Collectors (도굴, Park Jung-bae, 2020)

“Grave Robber” is ordinarily not a nice thing to call someone, let alone to be, yet the heroes of Park Jung-bae’s Collectors (도굴, Do-gul) are just that if in effect more like cultural Robin Hoods robbing the dead to reclaim the past than heartless thieves interested only in profit. Operating with a “this should be in a museum!” mentality, these grave robbers have a variety of motives, among them revenge both personal and national, as they take aim at lingering historical betrayals stemming back to the days of Japanese colonialism. 

As the film opens, intrepid thief Dong-gu (Lee Je-hoon) manages to trick a pair of Buddhist monks suspicious on the grounds that he’s a bit handsome for the religious life into letting him “guard” a pagoda that’s set for imminent dismantling in order to nab a precious miniature Buddha located inside. What puzzles the authorities is that Dong-gu leaves obvious evidence of the theft along with a trademark chocopie wrapper which suggests he wants everyone to know how clever he is. This may be true, Dong-gu is quite smug about his obvious abilities as a tomb raider, but he may also have ulterior motives in play. As a duplicitous broker points, out, however, it’s surprisingly difficult to make money trafficking artefacts because they are simply to famous to be sold openly meaning thieves and fences are all dependent on a small pool of super rich “collectors” with whom they have personal relationships or else are stealing to order. 

Stepping back a little, what this means is that not only are those like Dong-gu robbing the dead and selling their affects on the black market, but that they are in a sense traitors to their nation often selling these precious historical artefacts to foreigners and most problematically to the Japanese, ironically enough grave robbers themselves in having looted half the country during the colonial era. It will come as little surprise that the main villain Jin Sang-gil (Song Young-chang), a hotel entrepreneur and head of the Korea Cultural Asset Foundation, in fact owes his inherited wealth to his family having sold artefacts to the Japanese from 1910 onwards, and himself is keeping a large selection of plundered treasures in an ultra secure vault underneath his offices. 

The Buddha brings Dong-gu into Jin’s orbit, first made an offer by his gangster underling Gwang-chul (Lee Sung-wook) who is, perhaps conveniently, Chinese-Korean hailing from Yanbian, and then by his smart assistant Sae-hee (Shin Hye-sun) who is fluent in English, Chinese, and Japanese acting as a broker for wealthy Japanese clients which is how she finances Dong-gu’s upcoming operation to steal an ancient frieze from a grave located in what is now technically China but was then Korean. Dong-gu, meanwhile, despite claiming he got into grave robbing because he realised he’d never be able to buy a house working “like regular people do”, is remarkably uninterested in the money refusing Sae-hee’s “gift” of a fancy car, and instantly losing his fee in the hotel casino. As we later realise, what he seems to want is for the artefacts to be returned to their rightful owners, the Korean people. 

To complete his heist he recruits a series of “experts” including the slightly nerdy souvenir peddler nicknamed “Dr. Jones” (Jo Woo-jin) who even dresses like Indy himself, as well as a former miner recently released from prison renowned for his tunnelling abilities. Dong-gu’s methods are traditional in the extreme, locating the entrance to a burial mound by tasting the soil looking for traces of decomposing flesh, while his sister Hye-ri (Park Se-wan) is much more technologically advanced making frequent use of drones and angering her father and brother by drilling a tiny hole in the Buddha to insert a GPS tracker hoping to figure out what Jin is doing with the artefacts. In a touch of irony, the vault has itself been designed to mimic the security features of an ancient tomb if updated with biometric eye scanning and fingerprint technology topped off with a good old-fashioned key, but as it turns out there’s no security system that can protect you from betrayal especially if you’re generally unpleasant and no one trusts you anyway. 

Dong-gu’s target, however, is a royal tomb located in the centre of Gangnam from which he intends to steal the “Excalibur of Joseon” appealing to Jin’s sense of hubris, leaning into a kind of mythical prophecy in which he’d become a contemporary hero ruling over all Korea as the wielder of the sword. Taking in some additional social commentary in which the government has chosen to improve their approval ratings through spending money buffing up a tomb while when the guys try to rent a subbasement the flirtatious realtor admits the rents are low in this area because it often floods only to shake off some of her disapproval when they tell her they’re part of the restoration team, the central message is that the historical relics of Korea’s past belong to the Korean people, not to the shady businessmen further corrupting an already compromised economy, nor to former colonial powers. Sometimes, it seems to say, digging up the past is a necessary act of national reclamation. 


Collectors screens 13th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Awoke (복지식당, Jung Jae-ik & Seo Tae-soo, 2020)

“Please let me live with dignity” the hero of Jung Jae-ik & Seo Tae-soo’s Awoke (복지식당, Bogji Sigdang) eventually pleads as a sole judge looks down on him from on high, advocating for himself but seemingly finding little support. Co-directed by Jung who is disabled himself and employing a mixed ability crew, Jung & Seo’s kafkaesque drama explores the vagaries of disabled life in the contemporary society in which there is still a degree of stigmatisation towards those with differing needs while the expanding welfare system also presents its own barriers preventing those with disabilities from leading full and fulfilling lives. 

