Hot Blooded (뜨거운 피, Cheon Myeong-kwan, 2022)

A dejected gangster decides to take the chance on a different kind of life but is soon pulled back into internecine underworld conflict where humanity is weakness and the only prize is a lonely hegemony in Cheon Myeong-kwan’s ‘90s-set thriller, Hot Blooded (뜨거운 피, Ddeugeoun Pi). As much about fathers and sons as it is about uneasy brotherhood, Choi’s adaptation of the novel by Kim Un-su harks back to the classic gangster picture in which the hero proves too noble for his surroundings and finds a single act of compassion provoking nothing more than chaos and misery. 

In the small enclave of Kuam, Busan, Hee-su (Jung Woo) is a petty foot soldier on the cusp of turning 40 who is becoming tired of this way of life. Loyal to his boss, Son (Kim Kap-soo), Hee-su is also aware that times are changing and the boss’ tried and tested approach may no longer meet them. When a vicious gangster, Yong-kang (Choi Moo-sung), returns from exile abroad after fleeing to escape a murder charge, gangland equilibrium is suddenly unbalanced not least by his shift into drug dealing that eventually places him at odds with Hee-su’s gang. After defusing a potential turf war, Hee-su decides he wants out and takes up with booze smuggler Yang-dong in the electric slot machine trade hoping to make enough money to open a small hotel on a nearby island with his longterm girlfriend and her adult son Ami (Lee Hong-nae) who has just been released from prison after falling in with a thuggish gang. 

As he eventually realises, Hee-su has merely ended up as a pawn stuck between Son and Nam, the head of a rival outfit trying to muscle in on their territory. His first problem is that his childhood friend, Chul-jin (Ji Seung-hyun), is a liaison for Nam’s gang. Son explains that only by taking out someone like Chul-jin can they start a negotiation with Nam to nix a gang war before it escalates, but Hee-su cannot bring himself to kill his friend while sufficiently unbalanced by his suggestion that he’s being played by Son as to doubt the old man’s advice. We’re given constant reminders that Chul-jin is a father of young children, while Hee-su has no children of his own but is a surrogate father figure to Ami. Effectively brothers, the two men met as orphans at a government facility and it’s clear that Hee-su sees Son as a man to whom he owes a fatherly debt while Chul-jin may not have any loyalty to anyone besides himself even as he claims that all he wants is to live peacefully with his children just as all Hee-su wants is to open his hotel and live with In-sook (Yoon Ji-hye) and Ami in a less violent environment. 

Hee-su’s decision to leave is a kind a of betrayal in itself, born of a desire to break free of the restrictive codes of gangsterdom and be his own man charting his own future but little realising that his life is still ruled by the laws of the underworld. Later someone asks him what it is he wanted to protect. All he can say is that there was something once, but he’s forgotten what it was. In leaving his gangster family he unwittingly destroys his dreams of forging his own, robbed of the more peaceful life he dreamed of by the chaos and violence of the underworld. The irony is that everyone describes Kuam as a “shithole”, a moribund small-town where even the casino hotel craze which is the centre of the gangster economy may be on its way out. Hee-su can’t really understand why they’re having a turf war over a place no one wants, only to realise it’s just a smokescreen to disguise what it is that’s really worth having and why. 

A late existential speech makes plain Hee-su’s predicament in Yang-kang’s logic that men like him fall to the depths of hell or become kings of all they survey. Yet for Hee-su it’s all much the same, rendered lonely by everything he’s lost while achieving the success craved by so many that is the opposite of what he wanted. It turns out Son may have had a point, the reason he survived so long was his ability to keep calm and play the long game. Hot-headed revenge is a luxury a gangster can’t afford as Hee-su finds out to his cost. “Fathers are all powerless” Chul-jin tries to tell him, though there’s something left of the old Hee-su in his final act of letting a man who betrayed him go because he’s the last in the boss’ bloodline potentially sealing his own fate in some far off act of vengeance. Very much a classic gangster drama in which a noble foot soldier finds himself torn by conflicting loyalties, Hot Blooded proceeds with a weary fatalism leaving its hero a coldblooded ghost which might be a fitting end for a man who once tried to make his fortune selling fake hot peppers.


