Intimate Strangers (완벽한 타인, Lee Jae-kyoo, 2018)

Intimate Strangers poster 1Middle-aged malaise and technophobia collide with potentially catastrophic consequences in brutal comedy of manners Intimate Strangers (완벽한 타인, Wanbyeokhan Tain). The hugely popular Italian film Perfetti Sconosciuti has already been remade in several territories, proving the universality of its conceit. The Korean edition, cleaving closely to the original, demonstrates once again that nowhere is safe in the modern wired world where public and private personas are beginning to blur as lives lived online become realer than real.

The action takes place (almost) entirely within a swanky Seoul apartment owned by plastic surgeon Seok-ho (Cho Jin-woong) and his psychiatrist wife Ye-jin (Kim Ji-soo). The couple, along with their teenage daughter (Ji Woo), have been living in the apartment for some time but haven’t gotten around to inviting their dearest friends so this evening’s celebration will be something like a belated housewarming. The other guests will be friends of Seok-ho’s from all the way back in elementary school – elite lawyer Tae-soo (Yoo Hae-jin) and his wife Soo-hyun (Yum Jung-ah), “entrepreneur” Joon-mo (Lee Seo-jin) and his much younger wife Se-kyung (Song Ha-yoon), and recently divorced Young-bae (Yoon Kyung-ho) who is supposed to be bringing his new girlfriend, but disappoints everyone by turning up alone. Part way through the evening, Ye-jin suggests a kind of party game in which they’ll all put their phones face up on the table and agree to share any messages or calls that come in. Of course, this is a game you can’t afford to refuse to play lest everyone think you’ve something to hide, but total honesty is not always advisable even amongst friends.

Despite their supposed intimacy built up over a couple of decades of similar evenings and get togethers, everyone is very much in public mode and maintaining appropriate levels of decorum. Which is why Tae-soo and Soo-hyun are at great pains to hide the fact their relationship is at breaking point thanks to the recent arrival of Tae-soo’s mother while Ye-jin and Seok-ho also have obvious problems, especially when it comes to the upbringing of their teenage daughter. Despite being a psychiatrist with full knowledge of boundaries and the harm that can be done crossing them, Ye-jin has been going through her daughter’s things and not liking what she finds. Nevertheless, everyone wants to have a pleasant evening, so the fights are on hold and politeness very much in the ascendent.

And then the phones start ringing. It might be a matter of debate exactly how much privacy one should want or expect in a marriage, with friends, or from the world in general, but everyone has something or other they’d rather wasn’t brought up at a dinner party and so showcasing one’s phone is likely to be quite a bad idea. That might be the attraction of the game, but no one seriously wants marital breakdown across the dinner table, nor do they want to hear about medical procedures, outings they weren’t invited to, workplace drama, or familial strife.

The messages, as pregnant with melodrama as they might be, begin to expose the simmering conflicts between this now disparate group of “friends”. The petty class resentments and awkward political differences that politeness sees fit to gloss over become harder to ignore when flashed up by an inconvenient notification or a call the other party is not aware is being broadcast (breaching their privacy too in the process). Realising secrets have been kept from you can be hurtful, but it’s even worse realising that you disappoint yourself in proving exactly why the secret was kept in the first place.

It’s tempting to blame everything on technology, that if no one had a phone no one would be hurt but the truth is that married or not everyone has a right to their secrets and a separate, individual life to which no one but themselves is privy. Perhaps it isn’t so much lies which are the enemy, but the expectation of intimacy and that sharing your life with someone necessarily means the entirety of it. In any case, the film (like the other incarnations) opts for an ironic ending which undoes everything which had gone before, erasing the awkwardness of exposed secrets with a return to a more comfortable reality in which everyone is superficially happier pretending to be happy in blissful ignorance. Perhaps sometimes it really is better not to ask too many questions.


Intimate Strangers was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

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)

Seven People in the Cellar (지하실의 7인 / 地下室의 七人, Lee Seong-gu, 1969)

Seven People in the Cellar posterThe “literary film” was beginning to fall out of favour by 1969. The collapse of the quota system introduced under the 1962 Motion Picture Law, the exclusion of literary film from the “Domestic Films of Excellence” programme (which encouraged producers to produce high quality Korean films to qualify for distributing more lucrative foreign ones), and the rise of television all conspired to produce a shift towards the populist. Lee Seong-gu had made his name with a series of literary adaptations which enabled him to experiment with form in the comparatively more elevated “arthouse” arena but with horizons shrinking even he found himself with nowhere left turn. Seven People in the Cellar (지하실의 7인 / 地下室의 七人 *, Jihasil-ui Chil-in) is Lee’s last “literary film” and is adapted from a stage play by Yun Jo-byeong who was apparently unhappy with Lee’s adaptation in its abandonment of his carefully constructed ideological balance in favour of adhering to the typical rhetoric of the “anti-communist” film.

Set towards the end of the Korean War, Seven in People in the Cellar presents itself as a conflict between the godless and hypocritical forces of communism and the good and righteous Catholic Church. Accordingly, our hero is a priest, Father Ahn (Heo Jang-gang), who has just returned to his church after being forced to flee by the encroaching “puppet army”. Accompanied by a nun, Lucia (Yun So-ra), and a new curate, Brother Jeong (Lee Soon-jae), Father Ahn is glad to be reunited with his flock but there are dark spectres even here – Maria (Yoon Jeong-hee), a young woman Ahn was forced to leave behind when he fled, runs away from the priest on catching sight of him, apparently out of shame. Meanwhile, while Ahn was away, three rogue Communists began squatting in his cellar waiting for the “reinforcements” which are supposedly going to retake the town. Taking Sister Lucia hostage, the Communists force Ahn to feed them while keeping their existence a secret. To Jeong’s consternation, Ahn agrees but out of Christian virtues rather than fear – he feels the Communists too are lost children of God and have been sent to him so that he may guide them back towards the light.

Not a natural fit for the world of the anti-communist film, Lee does his best to undermine the prevalent ideology even if he must in the end come down hard with Ahn’s essential moral goodness. Thus, Communists aside, the conflict becomes one of age and youth, male and female, as much as between “right” and “wrong” or “North” and “South”. Jeong, youthful and hotheaded, lacks Ahn’s Christian compassion – he bristles when Ahn immediately sets about feeding the starving villagers with their own rations, and disagrees with his decision to harbour the Communists even while knowing that Lucia’s life is at stake if they refuse. Twice he tries to kill the communist “enemy”, threatened by their ideological opposition to his own cause – once when he enters the cellar and misinterprets an altercation between Lucia and sympathetic soldier Park (Park Geun-hyeong), and secondly when the troop’s female commander, Ok (Kim Hye-jeong), attempts to seduce him.

Sexuality becomes spiritual battleground with Christian chastity winning out over Communist free love. Ok, as unsympathetic a communist as it’s possible to be, is sexually liberated and provocative. She suggestively loosens her shirt and fondles her breast in front of a confused junior officer, later taking him into the forest and more or less ordering him to make love to her (which he, eventually, does). However, it is to her simply a matter of a need satisfied. Ok describes the moment she has just shared with her comrade as no different than sharing a meal. She was “hungry”, she ate. When she’s hungry again she will eat again but there’s no more to it than that and there is no emotional or spiritual component in her act of “lovemaking”, only the elimination of a nagging hunger. 

Ok’s transgressive and “amoral” sexuality is contrasted with that of the abused Maria who was tortured and later raped by the Communists’ commanding officer. Forced to betray a nun, she was robbed not only of her innocence but also of her faith. Maria is the “pure woman” corrupted by Communist cruelty. Her chastity was removed from her by force, and she sees no other option than to continue to ruin herself in atonement for her “sin”. Unable to live with the consequences of her actions, she sees no way out other than madness or martyrdom.

The fact that Maria’s torturer is another woman, and such an atypical woman at that, is another facet of the Communist’s animalistic inhumanity. As in The General’s Mustache, the Communists are seen to use innocent children as bargaining chips when ordinary torture fails, even this time killing one to prevent him telling the village about their hiding place. Yet the height of their cruelty is perhaps in their indifference to each other – Park, touched by Sister Lucia’s refusal to leave when he tried to let her go fearing that he would face reprisals, announces his intention to defect to the South and is shot dead by his commander in cold and brutal fashion. Park’s defection is a minor “win” for Ahn who sought restore the Communists’ sense of humanity and bring their souls to God, but it’s also born of misogynistic pique in his intense resentment of the “bossy” Ok who turns out to be an undercover officer from HQ on a special mission to spy against him.

With the one redeemed Communist dead, all that remains is for the others is to slowly destroy themselves. Ahn, cool and composed in absolute faith, waits patiently certain that the friendly South Korean soldiers will shortly liberate them. A hero priest, Ahn is the saintly opposite of the Communists’ cruelty in his compassionate determination to save them even at the risk of his own life. Lee keeps the tension high, creating siege drama that feels real and human in contrast with the often didactic and heavily stylised narrative of the “anti-communist” film, subtly muddying the essential messages but allowing Ahn’s compassion (rather than his “faith”) to shine through as the best weapon against oppressive inhumanity.


Seven People in the Cellar is the fourth and final film included in the Korean Film Archive’s Lee Seong-gu box set. Not currently available to stream online.

* In rendering the Hanja title, the landscape poster uses the arabic numeral 7 while the portrait version uses the Chinese character 七.

When the Buckwheat Blooms (메밀꽃 필 무렵, Lee Seong-gu, 1967)

When the Buckwheat Flowers Bloom posterLife’s little ironies conspire against an ordinary pedlar in Lee Seong-gu’s adaptation of the Lee Hyo-seok short story When the Buckwheat Blooms (메밀꽃 필 무렵, Memilkkot Pil Muryeop). Set in the colonial period, the film tracks the long sad story of an unlucky man and his impossible love as he finds himself continually pushed to the edges of a world which is already disappearing. Yet as bad as things are for the heartbroken pedlar, they’re far worse for his long lost lady who finds herself continually handed from one man to another, abused, and exploited with no possibility of escape.

The story begins with three pedlars – Heo (Park No-sik) who hawks fabric, Jo (Kim Hee-gab) who sells paper, and Yun (Heo Jang-gang) who peddles “medicine”. Heo gets into an altercation with another, younger man, Dong-i (Lee Soon-jae), who he accuses of cutting in on his business. Unable to let the matter drop, Heo starts arguing with Dong-i again at an inn at which point he departs and leaves the old men to it. Heading back on the road, Heo entertains his friends with a familiar story – the one about his night in the buckwheat fields with his one true love.

Flashing back almost 20 years, the pedlars are all young men and only Jo is already married with a pregnant wife (Do Geum-bong) he takes with him on the road. In the marketplace one day, Heo catches sight of Bun-i (Kim Ji-mi), a noblewoman fallen on hard times whose father apparently plans to sell her to pay for his gambling debts. Crestfallen, Heo goes back to his business but catches sight of Bun-i once again and “enjoys” a spot of not exactly consensual sex in the middle of a beautiful buckwheat field. Heo asks Bun-i to wait for him, insisting that he will find the money to buy her from her father before he sells her to someone less nice. After trying several madcap schemes to get the requisite funds (including wrestling to win a bull), Heo sells his beloved donkey but is too late – Bun-i’s dad left in a hurry and sold her off somewhere or other but no one knows where. Heo sets off on a five year quest to find her but remains perpetually too late, only a little way behind but always arriving just after Bun-i and the son which is presumably Heo’s have been sold on to their next “owners.”

When the Buckwheat Blooms is very much Heo’s “depressing” (as he later describes it) life story. We see Bun-i on the periphery of his flashback, but he never finds her and so does not know of all she’s suffered since they parted, nor even that she has a child. Much of his melancholia is born of being old and of being poor. It is clear that his life has been ruined through poverty and lack of prospects – no one chooses to be a pedlar (as the pedlars keep pointing out), it’s what you do when you can’t do anything else. An itinerant existence has deprived each of them of a traditional family life. Jo had a wife in the flashback, but she and her children now live in a permanent home which Jo only rarely visits. Meanwhile Yun’s wife left him after the first time he took off for the road, unable to bear the loneliness and lack of stability involved in being a pedlar’s wife. Heo had remained single because of his lack of financial stability, but meeting Bun-i gave him hope for a different kind of life. He planned to give up peddling and set up as a farmer but, of course, it was not to be.

