A Single Spark (아름다운 청년 전태일, Park Kwang-su, 1995)

In the present day, South Korea has become a prosperous society and leading world economy, but the miracle of its modernisation came at a heavy price. Socially committed filmmaker Park Kwang-su’s A Single Spark (아름다운 청년 전태일, Areumdaun cheongnyeon Jeon Tae-il) takes a trip back to the “truly dark days” of the Park Chung-hee dictatorship to expose the exploitation on which the modern society was, and in fact still is, founded, enabled largely by the wilful misuse of a fear of “communism” as manifested in the problematic presence of threat from “the North”.

Park filters his true life tale through the figure of a fictionalised author and activist, Kim (Moon Sung-Keun), who finds himself on the run from the authorities in 1975. Hiding out in a small town in a backroom rented by his pregnant factory worker girlfriend Jung-soon (Kim Sunjae), Kim is working on a biography of a labour rights activist, Jeon Tae-il, who self-immolated in order to protest the failure to properly enforce existing workers’ rights five years’ earlier in 1970.

Switching to crisp black and white, Park paints a bleak picture of working class life in the late 1960s as the oppressive Park Chung-hee regime imposed extreme export goals designed to boost the local economy. We first meet Jeon (Hong Kyeong-in), who was only 22 at the time of his death, selling umbrellas on the street before he is “lucky” enough to get a job in a tailoring factory. Committing himself to working hard and getting on, he is quickly disillusioned with conditions at the plant which has little light or ventilation and often forces its employees to work through the night without adequate breaks for food. When the young woman next to him begins vomiting blood and is sent home but subsequently fired, Jeon becomes radicalised. Told that there are no laws which protect workers, he is surprised to discover that there are but their existence has been wilfully kept from him. The law is written in a language which is almost impossible for him to understand, in highly formal text using Chinese characters which most ordinary Koreans, never mind those like Jeon denied a proper education, struggle to read.

Jeon begins agitating. He takes a copy of the statutes and a series of violations at the factory to those in charge, but no one is interested. Even when he convinces some of the other workers to come with him, the boss is eventually forced to make a token concession of listening to them but ultimately rolls his eyes and says it’s all very well but not good for business. Jeon isn’t asking for anything radical (save the later addition of provision for menstrual leave), only for better ventilation and for the existing laws to be obeyed.

Meanwhile, Kim meditates on his legacy in the dark days of 1975 where anti-communist sentiment runs high in the wake of the end of the Vietnam War. “Anti-communism” and the demonisation of the North were a central part of Park Chung-hee’s right-wing, nationalist military dictatorship and any attempts to form things like unions or left-leaning political associations were quickly decried as “communist”. Kim’s girlfriend Jung-soon is currently involved in trying to set up a union at her factory to combat many of the same kinds of issues that Jeon was fighting five years’ earlier, but she too is under a lot of pressure. Afraid of the authorities and of losing their jobs, many workers refuse to join and even after she reaches her quota the request for recognition is denied. She and the other activists are harassed by factory management beginning with a “friendly” meeting outside her home in which they try to bribe her with money and expensive fruits, and ending with a raid on the building in which some of the workers are holding a protest during which a woman falls ill and the others are badly beaten when they try to get her to a hospital.

Jeon and the others are lectured by management that they should try to feel more “patriotic” and be willing to suffer in order to raise the economy, bribed with false promises that they’ll all be driving luxury cars in 10 years’ time. Meanwhile, a woman coming to collect money from Jeon’s mother angrily exclaims that debtors should take rat poison and die (which seems counterproductive when they owe you money), and the managers dismiss workers’ concerns with the rationale that they obviously “aren’t hungry enough” to put up with starvation wages and poor working conditions. From the vantage point of 1975, Kim meditates on Jeon’s sacrifice as he witnesses the suicide of another young man, Kim Sang-jin – a student who quoted Thomas Jefferson’s words that democracy is an outcome of struggle at a rally at Seoul National University in April 1975 before publicly slashing his belly. He sees the tragedy of Jeon’s death as the “single spark” which lit a fire under the democracy movement, a torch he wants to pick up and keep aflame to guide them towards a better future.

20 years later, Park may be acknowledging that some battles have been won in a newly democratised Korea as Kim looks on with satisfaction in a peaceful marketplace while a student carries the book he has written about Jeon Tae-il under his arm, but implicitly suggests that not enough has changed and the same battles Jeon was fighting are still being fought. A melancholy meditation on political martyrdom, art, and legacy, A Single Spark pays tribute to those who gave their lives for a fairer world but is equally intent that their sacrifice must not be forgotten.


A Single Spark was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

New World (신세계, Park Hoon-jung, 2013)

new world posterUndercover cop dramas have a long history of dealing more delicately with the nature of identity than in just a simple good guy/bad guy dichotomy, but New World’s (신세계, Sinsegye) moody noir setting ensures that the lines are always blurred and there may not in fact be any sides to choose from. Directed by Park Hoon-jung, scriptwriter of I Saw the Devil and The Unjust, New World makes plain that there may not be so much difference between a police officer and a gangster when each acts covertly, breaking their own rules and throwing any idea of honour out of the window in favour of self preservation or aggrandisement. In this worldview the victory of selfishness is assured, the law protects no one – not even its own, and the gangster, well, he only protects himself.

When the “CEO” (Lee Kyoung-young) of the Goldmoon “corporation” is killed in a “freak” car accident, his sudden absence creates a power vacuum in which his prime underlings, supported by their respective factions, vie for the top spot. Unbeknownst to them, police chief Kang (Choi Min-sik) has taken an interest in this suddenly instability in the largest crime syndicate in Korea and intends to launch Operation New World to interfere with the succession and ultimately install his longterm undercover agent in the director’s seat.

Lee Ja-sung (Lee Jung-jae) has been undercover for ten years, during which time he’s become the right hand man to one of the contenders to take over in the flashy Jung Chung (Hwang Jung-min). The opposing number, Lee Joong-gu (Park Sung-woong), is unscrupulous and suspicious – he has it in for Ja-sung and sees the succession as his natural right. Ja-sung, for his part, had assumed the death of the Goldmoon CEO would signal the end of his mission, allowing him to go back to his regular cop life. Soon to be a father, he’s tired of his duplicitous lifestyle and burned out on secret keeping but perhaps so long spent among the gangsters means his more natural home is exactly where he is.

This is certainly a duplicitous world. Grizzled police chief Kang may be on a mission to take down an all powerful crime group, but his methods are anything but orthodox. As usual in deep cover stories, only Kang and one other officer know of Ja-sung’s police background (at least, that’s what he wants Ja-sung to think), but Ja-sung may not be the only undercover operative Kang has on his books. Ja-sung is also sick of Kang’s obsessive surveillance which records the entirety of life in painstaking detail listing everywhere he goes and everything he eats, apparently even down to the sex of his unborn child. No one can be trusted, not even those closest to him, as Kang’s all powerful spy network has eyes and ears in every conceivable place.

Ja-sung’s identity crisis is never the focus of the narrative and a brief coda set three years previously may suggest that he’s already made his choice when comes to picking a side, but then the lines are increasingly blurred between good and bad even when the gangsters are seen committing heinous acts of torture and violence, making their enemies drink cement before dumping them in the nearby harbour. Ja-sung’s friendship with Jung Chung may be the most genuine he’s ever had in contrast to his relationship with Kang in which he remains a tool to be used at will and possibly disposed of at a later date.

Park holds the violence off as long as possible, preferring to focus on the internal psycho-drama rather than the bloody cruelty of the gangster world, but eventually violence is all there is and Park lets go with one expertly choreographed car park corridor fight followed by frenetic lift-set finale. The “New World” that the film posits is a dark and frightening one in which it’s dog eat dog and every man for himself with no room for morality or compassion. When the law fails to uphold its own values, others will prevail, for good or ill.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017. Also screening in Sheffield (13th November), Glasgow (18th November) and Belfast (18th November). New World will also be released on DVD/blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment on their new Montage Pictures sub-label.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Fabricated City (조작된 도시, Park Kwang-hyun, 2017)

fabricated cityThe real and the unreal. In the era of fake news, it’s become ever harder to draw a clear line between the two but when you live online, the borders are even more permeable. Twelve years after the wartime comedy Welcome to Dongmakgol, director Park Kwang-hyun finally makes a return to the director’s chair with an action packed cyberpunk thriller which joins the ranks of recent Korean films bemoaning the country’s hardwired tendency to social inequality where the rich and powerful are free to run roughshod over the merely ordinary. Fabricated City (조작된 도시, Jojakdwen Doshi) refers to more than just the literally manufactured online world, but to the social reality in which unseen forces govern and define the lives of others, operating in secret behind a government backed curtain.

Kwon Yoo (Ji Chang-wook) was once a national athlete – a rising star of the Korean Taekwondo team. Starting fights when he wasn’t supposed to put paid to that dream and now Kwon Yoo is an aimless wastrel. Too sad and ashamed to have anything more to do with Taekwondo, Kwon Yoo spends all his time in gaming cafes, living a more successful life online. In his favourite game he’s known as the Captain, and the dashingly heroic leader of his party known as Resurrection.

One evening someone leaves their phone behind. It rings and Kwon Yoo answers it. Irritated, he’s about to hang up on the frantic sounding woman who wants him to bring the phone to her but her offer of money changes his mind. Kwon Yoo delivers the phone but the whole thing seems weird especially as the door was open and the woman in the shower when he arrived. Next thing he knows, Kwon Yoo is arrested for a brutal rape and murder. The police have a lot of evidence against him, and so Kwon Yoo winds up in jail where he’s branded a sex offender. Luckily a crazed serial killer realises this kid is no killer and helps him get out whereupon his loyal Resurrectionists valiantly come to the aid of their Captain in the real world, exposing the impressive fit up job that got him put away in the first place.

The deeper Kwon Yoo and his team dive the more corruption they discover. Kwon Yoo is not the only innocent sacrificed for someone else’s grand plan, there are others and the pattern is disturbing. Like Kwon Yoo, the other victims are usually people living on the margins – ones that no one would miss or the uncharitable might say were “unnecessary”, lives that can be exchanged for those of the rich and famous finding themselves in a fix. Kwon Yoo’s fate becomes an extreme version of that meted out to the young men and women of Korea unlucky enough to have been born without wealth, connections, or familial status – expendable and condemned to live without hope.

The fabricated city, in its more literal sense is the online world Kwon Yoo and his team have chosen and in part created for themselves in an attempt to escape the aspects of their lives and personalities which most disappoint them. Kwon Yoo, kicked off the Taekwondo team, has made a warrior hero of himself online, backed by a similarly escapist squad he doesn’t really know. His saviour turns out to be a shy computer genius who can only bear to talk via telephone even when in the same room yet has broken out of her self imposed isolation in order to save the life of her online friend. Other members of the team follow suit bearing similar backstories, attempting to live up to their fantasy selves for real with varying levels of success. Yet the fantasy world was all they had, locked out of all means of escape or advancement by the rigid social codes which make their present predicament possible, even if the fact remains that Kwon Yoo was doing a pretty good job of wasting his life all on his own.

Fabricated City’s biggest selling point is in its unusually well developed production design which takes its cues from the video game world with fantastical images from a prison carved into a mountain to the relatively more familiar cyberpunk influenced technological hybridity as floors become giant computer screens and everything really does exist online. Jumping genres from the classic wrong man to prison drama and eventually techno thriller, Fabricated City bites off more than it can chew but its well choreographed action and typically Korean sense of subtly ironic humour help to smooth over some of the film’s more outlandish moments.


Fabricated City was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)