I Can Speak (아이 캔 스피크, Kim Hyun-seok, 2017)

I Can Speak posterGenre in Korean cinema has always been a more fluid affair than it might be elsewhere, but careering from zany generational comedy to affecting historical drama is perhaps a bold choice. I Can Speak (아이 캔 스피크) is, in many ways, the story of an old woman’s personal revolution as she finds herself repurposing her “Goblin Granny” credentials to pursue justice for a great evil she spent a lifetime hiding from, but it’s also an unabashedly political attack on a legacy of unresolved national trauma. Nevertheless, despite its slightly awkward straddling of cheeky comedy and heartrending melodrama, I Can Speak does at least manage to lay bare a series of entrenched social problems affecting all areas of modern Korean society while also making a fairly uncontroversial (at home at least) political point.

Park Min-jae (Lee Je-hoon) has just transferred to the local council offices in a rundown area of Seoul. Seeing as he’s new and very by the book, he doesn’t know that everyone in the office is terrified of “Goblin Granny” (Na Moon-hee)  – an old woman who turns up every single day with a list of complaints and things around the neighbourhood that could do with being fixed. Min-jae, unaware of Goblin Granny’s fortitude, attempts to deal with her complaints in a bureaucratic manner. He is no match for Ok-boon’s bloodymindedness, but his straightforward approach eventually earns her respect.

Ok-boon is the sort of old woman familiar to many municipal offices in that she is essentially lonely and comes in to complain about things just to make her presence felt. She does have a few friends, however – one being the lady who runs the local convenience store, and the other a woman of around her own age who can speak fluent English. Ok-boon decides she ought to learn English too and enrols in an expensive cram school but is abruptly kicked out of the class which is almost entirely filled with youngsters because of her old lady ways. On the way out, however, she runs into Min-jae who was there to check that his extremely high TOEIC scores were still valid. Ok-boon manages to talk Min-jae into giving her English lessons in return for decreasing the burden on the municipal offices by making fewer complaints.

I Can Speak begins firmly in the realms of bureaucratic comedy as the council workers find themselves cowering in front of Goblin Granny while simultaneously enjoying their cushy jobs for life which require almost no effort in their daily activities. Some in the community assume Ok-boon is a horrible old busybody who likes making trouble and pulling other people up on their various social failings but her community patrols come from a good place. The woman who runs a small stall in the market assumes Ok-boon reported her to the police for selling alcohol to a minor but that’s not the sort of thing that Ok-boon would think worth reporting, which is why she doesn’t think much of breaking city regulations to enjoy a drink outside her friend’s shop. Everything she reports is because she genuinely worries someone may get hurt and her main area of concern is with the strange goings on around the market which is earmarked for “regeneration”. Her concerns are not unfounded as she discovers when she overhears some of the council workers talking about taking backhanders to push the redevelopment through while making use of “external labour” in the form of shady gangsters tasked with clearing the area so the ordinary people who live in the old fashioned neighbourhood will consent to quietly move away. Perhaps because no one ever stood up for her, or because she’s sick of being pushed around, Ok-boon is not going to go quietly nor is she going to allow any of her friends to be taken away without a fight.

Ok-boon is perhaps attempting to fight something else, something she has been afraid to revisit for most of her life. The fact is that Ok-boon was one of many Korean women forcibly abducted by the Japanese army at the end of the Second World War and subjected to heinous, inhuman treatment as sex slave in one of the many “comfort woman stations” which existed throughout Japanese occupied territory. After the war, she was disowned by her family who saw only shame in her suffering and insisted she tell no one what had happened in fear of damaging her family’s reputation. One of the reasons Ok-boon wants to learn English is to be able to talk to her little brother again who she has not seen since they were children and has apparently forgotten how to speak Korean after spending a lifetime in the US.

English does however give her back something that she’d lost in the form of a familial relationship with the otherwise closed off Min-jae who is also raising a teenage brother (Sung Yoo-bin) following the death of their parents. It is true enough that it is sometimes easier to talk about painful things in a second language – something Min-jae demonstrates when he shifts into English to talk about his mother’s death. Abandoning Korean allows Ok-boon to begin dismantling the internalised shaming which has kept her a prisoner all these years, too afraid to talk about what happened in the war in case she be rejected all over again. Her worst fears seem to have come true when her old friends learn about her past, but what they feel for her is empathy rather than shame, hurt that Ok-boon was never able to confide in them and unsure what it is they should say to her now.

