The Vanished (사라진 밤, Lee Chang-hee, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

The Vanished posterThe past refuses to die in The Vanished (사라진 밤, Sarajin Bam) – Lee Chang-hee’s remake of the 2012 Spanish thriller, The Body. Ghosts, of one sort or another, torment both of our male leads – a dogged policeman and increasingly unhinged husband, as they try to solve the mystery of a disappearing corpse whilst each battling a degree of latent resentment towards various forces of social oppression. A tale of conflicting bids for vengeance, The Vanished pits an emasculated trophy husband against a controlling career woman wife while the forces of order look on in disapproval but then all is not quite as it seems and perhaps this is not the story we first assumed it to be.

The horror-inflected tale begins in a morgue on a rainy night as a disinterested security guard becomes unexpectedly spooked by his surroundings. Discovering one of the trays open and a body missing, the guard panics and feels himself stalked by something undead before being clubbed on the back of the head and knocked out. Maverick cop with a traumatic past Woo Joong-sik (Kim Sang-Kyung) arrives on the scene and discovers the missing cadaver belonged to prominent businesswoman Yoon Seol-hee (Kim Hee-Ae). The cause of death is thought to have been a heart attack brought on by her workaholic lifestyle but Joong-sik isn’t so sure. He hauls in the “trophy husband” – improbably good-looking university professor and sometime employee of Seol-hee’s pharmaceuticals company, Jin-han (Kim Kang-Woo). Jin-han has come straight from the flat of his pregnant mistress and is understandably on edge as every move he makes only further incriminates him in the “death” of his wife.

Increasingly unhinged, Jin-han is certain that Seol-hee is not really dead and has embarked on an elaborate plan of revenge for his affair with a student, Hye-jin (Han Ji-An). Lee wastes no time in confirming that Jin-han had at least intended to do away with his wife. Jin-han was apparently no longer interested in her money and would have wanted a divorce but believed his wife to be a ruthless woman who would never willingly let him go. Using an experimental anaesthesia drug, he hoped to get rid of her undetected but now fears that she has somehow woken up and wants her revenge. What Jin-han wanted, he claims, was his freedom – Seol-hee, an older career woman, bought him with trinkets, belittles his work, and refuses him all agency. He was tired of playing the toy boy and wanted his life back and so he chose to reassert his manhood through murder.

Of course, all is not quite as it seems. Through Joon-sik’s investigations, Jin-han comes to believe that perhaps Seol-hee planned the whole thing – anticipating that he would try to use the drug against her and engineering a situation in which she would fake her own death just to get back at him. Whether a ghost or not, Seol-hee haunts him, threatens his happy future with the sweet and innocent Hye-jin who calls him professor and respects him as a learned man, and seems set to achieve her goal if only by driving Jin-han out of his mind with worry and confusion.

Meanwhile, Joon-sik is battling another series of oppressive presences in the form a grudge against “the wealthy” possibly relating to a mysterious traumatic incident from his past, and a boss who wants him to find the missing body as quickly as possible and then forget the whole thing given the fact that Seol-hee and Jin-han had been a “celebrity couple” which makes all of this quite embarrassing for everyone. The two men end up engaged in a cat and mouse game as Jin-han becomes convinced that he’s the real victim in all this and is at the centre of an elaborate conspiracy leaving his pregnant girlfriend alone and vulnerable, while Joon-sik continues to push him towards confessing that he took the body and hid it possibly in some kind of fugue state.

“The body” is perhaps a better title as the concept itself comes in for constant reappraisal and we gradually understand that not everyone is talking about the same thing, leaving aside the complete erasure of Seol-hee as a woman with a name who may have been murdered by a vengeful husband (as unpleasant as she is later shown to be) in favour of viewing her simply as a nameless corpse or grudge bearing ghost. Twists pile on twists and history rewrites itself, but the buried past will someday be unearthed and justice served, if with a side order of irony.


