Juvenile Offender (범죄소년, Kang Yi-kwan, 2012)

“Can you forgive me just this once?” the protagonist(s) of Kang Yi-kwan’s Juvenile Offender (범죄소년, Beomjoe Sonyeon) sheepishly ask hoping to be pardoned for their transgressions, only to be met with the cynical, disappointed frown of those who’ve heard it all before. An empathetic character study, Kang’s steely drama lays bare the various ways in which patterns of behaviour ironically repeat themselves despite the best intentions of all involved while even those who earnestly do their best to break the cycle find themselves sabotaged by a rigid and unforgiving society. 

At 16, Ji-gu (Seo Young-joo) lives with his elderly grandfather who is bedridden and seemingly in terrible pain. Falling in with a bad crowd, he finds himself breaking into a wealthy home, reassured by one of the other boys that it’s fine because it belongs to a relative. Unfortunately, however, they’re caught when the lady of the house returns home unexpectedly, Ji-gu accidentally pushing her as he tries to escape. This is particularly bad news as, we discover, Ji-gu is already on probation for a previous assault charge after fighting with some other kids who made fun of him because of his poverty. Arrested, he’s the only one of the teens to have no representation in the room and the judge, trying to be sympathetic, eventually decides that in the absence of effective parenting some time in an institution might be the most beneficial option despite the fact that there will be no one left to look after grandpa. 

His grandfather’s eventual death while he is inside is one of many things adding to Ji-gu’s sense of guilty frustration, but it also allows a well-meaning guidance counsellor at the detention centre to realise that Ji-gu’s long absent mother who he’d assumed to be dead is in fact very much alive. Surprisingly, she agrees to see him but alarm bells should perhaps be ringing when she fails to turn up to sign for his release only to arrive a day late just as he’s about to be given into the custody of a social worker. Hyo-seung (Lee Jung-hyun) is evidently excited to take on this new challenge of becoming a mother to a 16-year-old boy, but it’s not long before you realise she hasn’t quite thought this through. 

As she outlines to Ji-gu by way of an explanation, she was only 17 when she gave birth to him. Overwhelmed by the responsibility and shame of being an unwed teenage mother she left him with her parents intending to commit suicide. There is something in her that is permanently arrested at the age she was she when became pregnant, forever relying on the kindness of (virtual) strangers but more often than not pushing her luck and outstaying her welcome. For the moment, she’s working as a trainee hairdresser and rooming with her wealthy boss in a fancy Gangnam apartment. Ji-gu will have to bunk with her, taking the bed while she throws some pillows on the floor. It’s less than ideal, but nevertheless mother and son begin to rebuild their relationship through a continual exchange of roles as Hyo-seung figures out the kinds of things she’s now responsible for such as getting Ji-gu re-enrolled in school, while he perhaps starts to allow himself to be looked after while realising that his mother really needs looking after too. 

The trouble is the past won’t let them go. Hyo-seung’s well-meaning attempt to get Ji-gu into an elite Gangnam school backfires when the snooty teacher refuses to take a boy from juvie, advising him to explore “alternative education” or sit the exams privately. He meanwhile ends up re-encountering an old friend, an act in itself which threatens his probation, but also brings additional complication in the revelation that his former girlfriend Sae-rom (Jun Ye-jin) gave birth to his child while he was inside but was disowned by her family who forced her to give the baby up for adoption and has become a melancholy exile living in a shelter for girls in a similar position. 

The ironic symmetry with his own life is not lost on him, his mother sadly explaining that his conception was no grand romance but a momentary lapse of teenage judgement with a boy who gave her a fake name and was never heard from again. Tracking Sae-rom down she wants nothing to do with him, though he is struck by the self harm scars on her arm neatly mirroring those on Hyo-seung’s wrists, his mother wailing that her life was ruined in an instant by his father whose mistake he has just unwittingly repeated. He vows to take responsibility, cruelly snapping back that he doesn’t want Sae-rom to turn out like Hyo-seung making plain he knows all about her life of petty grifting, but realistically how can he when he’s only 16 and on the run from himself frightened of making a mistake and ending up back inside. 

