Maggie (메기, Yi Ok-seop, 2018)

Maggie poster 1“When we fall into a pit, what we need to do, is not dig any further but quickly climb out” according to a mysterious post-it discovered by a nurse when picking up the laundry (apparently inexpertly performed by her preferred cleaning service). The aphorism turns out to belong to Doctor Lee (Moon So-ri), the head physician at Love of Maria hospital where the titular Maggie (메기), a catfish, lives in a small tank observing the life around her and sometimes predicting earthquakes and other earth shattering events. A surrealist odyssey across the “pitfalls” of modern society, Yi Ok-seop’s quirky debut feature ponders the ramifications of distance as her various heroes weigh up the nature of “truth” as an absolutist concept.

Narrated by Maggie, the drama begins when the radiographer and her boyfriend are unexpectedly snapped during an intimate moment in the X-Ray room. The picture is then stolen and held up for everyone to see, at which point nurse Yoon-young (Lee Joo-young) worries that she and her boyfriend Sung-won (Koo Kyo-hwan) have been caught out using the privacy of the X-ray booth for unintended purposes. As Maggie says, no one pays much attention to who took the photo only to who might be in it, which is why the entire hospital, except Doctor Lee, ring in sick the next day with only Yoon-young turning up in the morning with the intention to resign. Figuring out what must have happened (and seeing as she’s the only one not embarrassed we can guess who took the photo), Doctor Lee is very upset to realise that the entirety of her staff has probably lied to her. With her intense belief in humanity shaken, Doctor Lee decides to engage in a trust game with her new best friend, Nurse Yoon-young, and simply choose to believe what they’re told, testing their hypothesis by visiting a random employee to verify if they really are “sick”.

Meanwhile, as a result of the earthquakes Maggie intermittently predicts,  mysterious sinkholes have begun appearing all over the nation. This is good news in one sense because it provides lots of extra work for otherwise unoccupied young men like Sung-won who have lost out in Korea’s insanely competitive economy. Like Sung-won, the other men on his team are also well-educated types who otherwise wouldn’t be considering manual work and are hoping for something better once the sinkhole business finally clears up. Mistrust, however, also works its way into their relationship when Sung-won loses a precious white gold ring given to him by Yoon-young, later becoming convinced that one of his colleagues has swiped it.

The loss of the ring leads to an increasing unease between Yoon-young and her boyfriend which is deepened by a visit from Sung-won’s ex who suggests there may have been problems in their relationship which she feels Yoon-young ought to be aware of. Though Sung-won seems sweet natured and laidback, never having acted in any way that would have given Yoon-young cause for concern, she begins to doubt him – suddenly worried by his overly violent crushing of a can out in the street. Doctor Lee’s advice is to simply ask Sung-won directly if the accusations are true, but Yoon-young can’t seem to do it and continues living along side him somewhat resentfully as she eventually comes to the decision to “believe” her friend at face value without investigating further.

“The truth cannot exist wholesomely”, according to Maggie’s “father” (Kwon Hae-hyo). It will always be polluted by self-interest and personal bias. As Doctor Lee says, there will always be people who believe you and people who don’t, so perhaps a healthy level of cynicism is something you need to accept in order to go on living in the world. Even Love of Maria Hospital is not immune to the disease of misrepresentation – a former convent given over as a place of healing it was later bought by an arch capitalist and is now run as a private hospital business (not that it appears to have many “customers”), despite Doctor Lee’s rather amusing ad which proclaims it “of the patients, by the patients, for the patients”.

Finally Yoon-young concedes she’ll need to simply ask Sung-won about his past and gets an honest response, but his honesty only seems to see him falling into a deep pit of despair, calling out from the bottom in the hope of being understood. A surreal exploration of contemporary social woes from the rabidly capitalist society to the growing distance between people in an increasingly interconnected age, Maggie attempts to find the emotional honesty sweet spot but discovers that trust, like everything else, is a complicated business.


Maggie screens on 13th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival. It will also be screening as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival on 17th/18th July.

Interview with director Yi Ok-seop from the Busan International Film Festival

Miss Baek (미쓰백, Lee Ji-won, 2018)

Miss baek posterIn one sense we’ve never been more connected to one another, but our tendency to remain inside our own solipsistic bubbles has never been higher. We ignore those in need, confident that “someone” will do something, that it isn’t our responsibility. Then again perhaps we don’t even notice. It’s freezing cold in director Lee Ji-won’s debut feature Miss Baek (미쓰백) and a little girl is sitting outside in her nightie. No one takes very much interest her even though it’s far too late for a child to be out alone. That is, until the titular Miss Baek (Han Ji-min) overcomes her own sense of alienation and decides to look back.

Now in her mid-30s, Baek Sang-ah is an aloof, near silent woman who ekes out a living through a series of casual jobs from car washing to massage. She is in a kind of relationship with a kindly policeman, Jang-sub (Lee Hee-joon), who wants to marry her, but Sang-ah has long ago ruled out the idea of marriage and family. She never wanted to be someone’s wife or mother. Sang-ah says this not (entirely) because she values her independence, but because of a legacy of trauma and abandonment born of the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother who fell into depression and alcoholism following the loss of her husband. Fearing becoming another link in a long chain of abuse passed from parent to child, Sang-ha has kept herself isolated, avoiding all intimate relationships and vowing to continue on alone causing harm to no one.

One winter day, however, she can’t walk past the girl in the nightie anymore. Taking her to a nearby food stall, Sang-ha finds out the girl’s name is Ji-eun (Kim Si-a) and she’s nine years old. Just as Sang-ha is beginning to ask about the cuts and bruises on Ji-eun’s hands and feet, a well dressed woman who turns out to be her father’s girlfriend arrives and whisks the girl away. Sang-ha tries to forget about her and go on with her life, but she can’t seem to do it. Buying Ji-eun some proper winter wear, she resolves to try and help the girl the way that no one tried to help her.

There is something particularly insidious in the continuous stream of injustice and mistreatment Sang-ha and Ji-eun find themselves subject to precisely because of their lack of social power. Children, most obviously, have no mechanism to defend themselves besides their parents and should they try to speak out against them, they may not be listened to. Managing to escape, Ji-eun tried to tell the police what her parents were doing to her but they sent her home with only a mild warning to her smirking step-mother that she’d best ease back on the “discipline”. Understandably, Ji-eun doesn’t have much faith in the authorities as a source of salvation. Sang-ha experienced much the same but her oppression continued on into adulthood when she was arrested for violently defending herself against a would-be-rapist who happened to be the son of a wealthy and connected man who used his status to do as he pleased while Sang-ah went to jail. Sang-ha’s prison record comes back to bite her again when she tries to talk to the police on Ji-eun’s behalf only for them to lay into her when they eventually run her file.

Meanwhile, Ji-eun’s step-mother Mi-kyung (Kwon So-hyun) is well turned out and scrupulously polite. She has a plausible answer for everything and a talent for middle-class respectability, even crying during church services. Her father Il-gon (Baek Soo-jang), by contrast, is addicted to video games and rarely leaves the house while little Ji-eun is often locked in the bathroom where she cowers under the sink, or cast out onto the balcony in the mild hope that she’ll freeze to death. The only reason Mi-kyung has been keeping her around is the welfare payments, but they’re about to stop. Both “parents” project all of their personal resentments onto the face of a nine year old girl whom they beat, starve, and torture for no discernible reason other than they don’t know any other way to behave.

Ji-eun’s father was also beaten as a child. He wonders where the police were then and what sort of life they think Ji-eun is going to have when she too grew up like this. Sang-ah’s desire to save Ji-eun is also a desire to save herself as she contemplates maternity from both sides in revisiting the complicated relationship with her own mother while wondering if she is a fit person to care for a child with such poor models to follow. She doubts she can break the chain and free Ji-eun from a seemingly inescapable system of abuse and violence but through her deepening attachment to the little girl Sang-ha begins to find a way through her inertia and fear of intimacy to a deeper and more positive connection. A gritty yet always open and empathetic look at an all too often hidden social problem, Miss Baek is a promising and important debut from Lee Ji-won which refuses to look away from the dark and unpalatable but finds hope in the power of simple human kindness against cruelty and indifference.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

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.

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)

A Quiet Dream (춘몽, Zhang Lu, 2016)

Review of Zhang Lu’s A Quiet Dream (춘몽, Chun-mong) first published by UK Anime Network.


A North Korean defector, a lonely orphan, and a nerdy landlord walk into a bar but also, perhaps, into a dream or several dreams in Zhang Lu’s latest chronicle of lovelorn city dwellers and their eccentric days of tiresome banality. Dreams, reality, and wish fulfilment mingle freely in this run down land of cheerful hopelessness populated by the displaced and permanently fugitive. Zhang’s film is as elusive as it is melancholy but offers its painful meditations with good humour and kindness even if it sees little possibility of escape.

Everyone is in love with pretty barmaid, Yeri (Han Ye-ri). Yeri bears this with good grace as she divides her attentions equally between her three suitors, nervous landlord Jong-bin (Yoon Jong-bin), petty criminal Ik-june (Yang Ik-june), and sorrowful North Korean defector Jung-bum (Park Jung-bum). Having come to Korea as a teenager after her mother died, Yeri tracked down her estranged father only for him to suffer a serious illness requiring round the clock care soon after. When she’s not serving drinks or looking after dad, Yeri spends her time with the three guys, drinking, visiting the Korean Film Archive, or chatting with the romantic teenage poetess (Lee Joo-young) so obviously, painfully, in love with her that Yeri is able to do little other than ignore it in an attempt to let her down gently.

Dreamscape aside, the problems each of the protagonists is facing is real enough. Yeri’s life yields its own sorrows as her heartfelt rendition of Li Bai’s famous ode to homesickness makes plain as do her frequent references to her mother and the quest for a mysterious crater bound lake. Having lost a mother and found a father she loses again when he is taken ill and she is left to care for a man she barely knew in the most intimate of ways. Her burden is a heavy one and her dreams filled with the idea of abandoning it as her father’s wheelchair careers emptily down the hill on which they live. A visit to a fortune teller proves far from reassuring when he informs her that her father will live a long life, but abruptly changes the subject when it comes to a more personal projection.

The three guys could almost be aspects of her own personality turning up to haunt her but each of Yeri’s men (as she later describes them) is battling his own kind of despair. Jung-bum’s is the most pronounced as he battles bipolar disorder and possible PTSD from North Korean labour camps. A refugee with no one to protect him, Jung-bum falls victim to workplace exploitation only be fired because his eyes are “too sad” and it’s bringing his boss down. Ik-june, kinder than anyone gives him credit for, thinks he can help him through his gangland godfather “Mr. Jellyfish” but Ik-june can’t decide how far he really wants to be in the criminal underworld and is in disgrace after laughing at a funeral. Jong-bim lays claim to control over everything in sight as he’s “the landlord” only it’s his father who actually owns the land and Jong-bim is arrested in an almost adolescent sense of powerlessness.

Nevertheless, their days are ones of gentle dreaming as the guys push their luck but refuse to compete for the love of Yeri, preferring to share the unique light she seems to bring into their darkened world. Dreams and reality flow into one another without thought or warning leaving each indistinct as Yeri dances drunkenly on a rooftop only to turn around and find her trio of suitors disappeared, though the surreal characters which people the city including an old lady who collects cans, bottles and cardboard to place outside an old wardrobe on the side of the road which she uses “to pray” might make “reality” a difficult thing to believe in in any case.

Purgatorial as their existence is, the melancholy collective seem to find a comforting symbiosis in their personal miseries. Filming through mirrors and opaque curtains Zhang rejects any idea of certainty or concrete realities. The Chinese characters which accompany the film’s original title effectively mean “short lived illusion”, lending a poetic air to the otherwise surreal goings on, painting this greyed out land as a temporary container for eternal woes. At the film’s end we either wake up or fall asleep, or perhaps merely exchange one dream for another but despite all of the heartache and desperation this strange world is one defined by warmth and basic human goodness.


A Quiet Dream was screened as part of a teaser programme for the London Korean Film Festival. The next screening in the series will be E Oni’s Missing at Picturehouse Central on April 10, 2017. Tickets on sale now directly from Picturehouse.

Original trailer (English subtitles)