Believer (독전, Lee Hae-young, 2018)

Believer posterJohnnie To’s darkly comical tale of a weaselly meth cook with an extremely strong survival instinct and the austere policeman who can’t resist taking his bait might seem perfectly primed for a Korean remake in its innate pessimism and awkward bromance. Lee Hae-young’s Believer (독전, Dokjeon), however, merely borrows the bones of To’s Drug War while doubling down on its central conceit as reckless obsession leads to the undoing of both our heroes, each forced to confront the futility of their respective, mutually dependent quests.

Obsessed with tracking down a mysterious drug lord known only as “Mr. Lee”, narcotics cop Won-ho (Cho Jin-woong) asks a favour from an old informant only to see her murdered, leaving him only a vague clue by tracing an infinity symbol on a crumpled receipt moments before passing away. Warned off the Mr. Lee case, Won-ho finally gets a lead when an explosion at a drug lab brings scorned righthand woman Oh (Kim Sung-ryung) into his office promising to spill the beans in return for protection and immunity. Sadly, Won-ho couldn’t protect her either, but there was another unexpected survivor in the form of low level middleman Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol).

Traumatised by the death of his mother in the same explosion, Rak initially says nothing under interrogation but suddenly wakes up on learning that the lab’s dog also survived and has been rescued by the police. Unlike the “hero” of To’s film, Rak is small fry (if well connected) and is not looking at anything more than significant prison time. Rak may not be fighting for his life but he has a number of reasons for switching sides, especially once Won-ho fills him in on Mr. Lee’s backstory and long history of abrupt purges.

Despite working for the organisation, neither Oh nor Rak had ever met “Mr. Lee”. No one knows anything about them – gender, nationality, name, or location. In fact, there may not even be a Mr. Lee. Perhaps “Mr. Lee” is merely the “god” of drug dealers – an abstract idea almost given flesh but existing in a spiritual sense alone. Nevertheless, the idea of a Mr. Lee has completely captured the heart of compassionate police detective Won-ho whose all encompassing need to find him has already severely destabilised his life. After failing to protect his informant, Won-ho’s complaint against Mr. Lee is now a personal as well as professional one. Not so much out of vengeance (though there is that too), but a need to make the deaths count and his mounting losses meaningful.

Yet as another Mr. Lee contender later puts it, salvation may not be a matter of faith and if your faith has been misplaced, death may be a healing. In believing so deeply in the idea of “Mr. Lee”, Won-ho has given him form and created an idol to be worshipped through devotion. “Brian” (Cha Seung-won), a higher ranking gangster and former preacher chased out of the US for getting his congregation hooked on cocaine, has his own particular brand of faith based problems but subscribes to much the same philosophy. He may really be Mr. Lee (as may anyone), but if he isn’t he’s determined to convince himself he is in order to see himself as something more than the failed son of a chaebol dad who couldn’t hack it in the family business or in the pulpit. Brian would be happy to die as Mr. Lee rather than going on living as “himself”. Won-ho, unable to understand why kids do drugs asks his informant who explains it’s mostly because life is rubbish. Later someone says something similar to Brian, that he’d rather delude himself with the belief that he’s “someone” rather than face the emptiness.

Despite himself, and as Rak is eager to remind him, Won-ho is dependent on his informant for the pursuit of his case. Won-ho is reluctant to trust him even though Rak seems to be actively working to protect him in this extremely dangerous and largely unfamiliar world. Rak, by contrast, is aware he hasn’t won Won-ho’s faith, but assures him that’s OK because Rak trusts him. Rak does indeed seem to have the upper hand along with mysterious motivations and a fishy backstory, but Won-ho’s desperation to get close to Mr. Lee leaves him wide-open, unwilling to trust his guide but too invested to consider cutting him loose. “Belief” becomes its own drug, a transformative ritual act which gradually erodes all other needs and leaves only emptiness in their place. Won-ho can’t even remember why he started chasing Mr. Lee, but all that remains of him is the chase – a true believer suddenly bereft of a cause. Lee Hae-young takes To’s nihilistic cynicism and subverts it with a focus on the personal as both men fight self created images of their individual demons but find themselves unable to escape from their mutually assured identities.


Believer was screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Confidential Assignment (공조, Kim Sung-hoon, 2017)

confidential assignmentSouth Korean cinema has a fairly ambivalent attitude to its policemen. Most often, detectives are a bumbling bunch who couldn’t find the killer even if he danced around in front of them shouting “it was me!” whereas street cops are incompetent, lazy, and cowardly. That’s aside from their tendency towards violence and corruption but rarely has there been a policeman who gets himself into trouble solely for being too nice and too focussed on his family. Confidential Assignment (공조, Gongjo), though very much a mainstream action/buddy cop movie, is somewhat unusual in this respect as it pairs a goofy if skilled and well-meaning South Korean police officer, with an outwardly impassive yet inwardly raging North Korean special forces operative.

In the South, Gang (Yu Hae-jin) is hot on the trail of a suspect he’s been chasing for quite some time but just as he’s finally about to catch him, his phone starts ringing. The cute ringtone featuring a little girl’s voice saying “daddy, pick up – don’t pretend to be working” is impossible to ignore and so Gang answers, chats to his daughter, and lets the suspect get away. In the dog house at work, Gang winds up with all the rubbish jobs before finally being saddled with a “special assignment” – babysitting a North Korean policeman as part of a collaborative detail chasing a possible defector/dangerous criminal the North are keen to drag back home for possibly inhumane treatment.

The Northerner, Lim (Hyun Bin), has his own reasons for chasing the criminal in that he is the only surviving member of a squad wiped out when a superior officer decided to go rogue and run off with a set of plates for printing counterfeit money. The North need the plates back, but Lim’s motives are personal more than merely patriotic and what he wants is vengeance for the death of someone close to him rather than protecting the embarrassing secret of North Korea’s counterfeit currency conspiracy.

For obvious reasons neither of the two men is able to trust the other but the confusion and suspicion is only increased by Gang’s total lack of knowledge about the case. All he knows is that they’re looking for a defector – no more, no less. Lim isn’t happy about having a South Korean cop getting in his way and quickly ditches him as soon as possible only for Gang to turn on his ace detective abilities and eventually end up at the same place through policeman’s instinct. Gradually a sort of grudging camaraderie builds up between the two as they’re forced to spend more time together and their odd couple buddy cop antics become the film’s main draw.

Lim, knowing nothing of life in the South yet suspicious of Gang, goes along with some of Gang’s goofier attempts to rein him in such as extended gag in which he gets him to put on an ankle bracelet by telling him that it’s a secret detective’s badge, reassuring him that his is in the cleaners, only for him to meet another suspicious type out on the road. So that he can keep track of him better, Gang’s superiors order him to take Lim home so he can watch him day and night much to the consternation of his wife but delight of his slightly younger sister-in-law who is instantly smitten by Lim’s chiseled features. Lim reacts to all of this with obvious vigilance but comes to like and respect Gang’s family who eventually welcome him into their home without reservation, even taking pains to try cooking North Korean food when he appears reluctant to join them at mealtimes.

Never quite engaging with the political subtext, Confidential Assignment is less about North/South co-operation than it is about complementary skills and the creation of an unexpectedly complete buddy cop unit. Gang is instantly impressed (and a little scared) by Lim’s obvious physical capabilities as he leaps from high balconies and fights off a whole room of bad guys armed only with soggy toilet roll, but Lim also comes to respect Gang’s bravery, kindness, and dedication to his family. Confidential Assignment might not be the most nuanced cinematic portrayal of North/South relations but its good-natured warmth, silly comedy, and impressively staged action scenes make it one of the most entertaining.


Confidential Assignment was screened as part of the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Himalayas (히말라야, Lee Suk-hoon, 2015)

HimalayasBecause it’s there. As good a reason as any for doing anything but these were the only three words of explanation offered by George Mallory in answer to the question “Why climb Everest?”. In Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, the heroine reacts in a similarly philosophical fashion when asked “Why do you want to dance?” replying with the question “Why do you want to live?”. What makes some people prepared to dance until their feet bleed and their toes break, and sends others to the peaks of snowcapped mountains staring death in the face as they go, is something which cannot be fully explained in words but cannot be denied by those who hear its calling.

Korea’s most well known mountain climber, Um Hong-gil (Hwang Jung-min), was undoubtedly one who heard the call and The Himalayas (히말라야) is his story (more or less). Based on his real life exploits, the film charts his continuing successes as an international climber until a foot injury forces him to remain on a more usual altitude, but the real heart of the story is in his growing relationship with rookie Moo-taek (Jung Woo) who’s every bit as fearless as he is. Together the pair scale the peaks of the world’s highest mountain ranges until it’s finally time for Hong-gil to hang up his pick and keep his feet on the ground for good.

However, tragedy strikes as one of Hong-gil’s closest friends is suddenly killed after getting caught in an unexpected storm. The mountain ranges of the world are littered with the corpses of unfortunate climbers who got into difficulty and couldn’t be rescued. The bodies remain where they fell, becoming one with mountain itself in a lonely climbers graveyard, frozen and perfect for eternity. Risking your own life to retrieve the lifeless body of a friend may seem like a perverse, irrational thing to do, yet understandable. Wracked with guilt and grief, Hong-gil assembles a team and embarks on a sentimental journey to bring his friend home, and, ironically, learn to let him go.

What starts off as a sports movie with its training sequences and tough coach inspires maverick rookie routine branches off into the classic expeditionary adventure format before falling into its unexpected home genre – the melodrama. Though in one sense a kind of biopic, the realm aim is to get those tears rolling as these brave men and women risk all for glory and comradeship in pushing the limits of the human condition far past their breaking points.

Hong-gil himself is, despite his gruff exterior, a dreamer and idealist in love with the soulful purity of the mountains. His is a journey of self discovery as he tells us that there is no pretence when it comes to mountain climbing. When you’re up there alone, just you and the vast snow covered emptiness, all of your masks and defences fall away. Hong-gil climbs the mountain to explore landscape of his own mind. He also objects to the often uttered phrase “conquer” a mountain as he believes the mountain gives you permission to ascend making this way of thinking disrespectful and even likens the mountain itself to woman when bemoaning Moo-taek’s pointlessly noble romantic gesture by stating that you don’t conquer the “mountain” you console it.

For all that, the real world is ever present as we see in one particularly awkward marketing pitch in which Hong-gil is trotted out as a model to have the prospective sponsor’s logo plastered all over him in the hopes that they will fund an expedition. When someone raises the very sensible point that this could look very bad for them should one of the climbers die with their logo on their chest, the marketing guys slowly start peeling them all off – velcro solves everything, it seems.

The team also becomes a marketing tool for their nation, carrying the Korean flag around with them for any photo opportunities which might present themselves. When tragedy strikes and the remainder of the Korean expeditionary group refuse to go after their fallen friend (the right and practical decision given the weather conditions and the low probability of success), base camp puts out a message over the radio in English pleading for help. The British contingent continue with their crosswords and cups of tea, steadfastly ignoring the emotional mayday call. The Chinese at least begin reassuring each other that it’s far too dangerous to contemplate.

The Himalayas begins as a comedy but the laughs fall away once the tears start rolling. Though it may affect a poetic tone the philosophical meandering is generally at the service of the melodrama which is very much underpinned by male bonding, pride, honour, debt and responsibility. Hong-gil’s “Human Expedition” is one of grief stricken madness but a perfectly understandable one in which he both needs to atone for “abandoning” his mountaineering brother and come to terms with the fact that the death zone has claimed another sacrifice. Often impressively filmed, The Himalayas suffers from its extremely melodramatic, sentimental tone which is only exacerbated by the intrusion of its loud and syrupy score. Anchored by strong performances from its leading players including Hwang Jung-min as the tough yet sensitive Hong-gil and Jung Woo as the young firebrand Moo-taek, The Himalayas spends too long at the destination rather than on the journey and ultimately fails to make either its character drama or expeditionary environment sufficiently engaging.


Seen as part of a teaser programme for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival 2016.

US release trailer:

Black House (검은집, Shin Terra, 2007)

Black House (korea)Yusuke Kishi’s Black House source novel was previously adapted by Yoshimitsu Morita in its native Japan back in 1999, but eight years later the tale made its way to Korea by way of director Shin Terra who opts for a much more straightforward approach than Morita’s characteristically bizarre take. Sold as K-horror, the tone is closer to nasty thriller only giving way to classic slasher action in the final stretch. In eschewing Morita’s idiosyncratic tendency to insert himself into the material, Shin crafts a more mainstream aesthetic, but loses the various layers of social and psychological commentary that went with it.

Juno (Hwang Jung-min) is a mild mannered insurance clerk, new on the job and extremely naive. His first case involves a visit to a hospital with his boss to visit a persistent claimant whom they believe is deliberately scamming the system and possibly with the hospital’s help. In many way, Juno is an innocent, he believed in insurance as a safety net and a power for social good so he’s shocked that anyone would deliberately manipulate the rules in this way – particularly when he discovers some people will go so far as to deliberately maim themselves just to claim on their insurance policies.

Not long after he starts working at the company, Juno gets a strange phone call from a man asking if insurance policies pay out in case of suicide. It’s possible, Juno says – he’ll need to check the policy to make sure. Suddenly worried the person he’s talking to is in a dark place, he starts trying to dissuade him from the idea of taking his own life and unwisely gives a lot of first hand advice despite the highlighted section in his employee guide cautioning him never to reveal personal information to clients. Soon enough, a client has asked for him personally to go out to their remote house and chat about a policy, When he gets there he receives a nasty surprise as the man’s young son has apparently “hanged himself” in the back room. Appalled, Juno waits to greet the police but becomes convinced the man has deliberately killed the boy, who was his step-son, to get the payout on his life insurance.

Juno refuses the claim but Choong-bae, the claimant, won’t give up and starts coming to the office everyday to ask for his money. Choong-bae is a scary looking guy and frightens most of the other staff with his vacant staring. He also has an insurance policy on his wife leading Juno to fear that she is next but his decision to try and alert her to her husband’s plans will prove a mistaken one, drawing him into the web of a dangerous and psychopathic serial killer.

Shin’s adaptation is most likely closer to the original novel but he is far less interested in the psychological or social implications than Morita was. There is no explanation offered for the actions of the killer though the childhood sequences with their reliance on dreams and hearsay remain intact, only with lesser impact. The question of insurance fraud and scamsters, people so desperate for money that they will literally sacrifice an arm or a leg, only exists as background and isn’t presented as a societal problem so much as just something that happens because there are some shameless people out there who would rather play the system than do an honest days work. Juno has also been given his own tragic backstory which tries to play him off as a mirror of the killer though somehow this never quite works and Juno’s own flashbacks are overplayed.

Beginning as a slow burn thriller where Juno plays the nervous, softhearted neophyte as yet uninured to the murkiness of the insurance world, Black House (검은집, Geomeun Jip) takes a huge detour during the final third which sends it into slasher territory when Juno decides to travel to the titular Black House, alone, during the middle of the night, because the police won’t listen to him and there are people in danger. When he gets there he finds a veritable house of horrors with body parts and nooses hanging from the ceiling, blood and carnage everywhere. Then it’s a straightforward fight to the death as Juno faces off against the psychopathic terror despite his nervous disposition culminating in some unexpectedly gory business with a key.

Like most slasher movies, Black House has several endings and finishes on a note of uncertainty but it never quite manages to make its sudden descent into violence work in its favour. Lacking the depth of Morita’s adaptation, Shin’s Black House may have stronger genre influences but with nothing to back them up all that remains at the end is a darker than usual serial killer tale with mild slasher tendencies. A decent enough mainstream thriller, Black House has a lot to offer despite stumbling in its final third but nevertheless lacks a distinctive element to mark it out from similarly themed genre efforts of recent times.


Unsubbed trailer: