Height of the Wave (파고, Park Jung-bum, 2019)

Height of the Wave poster“The suspects are all the residents” says the world weary police chief at the end of Park Jung-bum’s uncharacteristically forgiving island drama Height of the Wave (파고, Pago). Island communities are often thought of as innocent idylls, the city’s corruption lying far off over the horizon, but where there are people there is suffering and perhaps there’s nowhere completely free of human cruelty.

Recently divorced maritime police woman Yeon-su (Lee Seung-yeon) has been seconded to a remote island to act as its police chief for two years. She’s brought her deeply resentful teenage daughter with her, and is currently struggling with a “panic disorder” she’s keen to keep a secret. Meanwhile, island’s sleazy foreman, handsy and making inappropriate comments about the scent of Yeon-su’s hair, is hard at work to a get a designation as a “desirable destination” and attract much needed funding. His plans are disrupted, however, when Yeon-su overhears some worrying comments from the island’s only young woman, Yae-eun (Lee Yeon), which suggest she is indulging in sex work (which is illegal). Yeon-su investigates, becoming worried for Yae-eun who is an orphan and seems to be a little different than you might expect for a woman of her age, and contacts the mainland for support. As you might expect, this does not go down well with the foreman who worries that his precious designation might be denied if word got out about the base immorality lurking in his town.

Traumatised by her career as a policewoman on the mainland which mainly involved retrieving the bodies of those who’d committed suicide by drowning, Yeon-su might have come, or been sent, to the island as quiet place to recover. The island is after all a liminal space, between one state and another, where one might pause for reflection before preparing to move forward. Yae-eun, who lost her parents at sea, is trapped because of her fear of water and terror that someday a great wave will swallow everything and everyone. Yeon-su fears something similar, unable to sleep on thinking about all the bodies she never managed to save that sunk to the bottom of the ocean never to be seen again.

Yeon-su’s daughter Sangyi (Choi Eun-seo) recognises the similarities in the anxieties of the two women, bonding with Yae-eun out of a shared sense of betrayal and abandonment but finding it more difficult to forgive her mother for her increasingly strange behaviour, the breakdown of her parents’ marriage, and for bringing her to this barren place. Early on, Sangyi tries to join in with some of the other children, but finds them playing a cruel game in which they’re trying to kill off the sleepy ants on the grounds that they will soon invade and destroy all their houses. Sangyi, perhaps identifying with the “alien” bugs, tries to stop the kids crushing the ants before they’ve even done anything but is then othered herself, ironically put in “jail” with the chickens as a hostile element. “It’s your fault” a boy tells her, “we wanted to be friends”.

From the perspective of the foreman and perhaps others in the village, Yeon-su is a burrowing termite intent on undermining their foundations. This is an island, after all, and they do things a bit differently. What’s normal here, might not be appropriate on the mainland. It seems that Yae-eun has been accepting money in exchange for sex, and that she might not be fully capable of understanding the implications of her actions, but if she’s making a free choice to sell her body and is not in that sense being exploited by a third party then perhaps some might say that is her own business. The situation is complicated, however, when Yae-eun reveals she may have been doing this as young as 17, which means she was underage. Yeon-su wants to protect the young woman, all alone on an island full of possibly predatory old men and cared for only by an “uncle” (Park Jung-bum) and a “grandpa”, but has to accept that her desire to do so may involve short-term harm in that Yae-eun is terrified of getting on boats which means she is unable to escape her present environment even if she wanted to.

Yae-eun immediately recognises something in the other woman. “You look so lonely, chief”, she tells her placing artificial flowers on the altar of a disused church reassured by the fact they never change, “I thought I was the only lonely one”. The foreman tries to get the others on board by referring to Yae-eun as everybody’s child, literally raised by a village, but he wants to forcibly export her to the mainland so that she won’t mess up his desirable island plan by embarrassing him when the inspection committees arrive. Yae-eun’s uncle apologises for not being better able to protect her, complaining that the villagers are “blinded by money”, and have decided to sacrifice her rather than risk destroying their chances of financial gain. Yeon-su’s attempts to help have merely created a different, perhaps more dangerous, set of problems that expose but do not intend to heal a painful hypocrisy. Tellingly, it is Sangyi who eventually proposes the only positive solution in her desire to help Yae-eun overcome her fear of water but even this has its darkness because it is also a path to exiling her from the island possibly against her will to cover up the “scandal” of her existence. The wave may not be so high that it drowns us all, but it’s as well to learn to swim.


Height of the Wave was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Short clip (dialogue free)

House of Hummingbird (벌새, Kim Bora, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

House of hummingbird poster 1“The world is fascinating and beautiful” the teenage protagonist of Kim Bora’s House of Hummingbird (벌새, Beolsae) is told in an especially poignant letter recited in the film’s closing moments. It’s a lesson that she’s longing to learn, but finds few willing to teach her in a society whipping itself up into a frenzy of aspiration perhaps at the cost of true human connection. A chronicle of one surprisingly traumatic summer in the newly democratised Korea of 1994, Kim’s film charts its heroine’s gradual progress towards a kind of self acceptance with a melancholy ease as she begins to find her own way despite the toxicity of the world all around her.

14-year-old Eun-hee (Park Ji-hu) is one of three siblings living in a cramped apartment with her harried, emotionally distant parents who run a small rice cake shop. A mediocre, disinterested student she falls asleep at school where the other kids cruelly exclaim that dozy girls like her never make it to college and are destined only to become housemaids to the “successful” adults they assume they’ll be. Meanwhile, Eun-hee’s hardline dad (Jung In-gi) makes her go to Chinese cram school where she “studies” along with her best friend, Ji-suk (Park Seo-yun), spending most of their lesson time making fun of the teacher in hastily written notes.

Previously purposeless, her world begins to widen when the Chinese teacher abruptly quits and is replaced by the infinitely cool, enigmatic university student Young-ji (Kim Sae-byuk) whom she first glimpsed smoking a melancholy cigarette by an open window on the stairs. Strangely captivated by this “odd” young woman, Eun-hee suddenly has the urge to study, especially as Young-ji turns out to be unique among the adults that she knows in that she seems to genuinely care about her and is interested in hearing all about her troubles, which, as we will find out are many.

In the mid-90s, Korea was a newly democratised and rapidly modernising society keen to claim its place on the economic world stage. Where Eun-hee’s parents are defeated, disappointed figures, they want better for their children in the new society but struggle as to how to get it for them. Eun-hee’s mother (Lee Seung-yeon), as we find out from her dejected brother, was bright but had to leave school to pay for his tuition (a promise he seems to think he has not fulfilled). Consequently, the parents are convinced “education” is the way out but fail to realise that their obsession with academic grades is slowly destroying their family home. While Eun-hee is sullen and withdrawn, pushed out by her rowdy family, her older brother’s exam stress often turns violent and her sister skips school to go clubbing in an attempt to escape adolescent anxiety.

Even when Eun-hee discovers a lump on the side of her neck, her mother sends her off to the doctor’s alone though he can’t actually treat her without parental consent which Eun-hee fears they won’t get round to giving. Though they visit her once, they don’t bother to pick her up from an extended stay in hospital and are not home when she returns. Not even an accusation of shoplifting rouses them from their busyness. Eun-hee’s father rudely tells the shopkeeper to stop bothering him and call the police, causing the shopkeeper to feel so sorry for her that he lets her go.

Meanwhile, Eun-hee looks for intimacy in other places. She tries innocent teenage romance with a feckless but good-looking boy, Ji-wan (Jeong Yun-seo), whom truth be told she perhaps likes more as an abstract idea than in himself. The unexpected gift of a bright red rose from a bashful girl (Seol Hye-in) sends her thoughts in another direction but leaves her more confused than ever when that too betrays. Through it all she idolises the mysterious figure of Young-ji with whom she seems to share some kind of affinity and the sense of connection so painfully absent in her frenetic family home.

Eun-hee’s difficult path towards an acceptance of adulthood mirrors that of her nation, finding itself in one particularly traumatic summer marked by a dangerous sense of anxiety in the end of eras as the North’s Kim Il-sung passes away, provoking fears of a disturbance in carefully won political equilibrium. Meanwhile, a literal bridge collapse threatens to destroy Eun-hee’s new path towards maturity once and for all, taking her only source of solace with it. Yet what she learns is that though bad things happen, good things happen too and there are always new people to share them with. She may feel herself to be alone, lost in a confusing landscape and uniquely indifferent to her nation’s relentless pursuit of consumerist success, but she does finally perhaps have herself and new hope for the future found in the security of her own hands.


House of Hummingbird was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Alive (산다, Park Jung-bum, 2014)

alive-poster“There’s no safe place in this world” intones a pure hearted soul partway through Park Jung-bum’s relentlessly bleak exploration of the human condition, Alive (산다, Sanda). When your existence is defined by impossibility, it may be hard to see the light but to stop looking for it altogether doesn’t bear thinking about. A fierce condemnation of the hypocrisies of a capitalistic society, Alive wants to ask if simply breathing is enough when every breath is unending pain and the faint hope of a better life a cruel irony in an otherwise desperate existence.

Labourer Jung-chul (Park Jung-bum) lives in the ruins of his former family home destroyed in a landslide which also killed his parents. He is responsible both for his sister, Soo-yun (Lee Seung-yeon), who has extreme mental health issues, and her young daughter Hana (Shin Haet-bit). When the construction job ends for the winter, Jung-chul turns a crisis into an opportunity by volunteering to fill-in at the soy bean paste factory owned by the man for whom Soo-yun has been working as a cook to stop him firing her after she had an episode and did not show up for work. Things are going well, but the impending marriage of his haughty daughter to a middle-class salaryman is beginning to weigh on the factory owner’s mind. Worrying about the dowry, he summarily fires a number of longterm employees. Jung-chul, ever the opportunist, seizes the chance to get his construction site buddies over to the factory but his constant attempts to profit from the misfortune of others are destined to end only in disaster.

Trapped in the snowbound mountains, Jung-chul has little realistic chance of escape. His life is hard and marked only by physical exertion while stretched to emotional breaking point thanks to the complicated situation surrounding his sister. Despite himself, Jung-chul resents Soo-yun who has retreated into a near catatonic state in order to escape the misery of her life. She is often to be found at the local bus terminal where she picks up strangers and then returns to her ruined village for acts of self harm in an attempt to embrace vitality through suffering. Jung-chul is suffering too and he can’t forgive his sister for her attempts at mental absence, condemning her for her “shamelessness” rather than attempting to deal with her declining mental health and the physical harm in which it places her.

Jung-chul sees himself as the “pillar” of the family, that without him his sister and niece will be left out in the cold with nothing to sustain them. Yet his desire to protect his own cannot entirely explain his increasing dog eat dog mentality or his willingness to engage in the system of circular exploitations which defines the world in which he lives. “It obeys me better when it’s kept hungry” a woman snaps at Hana when she attempts to feed a performing parrot, somehow encapsulating the insidious logic of rampant capitalism. Jung-chul thinks he can’t afford to think about the employees his boss fired because someone is always going to lose out and it’s enough to make sure it isn’t him, but he doesn’t see that his refusal to stand up for others leaves him vulnerable and alone.

The world of the factory boss is an oddly feudal one in which his major preoccupation is his paternal obligation to provide a dowry for his daughter with the implication that the wedding may not take place at all if he cannot fulfil it. The boss’ daughter, having spent time in the US, objects to her father’s callous treatment of his employees who remain with absolutely no workplace protections and are not even offered severance pay despite being axed deep in the harshness of winter. Nevertheless, when her wedding is threatened she reverts to type. Her dad cut corners and made a mistake, but she’s going to find a scapegoat and cover it up, justifying her decision with the rationale that she’s “protecting” the workers. Obeying feudal obligations, the fired employees all turn up to her meeting at which she tearfully talks about a way to save the factory despite the fact that the factory has just betrayed them and trampled all over a lifetime’s unquestioning loyalty.

Meanwhile, Jung-chul’s simpleminded friend Myung-hoon (Park Myung-hoon) dreams of a new life in the Philippines where the people are kind and you never have to worry about the cold. Unlike Jung-chul, Myung-hoon can’t bring himself to betray his sense of justice even if he eventually succumbs to a kind of poetic recompense in order to save his own dream if only by stopping Jung-chul from ruining himself completely. Nevertheless, as bleak as this world is, it is not devoid of hope as Jung-chul eventually realises through the innocent sound of a child practicing piano. Shining a light for his sister, he finally remembers to close the door on an act of calculated pettiness, accepting that his responsibility extends further than his household and that only by opposing the injustice done to others can he hope to change his hopeless world and begin to feel alive once again.


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

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

The Running Actress (여배우는 오늘도, Moon So-ri, 2017)

running actress posterIn international eyes at least, Moon So-ri is one of Korea’s most prominent actresses. She has worked with such highly esteemed directors as Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sang-soo, and Park Chan-wook, yet she continues to face the same kinds of issues as many women in the film industry despite her immense critical success and popularity at the box office. The Running Actress (여배우는 오늘도, Yeobaewooneun Oneuldo) is her first feature as a director and brings together three of her short films which neatly form a tryptic depicting the trials and tribulations of the contemporary actress.

Moon also stars in the films, playing a character called Moon So-ri, apparently inspired by her “real” life. Kicking off with the first segment titled The Actress, Moon introduces the fears and anxieties which recur throughout most notably in her preoccupation with gaining good roles and worrying that she is losing out on them though not being “pretty” enough. Her friends, attempting to be supportive, only add to her discomfort by assuring her that she is pretty “in her own way” and reminding her that in any case she is a wonderful actress. Confidence at rock bottom, Moon laments that her industry prefers airheaded beauty to technical skill and is unwilling to accept that women continue to exist past the age of 25 without suddenly morphing into spiky aunties and salty grandmas. Unexpectedly running into a producer whilst hiking, she gets a temporary boost when it seems he has her in mind for a dream project with a director she’s long wanted to work with but is dismayed when she realises the character has a college age child meaning she’ll be making a possibly irreversible step into playing suffering mothers rather than interesting women with nuanced character arcs.

Meanwhile, she runs into the producer and his friends at an inn on the way down and is forced to endure a drinking session with two starstruck fans whose increasingly drunken conversation turns to the rude and loutish in which they too begin picking apart Moon’s looks while mocking her acting skills, one of them even offering a slightly offensive caricature of her award winning performance as a disabled woman in Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis (the title of which he seems to have forgotten).

Moon’s fears and insecurities follow her into her family life in the second chapter, The Running Actress, which finds her attempting to juggle the demands of being a wife and mother with her acting career. In a running joke, everyone seems to assume that mega famous actress Moon So-ri must be filthy rich but like everyone else she has trouble making ends meet, especially as she is constantly worrying over where the next job is coming from. As if that wasn’t enough she also has to put up with her mother continuing to treat her like a petulant teenager (which to be fair her behaviour sometimes mimics) and trading photo opportunities for free dental work, while her adorable little daughter is sharp as a tack. 

The social and the professional come together in the final segment which sees Moon attend the funeral for a director she once worked with years ago and to tell the truth did not particularly like. Planning to show her face but not stay very long, Moon is dismayed to realise she is one of an extremely small number of mourners which include a drunken actor she doesn’t really get on with either, and an aspiring young actress who may have been involved in an improper relationship with the late director in the hope of furthering her career. In a lovely human touch, Moon breaks away from the rapidly declining situation at the wake to spend some time with the director’s young son who has been left all alone watching a few home videos his father shot by means of a handheld projector.

The film takes its title from a humorous moment in the second chapter in which Moon suddenly orders her driver to stop the car and jumps out to run away screaming, making a bid for frustrated freedom from her often exasperating life and career. Moon is obviously not afraid to poke fun at herself or her industry, taking her (presumably very real) fears and insecurities and exposing them for all to see. Taking a cue from Hong Sang-soo, Moon’s deadpan style only adds to the comic effect of her razor sharp dialogue which is filled with small moments of everyday humour somehow assuming wider dimensions thanks to the well crafted nature of the script. Addressing real problems faced by women today in all walks of life, The Running Actress is a warm and funny effort from the veteran performer turned first time director and will hopefully pave the way for an interesting second career.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

3-Iron (빈집, Kim Ki-duk, 2004)

3-ironYou wouldn’t think it wise but apparently some people are so trusting that they don’t think twice about recording a new answerphone message to let potential callers know that they’ll be away for a while. On the face of things, they’re lucky that the guy who’ll be making use of this valuable information is a young drifter without a place of his own who’s willing to pay his keep by doing some household chores or fixing that random thing that’s been broken for ages but you never get round to seeing to. So what if he likes to take a selfie with your family photos before he goes, he left the place nicer than he found it and you probably won’t even know he was there.

Player 2 joins the young man (credited as Tae-suk but unnamed in the film) when he stays at an upscale mansion which turns out to be “haunted” by the still living but damaged figure of a battered wife. Tae-suk hurriedly leaves once discovered, but later thinks over his encounter with the sad seeming lady and decides to return. After an altercation with her violent husband, Sun-hwa leaves with Tae-suk and the pair sneak into various other “empty” homes together. After one particular dwelling reveals a nasty surprise the two bring themselves to the attention of the police who threaten to end their young love story before it’s hardly begun.

Like much of Kim’s work, 3-Iron (빈집, Bin-jip) is near silent and neither of the two protagonists speak one word to each other until final scene of the film. Tae-suk, in particular, seems to have an obsession with being invisible – hiding in blindspots and always making sure to tidy up after himself so well that no trace of his presence remains. Sliding into these mini universes, he seems oddly interested in their inhabitants as he gazes at their photographs and admires the decor. Despite his need to disappear, he builds connections with absent people even going so far as to take a photo with a photo of them, artificially generating some sort of kinship where there is none.

If Tae-suk is haunting the bourgeoisie, Sun-hwa is both spectre and spectee as she moves silently around her golden cage of a spacious villa like a frightened mouse locked inside the elephant house. Evidently further along the stealth game than Tae-suk has been able to progress, her discovery of him leads to a feeling of defeat. Yet, after reconsideration, he recognises a fellow lost soul and so returns to rescue her from her oppressive ogre of a husband by using his weapon of choice against him. The 3-Iron golf club is not only a symbol of the husband’s middle class pretensions, but its relative lack of wear also points to the lack of respect he reserves for his toys – even extending so far as his wife whom he also seems to regard as an “inautonomous” appendage to his image much like the golf club itself.

Kim ends the film with a caption to the effect that it’s hard to tell if the world we live in is reality or a dream. With the continued silence of the film’s protagonist, bizarre scenario of “borrowed” lives, and general surrealism, Kim creates an etherial atmosphere filled with heightened, everyday strangeness. This could be a ghost story – literally, or figuratively, as our haunted protagonists continue their visitations on the living, or a love story, or even an absurd comedy. Tae-suk and Sun-wha exchange roles, alternately comforting or rescuing one another before, perhaps, becoming one at the film’s conclusion. A strange, romantic fairytale, 3-Iron is Kim in an uncharacteristically cheerful mood though he’s careful to remind us that the world outside of this charming bubble is filled with violence, cruelty, and chaos.


3-Iron is available in the UK from Studiocanal and from Sony Pictures Classics in the US though the R3 Korean disc also includes English subtitles.

US release trailer: