A Special Lady (미옥, Lee An-gyu, 2017)

A Special Lady posterAll you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun – so goes the age old wisdom. Korean cinema, it has to be said, has been in a fairly progressive mood of late with several high profile female-led action movies to complement the macho melodrama that has become synonymous with the nation’s cinematic output. There has, however, been a slight imbalance in the way these films have been presented – yes, women carry guns and issue roundhouse kicks to the face but they do so out of maternal fire. This obsession with corrupted motherhood finds a natural home in Lee An-gyu’s A Special Lady (미옥, Miok) which puts puts Kim Hye-soo in a blonde wig and then asks her to do pretty much what she did in Coin Locker Girl only more sympathetically.

Na Hyun-jung (Kim Hye-soo) has risen from lowly bar girl and exploited sex worker to be the right-hand woman of mob boss Kim (Choi Moo-sung). Marshalling a collection of (well cared for) high class call girls, her main stock in trade is blackmail – she sends her girls out as honey traps to capture “important” people, bring them back to the “hotel” for illicit “fun”, and film them in the act to compel them to work in the best interests of the gang. The plan usually works, but snotty prosecutor Choi (Lee Hee-joon), who has just returned from his honeymoon after marrying the boss’ daughter, liked to think of himself as having integrity and is hell bent on revenge against the villainous Na. Exploiting weaknesses already exposed within the gang including the stormy romance between Na and ambitious foot soldier Lim (Lee Sun-Kyun), and the return of Na’s illegitimate son with boss Kim whose wife and (legitimate) child were murdered by a rival organisation, Choi sets about taking it down in an unorthodox way as a means of getting his sex tape back but also fulfilling his commitment to “justice”.

The English title, A Special Lady, has an awkward spin to it with its mobster-esque patter hinting at a classy bar girl or much loved peripheral figure. The Korean title which is simply a woman’s name gives a better indication of the tale at hand in its emphasis on loss of innocence, fall, and rebirth as something or someone else. Na is certainly well versed in the gangster world, perfectly equipped to operate within it both in her physical prowess and also in her emotional control, politicking, and ability to strategise, yet she also operates outside of gang structures with many, including Lim who has long been in love with her, resenting that a mere woman holds such a high position with such proximity to Kim.

This marginal status extends to Na’s feminised perspective which reduces her to a figure of ruined motherhood. Na takes care of her girls, as a mother would, entrusting them to another woman who acts as their madam but is fiercely loyal to her, more nanny than henchman. Her major preoccupation is with the son she was forced to give up as an infant after spending time on the inside on behalf of the gang. Joo-hwan (Kim Min-suk) is Kim’s son and heir and the mob boss has been careful to keep him overseas to keep him safe, but either because of persistent parental absence or his gangster genes, the boy keeps getting himself expelled for violent conduct and Kim thinks it’s probably time to bring him home and verse him in his heritage. Na has long wanted to be reunited with her almost grown up son, but he has no idea she is his mother and believes he is the son of Kim’s deceased wife. When Joo-hwan is threatened and then turned against her by vicious rumours, Na will stop at nothing to ensure his safety even if he never knows who she really is.

Na’s descent into ferocious fighting machine, attacking a field full of mobsters with a bone saw, is the rage of a mother whose child is threatened. She doesn’t fight them off because she wants to survive, or for revenge, or simply because they are from a rival gang but because they threaten her children both in the case of one of her girls who happens to be with Na, and of course their targeting of Joo-hwan solely to get to his mother. The world of the film is a persistently misogynistic one – not just in the way women are routinely used as a means to an end by the gangsters, and by Na herself, but in the way that Na struggles to be accepted as a valid member of the gangster hierarchy rather than an adjunct to it as an honorary manager of the female contingent. Lim, who feels displaced by her in his status within the gang, is also desperately in love with Na who seems to return his feelings on some level but ultimately turns him down – something he can not accept, stooping so low as to threaten Na’s child to blackmail her into accepting him despite his intense resentment on finding out about her previous relationship with Kim.

