Deliver Us From Evil (다만 악에서 구하소서, Hong Won-chan, 2020)

A melancholy hitman bids for paternal redemption but finds himself literally stalked by the mistakes of his violent past in Hong Won-chan’s pulpy action drama, Deliver Us From Evil (다만 악에서 구하소서, Daman Akeseo Goohasoseo). Aptly named, Hong’s noirish thriller takes us from the back streets of Osaka to underground Bangkok while the hero longs for the tranquil horizons of Panama but finally discovers that he cannot outrun himself even if he can perhaps repay his karmic debt by freeing others from the riptide of his moral transgressions. 

A former government agent apparently unceremoniously burned, In-nam (Hwang Jung-min) has been earning his keep as a killer for hire hiding out in Japan. His “one last job” is knocking off a Zainichi Korean mob boss, Koreda (Kosuke Toyohara), after which he’ll be free to go wherever he wants, arbitrarily setting his sights on Panama solely because of the tranquil scene featured in a picture opposite his favourite seat in his local izakaya. The past is however not done with him yet. His old handler gets in touch to let him know old flame Young-ju (Choi Hee-seo) has been trying to contact him, but so consumed with shame and defeat is he that he declines to respond only to hear a short time later that Young-ju has been found dead in Bangkok and as she’d listed him as next of kin he’s responsible for the repatriation of her body. Remorseful, he’s shocked to discover that Young-ju had a daughter, Yoo-min (Park So-yi), whose kidnap by her Korean-Chinese nanny may be connected to her murder. Switching up his plans, In-nam determines to save the daughter he believes to be his own but is pursued by flamboyant Korean-Japanese gangster Ray (Lee Jung-jae) hellbent on getting revenge for his estranged blood brother Koreda. 

In-nam finds himself in a sense caught between a series of codes of masculinity, apparently a former government spy who seems to have been involved in state sanctioned acts of torture and murder that may privately be against his sense of morality only to fall still further as a killer for hire even if we’re told in no uncertain terms that Koreda was a bad guy, a killer of women whose death is perhaps morally justifiable within the codes of chivalry. In-nam’s partner warns him about Ray, reminding him that they should have killed him at some point in the past but apparently let him live, a decision that has led, as Ray later states, to their present confrontation. Quizzed by a local Thai mobster, Ray claims he can’t even remember why he’s so set on killing In-nam but is mindlessly bound to follow his own code of manliness in avenging the death of a blood brother he had apparently fallen out with some years previously.

Meanwhile, in retrieving his daughter In-nam attempts to reclaim the right to a peaceful life making up in a sense for the mistakes of the past in having first abandoned Young-ju because of his manly code and then failed her in refusing her request for help. He attempts to reassert himself as a father by saving his little girl, but in doing so opts only for the personal, unmoved on discovering a child trafficking network enabled by the peculiar medical regulations of Japan and Korea which prohibit child organ transplants looking to save only Yoo-min while making no real effort to help the others. On reporting her daughter missing to the police, Young-ju had been horrified to discover Yoo-min’s photo pasted onto a wall entirely covered in similar notices for other children the police, as we later discover somewhat complicit, have so far failed to find. Yet saving the children is more happy accident than design, an indirect consequence of In-nam’s violent intervention. 

Indeed, In-nam more or less leaves the kids to his local sidekick a Korean transgender woman whose confirmation surgery he’s promised to fund in return for her assistance as guide and translator while he remains bound to a nihilistic path of manliness knowing there’s no way out for him that does not end in violent confrontation with past sins. Caught between the outlandish pulp of the flamboyant Ray and the noirish fatalism of In-nam’s journey into the darkness of the Bangkok underworld, Deliver Us From Evil defiantly refuses to marry its conflicting sensibilities as the two men pursue their respective codes each looking for their own particular deliverance but finding that salvation lies only in confrontation. 


Deliver Us From Evil screens at Edinburgh Filmhouse on 22nd June and Genesis Cinema London 24th June as the first Teaser Screening for this year’s London Korean Film Festival. The next screening in the series, Voice of Silence, will screen at Edinburgh Filmhouse on 1st July and Curzon Soho 3rd July, while Samjin Company English Class will then screen at London’s Screen on the Green on 8th July.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Bori (나는보리, Kim Jin-yu, 2018)

Perhaps it’s not unusual for a soon-to-be teenage girl to feel out of place at home, but for young Bori the sense of alienation is all the greater because she is the only hearing member of her family. Set in a charmingly tranquil seaside town during a serene summer holiday, Bori (나는보리, Na-neun-bo-ri) touches on themes of identity and belonging, disability and discrimination, communication and connection, but is at heart a beautifully drawn coming-of-age tale in which the heroine learns to feel at home in herself and her family while fully accepting that difference need not be a barrier. 

Though her home life appears to be blissfully happy, Bori (Kim Ah-song) can’t help feeling a little pushed out in being necessarily othered as she acts as a speaking interpreter for her family members. She mildly resents her younger brother Jeongwoo (Lee Lyn-ha), who like her parents is deaf, because he’s allowed to mess around just being a kid while she has to take on a more mature responsibility, telephoning for take away food, buying train tickets at the station, talking to bank tellers, giving taxi drivers directions etc. Though she obviously understands sign language, she does not always use it, often falling back on note writing to get across exactly what she wanted to say, and sometimes feels excluded from the happy bubble of her parents and brother as they continue to communicate in ways which still elude her. 

