Maggie (메기, Yi Ok-seop, 2018)

Maggie poster 1“When we fall into a pit, what we need to do, is not dig any further but quickly climb out” according to a mysterious post-it discovered by a nurse when picking up the laundry (apparently inexpertly performed by her preferred cleaning service). The aphorism turns out to belong to Doctor Lee (Moon So-ri), the head physician at Love of Maria hospital where the titular Maggie (메기), a catfish, lives in a small tank observing the life around her and sometimes predicting earthquakes and other earth shattering events. A surrealist odyssey across the “pitfalls” of modern society, Yi Ok-seop’s quirky debut feature ponders the ramifications of distance as her various heroes weigh up the nature of “truth” as an absolutist concept.

Narrated by Maggie, the drama begins when the radiographer and her boyfriend are unexpectedly snapped during an intimate moment in the X-Ray room. The picture is then stolen and held up for everyone to see, at which point nurse Yoon-young (Lee Joo-young) worries that she and her boyfriend Sung-won (Koo Kyo-hwan) have been caught out using the privacy of the X-ray booth for unintended purposes. As Maggie says, no one pays much attention to who took the photo only to who might be in it, which is why the entire hospital, except Doctor Lee, ring in sick the next day with only Yoon-young turning up in the morning with the intention to resign. Figuring out what must have happened (and seeing as she’s the only one not embarrassed we can guess who took the photo), Doctor Lee is very upset to realise that the entirety of her staff has probably lied to her. With her intense belief in humanity shaken, Doctor Lee decides to engage in a trust game with her new best friend, Nurse Yoon-young, and simply choose to believe what they’re told, testing their hypothesis by visiting a random employee to verify if they really are “sick”.

Meanwhile, as a result of the earthquakes Maggie intermittently predicts,  mysterious sinkholes have begun appearing all over the nation. This is good news in one sense because it provides lots of extra work for otherwise unoccupied young men like Sung-won who have lost out in Korea’s insanely competitive economy. Like Sung-won, the other men on his team are also well-educated types who otherwise wouldn’t be considering manual work and are hoping for something better once the sinkhole business finally clears up. Mistrust, however, also works its way into their relationship when Sung-won loses a precious white gold ring given to him by Yoon-young, later becoming convinced that one of his colleagues has swiped it.

The loss of the ring leads to an increasing unease between Yoon-young and her boyfriend which is deepened by a visit from Sung-won’s ex who suggests there may have been problems in their relationship which she feels Yoon-young ought to be aware of. Though Sung-won seems sweet natured and laidback, never having acted in any way that would have given Yoon-young cause for concern, she begins to doubt him – suddenly worried by his overly violent crushing of a can out in the street. Doctor Lee’s advice is to simply ask Sung-won directly if the accusations are true, but Yoon-young can’t seem to do it and continues living along side him somewhat resentfully as she eventually comes to the decision to “believe” her friend at face value without investigating further.

“The truth cannot exist wholesomely”, according to Maggie’s “father” (Kwon Hae-hyo). It will always be polluted by self-interest and personal bias. As Doctor Lee says, there will always be people who believe you and people who don’t, so perhaps a healthy level of cynicism is something you need to accept in order to go on living in the world. Even Love of Maria Hospital is not immune to the disease of misrepresentation – a former convent given over as a place of healing it was later bought by an arch capitalist and is now run as a private hospital business (not that it appears to have many “customers”), despite Doctor Lee’s rather amusing ad which proclaims it “of the patients, by the patients, for the patients”.

Finally Yoon-young concedes she’ll need to simply ask Sung-won about his past and gets an honest response, but his honesty only seems to see him falling into a deep pit of despair, calling out from the bottom in the hope of being understood. A surreal exploration of contemporary social woes from the rabidly capitalist society to the growing distance between people in an increasingly interconnected age, Maggie attempts to find the emotional honesty sweet spot but discovers that trust, like everything else, is a complicated business.


Maggie screens on 13th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival. It will also be screening as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival on 17th/18th July.

