Microhabitat (소공녀, Jeon Go-woon, 2017)

Microhabitat posterIs there a “right” or, by implication, “wrong” way to live your life? The heroine of Jeon Go-woon’s debut feature Microhabitat (소공녀, Sogongnyeo) is determined to live by her own rules, but her unconventional approach to life in competitive Korean society is not treated with the same kind of universal acceptance with which she treats each and every person she meets on her meandering path towards fulfilment. Life is conspiring to take away even the smallest pleasures which make existence bearable, but small pleasures are sometimes all life is about and perhaps the only thing really worth fighting for.

At 31 years old, Miso (Esom) lives what might outwardly be thought of as a miserable existence. Working as a cleaner she exists hand to mouth and is able to afford only a tiny, unheated, one room apartment in a run down part of the city. Her life is tightly budgeted and whatever else anyone might say about the way she lives, Miso is not irresponsible and refuses to get into debt. It is therefore a huge problem when a New Year price hike threatens to push her beloved cigarettes out of her reach. If that weren’t worrying enough, her landlord is also jacking up the rent. Staring intently at her accounts book, Miso contemplates a life without cigarettes and whiskey and then takes a look around her before deciding to strike through the line marked “rent”. Packing her most essential belongings into a couple of suitcases, she decides to make herself temporarily homeless and reliant on the kindness of former friends now virtual strangers whom she hopes will be minded to repay past kindnesses by putting her up for a while.

Miso’s plight is symptomatic of many in her generation who feel they’ve lost out in Korea’s relentlessly competitive, conformist, and conservative society, but her fate also bears out something of a persistent social stigma directed at those without means or family. Unlike the friends she decides to track down, Miso never graduated university – she lost her parents young and then ran out of money, but then she isn’t particularly bitter about something she was powerless to control. Miso’s small pleasures are also ones generally marked off limits to “nice” young women who generally do not smoke or drink and the old fashioned austerity mentality sees nothing good in a “self indulgent” need to enjoy life by “wasting” money on “frivolous” things if you claim not to be able to find the money to pay your rent. Some would say Miso has her priorities all wrong and has messed up her life by getting trapped in the world of casual labour and still being single at such an advanced age, conveniently ignoring the fact that much of the social order functions solely to keep women like her in their place so the higher ups can prosper.

Miso, however, would probably listen patiently to their concerns before calmly brushing them off. She is happy – to an extent, at least, with her minimalist life. She doesn’t need a fancy apartment or a swanky car, she only wants her cigarettes, her whisky, and her boyfriend Hansol (Ahn Jae-Hong) – an aspiring manhwa artist who feels broadly the same but is starting to get frustrated with his own precarious economic circumstances and present inability to offer the degree of economic support which would mean the pair could move in together. The first friend she tracks down, Mun-young (Kang Jin-a), has become a workaholic salary woman who self administers saline drips at work to increase her productivity and declines to put Miso up on the grounds having someone around when she’s not there makes her uncomfortable. Each of her old bandmates has opted for the conventional life but it has not served them well – keyboardist Hyun-jung (Kim Gook-hee) is unhappily married and trapped in a home of oppressive silence, Dae-yong (Lee Sung-wook) is a brokenhearted wreck whose wife has left him after less than eight months of marriage, vocalist Roki (Choi Deok-moon) has a strange relationship with his parents, and former guitarist Jung-mi (Kim Jae-hwa) has thrown herself headlong into stepford wife territory going quietly mad through boredom and insecurity in the palatial apartment that belongs to her husband’s family.

For various reasons, Miso understands that she can’t stay with her friends very long though she tries to help each of them as best she can while she’s around. She cleans their apartments, cooks them nutritious meals, keeps them company and listens to their problems though few of them take the trouble to really ask her why it is she is in the position she is in or how they might be able to help beyond providing temporary shelter. Surprised by one of her wealthy clients who is unexpectedly at home during cleaning time and seems to be distressed, Miso does her best to comfort her, making it clear that she does not disapprove of her client’s lifestyle and thinks she has nothing in particular to be ashamed of. The client, vowing to leave her present occupation behind, feels quietly terrible that her decision inevitably means Miso will lose her job but Miso genuinely means it when she says she’s happy for her client and hopes she will be able to attain her dreams.

