Three Sisters (세자매, Lee Seung-won, 2020)

Lee Seung-won’s lightly humorous family drama is not an adaptation of the Chekhov play, but like its namesake does find Three Sisters (세자매, Se Jamae) trapped in the past, their lives “messed up” by the demands of living in a patriarchal society. A showcase for the three actresses at its centre, Lee’s drama works towards a gradual sisterly solidarity brokered by an awkward confrontation with the source of all their trauma but also lays bare the radiating consequences of unchecked male failure as the three women struggle to lead successful adult lives in the shadow of their childhood suffering. 

Opening with a black and white sequence in which two young girls run hand in hand quite clearly away from something bad rather than just for the joy of it, Lee switches to the present day in which oldest sister Hee-sook (Kim Sun-young) is an anxious middle-aged woman perpetually making apology for her existence, while middle sister Mi-yeon (Moon So-ri) is a cooly controlled deaconess and mother of two, and little sister Mi-ok (Jang Yoon-ju) is an unstable drunk and struggling playwright married to a moderately wealthy greengrocer with a teenage son from a previous marriage. 

They have all quite obviously chosen different methods in effort to suppress the effects of their childhood trauma, raised as we later realise in a violent home abused by their drunken father but apparently expected to put up with it out of filial piety. A half-sister Hee-sook finds herself apologising for anything and everything, filled with intense shame for her very existence. Mi-yeon by contrast has chosen order, devoutly religious she maintains high standards for her family but is filled with barely repressed rage unable it seems to express any other emotion. On realising that her professor husband (Jo Han-chul) is having a highly inappropriate affair with a much younger student she reacts with both violence and cunning, unilaterally putting a stop to his philandering while subtly letting him know that she knows and has dealt with it. Further emasculated, he tries to get some kind of normal reaction from her, hoping she will shout or hit him but she continues in the same calm and controlled fashion as if nothing had happened. Meanwhile, in another echo of her father’s violence she finds herself taking out her frustrations on her young daughter, Ha-eun (Kyung Daeun), who rebels against her need for order by refusing to say grace. 

Mi-ok by contrast has in a sense chosen chaos, drinking herself into oblivion while often ringing Mi-yeon in intense confusion unable to recall a seemingly unimportant detail from their mutual past. Taking on the big sister role, Mi-yeon finds herself in a similar position with Hee-sook who apparently doesn’t remember an event that was important to her of their dining together in the same cafe they are currently visiting back when she first came to the city and Hee-sook worked in a nearby office. Later the three sisters will attempt to visit another cafe that Mi-ok had struggled to remember but will find it closed, their past perhaps locked to them but in a sense also pushing them towards a happier future as they reaffirm their sisterly bonds after living lives of highly individualised suffering. 

Failed by a feckless father, the three women find themselves at the mercy of problematic men Hee-sook apparently re-victimised as the wife of an abusive partner who returns periodically to extort money and undermine her self-esteem, while Mi-yeon attempts to evade subjugation by dominating her husband only to find him rebelling against her through an extra-marital affair. Only Mi-ok seems to have made a better marriage to a mild-mannered, patient and caring husband but is also accused of marrying him for his money while taken to task by others for her “failure” to play the part of the conventional wife and mother, her ability to do so perhaps corrupted by her traumatic childhood. “Just treat them with love” Mi-yeon ironically advises seconds after unfairly scolding her own daughter, simultaneously explaining that no one learns to be a mother, though of course in some senses they do, and that anyone can be one as long as they work at it. Nevertheless, after confronting the source of all their pain and suffering the three women manage to rediscover a sense of solidarity that perhaps allows them to reclaim their agency and live better, more fulfilling lives free of the shadow of the past. 


Three Sisters screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Money (돈, Park Noo-ri, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

money poster 1“Could you ask him something for me,” the beleaguered yet victorious protagonist of Park Noo-ri’s Money (돈, Don) eventually asks, “what was he going to use the money for?”. Wealth is, quite literally it seems, a numbers game for the villainous Ticket (Yoo Ji-tae) whose favourite hobby is destabilising the global stock market just for kicks. As for Cho Il-hyun (Ryu Jun-yeol), well, he just wanted to get rich, but where does getting rich get you in the end? There’s only so much money you can spend and being rich can make you lonely in ways you might not expect.

Unlike most of his fellow brokers, Cho Il-hyun is an ordinary lad from the country. His parents own a small raspberry farm and he didn’t graduate from an elite university or benefit from good connections, yet somehow he’s here and determined to make a success of himself. In fact, his only selling point is that he’s committed the registration numbers of all the firms on the company books to memory, and his ongoing nervousness and inferiority complex is making it hard for him to pick up the job. A semi-serious rookie mistake lands the team in a hole and costs everyone their bonuses, which is when veteran broker Yoon (Kim Min-Jae) steps in to offer Il-hyun a way out through connecting him with a shady middle-man named “The Ticket” who can set him up with some killer deals to get him back on the board.

Il-hyun isn’t stupid and he knows this isn’t quite on the level, but he’s desperate to get into the elite financial world and willing to cheat to make it happen. As might be expected his new found “success” quickly goes to his head as he “invests” in swanky apartments and luxury accessories, while his sweet and humble teacher girlfriend eventually dumps him after he starts showering her with expensive gifts and acting like an entitled elitist. It’s not until some of his fellow brokers who also seem to have ties to Ticket start dying in mysterious circumstances that Il-hyun begins to wonder if he might be in over his head.

Unlike other similarly themed financial thrillers, it’s not the effects of stock market manipulation on ordinary people which eventually wake Il-hyun up from his ultra capitalist dream (those are are never even referenced save a brief reflective shot at the end), but cold hard self-interest as he finally realises he is just a patsy Ticket can easily stub out when he’s done with him. Yoon only hooked him up in the first place because he knew he’d be desperate to take the bait in order to avoid repeated workplace humiliation and probably being let go at the end of his probationary period. What he’s chasing isn’t just “money” but esteem and access to the elite high life that a poor boy from a raspberry farm might have assumed entirely out of his reach.

It’s difficult to escape the note of class-based resentment in Il-hyun’s sneering instruction to his mother that she should “stop living in poverty” when she has the audacity to try and offer him some homemade chicken soup from ancient Tupperware, and it’s largely a sense of inferiority which drives him when he eventually decides to take his revenge on the omnipotent Ticket. Yet there’s a strangely co-dependent bond between the two men which becomes increasingly difficult pin down as they wilfully dance around each other.

The world of high finance is, unfortunately, a very male and homosocial one in which business is often conducted in night-clubs and massage parlours surrounded by pretty women. There is only one female broker on Il-hyun’s team. The guys refer to her as “Barbie” and gossip about how exactly she might have got to her position while she also becomes a kind of trophy conquest for Il-hyun as he climbs the corporate ladder. Meanwhile, there is also an inescapably homoerotic component to Il-hyun’s business dealings which sees him flirt and then enjoy a holiday (b)romance with a Korean-American hedge fund manager (Daniel Henney) he meets at a bar in the Bahamas, and wilfully strip off in front of Ticket ostensibly to prove he isn’t wearing a wire while dogged financial crimes investigator Ji-cheol (Jo Woo-jin) stalks him with the fury of a jilted lover.

Obsessed with “winning” in one sense or another, Il-hyun does not so much redeem himself as simply emerge victorious (though possibly at great cost). Even his late in the game make up with Chaebol best friend Woo-sung (Kim Jae-young), who actually turns out to be thoroughly decent and principled (perhaps because unlike Il-hyun he was born with wealth, status, and a good name and so does not need to care about acquiring them), is mostly self-interest rather than born of genuine feeling. In answer to some of Il-hyun’s early qualms, Ticket tells him that in finance the border between legal and illegal is murky at best and it may in fact be “immoral” not to exploit it. What Il-hyun wanted wasn’t so much “money” but what it represents – freedom, the freedom from “labour” and from from the anxiety of poverty. Life is long and there are plenty of things to enjoy, he exclaims at the height of his superficial success, but the party can only last so long. What was the money for? Who knows. Really, it’s beside the point.


Money was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)