Hot Blooded screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Long Live the King (롱 리브 더 킹: 목포 영웅, Kang Yoon-sung, 2019)

long live the king poster 1Back in the good old days, gangsters used to make a case for themselves that they were standing up for the little guy and protecting those who couldn’t protect themselves. Of course that wasn’t quite the truth, but one can’t deny how closely small town thuggery and political office can resemble one another. Following his breakout hit The Outlaws, Kang Yoon-sung returns with web comic adaptation Long Live the King (롱 리브 더 킹: 목포 영웅, Long Live the King: Mokpo Yeongwoong), another unconventional comedy in which a surprisingly loveable rogue rediscovers his national pride and finds a more positive direction in which to channel his desire to be helpful.

Se-chool (Kim Rae-won) is a notorious thug with a traumatic past currently working with a local gang hired to clear a small protest of stall owners trying to cling on to a traditional market space in working class Mokpo where a developer wants to build a theme park and upscale skyscraper. A feisty young lawyer, So-hyun (Won Jin-a), is working with the protesters on their case and has no problem telling the gangsters where to get off. Impressed, Se-chool is smitten and starts to wonder if he’s on the wrong side but his attempts to get So-hyun’s attention – being strangely nice to the protestors, buying everyone lunch etc, spectacularly backfire. Only when he hears about another man, Hwang-bo (Choi Moo-sung), who used to be a gangster but has now reformed and become a social justice campaigner running a small not-for-profit cafe serving meals to the vulnerable, does he begin to see an opening, vowing to give up the gangster life and commit himself to serving the people of Mokpo.

The irony is that everyone seems to think that Se-chool has a hidden agenda, but his only agenda is the obvious one in that he wants to win So-hyun’s heart even if that means he has to shape up and learn to become a decent person rather than a heartless gangster thug. Known as the king of the nightlife, Se-chool is regarded as a slightly eccentric, good time guy, so his sudden desire to go “legit” is met with bemusement rather than surprise, but old habits are hard to shake and it takes a while for him to realise that trying to help people with his fists is not the best way to go about it. Punching out some punks making trouble in a cafe gets him an earful from the proprietress who explains that she owes a lot of money to the guys’ gang so Se-chool’s chivalry has probably caused her a series of potentially serious problems she assumes he won’t be on hand to help her out with. Nevertheless, he retains his desire to wade in and do his bit, becoming a surprise local hero when he puts himself in danger to ensure the unconscious driver of a crashed bus gets out safely while the other passengers make their escape.

Meanwhile, local politics is starting to heat up. Venal politician Choi Man-su (Choi Gwi-hwa) is up for re-election and running on a platform of making Mokpo great again. It comes as no surprise that Man-su is deep into the corrupt theme park project and outsourcing general thuggery to Se-chool’s arch-enemy which eventually includes taking out potential rivals like Hwang-bo whose approval ratings are soaring while voters are becoming tired of Man-su’s big money tactics and insincere messaging. Soon enough, Se-chool is persuaded to enter the race seeing as his “local hero” persona puts him in good stead to oppose Man-su’s establishment credentials. But, in order to get elected and convince So-hyun he’s really changed, he’ll have to finally face his traumatic gangster past while learning to be open and honest with his feelings.

Kang goes in hard for the business of politics, taking pot-shots not only at corrupt establishment figures in so tight with organised crime that they’re little more than jumped up gangsters, but also at ambitious party hoppers, and misguided mobsters who think they’re onto the big ticket by hooking up with “legitimate” power. Poor Se-chool, meanwhile, actually thought he was doing “proper business” in his persona as a besuited gangster of the new, corporatised school little thinking about the little guy as he unwittingly went about his ultra-capitalist agenda. Heading for broad comedy, Long Live the King misses an opportunity for serious satire but has undeniable heart as the misused hero learns to accept himself in being accepted by others, falling in love not only with a feisty activist lawyer but with community spirit and progressive politics as he vows to fight for a better future for the people of Mokpo while opposing the inherent corruption in the system embodied by men like Man-su who feel themselves entitled to exploit solely by virtue of their own superiority.


Long Live the King was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Forgotten (기억의 밤, Jang Hang-jun, 2017)

forgotten posterEver wondered if you’re living in a simulacrum? Strangely, the thought isn’t one which occurs to the hero of Jang Hang-jun’s Forgotten (기억의 밤, Gieokui Bam) despite his sense of déjà vu and the uncanny eeriness of his world. Then again, perhaps that’s because he is wilfully complicit in his own life lie, afraid to open the door and confront the ghosts trapped inside his psyche seemingly desperate get out. A tense psychological thriller, Forgotten is also a symbolist drama in which Jin-seok, a man literally trapped in the past, is forced to free himself from a locked room mystery only to discover his own dark truths.

Following some distressed sounds from someone who claims not to be able to remember whatever it is they’re being interrogated about, we find a young man, Jin-seok (Kang Ha-neul), peacefully asleep on his mother’s shoulder as his family drive to their new home. Jin-seok is an anxious young man under a lot of stress studying to retake university exams while his brother, Yoo-seok (Kim Mu-yeol), is the archetypal good Korean son. He is handsome (if a little geeky looking), clever, good at sports, patient and kind. In short Yoo-seok is everyone’s hero, not least his little brother’s, while Jin-seok is a nervous wreck who rarely leaves the house and makes sure to have his discman with him when he does to block out the noise and fury of city life. According to the prominently displayed calendar, it is May 1997.

Things start to go awry when Jin-seok finds out that the house’s previous owner has left some property in the upstairs room which he will collect at a later date. The family aren’t supposed to go in there ’til he does and so the brothers will be sharing a room. Jin-seok is however fascinated by the locked door and the strange noises he thinks he can hear coming from upstairs. Things go from bad to worse when Jin-seok witnesses Yoo-seok being kidnapped in the street only to return 19 days later with no memory of where he’s been. Little by little, Jin-seok comes to doubt that the man who has returned is really his brother, but if he isn’t, then who is he and why is any of this happening?

Like all good gothic mysteries, the first problem is Jin-seok’s supposedly fragile mental state. His family repeatedly check he’s taking his medication and take care to ensure his life is as stress free as possible, apparently afraid that he will relapse into some kind of breakdown the cause of which may be partly the reason that the family has moved to a quieter area. Thus neither he nor we can be sure if everything he experiences is real, a product of his strained mind, or a problem with his medication.

Wedded to this story is the coded past of Korea in 1997 struck by the Asian economic crisis which, the film seems to say, provoked a kind of paranoid madness generalised across society. In this difficult climate in which jobs were scarce and even those in professional occupations faced a significant drop in living standards, extreme solutions began to seem attractive. A young woman and her daughter are murdered and the killer never caught, a little boy orphaned and abandoned by his relatives who keep his family’s money for themselves, a young man resolves to commit a terrible transgression in the hope of saving a loved one, and all because of a tragic accident and some random numbers on a screen. 

Jang Hang-jun turns the relatively low budget to his advantage in creating a world of intense uncanniness, somehow realer than real but never quite right. Gradually peeling back the layers of Jin-seok’s existence to expose the wires below, Jang’s artistry becomes apparent as the world comes into focus albeit presenting a different kind of mystery. Anchored by the impressive performance of a deglammed Kang Ha-neul, Forgotten is as bleak a tragedy as they come. The truth may set one free, but not quite in the way the saying implies and there are some things with which is it impossible to live. The unseen legacy of a traumatic era sends its invisible shockwaves through the present and out into the future, and perhaps the only way to survive them is to avoid opening the door.


Streaming worldwide via Netflix.

Original trailer (no subtitles)