The Vanished was screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

The Rules of the Game (게임의 법칙, Jang Hyun-soo, 1994)

Rules of the GameEvery game has its rules, but then again perhaps the game lies in learning how to bend them to one’s advantage. Owing a debt to a Pacino/De Palma diptych – Scarface and the later but then just released Carlito’s Way, Jang Hyun-soo’s Rules of the Game (게임의 법칙, Gameui beobjig) was the first in a resurgence of contemporary action dramas which had gone out of fashion since their 1970s heyday. The story is a timeless one of a young man looking for gangland fame, his loyal girlfriend, and the duo’s loveable third wheel of a degenerate gambler whose sob story may actually turn out to be truer than it seemed.

Young-dae (Park Joong-hoon) is a young upstart in a tiny town. Bored with his life of daily drudgery washing cars, he decides to upsticks to the city, taking his adoring girlfriend Tae-suk (Oh Yeon-su) with him. Young-dae plans on engineering a meeting with famed ganger Gwang-cheon and pledging his allegiance to him, hoping to set himself on the road to gangland success. Things get off to a bad start when the pair of naive country bumpkins run into to smooth talking conman Man-su (Lee Kyoung-young) on a train. Man-su claims to know Gwang-cheon and writes a letter of recommendation before suddenly announcing they’re at his stop and jumping off the train leaving Young-dae and and Tae-suk with a healthy dinner bill.

The city proves particularly hostile to the out of towers as Young-dae realises joining a gang is not as simple as marching in, dropping to your knees and exclaiming “I will die for you, please accept me”. Repeatedly striking out, Young-dae distances himself from Tae-suk who ends up working as a hostess for the gangster Young-dae still hasn’t been able to meet. Finally spotting an opportunity to prove himself by interrupting a gang raid, Young-dae gets a foot on the ladder but as an outsider in an established gang he’s always going to be a liability.

Meanwhile, Man-su has continued to get himself into trouble with cards and is a constant thorn in the side to Gwang-cheon’s guys. After a beating leaves him crippled, Man-su turns to Young-dae for retribution. Young-dae, Man-su, and Tae-suk form an odd, sometimes volatile trio as they try to survive and make Young-dae’s gangster dreams come true while Man-su dreams to going to Saipan where the sun shines everyday and everything is palm trees and summer fruits.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise Saipan is a place Young-dae will never go, no matter how much he might want to. After getting into the gang and reuniting with Tae-suk, Young-dae does seem to be getting himself together but success soon goes to his head. He begins dressing in snappy suits moving from brown, to blue, to white, and drives a BMW around town as if he really owned it. As Tae-suk points out, he’s just a driver – a driver for a top gangster, but a driver all the same. In his desperation to reach the top, Young-dae makes himself a figure of suspicion in the mind of the boss he is so desperate to impress, inadvertently placing a target on his own back.

Jang may have pegged De Palma as an influence, one which is very much felt in the Tony Montana-esque story arc and Carlito’s Way denouement, but his shooting style is pure Hong Kong by way of John Woo – frantic action shot in slow motion. Young-dae is a slap-happy lover of violence, never one to let to the opportunity of getting into a fight pass him by. This is quite a good quality in an aspiring foot soldier, even if not in a potential boyfriend though Tae-suk does her best to tame him, but his impetuosity and naive faith in others’ ability to abide by the “rules” of gangsterdom are at the heart of his eventual downfall. His later decision to mistreat a fellow would-be minion who echoes his own phrase back to him “I will die for you, please accept me” is a clear indicator of how far he has moved away from the scrappy boy who left his village full of angry dreams even if something of his youthful innocence is later returned in his desire to leave the gangster world far behind for a life of ease and friendship with Man-su and Tae-suk in tranquil Saipan. The rules of the game, however, rarely reward missteps and Young-dae will pay heavily for his misplaced faith.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

The Day After (그 후, Hong Sang-soo, 2017)

The day after posterHong Sang-soo, perpetually introspective, is having an especially reflective 2017. Releasing three films in quick succession, each of which star new muse Kim Min-hee, Hong seems unusually keen to turn the camera directly on himself and not least in his choice of star. In On the Beach at Night Alone, Kim played an actress in flight from the fallout of a destructive affair with a married director (a stand-in for Hong who never appears on screen), but in The Day After (그 후, Geu Hu), she plays an aspiring writer and free spirited bystander to an equally messy affair between a married publisher and his younger female assistant. Like many of Hong’s heroes (which often seem to be stand-ins for himself), Bongwan (Kwon Hae-hyo) is a cowardly, deluded womaniser who refuses to face his self-involved disaffection in favour of burying himself in youth and prettiness.

Bongwan has developed a habit of getting up early and leaving the house as soon as possible. His wife (Jo Yoon-hee) finds this odd after a couple of decades of married life and decides to ask him about it over a hurried breakfast. She is patient and half playful, but Bongwan is anxious and embarrassed. He refuses to answer, laughing the questioning off until his wife later texts him to apologise for her “overreaction.” Overreacting is something she will get to later, but for now Bongwan is about to have an informal meeting with a potential new assistant. His wife was not wrong after all, Bongwan had been having an affair with a girl from work, Chang-sook (Kim Sae-byuk), who has now left in order to move on with her life after realising Bongwan is too spineless to ever leave his family.

New girl Areum (Kim Min-hee) is an aspiring writer with good credentials who comes highly recommended by a Professor Bongwan has huge respect for but that’s not why he hires her. He hires her because she fits neatly in the space vacated by absent lover Changsook, is quite pretty, and strokes his vanity by expressing her admiration for his writing even though he mainly does criticism rather than “real” writing these days. Bongwan’s lascivious ways are immediately obvious in his first conversation with Areum which shifts from relaxed interview to personal chit-chat in which he asks her slightly insensitive questions about her family history, grasps her hand without warning and then later stops to remark on just how lovely he thinks her hands are. They change registers from the formal to the informal right away as Bongwan instructs Areum not to refer to him as the president but as a boss (they’re equals, but he’s in charge). He buys her dinner, pushes her to drink, and flirts with her, but Areum is ahead of him and neatly deflects his growing interest.

Areum moves the conversation to a higher level by asking Bong-wan exactly why it is he’s alive. Bongwan, not as much of the contemplative sort as he seems, waffles on for a bit but doesn’t really know, he was born after all and then…. “And then” is the English title of the Japanese novel, Sorekara by Natsume Soseki (adapted into a fine film by Yoshimitsu Morita in 1985), from which the film draws its Korean title. The hero of Soseki’s novel, Daisuke, is the son of a wealthy family whose ennui is so deep that he finds himself needing to place a hand on his chest to check that his heart is still beating. Daisuke had been in love in his youth but never said anything, telling himself it was out of a sense of chivalry towards a friend in love with the same girl. Years later he realises his notions of “chivalry” were all affectation, a deluded way of papering over his cowardice and fear of rejection. That Bongwan eventually decides to give this particular book to Areum is quite telling in his obvious identification with Daisuke who also failed to speak his heart and faced a difficult decision in considering whether to abandon the life of comfort he had always known to strike out on his own in the name of love.

Bongwan wheedles and defers, squirming like a child caught with chocolate round his mouth yet claiming to know nothing about the missing biscuits. His long suffering wife, finding evidence of a possible attachment to another woman, “overreacts” in grand style by physically abusing Areum, assuming her to be the missing Changsook. Hong plays his usual game with timelines, keeping the present uncertain as Changsook repeatedly reappears in life or in memory. It’s clear that for Bongwan these three women are almost interchangeable, no matter what he might say as regards his grand romance with his much younger female assistant who quite rightly points out his extreme moral cowardice in an emotional outburst over an awkward dinner. In a typically Hong-ian touch of meta-comedy, Bongwan may even have forgotten the entirety of the strange day he spent with Areum who later echoes his wife’s words to the effect that his “face looks different”. Areum, however, like most of the characters Kim has played for Hong, eventually wins out in her free spirited sunniness, taking her great belief in the world’s beauty with her, leaving Bongwan to enjoy his black-bean noodles of misery inside in the prison of his own making.


Screened as the opening night gala of the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

On the Beach at Night Alone (밤의 해변에서 혼자, Hong Sang-soo, 2017)

on the beach at night alone posterIt might be unkind to suggest that Hong Sang-soo has essentially been remaking the same film for much of his career, but then again his most characteristic approach is one of re-examination, taking one event and turning it around to see how things might have played out differently if fate had only been kinder. On the Beach at Night Alone (밤의 해변에서 혼자, Bamui Haebyunaeseo Honja) eschews Hong’s usual repetitions, but zooms in deeper on its protagonist’s agonising emotional crisis as she attempts to deal with the fallout from a passionate yet inadvisable affair with a married director which threatens to destroy not only her personal life but also the professional in conservative Korean society. The elephant in the room is, of course, that lead actress Kim Min-hee and the film’s director Hong Sang-soo were themselves involved in a messy affair which scandalised their home nation, forcing the lovers abroad and away from media speculation but perhaps not from the uncomfortable questions surrounding their relationship.

Divided into two parts shot by different cinematographers, the film begins in Hamburg where well known actress Young-hee (Kim Min-hee) has travelled to visit a friend, Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa), to clear her head and get away from all the fuss at home. Jee-young has been living in the city for a few years since her own marriage ended – like Young-hee she came to visit a friend and subsequently decided to stay. Young-hee thinks perhaps she could do the same but is surprised when her friend reacts negatively to the idea of her moving in. The two women chat and try to talk out Young-hee’s ongoing indecision and emotional turmoil while she waits to see if her married film director lover will really come to Hamburg to meet her as he says he will or lose his nerve at the last moment.

The second half picks up some time later with Young-hee (presumably the same Young-hee or at least a woman with a very similar backstory) in a cinema watching a film. She’s gone home to Korea and to her tiny seaside hometown rather than the harsh streets of Seoul. Whilst there she runs into a series of old friends, many of whom have also boomeranged back from the big city, finding it relentless and unforgiving in its unrealistic expectations of their desire for success. Young-hee is just as mixed-up as she was in Hamburg, but her collection of friends prove less reliable sounding boards than the world weary yet perceptive Jee-young.

Hong’s films have often revolved around self-centred, neurotic men who treat women badly while the women remain exasperated yet resigned and only occasionally hurt. Digging deep, Hong makes an effort to look at something from the other side in painting a picture of the real emotional damage done by the kinds of affairs his usual protagonist may engage in (though to be fair most of protagonists are eventually rebuffed by their objects of affection). Kim’s nuanced performance is raw and painful. Hurt and brokenhearted, Young-hee is angry with her former lover but still, she misses him, wonders how he is, hopes he’ll be alright but also, in a way, that he won’t.

Young-hee is a mess of contradictions – she says she won’t wait and then she waits, she says she won’t drink and then she does (to excess), she says she’s overly direct yet she consistently avoids speaking directly, she says harasses people and messes everything up but all she seems to do is isolate herself and avoid connection, she goes to Hamburg to escape and then feels trapped. Jee-young, a little older, seems to have pinned herself down but says she feels somewhat jealous of Young-hee’s youth, her confidence and capacity for desire. There is a melancholy quality to Jee-young’s conviction that she is “the kind of person who lives alone”, but she harbours no resentment towards her former husband, only a mild sense of regret in having wasted his time. Young-hee may be filled with desire, but has no idea what for.

On the Beach at Night Alone shares its title with a poem by Walt Whitman which, like many of Whitman’s poems, is essentially about the interconnectedness of all things and overwhelming sensation of suddenly feeling a part of a great confluence of existence. It is in that sense ironic as Young-hee and many of her friends continue to feel isolated and alone, playing it safe and avoiding the risk of true connection only to find settling for the sure thing more painful than the emotional implosion of Young-hee’s daringly bold affair of the heart. A night on a beach alone affords her the opportunity of sorting things out, if only in her head, finally learning to stand up and walk away towards an uncertain, but hopefully self-determined, future.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Lucid Dream (루시드 드림, Kim Joon-sung, 2017)

lucid dream posterA relatively rare phenomenon, a lucid dream is one in which the dreamer is aware they are asleep and “awake” enough to influence the outcome. Rather than using the ability to probe some kind of existential question, Korean science fiction thriller Lucid Dream (루시드 드림) focusses on the evidence gathering possibilities, going one step further than hypnotic regression to revisit old memories and zoom in on previously missed details.

Dae-ho (Ko Soo) is an investigative reporter currently in hot water over a controversial story. He’s also a doting single father to a little boy, Min-woo (Kim Kang-Hoon), who resolves to put his work aside for a day to take his son to an amusement park. Tragedy strikes as Dae-ho is busy having words with a paparazzo and then notices Min-woo has disappeared from his horse on the carousel. Catching sight of Min-woo walking off with another man, Dae-ho collapses, a tranquilliser dart sticking out of his leg. Dae-ho searches for his son with no concrete leads until, three years later, he hears about the possibilities of lucid dreaming and attempts to figure out exactly what happened that day by reliving it in his sleep.

Lucid Dream begins in true conspiracy thriller mode by introducing Dae-ho’s past as a controversial journalist responsible for ruining prominent businessmen by exposing their corruptions and manipulations of the laws everyone else is expected to abide by, but this potentially rich seam of social commentary is cut off in full flow as paternal concerns take centrestage.

Dae-ho is a single dad raising Min-woo alone with the help of a friendly nanny. Although he tells Min-woo his mother is “in America” no concrete information is given regarding her whereabouts though the fact that she is never heard from after Min-woo’s disappearance suggests she may be somewhere further away. Apparently a devoted and good father from the very beginning, Dae-ho will stop at nothing to find out what’s happened to his son. Three years on he remains distraught and desperate, willing to try anything that might help him uncover the truth. He finds an ally in the policeman handling his case who is in a similar predicament as his own daughter lies in a hospital bed, born with serious medical abnormalities. The true paternal love, determination, and sacrifice of men who are already good and devoted fathers raising pleasant, uncomplicated children define the drama as others attempt to subvert that same love in choosing to sacrifice one child in favour of another.

Though Dae-ho originally assumes the plot is directed at him alone, possibly revenge for his exposés, the truth is darker and moves towards child trafficking and the trade in illicitly harvested organs though this too is mostly glossed over in favour of competing parental needs. The men who’ve taken Min-woo veer between amoral gangsters and those who can’t stomach the outcome of their actions ultimately deciding to rebel against their own side, and even if the real perpetrator turns out to be someone not so different from Dae-ho, there can be little justification in this dark flip side to Dae-ho’s all encompassing paternal love.

The central premise of dreams and memory is an interesting one, but largely squandered by the increasingly dull narrative progression in which Dae-ho moves from clue to clue in linear fashion and along predictable genre lines. Most viewers even remotely familiar with similarly themed films will have correctly identified the villain right away thanks to the heavily signposted script, and will necessarily be disappointed by the rather predictable yet action packed finale.

Dae-ho travels through dream states, eventually learning to invade the dreams of others thanks to the guidance of a mysterious shared dreamer but the application is inconsistent and relegated to plot device only. The finale takes place within a dream and with the stakes heightened as it becomes clear death inside someone else’s mind results in death outside it, but the imagery remains clichéd as Dae-ho battles the villain inside a rapidly disintegrating building before being forced into a literal leap of faith. Despite the surface level grimness of the story, Lucid Dream remains firmly in mainstream thriller territory with under developed characters, dead end sub plots, and a satisfying if not entirely earned moment of final closure. It is, however, also a rare example of a broadly happy ending in a Korean procedural, in which a father’s love can and does save the day, if not the film.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned (가려진 시간, Um Tae-hwa, 2016)

vanishing-timeWhen no time passes, does anything change? Yes, and then again, no, if Um Tae-hwa’s Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned (가려진 시간, Garyeojin Shigan) is to be believed. Dealing with the nature of time, connection, and faith Um’s film is a supernaturally tinged fairytale which never seriously entertains the more rational explanation offered by the naysayers, but is filled with the innocence of childhood and the essential naivety of adolescence. Melancholy, though somehow uplifting, Vanishing Time neatly avoids the pitfalls of romantic melodrama for a genuinely affecting coming of age story as its heroine is forced to make peace with her traumatic past through accepting the loss and sacrifice of her present.

Thirteen year old Su-rin (Shin Eun-soo) is an orphan, living with her step-father who has just moved to a small island where he is engaged in the construction work on a new tunnel. Sullen and lonely, Su-rin does not get on with her step-father whom she holds responsible for the death of her mother in a car accident. All Su-rin wants is to disappear into another world. In fact, she even has her own blog dedicated to exploring possible portals to alternate dimensions and the best methods for provoking an out of body experience. Needless to say, Su-rin does not fit in at school and has immense trouble making friends, especially when they stumble across her online activity and brand her a weirdo.

