The Book of Fish (자산어보, Lee Joon-ik, 2021)

An “evil learning sinner” and a young man fixated on Neo-Buddhist thought develop an unlikely friendship while compiling an encyclopaedia about sea life in Lee Joon-ik’s contemplative period drama, The Book of Fish (자산어보, Jasaneobo). Like those of Hur Jin-ho’s Forbidden Dream, the hero of Lee’s historical tale of competing ideologies dreams of a classless future but is exiled from mainstream society not for his revolutionary rejection of a Confucianist hierarchal society but for his embrace of Western learning and religion. 

Like his two brothers, Chung Yak-jeon (Sol Kyung-gu) reluctantly joins the imperial court but later falls foul of intrigue when the progressive king falls only to be replaced by his underage son controlled by the more conservative dowager empress. Having converted to Christianity, Yak-jeon and his brothers are faced with execution but unexpectedly reprieved when the oldest agrees to renounce Catholicism and root out other secret Christians. Yak-jeon is then exiled to a remote island while his better known brother, the poet Yak-yong (Ryu Seung-ryong), is sent to the mountains. On his arrival, the local governor introduces Yak-jeon as a “traitor” and instructs the islanders not to be too friendly with him but island people do not have it in them to be unjustly unkind and so Yak-jeon is, if warily, welcomed into their community. “He maybe be a traitor, but he’s still a guest” his new landlady (Lee Jung-eun) explains as she prepares him some of the local seafood. 

Yet Yak-jeon encounters resistance from an unexpected source, intellectual fisherman Chang-dae (Byun Yo-han) who goes to great lengths to acquire scholarly books despite his otherwise low level of education. Somewhat patronisingly, Yak-jeong offers to tutor him, but Chang-dae is a rigid thinker who believes the world is going to hell because people have forgotten their Confucian ideals so he’s no desire to be taught by a treacherous “evil learner” or be sucked in to his dangerous Catholicism. Surprisingly, however, for a man who risked death rather than renounce his religion, Yak-jeong is no fanatic and in fact does not appear to practice Christianity at any point while living on the island. What he professes is that Eastern and Western thought need not be enemies but can go hand in hand while a rigid adherence to any particular doctrine is what constitutes danger. 

Chang-dae had insisted that he studied “to become a better human” but he also has a large class chip on his shoulder as the illegitimate son of a nobleman who refuses to acknowledge him, fully aware that as a “lowborn” man he is not allowed to take the civil service exam and in any case would not have the money to buy his way in to the court. Despite later professing egalitarianism, Yak-jeong treats the islanders, and particular Chang-dae, with a degree of superiority extremely irritated by Chang-dae’s refusal to become his pupil in the slight of his elite status often making reference to his “low birth”. Confessing his desire for a classless society with no emperor, however, Yak-jeong encounters unexpected resistance as the young man finds it impossible to envisage a world free of social hierarchy based on rights of birth and swings back towards desiring the approval of his elite father in the determination to climb the ladder rather than pull it down. 

Chang-dae finds himself caught between two fathers who embody two differing ways of being, Yak-jeong advising him to think for himself rather than blindly follow Confucianist thought, while his father encourages him to towards the court and the infinite corruptions of the feudal order. Chang-dae does begin to interrogate some of the more persistently problematic elements of Confucian teaching including its views on women and entrenched social hierarchy but also feels insecure and desperately desires conventional success and entrance into a world he thinks unfairly denied to him. Once there, however, he discovers he cannot submit himself to duplicities of feudalism. The islanders are being taxed to into oblivion, not only is there a random counter-intuitive tax on pine trees but the government is also extracting taxes from the family members of the deceased as well as newborn babies while cutting sand into the rice rations it promises in return. His father and superiors laugh at him for his squeamishness, seeing nothing at all wrong in the right of the elite to exploit the poor. Trying to blow a whistle, Chang-dae is reminded that the courtly system is an extension of the monarchy, and so criticising a lord is the same as criticising the king which is to say an act of treason. 

