The Witness (목격자, Cho Kyu-jang, 2018)

The Witness poster 2The murder of a young woman outside of her New York apartment block in 1964 became a psychology text book standard thanks to the fact no one had raised the alarm or come to help her. Later investigations more or less debunked the so called “bystander effect”, at least in this instance, but it remains broadly true that those who find themselves witnessing a distressing incident fully expect that “someone” will be dealing with it, conveniently forgetting that they too are “someone”. The hero of Cho Kyu-jang’s The Witness (목격자, Mokgyeokja) is only one of many to temporarily distance himself from his community when he fears he has locked eyes with a killer and inadvertently made his family a target for retribution.

Sang-hoon (Lee Sung-min), a middle-class lawyer, is riding high after buying a new apartment (with a hefty mortgage) for his wife and daughter. Rolling home drunk after an evening drinking with colleagues, he opens yet another beer and gazes out over the balcony of his new apartment musing on how great his life is only to be confronted with a screaming woman being chased by a violent man in the courtyard. She falls and the man strikes her. Sang-hoon struggles for his phone but drops it in drunken shock. His wife emerges from the bedroom and alerts the killer to their presence by turning the lights on. Sang-hoon snaps them off and goes back to the balcony where he is convinced the killer has seen him. Paranoid, he forgets all about the poor woman bleeding on the concrete below and spends the night in his hallway clutching a baseball bat just in case.

He doesn’t know it yet, but Sang-hoon has indeed made himself a target for a marauding “random” killer. Afraid and ashamed, he decides to keep quiet. It would be easy enough to read Sang-hoon’s unwillingness to get “involved” in other people’s business as a hangover from an upbringing in an authoritarian regime in which keeping your head down and your nose clean might be essential tools for survival, but it’s also fair to say that his attitude is defined as much by notions of middle-class respectability as it is by cowardice and selfishness. An old busybody in the apartment block is constantly banging on about the house prices, getting the residents to sign a legal waver promising not to cooperate with the police or the media to avoid the name of the community becoming linked with violent crime. Sang-hoon says he wants to protect not only his wife and daughter, but their home too. His hopes and dreams are bound up with conventional homeownership. This is the way he intended to fulfil his male obligations to protect his family, but now it’s being threatened in a way he never expected and he finds himself tested.

Despite himself, Sang-hoon does feel he ought to help those in need. He bristles when his wife wants him to help out a friend whose child was injured in a car accident that the police didn’t bother to investigate properly, because he knows it’s a lost cause and she’s better to settle. He feels sorry for her, but not enough to rock the boat. Being a lawyer he perhaps knows what a risk it can be when the wrong people know where you live, but he’s at constant battle with himself knowing that the killer is still out there and will likely kill again. If he’d only called an ambulance instead of cowering by the front door, the poor woman might have survived – her death is on his hands as much as the killer’s because he chose to do nothing. The body count will only rise all while Sang-hoon tries to hedge his bets, calculating whether he’s better off keeping quiet and hoping the killer appreciates his complicity or surrendering himself to the police in the hope that they can protect him by taking the killer out of the picture.

Sang-hoon’s desire not to get involved has left him very involved indeed. He hoped it would all go away if he turned a blind eye and kept himself out of it, but like it or not he is a member of a community and he has a responsibility which cannot be abnegated. It turns out the best way to protect your family is protecting other people’s, maintaining a herd immunity to the threat of violent crime. There is, however, a reason they tell you to shout “fire” and not “help” – people are selfish and if they hear fire they know they are in danger too so it’s in their interest to come running, if it’s only you in danger they may not put themselves out. Sang-hoon’s brush with the embodiment of random threat does at least release him from the ingrained isolationism of the aspirant middle-classes in which any kind of fellow feeling is distinctly frowned upon, allowing him free rein to embrace his natural tendency towards altruism safe in the knowledge that his desire to help is not a weakness but a strength that will keep his family safe through the interconnectedness of a compassionate community.


