Idol (우상, Lee Su-jin, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Idol poster 1“Getting others to trust something is more important, not what they choose to believe” advises a cynical politician a little way into Lee Su-jin’s Idol (우상, Woosang). Image is indeed everything. Who are you more likely to believe – the slick, seemingly upstanding politician who’s done everything “right”, or an ageing, inarticulate aircon repairman with bleach blond hair? Two fathers go to bat for their sons, if in very different ways, but only one can emerge “victorious” in their strangely symmetrical endeavours.

Lee opens with a voice-over taken from a speech later in the film belonging to bereaved father Yoo (Sol Kyung-gu) in which he confesses that as his son Bu-nam (Lee Woo-hyun), who had severe learning difficulties, grew older, he found himself having to masturbate him to prevent him harming himself trying to calm his sexual urges. Yoo’s words play over his opposite number’s return home from a research trip to Japan. Koo (Han Suk-kyu) is a politician and former herbalist with a special interest in nuclear power. Ambitious, he spends much of his time travelling for business while his wife (Kang Mal-geum) cares for their wayward adolescent son, Johan (Jo Byung-gyu). A panicked text message warning that Johan has got himself into trouble again gets ignored, but when he arrives home Koo knows he has to act. Johan has knocked someone over and rather than take them to hospital, he’s brought the body back home.

A series of quick calculations tells him that the “best” option is for Johan to turn himself in, despite his wife’s insistence that they simply get rid of the body. He drives the corpse back to the scene and dumps it, gets rid of the original car, and then drives his son to the police station before expressing contrition in front of the cameras. That would have been that if it weren’t for Yoo’s dogged determination to find out what happened to his boy, and the fact that Bu-nam’s “wife” Ryeon-hwa (Chun Woo-hee), an undocumented former sex worker from China, managed to escape meaning there are loose ends Koo knows he needs to tie up.

“This rotting smell” Ryeon-hwa exclaims on putting a number of things together. There is something undoubtedly corrupt in Koo’s superficially smooth world of neatly pressed suits and sharp haircuts. Stagnant water swells around him, along with the murky swirl blood, as he contemplates the best way out of his present predicament. Everything here is stained, marked, or scarred as if hinting at the darkness beneath gradually seeping through.

Yoo, meanwhile, perhaps knows he lives in a “dirty” world and though he never claims to be completely clean himself, is fully aware of the implications of his actions. A widowed father, he tried to do the best for his disabled son. He offered him relief in ways others would find perverse in a strange gesture of fatherly love, finally deciding to get him a wife in the hope of putting an end to such degradation for them both only to regret his decision when he realises Bu-nam may not have died if he’d just stayed home. Koo, meanwhile, tries less to protect his son than himself, weighing up that the boy will most likely get a slap on the wrist and he’ll come out of it looking better because he behaved “honestly” and in line with the law. To get elected he will stop at nothing to preserve the image of properness, even if it means he must get his hands “dirty”.

In that essential ruthlessness, he may have something in common with the jaded Ryeon-hwa whose sister warns Yoo not to trust her because “her nature is different”. Like Koo, she has done terrible things but done them to survive rather than to prosper. Her marriage to Bu-nam might seem like no prize, but it was better than the life she was leaving behind and, crucially, a guaranteed path to Korean citizenship assuming Yoo eventually filled in the marriage papers properly.

Yoo just wants “justice”, but ruthless men like Koo who care about little other than image are not about to let him get it, which is why he finds himself trotted out as a superficial ally to bolster Koo’s appearance at the polls in return for Ryeon-hwa’s “assured” safety. In the end, all Koo’s scheming blows up in his face, but, Lee seems to say, the image always survives and men like Koo know how to spin it to their advantage while men like Yoo will always be at the mercy of the system. A bleak, often confusing, noirish thriller, Idol plunges a knife deep into the heart of societal corruption but finds that truth often matters less than the semblance of it in a society which idolises the superficial.

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

International trailer (English subtitles)

Han Gong-ju (한공주, Lee Su-Jin, 2014)

Photo 1Review of this complex Korean social drama up at UK Anime Network. Went a bit intense with this one….

Hot on the heels of A Girl at My Door, we’re confronted with another impressive debut film from a Korean director which once again deals with a series of important, if unpleasant, often over looked social phenomenons. It’s difficult to review Han Gong-ju without revealing the mysterious events at its centre yet much of the film’s impact is bound up with the slow drip of its structural dissection of its raw and painful wounds. Based on a real life case from 2004, Hang Gong-ju is a harrowing tale of victim shaming, social injustice and ingrained systems of corruption which will shock even the most cynical Korean cinema fan.

At the beginning of the film, Hang Gong-ju is being a little less than sensitively dealt with by her school teacher who hands her a new mobile phone and instructs her not to call anyone she knows, not even her father, and only to accept calls from his own phone. She’ll be transferring to a new school and staying with her teacher’s mother until other suitable accommodation can be arranged. We don’t know why any of this is happening but the teacher seems put out, less than willing to help Gong-ju – almost as if he finds her existence a little embarrassing. At her new school she keeps herself to herself, making sure to remain distant from her fellow pupils. However, a group of singers finds out that Gong-ju has musical talents and becomes intent on adding her to their group. Though fearful and unwilling, Gong-ju gradually becomes closer to them. The reason for her aloofness leads back to the very reason she’s been exiled from her hometown and is a secret Gong-ju is terrified will eventually be revealed. Following a possibly well meaning (or maybe a little less so) action by her new group of friends, the true reasons for her being forced into hiding are thrown into the light and Gong-ju once again becomes the centre of a storm composed of a complex system of societal repercussions.

Without giving too much away, nothing that happens to Han Gong-ju is her fault yet she’s the one sent away from her home, from her friends and family, and forced to feel ashamed for having undergone a terrifying ordeal. She’s just a normal teenage girl, but there’s no one to stand with her or for her – she is left totally alone in the home of a stranger with no one to talk to or be comforted by. Those that are responsible, the guilty parties, who were able to act in such a morally repugnant way thanks to their connections, social standing and the arrogance the combination of those things afforded them seem to have largely escaped the shame and ignominy which has continued to dog Gong-ju who is still subject to physical manifestations of their actions – let alone the mental scarring. Not only that, Gong-ju is also pursued by the families of those that have caused her harm who seem to want her to change her statement of events in favour of their children. The father of one whom she had been close to even wants her to sign a petition to say that his child was “forced” into these heinous acts. Perhaps even, in a sense, he was though it’s hard to see how any rational person could ever see that as a mitigating factor in the events which did actually take place.

It’s not only Gong-ju who’s found herself at the mercy of rigid social codes. Her hard nosed and originally reluctant landlady-cum-responsible-adult Mrs. Lee has also had her fair share of disapproval from the local housewives thanks to her relationship with the town’s police chief. Her middle aged romance also causes a degree of resentment from her horrified son who doesn’t seem to care very much about his mother’s actual feelings or those of Gong-ju whom he deposited at his mother’s house like an inconvenient suitcase in the hope of making a good impression with his boss. Although originally put out by the sudden arrival of a teenage house guest who may even be some sort of delinquent, Mrs. Lee comes to a grudging admiration for this obviously damaged girl and is close to being her only real supporter (though perhaps only up to a point). Gong-ju’s growing closeness with Mrs. Lee is even more valuable as her relationship with her own mother was fractured even before the events that have befallen her and leave her unable even to count on her mother’s love and support during such a difficult time.

Told with remarkable assurance by Lee Su-jin who opts for a complex, non linear structure Han Gong-ju is frankly more harrowing than any horror film as the demons which plague the central character (and actually, many of the other women in the film) are all too real – manmade by a rigidly conformist, conservative society riddled with corruption and all too quick to point the finger of blame at those incorrectly positioned within its complex network of social hierarchies no matter what the facts of the matter may be. Shocking, even if sadly somewhat unsurprising, Han Gong-ju dares to shine a bright light on this dark corner of human suffering and by telling the sad story of this one lonely, victimised girl who nevertheless tries to live her life in spite of her difficult circumstances may help others finally wake-up to the kind of injustices we allow to take place in the world which we, daily, create.


Out today on DVD & blu-ray from Third Window Films