This 34-year-old Jae-gi (Jo Min-sang) discovers when he suddenly becomes disabled after a traffic accident. As his mother died while he was in the hospital, he has only his cousin Eun-ji, who is a single mother to a teenage son, and an elderly landlord to look after him while it seems no one has fully explained the options he now has. His hospital roommate, Bong-su, seems to be an old hand, visited by a man in wheelchair, Byeong-ho whom he calls brother, who has evidently explained to him how to game the system which is why he is later rated level 2, the second most severe category of disability, despite being fully able to walk and perform everyday tasks with relative ease. Being an honest person, Jae-gi fully co-operates with the civil servant sent to assess his level of disability and as he is able to stand and make a few steps to transfer into a wheelchair independently he is put down as able to walk, and as the assessor is able to move his left arm which constantly tremors and has low functionality he is graded level 5 or “mildly disabled”. 

To anyone’s eyes, this is plainly ridiculous. Jae-gi needs an electric wheelchair in order to get around and can only manage basic every day tasks such as housework and laundry with assistance. He is also forced to move out of the flat his mother left him because it’s a walkup, meaning he has to rent an accessible room. He tries to apply for various schemes intended to help people like him so that he’d be able to use subsidised accessible taxi services and have access to a personal carer but is repeatedly told he doesn’t “qualify” because of his level five designation. Unable to claim for disability living allowance, Jae-gil wants to get a job but again on visiting a specialist service designed to help those with disabilities get into work finds himself falling between two stools. The first interviewer simply looks at him and explains he wants someone who can walk and lift heavy objects, which is incongruous with advertising jobs to people with physical disabilities. The second wanted to hire him right away only to rescind the offer on looking at his welfare card explaining her company only hires levels one to three. Byeong-ho, who happens to work there too, explains that’s because companies are given subsidies for hiring the “severely” disabled which on paper Jae-gil is not. 

Time and again, Jae-gil becomes the victim of officious bureaucracy. The services needed to help him exist, but he is prevented from using them because an over officious assessor was too literal with his form. He’s told that it’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to get one’s level changed, a claim which seems doubly unfair given that disability can of course change over time. Intensely vulnerable, he comes to over rely on Byeong-ho’s advice, little knowing that Byeong-ho is also exploiting him despite being aware that he has no money and is in danger of being evicted from his flat if he is not able to get his level changed to enable him to work, claim the assistance he is entitled to, and live a fulfilling independent life. 

Encouraged by Byeong-ho, Jae-gil is certain that he’s going to get his rating overturned, assuring his cousin there’s no need to sell his mother’s flat in which she is currently living after losing her house when her husband passed away from cancer because he’ll soon have a job and can pay the rent. Perhaps to a certain extent you can’t blame Byeong-ho for being the way he is given the way he has also experienced exploitation and discrimination not to mention violence at the hands of a father who couldn’t accept having a disabled son, but his almost sadistic glee in fleecing Jae-gil of the little he has is plainly unforgivable, reaching out in solidarity as one disabled person to another only to pass on his sense of oppression to someone even more vulnerable. Forced into a kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare, all Jae-gil can do is repeatedly state his case only for those in positions of power to claim they are prevented from helping him because his card says level five despite the obvious evidence of their eyes. Nevertheless, through his traumatic experiences of betrayal and exploitation, he perhaps awakens to the injustice inherent in the contemporary society and is resolved to advocate for himself though the jury is it seems out on whether anyone is finally going to listen. 


Awoke screens 9th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Canola (계춘할망, Chang, 2016)

“Even when life is hard…if someone’s on your side, it’s possible to go on” the selfless grandmother at the centre of Chang’s heartrending familial melodrama Canola (계춘할망, Gyechun Halmang) imparts, just something she learnt naturally in the course of her life. Partly a tale of familial disruption, dislocation, and the corrupting influences of modernity, Chang’s eventually uplifting tale is also one of interpersonal salvation in which gentle support from a welcoming community can overcome personal trauma and allow those who feared they’d never recover to become a more authentic version of themselves. 

Granny Gye-chun (Youn Yuh-jung) is an ageing Haenyo diver on picturesque Jeju island currently raising her young granddaughter Hey-ji following the death of her son, his wife having left sometime previously. Clearly devoted to each other, tragedy strikes when the pair leave for the city to attend a wedding only to become separated in a crowded marketplace. Gye-chun frantically searches for Hye-ji, but is unable to find her. 12 years later, she’s still pasting missing child flyers all over town while refusing offers to sell her traditional home, which has no indoor plumbing, because she is afraid that Hye-ji may some day return and find her gone. And then a miracle occurs, a young woman (Kim Go-eun) telephones the missing hotline after seeing a picture on a milk carton and claims to be Gye-chun’s missing granddaughter, explaining that her birth mother abducted her from the marketplace and had her adopted by her step-father so she had a different name. Her mother later died and the step-father then callously placed her in an orphanage after which she ended up on the streets.  

