Default (국가부도의 날, Choi Kook-hee, 2018)

Default poster 1The Korean economic miracle came to an abrupt halt in 1997. In an event the media labelled “the day of national humiliation”, the Korean government went to the IMF for a bailout in order to avoid bankruptcy. So, what went wrong? Choi Kook-hee’s Default (국가부도의 날, Gukga-budo-eui Nal) looks back at the fateful seven days before the country would go bust, asking serious questions about why it found itself in this position and why it chose to opt for external assistance rather than fix its own problems. The answer is, as always, a mix of disaster capitalism, incompetency, and a healthy disinterest in the lives of the less well off.

As if to signal its hubris, the Korea of 1997 is busy celebrating its accession to the OECD and emergence on the world stage as a major player, escaping post-war austerity once and for all. Young Koreans have embraced consumerism with gusto. Luxury goods and foreign travel are becoming increasingly popular with the government insisting everything is on the up and up. However, listeners to Son Sook’s Woman’s Era are telling a different story – cafes not getting customers, businesses going under, people not getting paid. With the Asian Financial Crisis mounting, the Korean Won is being hit hard and the government does not have the reserves to cover its debts. A high ranking Bank of Korea official, Si-hyun (Kim Hye-soo), has concluded that the nation has one week to find a solution before everything comes to a grinding halt.

Meanwhile, self-interested merchant banker Yoon (Yoo Ah-in) has come to the same conclusion on his own but his aims are very different. Where Shi-hyun sees crisis, Yoon sees opportunity. He quits his job and starts calling up wealthy clients with an innovative pitch. Explaining to them that the country is about to go bust, he outlines a plan to short the government which will make them a lot of money though at the expense of those without who will be hung out to dry when it all goes to hell.

As Yoon tells his investors, the trouble is that the entirety of the modern Korean Economy is built on lies. An underling is tasked with explaining the crisis to the president in simple terms, only for Si-hyun to grimly suggest he tell him “we spent borrowed money like it was water hoping to get an extension and here we are”. Factory owner Gap-soo (Heo Joon-ho) is excited to receive a large order from a major department store, but put off when he realises that they intend to pay him with a promissory note. The department store CEO belittles his concerns, implying that he can’t be much of a player if he doesn’t know that’s how business is done these days. Gap-soo’s partner is all for it and so they sign, but when banks go bust promissory notes become worthless and they need ready cash to pay their staff and suppliers.

Si-hyun tries to make the case for saving the economy to protect the working classes but her advice falls on deaf ears. Often the only woman in the room, Si-hyun is dismissed as a “secretary” while the all male officials make a point of talking to her male assistant and accusing her of being “sentimental” when she points out that people will starve if they put their plan into action. The conclusion that she gradually comes to is that the crisis is an elaborate game being played by elites for their own gain at the expense of ordinary men and women all across the country. Odious finance ministers prioritise saving the Chaebols, warning their friends and cronies, while deliberately running down the clock so the country will have no other option than running to the IMF full in the knowledge that an IMF bailout comes with considerable strings which will vastly constrain their sovereignty and economic freedom – effectively handing control over to the Americans who will use it as an excuse to extend their own business interests by insisting on destructive labour reforms which will devastate the working classes.

Si-hyun’s exasperation leaves her making a last ditch effort to get the government to see sense only for the IMF negotiator (Vincent Cassel) to make her removal another of his red lines, her plain speaking instantly deemed “inappropriate”. Meanwhile, Yoon’s headlong descent into amoral profiteering begins to prick at his conscience even as he tries to justify his actions to himself. 20 years later, it might seem as if the crisis is over but its effects are very much still felt. Gap-soo’s factory may have survived, but it’s running on exploited foreign labour while the Chaebols continue to run rampant over the increasingly unequal Korean economy. None of the problems have been solved and another crisis is always on the horizon. Tense and infuriating, Default is a story of moral as well as financial bankruptcy which places the blame firmly on systemic corruption and the undue influence of self-interested elites while acknowledging that little has changed in the last 20 years leaving the little guy very much at the mercy of capricious Chaebol politics.


