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!

One on One (일대일, Kim Ki-duk, 2014)

9ae7eea7-3b8a-4212-96ca-023eb8b5cdd5wallpaper1Review of Kim Ki-duk’s latest from the London Korean Film Festival up at UK Anime Network.

Kim Ki-duk is back with another frankly baffling state of the nation style assault on contemporary Korean values. In contrast with much of his other work, One On One is much more dependent on plot and dialogue and has a much more straight forward yet distant shooting style than the poetic and painterly scenes we often see from him. Like his other films however, it employs shocking episodes of violence to expose some of society’s festering wounds though perhaps this time it’s with the eyes of a curious anthropologist rather than an embittered social investigator.

This oddly symmetrical tale begins with the shockingly matter of fact murder of a young schoolgirl by a gang of seven masked aggressors. Following this seemingly senseless crime another group of seven, this time a group of vigilantes brought together by a desire for some kind of personal vengeance against society, have taken it upon themselves to avenge this killing by kidnapping each of the seven perpetrators and torturing them until they confess and give some kind of information regarding the true nature of the crime. In another duality, the “villains” are all well to do, successful underlings whereas the “vigilantes” are generally working-class people who’ve lost out in the current economic climate and in some cases are living in dire poverty through no fault of their own. The villains offer several different reactions or explanations for their involvement in such a heinous crime varying from “I was just following orders” or “it was for the common good” to “what does it matter, I have status and can do as I please” but at the end of the day those on both sides will have to realise that the lines between good and bad are much more fluid than most people would like to think and that eventually you will have to decide for yourself not just where you stand but who it is you really are.

One on One often feels like a slightly underbaked pudding, the flavour is good (mostly) but it’s gone a bit soggy in the middle. The symmetrical nature of the two sets of seven is interesting as is the direct mirroring of their social statuses but somehow the ideas don’t quite feel developed enough and even end up feeling a little too neat or obvious. The elite group who murdered the school girl in the beginning are all successful people with seemingly no particular worries in their lives other than being caught up in a hierarchical system and unable to climb the ladder fast enough. When one of the men whose explanation is simply that this isn’t his fault, he was only following orders and whoever gave the order is to blame is reminded that one day he may be the one giving the orders he seems to regard it simply as the natural order of things. He and some of the others seem to have an unshakeable faith that they would not have been asked to do this (and presumably other “crimes” too) had it not been of vital importance for the survival of the Republic of South Korea. Where this “faith” comes from remains unclear, though it offers the slim justification of the fanatic for the senseless murder of a teenage girl. Some of these men wanted to get ahead and simply didn’t care what they had to do to get there, but others at least thought their actions had  a noble purpose no matter how terrifyingly awful the task they’ve been assigned.

The group of vigilantes by contrast are mostly those who’ve been disadvantaged by the current climate of Korean society. One is living on instant ramen, which as is pointed out by the group’s leader is a staple food for the poor but simply “a snack” for the rich, whilst trying to save money for his wife’s medical treatment and fend off various loan sharks. Another is living outside his old tenement building in a tent with his mother who seems to be suffering with dementia because they have nowhere else to go. The young men are angry that even if they’ve done everything right – got a degree, been abroad, learned English, they still can’t get those steady white collar jobs and a leg up into the middle classes like they were always promised. The one aberration in the group is its only female whose anger stems from being involved in an abusive relationship which she nevertheless does not seem keen to end. It isn’t difficult to see where their anger stems from and for most of them the vigilante activities are a way of taking a personal revenge against society as a whole by taking these entitled, well connected “thugs” down a peg or two and trying to make them realise the true nature of their societal roles.

However, things start to fall apart towards the end where Kim allows his message to become a little too muddy. There are good bad guys and bad good guys, nobody’s perfect and perhaps nobody even wants to be – can you really build a society when everyone has completely lost sight of any kind of human compassion? At one point some of the vigilantes attempt to make the best of their situation by exclaiming “ah, at least we aren’t in North Korea” which just makes you half wonder if North Korea isn’t just a giant government conspiracy designed to maintain the status quo by allowing the lowest members of society to feel good enough about their situation to avoid any revolutionary grumblings from the proletariat. The title card at the end flashes up the following three words “Who Am I?” with no other explanation to whom they might pertain. Like all the best riddles there might be several answers to that multifaceted problem though they may end up saying more about those who answer than those who posed the question.