If that weren’t all the times are changing. The pedlars’ business is disrupted by the arrival of a band of fiddlers, but they haven’t just come to make merry – they’re advertising the “future”. They come to sing the virtues of the newfangled “department store” which is apparently a “foreign” invention and stocks “everything” – it has everything the market has and more, only cheaper and better quality. Dong-i, a young man, plans to give up peddling and try his luck in the gold mine, but there’s precious little hope for old men like Heo who have spent their lives living hand to mouth day by day and are now ill-equipped for anything else.

Heo is, at least, an “honest” man – he drinks but not to excess, and is frugal rather than throwing his money away on sex or gambling. Nevertheless, it’s hard to get away from his quasi-rape of Bun-i as she tries to run from him in the forest. The violence of the initial encounter undermines the romance of Heo’s ongoing tale as he hunts down his missing woman, apparently wanting to save her by buying her back from whoever it is “owns” her at the current time.

Told from Heo’s perspective, Bun-i’s feelings do not much factor in to his narrative but her life has been just as miserable as his, if not more so. A once noble lady, she suffers the humiliation of being “sold” by her father, and then sold on numerous times to other men each of whom abuse and mistreat her. By this time she also has a young son on whose behalf she resolves to suffer, even as her various “husbands” threaten to separate them. Bun-i has no freedom or possibility of escape. She is as chained as Heo’s donkey and treated with far less kindness.

Yet it is Heo to whom the central tragedy to ascribed – he yearns, searches, is frustrated and then forced to give up on his dreams while continuing to harbour enough of a spark of hope as to prevent him from moving forward with his life. He is condemned to grow old walking in circles burdened by an unrealisable dream. Once again shooting entirely on location, Lee aims for a more “sophisticated” aesthetic than many of his contemporaries, co-opting a shooting style much closer to European or Japanese film than is usual in ‘60s Korean cinema. A melancholy tale with an ironic, perhaps “happy” ending, Lee’s sad story of missed opportunities and ruined hopes is an oddly apt one for the post-war world but one which finds its share of cheerfulness even in abject misery.


When the Buckwheat Blooms is the second film included in the Korean Film Archive’s Lee Seong-gu box set. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

The Guests of the Last Train (막차로 온 손님들 / 막車로 온 손님들, Yu Hyun-mok, 1967)

guests who came by train 2Despite ongoing social and political oppression, the Korea of the 1960s was an upwardly mobile world in which increasing economic prosperity and global ambition was beginning to offer the promise of financial stability and a life of comfort to millions of young men and women, albeit at a price. Yu Hyun-mok, often thought of as among the most intellectual of “golden age” film directors, was a relatively infrequent visitor to the “literary film” but Guests of the Last Train (막차로 온 손님들 / 막車로 온 손님들, Makcharo on Sonnimdeul, AKA Guests Who Arrived on the Last Train), adapted from a novel by Hong Seong-won, is perhaps comfortably in line with his career long concerns in its focus on those who for one reason or another have been running to catch the rapidly departing train of modernity, pulling themselves on board just it prepares to pull away. A disparate tale of three men and their respective love interests, Yu’s film once again rejects the consumerism of the modern society in its cold and lonely search for soulless acquisition and finds comfort only in the fragile connections between the lost and hopeless.

The film opens behind a train station where a young woman, Bo-yong (Bo-yong), staggers and stumbles, grasping for something to hold on to but hardly able to stand. Eventually a man, Dong-min (Lee Soon-jae), turns up and tries to hail a taxi. Noticing the distressed woman, he manages to get her into a car and when she tells him she has nowhere to go, takes her home with him. Dong-min is currently off work with an illness which turns out to be terminal lung cancer and has only a few months left to live as a second opinion from his doctor friend, Kyeong-Seok (Seong Hoon), makes clear. Kyeong-seok is also facing a problem with a female patient, Se-jeong (Nam Jeong-im), suffering a nervous complaint after losing her wealthy husband and subsequently being hounded by her relatives over the inheritance. When Se-jeong leaves the hospital the pair end up having an affair but the money continues to present a problem – neither of them want the hassle of dealing with it. Meanwhile, Dong-min and Kyeong-seok reunite with another old friend, Choong-hyeon (Kim Seong-ok), who has just returned from Japan apparently having become fabulously wealthy. Choong-hyeon has pretensions of becoming an avant-garde artist, but is unable to get over his ex-wife who has left him to become a famous actress.

Each of the three men is in someway arrested, unable to move past something towards the future rapidly rolling away from them like a train leaving the station. Dong-min’s depression and listlessness is understandable given that he’s facing a terminal illness and knows that he has already reached the end of the line. Yet his ennui began long before. Kyeong-seok, describing his friend to a colleague, disapprovingly remarks that he used to be a mild-mannered bank teller but left to become a freelance translator and journalist. Unable to put up with the stringent, high pressure world of work Dong-min removed himself from it to try and grasp his freedom only to remain dissatisfied and eventually defeated by a cruel and arbitrary illness. Even so he retains his human feeling as demonstrated by his decision to help Bo-yong rather than leave a vulnerable woman alone to suffer on the streets. Staring blankly at the calendar on his wall, avoiding tearing off the sheets which serve as an all too obvious symbol of his limited time, he falls slowly in love with the woman who remains at his side whilst knowing that his existence is futile and doomed only to tragedy.

Kyeong-seok, by contrast, is merely disaffected. Dragged into a relationship with Se-jeong originally unwillingly, what he resists is responsibility. He wants to help her, but he does not want to get involved with her complicated familial and financial problems. As so often in Yu’s films, money is the root of all evil, presenting barriers between people where there should be none. Neither Kyeong-seok or Se-jeong are very interested in the money for its own sake, they want only simple lives of adequate comfort and emotional fulfilment – something which the hassle of dealing with other people’s money hungry machinations will actively destroy.

Money has also, in a sense, destroyed Choong-hyeon’s hopes though more through his misplaced faith in its ability to buy him back what he’s lost. His relationship with his wife is clearly over, she has chosen something else which is her right and privilege, but Choong-hyeon can not accept it and continues to look for her in all he does. Attempting to become an “artist” himself, he uses his money to get himself a show featuring his avant-garde pop art creations but neither of his friends rate his work or is careful enough about his feelings to avoid criticising it. Choong-hyeon spirals out of control, becoming dangerously obsessed with a schoolgirl he somehow wants to imagine as his wife. Dong-min and Kyeong-seok suspect that he will kill himself, but by this point they aren’t sure if they should care. What would they be saving him for? There is no possible salvation – no one can save anyone else, and no one can save themselves. Each is an individual and can offer no excuses. Love and friendship are but scant comfort in a cold and lonely world.

Meanwhile, the women continue to suffer in silence. Yu chooses to focus on his trio of male misfits rather than the pair of unlucky women whose story lies at the centre of the narrative. Se-jeong married an older man for apparently legitimate reasons but the marriage was unsuccessful and also ruined her friendship with her husband’s daughter who, unsurprisingly, turns out to be Bo-yong. Looking for love and not money, Se-jeong is only holding on to her inheritance in the hope of someday reconciling with Bo-yong and handing it all to her. Meanwhile, Bo-yong has been on the run from her former life. Once an air stewardess, Bo-yong dropped off the radar when a former fiancé planted drugs in her suitcase and got her sent to prison. Like Se-jeong she is looking for support and companionship and finds it in the kind if melancholy Dong-min, vowing to stay by his side even if she knows their time it limited. The two women are eventually “reunited” at a wedding, but the crowd keeps them apart, breaking into factions fighting over the inheritance that neither Se-jeon or Bo-yong actually want.

Yu declines to tell us whether the women are eventually able to meet and repair their friendship, but he does make clear that both have rejected the superficial comforts of wealth in asking for a small and simple life with their respective partners. In this he offers both hope and despair. The couples are rejecting the new future their nation has planned for them, yearning for small comforts and an end to their loneliness and struggling to find it in an increasingly alienated world. Bo-yong, at least, steps forward to grasp her chance at happiness however small it maybe, waiting for the train and seeing red lights change to green only when her gesture of sincerity is finally accepted.


Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Yu Hyun-mok boxset. Not currently available to stream online.