Jo Pil-ho: The Dawning Rage (악질경찰, Lee Jeong-beom, 2019)

Jo Pil-ho- The Dawning Rage posterThe Man From Nowhere’s Lee Jeong-beom returns five years after No Tears for the Dead with another retro crime thriller, though this time one with additional bite as he digs into a nation quite clearly failing its young. Another of the recent films set in the post-Sewol world, Jo Pil-ho: The Dawning Rage (악질경찰, Akjilkyungchal) is a noirish voyage through an intensely corrupt society in which Chaebols act with impunity while goodhearted schoolgirls are branded delinquents and left to fend for themselves by the “adults” who seem to have abandoned all sense of social responsibility.

Our hero and the titular “bad cop” of the Korean title, is Jo Pil-ho (Lee Sun-kyun) – a corrupt police officer who abuses his position to force criminals to commit crime on his behalf. Recently, he’s teamed up with a teenage safecracker, Gi-chul (Jung Ga-ram), and is also involved in an ill-advised business relationship with a petty gangster. IA are all over him, but they don’t have anything yet. Everything is about to change, however, when an angry Pil-ho decides it would be a good idea to rob the police warehouse. The gangster’s minion makes a mistake and the place blows up with Gi-chul trapped inside. Suddenly it’s not looking so rosy for Pil-ho who is now implicated in a series of crimes only to discover that there is far more going on than he could have anticipated. The warehouse fire appears to be connected to an ongoing corruption case involving one of Korea’s biggest conglomerates and Pil-ho may have just destroyed key evidence without realising in an attempt to save his own skin.

Despite himself, Pil-ho is not such a bad guy. He’s corrupt and greedy, but he has a moral compass and probably sees himself as kicking back against the system rather than abusing it seeing as he only seems to take money from sources he feels could stand to lose. This is perhaps why he finds himself increasingly shaken by his investigations, eventually forced to pick a side – surrender to Chaebol influence as a willing underling or expose the corruption possibly at the cost of his own life.

In true noir fashion his own past comes back to haunt him as he re-encounters the father of a young woman (Im Hyeong-gook), Song Ji-won (Park So-eun), who died in the ferry tragedy and had wanted to become a policewoman when she grew up. Pil-ho was the officer charged with the empty gesture of presenting him with a police uniform with his daughter’s name on it. In an unlikely coincidence, the girl Pil-ho needs to find, Mina (Jeon So-nee), was Ji-won’s best friend. Alone and without family, Mina has been living by her wits on the streets but as Mr. Song points out she’s not a bad kid at heart and goes to great lengths to protect those close to her.

Despite their original mutual distrust, a kind of camaraderie eventually builds up between the cynical cop and the jaded teen who views the so-called “adults” around her with nothing more than contempt. Her admiration for Pil-ho begins when he beats up a sleazy backstreet doctor who tries to swap treatment for sexual favours and then continues as Pil-ho, against the odds, begins to look out for her in ways no one else ever has. Mina, like many kids, is simply trying to survive in a world which is often actively hostile to her existence, but unlike Pil-ho she has avoided becoming cynical and remains committed to protecting those weaker than herself even if others may write her off as a lost cause delinquent.

Set in Ansan which, as an ironic sign tells us before falling to the ground, is the “city of happiness”, Dawning Rage locates itself in a haunted land in which the lingering effects of the ferry tragedy are impossible to ignore. Pil-ho begins catching sight of teenagers everywhere but their presence only seems to highlight absence while providing a kind of chorus watching and observing the adults around them in order to learn how to live. The corrupt Chaebol cites his provision of scholarships as evidence of his commitment to building a fairer society, all while knowing that by doing so he is really buying influence and loyalty. He spins a yarn about his humble origins and makes a show of inspiring the next generation, but thinks nothing of silencing those who stand in the way of his selfish aims.

The corruption rains down from above – the Chaebols make their money and they cut corners, leaving ordinary people squeezed. Fear and deference are the primary contributors to the societal decline which placed innocent young people directly, if unwittingly, in harm’s way. This is Pil-ho’s “dawning rage” as he awakens himself to the depths of injustice within his own society with which he had blindly gone along thinking only of himself. With a distinctly 1970s aesthetic, Dawning Rage is a dark conspiracy thriller in which the system is so hopelessly corrupt as to be beyond saving. Pil-ho is a “bad cop” who turns out to be acting for the public good after all but finds himself pushed towards the dark side by the intransigence of his society and forced into an act of violent revenge both personal and social.


Currently available to stream online via Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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