Ashfall (백두산, Lee Hae-jun & Kim Byung-seo, 2019)

The Korean Peninsula once again faces existential threat though this time of a natural genesis, and ironically the only way to save it might be nukes from the North. Ashfall (백두산, Baekdusan) is the latest and the largest of Korea’s big budget disaster movies featuring a veritable host of A-list talent and action sequences on an epic scale, but also doubles down on the less palatable sides of the genre in an overt and sometimes uncomfortable nationalism which nevertheless has its positive sides in its temporary elision of the North/South divide as the heroes pursue their cross-border mission to save the people of Korea not only from volcanic threat but from becoming mere pawns in geopolitical brinksmanship. 

The most obvious problem, however, is that long dormant volcano and pregnant national symbol Mt. Baekdu has erupted, provoking massive earthquakes which quickly reduce most of the high tech capital to mere rubble. This is particularly bad news for heroic army bomb disposal expert Captain Cho (Ha Jung-woo) because, in true disaster movie fashion, today was supposed to be his last day. Cho’s wife (Bae Suzy) is heavily pregnant, and it seems he’s opted for a safer occupation in the light of his impending fatherhood. According to the predictions of previously derided Korean-American scientist “Robert” Kang Bong-rae (Ma Dong-seok, cast brilliantly against type), Mt. Baekdu will continue erupting with the third and most powerful wave taking out most of the peninsula, but he has a plan to stop it. He wants to use nuclear weapons to blow a hole in the side of the chamber, relieving the pressure. To do that, they need to hijack some of the uranium from very recently decommissioned North Korean missiles, which means sending a small military expedition over the border in secret to track down a possible double agent who knows where all the nuclear material is before loading up their own detonators and driving them into a mine under the volcano. 

All of this takes place against the backdrop of North Korea’s long awaited denuclearisation which is in the process of being witnessed by American forces who are very much not in favour of Kang’s plan seeing as it effectively means detonating a nuclear bomb right on the Chinese border. Once again, the film suggests, Korea finds itself the battleground in a proxy war, its sovereignty denied as it attempts to use whatever means it has to save itself but is actively prevented by various kinds of outside forces. Kang, who idolises America to the point that he rejects his Korean name and tries to leave the country as soon as possible on his US passport, eventually makes the ironic statement that the ensuing chaos is all down to this “incompetant government that can’t decide its own fate” as the American army shutdown a Korean operation to put his plan in action while Cho and his guys also find themselves actively targeted by US military acting covertly in North Korea. 

Somewhat unexpectedly, Cho is not quite the heroic action hero one would expect. He’s anxious and inexperienced, out of his depth as a man unused to being in the field, trained to defuse bombs not launch them and unfamiliar with standard weaponry. Because his guys are the good guys, the North Korean mission is supposed to be “non-lethal”, so they’re wading into this with tasers and rubber bullets while his opposing numbers have no such scruples. Ri (Lee Byung-hun), the North Korean double agent, runs rings around them, playing every advantage while his motives remain unclear until finally sitting comfortably within the realms of action movie melodrama as he and Cho develop an awkward mismatched buddy dynamic, bonding over paternal worries and North/South pop-cultural exchange. 

The familiar message is that all things are possible when working together for a common cause, making a possibly subversive argument that North/South solidarity is the most powerful weapon against entrenched American imperialism and a resurgent China while advocating strongly for a greater national sovereignty less beholden to foreign powers for military support. It comes as little surprise that Kang eventually decides to go back to his original name and stay in Korea for good rather than return to a discredited US, having rediscovered his Koreaness thanks to his role in saving the nation. Subtle this is not, but then who ever asked for subtlety from a big budget disaster movie?


Ashfall is available to stream in Europe until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Long Live the King (롱 리브 더 킹: 목포 영웅, Kang Yoon-sung, 2019)

long live the king poster 1Back in the good old days, gangsters used to make a case for themselves that they were standing up for the little guy and protecting those who couldn’t protect themselves. Of course that wasn’t quite the truth, but one can’t deny how closely small town thuggery and political office can resemble one another. Following his breakout hit The Outlaws, Kang Yoon-sung returns with web comic adaptation Long Live the King (롱 리브 더 킹: 목포 영웅, Long Live the King: Mokpo Yeongwoong), another unconventional comedy in which a surprisingly loveable rogue rediscovers his national pride and finds a more positive direction in which to channel his desire to be helpful.

Se-chool (Kim Rae-won) is a notorious thug with a traumatic past currently working with a local gang hired to clear a small protest of stall owners trying to cling on to a traditional market space in working class Mokpo where a developer wants to build a theme park and upscale skyscraper. A feisty young lawyer, So-hyun (Won Jin-a), is working with the protesters on their case and has no problem telling the gangsters where to get off. Impressed, Se-chool is smitten and starts to wonder if he’s on the wrong side but his attempts to get So-hyun’s attention – being strangely nice to the protestors, buying everyone lunch etc, spectacularly backfire. Only when he hears about another man, Hwang-bo (Choi Moo-sung), who used to be a gangster but has now reformed and become a social justice campaigner running a small not-for-profit cafe serving meals to the vulnerable, does he begin to see an opening, vowing to give up the gangster life and commit himself to serving the people of Mokpo.

The irony is that everyone seems to think that Se-chool has a hidden agenda, but his only agenda is the obvious one in that he wants to win So-hyun’s heart even if that means he has to shape up and learn to become a decent person rather than a heartless gangster thug. Known as the king of the nightlife, Se-chool is regarded as a slightly eccentric, good time guy, so his sudden desire to go “legit” is met with bemusement rather than surprise, but old habits are hard to shake and it takes a while for him to realise that trying to help people with his fists is not the best way to go about it. Punching out some punks making trouble in a cafe gets him an earful from the proprietress who explains that she owes a lot of money to the guys’ gang so Se-chool’s chivalry has probably caused her a series of potentially serious problems she assumes he won’t be on hand to help her out with. Nevertheless, he retains his desire to wade in and do his bit, becoming a surprise local hero when he puts himself in danger to ensure the unconscious driver of a crashed bus gets out safely while the other passengers make their escape.

Meanwhile, local politics is starting to heat up. Venal politician Choi Man-su (Choi Gwi-hwa) is up for re-election and running on a platform of making Mokpo great again. It comes as no surprise that Man-su is deep into the corrupt theme park project and outsourcing general thuggery to Se-chool’s arch-enemy which eventually includes taking out potential rivals like Hwang-bo whose approval ratings are soaring while voters are becoming tired of Man-su’s big money tactics and insincere messaging. Soon enough, Se-chool is persuaded to enter the race seeing as his “local hero” persona puts him in good stead to oppose Man-su’s establishment credentials. But, in order to get elected and convince So-hyun he’s really changed, he’ll have to finally face his traumatic gangster past while learning to be open and honest with his feelings.

Kang goes in hard for the business of politics, taking pot-shots not only at corrupt establishment figures in so tight with organised crime that they’re little more than jumped up gangsters, but also at ambitious party hoppers, and misguided mobsters who think they’re onto the big ticket by hooking up with “legitimate” power. Poor Se-chool, meanwhile, actually thought he was doing “proper business” in his persona as a besuited gangster of the new, corporatised school little thinking about the little guy as he unwittingly went about his ultra-capitalist agenda. Heading for broad comedy, Long Live the King misses an opportunity for serious satire but has undeniable heart as the misused hero learns to accept himself in being accepted by others, falling in love not only with a feisty activist lawyer but with community spirit and progressive politics as he vows to fight for a better future for the people of Mokpo while opposing the inherent corruption in the system embodied by men like Man-su who feel themselves entitled to exploit solely by virtue of their own superiority.


Long Live the King was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (악인전, Lee Won-tae, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

81745_1000“Two bad guys will catch the worst man” according to irritated gangster Jang Dong-su (Ma Dong-seok) in Lee Won-tae’s The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (악인전, Akinjeon). He doesn’t quite know how right he is, even as he forms an unlikely alliance with a maverick cop himself highly irritated because his lazy colleagues won’t listen to his theory that a spate of unsolved murders are the work of a serial killer. More alike than they’d care to admit, the two “bad guys” team up to do what they have to do in order to make the killing stop but at what price?

A vicious killer (Kim Sung-kyu) has developed a habit of rear-ending solo drivers on lonely roads, stabbing them repeatedly and then leaving them for dead. Maverick cop Tae-seok (Kim Mu-yeol) has become convinced that the killings were carried out by the same perpetrator and that they have not yet been identified as a “serial killer” partly because the crimes took place in different districts and there is insufficient co-operation between precincts, and partly because his colleagues think serial killers are something you see in American movies. His superiors just want to close cases, they aren’t particularly concerned with upholding justice or protecting the innocent and so Tae-seok starts thinking outside of the box when he hears that the killer’s latest target was none other than top mob boss Jang Dong-su.

Dong-su got rear-ended after running an errand to have a word with a wayward underling, Hur (Yoo Jae-myung), who has forgotten his place. The killer made a serious mistake going after Dong-su who is a big, handy kind of guy and therefore manages to fend him off, even wounding him in the shoulder despite being badly injured himself. Though the obvious conclusion is that Hur sent someone after him, Dong-su is unconvinced seeing as he had never seen his assailant before and is pretty sure he’s not a member of the gangster underworld. Still, he’s very annoying because a gangster only has power in being respected and right now Dong-su looks a fool. If he wants to get his “professional” life back on track, he needs to get his revenge but to do that he’ll have to cross the floor and work with law enforcement, temporarily teaming up with rogue cop Tae-seok whose heart is in the right place even if he’s not averse to bending the rules.

