The Age of Success (성공시대, Jang Sun-woo, 1988)

Age of Success still 3“Love only matters when you can sell it” in the nihilistic world of Jang Sun-woo’s The Age of Success (성공시대, Seonggong shidae). The Korea of 1988 was one of increasingly prosperity in which the recently democratised nation looked forward to a new era of freedom, hosting the Olympic Games as a calling card to the world stage. Like everywhere else in the ‘80s however it was also a time in which greed was good, time was money, and compassion was for suckers. Jang’s narcissistic hero worships Hitler and offers a nazi salute to a mockup of a high value note with his own face on it as he leaves for work every morning, but his relentless pursuit of “success” is destined to leave him empty handed when he realises the only commodity he can’t sell is sincerity.

The executives of Yumi Foods, a subsidiary of Mack Gang (Mighty) corporation, are looking for a bright new face through a series of individual interviews. The panel asks each of the prospective new hires to prove their sales ability by convincing them to buy something inconsequential they happen to have in their pockets. Each of the young men fails, until the sharply suited Kim Pan-chok (Ahn Sung-ki), whose name literally means “sales promotion”, dazzles them with a show of intense charisma. He simply offers to sell them whatever is inside his clenched fist. Such is his conviction, the CEO finds himself emptying his wallet, pouring out his credit cards, and eventually borrowing from his friends until Pan-chok is satisfied he’s getting all he could possibly get at point which he opens his fingers and reveals his empty palm. The bosses are annoyed, but quickly convinced by Pan-chok’s explanation that what he’s sold them is “sales spirit” which is, after all, the most valuable thing of all (not to mention exactly what they were looking for). Pan-chok is hired.

Later, we find out that Pan-chok’s routine is an ironic inversion of his childhood trauma. A poor boy abandoned by a mother who became fed up with his father’s fecklessness, he waited alone every day for his dad to come home with something to eat. But his dad was an irresponsible drunkard who could never hold down a job. Like Pan-chok, he held out his fist and told the boy to open his fingers but he was always empty-handed. Hating his father’s incompetence, laziness, alcoholism, and violence, Pan-chok decided that he had to be strong. “Poverty makes you low and pathetic”, he insists. Love, pity, and mercy are for people with no power. “The important thing is to be strong, to win, succeed, possess, and to dominate. Only then will I be happy”.

Pan-chok is a corporate fascist wedded to ultra capitalist ideology in which the only thing that matters is strength and the ability to dominate. He lies, and cheats, and misrepresents himself to pull every underhanded trick in the book to try and get ahead. He goes to war, quite literally, with industry rival Gammi, intent on completely destroying them in order to dominate the market by whatever means possible. Coming up with signature product Agma, he irritably tells his development team that none of their work really matters because the quality of the product is largely irrelevant. Just as in his interview, all Pan-chok is selling is false promise wrapped up in marketing spin. His rival goes on TV to talk the value of tradition to defend himself against a smear campaign Pan-chok has engineered to suggest his products are a health risk, but eventually gets the better of him by playing him at his own game and making a late swing towards ultra modernity.

Pan-chok’s main gambit is seducing a local bar hostess, Song Sobi (Lee Hye-young), lit. “sexual consumption”, and using her as a spy to get info on Gammi’s latest products, but Sobi falls in love with him only to have her heart broken when she realises Pan-chok will discard her when he decides she is no longer useful. He tells her that love is only worth something when you can sell it, but is confounded when she later turns the same logic back on him after selling her charm to seduce the son and heir of the Gammi corporation as a kind of revenge.

Proving that he never learns, Pan-chok’s last big idea is that the only way to beat Gammi’s technological solution is to commodify nature, to repackage and sell back to the people the very things he previously rejected in human sensation. By this point, however, he is so thoroughly discredited that few will listen. His new boss has an MBA from an American university and no time for Pan-chok’s scrappy post-war snake oil salesman tactics. “Only success can set you free”, Pan-chok was fond of saying, but it belied a desperation to escape post-war penury. What he wanted was freedom from hunger, anxiety, and subjugation. He wanted to be a big man, not a small one like his father who always came home empty-handed, so that no one could push him around. What he became was a man without a soul, empty-hearted, consuming himself in pursuit of the consumerist dream. Korea, Jang seems to say, should take note of his lesson.


The Age of Success was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Nambugun: North Korean Partisan in South Korea (南部軍 / 남부군, Chung Ji-young, 1990)

North Korean Partisan in South Korea poster 1Under the intense censorship of South Korea’s military dictatorships, “anti-communism” had become the single most important cultural signifier to the extent that all films were in some sense “anti-communist” even if some were more obviously anti-communist than others. As power shifted away from the dictators and towards a new era of democratic freedom, a more nuanced view of the recent past became possible with the “division film” taking the place of the old-fashioned anti-communist drama. Rather than demonise the North, the division film emphasised the tragedy of partition, painting the two Koreas as equal victims of geopolitical finagling.

Arriving in 1990 shortly after Korea’s democratisation, Chung Ji-young’s Nambugun: North Korean Partisan in South Korea (南部軍 / 남부군, Nambugun) is among the first to directly address the subject of the Korean War from the perspective of the North Korean partisans, albeit obviously from those who eventually came South. Adapting the memoirs of war correspondent Lee Tae, Chung ignores ideology in order to explore the gruelling experience of guerrilla warfare largely being fought by ordinary people with strong convictions rather than by career soldiers or committed revolutionaries.

Lee Tae (Ahn Sung-ki) himself is an “intellectual” North Korean newspaper reporter working as a correspondent in Jeonju which is currently in North Korean occupied territory. When they get word that the Americans and South Korean forces are on their way, the newspaper staff evacuates and eventually ends up heading into the mountains to join the partisans. As he has previous experience, Lee Tae is given command of a platoon and the instruction to try and make up for his bourgeois intellectualism with hard work on the job. To keep them all in one place, Lee is assigned a series of other “intellectual” recruits including conflicted student Kim (Choi Min-soo) who joined the fight to figure out what this “inhuman” war was all about.

One of the reasons Kim is so conflicted is that he brought his hometown, high school-age girlfriend with him and wonders if that was a very responsible thing to do, especially when they are eventually separated by the command chain who decide to send her to headquarters while Kim stays with the troops. Though we are shown that the North Korean soldiers are just ordinary men and women who call each other comrade, the regime itself still comes in for subtle criticism for its oppressive hardline austerity. On the run and separated from his unit, a wounded Lee is accompanied by an earnest nurse, Min-ja (Choi Jin-sil), with whom he falls in love, but when the romance is discovered by a superior officer Lee is taken aside and reminded that here there can be no love, only revolution. He must give all of himself to the cause, reserving nothing for such bourgeois affections as romance. Both Lee and Kim spend the rest of the picture trying and failing to reconnect with their respective women while fantasising about a different kind of life in which they would not have been kept apart.

Yet, despite the fact that we clearly see a world of near total equality among the partisans, it is clear that Lee’s own thinking at least is not quite as progressive as one might assume. Bonding with Min-ja and dreaming of the future, he envisages a life for himself as a reporter in Seoul at which point she asks what she’s supposed to do and receives the answer “have dinner ready for me”.  Min-ja, apparently an orphan whose brother was killed fighting for the South, found herself becoming a field nurse for the North and perhaps has a lower ideological consciousness as a result, freely offering her medical knowledge to anyone who might be in need of it. “Why is it that we’re fighting?” she asks Lee, “you both need me”, embodying the wounded innocence of the one Korea unfairly torn apart by forces beyond its control.

All gusto and determination, Lee and the others start out with pluck and positivity but gradual disillusionment accompanies the shift from the warmth of spring to the dead of winter as the partisans find themselves starving to death on a frozen mountain. Win or lose, the victory belongs to the US or USSR, one particularly dejected soldier intones laying bare his loss of faith in the primacy of North Korean communism and accepting that they are all playthings in a proxy war being fought by Koreans on Korean soil. Kim fails to find “meaning” in conflict and emerges only with shame and regret while others clutch at pamphlets dropped by the Americans promising an amnesty for those who surrender willingly. Lee trudges on alone, frostbitten and starving, encountering only the dead and finally contemplating suicide only to be given one last source of hope and to have that too crushed. Chung humanises the communists, but still they have to lose in the spiritual as well as the literal sense. Ending on a howl of existential despair, the film dedicates itself to all those on both sides who fell on Jirisan or sacrificed their lives for a vision of a better world but does so with pity more than admiration for all that they suffered as victims of their times.


Nambugun: North Korean Partisan in South Korea was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Ticket (티켓, Im Kwon-taek, 1986)

Ticket posterThe times may have changed but the double standard is still very much in existence in Im Kwon-taek’s Ticket (티켓). Set in a tabang ticket bar – a delivery coffee establishment in which customers may by “tickets” for unspecified “services”, Ticket follows five ordinary women in Kangwon Province who’ve found themselves trapped in the world of casual sex work for various different reasons but each dreaming of finding something better in the difficult mid-80s economy.

Im opens with stern madam Ji-suk (Kim Ji-Mi) selecting three pretty girls from an employment office to work at her bar in rural Kangwon Province. As she explains, the cafe is located in a quiet port town and mainly caters to seamen and tourists. Ji-suk views refinement as one of her selling points and so she expects her ladies to mind their manners and avoid vulgarity. The girls were given an advance on their wages as a signing bonus, but are technically indentured servants until they pay it off which may take some time seeing as Ji-suk is fond of adding fines onto their accounts should they break any of her rules or request any additional advances for work related expenses such as medical fees, clothing, or cosmetics.

While two of the new recruits, Miss Hong (Lee Hye-young) and Miss Yang (Ahn So-young), have had experience of this type of work before, Se-yeong (Jeon Se-yeong) is much younger and struggles to come to terms with the nature of the job, frequently incurring Ji-suk’s wrath by running out on clients who get fresh. Miss Ju (Myeong Hui), who has been working at the tabang for three years with ballooning debts, tries to warn the girls that in order to avoid her mistakes they should abide by three rules – cash only, no mercy, and no repeats. All quite sensible rules in theory but difficult to enforce in practice.

Unlike Miss Hong and Miss Yang who’ve come from impoverished rural backgrounds, Se-yeong is from Seoul but has found herself responsible not only for her immediate family but also for her down on his luck student boyfriend Min-su (Choi Dong-joon) who is currently studying to become a teacher but struggling to support himself. Min-su, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, hasn’t quite figured out that the girls don’t really just deliver coffee but in any case remains conflicted over his dependence on Se-yeong for money. Still struggling to accommodate herself to sex work, Se-yeong eventually decides to seduce a friendly sea captain as a means of easing herself into it while also trying to get Min-su a job on his boat.

Meanwhile, Miss Yang dreams of becoming an actress and is naive enough to think sleeping with a famous actor will help, and Miss Hong concentrates on being the best but usually ends up getting herself into trouble. Miss Ju, a divorcee, misses her son while Jin-suk turns out to have a sad story of her own in which she was driven into sex work after her husband, a dissident poet, was picked up by the authorities in less liberal times. Unable to bear the shame she left him, but still harbours hope he may find her again only to have that hope cruelly dashed with the stark message that life is like a bus – if you miss it, it won’t come back for you. Each of these women has, in a sense, already missed a bus and is stuck in Kangwon for the foreseeable future with no clear way out.