Each outcasts in their own way, consumed by the social stigma of being an unwed teenage mother (still an unpardonable offence even in 21st century Korea) or of being a juvenile offender, the trio attempt to move on with their lives but find themselves continually blocked either by an unforgiving, often wilfully exploitative society or by their own sense of hopeless inertia. “Can you forgive me just this once?” Ji-gu repeatedly asks, really meaning to do better this time only for his anger and frustration to ruin everything he’s worked so hard to acheive. Still, perhaps it’s not him that needs forgiving so much as the unforgiving society that needs to regain a sense of compassion for those who transgress against its unfair and arbitrary sense of moral righteousness. 


Juvenile Offender streamed as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Princess and the Matchmaker (궁합, Hong Chang-pyo, 2018)

Princess and the Matchmaker posterLove – is it an act of fate or of free will? For the women of 18th century Korea, romance is a girlish affectation which must be outgrown in order to fulfil one’s proper obligations to a new family and the old by becoming the ideal wife to a man not of one’s own choosing. Love, in this world, would be more than an inconvenience. It would be a threat to the social order. In Hong Chang-pyo’s The Princess and the Matchmaker (궁합, Gunghab), each and every decision is dictated by birth, but as our soothsayer reminds us, serendipitous meetings can change all that’s gone before.

A severe drought is plaguing the subjects of Joseon, and their eyes are on their king to sort it out. For complicated reasons, many assume the pause in the rains is down to the gods’ wrath over the aborted wedding of problematic princess Songhwa (Shim Eun-kyung) some three years previously. Even before her failed marriage made her a flawed woman, Songhwa had always been tainted with an aura of ill fortune seeing as her mother died in childbirth. A reading of her astrological charts implied her presence was bad for the king (Kim Sang-kyung) and so she was sent away only to be called back when another reading revealed her presence may be essential to the king’s recovery from illness. She’s been at the court ever since but the taboo of her supposed bad luck has never left her. The king determines he’ll have to marry Songhwa off to improve the public mood but with her reputation who will they be able to find for a husband? With names thin on the ground, the king decides on a series of open auditions with the royal astrologer announcing the “winner” after a thorough examination of their birth charts.

It goes without saying that no one is especially interested in Songhwa’s opinion. Still naive and innocent, Songhwa is quite looking forward to finally getting married though a frank conversation with a recently hitched friend perhaps helps to lower her expectations. Still, she’d at least like to see the face of the man she’ll be spending the rest of her life with and so she sneaks out of the palace and goes investigating. Her first ventures outside of the walls which have protected her all her life are marked by a sense of magical freedom, though what she sees there later shocks her. Her subjects starve, and blame her for their starving. Lamenting the poor nobleman who will be taking one for the team in marrying the notoriously ugly and difficult Princess Songhwa, they pray for her wedding day and the rain they fully expect to fall.

Given all of this ill feeling towards the princess, it doesn’t take much to guess what sort of men are prepared to toss their hats into the ring. The suitors may look attractive on the surface, as Songhwa discovers, but each has faults not visible in his stars. One is a child, another a womanising playboy. It comes to something when the worst possible match isn’t the murderous psycho posing a philanthropist but the ambitious social climber who will stop at nothing to advance his cause.

Some might say the sacred art of divination is a bulwark against court intrigue, but this like anything else is open to manipulation. The king’s old astronomer has been taking bribes for years – something brought to light by ace investigator with a talent for divination Seo Do-yoon (Lee Seung-gi) with help from shady street corner soothsayer Gae-shi (Jo Bok-rae). Appointed to the position himself, Seo unwittingly holds the keys to Songhwa’s future though that isn’t something he’d given particular consideration to. His job was just to read the charts before everything started getting needlessly complicated. When his list of candidates goes missing he has no choice but to start visiting the ones he can remember in person which is how he ends up repeatedly running into Songhwa in disguise and, despite himself, beginning to fall in love with her.

Songhwa, trapped in a golden cage, longs to live a life of her own free from the patriarchal demands of a hierarchical society. She bucks palace authority by sneaking out on her own, but never seriously attempts to avoid her miserable fate or resist the tyranny of an arranged marriage, only to be allowed foreknowledge of the kind of life for which she has been destined. Nevertheless, determining her own future later becomes something within her grasp once the corruption has been uncovered and the art of prophecy exposed for what it is. Destiny is more malleable than it first seems and as Seo advises the king, when compassion reigns the heavens will open. True harmony is not born of a rigid adherence to facts and figures assigned by the arbitrary conditions of birth, but by a careful consideration of the feelings of others. A life without love is as starved as one without rain and the truly harmonious kingdom is the one in which all are free to feel it fall where it may.


