Paper Flower (종이꽃, Koh Hoon, 2019)

Rich or poor, we’re all the same when we die, according to dejected funeral director Sung-gil (Ahn Sung-ki). A mild rebuke on the heartless corporatism dominating contemporary Korean society, Paper Flower (종이꽃, Jongikkot) looks for beauty even in the depths of despair, but is unafraid to admit that the world has its ugliness too as its twin protagonists practice entirely contrary reactions to the traumatic past. While a single mother on the run fills her life with joy and light, Sung-gil struggles to hold on to his principles while never quite as cynical as the years have conspired to make him seem. 

Sung-gil’s problem is that his funeral business has run into trouble now that a conglomerate has entered the marketplace providing a more convenient, modern service which vastly undercuts his own. He’s been stubbornly holding out, but his rent is long overdue and his landlord’s getting antsy, meanwhile he’s also responsible for the care of his paralysed son Ji-hyuk (Kim Hye-seong) whose carers keep quitting because he keeps attempting suicide and generally makes their job as difficult as possible. All things considered, Sung-gil has no option other than to become a franchisee of the enemy conglomerate, Happy Endings. 

Across town, single mother Eun-sook (Kim Yoo-jin AKA Eugene) is facing a similar problem in that she’s just been unceremoniously let go from her cleaning job despite being promised a year’s contract because the company decided to outsource to a conglomerate who didn’t want to keep her on. Meanwhile, she’s also being pursued by men in suits handing her court orders which say that she has to go into “rehabilitation” as soon as possible or the order will be forcibly enforced. Overdue on her rent, she hopes to evade them by doing a flit, moving into the vacant apartment opposite Sung-gil’s with her small daughter No-eul. The pair are warned about the bad tempered old man next-door and quickly find out for themselves when he grumpily complains about their moving boxes cluttering the hallway but Sung-gil still needs someone to look after his son, and Eun-sook needs a job, so the obvious solution presents itself. 

What Sung-gil couldn’t have expected, however, is the light that Eun-sook brings into his home. We can infer that she’s had a difficult life, the prominent scar along her jaw proving a cause for concern at the job centre, but unlike Sung-gil and his son she remains unrelentingly cheerful, determined to find the tiny moments of joy in the everyday precisely because she’s known what it is to be without them. Her daughter No-eul is much the same, hilariously unfiltered and prone to asking the most inappropriate of questions with childlike innocence, but eventually bonding with the gruff Sung-gil after she pays his bus fare when he comes up short and he teaches her a few lessons about the funeral business. 

Sung-gil’s greatest crisis, however, arrives when a local man who’d been a hero to the homeless in operating a restaurant which became a point of refuge offering free noodles to anyone who needed them no questions asked, suddenly dies. Like Eun-sook and Sung-gil, Jang (Jung Chan-woo) also suffered at the hands of an increasingly capitalistic society, dropping dead while being pressed by a greedy landlord. Because Jang had no family and no named next of kin, no one is permitted to claim his body. The authorities send him to Happy Endings, which is where Sung-gil comes in, but the company resent having to deal with a case of death by poverty, instructing him to dispose of the body as quickly as possible. Even if Jang had no legal “family” he had a community who loved him and wanted to say goodbye even if they didn’t have the money to reclaim the body or give him the proper send off. Sung-gil remains conflicted. He believes Jang should be treated with dignity in death and that his friends should have the right to pay their respects, but he’s already in trouble for working with too much care and needs to make sure his contract is extended so he can pay his rent and look after Eun-sook. 

Jang’s friends want to have a public funeral in the local square where many of them first met him at his noodle stand, but that presents a problem for the local council who are in the middle of a clean streets campaign and trying to win the right to host Miss World in the hope of boosting the local economy. The authorities are very interested in “dealing” with “the homeless” but not at all with the issue of homelessness which is only exacerbated by their increasingly heartless social policies. Of course, they make a good point, somebody somewhere has to pay, but Sung-gil remains conflicted, originally opting for a kind of compromise but finally pushed towards reconsidering the source of his own trauma which turns out to have a curiously symbolic, national quality that encourages him to think that perhaps it is time to take a stand against this worryingly inhuman obsession with margins and conviction that nothing is worth anything if it can’t be monetised. Moved by Eun-sook’s sunniness which eventually gives new hope to the dejected Ji-hyuk, he begins to find the strength to fight back, masking the darkness with paper flowers in defiance of those who would say that some lives aren’t even worth that.