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

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Spy Gone North (공작, Yoon Jong-bin, 2018)

Spy gone north posterSome might say the first lesson of spying is not too ask too many questions. The hero of Yoon Jong-bin’s Spy Gone North (공작, Gongjak) may wish he’d heeded this advice as his ongoing mission to gain access to North Korea’s nuclear secrets by way of an unlikely advertising scheme sets him on a dark path towards the realisation that he might not be working for the good guys after all. In geopolitical terms, an enemy is sometimes more helpful than a friend – especially if your “enemy” is working on the same system and can be relied upon to play along when the occasion calls.

By the early ‘90s, South Korea has emerged from a lengthy period of military dictatorships into a fledgling democracy. Tensions with the North are running high as the nation has announced an intention to withdraw with from the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty on grounds of national security. Fearing that the North has already successfully developed nuclear weapons, the South decides to ramp up intelligence gathering activity which is where “Black Venus” comes in. Shedding his old identity by appearing to lose himself in drink and gambling, intelligence officer Park Suk-young (Hwang Jung-min) poses as a sleazy businessman with the intention of gaining access to the North Korean elite through their external trade commission operating out of Beijing.

Improbable though it seems, Park manages to engineer a genuine friendship with the cold and austere North Korean trade official Ri Myong-un (Lee Sung-min) with whom he eventually shares unexpected common ground. Strapped for cash after the South sets them up by getting them in hock to China over a mislabelled walnut scandal, the North needs money fast, which is why they’re prepared to talk to someone as shady as Park’s cover. Park sells them an unlikely solution which runs contrary to their core philosophies in exploiting the exoticism of the forgotten North to sell capitalistic decadence in the South through selling licenses to shoot commercials on North Korean soil (which also allows him to travel about the country with a camera), but he doesn’t quite see the added value of his mission even while almost forgetting about the need to get close to the site of the supposed nuclear research facility.

While Park finds himself an “honoured guest” of the Dear Leader (Gi Ju-bong) whose presence evokes both fear and awe, he is also faced with a pressing political crisis at home as the nation prepares for an upcoming presidential collection. Despite the democratic revolution, the same party has been in power for the last 30 years and the recent swing towards the liberal opposition party has many running scared, especially as taking a softer line towards the North is a prominent manifesto pledge – alongside a reform of the security services, which is obviously distressing news for Park’s bosses. In order to maintain the sense of fear which keeps the right-wingers in power, the security services have been secretly communicating with the North and bribing them to create disturbances at politically advantageous times to manipulate the outcome of elections. Park is not exactly a liberal, but he has to admit this is not a good look and if you’re just going to parrot the “for the people” line perhaps you’re not much better than the thing you claim to hate.

Meanwhile, Park is also witness to a side of North Korea outsiders don’t generally see filled with the starving and the destitute. Loyalists all, there are those among the North Korean elite who want to see conditions improve and worry that thanks to the intense stranglehold of the ruling regime they never will. As in everything, business interests trump all. Park and Ri are fighting for the same thing, aware their fledging enterprise is a subterfuge but also that it’s a huge and dangerous first step towards a happier future. After 40 years of mutual manipulations, however, not everyone is keen on abandoning the status quo especially as the two nations have developed an intensely symbiotic relationship founded on mutual demonisation and a friendly willingness to conspire in ensuring the survival of a useful evil. Still, the strangely fraternal relationship between Park and Ri – two fiercely patriotic men from opposing sides who each identify goodness in the other becomes the heart of the film, holding out hope for empathy and compromise when most prefer enmity and chaos.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

What a Man Wants (바람 바람 바람, Lee Byeong-heon, 2018)

What a man Wants posterMarriage, eh? Bit of a rollercoaster. Lee Byeong-heon’s sex farce What a Man Wants (바람 바람 바람, Baram Baram Baram) takes two ordinary couples and exposes the various hypocrisies which underpin their existences as they battle boredom and excitement in turn before finally figuring out exactly which relationship(s) they would ideally like to be in full time. The sexual politics are distinctly old fashioned, as is the male fantasy wish fulfilment at the film’s centre, but Lee chooses wryness over cynicism in asking if a little infidelity here and there might actually strengthen an otherwise shaky connection.