The Princess and the Matchmaker was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International teaser trailer (English subtitles)

The Battleship Island (군함도, Ryoo Seung-Wan, 2017)

battleship island posterKorean cinema has been in a reflective mood of late. The ongoing series of colonial era dramas have sometimes leaned towards uncomfortable and uncompromising nationalism but among the more recent, there has also been an attempt to ask more serious questions about collaboration and capitulation of ordinary people living under a brutal and often cruel regime. While Age of Shadows dramatised this particular problem through the conflicted figure of a former resistance fighter turned Japanese military police offer, The Battleship Island (군함도, Goonhamdo) goes further in its depiction of those who dedicated themselves entirely to the Japanese Empire and were willing to oppress their fellow Koreans to do so. That is not to ignore the hellish conditions which define the very idea of Hashima as an off shore labour camp where depravity rules, exploitation is hidden, and the camp commander is free to run his ship however he sees fit.

In early 1945 Korea is still under Japanese colonial rule and ordinary Koreans are liable for conscription into the Imperial Japanese army whether they like it or not. Gang-ok (Hwang Jung-min) and his daughter Sohee (Kim Soo-ahn) are members of a popular jazz band but Gang-ok has a habit of getting himself into trouble and so they are tricked into getting on a boat to Japan hoping for a safer, more lucrative life. Where they end up is Hashima – otherwise known as “Battleship Island”. Gang-ok and Sohee are separated with Gang-ok stripped of his musical instruments and Sohee, who is only a child, carted off with the other women destined for the “comfort station”.

Ryoo wastes little time demonstrating the immense evil buried in places like Hashima. A deep seam coal mine in the middle of the sea, the island is a fortress prison from which escape is impossible. Early on, three small boys decide to flee after their friend is killed in a cave-in only for one to be shot and the other two drowned by the lazy soldiers of a Japanese patrol boat who couldn’t be bothered to fish them out of the water. The miners are beaten, starved, tortured and manipulated into submission knowing that capitulation is their best route to survival. Not only are these men the subjects of forced labour, they are also made liable for the “costs” involved in their own enslavement with the bill for their transportation, food, clothes, and tools deducted from their “wages” which are supposed to be paid into their bank accounts for access on release. Those killed whilst working are supposed to receive compensation for their families but as will later be revealed, systematic corruption means their families may not even know their loved ones are dead let alone that they are being denied the money rightfully owed to them.

Things get even worse for little Sohee who is forced into a kimono and smothered with makeup to “entertain” some of the Japanese officers on the island. She manages to buy herself some time when she realises the Korean record the camp commander puts on to “comfort” the “comfort women” is one she is actually singing on. This new discovery earns her and her father a slightly improved status in the camp though she may not be safe for long. Gang-ok has already reverted to his tried and tested methods for getting out of sticky situations, making himself a kind of camp fixer aided by his ability to speak Japanese.

The Korean prisoners are represented by a former resistance leader, Yoon Hak-chul (Lee Kyoung-young), who offers rousing speeches in public but privately is not quite all he seems. Gang-ok gets himself mixed up in a Resistance operation run by an OSS (Song Joong-ki) plant on site to rescue Yoon who eventually uncovers several inconvenient truths which make his mission something of a non-starter. Yoon’s empty rhetoric and self serving grandeur represent the worst of the spiritual crimes discovered on Hashima but there is equal ire for the turncoat Koreans who act as enforcers for the Japanese, issuing beatings and siding with their oppressors in the desperation to escape their oppression. Tragically believing themselves to have switched sides, the turncoats never realise that the Japanese hold them in even lower regard than those they have betrayed.

It is hard to avoid the obvious nationalistic overtones as the Japanese remain a one dimensional evil, smirking away as they run roughshod over human rights, prepare to barter little girls and send boys into dangerous potholes all in the name of industry. At one point Gang-ok cuts an Imperial Japanese flag in half to make the all important ramp which will help the captive Koreans escape the island before being summarily murdered to destroy evidence of Japanese war crimes which is a neat kind of visual symbolism, but also very on the nose. Once again, the message is that Koreans can do impossible things when they work together, as the impressively staged, horrifically bloody finale demonstrates, but as Ryoo also reminds us there no “heroes”, only ordinary people doing the best they can in trying times. 


Currently on limited UK cinema release!

Original trailer (English subtitles)