Bungee Jumping of Their Own (번지점프를 하다, Kim Dae-seung, 2001)

Bungee Jumping on theie own posterLove is a continuous stream, according to the debut film of Kim Dae-seung, Bungee Jumping of Their Own (번지점프를 하다, Bungee Jump Hada). The title may sound whimsical, but it’s less the physical act of fall and rebound we’re talking about here than a spiritual bounce, souls which spring from one body to another and eventually find their way home. Kim presents eternity as one great confluence and love as an enduring bond which survives not only death and time but transcends existence itself. Love is a spiritual cause, but, as the rather muddy philosophy goes on to suggest, perhaps not so free of social mores as it would like to believe itself to be.

In 1983 university student In-woo (Lee Byung-hun) meets the love of his life, Tae-hee (Lee Eun-ju), as she steals a place under his umbrella during a violent rainstorm. Shy and introverted, In-woo waits at the bus stop where Tae-hee abruptly left him hoping to see her again, finally encountering her by chance on his university campus. Despite his diffidence, the pair eventually become a couple and are very happy together but In-woo will shortly have to leave for his military service. He asks Tae-hee to meet him at the station, waiting once again only to be left alone on the platform as the trains fly by.

Flashforward 17 years to the start of a new millennium and In-woo is now a slick, confident man entering middle-age, married to someone else and with a small daughter of his own. He teaches high school and is the kind of inspirational teacher many dream of being, well-respected by his students for his patience and faith as he remains committed to stand up for them no matter what. In-woo might have thought he’d put the memory of Tae-hee to the back of his mind to go on living, but a strange young man, Hyun-bin (Yeo Hyeon-soo), begins to reawaken in him the buried memory of his first love. Seeing echoes of Tae-hee in the young male student, In-woo finds himself facing several different kinds of social and internal pressures to which he had previously given little thought.

Arriving in 2001, Bungee Jumping of Their Own is (sadly) one of the first “mainstream” films to touch on the theme of homosexuality, only the film itself is quite determined to negate any kind of homosexual reading into its central love affair – it is, after all, not “Hyun-bin” that In-woo is falling in love with, but the reincarnated soul of Tae-hee, which is to say a “female” soul and not a male one. Though Kim’s metaphor of existence as a great river through which love endures across time and societies ought to make gender and the physical body an irrelevance, same-sex love is relegated to an inappropriate absurdity. In a playful conversation about reincarnation in which In-woo and Tae-hee pledge their love to one another, In-woo jokingly asks what would happen if he were too were reincarnated as a girl, to which Tae-hee replies that they’d just have to wait for the next reincarnation. Despite the endurance of their love, it is apparently not viable outside of a traditional male/female pairing and any other iteration is tragedy to which the only solution is suicide and the hope for a quick reincarnation to find each other again in more socially appropriate forms.

Nevertheless, Kim does also do his best to criticise a still conservative society’s prejudice against homosexuality though this too has its problematic elements in unwittingly conflating two issues which ideally speaking are better not conflated. In-woo is a teacher falling in love with a boy who is not only a minor but also his student – a situation clearly inappropriate in any and all circumstances. However, the while the crusty old dinosaurs in the staffroom lament the new liberal society and fear being branded sex pests for leering at the girls, claiming it’s their own fault for “looking like that”, In-woo comes in for an especial level of vitriol targeted not at a pervy teacher but simply at a “gay” man while Hyun-bin is gradually ostracised by his friends simply for being the object of his affection and therefore tarred with the gay brush.

Meanwhile, the conflicted In-woo goes to see a doctor to correct his “sickness” only to be told that his responses indicate a “normal” heterosexual man with that caveat that he should also regard his interest in men as a “normal” part of life. Desperate to not to acknowledge his same-sex desire, In-woo becomes violent towards his wife in an effort to reinforce his masculinity, unwilling to discuss with her the real reasons their marriage has always been hollow – not his possible bisexuality, but that he has only ever loved Tae-hee and will only ever love Tae-hee in whichever form she appears.

In-woo makes a point of teaching his students that “different” does not mean “wrong” but it’s apparently not a lesson he’s able to internalise. Kim plays with dualities, idealises imperfect symmetries, and shows us that things which might seem “different” from one perspective are in essence the same, yet he walks back his message of acceptance to emphasise the importance of conforming to social norms rather than allowing the love between Tae-hee and In-woo to exist in the physical world in any other iteration than male/female. Nevertheless, Kim’s true intention of painting love as a continuous stream made possible by cosmic serendipity is a romantic notion difficult to resist and even if his reasoning proves occasionally hollow he has perhaps opened a door towards a greater understanding.


Bungee Jumping on Their Own was screened as part of the Rebels With a Cause series at the Korean Cultural Centre London.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Scarlet Letter (주홍글씨, Byeon Hyeok, 2004)

The Scarlet Letter posterSouth Korea has long had a reputation for being among the most conservative of East Asian nations, perhaps because of a strong Christianising influence, but even so the fact that adultery was only fully decriminalised in 2015 is something of a surprise. Ironically enough the legislation was enacted in the defence of women who enjoyed few legal rights and would be left destitute if their husbands left them, suffering not only the humiliation and social stigma of divorce but also having no independent income and very little possibility of gaining one. Nevertheless it quickly became another tool of social control, branding “harlots” rather than protecting “wives”. Byeon Hyeok’s The Scarlet Letter (주홍글씨, Juhong Geulshi) was released in 2004, which is a whole decade before adultery was removed from the statue books, and draws inspiration from the book of the same name by Nathaniel Hawthorne in which a young woman becomes a social outcast after giving birth to an illegitimate child.

Cocksure policeman Ki-hoon (Han Suk-kyu) lives in a world of his own dominion. Married to the elegant concert cellist Su-hyun (Uhm Ji-won), Ki-hoon is also carrying on an affair with the bohemian nightclub singer Ga-hee (Lee Eun-ju). One fateful day he is called to the scene of a bloody murder. The owner of a photographer’s studio has been found with half his head caved in and the prime suspect is his wife, Kyung-hee (Sung Hyun-ah), who found the body. Once she’s had some time to recover from the shock, Kyung-hee offers up some possible evidence regarding a local photographer who may have been semi-stalking her – something which had caused tension between herself and her husband. The photographer claims Kyung-hee asked him to take the photos, and others besides, but denies he was romantically interested in her or that the couple had been having an affair.

The murder case floats in the background as Ki-hoon’s personal life spirals ever more out of control. Both Su-hyun and Ga-hee are pregnant with his child and it seems inevitable the affair will be exposed. Ki-hoon fears this not out of guilt in causing emotional harm to one or both of his women, but out of a sense that it will be very annoying, inconvenient, and burdensome for him. When his wife does eventually confront him about the affair, Ki-hoon’s response is to ignore it and carry on as normal by acting excited about the baby as if to remind Su-hyun that she is already tied to him and it will be almost impossible for her to leave. Meanwhile, he refuses to give up Ga-hee whose mental state seems to be fracturing under the intense pressure of her need for Ki-hoon and his continuing disregard for the feelings of others.

Ki-hoon is a classic noir hero, wading into a morass of moral ambiguity and hurtling headlong towards an existential reckoning. A late, yet fantastically obvious, twist offers another perspective which the film has no time to expand on so caught up is it in the moral ruining of Ki-hoon in suggesting that oppressive social codes have in some way contributed to this intense situation, forcing three people into an uncomfortable love triangle where everyone has ended up with the wrong partner. Byeon does, however, choose to emphasise “morality” in lending a spiritual slant to Ki-hoon’s fall rather than choosing to attack the social oppression of Korea’s intensely conservative culture in which all the power was in Ki-hoon’s hands (even if he uses it to ruin himself, later left in a state of spiritual emptiness filled only with guilt and shame).

The reckoning comes in a literal evocation of Ki-hoon’s claustrophobic love life in which he finds himself trapped in an inescapable black hole, waiting to find out if he will be released or condemned to suffer an eternity of pain for his various transgressions. Byeon never quite manages to marry his higher purpose to the noir narrative, leaving his avant-garde final set piece out of place in an otherwise straightforward thriller while his final twist falls flat in retreading well worn genre cliches. Frank in terms of its depiction of sex and nudity, The Scarlet Letter takes on an anti-erotic quality, painting its various scenes of actualised sex as passionless acts of compulsion with only those of fantasy somehow imbued with colour and light though its melancholy conclusion suggests even these may carry a heavy price.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해, Jeong Jae-eun, 2001)

take-care-of-my-catThe time after high school is often destabilising as even once close groups of friends find themselves being pulled in all kinds of different directions. So it is for the group of five young women at the centre of Jeong Jae-eun’s debut feature, Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해, Goyangileul Butaghae). All at or around 20, the age of majority in Korea, the girls were a tightly banded unit during high school but have all sought different paths on leaving. Lynchpin Tae-hee (Bae Doo-na) is responsible for trying to keep the gang together through organising regular meet ups but it’s getting harder to get everyone in the same place and minor differences which hardly mattered during school grow ever wider as adulthood sets in.