Unexpected action hero status aside, Na becomes nothing more than a figure of corrupted motherhood who must be “repaired” through saving her son and then by retiring to become a more “normal” maternal figure. The debut from Lee An-gyu, A Special Lady features a number of well choreographed action scenes, strikingly composed images, and impressive production design but all too often falls back on tired ideas as its heroine battles valiantly to save her son with the intention of “rescuing” herself in the process.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Petty Romance (쩨쩨한 로맨스, Kim Jung-hoon, 2010)

petty-romanceKorea is quite good at rom-coms. Consequently they make quite a lot of them and as the standard is comparatively high you have to admire the versatility on offer. Korean romantic comedies are, however, also a little more conservative,  coy even, than those from outside of Asia which makes Petty Romance (쩨쩨한 로맨스,  Jjae Jjae Han Romaenseu) something of an exception in its desire to veer in a more risqué direction. He’s too introverted, she’s too aggressive – they need each other to take the edges off, it’s a familiar story but one that works quite well. Petty Romance does not attempt to bring anything new to the usual formula but does make the most of its leads’ well honed chemistry whilst keeping the melodrama to a minimum.

Manhwa artist Jeong Bae (Lee Sun-kyun) is not having much success with his latest project. In fact, his publishing house has been using his submitted drafts as scrap paper. He’s also got a problem in that a gallery owning friend of his late father has been the caretaker of a precious painting left to him in his father’s will but now wants to call in a loan or sell it to get the money back and so Jeong bae is in desperate need of fast cash.

Across town, Da-rim (Choi Kang-hee) has managed to bag a writing gig on her friend’s woman’s magazine but finds herself out of her depth working on a sex advice column when she has no direct experience of love or dating. Given the axe by her friend and living with her moody twin brother to whom she owes money, Da-rim is also in need of something to sink her teeth in to.

When a friend of Bae’s lets him know about a new competition with a $100,000 cash prize it sounds like just what he needs. The only snag is the competition is for “adult” manhwa which has not generally been Bae’s thing. Taking his editor’s advice, Bae decides to work with a writer but most of his interviewees are not exactly what he’s looking for. Da-rim with her “experience” in translation and publishing, as well as her unusual forthrightness concerning the subject matter very much fits the bill.

Kim doesn’t waste much time in getting the two together though their love/hate relationship is a definite slow boil as both Bae and Da-rim spend most of their partnership playing each other to try and get the upper hand. Bae’s trouble, according to his editor, is a talent for action but a failure with narrative – hence the need for a writer. Da-rim, by contrast, has altogether too much imagination coupled with the kind of arrogance which masks insecurity. Having blagged her way into the job, Da-rim spends most of her time ensuring that she’s in a superior position to Bae so that he will have to do most of the work while she enjoys freshly made coffee ordered to distract him from the fact that she has no idea what she’s doing.

Despite coming up with a promising storyline about a sex obsessed female assassin, Da-rim’s naivety is palpable in her attempts to come up with a suitably “adult” atmosphere. Disney-esque scenarios of handsome princes and desert islands, even if spiced up (in the most innocent of ways), isn’t quite striking the tone for the kind of prize winning raunchy manga that the pair are aiming for. Pushed further, Da-rim’s extrapolations from “research” are so unrealistic as to set Bae’s alarm bells ringing but offered with such insistence as to have him momentarily doubt himself.

Kim makes good use of manhwa as a visual device allowing him to include slightly more erotic content than usual in a Korean romantic comedy in an entirely “safe” way. Refreshingly he keeps the usual plot devices to a minimum though there is the “sibling mistaken for lover”, “mistimed job offer,” and “aggressive rival” to contend with, even if the major barriers are entirely centred around the personalities of the protagonists who are each fairly self involved in their own particular ways. Despite making good use of the chemistry generated by previous collaborators Lee Sun-kyun and Choi Kang-hee, Petty Romance lives up to its name in providing enough low-key drama to keep rom-com fans happy but never quite moves beyond the confines of its genre.


Available to stream on Mubi (UK) until 15th March 2017 courtesy of Terracotta Distribution.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Helpless (화차, Byun Young-joo, 2012)

121003-006_1211020310103Review of Byun Young-joo’s Helpless (화차, Hwacha) first published by UK Anime Network


Can you ever really know another person? Everything you think you know about the people closest to you is founded on your own desire to believe what they’ve told you is the fundamental truth about themselves, yet you’ll never receive direct proof one way or the other. Byun Young-joo’s Helpless is based on Miyuki Miyabe’s popular novel Kasha (available in an English translation by Alfred Birnbaum under the title All She Was Worth) which literally means “fiery chariot” and is the name given to a subset of yokai who feed on the corpses of those who have died after accumulating evil deeds, which may tell you something about the direction this story is headed. After his fiancée suddenly disappears, one man discovers the woman he loved was not who she claimed to be, but perhaps also discovers that she was exactly who he thought she was all along.

Mun-ho (Lee Sun-kyun) and Seon-young (Kim Min-hee) are newly engaged and on their way to deliver a wedding invite to his parents in person. They seem bubbly and excited, still cheerful in the middle of a long car journey. It’s doubly surprising therefore when Mun-ho returns to the car after stopping at a service station to find that Seon-young has disappeared. Seon-young is not answering her phone and has left her umbrella behind despite the pouring rain which only leaves Mun-ho feeling increasingly concerned. His only clue is her distinctive hair clip lying on the floor of the petrol station toilet. Reporting his fiancée’s disappearance to the police, Mun-ho is more or less fobbed off as they come to the obvious conclusion that the couple must have argued and Seon-young has simply left him, as is her right. Confused, hurt, and worried Mun-ho turns to his old friend, Jong-geun (Cho Seong-ha), a recently disgraced ex-policeman, to help him understand what exactly has happened to the woman he thought he loved.

Mun-ho, helpless as the title, has no idea what might have transpired – has she been abducted? Was she in trouble, was someone after her? Did she simply get cold feet as the policemen suggested? A trip to Seon-young’s apartment reveals the place has been pretty thoroughly turned over leaving little trace behind, the entire apartment has even been swept for fingerprints in chillingly methodical fashion. Another clue comes from a close friend who’d been looking into the couple’s finances and found some improprieties in Seon-young’s past which he’s surprised she wouldn’t have mentioned. Perhaps she was embarrassed or ashamed of her credit history, but running out onto the motorway in the pouring rain without even stopping to pick up an umbrella seems like a massive overreaction for such an ordinary transgression.

What transpires is a tale of identity theft, vicious loan sharks, parental neglect, and the increasingly lonely, disconnected society which opens doors for the predatory. Usurious loans become an ironic recurring theme as they ruin lives left, right and centre. Following the financial crash, a father takes out a loan from gangsters to support his business but promptly goes missing. His wife is so distraught that she becomes too depressed to care for their daughter who ends up in a catholic orphanage. Gangsters have their own rules, the debt passes to the girl, young as she is, who is then forced to pay in non-monetary services until she finally escapes only to discover the torment is not yet over. Meanwhile, another woman takes out a series of loans to cover credit card debt and is forced to declare bankruptcy, left only with a lingering sense of shame towards her ailing mother who then dies in a freak accident leaving her a windfall inheritance which she uses to buy a fancy headstone for the woman she was never able to look after whilst still alive.

The original identity theft is only made possible by this fracturing of traditional communities in favour of impersonal city life. Nobody really knows anybody anymore – Seon-young had claimed to have no family and no close friends so there was no one to vouch for her. Many other young women are in similar positions, orphaned and unmarried, living in urban isolation with only work colleagues to wonder where they’ve got to should they not arrive at the office one day. Loneliness and boredom leave the door wide open for opportunists seeking to exploit such weaknesses for their own various gains.