For these reasons, she’s taken to stopping off at the local shrine on her way to school to pray that she somehow loses her hearing. Bori’s best friend, Eun-jeong (Hwang Yoo-rim), is confused why she would actively like to deafen herself but nevertheless supportive, lending her her earphones to listen to white noise at unhealthy decibel levels but it’s not until the first day of summer holiday when she copies an elderly diver on TV and tries to implode her eardrums by jumping in the sea that she almost gets her wish, waking up in hospital and telling everyone that she too is now deaf. To Bori, all she’s done is make herself the same as everyone else in her family so she can’t understand why people seem upset. After all there’s nothing wrong with being deaf, so why is everyone acting as if she’s met with some kind of tragedy?

Then again, being “deaf” doesn’t seem to make the difference she thought it would. Her father (Kwak Jin-seok) cheerfully tells her it makes no difference at all to him whether she’s deaf or not, she’s just his lovely little girl while her mother (Hur Ji-na) who was understandably upset at the hospital quickly adapts. Jeongwoo meanwhile begins to confide in her a little more, temporarily becoming the big brother as he explains to her how difficult it can be for him as a deaf child in a hearing school. “I’m difficult for him too” Jeongwoo generously concludes telling his sister that he mostly doodles or sleeps in class because he finds it difficult to lipread and the teacher doesn’t seem to have made much of an effort to be inclusive. Bori realises that the reason her brother’s so football crazy isn’t just that he enjoys the sport, but that it’s the only time the other kids interact with him. He doesn’t really have any “friends” and even though he’s the best player for his age he’s only a substitute on the team because the coach is wary of his disability even though it can’t be said to make much difference on the pitch.

Eun-jeong, while suspecting Bori might be faking, treats her pretty much the same making an effort to communicate in whatever manner works, though the girls were used to talking through notes in class anyway. Some of the other kids at school, however, are far less understanding, unaware she can of course hear their barbed comments, and while out shopping with her mother she becomes more aware of the direct discrimination she faces as two rude cashiers in a boutique talk openly of their disdain for the “mute” in their store, whacking an extra 5000 won on the price thinking she won’t notice. Bori is outraged, but can’t say anything without blowing her cover. 

The worst occurs however when her aunt takes her and her brother for a checkup at the local hospital where the doctor suggests possible surgery and a cochlear implant for Jeongwoo. Bori hears him say that after the operation Jeongwoo would be unable to play sports or go swimming because of the dizziness meaning he’d have to give up football, his only outlet. Conflicted over whether to warn him, she is also a little offended that everyone seems to consider deafness as a problem to be fixed, not even bothering to enquire if that’s actually something that Jeongwoo might want. She repeatedly asks him, but is conflicted when he tells her that he would or at least he doesn’t necessarily want a “cure” for his deafness but would desperately love to be able to talk to his friends. Nevertheless, she’s annoyed with her aunt for railroading them towards “normality” without properly discussing it with them. 

Talking with her father he tells her of the discrimination he faced as a child, that the reason he can’t write is because he was badly bullied and prevented from attending school. He’s glad things are better for Jeongwoo, though they are obviously not perfect. What Bori realises is that her difference doesn’t matter and neither does anyone else’s, the people who love her would still love her no matter what and the ones that wouldn’t aren’t worth worrying about, while she also resolves to stand up to discrimination and injustice on behalf of those who might not be able to. A charmingly wholesome coming-of-age drama set in a sunny seaside town, Bori is a gentle plea for a more inclusive world fulled by empathy and openness. 


Bori streams in the UK on 12th November as the closing gala of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Woman Who Ran (도망친 여자, Hong Sang-soo, 2020)

“He keeps saying the same thing. It’s absurd how he repeats himself”, an exasperated wife complains. “If he just repeats himself how can he be sincere?”. Perhaps another meta self own from master of the form Hong Sang-soo, but one that has additional bite in indirectly targeting a potentially duplicitous heroine who may or may not be “The Woman Who Ran” (도망친 여자, Domangchin Yeoja). Ran from what, one might ask though there is something clearly fugitive in the brief sojourns of Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee) whose casually profound conversations with a trio of old friends once again probe into the complicated nature of the relationships between men and women as if she were on a quest to find out what else is out there for a woman of a certain age than a, as she intentionally or otherwise characterises it, dull and unfulfilling marriage. 

It’s the first of her hosts, Young-soon (Seo Young-hwa), who perhaps signals Gam-hee’s desire for change in pointing out that her hair is much shorter than it had been the last time she saw her or ever before, Gam-hee apparently having attempted to hack it off herself in the bathroom in a fit of despair before deciding to get a professional to fix it. Young-soon thinks it makes her look like a “flighty high school student”, and in a sense it does in her slightly nervous giddiness even as she cuts the figure of a typically elegant, upper-middle class lady of leisure. As she tells each of her friends, Gam-hee claims that she and her husband have never spent a day apart in their five years of marriage, his idea apparently in a romantic conviction that those who love each other should stick together, but now he’s apparently gone off on a “business trip” so she’s travelling around visiting friends. Repeated ad infinitum in more or less the same words, Gam-hee’s story can’t help but feel overly rehearsed and less “sincere” with each iteration, leading us to wonder what the real reason for her excursion might be along with her true feelings about her marriage. 

As we find out, Young-soon is recently divorced from a self-absorbed playwright/director and has used the settlement money to move out to the semi-rural fringes of the suburbs where she has a small patch of land farming her own produce. She now lives with another woman, Young-jin (Lee Eun-mi), described only as a “roommate” but the atmosphere is domestic and settled, an ostensibly harmonious home. It is nevertheless disrupted by an irritating man (Shin Seok-ho), a new neighbour come to issue a complaint about the couple’s habit of feeding the local strays whom he maligns as “robber cats”, politely suggesting they stop because his wife is apparently so afraid of them that she can no longer leave her new home. Young-jin is polite but firm, describing their relationship to the cats as like their children, dismissing the man’s insistence that his wife’s ability to enjoy her garden is an “important matter” with the affirmation that the cats’ right to life is also an “important matter” and so they’re at an impasse. The comically passive aggressive conversation ends in a stalemate with the man admitting a momentary defeat, annoyed that the two women refused to acknowledge his authority, but pettily vowing to appeal to a higher power by reporting them to a residents’ association no better than the local rooster who likes to peck the feathers off hens to show them who’s boss. 

A man turns up to annoy Gam-hee’s second friend too, a 26-year-old unsuccessful poet (Ha Seong-guk) she apparently slept with on a whim only to see him become overly attached. Like Young-soon, Su-young (Song Seon-mi) has achieved a degree of financial independence and has recently bought a long term lease on her own home. She is apparently happily single, or at least convinced that good men are hard to find and most particularly in Korea. Nevertheless, she has something tentative going with a soon-to-be divorced architect who lives on the floor above, which is one reason why she’s keen to be rid of the annoyingly clingy poet. Su-young tries to ask Gam-hee about her marriage, if she’s really in love, but she can only answer unconvincingly that she feels a little bit of love everyday, accidentally or otherwise positioning herself as the loved and not the lover. She tells the final of her friends, Woo-jin (Kim Sae-byuk), that her husband is a part-time teacher and translator of historical texts and novels prompting the question of what sort of business trip he might have needed to go on, alone, for the first time in five years, but also signalling something of her boredom with her overly conventional life, complaining to Su-young that she’s fed up with her hobbyist sideline running an unsuccessful florists. 

Her meeting with Woo-jin is, if she’s to be beleived, serendipitous, the fact she’s brought no gift as she had for the other two women (meat for Young-soon that as it turns out was really for Young-jin, and a designer coat for fashionable Su-young) supporting her case, but does perhaps lead her towards her endgame as the protagonist in a final encounter with a problematic man, as it turns out an old flame who is the cause of the initial awkwardness between the two women whose former closeness we can infer from small, intimate gestures, Woo-jin placing her hand over Gam-hee’s by means of apology, and Gam-hee later clasping her friend’s knee. Curiously enough, the two women are also dressed more or less the same, and later seem to have patched up their old friendship, conspiratorially slagging off Woo-jin’s husband Seong-gu (Kwon Hae-hyo), now a famous author she fears has become an “insincere” narcissist who’s let fame go to his head. 

Apparently having seen him on TV, Gam-hee too agrees he’s “changed”, wondering if he’s really the same man she once knew, endlessly prattling on self-importantly for the cameras. Woo-jin can’t bear to listen to him anymore, fed up with his well rehearsed quips and affected persona. In seeing him again is Gam-hee confronted by the “reality” of her romantic fantasy of the failed love of her youth, or merely presented with an uncomfortable mirror of artifice that, like her meetings with her three friends prompts her into reconsideration of who she is and what it is she wants out of life? “I’d like to live somewhere this” she says to both Young-soon and Su-young, partly out of politeness but also re-imagining herself as a new age cottager or fancy free bachelorette, hearing the scandalous story of a woman who really did run disappearing in the night from her crushingly disappointing existence. Nevertheless, like many of Hong’s heroes Gam-hee remains a fugitive, retreating to the temporary refuge of the familiar trapped somewhere between past and future without clear direction but perhaps a little more alive. 


The Woman Who Ran streamed as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival. It will also open at Curzon Bloomsbury & stream via Curzon Home Cinema on 11th December ahead of hitting Mubi 20th December courtesy of CMC Pictures.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Family Ties (가족의 탄생, Kim Tae-yong, 2006)

What is it that binds a “family”, bonds or blood, and do you really have a choice when it comes to being in one? Those are all questions which might have greater import in societies in which the concept of family is clearly defined and deeply entrenched, but even so the answers may be in a state of flux in the face of rapid social change which perhaps dangles the possibilities of greater personal freedom while in other ways remaining rigidly conservative. 

More literally translated as the birth of a family, Kim Tae-yong’s Family Ties (가족의 탄생, Gajokeui tansaeng) explores these changing connections through three interconnected stories, the first two occurring roughly contemporaneously and the third around a decade later. The heroine of the opening chapter, Mira (Moon So-ri), is a reserved young woman running a small cafe mostly catering to noisy teens. Originally excited to receive a phone call from her younger brother Hyung-chul (Uhm Tae-woong) whom she hasn’t seen for five years letting her know he’ll be coming home for a visit, Mira’s enthusiasm for the reunion dwindles when he turns up with a new wife, Mu-shin (Go Doo-shim), who appears to be much older than him. Mira is understandably put out. Firstly, he obviously didn’t invite her to his wedding, in fact he didn’t even bother to share the news he’d got married, and secondly it’s quite inconsiderate not to have warned her there would be an extra guest in tow especially as they’ve not met before. 

