Take Me Home (담쟁이, Han Jay, 2020)

A schoolteacher is confronted with the multilevel prejudices of her society in Han Jay’s pointed social drama Take Me Home (담쟁이, Damjaengi). Examining the changing concept of family in contemporary Korea, the film not only addresses deep seated prejudices towards both the LGBTQ+ community and those with disabilities but also an exploitative and unfeeling working environment in which employers adopt the language of family while continually undermining their employees’ interpersonal relationships and always ready to casually discard them should their circumstances change. 

Middle-aged high school teacher Eunsu (Woo Mi-hwa) is in a happy relationship with a much younger woman, Yewon (Lee Yeon), who uncomfortably enough was once one of her students. Though the pair live together, they are not completely out keeping their relationship vague with coworkers and family members Yewon explaining to her colleague that Eunsu is her cousin while Eunsu describes Yewon as a roommate to the sister she barely sees on returning home for her mother’s annual memorial service. Yewon it seems is less cautious, but Eunsu quickly bats away her hand as they walk home together from the local baths worried that someone might see even as they poignantly walk past an elderly couple with no such fear sitting quietly on a park bench. 

Yewon views their relationship as familial despite Eunsu’s occasional anxiety, yet when Eunsu is involved in a car crash which claims her sister’s life Yewon is reminded that she is not “family” and cannot act as Eunsu’s caregiver at the hospital. Even so she becomes temporarily responsible for Eunsu’s now orphaned niece Sumin (Kim Bo-min), her teacher apparently abandoning her with this woman she knows nothing about other than she is in someway connected to Eunsu. When Eunsu comes round and discovers that she has lost the use of her legs and may need to use a wheelchair for at least the next couple of years, it further destabilises her relationships firstly feeling as if she’d be overburdening Yewon and secondly uncertain that she is able to take care of her niece while simultaneously withdrawing into herself wary of her emotional bonds with others. 

Yewon tries to point out that they are family and family knows no burden, compassionately caring both for Eunsu and Sumin as they each try to adjust to their change in circumstances though she too suffers at work unable to explain to her boss that she needed to take time out because her partner had been involved in an accident even as he coldly tells her that time off is only given for a “family matter” while cancelling an opportunity for promotion he’d recently presented to her. Eunsu meanwhile encounters something similar, returning to the school where she works only for her boss to tell her he’ll be letting her go, the implication being that parents will object to a teacher using a wheelchair. He suggests another job in a much more rural location in a school with fewer than 10 children as if hiding her away or suggesting that her disability makes her ineligible for all but the least desirable of positions. Further fuelling her sense of resentment, she’s also subject to a series of sexist remarks to the effect that it’s a shame such a pretty woman met with an accident, as if on the one hand she is no longer desirable and on the other that she’s somehow lost more than someone considered unattractive while continuing to struggle with a unaccommodating society. 

Having begun to accept her new circumstances, Eunsu begins to warm to the idea of herself, Sumin, and Yewon as a family but her hopes for the future are crushed when her attempt to file formal adoption documentation is blocked. On consulting a series of lawyers, she is given the irrational advice that she might be able to win custody but only if she eliminates one of the two bars against her those being a same-sex relationship and her disability. Adoptions she is told are generally only approved for married couples, same-sex marriages currently not recognised under Korean law which also lacks anti-discrimination legislation on the grounds of sexuality, though the lawyer seems to think that the court could be convinced to allow a lesbian or a disabled woman to adopt but apparently not a disabled lesbian which obviously makes no sense at all. The sinister social worker who approaches Sumin alone in a park and asks her inappropriate questions about the nature of the relationship between her aunt and Yewon, which Sumin sees as nothing other than warm and loving like any other couple gay or straight, claims to have her well-being in mind but later snatches her from the back of a taxi depriving her of the loving family home she continues to yearn for while asking Eunsu to make a series of choices and compromises that leave no one happy. 

The villain is clearly the unsympathetic state which places its own idealogical concerns above a child’s happiness though the film’s conclusion cannot help but seem manipulative while leaving aside the more generalised examination of what the word family means in contemporary Korea, the persistent discrimination levelled at the LGBTQ+ community, and the barriers placed in front of those living with disability who find themselves infantilised by a society all too often refusing to accommodate their needs. In any case, the film argues for a world in which no one would have to choose between love and family because they truly would be one and the same. 


Take Me Home screens at Catford Mews on 21st May as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Action Hero (액션히어로, Lee Jin-ho, 2021)

What better way to add a little authenticity to your movie than to unmask injustice live on camera? Lee Jin-ho’s indie action drama Action Hero (액션히어로) is a loving tribute to classic Shaw Brothers but also takes aim at the inequality at the heart of the contemporary society as the virtuous hero who says he just wants to be Jackie Chan starts a mini revolution in the student body after exposing the corrupt practices of their institution. 

Signalling his intentions early on, Lee opens with the “GB” “Golden Brothers” logo and a lengthy martial arts sequence spoken entirely in Cantonese with a classic Shaw Brothers-esque titles card, but as it turns out this is all an anxiety dream as the fearless hero finds himself unable to save a hostage because he cannot answer a question from the upcoming civil service exam. Dreaming of becoming an action star, Joosung (Lee Seok-hyung) decides to sit in on a film class which is where he meets Chanyeol (Lee Se-joon) who shows him a copy of an action movie shot by a former student, Sunna (Lee Joo-young), 10 years previously. Joosung decides to make his own film too and when he and Chanyeol accidentally come across a blackmail letter threatening to expose their professor’s falsification of records in order to admit the sons of wealthy men decide to stakeout the drop location hoping to apprehend the professor and the blackmailer and make it a part of their movie. 

Ironically enough, the previous Action Hero film had been about a culture of sexual harassment as Sunna herself starred as a martial arts avenger saving a young student from a lecherous teacher. 10 years on however Sunna still hasn’t finished her postgrad programme and is stuck as a teaching assistant working part-time at the campus coffee shop. Her colleague Jae-woo (Jang In-sub) is desperate for cash because he’s sick of this life and wants to open a friend chicken restaurant. Even Joosung is filled with despair for the future, working hard to pass the civil service exam even though it’s not something he actually wants to do. Meanwhile, the professor has been taking kickbacks so that chaebol sons with no talent can attend the university while their parents “support” from the sidelines. Perhaps conflicted in her actions, the offer of a promotion to department chair is enough to silence any qualms she might have hand while she’s eventually forced to confess all to the dean who is about to celebrate his 23rd re-inauguration which doesn’t exactly scream a commitment to democratic values. 

Yet through their “investigations” Joosung and Chanyeol discover that the institutional corruption in play was largely an open secret, so commonplace as to be dismissed as just the way things work. The justice-minded Joosung wonders why no one does anything, hoping that the students will eventually wake up to what’s going on and begin asking questions while wondering if they simply lack the “passion” to become their own kind of action heroes and demand integrity from their governmental body. Sunna, meanwhile, fed up with her impossible circumstances feeling as if she’s wasted too much time on Hong Kong cinema picks a different, not quite altogether altruistic path but later recommits herself to exposing the admissions fraud and corruption which go right to the heart of their institution. 

Lee continues to pay homage to the classic kung-fu movie with old school martial arts and use of freeze frame, Joosung wearing his Shaolin-style yellow top and Chanyeol at one point dressed as a classic kung fu master complete with long white beard only to discover themselves swept into a conspiracy deciding to unmask the injustice at the school. Then again, perhaps one action hero isn’t really enough to counter such ingrained corruption or the idea that this kind of impropriety has essentially become normalised and should just be accepted. Thanks to their adventures, each of the avengers is jolted out of their sense of inertia and powerlessness, Sunna realising she doesn’t need to let herself be exploited by her boss and can take control of her own future while Joosung and Chanyeol derive new hope for the future in squaring off against injustice. “The future is unclear, let’s persevere because we have each other” Joosung reflects in Cantonese on seeing the beginnings of a revolution on campus vowing to complete Action Hero 2 in the hope of a better tomorrow. 


Action Hero streamed as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)