Seok-guen (Lee Sung-min) used to design rollercoasters all over the world, but now he drives a taxi on Jeju and gets his kicks “picking up” fares. That’s not to say he doesn’t love his wife, the patient Dam-deok (Jang Young-Nam), but he enjoys the thrill of the chase and favours instant gratification over the patient pleasures of married life. Seok-guen is often aided and abetted in his assignations by his straight laced brother-in-law, Bong-soo (Shin Ha-kyun), who is married to Seuk-guen’s forthright sister, Mi-young (Song Ji-hyo). Bong-soo doesn’t really approve of Seok-guen’s carrying on and doesn’t see the appeal of extra-marital affairs, but realises he has little choice other than to help Seok-guen out or risk his family life imploding. The couples live next-door to one another and are extremely close.

The trouble starts when Seok-guen tries to pick up the alluring Jenny (Lee El) at a pool bar. Bong-soo, not normally smitten, is seemingly hit by a lightening bolt and finds himself suddenly fantasising about another woman. Seok-guen had long been urging Bong-soo to have an affair (which is odd seeing as Bong-soo is married to his little sister), but he probably hadn’t envisaged him stealing Jenny out from under him. Flattered when Jenny starts paying him attention, Bong-soo succumbs only to make a rookie mistake of going home with her panties in his jacket pocket. Bong-soo takes revenge for years of being an alibi and blames the whole thing on Seok-guen who is mock thrown out by Dam-deok though she only really means to teach him a lesson rather than get rid of him for good.

The problem with Jenny is she’s not really real. She’s an embodiment of a male fantasy that might as well have been conjured up by the otherwise dull Bong-soo. With her sexy outfits, self consciously cute way of speaking, and frankly unbelievable interest in a boring failed restaurateur you really have to wonder if she’s not some kind of spy or a master criminal lining up a mark (except that neither Seok-guen or Bong-soo have any money). Sadly, no. She’s just the archetypal sexpot ripped straight from a ‘70s farce with little more to her character than sauciness with a side order of harlotry, despite the valiant efforts of actress Lee El who attempts to imbue her later emotional scenes with depth and sincerity to make up for her underwritten role. Jenny repeatedly claims to know what men “want” and then gives it to them, like some sort of temptress from a folktale, never allowed to express what it is she might “want” but only ever hanging around to be “won” by one of the two guys.

Bong-soo and Seok-guen undergo a role reversal when an unexpected tragedy forces Seok-gun to reassess his philandering ways while Bong-soo becomes a practiced adulterer. The marriage of Mi-young and Bong-soo is already on shaky ground – their sex life is all but dead and they’ve been having trouble conceiving. Mi-young is addicted to social media while Bong-soo spends his spare time building LEGO models, and in addition to being marital partners they also co-own an “Italian” restaurant which Bong-soo has long wanted to turn into a Chinese one (he trained as a Chinese chef) but Mi-young continually ignores his dream despite the fact that the restaurant is permanently empty and about to go bankrupt. Partly mid-life crisis, Bong-soo’s affair is motivated by a need to reassert his “manhood” while Jenny flatters him, strokes his ego, and does all the “wifely” things the “bossy” Mi-young refuses to do.

Yet just as Seok-guen said they would, Bong-soo’s fortunes improve thanks his to philandering – he becomes a better chef, the business takes off, and Mi-young (paradoxically) seems to develop more faith him as well as additional respect for his increasing “manliness”. Both men, through their interactions with the almost non-existent Jenny, are then forced to consider what, or who, it is they really want though Lee’s message seems to be that there are “secrets” in every marriage and perhaps it’s better not to ask too many questions if you want to maintain a happy married life. Cynical, though gleefully so, What a Man Wants is a salty affair but one which ultimately places its faith in “love” to find its way home despite the messiness of the journey.


What a Man Wants was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Violent Prosecutor (검사외전, Lee Il-hyeong, 2016)

112997_47166_106Review of Lee Il-hyeong’s A Violent Prosecutor first published by UK Anime Network.