Interview with director Yi Ok-seop from the Busan International Film Festival

Another Child (미성년, Kim Yoon-seok, 2019)

Another Child Poster 1Learning to be generous in the face of disappointment is perhaps a defining characteristic of adulthood. It’s a lesson the teenage heroines of Another Child (미성년m Miseongnyeon) must learn the hard way as they find an unexpected bond in realising that their parents aren’t bad people, just flawed and human. The debut directorial feature from actor Kim Yoon-seok who also stars in a minor role as the feckless patriarch, Another Child finds four women across two generations caught in very trying circumstances but acting with generosity and compassion as they endeavour not to make any of this harder than it needs to be.

The drama begins when 15-year-old Joo-ri (Kim Hye-jun) spots a compromising photo of her father and another woman on his phone. Following him around, she realises that he’s been having an affair with a woman who runs a duck restaurant a little way out of town and is actually the mother of one of her schoolmates, Yoon-ha (Park Se-jin), though they barely know each other seeing as they’ve never shared any classes. In any case, they do not really get on and eventually get into a fight over Joo-ri’s phone which she dropped at the restaurant while snooping, prompting Yoon-ha to blurt out the truth to Joo-ri’s already depressed and suspicious mother.

Despite Joo-ri’s outrage, her father Dae-won (Kim Yoon-seok) and mother Young-joo (Yum Jung-ah) have been sleeping in separate bedrooms for the last two years and appear to be married in name only. Nevertheless, Joo-ri hoped she could sort all of this out before her mother knew anything about it but the situation has been further complicated by the fact that Yoon-ha’s mother Mi-hee (Kim So-jin) is apparently several months pregnant – news which comes as a shock to Joo-ri who begins to accept that perhaps she can’t simply put an end to her father’s philandering and that nothing will ever be the same ever again.

This becomes doubly true once the baby is born in an early labour brought on by Young-joo’s impromptu visit to the restaurant. Guilt-stricken, Young-joo tries to do what she can for Mi-hee as another woman in a difficult situation while trying to encourage her rather snooty daughter to make friends with her almost step-sister. Despite themselves and the many differences between them, Joo-ri and the headstrong Yoon-ha do eventually start to bond but find their newfound friendship tested by their shared affection for their new little brother with Yoon-ha immediately adopting him and vowing to raise the baby herself in place of her irresponsible mother, even stopping to ensure his birth certificate is properly registered, while Joo-ri coldly suggests he be put up for adoption in the hope he gets a better education. Yoon-ha, practically minded in many other respects, would never abandon a family member, while Joo-ri makes what she thinks is the “sensible” if austere choice which prioritises Yoon-ha’s right to conventional success over familial duty.

Meanwhile, the four women are left to sort everything out amongst themselves. Dae-won is perhaps not a bad man, but weak and feckless. Unwilling to face what it is that he’s done, he runs away – avoiding seeing the baby while refusing to engage with the pain he’s caused his wife and daughter through his infidelity, still in denial that he’s destroyed his family home but never really intending to make a new one with Mi-hee who really was, it seems, just a mid-life crisis fling. Across town, Yoon-ha tries asking her own feckless father for money to pay some of her mother’s hospital fees as well as other expenses but finds him an irresponsible gambler who’d forgotten how old she was even if he eventually managed to recall her name.

Thanks to some gentle prodding from each other’s mothers, with whom both Yoon-ha and Joo-ri begin to find common ground, the girls eventually grow more accepting of their situation, looking for understanding rather than trying to apportion blame. No one here is really “bad”, just flawed and unhappy, caught up in an emotionally difficult situation that is either everyone’s fault or no one’s. None of them have anything to gain by making this harder than it needs to be and thankfully decide to take the moral high ground, not exactly forgiving but compassionate. “It’s not easy to live in this world”, Yoon-ha tells her new brother not quite knowing how right she is. A beautifully pitched exploration of magnanimous female solidarity and unexpected friendship, Another child is a finely drawn feature debut from the veteran actor which holds only sympathy for its flawed heroines trying to find grace in trying times.


Another Child screens on 11th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival. It will also be screening as part of the 2019 Fantasia Film Festival on 14th/20th July.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Move the Grave (이장, Jeong Seung-o, 2019)

MOVE THE GRAVE STILL 1The patriarchal society refuses to release its grip on four disgruntled sisters in Jeong Seung-o’s debut feature Move the Grave (이장, i-jang). Unearthing the buried past is indeed what the sisters find they have to do when their father’s “eternal” resting place is ring marked for a new development, but there’s nothing quite like unexpected family reunions for throwing present and past into stark relief. Cheating spouses, surprise pregnancies, pre-marital discord, and the old favourite money woes conspire against familial unity but female solidarity is perhaps the only weapon at their disposal in an overwhelmingly sexist environment.

Eldest daughter Hye-yeong (Jang Liu) receives the grave relocation notice on an extremely bad day. Her naughty, headstrong son Dong-min has been reprimanded for being disruptive in school yet again, and her employer has intimated that it if she intends to take extended leave they expect her resign rather than return. Nevertheless, she has to sort this grave thing out so she calls her sisters – unhappily married Geum-ok (Lee Seon-hee), soon-to-be married Geum-hee, and university student Hye-yeon (Gong Min-jung). Meanwhile, their only brother Seung-rak (Kwak Min-gyoo), refuses to take their calls on a general basis and has never given any of them his address – something which causes a problem when the women arrive at their uncle’s house. A deeply conservative man, he refuses to move the grave without the eldest son present, sending his nieces all the way back to the city with the instruction to bring their brother back with them though they have no idea where he is.

The relationship between the sisters at least is relatively stable – they may not see each other often or particularly enjoy each other’s company but are, perhaps superficially, well acquainted with each other’s lives to the extent of suspecting there is probably more going on with each of them than anyone wants to talk about. This is especially true of Geum-ok who has brought a suspiciously large suitcase for a day trip and come alone without any of her family members. Geum-hee, meanwhile, constantly bickers about money – asking pointed questions about possible compensation and taking petty potshots at Hye-yeong over the high paid job she hasn’t had time to tell them she’s effectively been fired from for daring to ask about maternity leave.

The conservative, authoritarian, and sexist uncle has presumably made his peace with Hye-yeong’s divorce and career as a working single-mother, but continues to exercise his patriarchal rights over his nieces, insisting that their presence is less essential than that of their spoilt little brother who only ever contacts them when he needs money. Tellingly when Seung-rak is finally forced to appear, he is feted and fussed over with a lavish meal cooked by his aunt while the nieces remain a secondary consideration. Recalling their difficult upbringing, they lament that Seung-rak had the best of everything – his own room, new clothes, and a bowl full of food at dinner while the four of them always had to share. Faced with such criticism of the “traditional” family, the uncle finally erupts, asking what right “you women” think you have to talk so much, and what’s wrong with staying in the house all day doing chores anyway? 

Though the older sisters are minded to bite their tongues, committed feminist Hye-yeon isn’t going to let him get away with such outdated claptrap. She loudly takes him to task, pointing out that their father made their mother so miserable that she expressly asked not to be buried with him, while also having a word with Seung-rak about his irresponsible treatment of his former girlfriend who needs him to make an important decision but seems reluctant to consider getting back together which might be what he wants but then it’s difficult to know because none of the men in this family do much in the way of talking.

Meanwhile, Geum-hee remains pre-occupied about money because her husband-to-be is dragging his feet over her proposed budget for married life. He thinks they can shave it further by ignoring his parents’ birthdays and not buying them Christmas presents, but also that they can save on daily expenses by simply “fetching” things like toothpaste and toothbrushes from his mother’s house. Adulthood, it seems, has not quite come home to him. In the end the sexist uncle and the feckless Seung-rak are forced to stand down and respect the decision the sisters have come to about the grave, but the women remain largely powerless to resist the other forces of patriarchal oppression in their lives from unfair employment policies and stigma surrounding single motherhood to society’s general refusal to accept sexual equality. The aunt’s parting words to the unhappy crowd at the docks that they “only have each other” have a mildly chilling quality, but the family does perhaps emerge with a greater sense of intimacy and a gentle solidarity as they finally put the past to rest and prepare to move forward into a less stressful future.


