This Charming Girl (여자, 정혜, Lee Yoon-ki, 2004)

This Charming GirlIt’s strange how, even in this increasingly interconnected world, our relationships with those around us are often wilfully superficial. Trapped within our own self-obsessed perspectives, we often fail to see beneath the surface of social conformity to realise that others are also lonely or troubled, wishing someone would see them but also afraid to make plain the various ways they don’t measure up to a social ideal. The heroine of Lee Yoon-ki’s This Charming Girl (여자, 정혜, Yeoja, Jeong-hye) is just such a woman – “charming” in her perfectly composed exterior, in many ways an embodiment of traditional femininity in her near invisibility as she gets on with her life and work quietly and with efficiency. There are however tiny cracks in the surface of her ordered existence that betray an ongoing, perhaps incurable anxiety.

Jeong-hae (Kim Ji-soo), a young woman in her late twenties, has an ordinary job working on the counter in the local post-office. As we later find out, she was once married but walked out on her new husband on their wedding night and, following the death of her mother, lives alone in the same apartment she has lived in all her life. Despite being well liked at work and taking lunch with the office ladies, Jeong-hae is perhaps not quite part of the group and finds it hard to relate to her noisy colleagues who gossip about her behind her back and when all is said and done probably regard her as a fellow employee rather than friend. Jeong-hae’s days are mostly spent alone, her interactions with others outside of work extend only to awkward telephone conversations with an unkind aunt, and an angry neighbour complaining about her extremely loud alarm clock.

Despite her shyness and self-imposed isolation, Jeong-hae is a kind and caring person with a gentle, nurturing personality. In the absence of human connection, she lovingly tends to her plants but is wary of taking on responsibility for more complex creatures and it’s only after a few mornings of noticing a melancholy, mewling kitten on her way to the bus stop that she decides to pick it up and take it to a vet. Suddenly being a cat owner has a profound impact on Jeong-hae’s way of life even if the skittish creature echoes her own sense of mistrust born of previous trauma in insisting on hiding under the sofa. Bonding with a living creature brings back painful memories of her traumatic past which threaten to impede her new sense of forward motion even as she attempts to outrun them.

The kitten isn’t the only stray Jong-hae picks up, later she takes pity on a sad young man who became involved in a drunken bar fight and alienated all his friends. Generally speaking, for reasons we later come to understand, Jeong-hae is wary of men and of male physicality. A rare visit to a shoe shop provoked by an unpleasant meeting with her ex-husband who has only got back in touch to express how much she hurt him by walking out without explanation, makes plain her distress even with perhaps “ordinary” everyday interactions. Though she does her best to endure it, Jeong-hae’s discomfort with the salesman’s hard sell tactics as he uses overfamiliar language and roughly manhandles her feet into a pair of sandals (which do not really suit her) eventually results in an extremely rare instance of self-assertion as she tells the assistant off, politely, before stopping to advise the woman behind the counter that perhaps men should not be selling women’s shoes or at any rate they should treat their customers as “people” rather than sales targets. Nevertheless, something about the drunken young man tells her that he is not a threat, only another person who seems to be in a dark place and probably in need of a stranger’s ear.

It’s perhaps this same sense of “recognition” that prompts her into making an extremely forward and uncharacteristically bold overture towards a shy young writer (Hwang Jung-min) who comes to the post office regularly to send off his manuscripts. If we get the sense that Jeong-hae is a mostly invisible person, then the writer is much the same. We catch sight of him often in the background, shopping in convenience stores, sitting at outdoor tables, waiting to cross the road. He’s the kind of person that perhaps only someone like Jeong-hae, equally invisible, a supernumerary even within her own world, might recognise. The tragedy is that Jeong-hae has a lot of love to give but has been robbed of the knowledge of how to give it safely thanks a traumatic incident in her past in which her innocence and naivety were abused by a person of trust who left her with no one to turn to for protection and a deeply internalised sense of shame and rage.

Her traumatic memories surround her like living beings, occupying the same space, occasionally poking their heads into her everyday life to remind her of an unpleasant association she couldn’t forget if she tried. Jeong-hae no longer sleeps, she naps fitfully on the sofa or wanders around all night at markets and cafes; she craves connection, but cannot access it. Thanks to the cat, the ex, the writer, even the overbearing shoe shop assistant and drunk man, she begins to find a way forward even if it pushes her towards an equally dangerous conclusion, and suddenly perhaps it’s not quite all so hopeless as it seemed.


This Charming Girl was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Old Love (재회, Park Ki-yong, 2017)

Old Love posterSome might say, it’s best to learn the lesson that life is disappointing as early as possible but there can be few who meet encroaching old age without a sense of regret and failure. The couple at the centre of Park Ki-yong’s Old Love (재회, Jaehoe) seem to have little else as they unexpectedly reunite at differing points of reunion and abandonment, longing for an unreachable past where their youthful dreams of a happier future were still possible and they could, at least, live with a false sense of hope. All that’s left for them now is to find resignation in the remaining days of loneliness and futility.

Yoon-hee (Yoo Jung-ah), who has been living in Canada for the past 30 years, returns to Korea for the Lunar New Year holiday in order to confer with her remaining family members and decide what’s best for her elderly mother now suffering with dementia. Already conflicted, Yoon-hee’s homebound holiday gets off to the worst of starts when she realises her suitcase is broken and gets caught up in an inescapable cycle of airport bureaucracy. Her exit is further delayed by a brief cigarette break during which she hears a familiar voice. Jung-soo (Kim Tae-hoon), her college boyfriend, is also at the airport dropping off his 17-year-old daughter who is on her way to study abroad in Australia. Not quite knowing why, Yoon-hee calls out to him and the former lovers engage in awkward conversation, eventually swapping (temporary) phone numbers and agreeing to meet up while Yoon-hee is in the country. 

Neither Yoon-hee nor Jung-soo give much indication of the nature of their college era relationship or why it eventually ended. They’ve obviously not stayed in touch, though there is relatively little animosity between them and no desire to argue about or dig up the past. Together once again they walk the no longer familiar streets, exchanging vague memories – a taste for octopus, forgotten left handedness, shops which have long since closed down. Their world has already disappeared and left them behind with only the burden of nostalgia to sustain them.

Long ago, Yoon-hee and Jung-soo were members of a theatre troupe. Jung-soo once said that theatre was more precious than life, yet at some point he gave it up. Now broken and dejected, he is a lonely widower whose daughter has abandoned him in resentment to look for her better future somewhere else. Yoon-hee left the theatre behind to go to Canada where she married, it seems mostly for convenience, and had a son who is now 27 years old and about to be married himself. Yoon-hee’s son returned to Korea but the pair are estranged and she won’t be seeing him on this visit. In fact she isn’t even invited to the wedding.

Yoon-hee and Jung-soo may be lonely and full of regret, but according to Jung-soo all but two of their former company fellows abandoned their dreams of the stage for more conventional lives. Mun-hee (Kim Moonhee) and Yong-guk were the two who stayed true, but Yong-guk is now seriously ill and will leave his family behind with no means of support. Later at an inn, Yoon-hee and Jung-soo run into another young group of actors eagerly debating The Seagull. Jung-soo can’t help butting in, a sad old man with some words for the hopeful youngsters. Increasingly drunk, he tells them to follow their dreams no matter what or else you’ll end up regretting your life choices. If you follow your dreams and it doesn’t work out, at least you can say you tried but if you sell out and that fails too what will you have then? Jung-soo has nothing and the emptiness is crushing him.

A lonely walk brings Yoon-hee straight into the present day when she blends into the candlelight protests, perhaps further recalling the tumultuous days of her own youth lived in the early days of a new democracy filled with a hope and promise that now seems to have retreated far into the distance. Caught at points of transit – airports, train stations, resort towns, neither Yoon-hee nor Jung-soo can find the strength to move forward. He asks her to stay, to find a home with him, as he should have done all those years ago but the moment is already gone and no amount of regret can ever bring it back. Broken by life’s disappointments, the failure of their dreams, and the emptiness of their loveless lives, Yoon-hee and Jung-soo remain trapped by the inertia of their times, just two lonely people for whom the train will never arrive.


Old Love was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Berlinale trailer (no subtitles)

Camel(s) (낙타(들), Park Ki-yong, 2001)

Camel(s) posterFour years after his breakthrough Motel Cactus, Park Ki-yong returned to narrative filmmaking with the comparatively subdued Camel(s) (낙타(들), nagta(deul)). Like Cactus, Camel(s) adopts a thirsty, desert-bound title in its titular dromedaries, casting its two lonely heroes as a pair of solitary travellers in search of an oasis in an otherwise barren existence. An adulterous couple in early middle-age, these wandering souls are destined to connect only briefly before returning to their unsatisfying lives filled only with a defeated sense of relief intended to see them through until the next stream appears on the horizon.

40-something Man-sup (Lee Dae-yeon) arrives to collect 30-something Myeong-hui (Park Myeong-shin) from an airport. She’s a little put out because he’s late and she didn’t quite see him because he’s driving a different car. Evidently not a married couple, the pair must have met before but their conversation is awkward – they exchange superficial pleasantries and discuss name Hanja which suggests they don’t know each other terribly well. They were supposed to be going to an island, but it’s too late now and so they’ll have to make do with the nearby tourist resort of Sorae.

Lest it be forgotten, adultery was technically illegal in Korea until 2015. Man-sup and Myeong-hui have been careful enough to venture a long way from home in order to minimise the chances of being caught out on what has every likelihood of becoming an illicit one night stand between two desperately lonely people trapped in unfulfilling marriages and seemingly boring lives. They chat over dinner, discuss their failed hopes, sing their hearts out at karaoke and then, once the ice is broken, make their way to a love hotel for the true purpose of their visit.

Before they get there, over an awkward dinner, both Man-sup and Myeong-hui relate tales of friends who live lives of freedom and travel. Unmarried and fancy free, they go where they please and live without restraint. Myeong-hui, perhaps part in resentment, decries these lives as mere egotism, as if the desire to enjoy life in itself is an act of unforgivable selfishness. Man-sup partially disagrees. He doesn’t see too much wrong with the concept of “egotism”. After all, isn’t it alright to look after yourself as long as you consider how your actions might affect others? Man-sup is honest at least about his envy. He’d like to be free too, but doesn’t have the courage. This small digression from the everyday sameness of his life is his minor rebellion, isolated within a tiny bubble of artificial “freedom” set to burst and be forgotten.

Despite the strangeness of the situation, the awkwardness dissipates after they reach the hotel, allowing for deeper conversation and a tentative, temporary sense of connection. Though some years apart in age, Myeong-hui and Man-sup attended college in the same town and visited the same market but apparently never met. Their lives since have followed similar trajectories. Myeong-hui wanted to marry her college sweetheart but her family didn’t approve and she didn’t have the strength to fight them. It ended, and she eventually submitted herself to an arranged marriage. Man-sup too failed in romance and ended up married to a woman he was introduced to, though they dated for a year first so perhaps it amounts to the same thing. Superficially “happy” with their conventional relationships each resents the unfairness of lost love, regretting their failure to fight for their own futures and capitulation in accepting that merely presented to them.

Futility continues to define their lives. The easiness between them passes, and the old emptiness returns. Bearing their sadnesses separately they return to feigning politeness, biding their time until it’s time for them to part. The idea of reuniting is floated, but gathers only a mute response. Each of them knows they won’t meet again. Wounds given and received are smoothed over with money as a kind of salve to cure a sense of mutual responsibility. Park’s melancholy meditation on the impossibility of true connection and the enduring loneliness of existential longing finds only increasing despair in its middle-aged anti-romantics who find themselves alone in the desert, travelling onwards in silence but encountering only an ever distant horizon with no oasis in sight.


Camel(s) was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Motel Cactus (모텔 선인장, Park Ki-yong, 1997)

Motel Cactus posterAs a pair of its patrons eventually begin to muse in a moment of easy reflection, Motel Cactus is an odd name for a love hotel. Then again, a prickly flower blooming in the desert perhaps captures the uniquely melancholy qualities of these illicit, temporary meetings filled with defeated hope and existential malaise. A breakthrough feature for Park Ki-yong, Motel Cactus (모텔 선인장, Motel Seoninjang) owes a significant debt to the world of Wong Kar-wai with which it shares a mild visual similarity thanks to cinematographer Christopher Doyle making his only (to date) foray into Korean cinema. Park’s explorations of romantic emptiness might not be particularly original but it’s hard to argue with the beauty in his sadness.

Each of our joyless encounters takes place in room 407 of the titular Motel Cactus stretching across ten years of turbulent Korean history. Park begins with politics as a young woman attempts to wash tear gas out of her eyes after wandering into a democracy demonstration by mistake. Time moves on and the room becomes home to a pair of students intent on shooting a film but trapped in a Godot-esque limbo waiting for a friend who has been unavoidably detained. The first woman suddenly reappears but with a different man, followed by the man again but now with an old flame whose life after love has proved disappointing.

Park bookends each of the episodes with a brief piece of to camera monologue taking place outside of the room. Hyun-Joo (Jin Hee-kyung), the woman from the first and third scenes, angrily berates an offscreen friend for being naive and getting her heart broken by another no good, cheating man. Of course, Hyun-Joo’s irritated speech could easily be directed at herself, abandoned and then abandoning in each of her unsuccessful encounters with men. Though her original assignation with the young and handsome Min-koo (Jung Woo-sung) begins with passionate intensity, it quickly turns cool – he calls another woman and lies about being with a client, emerging guilty and conflicted. Min-koo refuses to talk of love and eventually leaves early, offering the olive branch of a Saturday picnic that both of them know will probably never take place.

Suk-tae (Park Shin-yang), Hyun-joo’s second partner, begins with a “funny” story recited in a bar about a woman who may have been intending to commit suicide for love. Drunk out of their minds, Suk-tae and fellow drinker Hyun-joo head on up to room 407 where they have a total blowout, alternating between childish play and animalistic lovemaking. When the air cools and introspective chat takes over, he asks her if it’s true she always comes here when it rains to which she freely admits, reliving the ghost of past love and a rainy birthday with the presumably long gone Min-koo. This time, it’s Hyun-joo who leaves sadly before the sun has risen while Suk-tae is left behind in a blissful, drunken snooze.

When Suk-tae returns to the room, it’s for a less deliberate purpose. Reuniting with college sweetheart Hee-soo (Lee Mi-yun), he makes awkward small talk reminiscing about the old days while she sadly keys him in to her melancholy dissatisfaction with her later life which neatly echoes his own sense of defeated failure. They want to go back to a more innocent time, but they can’t and it’s clear their superficial reconnection is merely an echo of the past which won’t survive the room.

The room has its way of distorting itself, trapping the would be lovers in an imaginary space in which a part of them will always remain. The students attempt to subvert the nature of Motel Cactus through inching towards innocent romance, but they remain at odds with each other, playing childishly at love while attempting to take mastery of the room but repeatedly failing. Miscommunication reigns. Seo-Kyung (Kim Seung-hyun), the young actress in filmmaker Joon-Ki’s (Han Woong-soo) student project, gets waylaid on her way to the hotel by a TV vox popper who wants to ask her opinion about in a change in the law which would reverse a ban on people with the same surname marrying (a fairly big problem given Korea’s relatively small number of surnames even when only applying to a common ancestral branch). Seo-kyung, however, mishears them and launches into a consideration of same sex relationships on which she ultimately comes out in favour.

Hee-soo’s monologue was delivered to a fortune teller who’d previously advised her that her marriage was a bad idea – she didn’t believe him, but he was right. Motel Cactus is a sad place, drenched in neon half light with the greyness of rainy skies worrying at the windows. An old lady reappears to clear up after our careless lovers while the room’s decor undergoes minor changes, an ‘80s-style electric moving picture diorama an eerie fixture on the wall as its bright waterfalls threaten to tumble on for all eternity. Time stands still in here, marked only by the futility of true connection and the inescapable longing that accompanies it. Park’s naturalistic desires are occasionally swamped by Doyle’s characteristically stylish camerawork but it’s difficult to argue with the poetry of his images even whilst singing an old song.


Motel Cactus was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Heart Blackened (침묵, Jung Ji-woo, 2017)

Heart Blackened posterMost of us like to kid ourselves that you can become rich and successful by working hard and playing by the rules, but it takes a certain kind of ruthlessness to climb the chaebol tree. Corrupt CEO Yim Tae-san (Choi Min-sik) is about to have his mettle tested in Jung Ji-woo’s Silent Witness remake Heart Blackened (침묵, Chimmuk). Wealth, money, power, networks of control and manipulation – Tae-san has all these, but a crucial failure to keep his house in order is about to bring it all crashing down. Unless, of course, he can find an acceptable way out. There are some difficult choices to be made but nothing is quite as it first seems in this world of interpersonal gamesmanship and high stakes machinations.

A widower, Tae-san is in a seemingly happy relationship with famous singer Yuna (Lee Honey). His dreams of familial bliss, however, hit rocky ground when his grown-up but still young daughter refuses to accept his new love. Despite Yuna’s attempts to win her over, Mira (Lee Soo-kyung) hates her potential step-mother with unusual intensity. Matters come to a head when some of Mira’s friends alert her to a sex tape going viral on the internet recorded some years previously and featuring Yuna with an old boyfriend. Mira demands a conference and Yuna dutifully comes, hoping for a rapprochement but getting a tirade of abuse. The next morning, Yuna is discovered close to death in the car park underneath her apartment building where a fire has been set presumably to destroy crucial evidence. Mira is arrested but can’t remember anything about the night in question. Tae-san hires an old friend of Mira’s, Choi Hee-jeong (Park Shin-hye), who has now become a defence attorney, in an attempt to get her some moral support from a compassionate lawyer.

Tae-san’s motivations remain opaque and inscrutable. He appears to think his daughter did it, so why does he hire a friendly but second rate, relatively inexperienced lawyer to defend her when he could use his vast wealth to hire the best of the best or even have the case thrown out altogether? As might be expected for someone in his position, Tae-san is a corrupt businessman with a shady past. He has a history with the prosecutor working on this case who has an interest in trying to get at him through his daughter but Tae-san tries buying him off anyway. To Tae-san money is everything. There is nothing which cannot be bought, nothing which cannot be done by a man with “means”, and no trap which cannot be sprung by a man in total control. So why is he letting his daughter go through all this when he could have found a way to pull her out of it?

As it turns out, there are things money can’t buy (but in a round about way, you might be able to make a cash sacrifice in order to prove how much you want them). As part of their investigations, Tae-san and Hee-jong rub up against creepy super fan Dong-myeong (Ryoo Joon-Yeol), otherwise known as “Cableguy”, who’s been stalking Yuna for years and has secret cameras installed all over her apartment building meaning he may have crucial footage of the incident. To Dong-myeong, however, money is “worthless” in comparison to love, family, and friendship (or so he says). Taking the stand, Tae-san amps up his fascistic chaebol survival of the fittest rhetoric in reiterating that “not all lives are equal” and that saying there’s nothing to be done is only the defeatist excuse of the perpetual failure. If he believes the things he says, then Tae-san is indeed a “vile man” as the prosecutor brands him, but then again Tae-san’s relationship to the “truth” is not altogether a faithful one.

Tae-san believes that “money fixes everything” and whatever else he may have done, it’s hard to argue with his final assessment. What Tae-san is experiencing may well be karma for his life of corporate machinations, but it’s not quite of the kind you might expect. Mira, the archetypal chaebol child – spoiled, entitled, selfish, and arrogant, has in a sense been ruined by her father’s failure to teach her there are things more important than money and it’s a lesson both of them will find hard to learn. A chaebol chastened, Tae-san is a man brought low by his own ideology but it’s hard not to feel sorry him as he finds himself back on the path to righteousness having lost everything even if the real villain is the world which blackened his heart to such an intense degree.


Heart Blackened was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Back from the Beat (내가 사는 세상, Choi Changhwan, 2018)

Back from the Beat still 2Artists have a complicated relationship to the earning of money. Some might feel that it’s only right to be “starving”, that if you’ve managed to support yourself through your art or even a regular side job, you must be doing something wrong. All of which ignores the fact that starving is very unpleasant and continually worrying. How can you make your best art when you’re hungry and frightened of losing the roof over your head? The hero of Choi Changhwan’s Back from the Beat (내가 사는 세상, Naega Saneun Sesang) has learned not to sweat the small stuff but is forced to realise that he may have been somewhat complicit in his own lack of success even if the realisation brings him little more than additional misery.

Minkyu (Kwak Minkyu) is a middle-aged man trying to make it as a DJ. He works as a delivery driver in the afternoons and as a barman in the evenings at a hipster music cafe where the owner occasionally lets him take the stage. Meanwhile, his girlfriend, See-eun (Kim See-eun), is an aspiring artist who currently works at an art school preparing high school students for exams.

The trouble begins when both Minkyu and See-eun begin to feel pressure from their respective bosses. Minkyu, a happy so lucky sort of guy, isn’t the type to pay much attention to his final salary so he’s confused when another driver tells him he thinks they’re being diddled because his records and the money he’s been getting don’t match. After a few calculations, Minkyu realises he’s out as much as $70 but isn’t quite sure what to do about it. He doesn’t want to think his boss is a bad guy and is sure it must be a mistake. He’d probably let it go to not rock the boat (much to his girlfriend’s consternation) but his friend wants to fight and Minkyu finds himself swept along with him. The boss says the difference is for “insurance” but when a driver gets injured he’s told there isn’t any – he’ll have to cover his own medical costs and is even liable for replacing the damaged equipment. Smelling a rat the guys visit a labour lawyer and ask their boss to sign a proper employment contract which turns out to be a big mistake. “Freelance” contractors aren’t employees, after all, and so the guys get sacked with no legal protections in place to help them.

Meanwhile, See-eun’s snooty boss Jiyoung (Yoo Jiyoung) has taken against Minkyu and repeatedly tells her to dump him. By any standards this is hugely inappropriate considering Jiyoung is speaking as a boss and not as a friend, poking her nose into See-eun’s private life which is none of her business. The school is continually shorthanded and lacking in students so Jiyoung gets See-eun to supplement artwork for exhibitions, often with short notice and for no additional pay, even sometimes rejecting the finished pieces and demanding they be redone. Matters come to a crunch when Jiyoung announces that she’s taking on new staff, but See-eun will be getting demoted with a significant salary cut because the new teacher has a degree from a university in Seoul which she feels is more “appropriate” for Se-eun’s current position.

Despite her criticism of Minkyu’s naivety, See-eun doesn’t fight back either. Or at least, she begins to fight back but an embarrassing incident eventually sends her the other way. See-eun also finds herself subject to the artist’s dilemma in that she’s continually pressured by the owner of Minkyu’s bar to draw their posters for which he generally “forgets” to pay her. Despite Minkyu’s loyalty towards him, Jihong (Park Jihong) is not well liked and seems to have a reputation for shady conduct and improper labour relations. See-eun wants Minkyu to get Jihong to sign a proper performance contract but he thinks it’s unnecessary because they’re “like brothers”.

Time again, the lines between friend, colleague, boss, and competitor are manipulated to get powerless dreaming youngsters like Minkyu and See-eun to play along in a system which constantly misuses them. In a land where any vague statements about improving working conditions can see you branded “commie” and dismissed, there is little hope out there for those just wanting to survive in order to facilitate their art or greater purpose. A melancholy portrait of the modern starving artist, Choi Changhwan’s feature debut finds little to be optimistic about in world of inescapable exploitations and impossible dreams.


Back from the Beat was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Alive (산다, Park Jung-bum, 2014)

alive-poster“There’s no safe place in this world” intones a pure hearted soul partway through Park Jung-bum’s relentlessly bleak exploration of the human condition, Alive (산다, Sanda). When your existence is defined by impossibility, it may be hard to see the light but to stop looking for it altogether doesn’t bear thinking about. A fierce condemnation of the hypocrisies of a capitalistic society, Alive wants to ask if simply breathing is enough when every breath is unending pain and the faint hope of a better life a cruel irony in an otherwise desperate existence.

Labourer Jung-chul (Park Jung-bum) lives in the ruins of his former family home destroyed in a landslide which also killed his parents. He is responsible both for his sister, Soo-yun (Lee Seung-yeon), who has extreme mental health issues, and her young daughter Hana (Shin Haet-bit). When the construction job ends for the winter, Jung-chul turns a crisis into an opportunity by volunteering to fill-in at the soy bean paste factory owned by the man for whom Soo-yun has been working as a cook to stop him firing her after she had an episode and did not show up for work. Things are going well, but the impending marriage of his haughty daughter to a middle-class salaryman is beginning to weigh on the factory owner’s mind. Worrying about the dowry, he summarily fires a number of longterm employees. Jung-chul, ever the opportunist, seizes the chance to get his construction site buddies over to the factory but his constant attempts to profit from the misfortune of others are destined to end only in disaster.

Trapped in the snowbound mountains, Jung-chul has little realistic chance of escape. His life is hard and marked only by physical exertion while stretched to emotional breaking point thanks to the complicated situation surrounding his sister. Despite himself, Jung-chul resents Soo-yun who has retreated into a near catatonic state in order to escape the misery of her life. She is often to be found at the local bus terminal where she picks up strangers and then returns to her ruined village for acts of self harm in an attempt to embrace vitality through suffering. Jung-chul is suffering too and he can’t forgive his sister for her attempts at mental absence, condemning her for her “shamelessness” rather than attempting to deal with her declining mental health and the physical harm in which it places her.

Jung-chul sees himself as the “pillar” of the family, that without him his sister and niece will be left out in the cold with nothing to sustain them. Yet his desire to protect his own cannot entirely explain his increasing dog eat dog mentality or his willingness to engage in the system of circular exploitations which defines the world in which he lives. “It obeys me better when it’s kept hungry” a woman snaps at Hana when she attempts to feed a performing parrot, somehow encapsulating the insidious logic of rampant capitalism. Jung-chul thinks he can’t afford to think about the employees his boss fired because someone is always going to lose out and it’s enough to make sure it isn’t him, but he doesn’t see that his refusal to stand up for others leaves him vulnerable and alone.

The world of the factory boss is an oddly feudal one in which his major preoccupation is his paternal obligation to provide a dowry for his daughter with the implication that the wedding may not take place at all if he cannot fulfil it. The boss’ daughter, having spent time in the US, objects to her father’s callous treatment of his employees who remain with absolutely no workplace protections and are not even offered severance pay despite being axed deep in the harshness of winter. Nevertheless, when her wedding is threatened she reverts to type. Her dad cut corners and made a mistake, but she’s going to find a scapegoat and cover it up, justifying her decision with the rationale that she’s “protecting” the workers. Obeying feudal obligations, the fired employees all turn up to her meeting at which she tearfully talks about a way to save the factory despite the fact that the factory has just betrayed them and trampled all over a lifetime’s unquestioning loyalty.

Meanwhile, Jung-chul’s simpleminded friend Myung-hoon (Park Myung-hoon) dreams of a new life in the Philippines where the people are kind and you never have to worry about the cold. Unlike Jung-chul, Myung-hoon can’t bring himself to betray his sense of justice even if he eventually succumbs to a kind of poetic recompense in order to save his own dream if only by stopping Jung-chul from ruining himself completely. Nevertheless, as bleak as this world is, it is not devoid of hope as Jung-chul eventually realises through the innocent sound of a child practicing piano. Shining a light for his sister, he finally remembers to close the door on an act of calculated pettiness, accepting that his responsibility extends further than his household and that only by opposing the injustice done to others can he hope to change his hopeless world and begin to feel alive once again.


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

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)