Romang (로망, Lee Chang-geun, 2019)

romang posterKorea, like many developed nations, is facing a demographic crisis as society continues to age at an unprecedented pace. While cultural norms demand deference to older people, the many problems they face in a society where welfare provisions are still minimal have often gone unaddressed in the assumption that family members have a duty to look after their relatives in their old age. This is, however, not always possible and there are occasions where considering opting for outside help becomes unavoidable.

This is the dilemma faced by elderly taxi driver Nam-bong (Lee Soon-jae) as he gradually comes to the conclusion that his wife, Mae-ja (Jung Young-sook), is suffering from dementia. The couple share their house with grown-up son Jin-soo (Jo Han-Chul), his wife Jeong-hee (Bae Hae-sun), and their young daughter Eun-ji who had mostly been cared for by Mae-ja while Jeong-hee was the family’s only breadwinner seeing as Jin-soo is an out of work academic (not particularly actively) looking for a new position. Mae-ja’s condition gradually declines to the point at which she begins to pose a danger to her remaining family members causing Jeong-hee to leave Jin-soo and take Eun-ji to her parents’ out of the way.

Gruff and insensitive, Nam-bong decides to send Mae-ja away to a hospice despite Jin-soo’s pleas but eventually reconsiders and brings Mae-ja home where he is committed to care for her himself. However, he too begins to experience the early signs of dementia and is at a loss as to how to proceed in the knowledge that it will become increasingly difficult for him to look after his wife or she him.

The onset of dementia, the film seems to imply, perhaps allows the troubled couple to begin to move past a central moment of trauma in their relationship which has left a lasting thread of resentment between them. Nam-bong, a chauvinistic, difficult husband is not well liked by his family members and most particularly by his son while Mae-ja had, maybe reluctantly, stood by him physically at least if not emotionally. His decision to send Mae-ja away is then a double betrayal in his abnegation of his duties as a husband and in his spurning of all Mae-ja has had to put up with over the last 40 years.

The distance between the couple has also had an effect on Jin-soo who always felt himself pushed out as an accidental victim of his parents’ emotional pain. It is clear that Nam-bong, a traditionally minded patriarch, has little respect for his son who, in his view, is a failure for not having secured a steady career which can support a wife and child, “allowing” his wife to work in his stead. For Nam-bong, being a man is all about “supporting” a family but not actually having to be around very much. For Jin-soo, a modern man, it’s very different. He wants to be there for his wife and daughter so that they have good memories of him hanging out and having fun rather than being that guy who turns up at dinnertime to shout at everyone and then leaves again.

Nevertheless, Nam-bong is eventually forced to accept his emotional duty to his family when he decides to care for Mae-ja. While their mutual condition begins to bring old, negative emotions never fully dealt with to the surface, it also allows them to rediscover the innocent love they had for each other as a young married couple. When Jin-soo eventually leaves the family home to return to his wife and child, the couple decide to isolate themselves, holing up in the living room and communicating via a series of poignant post-its which remind them to care for each other as the darkness intensifies.

Yet it’s not quite all sweetness and light as the elderly romantics rediscover a sense of warmth and connection they assumed long lost. Despite the support shown for Jin-soo’s modern parenting, there is a notably conservative spin placed on the story of Mae-ja and Nam-bong which may very well mark them out as simply being of their time but a late poignant scene in which the young Mae-ja declares her dream to be having a good husband while Nam-bong’s is to support a family sits uncomfortably in its unsubtle defence of traditional gender roles. To make matters worse, the final moments seem to suggest that there is no place for the elderly couple in contemporary society in allowing them (well, Nam-bong) to take control of their destinies only in the most final of ways. Maudlin and sentimental, Romang sparkles when embracing the unexpected cuteness of the late life love story but too often opts for easy melodrama over emotional nuance in its refusal to address its darker elements and eagerness to romanticise the business of ageing.


Romang (로망) was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Innocent Witness (증인, Lee Han, 2019)

Innocent Witness poster“Are you a good person?” asks the confused girl at the centre of Lee Han’s Innocent Witness (증인, Jeungin). Her question comes after a series of surprising revelations which have left her questioning all of her relationships and the nature of the world itself, yet it’s one that’s largely impossible to answer. Formerly idealistic lawyer Soon-ho (Jung Woo-sung) thinks he’s been given the kind of case he can get behind, but as usual nothing is quite as it seems and if he wants to get to the truth of the matter he’ll have to learn to think differently.

Soon-ho began his career as an activist lawyer working for NGOs, but now he’s “sold out” to join an elite law firm with a dodgy reputation in order to pay back debts his father unwisely guaranteed for a friend. Because of his precarious financial status, Soon-ho has put-off marriage and relationships, despite his father’s nagging, believing them to be out of his reach and is conflicted by his recent career choices which leave him on the opposite side from old friends. When he’s handed a pro-bono case to defend a housekeeper (Yum Hye-ran) accused of murdering her employer he thinks it’s the best of both worlds. All the evidence points to suicide, but there’s a witness testimony which suggests otherwise. Seeing as the testimony is from a 15-year-old autistic girl who witnessed the crime from across the street, Soon-ho feels he can easily have it discounted.

Like many in the film, Soon-ho doesn’t know much about autism and writes Ji-woo (Kim Hyang-gi) off as “mentally impaired”, believing that will be enough for the jury to disregard her testimony especially as it so strongly conflicts with the rest of the evidence. Refused permission to meet with her in person, Soon-ho begins trying to befriend Ji-woo on the way home from school and eventually comes to realise that she is highly intelligent if easily distracted and uneasy in social situations. What he discovers is not that Ji-woo is unable to communicate with the world, but that the world is unwilling to communicate with her. If he wants to bond, he will need to learn her language and earn her trust.

Trust maybe he hard to come by as he witnesses the minor aggressions she goes through every day like the horrible boys at school who taunt her mercilessly and the supposed friend bullying her in secret, not to mention a world full of barking dogs and ringing telephones. When he finally puts her on the stand, his own co-defence chair reads out passages from a book about autism which describe it as a “mental disability” before painting her as a deranged idiot who probably half-imagined what she saw from things she’d seen on television – an act which has profound ethical implications in eroding Ji-woo’s sense of self. Ji-woo told Soon-ho she wanted to be a lawyer because lawyers are good people who help those in need, but Soon-ho has to ask himself whose interest destroying a 15-year-old girl on the stand is really serving.

The law firm Soon-ho joined does seem to be a sleazy one. Despite hiring him to improve their image, Soon-ho’s boss tells him that his new clients won’t be comfortable with him unless he gets himself a little “dirty” while inviting him to awkward parties with call girls in high class hotels. Meanwhile, Soon-ho remains conflicted – especially after potentially losing a 20-year friendship through saying the wrong thing to a still idealistic lawyer and passing it off as an attempt to be “realistic”. Realism is one thing, but Soon-ho seems to have given up and decided if you can’t beat them join them. His dad, sensing his son’s unease, writes him an impassioned letter in which he tells him that the most important thing in life is to be happy with yourself, everything else you can figure out later.

Realising his mistake, Soon-ho begins to see the light. Through bonding with Ji-woo, he learns that seeing things differently can be advantage and that society should have a place for everyone where they shouldn’t have to worry about being themselves. Tellingly, no one ever bothered to ask Ji-woo about the most important part of evidence in her testimony because they all had too many prejudices about her delivery. Only Soon-ho, having bothered to get to know her, was able see what it was that she wan’t saying. The film perhaps missteps when it has Ji-woo come to the conclusion that she can’t be a lawyer because of her autism, but otherwise presents a sensitive portrayal of a society trying to be better in accommodating difference and doing it with empathetic positivity while subtly waving a finger at the self-serving forces of conservative corruption.


Innocent Witness was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)