Sunny (님은 먼곳에, Lee Joon-ik, 2008)

Sunny 2008 posterLove, apparently, makes people do stupid things. So, apparently, does the absence of love. Lee Joon-ik’s Sunny (님은 먼곳에, Nimeun Meongotyi) takes another roundabout look at the recent past through the medium of music in the unlikely tale of a poor village girl married off to a resentful man whose love for another has sent him reeling off into a foreign war. While it’s nice to see this familiar story from the often neglected point of view of the unwanted wife, Lee’s tale is more one of male folly and the various ways a woman’s life is dictated by patriarchal values than it is of love and determination in the face of extreme danger.

Soon-yi (Soo Ae) sings a plaintive love song by contemporary singing star Kim Chu-ja for her fellow housewives in a small village, but her moment of reverie is broken when her domineering mother-in-law (Lee Joo-sil) arrives and orders everyone back to work. Victim of an arranged marriage, Soon-yi has been abandoned by her husband Sang-il (Uhm Tae-woong) who ran off to join the army right after the wedding. A letter he receives in the barracks tells us that he had a love in Seoul whom he was (presumably) forced to give up on in order to submit to his mother’s chosen bride (why he did this is never explained). Nevertheless, Sang-il’s mum is desperate for an heir from her only son and packs Soon-yi off for a conjugal visit every month. Sang-il, however, refuses any intimacy with his new wife, coldly rolling over as he tells Soon-yi to stop coming, wondering if she really has any idea what “love” is seeing as she’s obviously so blind to his emotional pain.

The next time Soon-yi tries to visit Sang-il she finds out he’s got himself sent to Vietnam – a source of panic to his devoted mother who blames her daughter-in-law for alienating her son so badly he’s decided to go off and get himself killed on a foreign battlefield rather than endure married life at home. Kicked out from her marital household and disowned by her birth family, Soon-yi decides to track Sang-il down in war-torn Vietnam, teaming up with a shady con-artist/musician (Jung Jin-young) as her only passage out of the country. 

The central problem is that Soon-yi does not love Sang-il. How could she, she barely knows him and their only on screen meeting is one filled with awkwardness, contempt, and resentment. Yet Soon-yi suddenly becomes bold, leaves her village, and refuses to back down until she finds Sang-il and convinces him to accept her as his wife. Given that he’s gone all the way to Vietnam in order to avoid her, it’s unclear what Soon-yi hopes to achieve in this – is her great gesture of sacrifice and perseverance supposed to make Sang-il suddenly abandon his resentment at his personal powerlessness and submit himself to inescapable (accidentally female) forces of social oppression?

Nevertheless, Soon-yi’s pureheartedness wins over all as they become unwilling allies in her quest. The innocence of the enterprise is soon stained with blood as Lee gives way to the bloody unpleasantness of the battlefield reality which our merry band of chancers are ultimately unable to escape. Eventually captured by the Viet Cong, they discover a mini society forged in underground tunnels complete with schools for the many children living in the dark. The Americans, by contrast, are cold and unyielding, cruelly executing the enemy and refusing to help Soon-yi in her quest until she makes a considerable sacrifice of her own.

Soon-yi, rechristened Sunny for her onstage persona, quickly becomes a pawn looking for a foothold in the midst of male squabbling. While Soon-yi’s determination to find Sang-il might have achieved melodramatic weight if it had been a real love story rather than a petty quest to remind an errant, weak willed man of his social obligations, it strains belief that she would really go this far just to save a man who can’t stand her (or really, cannot stomach the representation of his own moral cowardice), let alone that both the Korean and US armies would eventually allow a near silent young woman anywhere near an active battlefield just because she misses her husband. Enlivened by the energetic score of early ‘70s hits, Sunny is entertaining enough but never earns its contrived narrative nor manages to invest its heroine’s quest with any kind of weight or meaning, leaving her a passive presence in the film that bears her name.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kim Chu-ja’s My Love is Far Away

Anarchist from Colony (박열, Lee Joon-ik, 2017)

anarchist from colony posterLee Joon-ik follows his poetical mediation on the Korean independence movement, Dong-ju, with an equally philosophical, if not quite as rigorous, tale of rebellion and tragedy inspired by real life revolutionary anarchist, Park Yeol. Where Dong-ju was a tale of a world in in black and white, Anarchist from Colony (박열, Park Yeol) is one of glorious colour and the strange joy of pithily rejecting an oppressor’s authority. The oppressor’s authority is, however, infinite and no amount of anarchy will be enough to evade it even if there may be long term advantages in losing a battle in grand style.

Park Yeol (Lee Je-hoon) is a Korean left wing agitator living in Tokyo and earning a living as a rickshaw driver. He is also a hero to local Koreans and has gained a lot of fans (many of them female) thanks to his poetry including his latest entitled “Damn Dog” which laments his lowly status as an oppressed Korean man. One of his many fans, Fumiko Kaneko (Choi Hee-seo) – a Japanese woman who spent some time in Korea as a child, manages to work her way into his heart and becomes both a lover and an integral part of his revolutionary movement known as The Revolt.

In 1923, The Great Kanto Earthquake caused wide scale destruction and general chaos in the capital. Martial law was instituted, but a rumour soon spread that Korean insurrectionists were using the confusion to fuel their revolutionary ambitions, poisoning wells, committing arson, and plotting to assassinate the Emperor and his son. Of course, the rumours were baseless but led to a citywide pogrom in which around 6000 Koreans are thought to have been murdered both by ordinary people and by the army. Hoping to avoid the violence, Park decides he might be better off turning himself in to the police, but even police cells are not free of vigilante justice.

Unlike many recent films set during the colonial period, Anarchist from Colony is not particularly interested in demonising the Japanese. Generally speaking, the Japanese government are depicted as a collection of buffoons ill equipped to deal with the unexpected disaster of the earthquake and obsessed with rules, protocol, and Emperor worship. The major antagonist is a moustache twirling idiot and committed racist nursing a grudge against Koreans over a career setback to do with the suppression of the March 1, 1919  protest which kickstarted the Korean Independence Movement. The other officials mostly regard Mizuno (Kim In-woo) as an embarrassment, calling him out on his obvious racism and attempting to circumvent his machinations but more often than not failing to successfully outmanoeuvre him.

Having been partly responsible for the massacre in failing to stop the racist rantings of Mizuno and co, the government are eager to suppress all knowledge of it and distance themselves from anything that could make them look bad on the international stage. In this Mizuno makes a serious miscalculation when he decides to fit up the most popular Korean political activist he can get his hands on as a “traitor” and have him tried and executed as an example to the others. Park is wise to this scheme right away and decides to play along even if he knows it may eventually cost him his life. In fact, he almost hopes it will because not only will he lend weight to the cause of independence through his own martyrdom, but it will be much harder for the government to suppress news of the massacre with him on trial for his supposed terrorist activities which are being touted as its cause.

Yet the tale is framed not so much as suppressed revolution but ill fated love in the tragic romance of Park and Kaneko. The mini band of anarchists are a surprisingly cheerful bunch for hardline leftists, and Park and Kanenko’s intense bond is one of both political solidarity and true affection. Being anarchists through and through, they do not believe in marriage but agree to live together after signing a contract of cohabitation in which they mutually affirm their loyalty to each other and their cause. When Park is arrested, Kaneko turns herself in and follows him despite his pleas with her not to. The couple remain fiercely together to the end presenting a united front delighting in mocking their joint show trial even knowing they may soon be heading for the gallows.

This strange kind of lightness and dada-esque surrealism is an odd fit for the grim tale at hand. Lee mostly glosses over the wider implications of the massacre aside from minor references to longstanding prejudices such as Park’s beating by a customer who has short changed him and the vigilante gang’s repeated use of a particular phrase to flag up Korean accents. The overriding sense of flippancy undercuts the seriousness of Park’s plight and ultimately robs it of its power as his struggle is played for broad comedy rather than subtle satire. Perhaps overly ambitious, Lee’s reframing of of Park’s story as surrealist vaudeville romance never quite takes off, sacrificing passion for laughs but finding that they ring hollow surrounded by so much suppressed terror.


Screened at the London East Asia Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)