One of the things which most bothers Tae-seok about amoral killer “K” is that, unlike most serial killers, he kills indiscriminately and purely for pleasure. He has no “type” and generally goes up against those most likely to fight back, unlike your average pattern killer who targets the vulnerable. Like Tae-seok and Dong-su, he is however quite annoyed – this time because someone has “framed” him for a murder he didn’t commit in order to further their own ends. Hugely overconfident and cooly psychopathic, he sits in the dock and asks what makes his crimes different than the state’s if the state is fixing to execute him without proper evidence. Pointedly looking at law enforcement, he affirms that the real villains are those who commit crime with kind faces (say what you like, but at least K looks the part).

When it comes to Tae-seok he might have a point. Conspiring with Dong-su to “kill him with law”, Tae-seok gleefully manipulates the system while giving Dong-su tacit permission to take his revenge as long as “justice” has been properly served. K doesn’t believe in anything, Tae-seok believes in a particular kind of “justice” if not quite in the law, while Dong-su mourns the sense of self-belief that allows you to rule the roost as an all powerful gangster. The three men are a perfect storm, each angry, each resentful, each vowing a particular kind of revenge against the forces which constrain them be they corrupt and lazy superiors, gangsterland disrespect, or the “injustice” of being accused of a crime you did not commit but not being properly credited for the ones you did. Bathed in a garish neon, Lee’s anti-buddy-cop drama embraces its noirish sense of fractured morality with barely suppressed glee as its similarly conflicted heroes pursue their violent destinies, true to their own but dragged to hell all the same.


The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Unstoppable (성난황소, Kim Min-ho, 2018)

Unstoppable poster 5Can a person ever really change? The answer might be more complex than it seems but then again, you might not quite want them to change as much as you might think you do. Ma Dong-seok is quickly becoming Korean cinema’s MVP, in the genre stakes at least, and has begun to make a career for himself as a big hearted teddy bear of a man with gigantic heavy fists. It’s a legacy he very much embraces in the oddly light hearted Unstoppable (성난황소, Seongnan Hwangso) which sees him play a former gangster gone straight whose latent violent streak is reawakened when he becomes a warrior for love.

Dong-cheol (Ma Dong-seok) was once a notorious tough guy but gave up the streets when he met “an angel”, nurse Ji-soo (Song Ji-hyo), and married her. These days, he works a regular low pay labour job at the fish market but is always dreaming of better things which is why he’s constantly getting scammed by the latest get rich quick scheme proposed by one of his dodgy friends. The trouble starts when Dong-cheol is rear ended by some shady types and gets out of his car to ask for insurance details. Sensing danger but now fully reformed, Dong-cheol remains calm and refuses to engage but Ji-soo isn’t having any of it. She verbally lays into the gangsters and insists on compensation. When Dong-cheol returns home to find his apartment in disarray after arguing with Ji-soo about his unwise financial decisions during a birthday dinner at a fancy restaurant they can’t afford, he has an inkling about what may have occurred but finds the police slow and unsympathetic leaving him to take matters into his own hands.

Unlike many a similarly themed action drama, Unstoppable is keen to emphasise the sweet and innocent love between Dong-cheol and Ji-soo with even the climactic argument between them neutered shortly before Ji-soo is taken. Dong-cheol is not a violent man at heart, but is prepared to meet violence with violence where necessary and he does not like to lose. He takes damage, but never gives up the fight not because he’s angry and hellbent on revenge but because he loves his wife and is desperate to make sure nothing bad happens to her while he is around to prevent it. Meanwhile, Ji-soo is far from a damsel in distress. Refusing to be cowed, she keeps her wits about her and protects the other women kidnapped by the gang while she looks for a way to escape.

The fact is, there seem to have been a lot of unexplained disappearances of young women in this city – something which Dong-cheol becomes aware of while hanging around the police station, yet the authorities have not made much headway on the case. Dong-cheol quickly works out that he’s potentially dealing with an organised crime network which makes its money out of trafficking kidnapped women all over Asia and that, unlike himself, the families of these women largely opted to take the “compensation” money left in their place by the gangsters rather than fight back. This in itself annoys him, though not quite as much as being forced to play the gangsters’ game in order to maximise the chances of getting to Ji-soo before it’s too late.

What quickly becomes apparent to flamboyant gangster Ki-tae (Kim Sung-oh) is that he’s made quite a big mistake, even if that mistake might be more fun than hassle. Ji-soo is not the victim type and her husband will stop at nothing to get her back which means he’s fighting a war on two fronts, both surprised and somewhat amused to be met with such unexpected resistance. Still, Dong-cheol is determined to barrel through fists flying while his bumbling sidekicks – old comrade Choon-sik (Park Ji-hwan) and fast talking fixer Gomsajang (Kim Min-jae), handle the investigation from the sidelines. Undercutting the essential darkness of the “lone vigilante takes on heinous human trafficking ring” narrative with warmhearted humour, Unstoppable proves an ideal vehicle for the increasingly popular Ma Dong-seok which finds unexpected sweetness in the genuine connection between its perfectly matched husband and wife team.