Default was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It will also be screened as the next teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival on 20th May at Regent Street Cinema, 7pm.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Winter’s Night (겨울밤에, Jang Woo-jin, 2018)

Winter's Night poster“You clumsy man, don’t lose her again!” a busybody landlady instructs the hero of Jang Woo-jin’s Winter’s Night (겨울밤에, gyeoulbam-e), neatly cutting to the heart of the matter with just a few well directed words. In Korean cinema, the is past always painfully present but our pair of dejected lovers haunt themselves with echoes of lost love and pangs of regret mixed with a hollow fondness for the days of youth. The fire has long since died, but the memory of its warmth refuses to fade.

We first meet Eun-ju (Seo Young-hwa) and her husband Heung-ju (Yang Heung-joo) in a taxi driven by an extremely chatty man of about the same age which is to say around 50. Heung-ju, sitting uncomfortably in the front while his wife sits alone in the back, explains that he first came to this area 30 years previously when he did his military service. Bored and perhaps irritated by her husband’s conversation, Eun-ju realises she has lost her phone and insists they turn back to go and look for it at the temple they have just left. Heung-ju is annoyed but makes a show of humouring his wife while she refuses to leave, forcing the couple to stay overnight in a small inn that he later realises is the same place they stayed 30 years ago on the very night that they first became a couple.

As is pointed out to Eun-ju several times, losing a phone is an inconvenient and expensive mistake but perhaps not the end of the world. Nevertheless she continues to hunt for it as if it were her very soul, eventually explaining to a confused monk that it is all she has and even if she were to buy another one it wouldn’t be the same. Eun-ju’s attachment to her phone may hint at a deeper level of loss which has contributed to the distance she feels between herself and her husband, but the search is as much metaphorical as it is literal, sending both husband and wife out on a quest to look for themselves amid the icy caves and snow covered bridges.

An early attempt to check CCTV yields a pregnant image of a young soldier (Woo Ji-hyun) and a girl (Lee Sang-hee) sitting across from each other before they disappear and are replaced by the older Eun-ju and Heung-ju. Eun-ju later re-encounters the younger couple several times, becoming witness to their impossibly innocent romance which is such an eerie reminder of her own that one wonders if they are simply ghosts of her far off past. The soldier, an earnest, shy poet tries and fails to stop the girl walking onto the same thin ice that Eun-ju will later brave not quite so successfully, while the girl gleefully tells him that she has recently broken up with her boyfriend. They are young and filled with hope for the future, while Eun-ju is older and filled only with disappointment. Still, there is something in her that loves these young not-yet-lovers for all the goodness that is in them as she takes the younger woman, and her younger self, in her arms and warmly reassures her that the future is not so bleak as it might one day seem.

Meanwhile, a petulant Heung-ju has gone out looking for his “lost” wife but been distracted by the shadow of another woman (Kim Sun-young) wandering across the back of his mind. He drinks too much and ends up singing sad solo karaoke before discovering an old flame sleeping on a hidden sofa. She doesn’t immediately recognise Heung-ju and so runs away in fear, but later joins him for a drink over which she flirts raucously but probably not seriously while he moons over his wife, mourns an old friend, and recalls their student days lived against the fiery backdrop of the democracy movement.

Together again the couple attempt to talk through their mutual heartaches, expressing a mild resentment at the other’s unhappiness and their own inability to repair it, but seem incapable of bridging the widening gulf which has emerged between them. Trapped in an endless loop of romantic melancholy, the pair fail to escape the wintery temple where, it seems, a part of them will always remain, haunting the desolate landscape with the absence of recently felt warmth. A beautifully pitched exploration of middle-aged malaise and the gradual disillusionment of living, Winter’s Night tempers its vision of unanswerable longing with quiet hope as its two dejected lovers hold fast to the desire to begin again no matter how futile it may turn out to be.


Winter’s Night was screened as the first teaser for the 2019 London Korean Film Festival. Tickets for the next teaser screening, Default at Regent Street Cinema on 20th May, are already on sale.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Tiger in Winter (호랑이보다 무서운 겨울손님, Lee Kwang-kuk, 2018)

Tiger in Winter poster“Life just keeps getting harder” sighs a weary policeman charged with extracting a coherent statement from an accidental hero who only wants to talk about a tiger. Lee Kwang-kuk’s third feature, A Tiger in Winter (호랑이보다 무서운 겨울손님, Horangiboda Museoun Gyeoulsonnim), is in some ways a more conventional exercise in comparison with the time bending reflexivity of his earlier work, but the journey he takes us on is similarly circular as a melancholy young man finds himself chased out of his natural habitat and cast adrift, outside of his comfort zone too resentful to crawl back into a familiar cage but too afraid to embrace his freedom. 