Gye-chun is so happy to have her granddaughter back that she perhaps does not fully process the full implications of the situation, taking each of Hye-ji’s claims at face value while struggling to separate the idea of the child she lost with the young woman who has returned. On a shopping trip she buys her a colourful ribbon bow hair clip not entirely appropriate for someone of Hye-ji’s age while confused that she no longer needs her help to go to the outhouse in the dark and locks the door while having a bath. Nevertheless she also seems to worry about what her life might have been like during the time they spent apart, irritated by the other villagers’ disapproval in reminding them that they all reassured her Hye-ji was probably “fine’ when the evidence suggests that fine is something she hasn’t been for a long time. 

The fishing village is indeed a little more conservative than the city, many scandalised by Hye-ji’s short skirts and by the fact that she smokes, instantly labelling her a “delinquent” and possible troublemaker. There is then something uncomfortable in their insistence that she lead a “good life” needing to be guided back towards a more socially conservative path as if her fashion sense and minor rebelliousness make her a “bad person”, while only Gye-chun seems to appreciate that Hye-ji may have come back with trauma from which she will need love and support to recover while short skirts and smoking aren’t really much to worry about in the grand scheme of things. Letting Hye-ji know that she is always on her side, she tries to give her the gentle love and encouragement she needs to become her best self while Hye-ji both begins to feel a genuine connection to the older woman and consequently intense guilt for having kept something from her and perhaps unfairly taking advantage of her kindness. 

Nevertheless, in this more positive environment Hye-ji begins to blossom while Gye-chun begins to put the past to rest, the two of them finding in each other the means for salvation in which it ultimately no longer matters if they share a blood relation or not. Contrasting the beautiful Jeju landscape with its brilliant fields of yellow canola flowers, with the darkness of Hye-ji’s city life, Canola is keen to suggest the difference an environment can make to a quality of life while quietly stressing that in the end it’s people and the bonds between them that matter, just something you learn naturally as you grow. 


Canola screens 6th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Korean subtitles)

Aloners (혼자 사는 사람들, Hong Sung-eun, 2021)

“No one would notice your absence anyway” a belligerent caller ironically argues with an increasingly distressed call centre employee, as so many do in a hierarchical society attempting to bolster his sense of self-esteem by bullying others he perceives to be below him in this case a faceless young woman on the other side of a telephone divide. Hong Sung-eun’s Aloners (혼자 사는 사람들, Honja Saneun Saramdeul), or as the Korean title would have it, those who live alone, is in part a critique of urban alienation but also a deep character study in grief and loneliness in which a young woman’s fear of abandonment has ironically caused her to retreat from the world. 

30ish Jina (Gong Seung-yeon) is the number one employee at a credit card call centre despite, as her boss (Kim Hae-na) reveals, having taken an extravagant two days off for her mother’s funeral hinting at the dehumanising nature of contemporary capitalism. Rarely deviating from the script, Jina has an especial talent for lending a sense of warmth and humanity to the otherwise robotic dialogue even playing along with a man who rings up often noted on his file as having a mental illness to enquire if he can get a retroactive credit card that would work if he time travelled to 2002. Mostly, she seems to keep herself to herself but is always staring at her phone screen, taking lunch alone at the kind of restaurant where you order via a machine while watching videos of other people eating. We see her return home to what we assume is a tiny one room apartment, curtains always closed with boxes piled up in front, while her fridge and microwave are right next to the bed. Wondering if there’s a bathroom somewhere seeing as this doesn’t look like the sort of building where you’d have to share, we begin to hear other people speaking assuming the walls must also be thin or else Jina just has noisy neighbours only to realise that she is in fact listening to a live feed of her father’s (Park Jeong-Hak) living room captured from a security camera she set up to keep an eye on her mum. 

She seems to see the same slightly strange neighbour (Kim Mo-beom) smoking on the balcony as she leaves and returns, only to discover after reporting a bad smell that he has in fact been dead for at least a week apparently crushed under a pile of magazines he’d been obsessively hoarding. This instance of “lonely death” of a person who is not elderly but in fact a similar age to herself forces Jina into a contemplation of the way she’s lived her life while a change in her working routine as her boss tasks her with training a new recruit pushes her back the other way. An extremely young woman alone in the city for the first time, Sujin (Jang Da-eun) is isolated in other ways struggling to make friends at the office and finding her attempts to bond with reluctant mentor Jina largely rebuffed. Claiming she prefers to be alone, Jina’s aloofness is almost aggressive but it’s Sujin’s empathy, a quality which makes her a bad fit for the call centre, that eventually causes a shift as she alone takes the time to ask the troubled caller why he wants to go back to 2002 only to hear that he is also intensely lonely and longs for the sense of communal happiness he experienced during the World Cup. 

Jina had claimed she enjoyed taking the calls, and as we realise she is never really “alone” in that she is always connected via her phone screen if with headphones to block out the outside world or else surrounded by voices in her apartment. The irony is that, as she later admits, Jina is alone because she fears becoming so and the best way to prevent becoming alone is to actively choose it. Fearing abandonment or rejection, she maintains only one-sided connections, a ghost surrounded by other ghosts in the centre of a city. “I hope you find a better place” Jina eventually offers during an awkward telephone apology, a slightly funereal sentiment as if she were seeing someone off not long for this world but also perhaps meant for herself as she begins to exorcise her sense of incurable loneliness willing to brave the risk of heartbreak for mutual connection. “More and more people failing to find their place in society” runs the tag line on the exploitative article about the lonely death, attributing his sense of alienation to a neglectful childhood and societal bullying as if implying it was up to him to fit in rather than for society to find a place for him. Jina meanwhile may in a sense have reassumed ownership over her environment, finally opening the curtains and perhaps no longer confined to a single room while, ironically, taking some time for herself redefining her boundaries with an often indifferent society.  


Aloners screens on 5th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

In Front of Your Face (당신얼굴 앞에서, Hong Sang-soo, 2021)

“There’s so much we don’t know about each other” a sister exclaims as if only just realising precisely how estranged they may have become this current visit home itself overshadowed by a kind of awkwardness that she doesn’t yet quite understand. Sangok (Lee Hye-young), the heroine of Hong Sang-soo’s latest meditation on existential dread In Front of Your Face (당신얼굴 앞에서, Dangsineolgul apeseo), is determined to live defiantly in the moment, shedding both past and future for the intensity of the now while learning to rejoice in the beauty of life if perhaps also burdened by ancient regrets, broken connections, and the ironic promise of an unobtainable future. 

After many years living alone in the US, former actress Sangok has returned to stay with her sister Jeongok (Jo Yoon-hee) and meet with a director who is interested in casting her in his latest film. According to her sister, Sangok ran off with a man she barely knew and followed him to America where she worked as a travel agent though more lately it seems barely getting by with a job in a liquor store. Jeongok waxes on about a swanky new apartment complex in a tranquil area of natural beauty, suggesting her sister move back to Korea but surprised and alarmed when she confesses she has no savings or property. “That’s how everyone lives there” she explains, “but it seems a lot of people here have money” noticing perhaps how much the city has changed since she’s been away while hinting that her life in America may have been in its own way disappointing. 

Sangok seems lonely, tired, a little distracted and perhaps anxious in the way she ties and reties the belt on her mac often placing a hand on her stomach for comfort. The sisters teeter on the brink of an argument about distance, unreturned letters, and whose fault it is they aren’t as close as they might have been but pull back from it wisely avoiding unnecessary confrontation in favour of maintaining the pleasant atmosphere. Yet there are also parts of Sangok’s story that don’t quite add up. A pair of women (Seo Young-hwa & Lee Eun-mi), appearing eerily like the cottage core cat-lovers from The Woman Who Ran, stop the sisters in a park recognising Sangok from her previous life as an actress decades ago. Jeongok is puzzled, sure that Sangok only appeared on TV once though the director, Song Jaewon (Kwon Hae-hyo), later descends into a reverie recalling the effect her early performances had on him as a young student in the early ‘90s. 

Hong pulls one of his usual tricks on us, repeating his opening scene with Sangok dressed in an identical outfit on her sister’s sofa if this time covered with a blanket leading us to wonder if everything we’ve just seen is only a dream. As it happens she soon gets a phone call to let us know it’s not, one which elicits from her an ironic laugh as the new hope she might have been given is suddenly crushed by another Hongian unreliable man talking too big a game even if this time the culprit is baiju rather than the familiar little green bottles of despair. Taking advantage of his selfishly postponing their lunch date, Sangok pays a visit back to her childhood home which has since become a boutique only the garden remaining the same if now dwarfed by the surrounding buildings of an ever developing city. “The memories in my heart are so heavy” she sighs, “I don’t know why I came here”, later embracing a little girl who may or may not live there now as if embracing the ghost of her childhood self. 

The meeting with the director turns out to be depressingly predictable, he having “borrowed” a cafe named “novel” from female “friend” while sending his assistant away periodically Sangok assumes because he wants to get her alone. Ironically enough she describes his films as like short stories, bemused as to why he’s so keen to hire a middle-aged former actress but finally bares her soul explaining what it is that she carries around with her on this rare trip to Seoul. Reciting small mantras to herself in the form of tiny prayers she tries to stay in the moment, reminded that every day is “grace” and that life itself is beautiful, claiming that as long as she can see whatever’s in front of her face then she’s not scared of anything. Reminders of the pandemic hover in the background with vague references to the way things are “especially now”, the atmosphere of dread and anxiety throwing Sangok’s philosophy into stark relief as she vows to live defiantly in the moment, rejoicing in life’s absurdities but also in its small comforts as she wonders what her sleeping sister dreams, shaking off her her existential vertigo to gaze out of a high-rise window.  


In Front of Your Face screens in San Diego on Oct. 30 & Nov. 1 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival. Readers in London will also have the opportunity to see the film as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival at Picturehouse Central on 13th November.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Not Out (낫아웃, Lee Jung-gon, 2021)

“I just wanted to keep playing baseball” the hero of Lee Jung-gon’s Not Out (낫아웃) eventually wails on finally being confronted with the consequences of his actions. Not so much a baseball movie as a gentle character study Lee’s unexpectedly dark drama sees its singleminded hero descending to depths of sociopathic manipulation in his determination to make his sporting dreams come true but less perhaps out of pure hearted yearning than a sense of embarrassment and fragile masculinity. 

“You won, then it’s over isn’t it?” someone asks Shin Gwang-ho (Jeong Jae-Kwang), the hero of his high school baseball team having just carried them to a miraculous victory. No, he corrects them, it’s only just beginning. Approaching graduation, all Gwang-ho’s ever wanted to do is play baseball, and everyone’s always telling him how good he is at it so much so that he’s internalised a puffed-up sense of himself as a sporting prodigy. That’s one reason why when his coach (Kim Hee-chang) tells him he’s been offered a trainee position with a professional team he arrogantly turns it down, sure that he’s going to be drafted. But his decision backfires, he’s not picked while another boy is leaving him confused, somewhat humiliated, and completely lost as to what to do now. Regretting having thrown away the trainee opportunity he makes the knee-jerk decision to apply to colleges to play in the uni leagues and get another shot at being drafted by the pros, but his decision negatively impacts the life plan of another player whose request not to apply to the same uni falls on deaf ears. Gwang-ho doesn’t really get why it’s a big deal, surely he has the right to try out and let the best player win but his friend, knowing he isn’t talented as Gwang-ho, doesn’t see it that way and intensely resents his insensitivity. 

There is a peculiarly childish component to Gwang-ho’s unthinking determination as he makes a series of increasingly bad decisions in order to pursue his goal little caring who might get hurt in the process. His problem is compounded by the fact that his family is poor, resenting his friend for being wealthy enough to make uni his main plan as if he thinks he can simply do without baseball while to Gwang-ho it’s the only thing that matters. “You think you can play baseball all on your own?” his exasperated coach asks him, fed up with his tendency to alienate his teammates but himself exploiting him in asking for money from his father to improve his chances of being able to continue playing. Gwang-ho, meanwhile, also resents his dad, going so far as to try to guilt him into selling his restaurant to get him the money to go to college.

Gwang-ho continues to do whatever he wants without really thinking about the consequences which is how he ends up trading stolen/illegal homemade petrol with old middle school friend Min-chul (Lee Kyu-Sung). Min-chul and the teenage girl working with him So-hyun (Song Yi-jae) seem to be more aware of the implications of their life of crime while Gwang-ho resolutely refuses to realise that this all very likely to blow up in his face, which it eventually does and quite literally. Pushed to breaking point he hatches a plan to rob the old man running the petrol racket even though despite his obvious criminality he’s actually been quite good to this gang of troubled teens. Min-chul used to play baseball himself but gave up because of an injury, telling Gwang-ho that he thought it would hurt more than it did finally realising “you can just give up if it’s shitty” but Gwang-ho can’t let go of his baseball dreams and is prepared to do pretty much anything to prove he’s “not out” of the game. 

Earlier, the other players had lamented that for them there are no second chances. They’ve invested all their hopes in baseball without studying for the college entrance exams, if they fail to get drafted there’s no obvious way forward. For Gwang-ho who cannot rely on family money, has no connections, other skills or talents, baseball really is all he has which might be why he can’t admit the thought that it’s just not meant to be while his initial failure proves such a huge humiliation that it shatters his sense of self. Only through finally accepting responsibility for his actions, realising the way he’s treated those around him, does he begin move forward apparently getting another shot, still in the game, but perhaps humbled. 


Not Out screened as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Prayer (간호중, Min Kyu-dong, 2020)

“I’m just wondering if they all live with nothing to live for and whether it has any meaning to live like that. And if I am no different.” a beleaguered daughter muses contemplating her own future while caring for her mother (Moon Sook) who has been bedridden in a coma for the last decade. A perhaps controversial advocation for euthanasia, Min Kyu-dong’s expansion of his entry into the SF8 series The Prayer (간호중, Ganhojung) offers a timely exploration of the nature of empathy, the limits of AI technology, the ageing society, and the destructive effects of inequality as mankind’s children find themselves wracked by the existential pain of human suffering. 

Set in the near future in which high schools are bulldozed to build additional care centres, The Prayer revolves around the relationship between the melancholy Jung-in (Lee Yoo-young) worrying if prolonging her mother’s life in this way is really what she’d want, and the robotic care nurse she’s hired to look after her, Ho-joong (also Lee Yoo-young). As we discover, Jung-in has taken advantage of the offer to have herself listed alongside her mother as a target for care leaving Ho-joong with an ironic conflict torn between her duty to look after Jung-in’s mother and witnessing the toll caring for her is taking on Jung-in who frequently expresses depressive thoughts and potentially suicidal ideations. 

In order to provide comfort to patients, the androids are designed with the same face as the primary guardian, meaning Jung-in is in someways in dialogue with herself while Ho-joong becomes increasingly confused in her imperfect, in some ways childish, application of human empathy. Fixated on Jung-in with a devotion which turns towards the romantic, she comes to the logical conclusion that in order to save her secondary patient the obvious choice is to sacrifice the first but has seemingly no understanding of the effect that may have on Jung-in who may be worn out and emotionally drained but would obviously feel responsible should anything happen to her mother at the hands of the robot nurse she hired because she has developed unintended feelings towards her. 

The extent of Ho-joong’s “feelings” are indeed at the heart of the matter as evidenced by her strange conversations with a well-meaning nun, Sister Sabina (Ye Soo-Jung), who is originally dismissive unwilling to recognise that a manmade creation may also desire access to God. As incongruous as it sounds, Ho-joong’s awakening spirituality positions her as uniquely human and as trapped as one of her patients, tormented by the pain of being alive and finally confined to table on which she claims to be experiencing near torture at the hands of those seeking to understand her “malfunction”. Her German manufacturers locate the fault in her advanced language processing unit, as if the problem were that she understands too well when perhaps it’s more that her empathy is based in a different metric and prone to misunderstand the irrationality of human impulses towards guilt and love. 

That’s also the problem with the unit next door owned by Mrs. Choi (Yum Hye-ran) whose husband (Yoon Kyung-ho) seems to be suffering from advanced dementia which often causes him to become violent or unpredictable. Unlike Jung-in, however, Mrs. Choi could only afford a basic model which offers little in the way of empathy nor will it care for her. Consequently, she appears to be overburdened with her husband’s care, doing laundry and tidying up after his frustrations cause him to trash his hospital room. The machine offers her only censure while the duty of care ironically prevents her from attending to her own health. Seeking help she turns to the manufacturer who bluntly tells her she doesn’t understand how to operate the machine and advises she ask her kids to teach her, only it appears that Mrs. Choi may have had a child in the past from whom she has become estranged and is otherwise all alone. Older than Jung-in, she despairs for the quality of her life and has no one to protect or care for her, pushing her towards a dark decision. 

Both women wonder if life is worth living if it means living like this, but have very different options open to them given their economic disparity. Having learned to feel pain, Ho-joong begs to be freed of it, positions now reversed as Sister Sabina becomes her caregiver. She accuses the nun of hypocrisy, that she allows her suffer by refusing to end her pain in order to preserve her own conscience in insisting to do so would be a “sin”. “What do I go through this pain for!” Ho-joong cries as if throwing herself into a fiery pit of existential torment while a cold authority insists she must continue to suffer. Min makes a powerful if perhaps controversial argument for the right to end one’s own suffering at a time of one’s own choosing if also leaning uncomfortably into the burdens of care as Mrs Choi and Jung-in too struggle with themselves while trying to do what’s best for those they love, but ultimately discovers a kind of serenity as his robot nurse encounters the spiritual and with it a release form the pain of living. 


The Prayer streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It will also screen in London on 22nd October as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival.

Go Back (고백, Seo Eun-young, 2020)

“I guess bruises disappear because they sink deep inside of you” a traumatised woman explains in Seo Eun-young’s emotionally complex social drama, Go Back (고백, Gobaek). Literally translating as “confession” the film’s title hints at a neater conclusion than is ultimately offered in this complicated web of trauma, abuse, and patriarchal violence. While perhaps making an awkward defence of law enforcement through its idealistic if sometimes authoritarian heroine, Seo never shies away from suggesting that women suffer disproportionately in a society which often refuses to take their safety seriously. 

This message is brought home in the opening sequence in which rookie policewoman Ji-won (Ha Yoon-kyung) is out jogging while a news item plays on a large screen reporting on the investigation into the murder of a female tourist which the police have apparently bungled. Shortly after she runs into another woman who seems troubled with stains around the rolled sleeves of her shirt which look like they could be blood. The woman recognises Ji-won as a policewoman, though she can’t remember having met her before, but refuses her offer of help before leaving with a little girl. When a ransom note is sent to the media asking everyone in the country to donate a token amount of money to save a kidnapped child, Ji-won can’t shake the idea that the woman is somehow involved. 

The woman, O-sun (Park Ha-sun), is a social worker at a nearby welfare centre where she has acquired a reputation for being somewhat volatile, on one occasion having been arrested for grabbing the father of one her clients around the neck. O-sun and her boss Mi-yeon (Seo Young-hwa) are worried that a local girl, Bo-ra (Gam So-Hyun), is being physically abused by her father who has an alcohol dependency problem but are apparently powerless to do much about it despite the fact that their apartment is filthy and Bo-ra often misses school. Their problem is that many people still believe that physical punishment is an appropriate method of discipline and so it’s easy for abusers to insist they have done nothing wrong even when it’s clear there is an abusive pattern of behaviour in play, while knocks and bruises are often written off as the result of horseplay. Even a doctor’s evidence is apparently not enough to have a child removed from an abusive environment, another client of theirs hospitalised and needing cranial surgery yet likely to be returned to his parents against medical advice insisting his injuries can only be the result of longterm abuse. 

This attitude contributes to a claim made by both Ji-won and O-sun that people are often too afraid to ask for help from the authorities, the tacit explanation being that they don’t believe the authorities can help them or may in fact make the situation worse. Ji-won’s theory is that victims don’t report crime because they fear reprisals from their aggressors, something later born out by her attempt to help a young woman after spotting a suspicious man lurking outside her house while off duty. Ji-won flashes her badge and scares him off, but the man comes back later and this time he doesn’t wait outside. The woman had been reluctant to accept her help fearful that just that sort of thing might happen if he saw her talking to the police. Meanwhile she finds herself subject to low level sexist micro aggressions at work where they make her the literal poster girl for community policing while refusing to let her go on night patrol. Like O-sun she’s accused of caring too much and failing to regulate her emotions, but is also patronised by a male detective pissed off after she solves cases he couldn’t be bothered to investigate properly seemingly wounding his male pride and undercutting his authority by overstepping her responsibility as a uniformed officer. 

Nevertheless, despite the incompetence and disinterest exhibited by her male colleagues, Ji-won’s shining idealism becomes an awkward defence of law enforcement which skews accidentally authoritarian in her fierce love of justice. Brought in to discuss policing as a career, she advises a class of primary school children to snitch on their friends if they spot them doing something “suspicious” like harming animals or starting fires which might seem fair enough but also insists that lack of eye contact indicates guilt which might further discourage shy or traumatised kids from asking for help. She criticises the male officers for being too concerned with punishing criminals and not enough with protecting the innocent, but also insists on retribution rather than appreciating that keeping people safe is a more complex matter than simply locking “bad people” away.

Acutely aware of the legacy of her own trauma, O-sun is desperate to save Bo-ra from the same fate but is at a loss as to how given the resources available to her under the law. Bo-ra meanwhile worries about all the other disadvantaged children and hopes someone’s going to do something to help them too. All is not quite as it seems, but Ji-won and O-sun ultimately discover a sense of solidarity in their mutual desire for equality in justice while uniting to protect Bo-ra from the legacy of trauma. Tightly plotted, Seo’s mystery drama casts a patriarchal and indifferent society as its primary villain but also makes heroes of those who try, however imperfectly, to help those who need it no matter what society might say.


Go Back screens in Chicago on Sept. 24 as part of the 13th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema 

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Book of Fish (자산어보, Lee Joon-ik, 2021)

An “evil learning sinner” and a young man fixated on Neo-Buddhist thought develop an unlikely friendship while compiling an encyclopaedia about sea life in Lee Joon-ik’s contemplative period drama, The Book of Fish (자산어보, Jasaneobo). Like those of Hur Jin-ho’s Forbidden Dream, the hero of Lee’s historical tale of competing ideologies dreams of a classless future but is exiled from mainstream society not for his revolutionary rejection of a Confucianist hierarchal society but for his embrace of Western learning and religion. 

Like his two brothers, Chung Yak-jeon (Sol Kyung-gu) reluctantly joins the imperial court but later falls foul of intrigue when the progressive king falls only to be replaced by his underage son controlled by the more conservative dowager empress. Having converted to Christianity, Yak-jeon and his brothers are faced with execution but unexpectedly reprieved when the oldest agrees to renounce Catholicism and root out other secret Christians. Yak-jeon is then exiled to a remote island while his better known brother, the poet Yak-yong (Ryu Seung-ryong), is sent to the mountains. On his arrival, the local governor introduces Yak-jeon as a “traitor” and instructs the islanders not to be too friendly with him but island people do not have it in them to be unjustly unkind and so Yak-jeon is, if warily, welcomed into their community. “He maybe be a traitor, but he’s still a guest” his new landlady (Lee Jung-eun) explains as she prepares him some of the local seafood. 

Yet Yak-jeon encounters resistance from an unexpected source, intellectual fisherman Chang-dae (Byun Yo-han) who goes to great lengths to acquire scholarly books despite his otherwise low level of education. Somewhat patronisingly, Yak-jeong offers to tutor him, but Chang-dae is a rigid thinker who believes the world is going to hell because people have forgotten their Confucian ideals so he’s no desire to be taught by a treacherous “evil learner” or be sucked in to his dangerous Catholicism. Surprisingly, however, for a man who risked death rather than renounce his religion, Yak-jeong is no fanatic and in fact does not appear to practice Christianity at any point while living on the island. What he professes is that Eastern and Western thought need not be enemies but can go hand in hand while a rigid adherence to any particular doctrine is what constitutes danger. 

Chang-dae had insisted that he studied “to become a better human” but he also has a large class chip on his shoulder as the illegitimate son of a nobleman who refuses to acknowledge him, fully aware that as a “lowborn” man he is not allowed to take the civil service exam and in any case would not have the money to buy his way in to the court. Despite later professing egalitarianism, Yak-jeong treats the islanders, and particular Chang-dae, with a degree of superiority extremely irritated by Chang-dae’s refusal to become his pupil in the slight of his elite status often making reference to his “low birth”. Confessing his desire for a classless society with no emperor, however, Yak-jeong encounters unexpected resistance as the young man finds it impossible to envisage a world free of social hierarchy based on rights of birth and swings back towards desiring the approval of his elite father in the determination to climb the ladder rather than pull it down. 

Chang-dae finds himself caught between two fathers who embody two differing ways of being, Yak-jeong advising him to think for himself rather than blindly follow Confucianist thought, while his father encourages him to towards the court and the infinite corruptions of the feudal order. Chang-dae does begin to interrogate some of the more persistently problematic elements of Confucian teaching including its views on women and entrenched social hierarchy but also feels insecure and desperately desires conventional success and entrance into a world he thinks unfairly denied to him. Once there, however, he discovers he cannot submit himself to duplicities of feudalism. The islanders are being taxed to into oblivion, not only is there a random counter-intuitive tax on pine trees but the government is also extracting taxes from the family members of the deceased as well as newborn babies while cutting sand into the rice rations it promises in return. His father and superiors laugh at him for his squeamishness, seeing nothing at all wrong in the right of the elite to exploit the poor. Trying to blow a whistle, Chang-dae is reminded that the courtly system is an extension of the monarchy, and so criticising a lord is the same as criticising the king which is to say an act of treason. 