Though Jin-suk seemed the toughest and the least sentimental of the ladies, it’s she who wants “forgiveness” most of all which is perhaps why she goes to the trouble of taking Min-su to task for his unreasonable treatment of Se-yeong. Pointing out that nobody chooses this way of life freely, Jin-suk snaps on realising that there really are no sympathetic men and all now view her and her girls as “dirty” while continuing to use their services. Im closes with an improbably happy ending, if ambiguously, which promises a more positive future for each of our ladies as they manage to find ways out of the rural sex industry and into something more hopeful but even this abrupt tonal shift only serves to reinforce the miraculous nature of their sudden opportunities in a society which appears to remain hostile to their very existence.


Ticket was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

I Have a Date with Spring (나와 봄날의 약속, Baek Seung-bin, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

I have a date with springIf the world was going to end tomorrow, which of your many anxieties would you most like to ease before you go? I Have a Date with Spring ( 나와 봄날의 약속, Nawa Bomnalui Yaksok) is, as its name suggests, a hopeful tale despite its apocalyptic pretence as its lonely film director hero learns to accept the looming presence of death in order to move beyond his creative block. He may need aliens and the promise of knowledge from beyond our world to do it, but in contemplating the many ways in which modern life is unsatisfactory, he can perhaps begin to envisage a world in which it might not be so bad to live.

Depressed director Lee Gwi-dong (Kang Ha-Neul) hasn’t made a film in 10 years. The last decade has seen him struggling with the same script, an apocalyptic tale of the end of the world in which three unhappy individuals are visited by omniscient aliens to help them celebrate their birthdays which happen to fall on the day before the Earth will be destroyed. Sitting in a forest on his own birthday, reminding us that he came here to work and not to die, Gwi-dong is shocked to receive a visitation from four mysterious campers, one of whom claims to be a fan of his earlier work.

The picture Gwi-dong (and by extension Baek Seung-bin) paints of modern Korean society is one marked by extreme loneliness and existential isolation. The death obsessed director is currently sporting a large cast on his arm apparently a result of an act of self harm committed in frustration regarding his own sense of disconnection and personal failure. The three “heroes” of his tales within a tale are all also shy, lonely, and increasingly withdrawn, no longer interested in finding escape from their personal imprisonment. A dreamy high school girl longs for the destruction of the world while a middle-aged professor laments his missed opportunities for romance and a harried housewife feels both guilt and regret in remembering she was once the leader of a militant feminist movement back in college.

Each of them is, like Gwi-dong, “celebrating” a birthday but due to their specific personal circumstances they are each celebrating alone as those close to them are either absent or have entirely forgotten. The aliens, not revealing the imminent destruction of the planet, promise each of them something special in return for trust and time but the gifts they deliver are perhaps not altogether welcome despite their original appearance. The lonely high school girl bonds with the middle-aged alien over a shared sense of childish glee in monsters and adventure, relieved simply to hear the word “friend” but still unsure whether she should trust him and follow his instructions. Meanwhile the housewife, ignored at home by her noisy child and indifferent husband, is glad to be recognised once again and have the power of her youth literally returned to her in the form of a gun but remains unsure if she should use it. The professor, on the other hand, is corrupted by his original encounter but grateful for his “mother’s” gift and commits himself to living fully and finding love despite the potential risks.

As the mysterious older lady at the campsite tells Gwi-dong, we’re all doomed anyway so we might as well go nicely, beautifully – if we can. Through each of his various stories, Gwi-dong learns to see the presence of death, the end of all things, as not such a bad thing after all. It will come, bidden not, and so there seems little point in worrying about it now. Suddenly his creative world expands. No longer thinking only of death he conjures hundreds of other universes each filled with their own stories, certain that one day “spring will come”. Oddly optimistic for a film about the end of the world, I Have a Date with Spring makes the case for reaching out in a sometimes cold world even if it risks being devoured by strange space crabs or suddenly developing painful boils (tiny bubbles of love?) all over your body. You have to go sometime, so you might just as well sit back and see what happens. The Earth is a beautiful place, enjoy it while it lasts.


I Have a Date With Spring was screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

International trailer (English captions/subtitles)