On the day a tiger escapes from the zoo, Gyeong-yu (Lee Jin-wook), a failed writer, “loses” his day job and has to temporarily vacate his apartment because his girlfriend’s parents are coming to visit and she evidently hasn’t told them she is “living in sin”. Gyeong-yu offers to stay and meet them, but bristles when his girlfriend wonders if he’s ready to make a firm a commitment. He packs and leaves, planning to return in a few days’ time when the coast is clear. Decamping to a friend’s place, Gyeong-yu continues his night “job” as a designated driver which brings him into contact with an old girlfriend – Yoo-jung (Ko Hyun-jung), who is also a writer and apparently successful but suffering from an extended bout of writer’s block and has descended into a self destructive spiral of alcohol fuelled existential desperation.

After reconnecting with Gyeong-yu, Yoo-jung pulls down a book he once gave her from her well stocked bookcase – a Korean translation of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway’s hero fights his age as manifested in a powerful marlin and dreams of youth in the lions of Africa. The film’s English title, “A Tiger in Winter”, is perhaps a mild pun on “The Lion in Winter” which again tells of a once proud old man struggling to deal with his bodily decline, only Gyeong-yu is still young even if he feels himself diminished and brought low by life. Unlike the old man, he has stopped fighting and accepted his defeat. He no longer writes and flounders aimlessly, running away from the things that frighten him without aim or purpose. The loosed tiger is a manifestation of the fears Gyeong-yu refuses to fight which render him both physically and artistically impotent.

Writing, or perhaps art of any kind, becomes its own kind of vice – a dangerous addition, a need which must be sated or displaced without which the rest of life remains hollow. Unable to satisfy her need for creation, Yoo-jung has crumbled under the pressure of her own expectations and retreated into the comforting world of the permanently tipsy even whilst knowing that the alcohol itself inhibits her ability to create and forever separates her from that which would make her whole. She wants to stop, throws away her soju, but can’t move past her inability to face herself and resolve her creative doubts. Yoo-jung wants the quick fix, and like any addict, she is past caring about the harm she might do to herself and others in the pursuit of it.

Gyeong-yu, meanwhile, almost wallows in his degradation as he allows himself to be belittled by the customers who call for his services and insist on treating him like a servant. Designated driving doesn’t seem like a particularly safe arrangement for either party – many of Gyeong-yu’s customers are extremely drunk and willingly allowing a man they don’t know to drive them somewhere in their own car while they are barely conscious, while conversely many refuse to pay or accuse Gyeong-yu of damaging the car while berating him for acting in an insufficiently humble manner. Yet it’s not humiliation that knocks Gyeong-yu out of his stupor but trauma and a direct confrontation with someone else’s despair.

Tigers lurk everywhere, though when Gyeong-yu finally learns to look his in the eye it’s a very cute and non-threatening sort of tiger which perhaps makes him feel foolish for having evaded it for so long. Lee may not be playing with time in his usual fashion, but he sends Gyeong-yu retreating into the past all the same in an attempt to hide from his fears only to discover you can’t walk backwards into the future. An exploration of the destructive power of the creative urge, the soul crushing inertia of artistic block, and the continuing rootlessness of a life lived in flight, A Tiger in Winter is another beautifully poetic character drama from Lee whose world weary optimism loses nothing in its seeming simplicity.


A Tiger in Winter was screened as the final teaser for the London Korean Film Festival which will open on 1st November with Microhabitat. The full programme for this year’s event is now available on the official website – tickets on sale soon!

International trailer (English subtitles)

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (곤지암, Jung Bum-sik, 2018)

Gonjiam Haunted Asylum posterBack in 1992, all of the UK was scandalised by a strangely realistic “drama” starring three well respected TV personalities “investigating” poltergeist activity in an ordinary house. Screened as part of an ongoing anthology drama series, the show was presented as if it were live complete with a telephone number for viewers to ring in. Many were tricked into believing the events they were witnessing were “real” and that a genial children’s TV presenter they knew and loved had been dragged off by a malevolent supernatural entity. Fast forward 10 years and the nation was once again gripped by a “live” ghost hunting show presented by a dubious psychic and a (former) children’s television presenter but this time at least keeping up a pretence of “reality” even if the show’s appeal lay more in its exaggerated seriousness than it did a genuine interest in the paranormal.