Ok-boon learns that she “can speak” – not only English but that she has the right to talk about all the things that happened to her and the long-lasting effect they have had on her life, that she has nothing to be ashamed of and has a responsibility to ensure nothing like this ever happens again. English becomes a bridge not only between her past and future, but across cultures and eras as she finds herself bonding with a Dutch woman giving a testimony much similar to her own and receiving the same kind of ignorant, offensive questions from the American law makers as well as cruel taunts from a very undiplomatic Japanese delegation. Undoubtedly, the final sequence is a very pointed, almost propagandistic attack on persistent Japanese intransigence but then its central tenet is hard to argue with. Tonally uneven, and perhaps guilty of exploiting such a sensitive issue for what is otherwise a standard old lady regains her mojo comedy, I Can Speak is an affecting, if strange affair, which nevertheless makes a virtue of learning to find the strength to stand up for others even if it causes personal pain.


I Can Speak screens at the New York Asian Film Festival on 12th July, 6.30pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles/captions)

1987: When the Day Comes (1987, Jang Joon-hwan, 2017)

fullsizephoto931939The political history of Korea is long and complex and oftentimes sad. The events depicted in 1987: When the Day Comes (1987), pivotal as they were, occurred just 30 years ago. Yet the recent past has also been one marked by protest, public anger, and political scandal though this time around with far less fear or danger. The protests of 1987 were a different story. The rule of Chun Doo-hwan, a military dictator who had seized power following the assassination of the previous dictator, Park Chung-hee, was one of extreme oppression which had already seen a widespread massacre of peaceful protestors by the state in Gwangju in 1980. Chun’s term, under the constitution, was set at seven years after which many hoped for a path to modern democracy but those hopes were dashed when he announced an intention to appoint his successor rather than call a free and fair election.

In depicting the climactic events of that summer, Jang Joon-hwan begins with chaos as a doctor is summoned to a mysterious room where a young man lies unconscious in a pool of water. The police have gone too far, and boy has died during interrogation. Aware of the potential danger of the public finding out that the state has in effect murdered a suspect in an act of torture, the head of the ACIB, Park (Kim Yun-seok), orders the body to be quickly cremated. This, however, needs a certificate signed by a prosecutor and Prosecutor Choi (Ha Jung-woo) is fed up with the ACIB and unwilling to cooperate especially as he smells a rat with the cause of death for a healthy 22-year-old listed as a “heart attack”. Not wanting to be on the wrong side of it if it does get out, Choi refuses the cremation and orders an autopsy which in itself triggers a series of other events eventually bringing the government to its knees.

The state remains cruel and duplicitous. The death of Park Jong-chul (Yeo Jin-goo) would become a catalyst and a rallying call, not just for the injustice of it but for the injustice of covering it up. Park’s family are denied their basic rights, his mother and sister literally dragged away from the morgue screaming while his traumatised father looks on in silent agony. They say that Park was a communist, that he died of fear because he weak while claiming all along to have done no wrong. Only when the “truth” begins to emerge does the ACIB decide to hang a few of its guys out to dry, urging them to “patriotically” take one for the team and head to prison for a while with a hefty compensation package to help sweeten the deal.

The death in custody becomes just one event in a situation spiralling out of control. Paranoid in the extreme, the Chun regime is also working on bringing down a “North Korean Spy Network” controlled by a democracy activist on the run who, unbeknownst to them, is also working with the Catholic Church who will eventually prove pivotal in delivering the truth to the people. Meanwhile, the press has also decided to jump ship, ignoring the government’s carefully crafted guidelines in favour of running actual news. Chun’s iron grip is slipping.

Jang’s biggest takeaway is that corrupt regimes crumble when enough people find the strength to go on saying no. It begins with Choi refusing to stamp a certificate then travels to the reporter who won’t back down, passes on to the secret revolutionaries bravely carrying messages at great personal costs, the not so secret clergy who perhaps have more protection to speak their minds (up to a point) than most, and of course the students in the streets who risked their lives to build a better future. One of the few completely fictional characters, the niece (Kim Tae-ri) of a prison guard (Yu Hae-jin) charged with conveying messages to an activist in hiding, proves the most illuminating in her inward struggle towards the democratisation movement. Afraid of the consequences and preferring to remain politically apathetic, she is eventually radicalised through witnessing the brutality of the regime first hand and suffering personal loss because of it.

Playing out as a taut thriller, 1987: When the Day Comes has a lived in authenticity from the motif of being constantly deprived of one shoe by a cruel and absurd regime to the deadly serious ridiculousness of men like Park who hate “the enemy” enough to destroy the thing they claim to love in pursuit of it. Timely and filled with melancholy nostalgia, Jang’s depiction of the pivotal events of 30 years ago is also a rallying cry in itself and an important reminder that the fight for justice is never truly won.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)