A Single Spark (아름다운 청년 전태일, Park Kwang-su, 1995)

In the present day, South Korea has become a prosperous society and leading world economy, but the miracle of its modernisation came at a heavy price. Socially committed filmmaker Park Kwang-su’s A Single Spark (아름다운 청년 전태일, Areumdaun cheongnyeon Jeon Tae-il) takes a trip back to the “truly dark days” of the Park Chung-hee dictatorship to expose the exploitation on which the modern society was, and in fact still is, founded, enabled largely by the wilful misuse of a fear of “communism” as manifested in the problematic presence of threat from “the North”.

Park filters his true life tale through the figure of a fictionalised author and activist, Kim (Moon Sung-Keun), who finds himself on the run from the authorities in 1975. Hiding out in a small town in a backroom rented by his pregnant factory worker girlfriend Jung-soon (Kim Sunjae), Kim is working on a biography of a labour rights activist, Jeon Tae-il, who self-immolated in order to protest the failure to properly enforce existing workers’ rights five years’ earlier in 1970.

Switching to crisp black and white, Park paints a bleak picture of working class life in the late 1960s as the oppressive Park Chung-hee regime imposed extreme export goals designed to boost the local economy. We first meet Jeon (Hong Kyeong-in), who was only 22 at the time of his death, selling umbrellas on the street before he is “lucky” enough to get a job in a tailoring factory. Committing himself to working hard and getting on, he is quickly disillusioned with conditions at the plant which has little light or ventilation and often forces its employees to work through the night without adequate breaks for food. When the young woman next to him begins vomiting blood and is sent home but subsequently fired, Jeon becomes radicalised. Told that there are no laws which protect workers, he is surprised to discover that there are but their existence has been wilfully kept from him. The law is written in a language which is almost impossible for him to understand, in highly formal text using Chinese characters which most ordinary Koreans, never mind those like Jeon denied a proper education, struggle to read.

Jeon begins agitating. He takes a copy of the statutes and a series of violations at the factory to those in charge, but no one is interested. Even when he convinces some of the other workers to come with him, the boss is eventually forced to make a token concession of listening to them but ultimately rolls his eyes and says it’s all very well but not good for business. Jeon isn’t asking for anything radical (save the later addition of provision for menstrual leave), only for better ventilation and for the existing laws to be obeyed.

Meanwhile, Kim meditates on his legacy in the dark days of 1975 where anti-communist sentiment runs high in the wake of the end of the Vietnam War. “Anti-communism” and the demonisation of the North were a central part of Park Chung-hee’s right-wing, nationalist military dictatorship and any attempts to form things like unions or left-leaning political associations were quickly decried as “communist”. Kim’s girlfriend Jung-soon is currently involved in trying to set up a union at her factory to combat many of the same kinds of issues that Jeon was fighting five years’ earlier, but she too is under a lot of pressure. Afraid of the authorities and of losing their jobs, many workers refuse to join and even after she reaches her quota the request for recognition is denied. She and the other activists are harassed by factory management beginning with a “friendly” meeting outside her home in which they try to bribe her with money and expensive fruits, and ending with a raid on the building in which some of the workers are holding a protest during which a woman falls ill and the others are badly beaten when they try to get her to a hospital.

Jeon and the others are lectured by management that they should try to feel more “patriotic” and be willing to suffer in order to raise the economy, bribed with false promises that they’ll all be driving luxury cars in 10 years’ time. Meanwhile, a woman coming to collect money from Jeon’s mother angrily exclaims that debtors should take rat poison and die (which seems counterproductive when they owe you money), and the managers dismiss workers’ concerns with the rationale that they obviously “aren’t hungry enough” to put up with starvation wages and poor working conditions. From the vantage point of 1975, Kim meditates on Jeon’s sacrifice as he witnesses the suicide of another young man, Kim Sang-jin – a student who quoted Thomas Jefferson’s words that democracy is an outcome of struggle at a rally at Seoul National University in April 1975 before publicly slashing his belly. He sees the tragedy of Jeon’s death as the “single spark” which lit a fire under the democracy movement, a torch he wants to pick up and keep aflame to guide them towards a better future.