Unstoppable was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Bros (부라더, Chang You-jeong, 2017)

The Bros posterTime passes differently in the country. Two brothers from rural Andong thought they’d escaped the relative restrictions of an oddly feudal upbringing, but something keeps pulling them back. Ghosts literal and figural force them to return home, confront each other and their remaining family, and then attempt to come to some kind of acceptance of their places in the grand scheme of things in light of their newly acquired knowledge. The Bros (부라더, Buladeo) stars unlikely siblings Ma Dong-seok and Lee Dong-hwi and is adapted from the stage musical “The Brothers Were Brave” which was also directed by Chang You-jeong. Set in rural Andong, the film is an affectionate, if not entirely sympathetic, portrayal of the fiercely traditional way of life in tiny country towns in which it really still matters who accedes to be the head of a family and women are expected to know their place.

“Estranged” brothers Seok-bong (Ma Dong-seok) and Joo-bong (Lee Dong-hwi) have each skipped out on their familial responsibilities for lives of modern “freedom” in Seoul. Seok-bong is a “treasure hunter” who gives eccentric lessons on archeological ethics to bored students while overspending on the latest tools to aid him in his (permanently unsuccessful) quests, while Joo-bong is an ambitious salaryman whose career runs into a problem after he is accused of “embezzlement” for ruling out the cheapest route for a new road because (unbeknownst to his bosses) it would cut right past his childhood home. Just as Seok-bong realises he’ll have to pay back the outrageous sum of money he “speculated” on new equipment when a civil war breaks out in his prospective dig site, and Jong-boo frets over his workplace blunder, both sons get an unexpected text informing them that their “estranged” father has died and they’re “welcome” to attend the funeral, if they should wish. As both brothers are in need of a getaway plan (and also an opportunity to ask for some financial assistance), they find themselves finally going “home” only to unexpectedly find each other on the road, start bickering in the car, and then accidentally run over a random young woman (Lee Honey) apparently out walking in this otherwise barren and deserted stretch of land.

On their arrival, the brothers are not exactly embraced by their loving family. Nobody really expected to see them and, as it turns out, their grandfather didn’t even realise they’d been invited. The boys’ rural country home is one of fierce traditionality, seemingly cut out of time and existing in the feudal past where people refer to each other via archaic titles and it really seems to matter who is declared “first son” of the family. Both Seok-bong and Joo-bong left the village because they had no interest in all this feudal nonsense and resented the old fashioned authoritarianism which defined their relationships with the apparently tyrannical patriarch they have both come home to bury, if not perhaps to mourn. Seok-bong, in particular, remains extremely resentful towards his late father for the way he treated their mother who, he assumes, must have been very unhappy all her married life.

Rural Andong, it turns out is not a great place for women. The brothers do have a “friend” in the family complex in the form of Mi-bong (Jo Woo-jin) – a policeman recently married to a very nice but often frustrated young lady who has taken to smoking (still considered scandalous in these parts) in secret in order to relieve the stress of being a married woman suddenly expected to undertake all these arcane social responsibilities, which include being “nice” to her overbearing mother-in-law who seems to delight in scolding her for doing everything wrong. In fact Mi-bong’s wife wants to move to Vietnam to get as far away from the family as possible, but  finds it difficult to abandon the feudal way of thinking in wondering what it would be like to be the wife of a “first son”. Women here are supposed to know their place – stay silent, serve the men. When Joo-bong’s “lady friend” from the city shows up unexpectedly, everyone reacts to her as a “potential daughter-in-law” and sets about giving her the third degree which includes a pop quiz on the three duties of an Andong woman which include obeying a father, then a husband, and then presumably a son. In a running joke, no one can even remember the given name of the boys’ mother because she was always just referred to as “first daughter-in-law”.

All in all, it’s no surprise that Seok-bong and Joo-bong wanted to leave but then again, it turns out there was a lot more going on with the family than they were ever privy to know and they have perhaps judged their father unfairly without knowing all the facts. This being a comedy, the central point is the repair of a broken family – firstly in the brothers repairing their bond as they face the crumbling of their individual quests and are forced to work together, unwittingly uncovering the truth about their family history. Meanwhile, they also have to cope with the strange woman they apparently ran over who seems to have lost her memory but has valuable information to impart to each of them. Haunted by the ghosts of home, neither of the boys finds what they originally came for but gets something (arguably) better in rediscovering their roots and experiencing the upsides of familial connection.

Filled with the strangeness of the village tradition with its mourning suits, wandering monks, shamanic rituals, and uncles who speak only in incomprehensible four character idioms The Bros is an absurd affair but one with its heart in the right place. Chang enlivens the otherwise unremarkable comedic narrative with interesting visual compositions as the mysterious woman seems to drag the brothers away into a pretty fairytale land filled with oversaturated picture book images in which the moon is just a little bit bigger than you’d expect and oddly ‘70s fashions of purple and yellow lend a cheerful and nostalgic air. A comedic tale of family, brotherhood, and the unexpected endurance of feudal tradition, The Bros is a warm and fuzzy tribute to rediscovering one’s roots but also one with unexpected bite in its subtle undercutting of the pervasive misogyny which underpins it.


