The Witness (목격자, Cho Kyu-jang, 2018)

The Witness poster 2The murder of a young woman outside of her New York apartment block in 1964 became a psychology text book standard thanks to the fact no one had raised the alarm or come to help her. Later investigations more or less debunked the so called “bystander effect”, at least in this instance, but it remains broadly true that those who find themselves witnessing a distressing incident fully expect that “someone” will be dealing with it, conveniently forgetting that they too are “someone”. The hero of Cho Kyu-jang’s The Witness (목격자, Mokgyeokja) is only one of many to temporarily distance himself from his community when he fears he has locked eyes with a killer and inadvertently made his family a target for retribution.

Sang-hoon (Lee Sung-min), a middle-class lawyer, is riding high after buying a new apartment (with a hefty mortgage) for his wife and daughter. Rolling home drunk after an evening drinking with colleagues, he opens yet another beer and gazes out over the balcony of his new apartment musing on how great his life is only to be confronted with a screaming woman being chased by a violent man in the courtyard. She falls and the man strikes her. Sang-hoon struggles for his phone but drops it in drunken shock. His wife emerges from the bedroom and alerts the killer to their presence by turning the lights on. Sang-hoon snaps them off and goes back to the balcony where he is convinced the killer has seen him. Paranoid, he forgets all about the poor woman bleeding on the concrete below and spends the night in his hallway clutching a baseball bat just in case.

He doesn’t know it yet, but Sang-hoon has indeed made himself a target for a marauding “random” killer. Afraid and ashamed, he decides to keep quiet. It would be easy enough to read Sang-hoon’s unwillingness to get “involved” in other people’s business as a hangover from an upbringing in an authoritarian regime in which keeping your head down and your nose clean might be essential tools for survival, but it’s also fair to say that his attitude is defined as much by notions of middle-class respectability as it is by cowardice and selfishness. An old busybody in the apartment block is constantly banging on about the house prices, getting the residents to sign a legal waver promising not to cooperate with the police or the media to avoid the name of the community becoming linked with violent crime. Sang-hoon says he wants to protect not only his wife and daughter, but their home too. His hopes and dreams are bound up with conventional homeownership. This is the way he intended to fulfil his male obligations to protect his family, but now it’s being threatened in a way he never expected and he finds himself tested.

Despite himself, Sang-hoon does feel he ought to help those in need. He bristles when his wife wants him to help out a friend whose child was injured in a car accident that the police didn’t bother to investigate properly, because he knows it’s a lost cause and she’s better to settle. He feels sorry for her, but not enough to rock the boat. Being a lawyer he perhaps knows what a risk it can be when the wrong people know where you live, but he’s at constant battle with himself knowing that the killer is still out there and will likely kill again. If he’d only called an ambulance instead of cowering by the front door, the poor woman might have survived – her death is on his hands as much as the killer’s because he chose to do nothing. The body count will only rise all while Sang-hoon tries to hedge his bets, calculating whether he’s better off keeping quiet and hoping the killer appreciates his complicity or surrendering himself to the police in the hope that they can protect him by taking the killer out of the picture.

Sang-hoon’s desire not to get involved has left him very involved indeed. He hoped it would all go away if he turned a blind eye and kept himself out of it, but like it or not he is a member of a community and he has a responsibility which cannot be abnegated. It turns out the best way to protect your family is protecting other people’s, maintaining a herd immunity to the threat of violent crime. There is, however, a reason they tell you to shout “fire” and not “help” – people are selfish and if they hear fire they know they are in danger too so it’s in their interest to come running, if it’s only you in danger they may not put themselves out. Sang-hoon’s brush with the embodiment of random threat does at least release him from the ingrained isolationism of the aspirant middle-classes in which any kind of fellow feeling is distinctly frowned upon, allowing him free rein to embrace his natural tendency towards altruism safe in the knowledge that his desire to help is not a weakness but a strength that will keep his family safe through the interconnectedness of a compassionate community.