Move the Grave screens on 6th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival

Short interview with the director (English subtitles)

Sub-Zero Wind (영하의 바람, Kim Yu-ri, 2018)

Sub-Zero Wind poster“Life is something you have to get through alone” the mother of the heroine of Kim Yu-ri’s debut Sub-Zero Wind (영하의 바람, yeonghaui balamcoldly claims. In South Korean society, few things are more important than family bonds but when familial connection becomes weaponised it leaves the vulnerable out in the cold. Badly let down by bad luck and irresponsible parenting, Kim’s heroines have only each other to rely on but find even their unbreakable bond strained by the self-centred, unfair, unequal and hypocritical world in which they live.

Kim follows the girls over seven years beginning with the 10-year-old Young-ha’s traumatic introduction to her step-father (Park Jong -hwan). Young-ha’s mother Eun-suk (Shin Dong-mi), big in the Church, has divorced her dad and now that she’s going to have a new “housemate” has decided that Young-ha should go and live with him. With everything packed into a moving van including her bed, Eun-suk sends her off with the removal man and a cheerful goodbye as if she were seeing off a guest who’s outstayed their welcome. Unfortunately, Young-ha’s dad has done a moonlight flit and so the removal man has no option but to take her back home, only her mother has gone out to celebrate and isn’t answering her phone. Eventually Young-ha is abandoned on the side of the road along with all her possessions, waiting for Eun-suk to come home and sort all of this out.

Some years later, Young-ha appears to have integrated fairly well into her new family, a large portrait of which hangs above their sofa in the elegantly decorated apartment. In fact, despite her original dislike of him, Young-ha seems much closer to her step-father whom she calls “dad” than to her frosty mother. Meanwhile, her best friend and cousin Mi-jin is having a tough time. Both her parents have died, and Eun-suk was supposed to be looking after her but has left her to live with her elderly grandmother and is secretly embezzling her parents’ life insurance payments to put towards her religious education in the hope of founding a church of her own. For this reason, she is terrified that Mi-jin’s grandmother will die and her other relatives will find out about the stolen money.

The truth is the Eun-suk is one of those people obsessed with the church rather than its teachings. Kim opens the film during a sermon in praise of love throughout which Young-ha has her eyes wide open, staring at her mother and her new boyfriend in the knowledge she is soon to be ejected from her mother’s new life. Despite going on about leading people to God and practicing Christian virtues, Eun-suk is often judgemental and extremely self-centred. All she cares about is being a member of the organisation and increasing her status with in it though she has obviously not kept to its teachings in that she has divorced her first husband and is now living with a man she is not not married to who is actually still married to someone else. All of this will, if it is discovered, quite obviously prevent her from becoming a minister but Eun-suk remains undeterred.

Meanwhile, she emotionally neglects her daughter and is sometimes jealous of her close relationship with her step-father. Truth be told, there is something a little inappropriate in how close they remain as Young-ha transitions into adolescence. One could assume her step-father has over invested in his new family because he misses the daughter he left behind, or that father and daughter have bonded through each being pushed out by Eun-suk’s cold hearted pursuit of her goal, but the fact remains that the family unit is quietly disintegrating under the pressure of her emotional absence and eventual slide into the hypocritical selfishness which sees her keen to adopt her boyfriend’s daughter for appearance’s sake or because she fears his leaving her while keeping her sister’s daughter Mi-jin at a distance.