Having been accused of treason himself, Yak-jeong declines to enact his revolutionary ideas penning only a couple of books during his time in exile in contrast to his brother who published many treatises on effective government. Yak-jeong explains he dare not risk writing his real views which is why he’s immersed himself in the beauty of the natural world, exercising his curiosity writing about fish while making use of Chang-dae’s vast knowledge of the sea. The two men develop a loose paternal bond but are later separated by conflicting desires, Chang-dae eventually choosing conventional success over personal integrity only to regret his decision on being confronted with the duplicities of the feudal order. Shot in a crisp black and white save for two brief flashes of colour and inspired by traditional ink painting, Lee’s contemplative drama finds itself at a fracture point of enlightenment as two men debate the relative limits of knowledge along with the most effective way to resist a cruel and oppressive social order but eventually discover only wilful self exile as Chang-dae learns to re-embrace his roots as an islander along with the openminded simplicity of Yak-jeong’s doctrine of catholicity in learning. 


The Book of Fish screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

Sunny (님은 먼곳에, Lee Joon-ik, 2008)

Sunny 2008 posterLove, apparently, makes people do stupid things. So, apparently, does the absence of love. Lee Joon-ik’s Sunny (님은 먼곳에, Nimeun Meongotyi) takes another roundabout look at the recent past through the medium of music in the unlikely tale of a poor village girl married off to a resentful man whose love for another has sent him reeling off into a foreign war. While it’s nice to see this familiar story from the often neglected point of view of the unwanted wife, Lee’s tale is more one of male folly and the various ways a woman’s life is dictated by patriarchal values than it is of love and determination in the face of extreme danger.

Soon-yi (Soo Ae) sings a plaintive love song by contemporary singing star Kim Chu-ja for her fellow housewives in a small village, but her moment of reverie is broken when her domineering mother-in-law (Lee Joo-sil) arrives and orders everyone back to work. Victim of an arranged marriage, Soon-yi has been abandoned by her husband Sang-il (Uhm Tae-woong) who ran off to join the army right after the wedding. A letter he receives in the barracks tells us that he had a love in Seoul whom he was (presumably) forced to give up on in order to submit to his mother’s chosen bride (why he did this is never explained). Nevertheless, Sang-il’s mum is desperate for an heir from her only son and packs Soon-yi off for a conjugal visit every month. Sang-il, however, refuses any intimacy with his new wife, coldly rolling over as he tells Soon-yi to stop coming, wondering if she really has any idea what “love” is seeing as she’s obviously so blind to his emotional pain.

The next time Soon-yi tries to visit Sang-il she finds out he’s got himself sent to Vietnam – a source of panic to his devoted mother who blames her daughter-in-law for alienating her son so badly he’s decided to go off and get himself killed on a foreign battlefield rather than endure married life at home. Kicked out from her marital household and disowned by her birth family, Soon-yi decides to track Sang-il down in war-torn Vietnam, teaming up with a shady con-artist/musician (Jung Jin-young) as her only passage out of the country. 

The central problem is that Soon-yi does not love Sang-il. How could she, she barely knows him and their only on screen meeting is one filled with awkwardness, contempt, and resentment. Yet Soon-yi suddenly becomes bold, leaves her village, and refuses to back down until she finds Sang-il and convinces him to accept her as his wife. Given that he’s gone all the way to Vietnam in order to avoid her, it’s unclear what Soon-yi hopes to achieve in this – is her great gesture of sacrifice and perseverance supposed to make Sang-il suddenly abandon his resentment at his personal powerlessness and submit himself to inescapable (accidentally female) forces of social oppression?

Nevertheless, Soon-yi’s pureheartedness wins over all as they become unwilling allies in her quest. The innocence of the enterprise is soon stained with blood as Lee gives way to the bloody unpleasantness of the battlefield reality which our merry band of chancers are ultimately unable to escape. Eventually captured by the Viet Cong, they discover a mini society forged in underground tunnels complete with schools for the many children living in the dark. The Americans, by contrast, are cold and unyielding, cruelly executing the enemy and refusing to help Soon-yi in her quest until she makes a considerable sacrifice of her own.

Soon-yi, rechristened Sunny for her onstage persona, quickly becomes a pawn looking for a foothold in the midst of male squabbling. While Soon-yi’s determination to find Sang-il might have achieved melodramatic weight if it had been a real love story rather than a petty quest to remind an errant, weak willed man of his social obligations, it strains belief that she would really go this far just to save a man who can’t stand her (or really, cannot stomach the representation of his own moral cowardice), let alone that both the Korean and US armies would eventually allow a near silent young woman anywhere near an active battlefield just because she misses her husband. Enlivened by the energetic score of early ‘70s hits, Sunny is entertaining enough but never earns its contrived narrative nor manages to invest its heroine’s quest with any kind of weight or meaning, leaving her a passive presence in the film that bears her name.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kim Chu-ja’s My Love is Far Away

Anarchist from Colony (박열, Lee Joon-ik, 2017)

anarchist from colony posterLee Joon-ik follows his poetical mediation on the Korean independence movement, Dong-ju, with an equally philosophical, if not quite as rigorous, tale of rebellion and tragedy inspired by real life revolutionary anarchist, Park Yeol. Where Dong-ju was a tale of a world in in black and white, Anarchist from Colony (박열, Park Yeol) is one of glorious colour and the strange joy of pithily rejecting an oppressor’s authority. The oppressor’s authority is, however, infinite and no amount of anarchy will be enough to evade it even if there may be long term advantages in losing a battle in grand style.

Park Yeol (Lee Je-hoon) is a Korean left wing agitator living in Tokyo and earning a living as a rickshaw driver. He is also a hero to local Koreans and has gained a lot of fans (many of them female) thanks to his poetry including his latest entitled “Damn Dog” which laments his lowly status as an oppressed Korean man. One of his many fans, Fumiko Kaneko (Choi Hee-seo) – a Japanese woman who spent some time in Korea as a child, manages to work her way into his heart and becomes both a lover and an integral part of his revolutionary movement known as The Revolt.

In 1923, The Great Kanto Earthquake caused wide scale destruction and general chaos in the capital. Martial law was instituted, but a rumour soon spread that Korean insurrectionists were using the confusion to fuel their revolutionary ambitions, poisoning wells, committing arson, and plotting to assassinate the Emperor and his son. Of course, the rumours were baseless but led to a citywide pogrom in which around 6000 Koreans are thought to have been murdered both by ordinary people and by the army. Hoping to avoid the violence, Park decides he might be better off turning himself in to the police, but even police cells are not free of vigilante justice.

Unlike many recent films set during the colonial period, Anarchist from Colony is not particularly interested in demonising the Japanese. Generally speaking, the Japanese government are depicted as a collection of buffoons ill equipped to deal with the unexpected disaster of the earthquake and obsessed with rules, protocol, and Emperor worship. The major antagonist is a moustache twirling idiot and committed racist nursing a grudge against Koreans over a career setback to do with the suppression of the March 1, 1919  protest which kickstarted the Korean Independence Movement. The other officials mostly regard Mizuno (Kim In-woo) as an embarrassment, calling him out on his obvious racism and attempting to circumvent his machinations but more often than not failing to successfully outmanoeuvre him.

Having been partly responsible for the massacre in failing to stop the racist rantings of Mizuno and co, the government are eager to suppress all knowledge of it and distance themselves from anything that could make them look bad on the international stage. In this Mizuno makes a serious miscalculation when he decides to fit up the most popular Korean political activist he can get his hands on as a “traitor” and have him tried and executed as an example to the others. Park is wise to this scheme right away and decides to play along even if he knows it may eventually cost him his life. In fact, he almost hopes it will because not only will he lend weight to the cause of independence through his own martyrdom, but it will be much harder for the government to suppress news of the massacre with him on trial for his supposed terrorist activities which are being touted as its cause.

Yet the tale is framed not so much as suppressed revolution but ill fated love in the tragic romance of Park and Kaneko. The mini band of anarchists are a surprisingly cheerful bunch for hardline leftists, and Park and Kanenko’s intense bond is one of both political solidarity and true affection. Being anarchists through and through, they do not believe in marriage but agree to live together after signing a contract of cohabitation in which they mutually affirm their loyalty to each other and their cause. When Park is arrested, Kaneko turns herself in and follows him despite his pleas with her not to. The couple remain fiercely together to the end presenting a united front delighting in mocking their joint show trial even knowing they may soon be heading for the gallows.

This strange kind of lightness and dada-esque surrealism is an odd fit for the grim tale at hand. Lee mostly glosses over the wider implications of the massacre aside from minor references to longstanding prejudices such as Park’s beating by a customer who has short changed him and the vigilante gang’s repeated use of a particular phrase to flag up Korean accents. The overriding sense of flippancy undercuts the seriousness of Park’s plight and ultimately robs it of its power as his struggle is played for broad comedy rather than subtle satire. Perhaps overly ambitious, Lee’s reframing of of Park’s story as surrealist vaudeville romance never quite takes off, sacrificing passion for laughs but finding that they ring hollow surrounded by so much suppressed terror.


Screened at the London East Asia Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Tazza: The Hidden Card (타짜-신의 손, Kang Hyung-Chul, 2014)

tazza posterYou gotta know how to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run. Apparently these rules of the table are just as important in the cutthroat world of the Korean card game Hwatu as they are in the rootinest tootinest saloon bar. Like most card games, having the winning hand is less important than the ability to play your opponent and so it’s more a question of who can cheat the best (without actually breaking the rules, or at least being caught doing so) than it is of skill or luck. A second generation sequel to 2006’s Tazza: The High Rollers, The Hidden Card (타짜-신의 손, Tajja: Shinui Son) is a slick, if overlong, journey into the dark, underground world of gambling addicted card players which turns out to be much more shady than the shiny suits and cheesy grins would suggest.

Wisecracking kid Dae-gil (T.O.P) comes into contact with the first film’s fast talking hustler Go (Yu Hae-Jin) and realises he has a talent for trickery. As a young man he gets himself into trouble trying to save a family member from a gangster whom he winds up stabbing meaning he has to go on the run and leave the girl he’s fallen head over heels for, Mina (Shin Se-Kyung), far behind him with only the promise to come back for her when he’s made something of himself. With nothing to fall back on Dae-gil ends up working for cardsharping gangsters in what is really a series of high level con operations. His first problem occurs when he temporarily forsakes the memory of Mina for the attentions of the alluring Mrs. Woo (Lee Honey) who becomes both his secret girlfriend and the gang’s latest mark.

Things do not go to plan and Dae-gil is left carrying the can for the gang’s heavy losses. Getting into trouble with another mark who turns out to be a high level gangster himself, Dae-gil finds out Mina has been sold into prostitution as payment for a family debt but also winds up losing a kidney as recompense for his mounting gambling debts. Now Dae-gil is out for revenge against pretty much everyone, hoping to rescue Mina and win her heart in the process but his adversaries are old hands at this sort of thing and it’s going to take more than a rigged deck to beat them at their own game.

Taking over from the first film’s Choi Dong-hoon, Kang Hyung-chul opts for a slick and charming Oceans 11 inspired aesthetic full of quirky humour and tricky slight of hand photography. With retro musical choices from a smooth cover of Spooky to the ‘80s synth pop kicking in for an exciting car chase, Kang piles on the nostalgia as Dae-gil rides high as a wisecracking conflicted member of this underhanded outfit. Taking inspiration from its manwha roots, The Hidden Card maintains its breezy tone even whilst the atmosphere darkens as Dae-gil taps out with this gangster credit, beaten up, drugged and waking up in a filthy room with a bandaged hand and a crude scar across his abdomen where his kidney used to be. Apparently making a quick recovery from serious surgery, Dae-gil’s discovery of Mina’s fate is likewise another addition to his quest narrative rather than more evidence of the savagery of this trick or be tricked world.

The Hidden Card’s biggest problem is an unavoidable one given its genre – the sheer structural repetitiveness of moving from one card game to another. Lack of familiarity with Hwatu itself is not exactly a problem even if mildly frustrating, but the nature of the way the game is played means that a great deal of screen time is occupied with watching people watching each other, moodily, only to be left unsure of what’s going on or who’s won at the end of it. This is all the more true of the film’s final showdown which brings back a major player from the first instalment in which the stakes have been raised supposedly to “prevent” cheating, but only really aim to make it more “challenging”. Still, away from the gaming table there are enough high octane fist fights and a lengthy car chase to break up the more cerebral thrills.

Undeniably slick and filled with a host of likeable characters offering snappy dialogue and silly humour, Tazza: The Hidden Card is far too long at two and a half hours. Uneven pacing does not help the feeling of scale and a similarly unbalanced plot structure produces a misleading sense of progression. Still, keeping one step ahead of the card sharks is fun in itself and even if the action drags here and there, there is enough character driven drama and ironic comedy to keep things moving right up until the consciously cool finale.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Radio Star (라디오 스타, Lee Joon-ik, 2006)

radio star posterWhat do you do if you’ve just directed a box office smashing, taboo busting, giant mega hit? Well, you could direct Star Wars, but if you’re Lee Joon-ik you go back to basics with a low budget, heartwarming tale of friendship and failure. Radio Star (라디오 스타) reunites frequent costars Ahn Sung-ki and Park Joong-hoon whose shared history runs all the way back to ‘80s movies Chilsu and Mansu, Two Cops, and Nowhere to Hide. ‘80s nostalgia plays not a small part in Lee’s film as it takes a washed up one hit wonder from 20 years back and gives him a new opportunity to shine…if only he can get over himself first.

1988 was something of a banner year for Korea, a newly minted democracy the country put itself on the international map with that year’s Olympic Games taking place in Seoul. It was also a big year for rock star Choi Gon (Joong-hoon) who scored a chart topping mega hit with his song The Rain and You which won him a prestigious musical prize. However, it all went to his head and despite the best efforts of his best friend and manager Park Min-soo (Ahn Sung-ki), 18 years later in 2006 Gon is a cafe singer with a habit of getting into fights which land him in jail. After yet another “incident”, Min-soo is having trouble finding the money to bail his friend out, until, that is he hits on the opportunity of selling Gon’s name as a radio host in an isolated rural town.

Of course, this doesn’t go down well with Gon who’s still every inch the edgy rockstar despite his reduced circumstances. Eventually Min-soo talks him into taking the gig but he’s anything but enthusiastic about his new life as a disembodied voice talking to a handful of country bumpkins who still have transistor radios. Gradually, through learning to appreciate his surroundings Gon begins to understand exactly what it is that’s important in his life.

Playing off its central dynamic, Radio Star undoubtedly brings a lot with it in the casting of Ahn and Park whose similar trajectories add to the film’s otherwise straightforward narrative. Min-soo appears to have only the one client to whom he remains completely devoted (even neglecting his wife and daughter in the process) though it’s true Gon’s career has not gone in the hoped for direction. Still dressing like an ‘80s rock god with sunglasses, torn jeans and a leather jacket, Gon is his own worst enemy as he plays the rockstar game all the way into a jail cell he fully expects Min-soo will get him out of. His new assignment as a local radio DJ is one he finds beneath his dignity and only takes because he thinks it’s a favour to a friend (rather than a friend doing a favour for him), but when it brings him unexpected success he finds that it’s all worth nothing if Min-soo isn’t there to enjoy it with him.

Though many in the small town barely remember Choi Gon or his iconic, prize winning song, he still has a few fans in the form of local garage band East River (played by real life punk band No Brain) who become devoted supporters of the show even helping to spread the word and putting on a special celebratory tribute concert. Ironically enough, the show starts to take off with Gon’s nonchalant approach to hosting which often sees him abandoning the mike to a random local either by phone or getting a guest into the studio. Sliding into talk radio territory, Gon begins taking calls and offering (to begin with) flippant advice on such topics as jobs for the unemployed and the proper rules for card games but he’s soon involved in a campaign to help a shy florist declare his love to a bank cashier and eventually makes a heartfelt personal appeal in support of a little boy who’s father has run off, encouraging him to come back home if only to apologise for making the kid think it’s all his fault that his dad went away.

It’s undoubtably small scale stuff, which of course means that it’s infinite in scope as Gon’s growing sense of interconnectedness takes the show out of the local area and eventually all the way to Seoul after the East River boys’ internet fan site gives him a potentially global (well, to anyone who can speak Korean) reach. As Min-soo points out, stars don’t shine alone – they reflect the light they’re given, and therefore Gon’s only rises because of his friendship with Min-soo and the support he begins to win from the local people once he drops the aloof rockstar persona and begins to engage. Necessarily sentimental and drenched in the dust of broken dreams, Radio Star is a sometimes melancholic though warm tribute to the power of friendship and redemptive possibilities offered by unlikely second chances.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Gon’s prizewinning song – Rain and You as sung by Park Joong-hoon

And sung by Korean punk band No Brain

 

The Throne (사도, Lee Joon-Ik, 2015)

the throneWhich one is worse, the son who tries to kill his tyrannical father, or the tyrannical father who executes his own son and heir? A collection of sad stories all round, Lee Joon-ik’s The Throne (사도, Sado) is a historically inspired tale of familial conflict played out on a national stage. Where another nation might have entered into a bloody civil war, this very private tragedy keeps its bloodshed within the palace walls but still does not lack for cruelty.

Told in a non-linear fashion, The Throne takes inspiration from the 1762 incident in which the ageing King Yeongjo has the Crown Prince, his son later named Sado, executed in the most brutal of ways – confinement inside a heavy wooden rice chest placed inside the castle courtyard where he will be denied food and water until events take their natural course. In flashbacks we see that the king did love his son once but as the boy grew older and became something other than what his father desired of him, his love turned to disappointment and then to fear and disgust. The legends say that Sado was a madman – a murderer or deviant who needed to be eliminated, or just the victim of a conspiracy, but his anger with his father is easily understandable even if it hadn’t been for a seemingly crucial episode where he was forced to endure a feat of painful endurance which almost cost him his life and, perhaps, provoked something akin to madness.

Yeongjo is an austere man, devoted to scholarship. He began Sado’s kingly tutelage at just two years old but even if he was a bright little boy he eventually grew bored with his father’s educational regime of dull rote learning and constant tests preferring the relative freedom of outdoor life with swords and arrows and far less judgement. Sado likes to paint too, but this also falls under his father’s definition of pointless frivolity and so is just another thing which earns him nothing but disdain from the man who would make him king.

Things come to a head when Yeongjo suddenly declares he wants to retire as a ruler and abdicate in favour of his son who is anything but ready. Settling on a regency agreement sounds like the ideal compromise but turns out to be quite the reverse as Sado is merely a stooge for his father who only uses the situation to perpetually humiliate him in front of his courtiers. Sado himself has different ideas to his father about how things should be done in that his father’s emphasis on keeping peace at court had largely resulted in deferring to the more powerful lords at the expense of the poor which is one way to rule country, but perhaps also the most selfish.

When Sado has a son who seems to be everything his father isn’t, tension only rises as Yeongjo first rejects the boy as an infant only to later seek deposing his son in favour of his grandson. Simply put, Sado is now surplus to requirements and despised by his father who also happens to be the king so things are not looking good for him even if he hadn’t descended into a kind of madness which, like Hamlet, briefly cleared and allowed him to stay his hand rather than kill a king where compassion proved his weakness.

Added to the historical intrigue and the tragic misunderstandings between fathers and sons, The Throne adds in a comment on the vagaries of rigid social systems which set out correct and incorrect ways of living, even down to the the ties on the hem of a pair of trousers. Sado wasn’t cut out for his father’s life of dry book learning and calculated appeasement. He was an artist and an athlete – a man of action who might have made a fine king at any other time but could never have been what his father wanted him to be (which was essentially just another version of himself). Yet no deviation can be permitted in this extremely regimented kingly court where a single misspoken word or misplaced action can be enough to seal your fate.

When prompted for a kind of explanation at the end of the film, Sado repeats one of the teachings from his father’s books – that in the end laws and decorum are less important than the men that stand in front of them. He placed the man before the idea but was not rewarded with the same degree of feeling – only a cold and dispassionate application of the law. In part an exploration of a historical event which is both personal and national tragedy, Sado is the time old story of a father and son who are unable to understand each other, snatching only a few brief moments of connection before the inevitable separation. A partial posthumous pardon only serves to deepen the tragedy of a son driven mad by his father’s unpredictable cruelty and even if the film ends on a note of melancholy reconciliation with the past, the central message of fathers attempting to force their own world on their unwilling sons is one that rewrites itself with each passing generation.


Reviewed at a “teaser” screening for the London Korean Film Festival.