The Witness was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Chase (반드시 잡는다, Kim Hong-sun, 2017)

The Chase posterKorea may not quite be facing such an ageing population crisis as neighbouring nations, but old age has become a persistent cinematic preoccupation. We’ve seen old women still engaging in acts of prostitution to support themselves in the absence of family (and indeed the state), serial killers becoming dangerously confused, and ageing grandmother’s attempt to see the beauty in a world that seems to be descending into chaos. What The Chase (반드시 잡는다 Bandeusi Jabneunda) shows us is that the elderly do at least have time on their hands that could well be used for fighting crime and protecting the vulnerable.

If you were appointing elderly street guardians, you probably wouldn’t pick Deok-soo (Baek Yoon-sik). A curmudgeonly landlord with a conviction that everyone is out to diddle him on their rent, Deok-soo complains loudly when a body is found in a nearby area because it’s going to damage property prices. People who are supposed to die should just die, he exclaims, that’s patriotism! You can bet your bottom dollar Deok-soo voted for Park Geun-hye, but despite his grumpy exterior he has a soft heart as one of his young charges reveals when she reminds him that he’s never thrown anyone out just because they didn’t pay up. Deok-soo has taken quite a (paternal) liking to Ji-eun (Kim Hye-in), a young woman living alone away from family in one of his horrible little apartments. Aside from her rent arrears and tendency to let her mixed up friend stay over so often that she virtually lives there, Ji-eun is one of Deok-soo’s favourite tenants.

Which is perhaps why he gets himself so involved when she suddenly goes missing after a shock discovery is made in her flat. Other than the first body which got Deok-soo so worked up, a few other elderly people have been passing away in lonely deaths which, sadly, isn’t particularly suspicious save that the pattern matches that from an unsolved serial murder case from 30 years ago which began with the killing of old people and then progressed to sexually aggravated murder of young women with long dark hair – just like Ji-eun.

Aside from the ongoing serial killer plot, director Kim Hong-sun makes space for depicting the various problems faced by the elderly in contemporary Korea. The first problems are loneliness and dislocation caused by separation from family members – many of the older people Deok-soo is familiar with have children overseas whom they have all but lost touch with. The second problem is economic – Deok-soo’s flats are dirt cheap for a reason and mostly inhabited by the very young and the very old, i.e. people without a lot of “disposable” income. Being elderly, they often can’t find jobs and don’t have access to a proper pension leading many to take to the streets protesting for rights for the aged including that to work or to be given state support. Deok-soo is lucky with income from renting the apartments, but he also works as a locksmith which brings in a few extra pennies. Being Deok-soo he isn’t particularly worried about other people less lucky than himself, so he rolls his eyes at the protests but is worried enough by the lonely deaths to ask one of his tenants to look in on him every now and then to avoid becoming one.

Meanwhile, Deok-soo has become “friends” with a retired police detective who’s convinced the serial killer he failed to catch 30 years ago is back. Worried that Ji-eun may end up among his victims, Deok-soo begins investigating, unwittingly getting himself mixed up in a dark and confusing world of old school hardboiled only Pyeong-dal (Sung Dong-il) is not quite as worthy a guide as he seemed. Walking around like a maverick cop from a violent ‘70s action movie, Pyeong-dal is convinced he knows who the killer is but he is old and unsteady and his mind is not perhaps reliable.

Then again a persistent subplot seems to argue that the young have no respect for age, are selfish and corrupt, thinking only of short term pleasures and forgetting that they too will one day be old with no one around to look after them. No one takes Deok-soo and Pyeong-dal seriously, they are after all just grumpy old men that everyone wants to get rid of as quickly as possible. They do, however, (paradoxically) have time to indulge in “silly” ideas that the young do not have and are, therefore, perfectly positioned to take down a serial killer who preys on the weak and vulnerable including old men like them and pretty young girls like Ji-eun. Old guys have still got it, at least according to The Chase, though they might have got there faster if only they’d cut the young whippersnappers some slack.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Also available to stream on Netflix.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Phantom Detective (탐정 홍길동: 사라진 마을, Jo Sung-hee, 2016)

su0mhpqReview of Jo Sung-hee’s The Phantom Detective (탐정 홍길동: 사라진 마을, Tamjung Honggildong: Sarajin Maeul) first published by UK Anime Network.