Police brutality is something of a hot button issue at the moment, so it’s a little disconcerting to see a film like A Violent Prosecutor (검사외전, Geomsawejeon) casting a rogue cop with a penchant for forced confessions as its hero. Then again, the theme plays into the obvious retro charm on offer and the film does, at least, make it plain that violence should have no place in law enforcement. The debut feature from director Lee Il-Hyeong, A Violent Prosecutor has a distinctly ‘70s vibe from its quirky credits sequence to the carefully managed tone which manages to be both serious and not at the same time.

Hwang Jung-min plays hardline prosecutor Byun Jae-wook, feared more than respected because of his willingness (or perhaps eagerness?) to indulge in physical violence in the name of justice. Already known as a trouble maker, Byun’s maverick status is an exploitable weakness and so when he kicks up a fuss trying to expose an obvious cover up, he’s framed for wrongful death after a witness dies in police custody.

Sent to prison among many of the men he helped to put there, Byun quickly finds his feet by providing free legal advice to the guards. Five years later, Byun has become the one of the prison’s top dogs but he’s still intent on clearing his name and nailing the guys who did this to him. Enter suave conman Chi-won (Gang Dong-won) and Byun sees an opening…

Aside from Byun’s problematic approach to his work, he’s definitely one of the good guys as justice, politics, and business have all come together in a whirlwind of mutually beneficial corruption. The whole mess begins during an environmental protest against an industrial complex which is about to be built right next to a bird sanctuary. The evil corporate bozos don’t want any delays so they pay a bunch of gangsters to infiltrate the protest and start a riot to make the environmentalists look like crazed, violent, loonies. Unsurprisingly, public opinion about the development improves following the unpleasant actions of the protestors. The police were just supposed to go along with this (police in Korean films never seem very interested in solving crimes after all), but Byun is different, he smells a rat and he’s not going to roll over and let powerful corporations abuse justice.

Unfortunately, his dedication is not matched by his colleagues who are more interested in their own careers than abstract concepts like truth or justice. Receiving pressure from above and realising Byun can’t be talked down, they decide to take drastic action. One of Byun’s bosses, Kang (Kim Eung-soo), later decides to move into politics, having solidified support through this alliance with the money guys, and is then interested in nothing other than his own success – lying, cheating, and smiling his way to the top. Corruption stemming from the power of monied corporations has become a constant theme in recent Korean cinema and A Violent Prosecutor makes good use of its cinematic background even if treating the subject matter in a necessarily light way.

Essentially, A Violent Prosecutor is a buddy comedy in which the two guys at the centre are kept apart for much of the film. Byun uses his hard won legal knowledge to fight his way out of prison by playing by the book, learning the error of his ways in the process. More often than not, he’s the straight man to Chi-won’s constant scamming as the charming conman comes up with one zany scheme after another trying to keep himself out of trouble whilst also helping Byun enact his plan of revenge. Actor Gang Dong-won is on fine form as the slippery but somehow loveable Chi-won whose main line of work is scamming chaebol daughters out of their inheritances by convincing them he’s a Korean-American Penn State business school graduate, peppering his speech with Americanisms but clueless when challenged on his English. He also deserves bonus points for subverting the “escape from prison dressed as a guard” trope by trying to escape from a corridor full of thugs by blending in with the very men sent to capture him.

Ending in a spectacular, if ridiculous, courtroom finale in which Byun defends himself by forcing a confession in a new, more acceptable way, A Violent Prosecutor delivers the necessary “justice” to all who seek it. Byun learns the error of his ways and accepts that his own violence was at least partly to blame for the way the situation developed, but also ensures that he gets justice for everyone else so that the rich and powerful can’t be allowed to ride roughshod over the people with no one to defend them. A smart buddy comedy, A Violent Prosecutor isn’t exactly the exploitative action fest the title seems to promise but is undoubtedly influenced by the bad cop movies of the ‘70s and excels at finding humour even in the strangest of places.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English Subtitles)

Familyhood (굿바이 싱글, Kim Tae-gon, 2016)

familyhoodThere are three kinds of actors – those who wait for roles, those who choose roles, and those who make roles for themselves. Ageing actress Go Ju-yeon (Kim Hye-soo) claims to be the third type, but at any rate she’s currently between gigs and facing professional scandals and personal crises from each and every direction. An unusual family drama, Familyhood (굿바이 싱글, Gotbai Singkeul, AKA Goodbye Single) is the coming of age story of a middle aged woman finally forced into adulthood through an unlikely friendship with a pregnant teenage girl.

A veteran TV star of over twenty years, Go Ju-yeon is perhaps better known for her scandalous relationships with younger men than her onscreen performance. Having worked hard to get where she is, perhaps Ju-yeon is entitled to play the diva, but her “difficult” personality alienates all but her most loyal staff. However, there’s one thing Ju-yeon has been missing – a traditional family life with a loving husband and children. She thinks her latest boyfriend, Ji-hoon (Kwak Si-yang),  a fellow TV star twelve years her junior, may the “the one”, but as it turns out he’s a no good two timing louse using her for her money and star status.

Heartbroken Ju-yeon swears off men forever and decides to buy herself a slice of unconditional love by becoming a mother. Turned down for an adoption because of her obvious unsuitability as evidenced by her appearances in the tabloids and by the fact that she just made this decision a few seconds ago, Ju-yeon figures it’s worth the nine month waiting period to do things the old fashioned way. Unfortunately she’s left it too late as a doctor’s appointment reveals she’s already heading into the menopause. Ju-yeon’s luck changes when she comes to the rescue of a teenage mother in the lift when a more conservative family decides it’s OK to lay into a vulnerable child they don’t even know.

Ju-yeon hits on an idea – buy the girl’s baby and raise it as her own. Dan-ji (Kim Hyun-soo) is an orphan living with her tough as nails older sister so it doesn’t take her long to agree to Ju-yeon’s suggestion even if she has her misgivings. Coming with her own contract prepared detailing her monetary compensation, Dan-ji has given this a lot more thought than the mother in waiting Ju-yeon but a sisterly bond eventually begins to develop between the two women despite the clear instruction to avoid getting attached. However, as Dan-ji’s presence begins to reinvigorate her fortunes, Ju-yeon begins to forget about her original career/romance replacer mission and has less and less time for the surrogate teenage daughter she irresponsibly promised to take care of.

Having lost her mother at a young age and spent all of her adult life in the pampered showbiz arena, Ju-yeon is a forty year old awkward woman child with a severe case of tunnel vision. As Dan-ji points out, Ju-yeon is a pure hearted sort but she’s also selfish and immature, jumping from one thing to the next and never stopping to consider the effect of her actions on those around her. Ju-yeon’s decision to become a mother is a similarly rash and selfish one as she only considers the upside of the boundless love she’s about to receive from this tiny bundle who is duty bound to love her, whilst failing to think about the practicalities of child rearing from the impact on her career and social life to the negative publicity she will receive as a single mother in a still relatively conservative society.

It’s these kinds of double standards which the film seems to want to lay bare as Ju-yeon attempts to come to the rescue of Dan-ji, albeit for selfish motives. Dan-ji, planning to get an abortion, has told no one other than her best friend about the pregnancy and is worried about the school finding out, not least because she is their representative at an inter school art contest. The boy who fathered her child had the temerity to ask if it was his before stealing a ring belonging to his mother to pay for an abortion. He is now off on an international golfing trip representing the country, but Dan-ji is imprisoned, kept out of sight so that Ju-yeon can claim the child is hers. Ju-yeon and Dan-ji first meet when Ju-yeon takes a smug family to task over their decision to loudly criticise Ju-yeon for her “immoral” ways in a hospital lift. After a long journey Ju-yeon will do the same again, only more loudly and even help to win over a few supporters from the collection of conservative mothers waiting for their kids after the art contest.