On the other hand, perhaps seeing him again merely reminds her of all the reasons they haven’t stayed in touch. In a quiet moment, Hyung-chul reveals he wants to open a shop selling traditional hanbok nearby, which is a surprise, but Mira instantly realises he’s probably come for money and repeatedly tells him she doesn’t have any. When everyone’s asleep, she makes a point of putting her bank book in a locked box inside the safe just to be sure he won’t abscond with it in the night. With Hyung-chul picking a fight with her fiancé and a random child turning up who turns out to be Mu-shin’s unwanted stepdaughter from several relationships ago, Mira’s patience begins to come to an end. She suggests that perhaps they’ve outstayed their welcome, but then evidently thinks better of it only to be let down once again by her irresponsible brother who claims he can take care of everyone, but predictably does not follow through. 

Family becomes a burden left to women to bear while acting as a safety net for men who view their role as protector yet largely can’t look after themselves. Sun-kyung (Gong Hyo-jin), the slightly younger protagonist of the second story, is frustrated by this same self sacrificing quality in her mother who has been continually deceived by useless lovers all her life including the most recent, a married man who won’t leave his wife and children. She also resents the presence of her much younger brother, still an elementary student doted on by the mother from whom she feels increasingly disconnected. Having run away from home to become a singer, Sun-kyung now has her sights set only on escaping abroad and is currently working as a guide for Japanese tourists only to end up bumping into her ex-boyfriend on a day out with his new partner. For her family is little more than a trap, her boyfriend apparently breaking up with her for being too selfish while she eventually pays a visit to the home of her mother’s lover to confront him and ask if “love” is really worth the price of sneaking around living a lie. Yet bonding with her brother and discovering what was in the mysterious suitcase her mother insisted on leaving at her apartment perhaps reconnects her with her childhood self and a more positive take on family bonds, even if that means in a sense regaining one dream only to abandon another. 

In any case, the anxieties of the first two sequences are visited in the third through the story of a young couple we first meet sitting next to each other on a train. So familiar with each other are they that we assume they are already involved, but they are in fact strangers meeting for the first time. Flashing forward a little, however, we can see their relationship is strained. Kyung-seok (Bong Tae-gyu), the young man, has inherited a sense of male insecurity, flying into jealous rages ostensibly because his girlfriend Chae-hyeon (Jung Yu-mi), is simply too nice or more to the point she’s nice to everyone and not just to him. He is frustrated by her because he feels she allows herself to be taken advantage of, often lending money to people who won’t see the need to pay her back because she’s too “nice” to bring it up. The last straw comes when he feels she’s embarrassed him by not showing up for a family dinner because she got involved in the search for a missing child. 

“When I’m with you I’m dying of loneliness” he somewhat dramatically announces as part of a breakup speech, annoyed that Chae-hyeon does not devote herself entirely to him as perhaps he expects a woman to do, but defiantly carries on being indiscriminately nice to everyone. He describes his mother as “pathetic” for having been overly attached to unreliable men, only to be corrected by his sister who reminds him that she merely had a big heart, something he’s perhaps lacking in his broody neediness. Yet through meeting Chae-hyeon’s family we get a sense of something different and new in which two women have raised a child unrelated to them by blood who came into their lives by chance as the result of a man’s irresponsible behaviour, an unnecessary throwaway reference to separate bedrooms perhaps undermining the boldly progressive introduction of Chae-hyeon’s two mothers to the extremely confused Kyung-seok. Nevertheless what we see in this last family, born as it was through a series of accidental meetings, is the first instance of a warm and loving home built on mutual support and affection rather than simply on blood or obligation. Having reclaimed the nature of family for themselves perhaps gives the women the courage and conviction to firmly close the door on those who might seek to misuse or corrupt it with their own sense of selfish entitlement, blood relation or not. 


Family Ties streamed as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Gull (갈매기, Kim Mi-jo, 2020)

“Equality before the law must be enjoyed not only by the rich but by everyone. We must not let them get away with trampling on our human rights and right to life”, the leader of a protest against the forced relocation of his fish market intones over a loudspeaker in Kim Mi-jo’s incendiary Gull (갈매기, Galmaegi), but his words have a very different connotation to a middle-aged woman quietly seething in her protest gear as she watches from an upper window. She knows when he says “everyone”, it’s not quite what he means and that to that extent he does not truly believe what he’s saying because to be a woman in this society is to know that your human rights and right to life have been trampled on daily since the day you were born and if you try to resist someone will tell you you’re making a scene. 

30 years running a stall selling raw fish, O-bok (Jeong Aehwa) is excited about the marriage of her oldest daughter, In-ae (Go Seo-hui), though also a little anxious seeing as she’s marrying up, her fiancé’s family are educated people with good government jobs. In-ae jokes that her mother has an inferiority complex, but it is in a sense true in a half-realised acceptance of her marginalised position as a working class woman along with the frustrated dreams of her youth. Chatting on the phone with her mother who has dementia, O-bok reveals she’s proud that despite having missed out on an education herself as was the thinking for girls in those days, she managed to send each of her three daughters to college. She wonders why her mother didn’t do the same, and mourns all the things she could have done with her life if only she hadn’t been bound by societal expectations. 

Staying behind one evening to have a drink with her colleagues, she is assaulted by Gi-taek (Kim Byeong-choon), the man with the loudspeaker and the de facto leader of the protest and solidarity movement trying to ensure they cannot be pressured into accepting less than they’re owed in compensation when the market is closed. Stumbling home the following morning clearly in pain and having difficulty walking, O-bok is alerted to blood on the back of her skirt by a fellow female pedestrian, stopping into a bath house to rinse out her underwear. Aside from visiting a doctor for “bleeding”, she tells no one and does not return to the market for several days. Gi-taek, meanwhile, has the audacity to turn up at her door with premium seafood to ask after her health. 