When it becomes impossible for Young-ha to continue living in the family home, she turns once again to Mi-jin and the two girls try to make a go of things in Busan as soon-to-be high school grads. The main problem that they face is not so much finding employment as a place to live. Getting a room requires a running start – key money, deposit, rent payable in advance. The girls have savings, but not quite enough for starting a new life on the minimum wage when you don’t have anywhere to go back to or people you can ask for help. Eun-suk is always telling her daughter that they can “start over”, but there are times when you can’t or at least not in the same way. When the girls are cut loose, abandoned finally and completely, it may actually be a kind of relief. “Starting over” released from a destructive cycle of familial disappointment may be a real possibility but all they are left with is each other in the cold winds of an unforgiving city as they try to find a way to live as independent young women with no firm ground on which to take hold.


Sub-Zero Wind screens on 6th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

A Resistance (항거:유관순 이야기, Joe Min-ho, 2019)

A Resistance poster 1March 1, 2019 marked the centenary of the Korean Independence Movement which began with a peaceful protest on 1st March, 1919 that was brutally put down by Japanese forces who fired on innocent protestors killing thousands and imprisoning many more. One of the key leaders of the protest was a teenage girl, Yu Gwan-sun, who died in prison a little over a year later aged just 17. Joe Min-ho’s A Resistance (항거:유관순 이야기, Hanggeo: Yu Gwan-sun Iyagi) is the story of her struggle in which she remains defiant in the face of unfair and inhuman treatment at the hands of her Japanese captors.

The film opens with Gwan-sun (Go Ah-sung) being roughly pulled off a cart, unable to see thanks to the straw hat placed over her face. When the mask is removed for her prison registration card photo, we can see that (just as in the real photo which still exists and is on display in the Seodaemun Prison History Museum) her left eye and cheek are swollen from a previous beating. Taken inside, she is led to women’s cell 8 and shocked to see 24 other women already standing inside it when the door opens. There isn’t even enough room to sit down, and so the women have to take turns to rest, walking endlessly in circles to try and prevent their legs cramping up from standing too long in the same place.

On her first meeting with the prison warden who is surprised she has received such a comparatively long sentence (5 years, reduced to 3 on appeal), she is reminded that her best chance for survival is to keep her head down and do as she’s told. Gwan-sun intends to do just that but finds herself constantly infuriated by the injustice of the prison guards and the inhumane conditions in which the political prisoners are kept. Most of the women in the cell with Gwan-sun are there solely for having been at the protests and supposedly shouting “Manse”, they have committed no other crime save refusing to accept the primacy of Japanese authority.

The trouble starts when the women burst into a chorus of Arirang – a patriotic Korean folk song, which proves intolerable to the guards and gets Gwan-sun inducted for her first bout of extreme torture at the hands of her block warden and a Korean recruit working for the Japanese, Nishida (Ryu Kyung-soo). From a poor background, Nishida has thrown his lot in with the Japanese hoping for advancement but is unable to see that to them he will always be just another Korean minion to be discarded when no longer useful. Though he seems conflicted when directly ordered to participate in the torture of Gwan-sun, who is after all a defenceless 16-year-old girl, which involves acts of sexual humiliation and insidious violence, he fails to resist and dutifully obeys the orders of his Japanese commander.

Though her primary goal is Korean Independence, Gwan-sun is also working to end the kind of class oppression which has pushed Nishida into the arms of the Japanese. This much she reminds one of her cellmates (Jeong Ha-dam) who worries it would be inappropriate for them to be friends because she is just an uneducated woman working in a coffeeshop. Another of her cellmates is a “famous” gisaeng who finds herself looked down by some of the other women because of her participation in sex work. Inspired by a real life character, Kim Hwang-hwa (Kim Sae-byuk) was another key figure in the Independence Movement who began mobilising gisaeng to participate in the protests, motivated by the often cruel treatment they received from Japanese customers. The coffee shop girl laments that if she were a man she’d go to Manchuria or fly around the world. Kim Hwang-hwa reminds her there’s nothing stopping a woman from doing that anyway and eventually ends up in Manchuria herself looking for the Independence Movement in exile in Shanghai. 

Despite emphasising the solidarity of the women in prison, Joe’s retelling of Yu Gwan-sun’s last days perhaps misses an opportunity to explore the important role that women played in the Independence Movement or the various ways it intersected with early feminism and progressive socialist politics. Nevertheless it does its best to pay tribute to a brave woman who suffered terribly in the belief that a better world was possible, refusing to give in even at the very end.


A Resistance screens as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 30.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Ticket (티켓, Im Kwon-taek, 1986)

Ticket posterThe times may have changed but the double standard is still very much in existence in Im Kwon-taek’s Ticket (티켓). Set in a tabang ticket bar – a delivery coffee establishment in which customers may by “tickets” for unspecified “services”, Ticket follows five ordinary women in Kangwon Province who’ve found themselves trapped in the world of casual sex work for various different reasons but each dreaming of finding something better in the difficult mid-80s economy.

Im opens with stern madam Ji-suk (Kim Ji-Mi) selecting three pretty girls from an employment office to work at her bar in rural Kangwon Province. As she explains, the cafe is located in a quiet port town and mainly caters to seamen and tourists. Ji-suk views refinement as one of her selling points and so she expects her ladies to mind their manners and avoid vulgarity. The girls were given an advance on their wages as a signing bonus, but are technically indentured servants until they pay it off which may take some time seeing as Ji-suk is fond of adding fines onto their accounts should they break any of her rules or request any additional advances for work related expenses such as medical fees, clothing, or cosmetics.

While two of the new recruits, Miss Hong (Lee Hye-young) and Miss Yang (Ahn So-young), have had experience of this type of work before, Se-yeong (Jeon Se-yeong) is much younger and struggles to come to terms with the nature of the job, frequently incurring Ji-suk’s wrath by running out on clients who get fresh. Miss Ju (Myeong Hui), who has been working at the tabang for three years with ballooning debts, tries to warn the girls that in order to avoid her mistakes they should abide by three rules – cash only, no mercy, and no repeats. All quite sensible rules in theory but difficult to enforce in practice.

Unlike Miss Hong and Miss Yang who’ve come from impoverished rural backgrounds, Se-yeong is from Seoul but has found herself responsible not only for her immediate family but also for her down on his luck student boyfriend Min-su (Choi Dong-joon) who is currently studying to become a teacher but struggling to support himself. Min-su, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, hasn’t quite figured out that the girls don’t really just deliver coffee but in any case remains conflicted over his dependence on Se-yeong for money. Still struggling to accommodate herself to sex work, Se-yeong eventually decides to seduce a friendly sea captain as a means of easing herself into it while also trying to get Min-su a job on his boat.

Meanwhile, Miss Yang dreams of becoming an actress and is naive enough to think sleeping with a famous actor will help, and Miss Hong concentrates on being the best but usually ends up getting herself into trouble. Miss Ju, a divorcee, misses her son while Jin-suk turns out to have a sad story of her own in which she was driven into sex work after her husband, a dissident poet, was picked up by the authorities in less liberal times. Unable to bear the shame she left him, but still harbours hope he may find her again only to have that hope cruelly dashed with the stark message that life is like a bus – if you miss it, it won’t come back for you. Each of these women has, in a sense, already missed a bus and is stuck in Kangwon for the foreseeable future with no clear way out.

Though Jin-suk seemed the toughest and the least sentimental of the ladies, it’s she who wants “forgiveness” most of all which is perhaps why she goes to the trouble of taking Min-su to task for his unreasonable treatment of Se-yeong. Pointing out that nobody chooses this way of life freely, Jin-suk snaps on realising that there really are no sympathetic men and all now view her and her girls as “dirty” while continuing to use their services. Im closes with an improbably happy ending, if ambiguously, which promises a more positive future for each of our ladies as they manage to find ways out of the rural sex industry and into something more hopeful but even this abrupt tonal shift only serves to reinforce the miraculous nature of their sudden opportunities in a society which appears to remain hostile to their very existence.


Ticket was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Promise of the Flesh (肉体의 約束 / 육체의 약속, Kim Ki-young, 1975)

Promise of the flesh poster 1Lee Man-hee’s Late Autumn is one of the great lost gems of ‘60s Korean cinema and despite its unavailability has been remade three times in Korea and once in Japan. Kim Ki-young’s version, Promise of the Flesh (肉体의 約束 / 육체의 약속, Yukche-ui Yaksok), arrives two years after the acclaimed Japanese remake directed by Koichi Saito and takes a decidedly different, frustratingly ambivalent approach in which its heroine’s imprisonment is directly linked to emotional frigidity and a refusal to submit herself to the social conventions of womanhood which include home, family, and being sexually available to men.

We first meet Sook-young (Kim Ji-mee) taking a train to meet someone she is fairly certain will not be coming. While travelling she recalls a previous journey during which she met a man who changed her life – the very man she is now travelling to (not) see. Before that fateful day, however, Sook-young had endured an extremely troubling history of long term sexual abuse at the hands of various men all of whom expected her to surrender her body to them to do with it what they wanted. Eventually Sook-young snapped and killed a man who was trying to make love to her, getting herself sent to prison where she gradually fell into suicidal despair. In an effort to reawaken her sense of being alive, a kindly prison guard (Park Jung-ja) agreed to escort her to visit her mother’s grave which is how she met Hoon (Lee Jung-gil) – the first man we see being “nice” to her, which in this case extends to buying her a box lunch on the train.

Kim has a noticeably ambivalent attitude to female sexuality which eventually embraces the socially conservative, casting Sook-young’s plight as a great moral wrong but also insisting that her salvation lies in unwanted sex with a “nice” man as if that would somehow show her that “not all men” are violent sex pests and thereby make it possible for her to fulfil her “natural duties” as a woman by marrying and raising children. “A woman’s role is raising a child – everything else is pointless” Sook-young is instructed by a man who turns out to be, once again, deceiving her. Gradually we get the feeling that Sook-young has wound up in prison not because, as she later claims, the weight of all her degradations suddenly crushed her but because she attempted to live a life without men and is being punished for it.

At her first job interview, undertaken because her parents passed away and she had to leave university, Sook-young is advised to guard her body until she can “cope with men” otherwise she’ll “become a whore like all the others”. Shy and nervous, she is bullied into sex by a belligerent customer who turns out to have done it as some kind of rape revenge on behalf of a slighted friend to whom he later passes her on. Just about every man she meets, until Hoon, is after her body and nobody seems to think Sook-young has any right to refuse them access to it. Kim may lament the subjugated position of women in Korean society in condemning the actions of these “bad men”, but still insists that Sook-young needs “fixing” through finding a good man as a means to curing her despair.

This is why the prison guard enlists Hoon to teach Sook-young that “a woman needs a man” and that there is joy still in the world. Originally reluctant, Hoon decides to do just that by convincing her that she is wrong to be so mistrustful because human beings are basically good. Unfortunately he chooses to this in exactly the same way as all the other men she’s ever known – by pushing her into a dark corner and attempting to seduce her. In this case however it seems to work. Claiming she is too lonesome to ignore him, Sook-young is swept into Hoon’s rather romantic view of the world, little realising that he too is a fugitive from justice and will also have to pay for having become involved with the wrong people. Nevertheless, through meeting him, Sook-young affirms that she has been able to find a new capacity for living and convinced herself that “the meaning of life is to marry a good guy and live well”.

Socially conservative as it is, the message is undercut by the persistent melancholy that defines Sook-young’s existence even as she declares herself cured of her past traumas and vows to live on free of her “delusion of persecution”. Nevertheless, the picture Kim paints of Korean society is one of socially acceptable misogyny in which even women insist that women are nothing without men and the primacy of the male sex must be respected. At once resigned and angry, Kim paints Sook-young’s capitulation as a positive motion towards conformity but refuses to fully condemn the conservative society which has caused her so much misery.


Promise of the Flesh was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.