Byun hints that something is wrong right away by switching to anxious, canted and strange angles filled with oddly cramped compositions. The eerie score enhances the feeling of impending doom as Mun-ho continues to dig into Seong-young’s past, finding confusion and reversals each way he looks. Seong-young was not who she claimed to be, and her tragic past traumas can in no way excuse her later conduct, but even if Mun-ho’s faith in her was not justified, there is a kind of pureness in his unwavering love which adds to the ongoing tragedy. Mun-ho fell in love with the woman Seong-young would have been if life had not been so cruel, and perhaps that part of her loved him too, but life is cruel and now it’s too late. An intriguingly plotted, relentlessly tense thriller Helpless will make you question everything you ever thought you knew about your nearest and dearest, but it is worth remembering that there are some questions it is better not to ask.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Paju (파주, Park Chan-ok, 2009)

pajuPaju (파주) is the name of a city in the far north of Korea, not far from “the” North, to be precise. Like the characters who inhabit it, Paju is a in a state of flux. Recently invaded by gangsters in the pay of developers, the old landscape is in ruins, awaiting the arrival of the future but fearing an uncertain dawn. Told across four time periods, Paju begins with Eun-mo’s (Seo Woo) return from a self imposed three year exile in India, trying to atone for something she does not understand. Much of this has to do with her brother-in-law, Joong-shik (Lee Sun-kyun), an local activist and school teacher with a troubled past. Love lands unwelcomely at the feet of two people each unable to make us of it in this melancholy coming of age tale shot through with tragic irony.

To begin at the beginning, eight years prior to Eun-mo’s return from India, Joong-sik is hiding from the police in the home of his first love, now the wife of a comrade who, unlike Joong-sik, is serving time for unspecified political crimes. After Ja-young (Kim Bo-kyung) returns home from failing to see her husband in prison and aggressively ignores Joong-shik, he somehow manages to seduce her only for a tragic accident to befall her young son while the couple are busy in the bedroom.

Guilt ridden, Joong-sik runs away to religious friends in Paju in an attempt to evade the police and the unpleasant domestic mess he’s just created back in the city. Whilst there he meets the teenage Eun-mo and ends up marrying her older sister, Eun-su (Shim Yi-young). When Eun-su is killed in an accident, the pair end up living together as a family but Eun-mo’s growing maturity and Joong-sik’s past traumas conspire to ensure the nature of their relationship is, like their environment, in constant flux.

Joong-shik is a man with an uncertain outlook. Believing himself to be bad, he’s constantly trying to overcompensate in goodness by participating in church activities and getting involved in social activism. His political activity is more born out of a desire to appear to care, than actual caring, as he later confesses to Eun-mo. He got involved because he thought it was “cool”, stayed out of loyalty, and finally continues because he doesn’t know how to stop even though he thinks the struggle is pointless. Joong-shik is man who’s convinced himself he doesn’t deserve what he wants, so he avoids wanting anything at all and has become hollow as a result.

It may be this quality of vagueness that sets Eun-mo’s alarm bells ringing, aside from the obvious intrusion of a stranger into her necessarily close relationship with her older sister who is her last remaining relative following the deaths of their parents. Eun-su seems overjoyed in her unexpected marriage but cracks appear when Joong-shik remains unwilling to consummate the union. Ironically enough, Eun-su has a series of burn scars across her back which she speculates is the cause of Joong-shik’s aversion. Joong-shik does indeed have a habit of “burning” other people – from the accidental scalding of Ja-young’s son to Eun-su’s eventual fiery death of which her scars are a grim foreshadowing. This fear of being the harbinger of misfortune is perhaps why he finds honesty such a difficult concept, even if his main aim is to protect those he truly cares about from being burned by a truth which only he possesses.

With a touch of Antonioni inspired astuteness, Park begins the film in thick fog as Eun-mo attempts to chart her way back home to a town she no longer quite knows. The mist eventually lifts but Eun-mo spends the rest of the film lost in the haze, perpetually prevented from seeing anything clearly. Realising Joong-shik has lied to her about the circumstances of her sister’s death she becomes increasingly suspicious of him just as she’s forced to confront her (she judges) inappropriate feelings for a man who is technically a relative even if she didn’t suspect him of contributing to whatever it is that really happened to Eun-su. Each is hiding something, unwilling to reveal themselves fully to the other, intentionally blurring the world around them and damaging their own vision in the process.