20 years later, Park may be acknowledging that some battles have been won in a newly democratised Korea as Kim looks on with satisfaction in a peaceful marketplace while a student carries the book he has written about Jeon Tae-il under his arm, but implicitly suggests that not enough has changed and the same battles Jeon was fighting are still being fought. A melancholy meditation on political martyrdom, art, and legacy, A Single Spark pays tribute to those who gave their lives for a fairer world but is equally intent that their sacrifice must not be forgotten.


A Single Spark was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

A Boy and Sungreen (보희와 녹양, Ahn Ju-young, 2018)

A boy and sungreen poster 1Figuring out who you are is a normal part of growing up, but if you start to suspect that parts of the puzzle have been kept from you it can become an even more complicated business. The hero of Ahn Ju-young’s delightfully charming debut A Boy and Sungreen (보희와 녹양, Boheewa Nokyang) thought he was doing OK. Maybe he worried that he was a little bit weedy and resented being picked on by the snooty kids at school, but he always had his good friend Nok-yang (Kim Ju-a) to hide behind and she always had his back. Realising that his mum (Shin Dong-mi) may have a new romance on the cards entirely destabilises his worldview, sends his anxiety into overdrive, and reawakens a series of as yet unresolved abandonment issues resulting from losing his father at a young age.

What Bo-hee (Ahn Ji-ho) discovers on “running away” to visit a woman he kind of remembers might be his half-sister, is that his mother might have lied to him and the father he thought was dead might actually still be alive. Together with his best friend Nok-yang, he resolves to investigate and find out if his father is still out there somewhere, if he still thinks of him, what sort of man he might be, and, crucially, why he chose to abandon his son. Still upset with his mother and childishly resentful, Bo-hee avoids going home and installs himself at his “half-sister” Nam-hee’s (Kim So-ra), an air hostess who turns out to be a cousin temporarily taken in by Bo-hee’s mum when she ran away from home as a teenager, where is he is cared for by her surprisingly supportive boyfriend Sung-wook (Seo Hyun-woo).

Tellingly, Sung-wook is also an orphan with no family, raised in an orphanage with no parental models yet easily slipping into a positive paternal role. Both Bo-hee and Nok-yang are being raised in single parent families, Bo-hee believing until recently that his father had died, while Nok-yang lost her mother in childbirth and lives with her salty grandma and distant father. In conservative Korean society they each experience a degree of stigma for not having the “full” complement of parents with some of the snooty kids at school even assuming that’s why they’re friends, but the pair largely rejoice in each other’s company and have learned to pay them no mind.

Meanwhile, Bo-hee is experiencing strange anxiety-like attacks which eventually turn out to be something more serious, but neatly underline his intense adolescent confusion. Finding out his mother has a boyfriend not only forces him to confront his father’s absence, but also deepens the sense of anxious rootlessness he feels as someone without an extended family network. As Nok-yang somewhat insensitively puts it, what if the boyfriend turns out to be an “evil stepmother” and pushes him out of his family home, where will he go then? That kind of thinking is what leads him to track down Nam-hee, “certain” that she won’t turn him away because, he believes, they share the same father.

Despite maintaining an intense belief in the power of blood connection, Bo-hee remains distrustful of the idea of family and uncertain in his own identity. Even his name, which is really just “Boy” like the unnamed protagonist of a young adult novel, bothers him in that is uncomfortably close to slightly rude word, not to mention being somewhat unusual. Nok-yang has an unusual name too, but hers has a lovely, if sad, story behind it about her dad seeing rays of sunshine through the trees on the way home from the hospital and deciding to name her after that, whereas Bo-hee’s seems to be random. Thanks to his quest to track down his dad, Bo-hee finally comes to understand the meaning behind his name and accept himself for himself rather than longing to be just like everyone else.

Like all small children, Bo-hee thought everything that happened in his life was somehow his fault, that his dad left because of something he did or that there was just something wrong with him that his dad couldn’t love. What he realises is that his father’s decision was his father’s and nothing to do with him. It wasn’t his fault that his father left and there is nothing about him that means anyone else in his life is likely to leave without warning. In a roundabout way, looking for his dad helps to rebuild a sense of the family he didn’t think he had, becoming more secure in his relationship with his mother, bonding with Sung-wook and Nam-hee, and remembering that whatever happens he and Nok-yang will always be there for each other.