Su-rin does, however, bond with another boy, Sung-min (Lee Hyo-je), who (though not actually an orphan) lives at the orphanage. Sung-min seems to have some success with the methods Su-rin suggests for out of body experiences and the pair gradually build a up friendship complete with a secret written code and strange rituals. Though Sung-min’s friends Tae-sik (Kim Dan-yool) and Jae-wook (Jeong Woo-jin) don’t want any girls around, Sung-min convinces them to let her come when they sneak into the cordoned off construction area to witness the tunnel blasting. Whilst there, they discover a secret cavern in which there is a strange glowing egg at the bottom of a pool. The boys steal the egg and ponder over what it is until Tae-sik remembers a story his grandfather told about a time stealing goblin that turns children into adults and adults into old people by means of an egg found in a mysterious cave which only exists at a time of a full moon.

When Su-rin emerges from the cavern after nearly being buried by an explosion, the boys have vanished. The community begins to fear the worst – everything from child abduction to an industry conspiracy to cover up a blast related accident, but some time later Su-rin is approached by an older man who claims to be Sung-min.

Um begins the film with the lens cap of a camera as a woman gives a perfunctory voice over explaining that this is the record of her three month psychiatric evaluation of the teenager Su-rin which she hereby offers to us in the hope that we will understand her. When the lens cap comes off, a black and white montage sequence follows detailing the police investigation into the disappearance of the three boys before flashing back to Su-rin seated in front of the camera. It’s clear that Su-rin is sticking to her story, but also that she hasn’t been believed, has not managed to save any of her friends, and is, in some way, suspected of collusion in the events which have engulfed her.

Filmed with earthy browns and greens, the overall atmosphere is one of fairy tale with its supernatural rituals and stories of goblins which feast on time and misery. Obviously very affected by the death of her mother and by her resultant loneliness in having only the step-father she refuses to bond with, Su-rin has already retreated into a fantasy world despite being unable to actively cross over through any of the possible methods she explores in her blog. Bonding with Sung-min through their shared experimentation, the pair attempt a summoning ritual in which they each leave messages for a possible visitor – hers a question about her mother, his a wish that he grow tall and make enough money to retire by thirty. Su-rin’s question goes unanswered, but in the best fairy tale tradition Sung-min is going to get what he asked for, only in the most terrible of ways.

When the boys stop time it first seems like a paradise. They can do whatever they like, running round town stealing slices of pizza and peeking up ladies’ skirts but the novelty quickly wears off when they realise they’re stuck in this ever unchanging world with no means of escape. Thinking ahead, the boys study hard soaking up all the available knowledge in this completely silent universe whilst also stockpiling cash so they’ll be prepared if the hands on the clock ever start turning again. Trapped inside this bubble for more than a decade, the boys have grown into men but in body only. The lack of ongoing experience has also trapped them inside their fourteen year old minds rendering them adrift in either place. Some of them find escape in other ways yet tellingly, time comes only when despair reaches its critical mass.

Um’s painterly vision of the time stopped universe is a beautifully constructed one in which the suspended forward momentum of objects is depicted as a kind of anti-gravity where manga and crisp packets hover in the air while even the heaviest furniture can be trailed on a string like a balloon. Repeated motifs of Su-rin looking at her shadow and the occasionally strange angles give the picture an off kilter atmosphere which further brings out the creepy fairy tale quality of the abandoned Western-style cottage in the woods and its European gothic aesthetics.

Only Su-rin is prepared to believe Sung-min, convinced both by her gut instinct driven by the recognition of their original connection and the hard evidence of their unique code and the scar on Sung-min’s arm. The film never seriously entertains the “rational” explanation offered by the police, but focuses on Su-rin’s desire to restore her friend to his rightful place in society by ensuring he is recognised as Sung-min, the boy who disappeared and has returned as a man. Gang Dong-won, pale and gaunt, gives off just the right level of eerie uncanniness as this strangely innocent man-boy, desperately wanting to go home but having no home to go to other than Su-rin. A tale of innocent, selfless love, Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned is a melancholy, often dark exploration of the journey into adolescence captured with a beautiful, surrealist eye and a beating human heart.


Original trailer (English subtitles – select from settings menu)