The Woman in the White Car (하얀 차를 탄 여자, Christine Ko, 2022)

A small-town policewoman unfairly held back by a traumatic past is embroiled in a complicated case of distorted realities in Christine Ko’s twisty, B-movie thriller, The Woman in the White Car (하얀 차를 탄 여자, Hayan Chaleul Tan Yeoja). Alluding to a novel which is mentioned in the film and both clue and red herring simultaneously, the title may actually be a minor spoiler but is also neatly allusive in its sense of mystery which at the same time proves mildly reductive even as we ask ourselves who such a woman may be. 

The film opens, however, with a silver car which has a large dent to its front bumper arriving at speed at a hospital where the driver, Do-kyung (Jung Ryeo-won), pulls another woman she calls sister out of the passenger seat while trying to get the attention of medical staff explaining that the woman has been stabbed by an abusive partner, Jung-man. All of that is obviously very distressing but when policewoman Hyun-ju (Lee Jung-eun) arrives on the scene she is immediately alerted to what seem to be inconsistencies in Do-kyung’s story some of which could possibly be chalked up to shock along with the revelation that Do-kyung has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and her recollections of events may be unreliable. 

Then again as Hyun-ju says, just because Do-kyung has schizophrenia it does not mean there is no truth in her testimony, just as it does not mean that anyone else with no such condition is necessarily telling the truth. Identifying with her on some level, Hyun-ju tries to tease out the hidden meaning behind Do-kyung’s words to unlock an objective reality but is also mindful of the possibility that Do-kyung may actually be completely lucid and playing them all for fools. The plot thickens when it is realised that the woman in the silver car is not Do-kyung’s sister Min-kyung as she had claimed, but an otherwise unidentified passenger whose origins they do not know further casting doubt on Do-kyung’s version of events along with the existence or not of prime suspect Jung-man. 

As she had received the call about the incident, Hyun-ju had been having a meal with her naive assistant Young-jae who had complained how boring their lives were as small-town police officers while Hyun-ju had even insisted on finishing her dinner before leaving for the hospital believing it couldn’t really be that urgent. On witnessing her talent for investigating, he asks her why she didn’t leave to pursue a more fulfilling career elsewhere only for her to explain that she stayed to look after a father we later learn to be abusive whose cutting criticism eroded her confidence in seeking a better life. All the women are in fact similarly constrained, but eventually fighting back against those who are preventing them from taking full control over their lives and in some cases creating a narrative that allows them to do so while claiming their freedom. 

Ko piles twist onto twist through a series of unreliable narrators each giving contradictory versions of events but each in their own small way hinting at greater truths which eventually present themselves to Hyun-ju leaving her with a dilemma in solving a mystery but wondering if it’s better to let it rest and each of the women, herself included, go free. Switching aspect ratios and colour grading to present different versions of reality through flashback and thought experiment, Ko places material clues in each of the stories to act as tiny anchors while setting the tale at a creepy mountain lodge in the middle of nowhere filled with gothic uncertainty and almost chilling loneliness. Accompanied by an overtly B-movie score, the film certainly indulges, with pleasure, in a series of genre cliches from mental illness to unreliable narrators, blood in the snow, and dangerous mountain curves but is finally anchored in a more certain reality unlocked by a detective’s unexpected empathy even if that same empathy leaves her vulnerable to a more literal kind of deceit. “I was just saving myself” one of the women admits, speaking for all taking their destiny into their own hands and reclaiming their freedom in the knowledge that only they can do so.


The Woman in the White Car screens 7th/8th October as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

My Perfect Roommate (룸 쉐어링, Lee Soon-sung, 2022)

In recent years, an ingenious idea has seen older people living alone paired with youngsters struggling to find affordable housing in the hope of combating loneliness and isolation among the elderly to allow them to continue living independently in their own homes for longer. Some more cynically minded people might say it’s merely the government attempting to shift its own responsibilities onto the community, but it can’t be denied that it’s an interesting solution to the problems of an ageing society that, if it works out, can be enriching for both parties though as the grumpy granny and kindhearted student at the centre of Lee Soon-sung’s My Perfect Roommate (룸 쉐어링, Room Sharing) discover it’s always going to be a difficult adjustment. 

That’s in part because Gum Bun (Na Moon-hee) is an elderly lady very set in her ways who appears to be not entirely happy with the idea of having a young man come to live with her in the first place. Before Ji Woong (Choi Woo-sung), a student on a tight budget, arrives she patterns her home with duct tape to mark out which areas he’s allowed to go into and even goes so far as to forbid him from using her bathroom to do a number two because she just can’t bear the thought of sharing her toilet with a man after all these years living alone. For his part, Ji Woong doesn’t complain and does his best to abide by Gum Bun’s wishes even though at times the arrangement seems exploitative as she makes a point of ordering him to do her housework and even begins cooking him meals so she can charge him for them. 

Yet as Ji Woong’s boss at his part time job clearing houses after someone has died points out, loneliness can come at any age and both Gum Bun and Ji Woong are lonely each in a sense excluded from mainstream society because they do not have families of their own. Gum Bun never married and has only one friend (Choi Sun-ja), a neighbour of the same age who married and had children but feels disconnected from her son who rarely calls or visits. She has also elected to take part in the home sharing programme and enjoys spending time with the young student who lives with her as if he were really her grandson. But Gum Bun struggles to bond with Ji Woong in part because she has had disappointment in her life that has left her embittered and resentful while he is also reserved as he is afraid to disclose that he has no family because of a societal stigma towards orphans.

For these reasons there are trust issues on each side, but also an eventual common ground that allows the pair to generate a kind of familial bond and Gum Bun to open herself up to the world again no longer so afraid of abandonment. As Ji Woong had said about a little dog he agreed to look after for a few days much to Gum Bun’s consternation, if you give something love it will eventually come back to you. “We must help each other in this society” Ji Woong had earnestly said only for Gum Bun to counter that helping other people only leaves you miserable, but even she learns to remember her community spirit helping local children living in poverty while collecting prescriptions for other elderly people along with offering a little medical advice as a former nurse. 

Lee’s warmhearted drama directly tackles a series of societal problems from the ageing population to the difficulties young people face trying to get their start in life, but is also clear that prejudice often contributes to the crushing loneliness that can make life seem not worth living. Gum Bun is written off as a “grumpy granny”, excluded from mainstream society because she never married, while Ji Woong is constantly faced with a degree of suspicion solely because he has no family, embarrassed when friends asks what his father does or when a job application unnecessarily asks for his parents’ names. Ji Woong is over the age of majority, but he’s still pressed by a policeman to call his mum and dad while the guy he got into a fight with protecting Gum Bun calls him an “orphan punk” and gestures to the policeman that he is obviously in the wrong assuming the policeman will immediately agree with him. Both he and Gum Bun are in a sense orphans, left alone to fend for themselves in an often hostile society but eventually discovering an unexpected solidarity and sense of familial warmth that allow them to begin moving forward with their lives.


My Perfect Roommate screens in Chicago on Oct. 1 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Director’s Intention (영화의 거리, Kim Min-geun, 2021)

A location scout struggles with memory and landscape when reuniting with a former love in Kim Min-geun’s indie drama, Director’s Intention (영화의 거리, yeonghwaui geoli). The director’s intention is something she’s trying to tease out in trying to find the places that best reflect his feelings, but in doing so she’s also forced to confront herself, her regrets about the past, and her true feelings about her city and her place within it. 

Longtime movie-obsessive Sun-hwa (Lee Sun-hwa) has been working as a location scout in her home city of Busan for quite some time and while moderately successful has not yet hit the big time. Her boss is excited to call her back to the city for a big new job he thinks could even lead to some Hollywood connections, but Sun-hwa isn’t sure she wants to take it because the director, Do-young (Lee Wan), turns out to be an old flame who broke her heart by leaving her behind to chase movie success in Seoul. 

It’s Sun-hwa’s firm opinion that Busan is as good as anywhere else and that filmmaking shouldn’t be limited to a small elite in the capital. She couldn’t understand why Do-young was so keen to leave and was determined to stay making films with those she loves in a place she loves. She accuses him of selfishness, but it is perhaps on another level simply afraid to leave the security of the familiar for the promise of the new, while he is too quick to abandon the old insisting that there are better opportunities to be had elsewhere. At the end of the day what they have is contradictory perspectives that cause each of them a crisis of faith in the relationship, he because she won’t leave with him and she because he won’t stay. “He cared more about his dreams, I cared more about my life” Sun-hwa later explains, justifying her desire to stay and build something on firmer foundations rather than take a gamble on an unlikely success. 

Sun-hwa prides herself on being able to match the emotions from the scene she’s given to a particular place to help the director express his feelings onscreen, but Do-young seems to reject each of her choices simply walking away from each location as in someway unsuitable. She offers him only barbed comments which seem to confuse the other members of the film crew who presumably have no clue what’s going on or of the couple’s former relationship while he says barely anything leaving the question open as to whether he’s here to rekindle an old romance or simply to memorialise it in film. Sun-hwa meanwhile needles him by deliberately selecting painful places filled with their shared memories sure to provoke something if not necessarily the effect Do-young was hoping for. Then again, his key criteria for a pivotal, unwritten scene is that it should look nice but feel empty. 