A Boy and Sungreen was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

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)

 

The Chaser (추격자, Na Hong-jin, 2008)

The chaser movie posterWhen it comes to law enforcement in Korea (at least in the movies), your best bet may actually be other criminals or “concerned citizens” as the police are mostly to be found napping or busy trying to cover up for a previous mistake. The Chaser (추격자, Chugyeogja) continues this grand tradition in taking inspiration from the real life serial murder crime spree of Yoo Young-chul , eventually brought to justice in 2005 after pimps came together and got suspicious enough to make contact with a friendly police officer.

Former cop turned petty pimp Joong-ho (Kim Yun-seok) has a problem. His girls keep skipping out on their debts. Or so he thinks – rousing one of his last remaining “employees”, Mi-jin (Seo Young-hee), from her sickbed (and unbeknownst to him calling her away from her seven year old daughter), Joong-ho finds a phone belonging to a missing girl and realises the last number called is the same as the one he’s about to send Mi-jin off to. Suspicious, Joong-ho rediscovers his detective skills and notices this particular number all over his books. Thinking the john is kidnapping his girls to sell them on, Joong-ho hatches a plan to track Mi-jin and have a word with this bozo but unsurprisingly nothing goes to plan. Mi-jin has fallen into the grip of a vicious serial killer, Young-min (Ha Jung-woo), but may still be alive if only Joong-ho can find her in time.

Joong-ho is not a good guy. Maybe he’s not the worst of his kind but as a former law enforcement official turned unsentimental exploiter of women, Joong-ho is an unlikely saviour. His primary motivation is, unsurprisingly, commercial as the look of concern he gives to one of his ladies encountering a dangerous client betrays, the kind of irritation a taxi driver might display on noticing a large scratch on his expensive car rather than a recognition of the pain and suffering those cuts and bruises bear witness to. He never stops to consider that something untoward has befallen the missing women and is, in one sense, relieved when he thinks they’ve been sold on rather than just skipping out on him. Throughout his quest to find Mi-jin which sees him forming an unexpected paternal bond with her young daughter, Joong-ho begins to rediscover his humanity as he’s forced to confront the similarities between himself and this deranged psycho killer.

Like his real life counterpart, Young-min, is a sexually frustrated misogynist who begins his social revenge through killing off the wealthy before moving on to the less easily missed including local prostitutes which is what ultimately proves his downfall when the various area pimps begin to connect the dots. In actuality it turns out Young-min has previously been questioned in connection with a murder but was released due to lack of evidence. Likewise, this time around the police are not very interested in capturing him and Young-min is once again returned to society due to some political concerns which result in pressure from above. As if having charmed luck with the police weren’t enough, Young-min also exploits the other cornerstone of South Korean society – the church, through which he recruits his victims, subverting their trusting religiosity with his violent perversion.

For a film which largely lives on the chase, winding through the darkened, rain drenched backstreets of downtown Seoul, Na adds in plenty of twists and turns as the case proceeds down one dingy alleyway after another. Joong-ho’s gradual reawakening as a human being rather than cold blooded human trafficker is accompanied by the gradual reveal of his counterpart’s dangerous need for validation through violence but also by the realisation of his total powerlessness in the face of such a nebulous and faceless threat. The police won’t help (perhaps if they’d investigated those parking violations a little more assiduously all of this could have been avoided), the Church is just an ironic distraction, and the politicians are busy squabbling amongst themselves. Joong-ho is an unlikely figure of salvation, but he remains the last best hope for justice so long as he can avoid becoming that which he seeks.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Revivre (화장, Im Kwon-taek, 2015)

revivreThe 102nd film from veteran Korean film director Im Kwon-taek may appear close to the bone in its depictions death, suffering, and the long look back on a life filled with the quiet kind of love but Revivre (화장, Hwajang) is anything but afraid to ask the questions most would not want to hear as the light dwindles. The inner journey is just too hazy, as one man puts it, unknowingly commenting on the human condition, yet Im does manage bring us nicely into focus, if only for a moment.