Comic books and film noir are, in many ways, a match made in heaven. Tough guys lurking in the shadows, larger than life villains and an ever present sense of the strangeness of criminality, lend themselves particularly well to the extremes of both genres which is why the combination is not exactly an uncommon one. In The Phantom Detective , director Jo Sung-hee adds an extra layer of meta textuality in naming the amnesiac hero Hong Gil-dong which is both the Korean “John Doe” and the name of a legendary Robin Hood figure from the 16th century. Like his namesake, this Hong Gil-dong is a preternaturally gifted detective with a faultless memory and an almost supernatural ability to stay ahead of the game, but he’s also a classic film noir hero with a damaged past and hollow heart…

In an alternate 1980s Korea, Hong Gil-dong (Lee Je-hoon) is an ace detective about to break a trafficking ring, which is righteous enough, but he also has another motive – these men may be able to offer him a clue to tracking down a target he’s been chasing for over 20 years. A one eyed man, Kim Byung-duk (Park Geun-hyung), contributed to Gil-dong’s origin story by murdering his mother right in front of him. At least, he thinks so – Gil-dong can’t remember anything about that day save for the visions he sees in his nightmares. In fact, he doesn’t even know his real name or who he really is.

When he finally gets to Byung-duk’s location, Gil-dong discovers he’s already been kidnapped by someone else leaving his two young granddaughters, Dong-yi (Roh Jeong-eui) and Mal-soon (Kim Ha-na), all alone. Taking off with the kids in tow, Gil-dong vows to track down “grandpa” but still has revenge in his heart. As the investigation progresses Gil-dong finds himself getting involved with the strange residents of a tiny town who may be about to fall victim to a dastardly doomsday plan engineered by a shady cult leader…

Ever since his mother’s death, Gil-dong has been unable to sleep thanks to constant nightmares and has lost the capacity for fear and empathy (qualities which serve him well in his line of work). Fiendishly clever, Gil-dong also has a sweet tooth and a sarcastic personality but despite his protestations, usually does the just thing when comes down to a straight choice. Byung-duk’s adorable granddaughters pose something of a problem for him as he begins to warm to their straightforward earnestness, yet his revenge rests in killing their beloved grandfather to avenge his mother’s death. The kids quickly take to Gil-dong, for some reason believing in his essential goodness. Dong-yi follows him around like a deputy detective, meticulously noting everything down in her notebook, whereas Mal-soon has figured out Gil-dong’s talent for deception but hilariously almost blows the gang’s cover on several occasions through her total lack of investigatory acumen.

Through investigating his lead on Byung-duk, Gil-dong hopes to recover his own memories of his early life and the mother he only remembers in his nightmares. The path he finds himself on is a dark one leading straight towards a powerful cult populated by fascism fetish sociopaths. Sure that the “New World is Coming”, the cult have planned a large scale event which threatens the lives of most of the residents of a small, strange town. Now Gil-dong has several reasons to get to the bottom of this long standing mystery ranging from his own desire for answers and revenge to saving the lives of these ordinary people and making sure no one else comes under threat.

Taking inspiration from the comic book world, The Phantom Detective makes use of highly saturated color schemes and deliberately artificial looking backgrounds. Though the approach remains bright and colourful for much of the film which adds to its slightly surreal atmosphere, there’s still ample room for noir with faces cast in shadow, light striking glasses so as to eerily block out the eyes, and Gil-dong’s classic detective outfit and occasional weary voiceover. The pulpy plot doesn’t worry too much about internal consistency, but blusters along well enough on its own even if coasting on Gil-dong’s wisecracking tough guy antics as he unexpectedly bonds with the two plucky little girls temporarily in his care. Cute and funny but also filled with innovative action sequences, The Phantom Detective acts as a worthy secondary origin story for its titular hero whose return will be eagerly awaited!


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)