In any case, as Sun-hwa says there are no places you only see in the movies. Every location has its own story to tell, but can also play host to the stories of others. In the opening scenes, Sun-hwa holds a notebook and surveys a river ominously containing abandoned boots and clothing. She is mistaken for a detective by a panicked local who has in a sense created his own story from what he sees only to be relieved on discovering it to be an illusion. No horrific crime has disrupted the tranquility of this peaceful, rural scene. The only thing that matters is that it’s the right place for the right director and perhaps at the right time. Wander around and you might just find what you’re looking for while in having a firm destination you might ending up missing the perfect spot and never reach what you thought you were searching for. Then again, even if a place no longer exists the feelings surrounding it survive and can perhaps be salvaged even if not quite the same as they once were as Sun-hwa discovers in revisiting her past to scout locations that will either bring an old story to an end or begin it anew.


Director’s Intention in Chicago on Sept. 25 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Mother’s Place (엄마의 자리, Ryu Hee-jung, 2022) 

Outdated patriarchal social codes conspire against the emotional bonds of family in Ryu Hee-jung’s touching family drama, Mother’s Place (엄마의 자리, eomma-ui jali). While adult siblings keep secrets from each other to avoid personal embarrassment and fail to resist the demands of otherwise estranged relatives, a teenage girl is forced to mourn the loss of her parents alone feeling as if her place in the family unit was never guaranteed and that she has been abandoned by those closest to her simply because her mother’s was a second marriage. 

High school girl Yuna is called to the hospital by her oldest sister, Jungsun, who is desperately trying to hold it together but receiving little support, to be told that her parents have been involved in a car accident and are in critical condition. Jungsun rings her other sister, Jungwon, to ask her to pick up her children while waiting for her husband to get off work but Jungwon is also busy with her job as a lawyer and ignores her first few calls. Meanwhile, the oldest brother, Junghan, rudely tells her he’s too busy to talk and makes no attempt to travel to the hospital which the other siblings partly understand because they believe him to be in Japan only as it turns out that is not quite the case. After the parents sadly pass away, Jungsun and her sister organise the funeral but are immediately overruled by a grumpy and extremely conservative uncle who happens to be a prominent politician and is outraged that they are holding a joint memorial considering it was a second marriage. Apparently from a somewhat prestigious family, the other relatives intend to bury the father in the family plot and think it would be improper to inter the mother alongside him because his first wife and the mother of the eldest three children already rests there. 

“Things won’t change even if you insist” Yuna is told by her siblings who are minded to simply go along with the uncle’s instructions even though they too were shocked and hurt by the suggestion that a joint funeral is improper, reminding the uncle that she may have been a stepmother but she was their mother too. Orphaned at such a young age, Yuna is then left to deal with her mother’s death all alone while simultaneously prevented from being able to attend her father’s funeral. Her outsider status is already signalled by her name, all of her siblings share the first syllable “Jung” while she obviously does not and while they always acted like a family now it’s like they’re disowning her while disrespecting her mother’s memory in suggesting there was something sordid about her relationship with her father that prevents her being buried next to him in her rightful place as his wife. 

She can’t understand why they would just go along with something so obviously wrong, totally unable to reject the uncle’s intrusion into what should be a matter for the immediate family. When he first arrives, the uncle immediately takes issue with the fact that Jungsun is acting as the chief mourner, insisting her husband (who might otherwise not be considered a member of her father’s family) take over until Junghan arrives because a woman occupying such a role is to him in his extremely conservative thinking inappropriate. A tearful Jungsun just lets it go if internally hurt and irritated given that she’s the one doing all the work of making these arrangements that have so casually been overturned. When Junghan finally shows up with a bruised face, the uncle immediately commandeers him and reveals that he’s invited some professors from a local university along with the intention of getting him a “proper” job though there can be few people who would otherwise think a funeral is an appropriate place for a job interview or professional networking. 

Junghan does however mimic his uncle’s conservative views in his constant digs at Jungwon for not yet being married at a comparatively late age. As will be discovered, Jungwon may have her reasons and they’re ones which she may not have felt comfortable sharing with her family members given the quality of the relationship that exists between them. They are all already holding secrets from each other because of the toxic performativity of their familial roles which leaves them embarrassed and fearful of failing to conform to a societal ideal as seen through the conservative eyes of their uncle and those like him. The older siblings only begin to realise their mistake on witnessing Yuna’s rebellion and fearing for her safety while reflecting on their own emotional bond with her mother and the various ways they are now being forced to deny their love and affection for her. 

Oddly, it’s the surprise appearance of the first wife’s ultra-glamorous sister that gives them permission to question the patriarchal norms expressed by the uncle and begin to re-establish the bonds they share as siblings brokered by an emotional connection and founded in shared memories rather than a simple blood relation. With truths aired and a little more emotional honesty in play, the family is free to remake itself along healthier lines of mutual support and compassion free of the constraints placed on them by outdated social codes. In searching for her mother’s place, Yuna begins to find her own outside of the cold and austere conservatism imposed by those like her uncle. 


Mother’s Place in Chicago on Sept. 24 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Fairy (요정, Shin Tack-su, 2021)

The cracks in the foundations of a recent marriage are exposed by a mysterious guest in Shin Taku-su’s marital parable, Fairy (요정, Yojeong). A marriage is necessarily a shared endeavour, but the central couple can’t seem to shift their mindsets from “mine” to “ours” while each pulled in different directions by unfinished business and external responsibilities. What their possibly magic visitor shows them is that their sense of competition is pointless when at the end of the day they could each benefit if only they committed fully to a shared future. 

The central problem Cheol (Kim Ju-hun) and Ran (Ryu Hyun-kyung) have is that when they met they were both owners of cafes in a similar part of town. Now they’ve tied the knot, they’re still running independent businesses which are technically in competition with each other. Ran suggests that maybe they should amalgamate the cafes to focus on growing just one, but really she just means closing Cheol’s because it’s not as profitable as hers is. Cheol appears to go along with the idea even if not entirely happy with it while carrying baggage from his previous marriage along with a sense of emasculation in having moved into Ran’s home while supported by her business more than his own. 

It’s after a brief argument about the business plan and Cheol’s ex-wife that the couple accidentally knock over a young man while driving home having had too much to drink. In order to avoid getting involved with the police, they take him home instead of the hospital but when he comes to the boy, Seok (Kim Sin-bi), only asks them if they can put him up for a bit and help him find work because he’s nowhere else to go. After Seok starts working at Cheol’s cafe it suddenly becomes successful much to Ran’s consternation while the pair’s relationship to him becomes increasingly exploitative even as they become something like a “family” living under one roof. 

If Seok really is a magical spirit, it’s only made him unhappy as his presence necessarily sets people against each other. Unable to see that as a married couple they both benefit from a business doing well, Cheol and Ran begin squabbling over Seok and whose cafe he gets put to work in. Cheol’s unexpected success annoys Ran who is perhaps attached to the sense of independence she feels as a business owner while fearing that Cheol will come to take over her life if she ends up his assistant in his cafe. Yet the film isn’t intending to say that she should be subservient to her husband or that her anxiety is misplaced only that she is still insufficiently committed to the relationship to be able to trust Cheol with her future while he is also reluctant to accept the responsibility while dealing with the failure of his first marriage and a sense of damaged masculinity in being unable to play a paternal role to his daughter nor offer any meaningful financial support to the family he is now separated from. 

While Ran agonises over Cheol’s desire to smooth things over with his ex-wife and daughter, her responsibilities are also split by her devotion to her older sister and her family which is only deepened when her brother-in-law is taken ill and her sister needs her help keeping their business afloat. As she discovers, however, familial relationships can also be exploitative both emotionally and financially even if the intent is not necessarily malicious. As Seok’s presence continues to divide them, it does eventually lead to the realisation that Ran and Cheol only have each other and should be pooling their resources into the shared endeavour that is their marriage despite the risks that necessarily come with that level of commitment. The marriage will only succeed when both partners are on an equal footing and working together towards a shared goal rather than anxious in their roles and responsibilities or constantly vying for the upper hand. A lonely being whether magical or not, it may be Seok who loses out in the end unable to find a place to accept him solely for who he is and not what he offers while ironically showing others the way to find the place to belong that he so sorely seeks.  


Fairy screens in Chicago on Sept. 24 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Trailer (no subtitles)

The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra (다섯 번째 흉추, Park Sye-young, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

A strange fungus growing on an old mattress slowly takes human form while feeding on loneliness and misery in Park Sye-young’s melancholy experimental feature, The Fifth Thoracic Vertebrae (다섯 번째 흉추, daseos beonjjae hyungchu). The Fifth Thoracic Vertebrae is near enough the one closest to the heart, and the one the growing creature is prone to rip out of its unsuspecting victims as it travels towards its uncertain evolution. Yet there is a strange sort of wistfulness that accompanies the mattress’ journey as if a new world were being born, one birthed in pain and anguish but with a yearning for love and connection even in the depths of its loneliness. 

The mattress is to begin with one purchased by a young couple about to move in together but soon becomes a symbol of their doomed love. While the mattress leans against a pillar outside an apartment building, a rude removal man swears at the young woman on the phone apparently unable to gain access. The boyfriend was supposed to let them in, but as we discover he’s fallen asleep and the girl must now abandon her plans to carry the mattress up the stairs herself and position it around his sleeping body. The film had explained to us that we are still some days away from the creature’s birth but we can soon see spores collecting on the mattress as a symbol of the relationship’s demise. When the couple finally break up, the boyfriend notices the mould but simply flips the mattress over as if that will solve all of his problems. 

Slowly but surely, the mattress travels all around the contemporary society in which many are it seems remarkably unfussy about the condition of a mattress they do not intend to sleep on themselves. It first ends up in a love hotel where it witness another breakup, resentment between the lovers soon giving way to sorrow and finally neediness as they consent to part. Now grown enough in strength the mattress creature rips out their vertebrae though it’s unclear whether it does so to relive them of their pain or merely to consume it. 

Abandoned again by the irritated landlord cross with his customers for being too stuck up for a mattress which he thinks is perfectly fine if you just flip it over and forget about the admittedly “disgusting” growths on the underside, the creature finds a new home with a terminally ill woman who seems to have some kind of rare disease which requires her isolation though seemingly because of some kind of stigma rather than for any medical cause. It’s distressing to think that anyone would give such a soiled, unsanitary thing to a dangerously ill woman though she seems to have become aware of the creature and views it almost as a friend reaching out in her own loneliness and charging it with a letter for her daughter she fears the nurses will otherwise burn with her body. It seems they do not burn the mattress, but seek to get rid of it while recommending it be purified through exorcism but of course the removal people are far too cheap for that. 

In any case, the mattress creature soon finds an affinity with the van driver who is celebrating his 37th birthday alone on the road with a sad slice of cake and a single candle while listening to teach yourself English tapes in search of meaningful connections. Perhaps it makes sense that along with sweat, dead skin, and other things we unknowingly shed, we leak sadness and pain into a space of comfort and safety feeding a creature of loneliness and desire with the physical remnants of our emotional selves. What survives of us is less love than its unanswered call, an undeliverable letter becoming a sort of holy text for a new form of life that may long survive us. Filmed with a dreamy poeticism and sudden shocks of eeriness in its ominous lighting and sci-fi score, Park’s oneiric drama nevertheless beats with a melancholy pulse of frustrated desire in which all connection is fleeting and love births only loneliness in a world in which a mattress knows us best of all. 


The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival

Trailer (English subtitles)

Seire (세이레, Park Kang, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

A new father finds himself plagued by strange dreams and an unquiet dread in Park Kang’s eerie paternal horror, Seire (세이레). Seire refers to the first three weeks of a baby’s life in which the family is expected to limit external contact and avoid any taboos especially those having to do with death. Such superstition might seem out of place in the modern society but then when you think about it it makes sense, limiting the number of people interacting with your medically vulnerable newborn helps protect it from illness or infection while dealing with grief in the wake of new life is necessarily difficult. 

Even so, Woo-jin (Seo Hyun-woo) is beginning to get fed up with his wife Hae-mi’s (Shim Eun-woo) obsession with ritualistic superstition. “Don’t engage in anything unusual” she ominously instructs him as he leaves to run an errand after a night of fevered dreams sleeping on the sofa. That Woo-jin is tired isn’t surprising, he’s the father of a newborn after all, but he seems to be weighed down by something more than bodily fatigue and has been having strange visions featuring fruit knives, rotten apples, and a woman who is not his wife. When he receives a text informing him that an old friend from university, Se-young (Ryu Abel), has passed away, Hae-mi tries to talk him out of going to the funeral advising him to send money instead rather than risk breaking a taboo during the baby’s Seire but Woo-jin doesn’t really believe in any of this stuff and not going to the funeral’s not really an option for him especially, as we later realise, as he may have had unfinished business with the deceased. 

Superstition becomes an odd kind of fault line in the couple’s relationship not so much in a matter of belief but of commitment. Hae-mi reads Woo-jin’s reluctance to abide by the superstitious practices she’s been taught as an early paternal failure, a sign that he wasn’t interested enough in his son’s welfare to follow a few simple rules for a period of three weeks while Woo-jin equally sees Hae-mi’s insistence on them as a personal rejection which is on one level fair enough when she’s literally pelting him with salt and refusing to let him into their bedroom let alone near the baby. To divert the misfortune born of attending the funeral, Hae-mi asks Woo-jin to commit three acts of theft, telling him that it won’t harm anyone and then they’ll be able to stop worrying except that it will definitely harm someone and perhaps everyone if Woo-jin gets caught and ends up losing his job. 

Despite claiming not to believe in any of this superstition, Woo-jin is very into traditional medicine and it seems there may be a connection to the strange events around him though it might not explain his fractured state of mind or increasing inability to tell dream from reality. He is quite literally haunted by the manifestation of a previous transgression which is already playing on his mind given his recent fatherhood. Paternal anxiety is indeed at the root of all his troubles, though we can also see that he feels belittled by his wealthy brother-in-law who makes a show of buying all the fancy meat for a family dinner while it later becomes clear that his relationship with Hae-mi is newer than we might have assumed and cemented by the birth of a baby Woo-jin may perhaps on some level resent. But it’s his own guilt that haunts him in the end, failing to deal with the implications of his past actions and their result whether by accident or design. 

Drifting between dream, memory, and a confused reality, Park imbues the everyday with a sense of dread and eerieness defined by an ever-present evil which must be constantly warded off though as it turns out Woo-jin’s darkness very much lies within. Some things you think are just superstitions really aren’t, Hae-mi’s sister annoyed by her superstitious mother’s instruction not to eat lettuce while pregnant which is probably more to do with E. coli than fear of a supernatural curse, though there seems to be no real reason why you shouldn’t eat apples at night save the superstition they cause unrestful sleep. Is this all happening to Woo-jin because he broke a taboo? In many ways yes, and his self-haunting seems set to continue in the impossibility of gaining forgiveness for the unforgivable. 


Seire screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Next Door (옆집사람, Yeom Ji-ho, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

How much do you know about what’s going on with your neighbours? Chan-woo (Oh Dong-min) thinks he knows quite a bit because they never seem to stop arguing and the walls in this building are surprisingly thin, but as it turns out he didn’t really know very much at all nor to be honest did he really care. Yeom Ji-ho’s graduate film Next Door (옆집사람, Yeop Jib Salam) is a tense mystery farce in which an aspiring detective tries to investigate his way out of trouble and somehow ends up coming out on top almost despite himself.

Chan-woo has been unsuccessfully studying for the police exam for the last five years and hopes that his run of miserable failure is about to come to an end, that is as long as he can get himself together to submit the application by 6pm the following day. One of the many problems with that is that Chan-woo has a cashflow problem and there’s not enough in his account to pay the fee so he has to ring a friend who agrees to lend him money but only if he comes out for a drink. Reluctantly agreeing, Chan-woo fails to correct his friends when they assume he’s already passed the test and become a policeman only to get blackout drunk and create some kind of disturbance before waking up in an unfamiliar environment next to what seems to be a corpse surrounded by blood. After a few moments of confusion, Chan-woo realises he must have crawled in next-door in a drunken stupor and returns to his own apartment but discovers that he’s left his phone behind which is inconvenient in itself but especially as it’s now evidence that he was present at a crime scene which won’t look good on his police application form. 

To be honest, Chan-woo is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and it’s not until he’s been in the apartment, where he is trapped because the hallway is currently full of religious proselytisers, for some time that he remembers about fingerprints and DNA while deciding to do some investigating to figure out what might have been going on the previous evening. His friend’s messages suggest he has a history of becoming violent and aggressive while drunk and may have gotten into some kind of altercation all of which has him worried that he actually might have been involved in the corpse’s demise. 

Meanwhile all he ever did was complain about the noisy woman in 404 who was frequently heard arguing with a man. As an aspiring policeman perhaps he should have checked in on her to make sure she hadn’t become a victim of domestic violence rather than blaming his neighbours for his poor performance. To begin with, he assumes the body must be that of the woman’s boyfriend, but also makes a series of sexist assumptions while looking around the apartment and finding evidence that the person who lived there was a tech wiz immediately assuming that all the computer equipment must belong to the boyfriend. Similarly he decides the girl is probably an airhead after finding photos of her on the corpse’s phone because she is pretty and fashionable. When she finally turns up with bin bags and cleaning supplies, Hyun-min (Choi Hee-jin) first challenges Chan-woo on discovering him hiding in her closet but then changes her tune to appeal to Chan-woo’s vanity playing the helpless young woman looking to him for protection and in effect welding his sexism against him. 