Oh (Ahn Sung-ki), a successful salaryman working in marketing for a cosmetics company, finds himself slightly adrift as the brain tumour his wife, Jin-kyung (Kim Ho-Jung), had previously suffered from resurfaces. The treatment this time is apparently not as successful leading to prolonged hospitals stays as Jin-kyung’s condition deteriorates and she begins to require a greater level of medical care. While all of this is going on, Oh is still very much dedicated to his work but has also begun to indulge in an old man’s folly, fantasising about the pretty new girl at the office.

Much of Revivre is concerned with Oh’s inner life, the things he does not say (which are many because Oh is a quiet sort of man). Ahn Sung-ki captures this quality well in playing Oh with a kind of blankness that could be the numbing sensation of grief or an extension of his ordinarily reserved nature. This makes his impromptu verbal attack on the figure of his fixation, Choo Eun-joo (Kim Gyu-ri), all the more unexpected though his remorse over having acted in such an out of character way may actually help to generate a kind of relationship between the pair albeit more of a paternal than romantic one.

Oh’s continuing fixation on Eun-joo, the woman who becomes the accidental focus of his world even though his wife lying dies in a hospital, is intended to be a fantasy and nothing more. An early dream sequence sees Oh participating in an elaborate traditional funeral taking place in a desert in which all of the mourners are dressed in black, except, of course, for Eun-joo – the only fixed point of reference, clothed in vibrant purple and smiling back at him in contrast to the solemn faces of the other guests, each staring at the floor. In the real world time slows down for him as Eun-joo dances youthfully in a nightclub and as he leaves the party early, her’s is the lone still face, haunting him as he looks back at the other revellers still enjoying themselves heartily even outside the club.

Indeed, “looking back” with all of its various advantages and disadvantages becomes another central theme as Oh becomes a kind of Orpheus descending into his own personal hell in the hope of dragging back his departed Eurydice – an idea neatly recreated in one of the film’s few outright fantasy sequences in which Oh dreams himself into an avant-garde dance show. Like Orpheus, Oh cannot help but look back though he risks losing all in the process. What Eun-joo represents for him is perhaps not the woman herself but an image of his own youth and a desire to live again as he once lived before. The present and the past begin to overlap for him, Eun-joo becomes the future he cannot touch as well as the returning spectre of a past he cannot return to.

Oh’s daughter asks him at one point if he ever really loved her mother. His reaction to losing his wife is, it has to be said, restrained, practical. Yet this question is answered with an immediate cut to Oh helping his wife to the bathroom, performing the most intimate of tasks with unwavering devotion. As his wife fades, Oh’s fantasies become a shield against the growing fears of his own mortality as his body also begins to fail him. The melancholy sense of loss and loneliness coupled with the inevitability of the passage of time pervade as each of Oh’s points of reference slips away from him at exactly the same time.

Im opts for a non-linear approach beginning with Jin-kyung’s passing and thereafter moving freely, reflecting Oh’s fleeting memories and interior confusion as he deals with such a traumatic, life altering event. Neatly framing Oh’s dilemma within his work in which he faces a choice of sticking with the current marketing strategy or striking out in a bold new direction, Im plays with the eternal theme of transient beauty in a society which prizes bodily perfection above all else. The film’s Korean title plays on a pun involving a homonym which means both “cremation” and “makeup” perhaps harking back to the central theme that you dig a grave for yourself if you attach the wrong sort of importance to the impermanent, but is in a sense ironic as one represents a final acceptance and the other an attempt to hold off the inevitable. Poetic and intensely moving, Revivre is another characteristically multilayered effort from Im, still at his full strength even in this late career effort.


International trailer (English subtitles/captions)

Failan (파이란, Song Hae-sung, 2001)

FailanSometimes God’s comic timing is impeccable. You might hear it said that love transcends death, becomes an eternal force all of its own, but the “love story”, if you can call it that, of the two characters at the centre of Song Hae-sung’s Failan (파이란, Pairan), who, by the way, never actually meet, occurs entirely in the wrong order. It’s one thing to fall in love in a whirlwind only to have that love cruelly snatched away by death what feels like only moments later, but to fall in love with a woman already dead? Fate can be a cruel master.