Eventually O-bok explains what’s happened to In-ae, laying bare a generation gap as the younger woman tries to persuade her mother that she should it report it to the police. O-bok, however, is reluctant to make herself the subject of gossip, mindful of the effect it may have on her daughter’s marriage, and tries the old-fashioned way first in asking Gi-taek for an apology through an intermediary, complicating the situation in obviously being unwilling to say what it’s for. When he refuses, she takes her daughter up on the offer and files a complaint though perhaps knowing it’s unlikely to go anywhere seeing as she no longer has access to any material evidence.  

What she could not have expected is the extent to which her simple desire to see justice done would make her a social pariah. Of course, the situation is complicated by the economic precariousness of the fish market workers who cannot afford to lose out on the compensation money and are depending on Gi-taek to help them get it. The men find the whole thing embarrassing, making muted comments about O-bok’s drinking as if she brought this on herself, something her daughter later echoes in a moment of anger only to be disappointed in herself for saying it. Not knowing who made the accusation, her husband chuckles that rape is all a big joke because you “can’t rape a girl who doesn’t want to”, while the women are largely no better reminding her that this is the sort of thing you keep to yourself and try to forget as if they don’t know how that feels. 

“I’m so sick of people mouthing off about rights and all” a genial female shopkeeper confesses to O-bok, admitting that she has no idea why the man on the roof across the way with the sign is protesting, “He says things are unfair or something. I don’t even care.” “He’s just torturing himself” she adds, O-bok perhaps wondering too if that’s all she’s really doing, if her quest for justice is really worth it when no one seems to care. She wonders if they’d care more if she weren’t a 61-year-old market fishmonger but an educated woman with a good government job. Maybe we’re not all so equal under the law after all, but she can’t let them get away with trampling on her dignity. Shot with naturalistic detachment shifting to a rattled handheld, Gull is a crushing condemnation of a misogynistic, classist society but one that finds strength in its heroine’s resilience and newfound determination make herself seen if only by those ought to feel ashamed. 


Gull streams in the UK until 11th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Daughter of Fire (불의 딸, Im Kwon-taek, 1983)

“Doctor, is it possible in our modern society for someone to suffer from that kind of illness?” the conflicted hero of Im Kwon-taek’s Daughter of Fire (불의 딸, Bul-ui ttal) asks his psychologist, plagued by nightmares of the mother who abandoned him at 11 and suffering what seems to him to be the call to shamanism, only what place could such a backward and superstitious practice have in “our modern society?”. In many ways, it’s exactly that question which Im seems to find so essential, implying in a sense that even in the politically repressive but increasingly prosperous Korea of the late ‘70s that they have perhaps lost something of their essential Koreanness in their abandonment of their ancestral beliefs in favour of modern “sophistication”.

Listening to his troubles, the disinterested psychiatrist reassures Hae-joon that it’s just a “minor neurosis” caused by “frustration” which can easily be cured. On his way home, however, Hae-joon is accosted by an older woman dressed in shaman’s clothing who addresses him as a son, reminding him that he has the blood of shamans running in his veins and try as he might he’ll never be able to escape it. Her intervention perhaps links back to an earlier encounter with the pastor at his wife’s church who explained to him that his wife is at the end of her tether, embarrassed by his lack of faith believing that it reflects badly on her as a religious woman hoping to lead others towards the lord if she cannot at least count her husband among the saved. So great is her distress that she has apparently even considered divorce. This is perhaps one reason Hae-joon is so keen to exorcise his shamanistic desires, though it’s also clear that his presence in his home is intensely resented, his wife later only warmly greeting him by hoping that he’ll be able to let go of his “dark and diabolical life” for something brighter and more cheerful, ie her religion though the grey uniformity and intense oppression of her practice only make her words seem more ironic. 

The pressing problem in his family is that his daughter is also sickly, seemingly with whatever it is which afflicts Hae-joon. She has begun sleepwalking and later suffers with fits and seizures which to a certain way of thinking imply the onset of her shamanistic consciousness. Hae-joon’s Christian family, in a touch of extreme irony, are convinced that an exorcism in the form of a laying on of hands will cure her, yet they like many others view the ritualised religious practice of the shaman as a backward relic of the superstitious past. The ironic juxtaposition is rammed home when Hae-joon is sent to cover a supposed miracle for his newspaper that his wife and her friends from church regard as the second act of Moses, standing ramrod straight and singing hymns while a noisy festival of shamanic song and dance occurs further along the beach apparently a rite to appease both the sea god and the vengeful spirit of an old woman accidentally left behind when her community migrated to another island to escape an onslaught of tigers. Stuck in the middle, Hae-joon exasperatedly explains to his photographer that this parting of the seas isn’t any kind of miracle at all, merely a natural result of low tide revealing that which would normally be hidden. 

Yet despite his unsatisfactory visit with the psychologist, Hae-joon becomes increasingly convinced that only by finding his mother can he come to understand what it is that afflicts him. Speaking to the various men who knew her from the step-father he later ran away from to escape his abuse after his mother disappeared, to a blacksmith who cared for him as an infant, and the men she knew after, Hae-joon begins to understand something of her elemental rage. Driven “mad” by the murder of her lover by the Japanese under the occupation, she wandered the land looking for fire to exorcise her suffering only later to lose that too when the oppressive Park Chung-hee regime outlawed shamanism entirely in his push towards modernity. Consumed by the fires of the times in which she lived, there was no place in which she could be at peace and nor will there be for Hae-joon or for his daughter until they embrace the legacy of shamanism within. 