Kim creates a cosy world filled with calming pastel colours almost as if Ju-yeon really does live in a nursery. Ju-yeon wants to be a mother but still needs mothering herself and mostly gets it from her best friend and stylist Pyung-gu (Ma Dong-seok). Despite vowing to look after Dan-ji at least until her baby is born, it’s Dan-ji who mostly ends up looking after Ju-yeon, providing comfort and comparatively grown up advice whilst Ju-yeon mopes and eats ice-cream. Only when her schemes backfire and Ju-yeon faces losing everything does she finally begin to realise how she’s taken the people in her life for granted. What emerges is a new kind of family in which good friends enjoy food together because they want to eat rather than because someone insisted on cooking. Taking in everything from the ageist sexism of the entertainment industry to teenage pregnancy and neglected children, Kim Tae-gon’s Familyhood is a smart, socially conscious comedy making a heartfelt plea for a more understanding world.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Piper (손님, Kim Gwang-tae, 2015)

PiperPosterReview of Kim Gwang-tae’s The Piper (손님, Sonnim) up at UK Anime Network. I really liked this one!


The piper must be paid. So goes the old saying, and with good reason – one should always honour one’s promises but even so there are those should not be crossed. So the denizens at the centre of the mysterious hidden village in the debut feature from Korean director Kim Gwang-tae come to discover as they’re repaid for some not quite unforgotten sins when a travelling piper and his invalid son come calling.

Kim Woo-ryong is a travelling piper with a crippled leg journeying to Seoul with his young son after hearing that there is an American doctor there who may be able to treat the boy’s TB if only they can reach the city in time. After walking through the countryside they eventually come across a village which isn’t marked on any map and beg shelter from the village chieftain there. Life in the village seems like a scene from the middle ages, everyone is wearing traditional clothing and there’s something more than a “stranger in town” vibe about the way they look at Woo-ryong and his son Young-nam. The chieftain allows the pair to stay but warns them they can reveal nothing of the outside world to the village’s inhabitants and especially not that the Korean war is already “over” and has been for some time. Later Woo-ryong and Young-nam wander into a village dispute and in a fit of over helpfulness Young-nam exclaims he’s sure his dad can fix the problem (though he doesn’t know what it is). Woo-ryong jumps to the conclusion it must be about the rats which plague the town and offers to take care of them. The chieftain offers him the price of a cow if he can rid the town of vermin, but one gets the impression there’s more than one kind of rodent lurking in this strange, isolated place.

If you know the classic children’s fable, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, you likely know the outcome won’t be a pleasant one though the events of the The Piper turn a little bloodier and even more supernatural than in the Brothers Grimm  fairytale. The story starts out pleasant enough as Woo-ryong and Young-nam start to make friends in the village – Woo-ryong playing his pipe and Young-nam enjoying spending some time with the other children. However, from their very first entrance you can tell there is something very wrong in this community. There’s not just suspicion or curiosity in the way the villagers stare at the strangers, there’s fear too. Woo-ryong is a middle aged man with a lame leg, and Young-nam is a weedy 10 year old boy with a lung disease. They are no threat to anyone, what do these people have to fear?

The chieftain himself is obviously quite a sinister fellow. He charms Woo-ryong but lies to him when asked for guidance about the journey on to Seoul and seems to instil nothing but fear in the eyes of the other inhabitants. Woo-ryong strikes up a tentative romance with the village’s reluctant shaman which further raises the chieftain’s concerns – perhaps, he thinks, he doesn’t need to pay this piper after all. As might be expected, there’s a dark past at play here. Everyone is so terrified of the war, which they still believe is going on, and the things they’ve already done to survive that they’re prepared to go along with whatever their leader says to maintain their peaceful village life. Mob mentality at its worst, even those who were growing closer to the pair of strangers are quick to turn on them in a paranoid frenzy.

Like the original story, the moral is that you reap what you sew and if you don’t keep your promises, you deserve everything that’s coming to you. These are people who have lived in difficult times and done cruel things to survive. The rats which plague the town take on an almost supernatural air and have apparently developed a taste for human flesh. They become a kind of metaphor, a haunting presence which refuses to allow the villagers to forget the crimes they’ve committed and reminds them that their present safety was bought with innocent blood. A perfectly pitched fairytale with an all pervading sense of dread and foreboding, The Piper is an impressive effort from first time director Kim Gwang-tae and marks him out as a promising new voice in the world of Korean cinema.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.