Cheerful scenes of high school mischief give way to the uncertain present as five old friends prepare to celebrate the 20th birthday of the group’s self appointed star, Hye-joo (Lee Yo-won). Hye-joo, however, has moved on to a high level office job in Seoul and is about to blow off her high school friends to hang out with her possibly sleazy boss, only to revert back to plan A when he cancels on her. Too cowardly to ring her friends in person, Hye-joo leaves the business of calling off the party to the chief organiser, Tae-hee, who rings round letting the other three girls – jobless Ji-young (Ok Ji-young), and half Chinese twins Bi-ryu (Lee Eun-sil) and Ohn-jo (Lee Eun-ju), know (and presumably has to then ring them all back to tell them the party’s back on).

Hye-joo moved farthest away from her roots both in terms of location and of her social ambitions through taking a well paid admin job in the city. Increasingly materialistic and status orientated, her friendship with the other girls suffers as she sees herself as transitioning to a higher social class. Ironically, her views are equally deluded as she continues to believe that her dedication and willingness to work hard can make up for her lack of a degree but quickly finds herself displaced when the next batch of newbies arrive.

This growing desire for material status has also contributed to a seemingly unbridgeable rift with Ji-young whose economic status is the most vulnerable. Orphaned and living in a shack with her elderly grandparents, Ji-young has recently lost her job and is having difficulty finding another one precisely because of her circumstances – one firm even point blank refuses her application because both of her parents are dead and they need a direct family member to vouch for her. Hye-joo is insensitive in the extreme and often flashes her money around whilst rubbing salt in Ji-young’s wounds by emphasising her lack of it and pouring cold water over her ideas of saving money to study abroad. Small digs like these and insisting that all the girls leave their home town to visit her in Seoul (leaving aside the additional costs for Ji-young whom she knows is having difficulty making ends meet) point to Hye-joon’s own sense of neediness and insecurity.

As a result, Ji-young distances herself from her friends, ashamed of her desperation and feeling unable to ask them for help. It is she who finds the cat of the title when she hears it mewing whilst trapped behind debris on her way home. The cat becomes almost a mirror of Ji-young – alone and abandoned on the streets with no one to look after her. Originally, Ji-young tries to give the kitten to Hye-joon as a birthday present only to have it immediately returned. The cat is then passed around among each of the friends looking for a more permanent kind of affection, but finding little in the way of stability.

The longest and most devoted guardian turns out to be Tae-hee who is perhaps most affected by the loss of her friends and changing circumstances. Tae-hee is from a moderately well off middle class family and has been helping out in her father’s business since leaving school (apparently without pay). Despite her lack of worry over material comforts, she finds herself feeling restless and increasingly interested in the “foreign” with dreams of taking off alone for adventures overseas. Her desire for freedom is partly down to her domineering father who simply overrules all of her decisions even down to ordering food in a restaurant. Tae-hee is the only one to reach out to Ji-young when she realises she might be in trouble and is the only one still there for her at the end. Their economic and familial circumstances may be different, but in their desire to escape the confines of the rundown Incheon for something outside of what it might have planned for them, the two girls are a perfect match.

Of the group of friends the twins receive the least attention, hovering on the sidelines, separate from the mini dramas erupting between the insensitive and self obsessed Hye-joo and the increasingly desperate Tae-hee and Ji-young. As a unit of two they have their own little world which seems much happier and more solid than that of any of the other girls and arguably have less need for the immediacy of their old friendships. They are therefore the ideal place to deposit them, in the form of a stray cat finally finding a home. The past has its place – in the past, the memories are warm and fluffy and deserve to be taken care of, but there comes a time you have to surrender full custody and be content to visit from time to time.

An extraordinarily well composed debut feature, Take Care of My Cat has a more European feeling than many a Korean coming of age drama but is filled with realistic detail such as the constant ringing of the girls’ ever present mobile phones and the onscreen representation of their straightforward text based conversation. There’s a kind of sadness associated with the transition from carefree adolescence to the difficult journey into adulthood with each of the girls discovering what it is they want out of life, or more aptly what it is they don’t want. Hye-joo emerges as the quasi-villain of the piece as she makes an obvious, superficial choice to follow the consumerist trend over valuing human relationships though it’s hard not to feel sorry for her when it appears she’s being set up for disappointment. Ending on a note of hopeful uncertainty, Jeong’s debut feature is a hymn to the theme of moving on but is careful to admit the bittersweet quality of a new beginning.


International trailer (English subtitles)