The world may have been a more innocent place back in 1992, but ghost shows are still big business even in this comparatively more cynical age. Reality TV ghosthunters Horror Times decide the best way to pick up their flagging views is to go viral by going live inside a notorious disused sanatorium listed as one of CNN’s seven freakiest places on Earth. Rumour has it that Gonjiam Mental Hospital (a place all too real though here given a fictionalised history) was built by the Japanese over the top of a mass grave for resistance fighters though, according to our guides, it was also accounted one of the best psychiatric facilities in the country. Its director received numerous awards from the government of Park Chung-hee (which ought to tell you she was probably up to no good), but the hospital fell into disrepute after an incident in which all the patients mysteriously died and the director herself “disappeared”. Ever since then teenagers have been breaking in to try their luck, but anyone who’s tried to open the door to room 402 has met a sticky end.

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (곤지암, Gonjiam) is a found footage horror movie in the modern mould and like most, the crime our “heroes” are about to commit is one of extreme hubris. Cynical in the extreme, the Horror Times crew have absolute certainty in the non-existence of the supernatural and actively mock it through their exploitation of engineered “scares”. In an odd way, if you really thought about it, Horror Times would be quite an exploitative show if it involved “real” ghosts – perhaps you should let malevolent spirits lie rather than bullying them to fight you for the entertainment of others. Nevertheless, the Horror Times crew are about to find out just how wrong they are. While they bicker amongst themselves, hatching plans to wind up the most “expressive” of the team members, setting up bizarre “rituals”, and faking being “scared” to get more money, the Captain keeps a firm eye on the numbers from the safety of the editing tent and the horrors of Gonjiam begin to bubble quietly below the surface.

The thing is, there is clearly horror in spades in this version of Gonjiam where we are told the directoress excelled at treating not only the “distressed” but also “political prisoners”. The lab holds its share of bizarre discoveries including some kind of weird chicken in preserving fluid while the “collective treatment room” is filled with individual confessional boxes which are completely closed save one opening at the chest level. The spectres we later see have large scars running down their torsos and we can only image the true horror of whatever it was that was done here and to whom and on what grounds, but Horror Times aren’t interested in any of that despite their rather superficial “investigations” of the directoress’ office and her many photos of that time she got a prize off a dictator. By the time everyone starts speaking in tongues and getting trapped in strange underwater realms, it becomes clear the “truth” is going to remain buried. 

Maybe the other lesson the Horror Times guys should have learned is that the traumatic past is not your playground and it’s probably fair enough if those unable to pass on begin to feel upset about their personal pain being exploited for ghoulish thrills. Perhaps there’s a mild lesson in the unhappy fates of those who’d rather poke the ghosts than cure them, revelling in the darkness of another era rather than trying to expose it, but Gonjiam isn’t so much about lessons as good old fashioned scares. The abandoned hospital itself is atmospheric, as are the distant banging and doors opening of their own accord but there’s a glibness in its unease that undercuts the sense of dread and inevitability so essential to the genre. The biggest irony of all is that Horror Times’ viewers lost interest when the “real” ghosts showed up – reality TV never really was about “reality” anyway.


Screened as a teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival. The next and final teaser screening will be A Tiger in Winter on 17th September at Regent Street Cinema at which the full programme for this year’s festival will be revealed.

International trailer (English subtitles)

For the curious, a clip from Ghostwatch (1992)

Claire’s Camera (La caméra de Claire / 클레어의 카메라, Hong Sang-soo, 2017)

Claire's Camera poster“I want talk about someone. About a man of 25, at the most. He is a beautiful man who wants to die before being marked by death. You loved him. More than that.” Hong Sang-soo channels Éric Rohmer through the aptly named Claire’s Camera (La caméra de Claire / 클레어의 카메라), but does so through the unexpected prism of Marguerite Duras whose poem is recited in French at the request of a sleazy Korean film director (Jung Jin-young) making a clumsy attempt to pick up the titular Claire (Isabelle Huppert) through an otherwise beautiful act of cross cultural interaction. The poem, like Claire’s polaroids, exists in an uncanny space – someone wants to tell us about a man we once loved as if we never knew him who wants to die before he is changed by death. Like Duras’ landmark exploration of the shock waves of imploding romance, Hong offers us life in fragments as Claire’s polaroids attempt to rewrite a half remembered history in order to make sense of a disordered present.