The titular Failan (Cecilia Cheung) is a migrant from mainland China who’s travelled to Korea in search of her last remaining relatives following the death of her family. Unfortunately, they moved abroad some time ago and no one knows how to contact them. Stuck in Korea, Failan is running out of options but a “kindly” woman suggests a phoney visa marriage so she can legally stay in the country and earn her keep at the same time.

So, she ends up married to the feckless petty gangster-cum-video-store-proprietor Kang-jae (Choi Min-sik). We meet him around a year later and it’s his story we follow for the first half of the film as he gets out of jail after being arrested for selling adult videos to horny teenagers. Kang-jae quickly gets into an argument with his gangster boss, Young-sik (Son Byung-ho), but as they’re also old friends they patch things up over a drink only for the evening to go way south when Young-sik spots a rival gang member and ends up beating him to a bloody pulp whilst in a trance-like rage.

Young-sik is young and ambitious so when the crime is discovered he pleads with Kang-jae to take the rap for him, promising that he’ll buy him that fishing boat he’s always wanted so he can go back to his home town when he gets out. Kang-jae goes home to think it over and gets a knock on the door, two policemen are standing outside only they haven’t come to arrest him – the wife he’d forgotten all about has died. Kang-jae has hit a fork in the road both literal and metaphorical and takes a road trip with his best friend to finally meet his bride in a cold and lonely place.

Failan is almost a plot device in the film that bears her name, but her story is a sad and a hard one. Orphaned and alone she finds scant kindness in her adopted country but the woman who runs the laundry where she ends up working does at least develop an almost maternal feeling for her. Failan feels great gratitude to Kang-jae for agreeing to marry her so she could stay in Korea and is convinced he must be a very good, very kind person. She thinks this largely because she never meets him.

Kang-jae is rubbish at being a gangster. Young-Sik may have a point when he says he doesn’t have the heart for it. Early on, some of the youngsters try and rope him into an extortion scheme where they’re trying to get an old granny to pay back some of her loan. Apparently the granny had once been kind to Kang-jae when he was young and hungry so he doesn’t really put a lot of effort into being menacing towards her which makes him lose face with the young toughs who think of him as a joke anyway. Reading Failan’s letter, it’s the first time that anyone has ever said anything nice about him. The first woman who ever thought he was worth anything at all and she’s already lost to him before he even knew her.

Kang-jae is not a good man, he’s an underling just muddling through without thinking. He leaps from one thing to another always thrashing around landing where falls. He has a vague ambition to get the money together to buy a fishing boat and go home, but he’s not seriously pursing it. Even the group of gangsters he’s involved with are so laughably low rent that they can’t hold on to their completely worthless territory and have to put pressure on old ladies just to get by. After reading Failan’s letter and hearing that someone believed he was better than this, Kang-jae finally wakes up and starts thinking about his life with the ultimate realisation that he doesn’t have to live like this. Unfortunately, he might have just picked the wrong day to start living the rest of his life.

In many ways Failan is a typical melodrama filled with the pain of unrealised love and Fate’s ironic sense of timing. Based on a novel by the modern Japanese master of the tearjerker Jiro Asada (Poppoya), Failan seems engineered to rend hearts with its tale of true love frustrated by time and circumstance where every ounce of hope and goodness is well and truly trodden into the ground by the time the credits roll. Nevertheless, Song keeps things on the right side of schmaltzy, never racking up the misery and heartbreak beyond the threshold of plausibility. Like all the best melodramas, Failan’s sentimentality is sincere and, ultimately, moving. Another sad story of salvation arriving too late, Failan’s tale of tragic, unrealised love is an all too familiar one but effectively told it can’t fail to tear the heart.


You can currently stream Failan via Amazon Video in the US courtesy of Asian Crush, but the Korean R3 DVD and Region A blu-ray both contain English subtitles!

Unsubbed trailer: