waiting for her at home, planned it, knowing exactly what it is she must do next. Her brother, Hae-jun (Lee Kang-ji), meanwhile is evidently not so much in favour, petulant and resentful but aware he has little choice in playing the role which has already been dealt him. Hae-su’s painful quest takes her on a journey through the corruptions of the modern society from a dodgy doctor taking cash for certificates to a corrupt policeman ‘helping” her alter the narrative circumstances to her advantage but only for a fee. 

Meanwhile, she’s about to be evicted, the entire area she lives in earmarked for “redevelopment”, a wasteland of deconstruction strewn with dust and rubble. We see her suffer the ignominy of a funeral with no flowers where she and her brother are the only mourners, a sight which seems to raise eyebrows not least with the insensitive policeman. Opening with darkness and the sounds of machinery, Park situates us in an industrial hellscape as if our entire lives took place on a gurney, trapped inside a wooden box being slowly pushed towards the fire. Showing the entirety of the funeral process in painful detail from the tender yet efficient embalming to the eventual cremation, grieving becomes something impossibly cold and clinical, no fancy curtains here merely an LCD screen reminiscent of that above a baggage claim carousel to let you know your loved one’s ashes (or more accurately bone dust ground in an industrial blender) are now ready for collection neatly packaged inside another, smaller wooden box. 

Yet Hae-su has no choice but to put up with these indignities. There appears to have been some level of male failure involved in the family, an absent or estranged father figure apparently no help, while we can also infer that the shadowy presence bothering her that she takes such care to avoid is an agent of the loan sharks in part responsible for her financial predicament. We can only imagine the desperation that must have forced this small group of people to take such a dreadful decision, and the anxiety of those left behind as they wonder if it will all come to nothing. Yet even if it works out, we get the impression Hae-su is running to stand still. Victory only means the continuance of the status quo, there seems precious little sign Hae-su or her brother will be able to escape their penury especially after everyone, including the loan sharks and dodgy policeman, exacts their cut. 

In the end all there is is dust and ashes. Hae-su evermore encumbered, wearing a mask to stave off the inevitable but still breathing in the corruption of the world around her as it too collapses into dust, a deconstructed wasteland of economic hubris. Necessarily bleak, Park’s spare, numbed photography finds only emptiness in Hae-su’s rain-drenched streets even as she strides off into the distance determined to survive no matter what it takes. 


Dust and Ashes streams in Poland until 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Forbidden Dream (천문: 하늘에 묻는다, Hur Jin-ho, 2019)

Technology is a great motivator for social change, which is one reason why there are those who would prefer to shut it down before it exists, afraid of the threat it poses to their own power and status. Best known for tearjerking romantic melodrama, Hur Jin-ho follows historical epic The Last Princess with a quietly nationalistic journey back to the Joseon era in which calls for greater sovereignty perhaps incongruously go hand in hand with progressive politics which see the good king Sejong (Han Suk-kyu) agitate for greater social equality through the democratisation of knowledge. This is his “Forbidden Dream” (천문: 하늘에 묻는다, Cheonmun: haneul-e mudneunda), the existence of a “fair” society in which anyone can read, write and learn regardless of the social class into which they were born.

Apparently inspired by the mysterious disappearance of legendary court inventor Jang Yeong-sil (Choi Min-sik) from the annals despite his close friendship with the king, Hur sets his tale in the 1440s during which time Korea is a tributary of the Ming. The problem with that is that though Korea remains a sovreign nation and Sejong its king, the Ming have positioned themselves as the culturally superior arbiters of knowledge. Facing persistent famines, Sejong is convinced that the key to agricultural prosperity lies in getting rid of the Ming almanac and using their own time zone which is better suited to the Korean Peninsula and will allow their farmers to make the best use of their land. The Ming, predictably, do not like his idea and are forever sending envoys to tell him to stop trying to “improve” on their technology. Nevertheless, he persists which is how he comes to meet Jang Yeong-sil, a technological genius whose innate talent has brought him to the palace despite the fact that he was born a slave. 

In Yeong-sil, the perhaps lonely king Sejong discovers a kindred spirit, the two men quickly, and transgressively, speaking as equals when it comes to developing their new technology. Giddy as schoolboys, they work on their inventions together for the betterment of the people, beginning with building a water clock to better indicate the time when the sun goes down. Sejong frees Yeong-sil and makes him a “5th rank scientist”, gifting him the clothes of a gentleman, but his open hearted egalitarianism sets him at odds with his ambitious courtiers who resent being forced to share their space with a former slave, puffed up on their feudal privileges that convince them advancement is a matter of name and intrigue. 

Just as Hur suggested in The Last Princess that the courtiers sold their country out because of an internalised sense that Korea was small and backward and could not stand alone, so Sejong’s ministers begin to abandon him and turn their fealty to the Ming. Sejong believes in Korean independence, certain that only by standing free can the country prosper and the people be happy. Others however fear Sejong’s “forbidden dream” of a more equal society knowing that it necessarily means a lessening of their own power and the privilege they feel themselves entitled to. Besides timekeeping, Sejong has also been working on a new alphabet which will further set them apart from the culture of the Ming. The ability to read and write using Chinese characters which Sejong feels are not perhaps well suited to Korean has hitherto been reserved for the elite. Sejong’s alphabet which will eventually become the Hangul still in use today removes the barriers to knowledge which ensure the rule of the few can never be challenged while also reinforcing the idea of a cultural Koreanness which is valid in its own right, equal to that of the Ming, and obviously a better fit for his people who will then be able to create glorious inventions of their own. 

Hangul is the “something eternal that no country can take away” that Sejong dreamed of as his legacy, but it’s also the thing that costs him his transgressive friendship with Yeong-sil as his courtiers reject his internal challenge to the social order, favouring the feudal certainties of the Ming over his revolutionary kingship. Undeniably homoerotic in the depths of its sincerity, the attachment of the two men, a slave and a king, is embodiment of Sejong’s forbidden dream as a symbol of a better world where all are free to innovate. “Class does not matter” he tells Yeong-sil as they stare up at the stars, “what matters is that we look at the same sky and share the same dream”. That better world, however, will be a long time coming, Yeong-sil a martyr punished for his class transgression but making a personal sacrifice on behalf of the king who was also his friend so he can bring about his forbidden dream of an independent Korea powered by cutting edge technology created by men like him with fine minds from all walks of life. Well, perhaps there’s still some work to do, but you get there in the end. Anchored by the magnetic performances of its two veteran leads, Forbidden Dream does not entirely escape the pitfalls of the Joseon-era drama with its palace intrigue and complex interpersonal politics, but is at its best when celebrating the intense friendship of two men united by the desire to innovate even if that innovation is not always convenient for the world in which they live.


Forbidden Dream streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 2020 LOTTE ENTERTAINMENT All Rights Reserved.