I Can Speak (아이 캔 스피크, Kim Hyun-seok, 2017)

I Can Speak posterGenre in Korean cinema has always been a more fluid affair than it might be elsewhere, but careering from zany generational comedy to affecting historical drama is perhaps a bold choice. I Can Speak (아이 캔 스피크) is, in many ways, the story of an old woman’s personal revolution as she finds herself repurposing her “Goblin Granny” credentials to pursue justice for a great evil she spent a lifetime hiding from, but it’s also an unabashedly political attack on a legacy of unresolved national trauma. Nevertheless, despite its slightly awkward straddling of cheeky comedy and heartrending melodrama, I Can Speak does at least manage to lay bare a series of entrenched social problems affecting all areas of modern Korean society while also making a fairly uncontroversial (at home at least) political point.

Park Min-jae (Lee Je-hoon) has just transferred to the local council offices in a rundown area of Seoul. Seeing as he’s new and very by the book, he doesn’t know that everyone in the office is terrified of “Goblin Granny” (Na Moon-hee)  – an old woman who turns up every single day with a list of complaints and things around the neighbourhood that could do with being fixed. Min-jae, unaware of Goblin Granny’s fortitude, attempts to deal with her complaints in a bureaucratic manner. He is no match for Ok-boon’s bloodymindedness, but his straightforward approach eventually earns her respect.

Ok-boon is the sort of old woman familiar to many municipal offices in that she is essentially lonely and comes in to complain about things just to make her presence felt. She does have a few friends, however – one being the lady who runs the local convenience store, and the other a woman of around her own age who can speak fluent English. Ok-boon decides she ought to learn English too and enrols in an expensive cram school but is abruptly kicked out of the class which is almost entirely filled with youngsters because of her old lady ways. On the way out, however, she runs into Min-jae who was there to check that his extremely high TOEIC scores were still valid. Ok-boon manages to talk Min-jae into giving her English lessons in return for decreasing the burden on the municipal offices by making fewer complaints.

I Can Speak begins firmly in the realms of bureaucratic comedy as the council workers find themselves cowering in front of Goblin Granny while simultaneously enjoying their cushy jobs for life which require almost no effort in their daily activities. Some in the community assume Ok-boon is a horrible old busybody who likes making trouble and pulling other people up on their various social failings but her community patrols come from a good place. The woman who runs a small stall in the market assumes Ok-boon reported her to the police for selling alcohol to a minor but that’s not the sort of thing that Ok-boon would think worth reporting, which is why she doesn’t think much of breaking city regulations to enjoy a drink outside her friend’s shop. Everything she reports is because she genuinely worries someone may get hurt and her main area of concern is with the strange goings on around the market which is earmarked for “regeneration”. Her concerns are not unfounded as she discovers when she overhears some of the council workers talking about taking backhanders to push the redevelopment through while making use of “external labour” in the form of shady gangsters tasked with clearing the area so the ordinary people who live in the old fashioned neighbourhood will consent to quietly move away. Perhaps because no one ever stood up for her, or because she’s sick of being pushed around, Ok-boon is not going to go quietly nor is she going to allow any of her friends to be taken away without a fight.

Ok-boon is perhaps attempting to fight something else, something she has been afraid to revisit for most of her life. The fact is that Ok-boon was one of many Korean women forcibly abducted by the Japanese army at the end of the Second World War and subjected to heinous, inhuman treatment as sex slave in one of the many “comfort woman stations” which existed throughout Japanese occupied territory. After the war, she was disowned by her family who saw only shame in her suffering and insisted she tell no one what had happened in fear of damaging her family’s reputation. One of the reasons Ok-boon wants to learn English is to be able to talk to her little brother again who she has not seen since they were children and has apparently forgotten how to speak Korean after spending a lifetime in the US.

English does however give her back something that she’d lost in the form of a familial relationship with the otherwise closed off Min-jae who is also raising a teenage brother (Sung Yoo-bin) following the death of their parents. It is true enough that it is sometimes easier to talk about painful things in a second language – something Min-jae demonstrates when he shifts into English to talk about his mother’s death. Abandoning Korean allows Ok-boon to begin dismantling the internalised shaming which has kept her a prisoner all these years, too afraid to talk about what happened in the war in case she be rejected all over again. Her worst fears seem to have come true when her old friends learn about her past, but what they feel for her is empathy rather than shame, hurt that Ok-boon was never able to confide in them and unsure what it is they should say to her now.

Ok-boon learns that she “can speak” – not only English but that she has the right to talk about all the things that happened to her and the long-lasting effect they have had on her life, that she has nothing to be ashamed of and has a responsibility to ensure nothing like this ever happens again. English becomes a bridge not only between her past and future, but across cultures and eras as she finds herself bonding with a Dutch woman giving a testimony much similar to her own and receiving the same kind of ignorant, offensive questions from the American law makers as well as cruel taunts from a very undiplomatic Japanese delegation. Undoubtedly, the final sequence is a very pointed, almost propagandistic attack on persistent Japanese intransigence but then its central tenet is hard to argue with. Tonally uneven, and perhaps guilty of exploiting such a sensitive issue for what is otherwise a standard old lady regains her mojo comedy, I Can Speak is an affecting, if strange affair, which nevertheless makes a virtue of learning to find the strength to stand up for others even if it causes personal pain.


I Can Speak screens at the New York Asian Film Festival on 12th July, 6.30pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles/captions)

Coin Locker Girl (차이나타운, Han Jun-hee, 2015)

coin locker girl posterFamily in Korean films, unlike those say of Japan, has always been something of a double edged sword. Coin Locker Girl (차이나타운, AKA Chinatown) takes the idea of “family” and twists it around, bites into it to test its veracity, and offers a wry smirk as the metal begins to bend. Set in Incheon’s Chinatown, Han Jun-hee’s noirish thriller sends its heroine down a series of dark alleyways as she both fights and fights to retain her humanity whilst inhabiting an extremely inhuman world.

Il-young (Kim Go-eun) was found, covered in blood, hidden away in a coin locker, an abandoned child with no clue as to her identity or that of the woman who gave birth to her. Named and taken in by a collection of beggars at the station, she began her life as a street rat though not, perhaps, entirely unloved or friendless. As a young child she was then taken by gangsters working for a fearless female gang boss known as “Mom” (Kim Hye-soo). Mom is not one to suffer fools and feels no compunction in getting rid of those no longer useful to her. She soon puts Il-young to work, pamphleteering, begging, and eventually debt collecting as she grows older under Mom’s watchful eyes. By the time Il-young is almost come of age, she has an older brother and a sister as well as a younger brother with learning difficulties whom Mom still looks after despite her otherwise unsentimental approach to life.

The trouble starts when Mom sends Il-young to collect a debt from the young son of a man who’s skipped the country. Seok-hyeon (Park Bo-gum) is not like the typical clients she’s met before. He opens his door, invites her in, even offers to feed her before she leaves. Il-young finds all of this very strange. She’s never met anyone “nice” before and wonders what his angle is. Seok-hyeon, however, does not appear to have much of an angle aside from perhaps the usual one. Spending a bit of time with him, Il-young begins to develop certain feelings which see her swapping her Mom-style slacks and jackets for pretty summer dresses. Despite his son’s faith in him, Seok-hyeon’s father has not kept his end of the bargain and so Mom decides it’s time to call in the debt by offing Seok-hyeon and harvesting his organs. Il-young has a choice – between the woman she calls “Mom”, and a naive young man she has come to like though he has no place in her kill or be killed world.

One of the most attractive qualities about the young Il-young was that she didn’t exist. No birth certificate and no identity meant that she could be Mom’s to do with as she pleased. Consequently, adolescent Il-young has a more complicated relationship with her “Mom” than most young women but is also acutely aware of the debt of gratitude which is owed, the precariousness of her position, and the reality that she has nowhere else to go should she decide to try and break away from the world in which she has been raised. Never quite sure what her relationship to Mom is, Il-young has come to think of the other children in the same situations as siblings, but again cannot be sure that they feel the same.

Like many a good film noir, the tragedy lies in not completely closing off one’s heart as the harshness of the world dictates. Mom rejects those who are not useful and terminates those who have betrayed her with extreme prejudice, but despite herself she cannot destroy Il-young. Stepping back from her code, her orders are to let Il-young live, condemning her to a fate perhaps worse than death but alive all the same. Mom is betrayed by another child figure enacting a petty act of revenge, but her decision to let Il-young live is the one which threatens to condemn her. Having believed herself an unloved, unwanted child, Il-young is left with two terrible legacies of abandonment and the feeling that she will never leave that coin locker in which she has been trapped since birth. The cycle of maternal sacrifice continues, though Il-young has the opportunity to change her fate by taking charge of it, picking up where Mom left off but with greater compassion even within the confines of her still cruel world.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017. Also screening at Manchester (11 Nov) and Glasgow (16 Nov).

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Paju (파주, Park Chan-ok, 2009)

pajuPaju (파주) is the name of a city in the far north of Korea, not far from “the” North, to be precise. Like the characters who inhabit it, Paju is a in a state of flux. Recently invaded by gangsters in the pay of developers, the old landscape is in ruins, awaiting the arrival of the future but fearing an uncertain dawn. Told across four time periods, Paju begins with Eun-mo’s (Seo Woo) return from a self imposed three year exile in India, trying to atone for something she does not understand. Much of this has to do with her brother-in-law, Joong-shik (Lee Sun-kyun), an local activist and school teacher with a troubled past. Love lands unwelcomely at the feet of two people each unable to make us of it in this melancholy coming of age tale shot through with tragic irony.

To begin at the beginning, eight years prior to Eun-mo’s return from India, Joong-sik is hiding from the police in the home of his first love, now the wife of a comrade who, unlike Joong-sik, is serving time for unspecified political crimes. After Ja-young (Kim Bo-kyung) returns home from failing to see her husband in prison and aggressively ignores Joong-shik, he somehow manages to seduce her only for a tragic accident to befall her young son while the couple are busy in the bedroom.

Guilt ridden, Joong-sik runs away to religious friends in Paju in an attempt to evade the police and the unpleasant domestic mess he’s just created back in the city. Whilst there he meets the teenage Eun-mo and ends up marrying her older sister, Eun-su (Shim Yi-young). When Eun-su is killed in an accident, the pair end up living together as a family but Eun-mo’s growing maturity and Joong-sik’s past traumas conspire to ensure the nature of their relationship is, like their environment, in constant flux.

Joong-shik is a man with an uncertain outlook. Believing himself to be bad, he’s constantly trying to overcompensate in goodness by participating in church activities and getting involved in social activism. His political activity is more born out of a desire to appear to care, than actual caring, as he later confesses to Eun-mo. He got involved because he thought it was “cool”, stayed out of loyalty, and finally continues because he doesn’t know how to stop even though he thinks the struggle is pointless. Joong-shik is man who’s convinced himself he doesn’t deserve what he wants, so he avoids wanting anything at all and has become hollow as a result.

It may be this quality of vagueness that sets Eun-mo’s alarm bells ringing, aside from the obvious intrusion of a stranger into her necessarily close relationship with her older sister who is her last remaining relative following the deaths of their parents. Eun-su seems overjoyed in her unexpected marriage but cracks appear when Joong-shik remains unwilling to consummate the union. Ironically enough, Eun-su has a series of burn scars across her back which she speculates is the cause of Joong-shik’s aversion. Joong-shik does indeed have a habit of “burning” other people – from the accidental scalding of Ja-young’s son to Eun-su’s eventual fiery death of which her scars are a grim foreshadowing. This fear of being the harbinger of misfortune is perhaps why he finds honesty such a difficult concept, even if his main aim is to protect those he truly cares about from being burned by a truth which only he possesses.

With a touch of Antonioni inspired astuteness, Park begins the film in thick fog as Eun-mo attempts to chart her way back home to a town she no longer quite knows. The mist eventually lifts but Eun-mo spends the rest of the film lost in the haze, perpetually prevented from seeing anything clearly. Realising Joong-shik has lied to her about the circumstances of her sister’s death she becomes increasingly suspicious of him just as she’s forced to confront her (she judges) inappropriate feelings for a man who is technically a relative even if she didn’t suspect him of contributing to whatever it is that really happened to Eun-su. Each is hiding something, unwilling to reveal themselves fully to the other, intentionally blurring the world around them and damaging their own vision in the process.

Anchored by a stand out performance from actress Seo Woo in the difficult role of the emotionally fragile Eun-mo, Paju is a sad tale of the corrosive effects of guilt and unresolved longing. Eun-mo has returned home in search of answers to questions to she’s too afraid to ask, whereas Joong-shik has too many answers to questions he never stops examining. Sacrifices are made as Eun-mo and Joong-shik attempt to move forward but once again find themselves facing different directions as Eun-mo looks to the future and Joong-shik to the past. Beautifully shot with an intriguing non-linear structure, Paju is an ambitious indie drama realised with unusual skill and genuinely affecting human emotion.


International trailer (English subtitles) – WARNING! Contains major spoilers.