Birthday (생일, Lee Jong-un, 2019)

Birthday posterOn 16th April 2014, a ferry carrying mostly teenagers on a school trip sank taking 304 passengers and crew down with it. The Sewol Ferry tragedy was to have profound ramifications, asking a series of questions as to corporate and political corruption in the society which had permitted such an accident to happen and then failed to mount an effective rescue. In the five years since, many films have probed the causes and implications of the tragedy, but Lee Jong-un’s Birthday (생일, Saengil) is not so much interested in the incident itself as in the nature of grief and all the more so when it takes place across a national canvas.

Lee picks up three years after the sinking as husband and father Jung-il (Sol Kyung-gu) returns to Korea after five years of working away in Vietnam. So disconnected is he from his family, that he was only vaguely aware that they had moved and has trouble finding the new apartment. When he gets there, his wife Soon-nam (Jeon Do-yeon) pretends to be out, sending Jung-il back to stay with his understanding sister who tries to fill him in on the various reasons he might not be welcome at his own door.

The loss of the couple’s oldest child, Su-ho (Yoon Chan-young), in the ferry tragedy is only gradually revealed though it’s clear that there is an absence in the family home. Soon-nam has kept Su-ho’s room exactly as he left it – school uniform hanging on the wardrobe door, unfinished school work on the desk, post-its seemingly everywhere. Meanwhile, youngest daughter Ye-sol (Kim Bo-min) is often left to her own devices while Soon-nam buries herself in work and shuts out everything that reminds her that her son is never coming home.

While some of the other parents have formed a tightly bonded community forged by shared grief and anger, Soon-nam wants no part of it. Invited to a gathering after bumping into other parents at the memorial site, she lasts barely a few minutes before accusing them of turning their suffering into an excuse for frivolity. It’s not as if she could ever forget what happened to her son, but when the ferry tragedy is on every street corner, on the radio, on the news, it becomes impossible to ignore. Soon-nam wants her grief to herself. Her son and her loss. She isn’t interested in sharing him with anyone else, be that an increasingly angry society or her little girl who is now terrified of water and worried about her mum.

Jung-il, burdened with guilt for having abandoned his family, tries to address his grief in a more positive sense by re-embracing his role as a father to Ye-sol who was so small when he left that she doesn’t really remember him. Though Lee is not particularly interested in the political ramifications of the tragedy, she does subtly point the finger at the effects of economic pressure on the ordinary family which have seen Jung-il exile himself abroad and Soon-nam working so hard just to keep her head above water that Ye-sol is caught in the middle. Jung-il wasn’t there when his family needed him, and there’s precious little he can do for them now other than try to be around.

The other members of the support group have been holding birthday parties for some of the kids who passed away, turning the solemnity of a memorial service into a celebration of life. Soon-nam is against the idea – she would rather save the day for herself in private commemoration, but Jung-il is broadly in favour. Probed, he has to admit he barely knew the young man his son was becoming and that this party might be the only way to reconnect with the boy he lost. A passport that will never be stamped, colleges that will never be applied to, weddings that will never take place – the finality of the loss is crippling, but in holding the birthday parties those left behind are able to find a kind of acceptance in shared remembrance and a confirmation that their loved ones were loved and will continue to be loved even in their absence. A sensitive yet uncompromising exploration of the sometimes forgotten personal dimension to a national tragedy, Birthday is a beautifully complex evocation of learning to live with loss and a strangely uplifting, cathartic experience.


Birthday was screened as the opening night gala of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Miss Baek (미쓰백, Lee Ji-won, 2018)

Miss baek posterIn one sense we’ve never been more connected to one another, but our tendency to remain inside our own solipsistic bubbles has never been higher. We ignore those in need, confident that “someone” will do something, that it isn’t our responsibility. Then again perhaps we don’t even notice. It’s freezing cold in director Lee Ji-won’s debut feature Miss Baek (미쓰백) and a little girl is sitting outside in her nightie. No one takes very much interest her even though it’s far too late for a child to be out alone. That is, until the titular Miss Baek (Han Ji-min) overcomes her own sense of alienation and decides to look back.

Now in her mid-30s, Baek Sang-ah is an aloof, near silent woman who ekes out a living through a series of casual jobs from car washing to massage. She is in a kind of relationship with a kindly policeman, Jang-sub (Lee Hee-joon), who wants to marry her, but Sang-ah has long ago ruled out the idea of marriage and family. She never wanted to be someone’s wife or mother. Sang-ah says this not (entirely) because she values her independence, but because of a legacy of trauma and abandonment born of the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother who fell into depression and alcoholism following the loss of her husband. Fearing becoming another link in a long chain of abuse passed from parent to child, Sang-ha has kept herself isolated, avoiding all intimate relationships and vowing to continue on alone causing harm to no one.

One winter day, however, she can’t walk past the girl in the nightie anymore. Taking her to a nearby food stall, Sang-ha finds out the girl’s name is Ji-eun (Kim Si-a) and she’s nine years old. Just as Sang-ha is beginning to ask about the cuts and bruises on Ji-eun’s hands and feet, a well dressed woman who turns out to be her father’s girlfriend arrives and whisks the girl away. Sang-ha tries to forget about her and go on with her life, but she can’t seem to do it. Buying Ji-eun some proper winter wear, she resolves to try and help the girl the way that no one tried to help her.

There is something particularly insidious in the continuous stream of injustice and mistreatment Sang-ha and Ji-eun find themselves subject to precisely because of their lack of social power. Children, most obviously, have no mechanism to defend themselves besides their parents and should they try to speak out against them, they may not be listened to. Managing to escape, Ji-eun tried to tell the police what her parents were doing to her but they sent her home with only a mild warning to her smirking step-mother that she’d best ease back on the “discipline”. Understandably, Ji-eun doesn’t have much faith in the authorities as a source of salvation. Sang-ha experienced much the same but her oppression continued on into adulthood when she was arrested for violently defending herself against a would-be-rapist who happened to be the son of a wealthy and connected man who used his status to do as he pleased while Sang-ah went to jail. Sang-ha’s prison record comes back to bite her again when she tries to talk to the police on Ji-eun’s behalf only for them to lay into her when they eventually run her file.

Meanwhile, Ji-eun’s step-mother Mi-kyung (Kwon So-hyun) is well turned out and scrupulously polite. She has a plausible answer for everything and a talent for middle-class respectability, even crying during church services. Her father Il-gon (Baek Soo-jang), by contrast, is addicted to video games and rarely leaves the house while little Ji-eun is often locked in the bathroom where she cowers under the sink, or cast out onto the balcony in the mild hope that she’ll freeze to death. The only reason Mi-kyung has been keeping her around is the welfare payments, but they’re about to stop. Both “parents” project all of their personal resentments onto the face of a nine year old girl whom they beat, starve, and torture for no discernible reason other than they don’t know any other way to behave.

Ji-eun’s father was also beaten as a child. He wonders where the police were then and what sort of life they think Ji-eun is going to have when she too grew up like this. Sang-ah’s desire to save Ji-eun is also a desire to save herself as she contemplates maternity from both sides in revisiting the complicated relationship with her own mother while wondering if she is a fit person to care for a child with such poor models to follow. She doubts she can break the chain and free Ji-eun from a seemingly inescapable system of abuse and violence but through her deepening attachment to the little girl Sang-ha begins to find a way through her inertia and fear of intimacy to a deeper and more positive connection. A gritty yet always open and empathetic look at an all too often hidden social problem, Miss Baek is a promising and important debut from Lee Ji-won which refuses to look away from the dark and unpalatable but finds hope in the power of simple human kindness against cruelty and indifference.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Dark Figure of Crime (암수살인, Kim Tae-kyun, 2018)

Dark Figure of Crime poster 1No matter how accurate statistics relating to criminal activity might be, there are many more acts of violence and immorality which, for various reasons, will go unreported. Criminologists refer to this phenomenon as the “Dark Figure of Crime”. Kim Tae-kyun’s cerebral thriller takes the strangely poetic term as its title (암수살인, Amsusalin) and does indeed revolve around the perfect murder and a man who claims to have completed six of them before abandoning his system and getting himself caught. Yet unlike many cops and robber dramas, Dark Figure of Crime is not about the killer but about the hidden victims who’ve lived a life haunted by the horrible uncertainty of whether their loved ones abandoned them but are alive and well somewhere else, or have fallen victim to some terrible event.

Narcotics officer Kim Hyung-min’s (Kim Yoon-seok) introduction to a new source of information takes a turn for the unexpected when he first starts telling him about having disposed of a body some years ago and then is promptly arrested by Homicide for the murder of his girlfriend. Tae-oh (Ju Ji-hoon) is convicted and sent to prison, but calls Hyung-min and complains that the police framed him when they didn’t need to. Tae-ho murdered his former girlfriend alright, but the evidence the police submitted was faked which has annoyed him. He draws Hyung-min a map to where he buried the “real” evidence just so he can catch the police out acting improperly and embarrass them as well as earn Hyung-min’s trust for the next part of his plan, which is vaguely confessing to another six murders. Hyung-min can’t know if Tae-oh is on the level or just messing with his head but feels as if he has to investigate all the same.

Not everyone understands Hyung-min’s commitment to this strange series of cold cases. After getting himself a transfer to Homicide, Hyung-min’s new boss warns him about another officer who was tricked by a bored felon and ended up losing everything – once a promising policeman he’s now a divorced carpark attendant. A meeting with the former officer yields another warning – men like Tae-ho know the law and they play with it. He’ll get you to investigate crimes B and C for which he knows there won’t be enough evidence, then he’ll use his acquittals to cast doubt on his original conviction. Hyung-min is wary but also hooked. He knows Tae-ho is playing him, but thinks he can win by giving him the opportunity to slip-up and give something away he didn’t quite mean to.

Tae-ho is certainly a dangerous, unhinged young man no matter how much of what he says is actually true. Hyung-min can’t know if any of this is real or just a bizarre game Tae-ho has cooked up because he’s got 15 years and no one ever visits him, but then he starts turning up suspicious absences. As he tells him in a tense conversation late in the game, none of this is really about Tae-ho. Hyung-min couldn’t care less about his big man act and is not impressed by his “crimes” or the ways in which he got away with them though he does want to make sure he never gets out to hurt anyone else. What Hyung-min cares about is the victims whose family members are living with the unresolved trauma of not knowing what happened to their loved ones. Something Tae-ho could quite easily help with if he had a mind to, but seeing as Tae-ho only wants to play games Hyung-min will have to find out on his own, and he will stop at nothing to do so even if he ends up manning a rundown police box in the middle of nowhere for his pains.

Living with a trauma of his own, not even Hyung-min has much faith in the police hence why he needs to complete this case himself – he simply doesn’t believe anyone else will bother. Police in Korean films are universally bumbling and incompetent if not actually corrupt and selfish. Hyung-min is an exception though his opinion of his profession may not be much different to the stereotypes you see in the movies. He doesn’t care about getting a big promotion or being the guy who catches the big fish, he just wants the truth to be known and the past laid to rest so the indirect victims can begin to move on with their lives. The “dark figure of crime” refers not only to the hidden and unresolved, but to the oppressive spectre cast over those left behind with only pain and worry. The terrifying thing is, there may be countless other dangerous people out there whose crimes go undetected not because they’re criminal geniuses but because no one really cares enough to stop them. Subtly subverting serial killer movie norms, Kim pulls the focus from the self-aggrandising villain to remind us of the very real costs of his actions while making a hero of the dogged policeman who refuses to to give in to a societal expectation of indifference.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)