Film sales assist Man-hee (Kim Min-hee) is abruptly fired by her boss, Yang-hye (Chang Mi-hee), right in the middle of the Cannes film festival. Yang-hye offers no real reason why Man-hee has to go save that her perception of her has changed. She no longer feels that Man-hee is an “honest” person and as a person who values “honesty” she no longer feels comfortable working with her. Rather than lick her wounds back in Seoul, Man-hee decides to enjoy the rest of her time in Cannes as a kind of holiday which is how she ends up meeting Claire – an older French woman who is visiting the city for the very first time and has brought along her Polaroid camera to properly record the event.

Claire seems to pop-up here, there, and everywhere, dressed in an old-fashioned detective’s outfit of a stylish trench coat and trilby, snapping away like she’s gathering evidence about an international conspiracy. Striking up an awkward conversation with melancholy womanising film director So eventually brings her into the orbit of the three Koreans who are, we later realise, involved in an embarrassing workplace love triangle. Yet each time Claire appears, her photos don’t make sense – she has a photo of Man-hee wearing her trench coat that we never see her take while her other pictures seem generally out-of-order with the timeline as it has been presented to us.

The only way to change things, Claire intones, is to look at everything again very slowly. Ironically enough she offers the opportunity to do just that by means of instant photography, snapping a still frame of a painful memory in order to ruminate and reconsider. She claims she takes photographs as a means of being in the moment – after all, once you take the photo the subject is no longer the same. The act of being photographed has perhaps changed them, but more than that time has passed and we’re all seconds older now than we were before if perhaps no wiser. Yet looking at the photograph, literally looking at yourself from an external perspective, prompts a reevaluation of the past and perhaps changes the course of the present.

There is also, of course, a meta dimension to all this – as he had in The Day After and On the Beach at Night Alone, Hong muses on his own romantic difficulties in casting his real life love Kim Min-hee as a character with a near identical name while also ensuring that So is even more of a Hong stand-in than his usual leads. Man-hee has been unfairly dismissed because of an indiscretion with the drunken director who has had her fired, by his current girlfriend, out of a sense of embarrassment. Both Yang-hye and So are “shocked” by Claire’s photograph which frames her in a sultry pose wearing (they claim) much more makeup than usual, while So, spotting her at a party, goes into a semi-paternal rage about Man-hee’s (not really all that short) denim hot pants and generally “immodest” appearance. Berating her for a supposed lack of self-confidence, accusing her of “selling herself” and trying to catch the attention of men, So “directs” her to be more authentic. Which is quite something seeing as he is currently dressed in a borrowed tux in order to conform to social expectations.

Authenticity, or more directly “honesty”, becomes a running theme from Yang-hye’s instance that Man-hee is “dishonest” to a young filmmaker’s insistence that it’s hard to make an “honest” film. Claire, at least, seems to be embarking on a process of “honest” art even if nothing she says or does quite adds up. Light and bright and breezy, Claire’s Camera is Hong in Rohmer mode, wistful yet resigned and perhaps even hopeful. There’s a reason everyone seems to be so “reasonable” even in the most unreasonable of situations, other people’s feelings are not something that can be debated and are best accepted even if understood only retrospectively. Claire and her camera seem perfectly aware of that, silently observing in preparation for presenting evidence in a self inquisition, but doing so with kindness even in the knowledge that sometimes it’s easier not to look.


Claire’s Camera was screened as part of a teaser series for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival. The next screening in the series will be Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum at Picturehouse Central on 30th August.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Taxi Driver (택시 운전사, Jang Hoon, 2017)

A Taxi Driver PosterIn these (generally) well connected days of mass communication when every major event is live broadcast to the world at large, it’s difficult to remember a time when dreadful things might be happening the next town over yet no one knows (or perhaps dares to ask). Until 1979, Korea had been under the control of an oppressive dictatorship which was brought to a sudden and bloody end by the murder of the president, Park Chung-hee, at the hands of one of his aides. Though the democracy movement had been growing, hopes of installing a modern governmental system were dashed with the accession of the de facto president, General Chun Doo-hwan, who reinstated martial law, placing troops on the streets on the pretext of a possible North Korean invasion. In an event known as the Gwanjgu Uprising, a long term peaceful protest led by the area’s large student population was brutally suppressed with large numbers dead or wounded by government soldiers.

Meanwhile, in Seoul, regular Joe taxi driver Kim Man-seob (Song Kang-ho) is trying to go about his everyday business and is finding all of this protesting very irritating, especially when he is forced to swerve to avoid a young man running from riot police and breaks the wing mirror on his otherwise pristine vehicle. Man-seob thinks these kids don’t know they’re born, if they’d spent time abroad like he did in Saudi Arabia, they’d know that few places are quite as nice as Korea is. A single father raising his young daughter alone, Man-seob’s major worry is money. He’s four months behind on his rent and his daughter keeps getting into fights with the landlord’s son. Actually, the rent might not be such a pressing problem seeing as Man-seob’s landlord is a close friend and colleague – close enough for him to cheekily ask to borrow the money to “pay” it so his friend’s wife will stop being so mean. When he overhears another driver boasting that he’s picked up an improbably large fare that’s exactly the same amount as the money Man-seob owes, Man-seob bluffs his way into stealing it out from under him. Man-seob, however, has not stopped to consider why a foreigner wants to pay him an insane amount of money to drive from Seoul to provincial Gwangju.

Like many in the Korea of 1980, Man-seob is a man just trying to get by. He has his private sorrows, but largely avoids thinking about the big picture. To him, the Seoul protest movement has become such normal inconvenience that he keeps cream in his car to help cope with the smell of the smoke bombs. He thinks all of this rancour is just kids out of control and will eventually blow over when order is restored.

Others feel differently. A BBC journalist relocated from Korea to Tokyo describes the situation as “tense” and avows that this time something may be about to break. Tokyo in 1980 is a nice place to live, but extremely boring if you’re an international journalist and so German reporter Peter (Thomas Kretschmann) catches the next flight out with the intention of investigating the rumours of state sponsored violence coming out Gwangju.

Though Man-seob’s original motivation is the money, the events he witnesses in Gwangju have a profound effect on the way he sees his country. Bypassing roadblocks and sneaking into a city under lockdown, Man-seob and Peter witness acts of extreme violence as the army deploys smoke grenades, beatings, and bullets on a peaceful assembly of ordinary people. Prior to the military’s intervention, the atmosphere is joyful and welcoming. The people of Gwangju dance and sing, share meals with each other, and all are excited about the idea of real social change. This juxtaposition of joy and kindness with such brutal and uncompromising cruelty eventually awakens Man-seob’s wider consciousness, forcing him to rethink some early advice he gave to his daughter concerning her difficult relationship with the little boy next-door to the effect that non-reaction is often the best reaction.

Rather than focus on the Uprising itself, Joon presents it at ground level through the eyes of the previously blind Man-seob and the jaded Peter. Inspired by real events though heavily fictionalised (despite a search which continued until his death, Peter was never able to discover the true identity of the taxi driver who had helped him), A Taxi Driver (택시 운전사, Taxi Woonjunsa) is a testament to the everyman’s historical importance which, even if occasionally contrived, speaks with a quiet power in the gradual reawakening of a self-centred man’s sense of honour and personal responsibility.


A Taxi Driver was screened as the sixth teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival 2017. Tickets for the next and final film, The Villainess which screens along with the official programme launch at Regent Street Cinema on 11th September, are on sale now.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The King (더 킹, Han Jae-rim, 2017)

the king posterAbsolute power corrupts absolutely, but such power is often a matter more of faith than actuality. Coming at an interesting point in time, Han Jae-rim’s The King (더 킹) charts twenty years of Korean history, stopping just short of its present in which a president was deposed by peaceful, democratic means following accusations of corruption. The legal system, as depicted in Korean cinema, is rarely fair or just but The King seems to hint at a broader root cause which transcends personal greed or ambition in an essential brotherhood of dishonour between men, bound by shared treacheries but forever divided by looming betrayal.