A Girl at My Door (도희야, July Jung, 2014)

fullsizephoto427951Review of A Girl at My Door from the London Film Festival up at UK-anime.net. This is also playing at the London Korean Film Festival which opens today with a gala screening of Kundo: Age of the Rampant. Director July Jung will be at the LKFF screening on 7th November for a Q&A tootickets still available!

You’d never know it, but A Girl at My Door is actually the first feature film from promising new Korean director July Jung. Produced by well regarded Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong (Poetry, Oasis, Peppermint Candy), the film evidently benefits from some of his expertise but it would be a mistake to over emphasise his involvement. Like Lee’s films A Girl at My Door is a tightly plotted character drama that opens up to explore a whole host of social issues but Jung has certainly been able to put her own stamp on the project and if A Girl at My Door is anything to go by, she is very much a talent on the rise.

Lee Young-nam (Bae Doona) has just arrived in the little hick town she’s been exiled to thanks to some kind of undisclosed infraction committed in Seoul. As the town’s new police chief, she’s thrust into the largely male world of local law enforcement and forced to acclimatise to small town politics with hardly enough time to breathe. Lee is also a high functioning alcoholic who guzzles soju from refilled litre bottles of water though her colleagues don’t seem to have noticed and her work is barely affected. After catching sight of the same young girl who seems to be constantly running away from someone or other, Lee eventually intervenes when a group of teenagers are picking on her. Do-hee is a troubled teenager from a violent home where, abandoned by her mother, she’s ‘cared for’ by a step father and resentful drunken grandmother. Do-hee quickly fixates on Lee and her superficially fearless attitude and eventually Lee has taken the girl in and offered her a place of solace way from the chaos of her home life. However, no matter how good one’s intentions may be, others will twist the facts to their own advantage and doing the right thing can often prove dangerous.

Possibly one of the benefits of having a high profile producer like Lee Chang-dong is that you’re able to get yourself a high profile cast of talented actors for your first film despite not having a proven track record or industry clout of your own. Bae Doona’s performance of the largely silent Lee is nothing short of extraordinary. There’s a sort of defiance in Lee’s silence, an unwillingness to speak because she knows there’s very little point. All we can glean about what happened in Seoul is that her dismissal has something to do with the fact that Lee is gay – something that is accidentally discovered by exactly the wrong person when Lee’s ex-partner comes to town. It’s not so much that she’s keeping that secret from the townspeople, but more that she knows it’s going to be a problem and she’s unwilling to deny it either. After all, she’s been here before and she knows how this scenario plays out. Taking in someone else’s child can be a dangerous thing for anyone, but as one policeman later puts it “it’s different when a homosexual does it” and even the most innocent, well meaning of gestures suddenly becomes something sordid and dirty. Lee’s world weary attitude seems to imply she half expected this would happen, still – there was a girl at her door, what else could she do?

Bae Doona is equally matched by the already fairly experienced teenage actress Kim Sae-ron as the troubled young girl, Do-hee. A mess of contradictions, Do-hee is both vulnerable and dangerous. One of the villagers refers to her as a monster and she certainly has a dark side which can be selfish and manipulative as well as a tendency towards fantasy. However, at the root of things she’s just a lonely, abandoned, unloved and unwanted child. Of course, as soon as someone shows her the slightest hint of kindness she will latch on and become fearful of losing even that extremely slight glimpse of affection. Perhaps therefore, she says things that aren’t quite true without fully understanding their implications and ironically risks ruining the fragile happiness she’s so desperate to cling to. It is quite an extraordinary performance from such a young actress – Kim Sae-ron manages to unify all of Do-hee’s contradictory sides into a convincing, and ultimately quite moving, whole.

A Girl at My Door does have its social issue dimension – the exploitation of illegal immigrants, small town politics, homophobia, sexism and of course unwanted children are all themes at some point touched on through the film, but what is at heart is a character drama about two lonely women who both find new strengths thanks to their unexpected friendship. Jung has crafted a charming and moving film that is only improved by its tremendous feeling of stillness. Beautifully shot and full of intriguing ambiguities, A Girl at My Door is a fantastically assured debut feature which hints at a very interesting career ahead for director July Jung.