His desire to play the hero may be behind his intention to become a police officer but then he’s not exactly a paragon of virtue himself. On discovering the body, we see him raid a piggy bank and pocket a note from the corpse’s wallet to solve his financial problems before thinking better of it and putting everything back where it belongs. He agrees to help Hyun-min deal with the body partly to protect her and partly to protect himself from his proximity to the crime all while trying to make sure he gets back to his own apartment to send the application form before the deadline. Even the landlady eventually offers him a discount on his rent in return for keeping quiet so the murder in the building won’t affect her business. “They were terrible people” he tells her when she repeats a rumour that Hyun-min got into a fight with a jealous boyfriend over money which might not be completely unfair even though he knows the rumour isn’t true and is not entirely blameless himself. A masterclass in blocking and production design, Yeom’s deliciously dark farce suggests it might be worth keeping a better eye on your neighbours in all senses of the term. 


Next Door screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Alienoid (외계+인 1부, Choi Dong-hoon, 2022)

According to the strangely warmhearted AI robot at the centre of Choi Dong-hoon’s Alienoid (외계+인 1부), the universe is already finished, destined only to tear itself apart in destructive instability. According to him, his society evolved, became compassionate and forgiving, yet like many others sought to avoid a problem it did not want to deal with in exiling its most dangerous prisoners to the minds of oblivious Earthlings who apparently rarely realise they’re sharing body and soul with an alien killing machine until that is one decides to escape. 

Thunder (Kim Dae-myung), an AI unit accompanying the sullen Guard (Kim Woo-bin) who is also a kind of guardian, paints the aliens as dangerous mutants who live only for violence yet it might be worth considering that their rebellion may be justified as members of an oppressed minority apparently considered harmful to mainstream society were it not for the fact their plan involves poisoning the Earth’s atmosphere to free their brethren while suffocating humanity in the process. Guard is fond of saying that he cares nothing for humans and does not involve himself in human affairs, yet it’s obvious that as much as his duty is to ensure the aliens stay captive he feels a responsibility to protect humanity, coming to care for an infant child Thunder spirited away in compassion after its mother died when the alien hosted inside her tried to escape. 

There is something a little curious in the fact these alien beings have chosen to live in what is our present day when according to them time is not linear but happening all at once and they appear to have the ability to travel through it at will, even stashing mutant criminals back in the 14th century where a Taoist dosa magician, “The Marvellous Muruk” (Ryu Jun-yeol) is on the hunt for the Divine Blade and a young woman who “shoots thunder” (Kim Tae-ri). Alien technology may seem like magic even if rooted in “science”, but feudal Korea is a place of majestic fantasy in which wizardry is apparently very real to the extent that a pair of powerful sorcerers tour the land hawking magical supplies such as random sutra stickers and mirrors that enlarge whatever passes through them to mysteriously masked warrior monks. Yet as we can see the girl who shoots thunder is merely welding a pistol, a kind of halfway house of technology which seems like strange magic to the people of Goryeo but nothing more than a child’s toy to the laser-wielding robotic aliens. 

In any case, Choi eventually connects these two worlds bridged by temporal conspiracy as if implying that the future’s salvation lies only in the past. Guard is forced to reflect that their strange act of colonial imperialism in secretly implanting alien prisoners in human minds may have been misguided when challenged by his plucky little girl (Choi Yu-ri) who has already realised there’s something a little different about her distant dad while the fact she’s effectively being raised by two men passes as incidental detail even as the Guard is stalked by her best friend’s apparently smitten aunt (Lee Honey). 

This being the first instalment in a two part film, there is a notable lack of resolution in its closing moments though Choi excels in world building running from hard sci-fi to feudalistic fantasy imbued with the strange magic of technology and underpinned by an interrogation humanity as the heroes battle through time looking for a way to repair an “unstable” world ruled by greed and violence and largely find it in each other. While the chief thrill may come from the incongruity of a young woman firing a pistol in the age of the crossbow (not to mention blasting her way out of a coffin), Choi packs in a series of innovative action sequences shot with a knowing irony as Muruk faces off against the masked monks in the past while the Guard and Thunder try their best to keep the aliens at bay with their high tech weaponry, shooting electric pulses from their palms and dodging lasers but still making a last ditch attempt by leaping at the enemy spaceship and trying to stab it in the heart. Whether this disordered world can be stabilised through a moment of cosmic connection will have to wait for part two, but this opening instalment at least is quite literally a charming affair.