Having been accused of treason himself, Yak-jeong declines to enact his revolutionary ideas penning only a couple of books during his time in exile in contrast to his brother who published many treatises on effective government. Yak-jeong explains he dare not risk writing his real views which is why he’s immersed himself in the beauty of the natural world, exercising his curiosity writing about fish while making use of Chang-dae’s vast knowledge of the sea. The two men develop a loose paternal bond but are later separated by conflicting desires, Chang-dae eventually choosing conventional success over personal integrity only to regret his decision on being confronted with the duplicities of the feudal order. Shot in a crisp black and white save for two brief flashes of colour and inspired by traditional ink painting, Lee’s contemplative drama finds itself at a fracture point of enlightenment as two men debate the relative limits of knowledge along with the most effective way to resist a cruel and oppressive social order but eventually discover only wilful self exile as Chang-dae learns to re-embrace his roots as an islander along with the openminded simplicity of Yak-jeong’s doctrine of catholicity in learning. 


The Book of Fish screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

Sinkhole (싱크홀, Kim Ji-hoon, 2021)

Financial security is built on shaky ground in Kim Ji-hoon’s harrowing disaster dramedy Sinkhole (싱크홀) in which one man’s home-owning triumph quite literally crumbles beneath his feet. The latest in a recent series of movies lamenting the sometimes lax safety culture of the Korean construction industry, Sinkhole is also a crushing indictment of a society ruled by house prices in which social status is largely defined by the owning of property while the young in particular struggle to climb out of a deep well of societal despair. 

As the film opens, the Park family is about to move in to their new flat, the first they’ve ever owned albeit with a frighteningly large mortgage, in the middle of a seasonal downpour. Only when they arrive, they discover the movers haven’t even started unloading because their apparently irresponsible neighbour Man-su (Cha Seung-won) has inconsiderately parked his car in front of the entrance and isn’t answering his phone. Patriarch Dong-won (Kim Sung-kyun) ends up in an awkward confrontation with the abrasive apartment dweller which is inconvenient because Man-su apparently works in just about every business in the area which means he continues to run into him just about everywhere he goes. 

Anyway, that’s the the least of his problems because, having made this giant investment, Dong-won can’t help thinking there’s something wrong with his new dream home especially when his adorably polite young son Su-chan points out that his marbles roll across the floor of their own accord. Worried they may have a subsidence problem, Dong-won checks his windows open properly and records evidence of ominous cracks in the pavement outside but struggles to get the other residents to agree to maintenance checks in fear that not getting the answer they want will bring down the value of their property. 

Property prices are apparently everything. Homeownership is an unobtainable dream for many, yet Dong-won already feels insecure in his purchase especially as his colleagues seem relatively unimpressed by the fact his flat is in a recently gentrified area and comparatively modest. Bamboozled into hosting a housewarming, he’s mildly embarrassed to realise the view from his balcony is of nicer, much more expensive luxury flats just across the river which are likely to remain far out of his reach. Nevertheless, his colleague, Seung-hyun (Lee Kwang-soo) declares himself jealous in part because he’s still renting a studio flat and feels that dating let alone marriage is impossible without being in a position to get a multi-room apartment. His colleague Eun-ju (Kim Hye-jun) is in the same predicament but prefers to see it as simply being at a certain stage on the ladder.  

This dream of future security is however quite literally built on shaky ground. There are definitely problems with Dong-won’s new apartment which become increasingly severe from the tilting floors to cracked glass and interruptions with the water supply presumably caused by cost-cutting and shoddy construction practices. When the building collapses into a sinkhole, Dong-won is trapped inside with work colleagues Seung-hyun and Eun-ju along with Man-su and his teenage son Seung-tae (Nam Da-reum). Despite the inherent horror of the situation, Kim keeps the atmosphere light as the small band of survivors attempts to manage as best they can, finding an awkward solidarity while trying to attract the attention of the emergency services and eventually making a daring escape using whatever tools are available to them. 

Even so, as much as the small band of almost strangers bond thanks to their desperate circumstances, there is an uncomfortable conservatism at play especially in the film’s treatment of a working class single mother and her son living in an apartment on the floor below Dong-won’s. That aside, Sinkhole offers a fierce criticism of an increasingly consumerist society in which house prices are all anyone talks about and homeownership is the only badge of social success. 11 years of patient sacrifice is swallowed in an instant, sucked into an abyss of corporate malfeasance, while Dong-won is left to climb out of the hole he’s in on his own. It’s small wonder that some of the survivors decide to drop out of the system altogether, ditching the idea of rooted homeownership for nomadic freedom in buying a small caravan rather than participate in the property market or climb the corporate ladder. “Don’t be happy in 10 years, be happy today!” they enthusiastically chant. The entire society is, it seems, sitting on a sinkhole which might give any minute, what’s the point in investing in a future which could disappear from beneath your feet without reason or warning? 


Sinkhole screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)