The Bros is currently available to stream in the UK (and possibly elsewhere) via Netflix.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days (신과함께-인과 연,Kim Yong-hwa, 2018)

Along with the gods 2 posterKarma is a bitch, and Korean hell is apparently full of it. You don’t have to be guilty to work here, but it certainly seems to help. Picking up straight after the conclusion of the first film, Kim Yong-hwa’s Along with the Gods sequel, The Last 49 Days (신과함께-인과 연, Singwa Hamgge: Ingwa Yeon) sees stern grim reaper/celestial defence lawyer Gang-lim (Ha Jung-woo) make good on his promise to clear the name of a once vengeful spirit now cheerfully deceased, but willingly or otherwise it’s himself he’s putting on trial as the facts of his client’s case veer eerily close to his own. King Yeomra (Lee Jung-jae) is up to his old tricks once again.

Brother of the first film’s “paragon” Ja-hong, Kim Su-hong (Kim Dong-wook) is headed nowhere good – after being accidentally shot by one friend and then buried alive by another to cover it up, Su-hong became a vengeful spirit creating havoc in the mortal and underworlds. Gang-lim, however, is convinced that Su-hong’s death was “wrongful”, that he died as a deliberate act of murder rather than simply by a tragic accident, and commits himself to clearing Su-hong’s name so that he can be reincarnated immediately. He manages to win King Yeomra over, but there is one condition – an old man, Hur Choon-sam (Nam Il-Woo), is an overstayer in the mortal world and should have been “ascended” long ago but his household god, Sung-ju (Ma Dong-Seok), keeps despatching the Guardians to keep the old man safe. If Gang-lim and his assistants Hewonmak (Ju Ji-Hoon) and Deok-choon (Kim Hyang-Gi) can clear Su-hong’s name and ascend Choon-sam within 49 Days King Yeomra will at last set them free and allow them to be reincarnated.

Having dealt so thoroughly with the mechanics of hell in The Two Worlds, Kim expands and deepens his canvas to delve into the lives of our various Guardians. As it turns out Sung-ju was once a Guardian himself and so he knows a thing or two about our two underlings – Hewonmak and Deok-choon, whose memories were wiped when they became employees of King Yeomra. As Sung-ju spins a yarn, it becomes clear that the fates of the three Guardians were closely linked in life and death, bound by a series of traumatic events over a thousand years ago during the Goryeo dynasty.

As in the Two Worlds it all comes down to family. Gang-lim’s memories are fractured and confused, he’s convinced himself he’s a righteous man and wilfully misremembered his death (or at least misrepresented it to his cohorts). Stiff and lacking in compassion, Gang-lim was at odds with his gentle hearted father who, he thought, had found a better son in a boy orphaned by the cruelty of his own troops. These broken familial connections become a karmic circle of resentment and betrayal, enduring across millennia in the knowledge that even to ask for forgiveness may itself be another cruel and selfish act of violence. The circle cannot be closed without cosmic justice, but justice requires process and process requires a victim.

Gang-lim plays a bait and switch, he walks the strangely cheerful Su-hong through the various trials but it’s himself he’s testing, working towards a resolution of his own centuries old burdens of guilt and regret. There are, however, unintended victims in everything and the fate of orphans becomes a persistent theme from the orphaned foster brother Gang-lim feared so much, to those who lost their families in the wars of Goryeo, and a little boy who will be left all alone if Hewonmak and Deok-choon decide to ascend Choon-sam. Choon-sam’s adorable grandson is only young but he’s already been badly let down – his mother sadly passed away, but his father ran up gambling debts and then ran off to the Philippines never to be seen again. He didn’t ask for any of this, but there’s no cosmic justice waiting for him, only “uncle” Sang-ju who has taken the bold step of assuming human form to help the boy and his granddad out while trying to come up with a more permanent solution.

Nevertheless, compassion and forgiveness eventually triumph over the rigid business of the law, finally closing the circle through force of will. Kim doubles down on The Two Worlds’ carefully crafted aesthetic but perhaps indulges himself with a series of random digressions involving psychic dinosaur attacks and lengthy laments about stock market fluctuations and failing investments. Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days may lack the narrative focus of its predecessor but is undoubtedly lighter in tone and filled with the sense of fun the first film lacked, which is just as well because it seems as if hell is not done with our three Guardians just yet.


Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days is currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds (신과함께-죄와 벌, Kim Yong-hwa, 2017)

Along With the Gods- The Two Worlds posterThere’s nothing like death to give life perspective. If life is a series of tests, death is the finals but if you pass you get to come back and do it all again, otherwise you’ll have to spend some time in the afterlife thinking hard about what you’ve done and presumably studying for some kind of resits. At least, that’s how it seems to work in the complicated Buddhist hell of Kim Yong-hwa’s fantasy epic Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds (신과함께-죄와 벌, Sin gwa Hamkke – Joe wa Beol). The first in a two part series, The Two Worlds takes a saintly man and tries to pull him down only to build him back up again as a potent symbol of filial piety and wounded selflessness.

Firefighter Kim Ja-hong (Cha Tae-hyun) is killed leaping heroically from a burning building with a little girl wrapped in his arms. He doesn’t realise he’s dead until he’s greeted by two neatly suited, official looking types who explain to him that they are his “Guardians” and will be looking after him on his journey through the afterlife. It turns out that Ja-hong’s heroic death has earned him a “Paragon” badge – a rare occurrence, and he has a good chance of reincarnation before the 49th day if he can successfully pass each of the seven trials which mark passage through Buddhist Hell.

As the Guardians point out, it would be extremely difficult for a “normal” person to pass these seven trials and achieve reincarnation but as a Paragon Ja-hong should have an easier ride. Ja-hong is, however, an ordinary person with an ordinary person’s failings even if his faults are comparatively small. Ja-hong is literally on trial seven times – represented by his team of defence lawyers, the Guardians, he is charged with various sins each “judged” by a god presiding over a custom courtroom. Murder Hell is fiery chaos, indolence is assessed by a stern older lady (Kim Hae-sook), and deceit by (who else) a small child (Kim Soo-ahn) licking a large lollipop.

Ja-hong is indeed a “good person” but he has also been to dark places, wilfully deciding to turn and walk away from them in order to repurpose his rage and resentment into a determination to care for his seriously ill mother (Ye Soo-jung) and younger brother (Kim Dong-wook). Working tirelessly, Ja-hong has been selfless in the extreme, saving lives and saving money for his family whilst sacrificing his own life and prospect of happiness in order to provide for others. That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t a degree of “sin” in the selfishness of Ja-hong’s selflessness or that he hasn’t also been cowardly in making a symbolic recompense for a guilty secret rather than a personal apology.

Kim Yong-hwa weaves in a series of subplots including a lengthy shift into the life of Ja-hong’s brother Su-hong, a possibly gay soldier with an intense attachment to a comrade which eventually has tragic results. Su-hong’s mild resentment towards his brother becomes a key element in his trial, eventually developing into a more literal kind of spectre haunting the proceedings while perhaps creating even more turmoil and confusion in the living world thanks to a moustache twirling villain whose desire to “help” is probably more about saving face – the kind of “betrayal” which is not “beautiful” enough to get a pass from the Goddess.

In the end the court seems to bend towards Ja-hong’s moral philosophy, excusing his human failings through moral justification even when that justification remains flimsy as in the case of his “fake” letters intended to make people feel better through the comfort of lies. The essence of the judgement, however, looks for forgiveness – if a sin is forgiven in the mortal world, it is inadmissible in a celestial court. The message seems clear, face your problems head on and sort out your emotional difficulties properly while there’s time else you’ll end up with “unfinished business” and get bogged down in Buddhist Hell being attacked by fish with teeth and having old ladies asking you why you spent so much time watching movies about death rather than living life to the fullest.

Ambitious in its use of CGI, Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds acquits itself well enough in its carefully drawn (if lifeless) backgrounds and frequent flights of fancy which allow Ha Jung-woo’s enigmatic Gang-lim ample opportunity to whip out his fiery sword of justice. Narratively, however, it’s comparatively clumsy and content to revel in the melodrama of its tearjerking premise. A post-credits teaser linking part one and part two through the recurring figure of an old man who can see the Guardians presents a familiar face in an extremely unfamiliar light and hints at a great deal of fun to be had next time around – appropriate enough for a film about reincarnation, but then again it’s as well to have some fun in this life too, something The Two Worlds could have used a little more of.


Currently on limited UK cinema release courtesy of China Lion.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

 

New World (신세계, Park Hoon-jung, 2013)

new world posterUndercover cop dramas have a long history of dealing more delicately with the nature of identity than in just a simple good guy/bad guy dichotomy, but New World’s (신세계, Sinsegye) moody noir setting ensures that the lines are always blurred and there may not in fact be any sides to choose from. Directed by Park Hoon-jung, scriptwriter of I Saw the Devil and The Unjust, New World makes plain that there may not be so much difference between a police officer and a gangster when each acts covertly, breaking their own rules and throwing any idea of honour out of the window in favour of self preservation or aggrandisement. In this worldview the victory of selfishness is assured, the law protects no one – not even its own, and the gangster, well, he only protects himself.

When the “CEO” (Lee Kyoung-young) of the Goldmoon “corporation” is killed in a “freak” car accident, his sudden absence creates a power vacuum in which his prime underlings, supported by their respective factions, vie for the top spot. Unbeknownst to them, police chief Kang (Choi Min-sik) has taken an interest in this suddenly instability in the largest crime syndicate in Korea and intends to launch Operation New World to interfere with the succession and ultimately install his longterm undercover agent in the director’s seat.

Lee Ja-sung (Lee Jung-jae) has been undercover for ten years, during which time he’s become the right hand man to one of the contenders to take over in the flashy Jung Chung (Hwang Jung-min). The opposing number, Lee Joong-gu (Park Sung-woong), is unscrupulous and suspicious – he has it in for Ja-sung and sees the succession as his natural right. Ja-sung, for his part, had assumed the death of the Goldmoon CEO would signal the end of his mission, allowing him to go back to his regular cop life. Soon to be a father, he’s tired of his duplicitous lifestyle and burned out on secret keeping but perhaps so long spent among the gangsters means his more natural home is exactly where he is.

This is certainly a duplicitous world. Grizzled police chief Kang may be on a mission to take down an all powerful crime group, but his methods are anything but orthodox. As usual in deep cover stories, only Kang and one other officer know of Ja-sung’s police background (at least, that’s what he wants Ja-sung to think), but Ja-sung may not be the only undercover operative Kang has on his books. Ja-sung is also sick of Kang’s obsessive surveillance which records the entirety of life in painstaking detail listing everywhere he goes and everything he eats, apparently even down to the sex of his unborn child. No one can be trusted, not even those closest to him, as Kang’s all powerful spy network has eyes and ears in every conceivable place.

Ja-sung’s identity crisis is never the focus of the narrative and a brief coda set three years previously may suggest that he’s already made his choice when comes to picking a side, but then the lines are increasingly blurred between good and bad even when the gangsters are seen committing heinous acts of torture and violence, making their enemies drink cement before dumping them in the nearby harbour. Ja-sung’s friendship with Jung Chung may be the most genuine he’s ever had in contrast to his relationship with Kang in which he remains a tool to be used at will and possibly disposed of at a later date.

Park holds the violence off as long as possible, preferring to focus on the internal psycho-drama rather than the bloody cruelty of the gangster world, but eventually violence is all there is and Park lets go with one expertly choreographed car park corridor fight followed by frenetic lift-set finale. The “New World” that the film posits is a dark and frightening one in which it’s dog eat dog and every man for himself with no room for morality or compassion. When the law fails to uphold its own values, others will prevail, for good or ill.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017. Also screening in Sheffield (13th November), Glasgow (18th November) and Belfast (18th November). New World will also be released on DVD/blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment on their new Montage Pictures sub-label.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Outlaws (범죄도시, Kang Yoon-sung, 2017)

The outlaws posterBack in 2004, a hero cop made the headlines by cleaning up Chinatown when he took into custody 32 known gang members in Seoul’s Garibong district. Based on the real life case, The Outlaws (범죄도시, BumJoedoshi, AKA Crime City), is the debut feature from Kang Yoon-sung in which Ma Dong-seok adds goodhearted yet compromised policeman to his list of increasingly impressive leading performances. Truth be told the role does little to stretch his current range but fits comfortably into Ma’s well worn persona of noble bruiser as he plays fatherly commander to his fiercely loyal team and avuncular mentor to a brave boy in the district who wants to help free the area from the dangerous gang violence which leaves not just businesses but lives under threat.

Ma Seok-do (Ma Dong-seok) is the only force stopping Garibong from descending into a hellish war zone of gang violence and destruction. A local resident, Ma is well respected in the area and knows the territory well enough to navigate its various challenges. Rather than take on the gangs wholesale he attempts to placate them, brokering an uneasy equilibrium which keeps the violence contained and helps to protect ordinary people from its effects. All of that goes out the window when a new threat arrives in the form of vicious gangster Jang Chen (Yoon Kye-sang) and his two minions whose methods are unsubtle in the extreme, ending with rival gang bosses chopped up and placed inside suitcases over nothing more than a trifling gambling debt.

Jang is a new and terrifying threat because he sees no need to play by the “rules”. A peace cannot be brokered with him and he cannot be reasoned with. Ma knows the time has come for action but even with police resources behind him is ill equipped to become, in effect, Garibong’s latest gang leader. To this end he makes a surprising decision – asking the residents for help. The residents, however, remain terrified. How can he ask them to inform on gangsters to whom they’re still paying protection money? Ma’s promise is a big one – to do what no one thought could be done in neutralising the organised crime threat by conducting a mass arrest of foot soldiers from across the gangland spectrum.

Ma Dong-seok makes fantastic use of his trademark sarcasm as the regular neighbourhood guy who also happens to be a top cop. Kang mixes a fair amount of humour into an otherwise dark and violent tale such as the recurrent presence of two lowly pamphleteers who are eventually pressed into more serious service for Ma, his trickery and manipulation of a suspect (which is also a way to save him from a death sentence on being sent back to China), and Ma’s love of drunken karaoke and lamb skewers with the boys. Ma thinks nothing of arming a gangster with a stab vest, setting up another in a public bath, or playing gangland politics for all they’re worth, but when it really counts he’s as straight as they come, protecting the residents of Garibong like the lone sheriff of some outpost town, equal parts officer of the law and disappointed dad.

The incongruously comical tone harks back to the ‘70s maverick cop golden age in which the lines between law breaker and law enforcer were always blurred but you knew who the good guys were because they had all the best lines. If Kang is aiming for this branded mix of grit and humour he doesn’t quite find it and the comedy sometimes undercuts his more serious intentions but it is undeniably good fun all the same. Ma Dong-seok’s warmhearted maverick is quite rightly the star of the show, but his rivalry with Yoon Kye-chang’s Jang Chen fails to ignite with Chen never quite seeming as menacing as intended. Nevertheless even if Kang’s gangland action comedy has little to add to an already crowded arena, it does at least provide a fitting showcase for Ma’s talents in its sarcastic, world weary policeman who may have one foot on the wrong side of the law but always acts in the name of justice.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

 

Derailed (두 남자, Lee Sung-tae, 2016)

derailed posterThe best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, as the old saying goes, but for four down at heels street kids even their meagre attempts to evade a desperate situation land them in even more trouble than they’ve ever been in before. The debut feature from director Lee Sung-tae, Derailed (두 남자, Doo Namja) is bleak and gritty though underpinned by an ironic sense of love and connection which is itself often “derailed” or subverted as genuine feeling becomes a tool to be exploited in the ongoing war between those fighting amongst themselves to get a hand on the bottom rung of the ladder.

A makeshift family of four homeless kids and runaways made up of two teenage couples fights to survive in the backstreets of Seoul. With no practical means to support themselves, Jun-il (Minho), his girlfriend Ga-young (Da-eun), friend Bon-gil (Lee You-jin) and Bon-gil’s girlfriend Min-kyung (Baek Soo-min) are often forced to resort to low-level crime just to get something to eat. Running low on supplies the gang try to steal a car but the plan goes awry when an old enemy, the former boyfriend of Ga-young who blames Jun-il for the prison sentence he’s just been released from, arrives prompting the gang to flee.

Out of options their next plan is a dangerous, possibly unpleasant one – a prostitution scam. Ga-young being a little braver than Min-kyung puts herself forward as the bait and waits for a randy guy with underage tastes to pick her up in a dingy back alley before taking her to a hotel. Once there she needs to text the boys who will march in, rescue her, and blackmail the John. What they didn’t reckon on was that their target would be a big guy and a petty thug operating on the fringes of the sex trade. The boys manage to knock the irritated bruiser, Hyung-seok (Ma Dong-Seok), out and the gang steals his wheels too but they’ve messed with the wrong guy. Hyung-seok calls his buddies, tracks them down, roughs them up and then makes them an offer they can’t refuse. In payment for the damage, inconvenience, and humiliation, Ga-young can work off the debt in one of his “karaoke bars”. Or, he could break Jun-il’s face, choice is theirs.

Jun-il begins the film with a voiceover about his life on the streets. “Being nice is being stupid” he tells us. He has a point. When you’re trapped at the bottom it’s every man for himself, you can’t trust anyone and kindness is always a weakness. Yet Jun-il is “nice”, in a sense. The unofficial daddy of the group, he takes care of the others and refuses to leave anyone behind, hungry, or afraid. It’s no surprise then that he feels so personally responsible for the fate that’s befallen his girlfriend, Ga-young. Despite Ga-young’s pleas to keep himself safe and take care of the others, Jun-il goes to great lengths to try and get the money to buy her back by paying off the impossibly high debt.

Hyung-seok, despite running a chain of seedy “karaoke bars” which straddle the line between providing female company and outright prostitution is also a committed family man with beloved teenage daughter of his own. Apparently, Hyung-seok’s business enterprises have taken a tumble recently, enough to have his wife complaining though it seems unclear if she knows exactly what her husband’s line of work entails. This crisis could not have come at a worse time for him but even if he expresses surprise, concern, and mild outrage that Ga-young’s mother tells him to get lost when he threatens to harm her daughter unless she pays up, Hyung-seok does not seem to see the link between this vulnerable teenager and his own elegantly attired little girl.

To make matters worse, Hyung-seok eventually teams up with the gang’s arch nemesis, Ga-young’s ex, to destroy the band of four as thoroughly as possible. The eventual intervention of the police is perhaps useful and well-meaning, but merely adds another motivating force to this already complicated set of intersecting vendettas. Trapped between a traumatic past and a hopeless future, these are kids whose lives have become so completely derailed that there is almost no possibility of righting them. Family betrays, love fails, friendship collapses, being nice is being stupid but in a world filled with so much corruption it might just be the only chance left.


Derailed was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)