Alienoid is in US cinemas from Aug. 26 courtesy of Well Go USA.

US trailer (English subtitles)

Next Sohee (다음 소희, July Jung, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

“She just went quietly” an older woman running a cafe explains to a police officer against all advice attempting to investigate the suicide of a young woman in July Jung’s long-awaited A Girl at My Door followup, Next Sohee (다음 소희, Daeum Sohee). In the end, Sohee (Kim Si-eun) did indeed go quietly, cowed into submission by the apparent hopelessness of her life amid the grinding crushingness of contemporary capitalism while even the policewoman who shares her fiery sense of outrage comes to a similar conclusion on uncovering the endemic abuses of the modern society. 

Jung devotes the entire first half of the film to Sohee’s slow burn disintegration as a high schooler selected as an “extern” for a call centre business while dreaming of becoming a dancer. These exploitative work experience programs are technically part of Sohee’s high school education and dropping out of them incurs the possibility of not graduating along with being “red tagged” by the school in a lesson in banishment room tactics which sees the kids forced to perform menial tasks such as cleaning the toilets while wearing clothing that marks them out as a failure who has brought shame on their institution. A proud young woman, Sohee is thought of as mentally strong and academically earnest originally excited by the extern opportunity which the teacher sells to her as being a cut above, she being the first of their students to land a position at a “major” company which is also feather in his own cap. 

Later Yoojin (Bae Doona), the policewoman who briefly met Sohee at a dance class, asks the teacher why he didn’t bother to investigate what was really going on at the call centre but he only tries to shift the blame explaining that he needs to find good jobs for other kids to maintain the school’s rankings which means keeping on the good side of employers. As Sohee sat vacantly and cried having attempted to take her own life, he dismissed her concerns and told her to work harder. Each time Yoojin interviews an authority figure they tell her it’s not their fault, it’s the system, while blaming Sohee for having “attitude problems” and pointing out that she should have just quit if she wasn’t up to the job. 

But Sohee couldn’t quit in part because of the shaming culture that surrounded her in which she’s constantly reminded that her actions have negative consequences for others. Firstly she’s told that her subpar performance brings down their team’s rankings, then shunned by her colleagues because her top scores are pushing up the targets for everyone else. She doesn’t want to let her teacher down by quitting, and even on trying to explain to her parents after her first suicide attempt is simply told to work harder under the fallacy that if you obey all the rules and work hard you’ll be alright. The call centre is almost entirely staffed by externs, in the main teenage girls, who are made to listen to irate customers verbally abuse or sexually harass them while instructed that they must do whatever possible to stop them cancelling their accounts. The call that breaks Sohee comes from a sobbing father who wants to cancel because his child has died so he doesn’t need the service anymore but she still has to try and sell him a new TV package while giving him the run around on the contract cancellation. 

Because the externs have a high turnover, the company defers payment of their bonuses to discourage them from leaving while continuously docking their wages reminding them of the clauses in the contract they signed which state that remuneration is subject to change. Sohee was in fact forced to sign two different contracts so the company could get away with paying her below minimum wage which is a violation of what little labour law actually exists while as these are essentially children who’ve signed contracts they don’t understand because their teachers and parents told them to they have no idea of their rights but are gradually realising they’re being exploited and there’s nothing they can do about it. Sohee was thought of as the type to fight back, and she was, she did, but in the end she went quietly because what else could she have done. 

She went quietly from the dance class where Yoojin first encountered her too, but does not pass so quietly from her mind. Yoojin asks why it was that she danced given there’s no gain to be had by it, she was too old to become a K-pop star and there’s no money in dancing but for her there was perhaps freedom and a small act of rebellion in the use of her physical body for something other than labour. An inspector who calls, Yoojin shares Sohee’s “attitude problems” and refuses to let the case rest realising that the poor kids at the below average schools are being forced into employment that is almost entirely unregulated while the companies that exploit them paint themselves as the victim, pressuring employees and bereaved family members into signing documents denying any wrongdoing. Betrayed by the company, Sohee first refuses to sign but in the end she does so, quietly, and at the cost of her integrity. Yoojin too is eventually forced to sign a form and put her name to something she believes is not quite true. Sohee’s death was as she puts it a workplace accident, or perhaps a slow motion murder, and “nobody gives a damn” because she was just a teenager with a “bad attitude” who went quietly because no one would have listened to her anyway. 


Next Sohee screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)