Tae-soo (Jo In-sung) is the classic poor boy made good. His mother abandoned the family when he was only six because she couldn’t cope with his father’s rampant criminality. Do bad things and you’ll go to hell, she told her son but perhaps Tae-soo already feels himself to be there and so doesn’t worry so much about those “bad things” that are a normal part of his life. The top fighter at his school, Tae-soo finds his calling when he sees his tough as nails father kneeling on the ground, pleading furiously in front of a skinny bespectacled man wearing a fancy suit. The man is a prosecutor and walks with the swagger of someone whose every action is government backed, his authority is absolute.

Tae-soo knuckles down, starts studying and gets into Seoul University. An accidental brush with the pro-democracy protest movement lands him in the army but thanks to lying about his hometown on his registration form he gets an easy posting meaning he has even more time to study for the bar. Everything seems to fall into place – he qualifies, gets his dream job, even marries a beautiful, intelligent, feisty woman who also happens to come from a wealthy elite family. The poor boy from Mokpo has made it, but prosecuting isn’t all he thought it would be. Tae-soo is a civil servant which means, like it does the world over, that he’s overworked and underpaid. When he rubs up against a dodgy case he’s made an offer he can’t refuse – drop it, and get a promotion to the big leagues where celebrity prosecutors enjoy lavish lifestyles filled with parties, drinks, and pretty girls. He knows it’s not right, but this is what he’s always wanted and Tae-soo is soon seduced.

Tae-soo’s seduction causes him a few pangs of conscience, but he was, as he was assumed to be, easy pickings. The case in question is a sickening if ordinary one – a teacher has molested a pupil but as the teacher is the son of an influential man and the single mother of the girl in question has learning difficulties, the case has been made to go away. Tae-soo is outraged, hauls the man back in, re-opens the case and obtains additional evidence and witness testimonies which confirm the girl’s story and will have the teacher sent to jail. His seduction is easy – they simply offer to make him one of them, and Tae-soo agrees, sacrificing not only this little girl but potentially many others for his own greed and satisfaction.

Tae-soo is redeemed, in a sense, thanks to his association with a childhood friend who helps him out by taking care of the teacher through “unofficial” means. Choi Du-il (Ryu Jun-yeol) is Tae-soo’s flip side, another poor boy done good but this time on the other side of the law. An ambitious gangster, Du-il is also loyal, just, and honourable – at least within a gangster code. The “errand boy” for this group of thuggish lawyers who behave like gangsters while the gangsters act like politicians with literal rather than metaphorical attack dogs, Du-il senses he’s walking a dangerous path to nowhere at all and has only his friendship with Tae-soo to believe in.

The genuine bond between the two men is one of the few redeeming features of Tae-soo’s increasingly compromised existence in which he sells his soul for the false approval of the man he regards as a “King” in the figure of all powerful, amoral chief prosecutor Han (Jung Woo-Sung). Tae-soo’s story is a conventional one of a basically good yet weak man struggling with a choice he’s made against his better judgement yet it’s not until it’s cost him everything he holds dear that he starts to reconsider.

Han Jae-rim weaves in archive footage and musical cues to evoke the changing eras which will be more obvious to Korean audiences – a case in point being the dramatic positioning of the suicide of former president Roh Moo-hyun in 2009. Roh had been a progressive president, often unpopular during his time in office thanks to his inability to pass his policies, and was later tarnished with a corruption scandal but found his reputation posthumously reappraised following his death which was seen both as a declaration of innocence and as a symbol of his deep love for his country and its people. Tae-soo’s change of heart seems to accelerate after Roh’s suicide which drew vast crowds of mourning (and knowing smirks from sleazy prosecutors Han and his sidekick Yang) as his own run in with death prompts a re-evaluation of his place in the grand scheme of things.

The King ends on a rather trite message – that every man is his own king and in the end the choices are all yours (though it seems to hope the choices made will be more altruistic than those of Han, Yang, and the earlier Tae-soo). The power wielded by men like Han is fragile – they need lackies, and if they can’t get them the system crumbles, but they’re also hollow, frightened opportunists who are so desperate they’re even bringing in shady seeming shamans to avoid having to make difficult policy decisions. Tae-soo turns their own tricks back on them with masterstrokes of irony, vowing revenge and perhaps getting it, along with self respect and a re-orientated moral compass but then again, power abhors a vacuum.


Screened as part of a season of teaser screenings for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)