Forced to leave the memory of each of her friends behind, Miso’s world seems to shrink until even her beloved whisky now seems like it will be out of her reach. Jeon Go-woon is unafraid to lay bare Miso’s bleak prospects, though she depicts them in an often humorous light as Miso goes apartment hunting in the darkest and dingiest part of Seoul, striding up endless flights of stairs to rooms with increasingly tiny windows before landing at the only realistic possibility in a filthy attic space with no electricity. Still, Miso remains undaunted. She is free, beholden to no one, and retains her kind heart even as she becomes a cypher to us, lost under the grey skies of an indifferent city until she alone becomes the tiny light on its ever expanding horizons.


Microhabitat screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 10th July, 6.30pm.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tazza: The Hidden Card (타짜-신의 손, Kang Hyung-Chul, 2014)

tazza posterYou gotta know how to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run. Apparently these rules of the table are just as important in the cutthroat world of the Korean card game Hwatu as they are in the rootinest tootinest saloon bar. Like most card games, having the winning hand is less important than the ability to play your opponent and so it’s more a question of who can cheat the best (without actually breaking the rules, or at least being caught doing so) than it is of skill or luck. A second generation sequel to 2006’s Tazza: The High Rollers, The Hidden Card (타짜-신의 손, Tajja: Shinui Son) is a slick, if overlong, journey into the dark, underground world of gambling addicted card players which turns out to be much more shady than the shiny suits and cheesy grins would suggest.

Wisecracking kid Dae-gil (T.O.P) comes into contact with the first film’s fast talking hustler Go (Yu Hae-Jin) and realises he has a talent for trickery. As a young man he gets himself into trouble trying to save a family member from a gangster whom he winds up stabbing meaning he has to go on the run and leave the girl he’s fallen head over heels for, Mina (Shin Se-Kyung), far behind him with only the promise to come back for her when he’s made something of himself. With nothing to fall back on Dae-gil ends up working for cardsharping gangsters in what is really a series of high level con operations. His first problem occurs when he temporarily forsakes the memory of Mina for the attentions of the alluring Mrs. Woo (Lee Honey) who becomes both his secret girlfriend and the gang’s latest mark.

Things do not go to plan and Dae-gil is left carrying the can for the gang’s heavy losses. Getting into trouble with another mark who turns out to be a high level gangster himself, Dae-gil finds out Mina has been sold into prostitution as payment for a family debt but also winds up losing a kidney as recompense for his mounting gambling debts. Now Dae-gil is out for revenge against pretty much everyone, hoping to rescue Mina and win her heart in the process but his adversaries are old hands at this sort of thing and it’s going to take more than a rigged deck to beat them at their own game.

Taking over from the first film’s Choi Dong-hoon, Kang Hyung-chul opts for a slick and charming Oceans 11 inspired aesthetic full of quirky humour and tricky slight of hand photography. With retro musical choices from a smooth cover of Spooky to the ‘80s synth pop kicking in for an exciting car chase, Kang piles on the nostalgia as Dae-gil rides high as a wisecracking conflicted member of this underhanded outfit. Taking inspiration from its manwha roots, The Hidden Card maintains its breezy tone even whilst the atmosphere darkens as Dae-gil taps out with this gangster credit, beaten up, drugged and waking up in a filthy room with a bandaged hand and a crude scar across his abdomen where his kidney used to be. Apparently making a quick recovery from serious surgery, Dae-gil’s discovery of Mina’s fate is likewise another addition to his quest narrative rather than more evidence of the savagery of this trick or be tricked world.

The Hidden Card’s biggest problem is an unavoidable one given its genre – the sheer structural repetitiveness of moving from one card game to another. Lack of familiarity with Hwatu itself is not exactly a problem even if mildly frustrating, but the nature of the way the game is played means that a great deal of screen time is occupied with watching people watching each other, moodily, only to be left unsure of what’s going on or who’s won at the end of it. This is all the more true of the film’s final showdown which brings back a major player from the first instalment in which the stakes have been raised supposedly to “prevent” cheating, but only really aim to make it more “challenging”. Still, away from the gaming table there are enough high octane fist fights and a lengthy car chase to break up the more cerebral thrills.

Undeniably slick and filled with a host of likeable characters offering snappy dialogue and silly humour, Tazza: The Hidden Card is far too long at two and a half hours. Uneven pacing does not help the feeling of scale and a similarly unbalanced plot structure produces a misleading sense of progression. Still, keeping one step ahead of the card sharks is fun in itself and even if the action drags here and there, there is enough character driven drama and ironic comedy to keep things moving right up until the consciously cool finale.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Missing (미씽: 사라진 여자, E Oni, 2016)

missing posterSince ancient times drama has had a preoccupation with motherhood and a need to point fingers at those who aren’t measuring up to social expectation. E Oni’s Missing plays out like a Caucasian Chalk Circle for our times as a privileged woman finds herself in difficult circumstances only to have her precious daughter swept away from her just as it looked as if she would be lost through a series of social disadvantages. Missing is partly a story of motherhood, but also of women and the various ways they find themselves consistently misused, disbelieved, and betrayed. The two women at the centre of the storm, desperate mother Ji-sun (Uhm Ji-won) and her mysterious Chinese nanny Han-mae (Gong Hyo-jin) are both in their own ways tragic figures caught in one frantic moment as a choice is made on each of their behalves which will have terrible, unforeseen and irreversible consequences.

Ji-sun is a busy woman. Recently divorced from her philandering doctor husband, Ji-sun is in the middle of a nasty custody battle over her daughter, Da-eun, which she has technically already lost though refuses to concede. Seeing as Ji-sun is barely ever at home (and when she is, she’s often still working), Chinese nanny, Han-mae is on hand to help her out. Han-mae’s Korean is imperfect, but she’s good with Da-eun and seems to have the knack for calming both the little one and her mum.

Other than the custody battle heating up as Ji-sun’s mother-in-law is intent on getting her grand-daughter away from her son’s awful former wife, Ji-sun’s life was functioning pretty well, all things considered. When she comes home one day and realises Han-mae and Da-eun aren’t around she’s a little put out but assumes they’re just delayed, have stopped off with friends, or are off somewhere having a lovely time without her. When they haven’t comeback by nightfall Ji-sun starts to worry.

Missing does its best not to judge either of the women. Though there is the subtle criticism of Ji-sun’s parental absenteeism, it’s largely manifested through her own feelings of guilt and fear as she’s placed in the difficult position of unexpected, middle-aged single parenthood. Divorced from her cold-hearted, selfish, lothario of a husband, Ji-sun would have needed to get a high paying job and maintain a middle class lifestyle to have any hope of keeping her daughter though the need to maintain both of those things would necessarily mean that she won’t be able to spend a lot of time with her child. Torn between the need to prove she can support herself alone and the need to play a fuller role in her daughter’s life, Ji-sun is understanably squeezed from both ends and left with little choice about any of it.

The problems both she and Han-mae face are those of an inherently sexist and intolerant society which forces them to prove themselves as women and judges them harshly when it believes they’ve deviated from the expected course. Ji-sun’s bosses make overtly sexist comments towards her, exclaiming that this is why they “don’t like employing mothers”, the police don’t want to believe her kidnap story because she’s just another hysterical woman, and her ex-husband knows he can take their daughter simply because he’s a man with a good job and a ready home.

Han-mae’s life has been darker and crueller, though hers is a greater struggle as she finds herself in an even lower status through being non-Korean and having poor language skills. Language skills are something she’s actively been denied in order to keep her from trying to escape a life of serfdom but in any case Han-mae’s prospects are not good. Ji-sun’s investigations take her to some very dark places as she searches for her child and begins to understand the reasons why she was taken. As a mother, as woman, and as a human being it is impossible to not to understand why Han-mae’s story ends the way it does, but it’s also impossible to not acknowledge a degree of unwittingly complicity in her ongoing suffering.

The last scene brings us unwelcomely back to that early debate surrounding the true mother and the unbreakable bond between a parent and a child, solving a complex problem neatly and smoothing it over with the gloss of emotion. Early on in the courtroom, Ji-sun says she’d do whatever it it took to keep her daughter, even run away with her if she had to. Later she says so again to a shady guy in a police cell who has more idea of what “anything” might mean, but Ji-sun was already doing quite a lot for Da-eun in running herself ragged just for the right to be near her. Neither Ji-sun or Han-mae were in any way at fault in the series of events which brought them to this point, a decision was made for them which was to have terrible, irreversible consequences. The two women are victims of the same oppressive social codes, but life is very different for each of them and if Ji-sun had been guilty of anything at all it was a blinkered way of living in which women like Han-mae are a barely visible presence except when needed to fulfil their allotted role.


Reviewed as part of a series of teaser screenings for the London Korean Film Festival 2017 the next of which, Queen of Walking, takes place at Regent Street Cinema on 22nd May 2017 at 7.30pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)