Anchored by a stand out performance from actress Seo Woo in the difficult role of the emotionally fragile Eun-mo, Paju is a sad tale of the corrosive effects of guilt and unresolved longing. Eun-mo has returned home in search of answers to questions to she’s too afraid to ask, whereas Joong-shik has too many answers to questions he never stops examining. Sacrifices are made as Eun-mo and Joong-shik attempt to move forward but once again find themselves facing different directions as Eun-mo looks to the future and Joong-shik to the past. Beautifully shot with an intriguing non-linear structure, Paju is an ambitious indie drama realised with unusual skill and genuinely affecting human emotion.


International trailer (English subtitles) – WARNING! Contains major spoilers.

A Hard Day (끝까지 간다, Kim Sung-hoon, 2014)

2014 - A Hard Day (still 2)In an unprecedented level of activity, here is another review up on UK-anime.net – this time Korean black comedy crime thriller, A Hard Day (끝까지 간다, Kkeutkkaji Ganda) which was shown at the London Film Festival and the London Korean Film Festival and is now out on DVD from Studio Canal.


For most people, a “hard day” probably means things like not being able to find a parking space, missing your train, the office coffee machine being broken and your boss having a mental breakdown right on the office floor but for not-totally-honest-but-sort-of-OK Seoul policeman Gun-su “hard” doesn’t quite begin to cover it.

Gun-su is driving furiously and arguing with his wife on the phone because he’s skipped out on his own mother’s funeral to rush to “an important work matter” which just happens to be that he has the only key to a drawer which contains some dodgy stuff it would have been better for internal affairs not to find – and internal affairs are on their way to have a look right now. So pre-occupied with the funeral, probable career ending misery and the possibility of dropping his fellow squad members right in it, Gun-su is driving way too fast. Consequently he hits something which turns out to be man. Totally stressed out by this point, Gun-su does the most sensible thing possible and puts the body in the boot of his car and continues on to the police station. Just when he thinks he’s finally gotten away with these very difficult circumstances, things only get worse as the guy the he knocked over turns out to be the wanted felon his now disgraced team have been assigned to track down. Oh, and then it turns out somebody saw him take the body too and is keen on a spot of blackmail. Really, you couldn’t make it up!

Some might say the Korean crime thriller format is all played out by this point, but what A Hard Day brings to the genre is a slice of totally black humour that you rarely see these days. Gun-su is obviously not an honest guy, but he’s not a criminal mastermind either and his fairly haphazard way of finding interesting solutions to serious problems is a joy to watch. This isn’t the first film where someone happens on the idea of hiding a body in a coffin, but it might be the first where said person uses a set of yellow balloons to block a security camera, his daughter’s remote control soldier to pull a body through an air conditioning duct and his shoelaces to prize the wooden nails out of his own mother’s coffin to safely deposit an inconvenient corpse inside. Gun-su (mostly) manages to stay one step ahead of whatever’s coming for him, albeit almost by accident and with Clouseau like ability to emerge unscathed from every deadly scrape. He’s definitely only slightly on the right side of the law but still you can’t help willing him on in his ever more dastardly deeds as he tries to outwit his mysterious opponent.

Though it does run a little long, refreshingly the plot remains fairly tight though it is literally one thing after another for poor old Gun-su. A blackly comic police thriller, A Hard Day isn’t claiming to be anything other than a genre piece but it does what it does with a healthy degree of style and confidence. The action scenes are well done and often fairly spectacular but they never dominate the film, taking a back seat to some cleverly crafted character dynamics. Frequent Hong Sang-soo collaborator Lee Sung-kyun excels as the slippery Gun-su whose chief weapon is his utter desperation while his nemesis, played by Cho Jing-woong, turns in an appropriately menacing turn as a seemingly omniscient master criminal.

Yes, A Hard Day contains a number of standard genre tropes that some may call clichés, but it uses them with such finesse that impossible not to be entertained by them. Bumbling, corrupt policemen come up against unstoppable criminals only to find their detective bones reactivating at exactly the wrong moment and threatening to make everything ten times worse while the situation snowballs all around them. However, A Hard Day also has its cheeky and subversive side and ends on a brilliantly a-moralistic note that one doesn’t normally associate with Korean cinema in particular. It may not be the most original of films, but A Hard Day is heaps of morbidly comic fun!