“Shamanism will not disappear and die” Hae-joon later adds, now able to see that there is or at least could be a place for it in “our modern society” or perhaps that it’s the modern society which must change in order to accommodate it. Despite his long association with depictions of Buddhism, it is the shaman which Im considered the foundation of Korean culture, something he evidently thinks in danger to the perils of a false “modernity”, Hae-joon eventually professing his concerns that without it Korea will forever be oppressed by foreign influence. Only by accepting the shaman within himself can he hope to find freedom in an oppressive society. 


Daughter of Fire streams in the UK until 11th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Divine Bow (神弓 / 신궁, Im Kwon-taek, 1979)

“From now on we need think only of our children. We can’t pass on shamanism to them. Our children at least should have a bright future” insists a man whose horizons have in one sense been broadened but perhaps in another narrowed following forced immersion in the modern world. A classic “island” film, Im Kwon-taek’s Divine Bow (神弓 / 신궁, Singung) finds a conflicted modern day shamaness reassessing her place in a community which has systemically betrayed her while trying to find a path through the intensity of her grief and sorrow. 

Set almost entirely on the small fishing island of Naro, the film opens with a series of short, static shots of the rainy harbour where an old man sits and strokes his beard wearing traditional Korean dress while a group of seemingly unemployed young men look on listlessly from the boats. It seems the community is in crisis for a number of reasons, the most pressing being a non-existent harvest of fish which they are choosing to attribute to the local shamaness’ refusal to perform the customary rituals. Unmoved by their petitioning, Wangnyeon (Yoon Jeong-hee) advises them to hire her daughter-in-law instead, but for unexplained reasons they only want her, threatening to hire a shaman from a neighbouring island if she continues her policy of non-cooperation. As we will discover, Wangnyeon has her reasons beyond a simple desire for retirement from what is a fairly strenuous job for an ageing woman, but the return of her long absent son Yongban prompts her into a reconsideration of her past and future as well as her place in this community. 

Though the tale is set in the present day, the fishermen are convinced that Wangnyeon’s refusal to conduct the ritual is the reason their harvest has failed, apparently for the first time in 30 years ever since she “retired”. But then they also tell us themselves of more rational reasons they may no longer be able to fish including an oil leak in the surrounding seas and the corrupting influence of larger corporations for which many of them are now reluctantly working. It is precisely this incursion of modernity that has led to all the trouble. Taken off the island, presumably to fulfil his military service, Wangnyeon’s husband Oksu (Kim Hee-ra) observes the modern world during his time in the army and comes to the conclusion that his home culture is backward and superstitious. Hired to perform an important ritual on a neighbouring island for the first time, Wangneyon repeatedly delays the contract to align with her husband’s discharge so he can play drums for her as he always had before. His newfound sophisistication, however, has robbed him of the ability to play. He no longer believes in shamanism and eventually leaves once again to work on a ship in order to one day own a fishing boat of his own. 

“What does a shaman do if not rituals?” Wangnyeon irritatedly asks her husband, in her case the answer apparently being a defiant nothing. Her refusal is part of her resistance to a world that has repeatedly betrayed her. Yet suffering economically temporarily loses her her son who, perhaps unlike his father, returns after a year of travelling more convinced than ever by shamanism if resentful that his mother has not yet relented and resumed her ritual duties. What we realise is that Wangnyeon has grown weary of her complicated place in the island hierarchy, existing to one side of the rest of the community who view her both with mild disdain and fearful awe. A victim of petty island politics, she takes literal aim at the corruption in her society and purifies it with her “divine bow”, mindful of Yongban’s pleas that her rituals are not just for her but for the many people who need to see them performed. 

“Everything, everything, everything is a dream” Wangyeon sings, living perhaps in her own ethereal purgatory, her jagged life story revealed to us in a series of fragmentary flashbacks as she reflects on her present predicament while finally understanding what it is she must do, determining to pick up the divine bow once again and reassume her rightful role as the shamanness. Marking Im’s first collaboration with cinematographer Jung Il-sung, Divine Bow is rich with ethnographic detail exploring this small rock pool of traditional culture on an otherwise moribund island subject to the same petty authoritarian corruptions and ravages of an increasingly capitalistic society as anywhere else. 


Divine Bow streams in the UK until 11th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Eul-hwa (乙火 / 을화, Byun Jang-ho, 1979)

Changing times and karmic retribution conspire against a venal shamaness in Byun Jang-ho’s expressionist take on the often adapted story by conservative writer Kim Dong-ni, Eul-hwa (乙火 / 을화). Finding Korea at a moment of transition, Byun’s adaptation is a tale of tradition vs modernity, indigenous religion vs Western Christianity, nature vs civilisation, and the young vs the old, but it’s also an old-fashioned morality tale in which the sins of greed and arrogance can never be forgiven because there can be no peace or happiness for those who seek to prosper through betrayal. 

During an intense storm, Ok-sun (Kim Ji-mee) is woken by an order from a dream instructing her to dig up the cairn outside her home to free a trapped spirit. Fearful as her young son Young-sul is ill, Ok-sun dutifully does what she’s told and discovers a chest containing what appear to be the instruments of a shaman. Leaving Young-sul alone for the moment, she seeks advice from the local shamaness, Mother Pak-ji (Jeong Ae-ran), who reveals that a well known shaman once lived in her home and that she has been selected by the Holy Mother of Sun-do Mountain to serve her as a shamaness. Though some might find this an imposition at best, Ok-sun is not unwilling but is unable to afford the money involved to mount an initiation ceremony. Luckily, Mother Pak-ji agrees to help, taking her on as a pupil and renaming her “Eul-hwa” after the house in which she lives. Young-sul recovers, and Eul-hwa is fully converted to the life of a “mudang”. 

Eul-hwa is less reluctant than some might be to become a shamaness because she is in a sense already an outcast as the unmarried mother to an illegitimate son, forced out of her home village and living in a small, rundown home on the outskirts of a neighbouring settlement where she struggles to support herself and her child. As someone with supernatural powers she earns herself a degree of freedom otherwise rare as a lone woman from an ordinary family, able to earn good money and in fact be fairly wealthy while maintaining her independence even if that independence might come at a price as it may have done for Mother Pak-ji who remains single and is now in a vulnerable position as she enters old age alone with only her fellow shamans for support.  

As Eul-hwa explains to Bang-dol (Baek Il-seob), a male shaman musician who will later become her husband, she once chose to become the second wife of a wealthy man, perhaps the only means available to her feed her young son and though not unhappy with the arrangement chose independence rather than to stay with his family once he died. In one sense she retains the upper hand in her marriage as the star draw and higher earner, but is also manipulated by her husband towards the taboo transgression of betraying her mentor Mother Pak-ji through the very modern crime of stealing all her business and destroying her ability to support herself. Having become a talented shamaness drunk on her own sense of power and success she becomes cold to those who have been good to her when she was otherwise rejected, cruelly refusing Mother Pak-ji’s pleas to consider her position and thereafter earning her enmity. 

The female solidarity which had enabled the two women to prosper together has been corrupted by male greed, Bang-dol’s ambition mediated through his wife as he convinces her to betray her own “mother” without ever considering that she too may one day be betrayed. In this way it is Mother Pak-ji’s “curse” that overshadows her life and success, but Eul-hwa also finds herself a victim of changing times as modernity begins to encroach on the village. A passing Buddhist monk issues a prophecy to the effect that Young-sul will become a great man, but only if he is not raised by his mother in whose care he will otherwise die. Eul-hwa makes a maternal sacrifice and sends her son away to be educated at the temple, intending to train her daughter Wol-hee to become a “great shaman” though she is mute, only to see him return a decade later having converted to Christianity in the city. “The Jesus demon” is an existential threat to the mudang, one she’s so far managed to mediate by performing exorcisms outside the newly erected church that have convinced most of the villagers to stay away. 

The tragedy is that mother and son are intent on “saving” each other from their respective “demons”, Young-sul now convinced his mother is at the mercy of false idols while she believes him possessed by an evil spirit of the West. As representatives of past and future they cannot co-exist and are incapable of accepting that they each hold differing beliefs. Yet even aside from the church we can see modernity already encroaching on the village, uniformed police officers arriving to make an arrest, representatives of an urban authority dressed much like Young-sul in his Westernised student uniform complete with cap and cape. The mudang’s days are numbered, even if she were not about to face the same fate as Mother Pak-ji in being betrayed by her child. 

Cutting to the rhythms of ritual, Byun conjures an atmosphere of fatalistic dread from the expressionist opening with its crashing waves and flashes of lightning to the repeated fire motifs which foreshadow the famous ending and the ominous sound of gloomy church bells clashing with the angry cries of birds. In the clash of cultures, however, modernity will always triumph in the end leaving the present alone to wander in the wreckage of a world consumed by violent conflagration. 


Eul-hwa streams in the UK until 11th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Underdog (언더독, Oh Sung-yoon & Lee Choon-baek, 2018)

“If you want freedom, you need to know how to survive” according to a wise old hound in Korean animation Underdog (언더독), produced by the team behind Leafie: A Hen into the Wild. A somewhat subversive tale of an individualistic desire for total freedom outside the walls of an indifferent society, Underdog also celebrates the power of friendship and family while following our oppressed canines all the way into the ironic paradise of the DMZ, a literal cage but one guarded on either side and guaranteed free of human cruelty. 

Our hero, Moong-chi (Do Kyung-soo), is a loyal family dog who has been raised as a domestic pet and knows nothing of life outside his apartment. Unfortunately, however, his owners bought a cute and tiny puppy without considering that he would eventually grow into a sizeable dog and so they no longer want to look after him. Heartless and irresponsible, Moong-chi’s owner drives him out into the forrest and leaves him there with a bag of kibble, seemingly aware that a domestic dog lacks the knowledge to survive in the wild. Pining and naive, Moong-chi fully expects his owner will be back to fetch him but eventually realises he’s been abandoned after meeting up with a small pack of other dogs in the same position and witnessing another car pull up and push a sick dog out of the passenger side before driving off. 

Trying to survive together while taking refuge in a derelict house in an abandoned part of town, the dogs lament their dependency on humans who have after all broken their hearts and then betrayed them. As they weren’t born wild, they’ve been deprived of their natural way of life, corrupted by a false civility that leaves them totally at the mercy of humans for the sustenance they need to survive while lacking the skills to hunt or forage for food other than that already discarded by the townspeople. Opinions within the group are divided with some fully accepting that they have no other option than to depend on humans despite the danger and duplicity they present, and others longing to find a place that’s free of humankind where they can truly be free to live as nature intended. 

For a children’s film, Underdog is entirely unafraid to be explicit in exploring exactly what “as nature intended” means, the ultimate goal of the dogs being to shift away from anonymous kibble towards tearing apart other kinds of wildlife with their bare teeth including cute bunnies and strangely scary deer. An early conflict arises between the abandoned domestic strays from the town and the true wild dogs from the mountain who complain that their hunting grounds and living environment are forever shrinking thanks to urban encroachment of which the strays are a minor symptom. The strays fear the mountain dogs for their ferocity, while the mountain dogs resent the strays for their neutered domesticity. Yet if they want to find freedom and a place free from human cruelty they’ll need to work together to get there. 

Meanwhile, the gang find themselves continually stalked by a psychotic dog catcher (Lee Jun-hyuk) who, paradoxically, relies on the exploitation of dogs for his livelihood yet vows to wipe them all out, particularly keen on bagging Moong-chi’s potential love interest mountain dog Ba-mi (Park So-dam) with whom he has a history. Bringing in the full horror of puppy farms and questionable ethics of a commercialised pet industry, not to mention dog fights and the meat trade, Underdog asks some uncomfortable questions about the unequal co-dependencies of animals and humans which will probably fly over the heads of the younger audience, but in any case insists on the right of wild animals to run free while simultaneously acknowledging the ability to choose to remain at the side of humans when the gang run into a kindly couple running a small animal sanctuary way out in the country living a more “natural” way of life free of the petty oppressions which mark urbanity. 

Nevertheless, the gang have an extremely ironic destination in mind in heading for the one place on Earth where human violence is not permitted, a buffer zone against the folly of war. Apparently seven years in the making Underdog boasts beautifully drawn backgrounds and an unusual 2D aesthetic that falls somewhere between cute and realistic while featuring scenes and themes that will undoubtedly prove distressing to sensitive younger viewers. Nevertheless, it presents a universal message of freedom and independence as well as solidarity among the oppressed as the abandoned dogs band together to find their path to paradise where they can live the lives they want to live free of human interference. 


Underdog streams in the UK 6th – 9th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (Korean with English subtitles)

Jesters: The Game Changers (광대들: 풍문조작단, Kim Joo-ho, 2019)

“Even with swords to our necks we say what we must!” a stage actor insists, though somewhat duplicitously as he wilfully says what he must to survive while simultaneously defending his artistic integrity. Oddly timely, Jesters: The Game Changers (광대들: 풍문조작단, Gwangdaedeul: Pungmunjojakdan) is an ironic exploration of the importance of art in engendering narrative proving once and for all that it really can remake the world. Our hero finds himself less torn than you’d expect him to be, only too keen to parrot the words of a regime he does not respect in return not only for his life but for material gain. 

Our heroes are a band of “jesters”, itinerant street entertainers who belong to a kind of underclass and earn their living through their ability to change “reputations”. Petitioned by an ageing wife discarded in favour of a young and beautiful concubine, the gang blacken the other woman’s reputation by literally putting on a show with storyteller Ma Deok-ho (Cho Jin-woong) as the romantic hero sweeping her off her feet. The illusion is broken by a sudden spell of rain, but in any case the gang soon find themselves falling foul of prime minister Han Myeong-hoe (Son Hyun-joo) who makes them an offer they can’t refuse – counter the disadvantageous narrative that the king is a cruel tyrant who usurped the throne through murdering his brothers and nephew with tales of his magnificence, or die. Deok-ho points out that a good way of raising his reputation would be cutting taxes and getting rid of corrupt nobles but unsurprisingly as is rapidly becoming evident, he isn’t being hired to speak the truth. 

On the one hand, Jesters is the tale of Deok-ho’s slow path towards realising his responsibility as an artist to tell the “truth” even when it is inconvenient. His mentor Mal-bo (Choi Gwi-hwa) had come by a banned book, The Six Loyal Subjects, which recounted the real story of how the king came to the throne and was determined to promulgate it, merely changing the name of the king to that of Ming to protect himself against a censorious crack down on street entertainers spreading “fake news”. Deok-ho claims to believe only what he sees, rejecting the evidence of the book, cynically determined to do whatever it takes to escape his poverty. He’d rather not be threatened, but he has no particular objection to Han’s request, only using it to increase his social status by ensuring the gang are re-registered as “middle class” rather than lowly entertainers, later even angling for a position at court. For Han, he engineers miracles from a tree which bends to clear the way for the passing monarch to visitations from the Buddha and floral rain falling from golden skies, tales of which spread quickly through the gossip-hungry nation embellished as they go. 

As Han puts it “history is made by those with power” and to that extent he who controls the past controls the future. Han executes three street performers for spreading “fake news”, men who were literally prepared to die for their artistic integrity in the way Deok-ho was not, while employing Deok-ho to spread “propaganda” that glorifies a weakened king. Enjoying his new status Deok-ho does not really consider the implications of what he’s doing until he realises that Han is playing his own angle, improving his stunts for additional leverage, razing a village so that the nearby temple where one of Deok-ho’s “miracles” occurred might be expanded. Han claimed to be mounting an egalitarian revolution, deposing a “mad” king to hand power back to the people but of course only meant to manipulate regal power for himself. 

Power, as we see, belongs more or less to the storytellers who literally write the narrative. In old Joseon that’s those like Deok-ho, or in other times newspapers, TV shows, or social media feeds. Deok is only just realising he had power all along, if only he had listed to Mal-bo and used it more wisely rather than “rolling his tongue for fame and cheers”. A somewhat flippant satire on fake news/propaganda synchronicity, Jesters makes a passionate plea not only for the power of art to remake the world but for the responsibility of the artist to tell the truth even when it is not popular.


Jesters: The Game Changers screens at the Rio on 31st October as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International teaser trailer (English subtitles)