Paper Flower screens at Chicago’s Davis Drive-In on Sept. 10 as the opening night presentation of the 11th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

One Way Trip (글로리데이, Choi Jeong-yeol, 2016)

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Young men just trying to do the right thing often end up losing out in the long run – so it is for the four best friends at the centre of Choi Jeong-yeol’s One Way Trip (글로리데이, AKA Glory Day). Caught right on the liminal divide between adolescence and adulthood, each of the four has a different path set before him, not entirely of their own choosing. De facto leader Young-bi (Ji Soo) seems the most directionless of the four but as the only one with a driving license he’s found an old banger of a van and got the guys together for one last road trip before Sang-woo (Suho) enlists in the military. Joined by city councilman’s son Ji-gong (Ryoo Joon-Yeol) and Doo-man (Kim Hee-Chan), a reluctant baseball player, the boys take off for the last real trip of their adolescent lives.

Things do not go to plan as the opening sequence features the guys furiously running away from the police, more worried about their parents finding out than any more serious consequences, but tragedy strikes when Sang-woo is knocked over in a hit and run accident. With Sang-woo unconscious in the hospital, the remaining three guys find themselves locked up on assault charges which later graduate to murder. How did their peaceful trip turn out like this?

Told largely through flashbacks explaining both the events of that night and the guys’ lives, One Way Trip examines the effect of a traumatic incident on each of the boys as they find their friendship coming under increasing pressure. Hanging around near the harbour, the guys spot a couple having a domestic dispute in a nearby car before the man drags the woman outside and proceeds to accuse her of having an affair whilst becoming increasingly violent. Headstrong Young-bi decides to intervene but goes too far in picking a fight with the guy while the woman gets herself to safety. When the violent husband falls into a nearby boat, the guys get scared and run off but the battered wife has already called the police who wind up chasing them through the town.

Panicking in the police station, distraught Young-bi gets himself into even more trouble sending their case straight up to the detectives. Though originally sympathetic, the police change their tune when it turns out that the woman involved is a high profile TV news reader. In an attempt to protect her reputation, she refuses to back the boys’ story and implicates them in the murder of her husband. The police, not overly interested in the finer details of the case, want a speedy resolution – a desire which is only echoed from further up where head office is getting pressure from the media.

These are all nice, ordinary kids who’ve never been in any kind of trouble before but suddenly they’re being encouraged to turn on each other and engineer the best possible outcome for themselves as individuals. Ji-gong’s mother (Moon Hee-kyung) is a prim woman most worried about what the neighbours will think, not to mention the impact on her husband’s political career. Doo-man’s father (Yoo Ha-bok) is even more panicked than his son and immediately starts making every conceivable kind of fuss at the police station, including attempted bribery. Young-bi, by contrast, has no one to speak for him as the only responsible adult is his older brother (Kim Dong-wan) – his father is already in jail. To the other parents, the answer is obvious, blame it on the no good delinquent their “nice” kid has been lead astray by and forget about the whole thing.

Though these boys are almost men, they have very little control over their own lives which continue to be dictated by parental expectation. Ji-gong’s overbearing mother locks him in the house to try and force him to study while Doo-man’s father ignores his pleas that he can’t stand playing baseball and is sick of the other players’ resentment because they know he’s only on the team because his father put him there. Young-bi has no firm parental input but his feelings about his family circumstances are what lead him to try and help a woman in peril, as well as the reason he loses his temper so quickly. Sang-woo, the most blameless among the boys, has only his grandmother whom he wanted to spare a life of hardship by serving in the military followed by a solid government guaranteed job afterwards.

Fear and external pressures start to work their magic on the three previously innocent guys who thought they were doing something good but have ended up paying the price. Heartbreak and betrayal are the order of the day as money, power, and influence will always win out over justice, goodness and friendship. Injustice is the force that governs the world, Young-bi thought he was doing the right thing by coming to the aid of a woman under attack only for everyone else to tell him he should have just minded his own business and not gotten involved. Bookended scenes of the four guys together having fun on the beach only reinforce the stark contrast between their youthful innocence, naively believing in friendship and the essential goodness of helping others, and their post-trip awakening to the self-centred indifference of the adult world.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer: