Little Forest (리틀 포레스트, Yim Soon-rye, 2018)

Little forest korean posterWhen you don’t know what to do, you go home. The logic seems sound and indeed the idea is common in many cultures, but the heroine of Little Forest (리틀 포레스트) has gone home to an empty, snow covered house with the intention of burying herself away rather than basking the unconditional support of the people who raised her. Yim Soon-rye, leading light of the Korean New Wave, takes the original manga by Daisuke Igurashi which was previously adapted as a two-part, four hour exploration of Japanese rural life by Junichi Mori, and relocates it to Korea finding that urban malaise and youthful indecision are from isolated phenomena.

Hye-won (Kim Tae-ri) has come home “for a few days”. What she wants is to be alone for a while, to take a time out from her life before trying to figure out what to do next. Accordingly, as she’s in hiding, she didn’t want anyone to know she’s here but perspicacious aunt Bok-soon has spotted smoke on the horizon and come running. Bok-soon thought that Hye-won’s long absent mother who abandoned her in the last year of high school might have been making a rare visit and is surprised to find her daughter instead, though perhaps not quite so much as you’d think. Nothing stays secret for long in a village, and Hye-won’s return is soon discovered first by the slightly unwelcome attention of the older village ladies and then by her treasured childhood friends, Eun-sook (Jin Ki-joo) and Jae-ha (Ryu Jun-yeol) who gives her a pet dog to look after in the hope that she will be eventually decide to stay for good.

Hye-Won faces many of the same problems as the heroine of Mori’s Japanese adaptation, but whereas Ichiko had come back in defeat and heartbreak, Hye-won’s flight is mostly pride mixed with fear and awkwardness. She admires Jae-ha who once lived in the city but eventually came home to be himself, rejecting the conformist salaryman life to be his own his boss, but knows deep down that her decision to retreat to the country is a cowardly attempt to delay dealing with the problems of adult life. After her mother left, Hye-won went to Seoul for university where she, along with her boyfriend, was studying for a teaching exam which only he passed. Wounded, Hye-Won has run away. Refusing her boyfriend’s calls and cocooning herself inside her childhood home she delays the inevitable breakup conversion along with the galling need to congratulate him on his exam success while silently nursing her own humiliating failure to match him.

Rather than the strained relationship Ichiko had with her long absent mother, Hye-won’s feelings run more towards a healthy competition – she wants to exceed her mother in all things but most especially as a cook. Unsatisfied with the tasteless pre-packaged nature of big city food, Hye-won came home because she was hungry, spiritually but also physically. Rejoicing in nature’s bounty, she finds new and exciting ways to cook the various fruits and vegetables grown by her own hand, living closely with the land and running with the rhythms of the seasons. In Seoul she ate cold food all alone, at home she shares her table with her two friends eager to see what she’s come up with to combat the latest glut while filling their souls with the warmth of friendship.

Despite her mild resentment and lingering anger towards her mother for disappearing so abruptly, Hye-won eventually comes to a kind of acceptance, realising that her mother’s “little forest” was raising her but seeing as she declared to her intention to repot herself somewhere else, her mother’s work was done and now it’s time for Hye-won to find her own little forest and set about tending to that. Still unsure if she’s in the country because that’s where she needs to be or is merely afraid to leave and risk failure, Hye-won eventually finds the strength move forward, breaking out of her extended period of hibernation to look for her answers wherever they may lie. Filled with the joy of home cooking and soulful down-home wisdom, Little Forest adapts itself well enough to the Korean climate, finding that life in the country, hard as is it may be, offers its own rewards in the simple pleasures of unconditional friendship and the natural freedom to enjoy all nature has to offer.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Running Actress (여배우는 오늘도, Moon So-ri, 2017)

running actress posterIn international eyes at least, Moon So-ri is one of Korea’s most prominent actresses. She has worked with such highly esteemed directors as Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sang-soo, and Park Chan-wook, yet she continues to face the same kinds of issues as many women in the film industry despite her immense critical success and popularity at the box office. The Running Actress (여배우는 오늘도, Yeobaewooneun Oneuldo) is her first feature as a director and brings together three of her short films which neatly form a tryptic depicting the trials and tribulations of the contemporary actress.

Moon also stars in the films, playing a character called Moon So-ri, apparently inspired by her “real” life. Kicking off with the first segment titled The Actress, Moon introduces the fears and anxieties which recur throughout most notably in her preoccupation with gaining good roles and worrying that she is losing out on them though not being “pretty” enough. Her friends, attempting to be supportive, only add to her discomfort by assuring her that she is pretty “in her own way” and reminding her that in any case she is a wonderful actress. Confidence at rock bottom, Moon laments that her industry prefers airheaded beauty to technical skill and is unwilling to accept that women continue to exist past the age of 25 without suddenly morphing into spiky aunties and salty grandmas. Unexpectedly running into a producer whilst hiking, she gets a temporary boost when it seems he has her in mind for a dream project with a director she’s long wanted to work with but is dismayed when she realises the character has a college age child meaning she’ll be making a possibly irreversible step into playing suffering mothers rather than interesting women with nuanced character arcs.

Meanwhile, she runs into the producer and his friends at an inn on the way down and is forced to endure a drinking session with two starstruck fans whose increasingly drunken conversation turns to the rude and loutish in which they too begin picking apart Moon’s looks while mocking her acting skills, one of them even offering a slightly offensive caricature of her award winning performance as a disabled woman in Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis (the title of which he seems to have forgotten).

Moon’s fears and insecurities follow her into her family life in the second chapter, The Running Actress, which finds her attempting to juggle the demands of being a wife and mother with her acting career. In a running joke, everyone seems to assume that mega famous actress Moon So-ri must be filthy rich but like everyone else she has trouble making ends meet, especially as she is constantly worrying over where the next job is coming from. As if that wasn’t enough she also has to put up with her mother continuing to treat her like a petulant teenager (which to be fair her behaviour sometimes mimics) and trading photo opportunities for free dental work, while her adorable little daughter is sharp as a tack. 

The social and the professional come together in the final segment which sees Moon attend the funeral for a director she once worked with years ago and to tell the truth did not particularly like. Planning to show her face but not stay very long, Moon is dismayed to realise she is one of an extremely small number of mourners which include a drunken actor she doesn’t really get on with either, and an aspiring young actress who may have been involved in an improper relationship with the late director in the hope of furthering her career. In a lovely human touch, Moon breaks away from the rapidly declining situation at the wake to spend some time with the director’s young son who has been left all alone watching a few home videos his father shot by means of a handheld projector.

The film takes its title from a humorous moment in the second chapter in which Moon suddenly orders her driver to stop the car and jumps out to run away screaming, making a bid for frustrated freedom from her often exasperating life and career. Moon is obviously not afraid to poke fun at herself or her industry, taking her (presumably very real) fears and insecurities and exposing them for all to see. Taking a cue from Hong Sang-soo, Moon’s deadpan style only adds to the comic effect of her razor sharp dialogue which is filled with small moments of everyday humour somehow assuming wider dimensions thanks to the well crafted nature of the script. Addressing real problems faced by women today in all walks of life, The Running Actress is a warm and funny effort from the veteran performer turned first time director and will hopefully pave the way for an interesting second career.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

Forever the Moment (우리 생애 최고의 순간, Yim Soon-rye, 2008)

forever the moment posterSports is one of society’s acceptable obsessions. Devotion to a football team, intense knowledge of baseball stats, and idolatry of athletes is not only respected, it is often required for any kind cultural fluency in the society in which one lives. Sportsmen and women, however, can become a disposable commodity. This is after all why the pay for sports stars is so high – the career is temporary. A brief moment in the spotlight can earn a top athlete a multitude of promotional contracts and role model status to hundreds of sporty kids, but when the music stops everyone loses interest. The heroes of Yim Soon-rye’s Forever the Moment (우리 생애 최고의 순간, Woori Saengae Chwegoui Soongan) achieved their 15 seconds of fame when the Korean women’s handball team won a couple of gold medals in the ‘90s before the sport returned to relative obscurity. Despite being gold medal winners, the women are in a precarious position, left without professional team contracts and lacking the necessary qualifications and experience to find well paid work outside of the sports world.

Yim frames her story around the 2004 Olympic Games in which the Korean women’s handball team came back from a disastrous slump to reach the final only to go home with silver after a penalty shootout defeat to Denmark. Mi-sook (Moon So-ri) was part of the gold medal winning 1992 team and is now a wife and mother. Her financial circumstances, however, are strained. When the supermarket handball team she’s been playing for is disbanded, Mi-sook counts herself lucky to get a job on the shop floor. Her husband (Sung Ji-ru), formerly a top male handball player, has been conned out of all his money by an unscrupulous business partner and is currently on the run from debt collectors leaving her a virtual single parent and desperate for money.

Money is the reason she eventually decides to come back to the Korean Women’s Olympic handball team. Mi-sook’s one time rival, Hye-kyeong (Kim Jung-eun), has been parachuted in to coach the Korean Olympic hopefuls after a successful run coaching in Japan. The team is in a sorry state – filled with inexperienced youngsters, it will need serious work to even qualify for the upcoming games let alone reach the podium. Hye-kyeong decides to get some of her old medal winning team-mates back to bring some strength to the ranks even if they’re all a little past their prime. Despite her best efforts, Hye-kyeong is soon sidelined for male coach (and old flame) Ahn Pil-seung (Uhm Tae-woong) who decides to junk the “Korean method” which uses speed as a weapon against the taller European challengers, and embark on a “science-based” European training regimen.

Yim deliberately moves away from the classic sports movie formula, eschewing the training montage and including only one lengthy match at the film’s climax. Forever the Moment prefers to concentrate on the internal struggles of its scrappy, underdog team the best hopes of which are middle-aged women with children whom society often writes off. Hye-kyeong is an earnest, driven woman who’s made a successful life for herself as a sports professional after her court life has come to a natural end, but she still loses out because she got divorced – the bigwigs are nervous about the proposition of a “divorced” woman occupying a “public” position, something that would hardly come up if she were a man. Made “acting coach”, Hye-kyeong is given hardly any time at all to prove herself before the experiment of “allowing” a woman to coach women is ruled unsuccessful and a man with little experience given full budgetary backing to replace her.

Hye-kyeong’s battles with Ahn may eventually take on the expected romantic dimension but it’s the relationships between the other players which become the film’s spine. Mi-sook has always made a point of distancing herself from handball, regarding it simply as a paycheck rather than a vocation – something which seems all the more relevant thanks to her ongoing troubles with her absent husband who is rapidly sinking into a breakdown over his humiliation and inability to support his wife and child. Struggling through adversity and working hard to achieve a physical goal, the teammates discover new strengths, growing as people and as athletes in their quest to be ready for the all important Athens games.

Forever the Moment is another in the long line of Korean films which celebrate the achievements Koreans can make when they come together and work hard to achieve their goal. As in real life, the Korean Women’s Olympic Handball Team are robbed of their final victory by circumstance and accident, but coming second becomes a victory in itself because of everything it took to get there. Less a sports movie than a subversive comment on the way women are often cast aside or underestimated, Forever the Moment is a tribute to the power of hard work and team spirit which becomes its own reward even when one falls short of the goal.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The President’s Barber (효자동 이발사, Lim Chan-sang, 2004)

president's barber posterWe each of us live in the midst of history being made, some of us closer to the action than others. Most of us don’t quite realise how close we are or fully understand our role in events until it’s too late, but in any case we’re all just too busy getting on with the business of living to give much thought such grand concepts as history or legacy. Song Kang-ho has made a name for himself playing genial everymen forever at the mercy of historical machinations, but before he was an apathetic Taxi Driver, he was an apathetic barber giving haircuts to a dictator he half imagined was a friend. The President’s Barber (효자동 이발사, Hyojadong Ibalsa) is part journey into the intersection between rosy childhood nostalgia and national trauma, and part subtle political satire on the moral corruptions of authoritarianism but its own soft heartedness is often at odds with the grimness of its purpose.

Sung Han-mo (like the counter for tofu) is a nice but dim sort who has his own barber’s studio right across from the Blue House. As his son (Lee Jae-eung) tells us in his cutsey voice over, Han-mo (Song Kang-ho) is easily led and content to do whatever the village leader tells him to do, including participating in the ongoing corruption surrounding the re-election of despotic president Rhee Syngman. Our narrator, the oddly named Nak-an, was born as a result of a brief indiscretion between his father and an assistant (Moon So-ri) who had, apparently, hoped to marry someone else from her home village if Han-mo hadn’t trapped her with maternity. She wanted wanted an abortion but didn’t find out until after the much publicised five month cut off, meaning Han-mo talked her into staying and little Nak-an acquired the unfortunate nickname of “five months Na-kan”.

The family live happily enough until the mid-1960s when Park Chung-hee stages a coup and declares himself “President for Life”. When Han-mo somehow manages to catch a “North Korean Spy”, he gets himself a commendation and the attention of the authorities (for good or ill). A KCIA agent dutifully turns up and hauls Han-mo off to the Blue House because the president needs a trim…

Park’s reputation underwent something of a rehabilitation for a time. He did, in the minds of those seeking to justify his tyrannical reign, preside over Korea’s economic recovery. Han-mo is one of many to prosper, in his case directly in working indirectly for the regime. Han-mo is a simple man, he doesn’t think about politics but often feels belittled and downtrodden, made a figure of fun by those close to him even whilst remaining a cheerful optimist. He doesn’t take much convincing to hitch his mule to Park’s waggon, enjoying the personal boost in his social standing and finally feeling like a someone in being introduced to the world of the elites even when he is forced to accept that he does not and cannot exist fully within it.

Han-mo cuts hair, chatting away the way a barber does without really realising either that he is a vox pop spy or that he might, at any time, say the wrong thing and land himself in serious trouble. Serious trouble arrives during a heated and extremely bizarre period of political hysteria surrounding the “Marxus” virus – a lamentable episode in which an epidemic of dysentery was blamed on North Korean spies and all those who suffered from the condition taken in for “questioning”. Only when his own family is threatened does Han-mo start to reconsider his role in the affair – his status as a peripheral member of the Blue House team is no help in protecting those close to him and he can no longer pretend he does not know what happens in those basements, and that it happens to ordinary people not just “suspicious” ones.

The low level satire derives from Han-mo’s background presence becoming foreground as a very personal spat between a couple of high ranking Blue House staffers gathers in intensity before exploding into events which will have profound, though short-lived, consequences for Korean political history. Han-mo sadly takes down his portrait of Park hanging in pride of place in his shop and replaces it with one of Chun Doo-hwan (who was bald). Still a simple man he has, at least, learned his lesson and prepares to turn down the “honour” of shaving a dictator’s chin. Korea, the film seems to unsubtly hint, is finding its feet again though there will be another long reckoning before it, like Han-mo and his family, is finally able to free itself of the militarist yoke.


The Handmaiden (아가씨, Park Chan-wook, 2016)

handmaiden.jpgPark Chan-wook has something of a track record when it comes to bending literary sources in unexpected ways – who else would have thought of adding vampires to Thérèse Raquin and actually managed to make it work? In The Handmaiden (아가씨, Agasshi), his first return to Korean filmmaking after Stoker’s foray into American Gothic, Park adapts Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith – a Dickensian tale of love and the multilayered con, and relocates it to 1930s Korea under Japanese rule.

Ambivalent attitudes to the Japanese is a key element exploited by a ruthless conman posing as “Count Fujiwara” (Ha Jung-woo) in order to seduce a lonely heiress. To complete his elaborate plan, he needs the help of pickpocket extraordinaire, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-Ri), whom he will install as a maid in the household so she can subtly sell the virtues of the dashing nobleman to the innocent flower trapped in a well of opulence.

On arriving at the curiously constructed mansion which is an elegant architectural mix of Korean, Japanese, and English country estate, Sook-hee is quite literally out of place in the upperclass environment a world away from her home in a den of petty of thieves doubling as a baby farm. Another thing she had not quite banked on was that her new mistress, Hideko (Kim Min-hee), would be quite so pretty. A serious spanner is thrown in the works as a mutual attraction builds up between the two women who, for reasons which become apparent, are being pulled in separate directions by other desires.

Park retains Waters’ tripartite structure even if he jettisons the final plot reveal for a less intricate tale of liberation and escape. Beginning with Sook-hee’s narrative he introduces us to the first layer of the con but also to Sook-hee and her down and dirty home in the criminal underworld. Chosen by the Count for her supposed lack of intellect and innocent naivety, Sook-hee is not quite at home among her family either. Both believing the promise that the babies they collect and sell in Japan will be going on to better lives and lamenting the cruelty of the whole business in wanting to mother the lot of them, Sook-hee is soft presence yet she also wants to prove herself as adept at criminality as her legendary, now deceased, mother.

It’s this essential warmth which eventually attracts Hideko’s attention. The much talked about tooth filing scene in which Sook-hee takes out a thimble to soften a lacerating sharpness in her mistress’ mouth is not just notable for the oddly erotic quality born of the obvious suggestive motion, unavoidable intimacy created by the closeness of bodies, and the growing desire of fleeting, furtive glances, but for its essential kindness. Moving into Hideko’s perspective for the second chapter, more is learned about her damaged past filled with cruelty and abuse. Orphaned and brought to Japan as a small child by her pornography obsessed uncle so that he might train her to entertain him with readings of erotic literature before he eventually marries her to inherit the family fortune, Hideko has never known anything as simple as unguarded goodness.

Caught up in a long con, the choice remains whether to blow cover and declare one’s hand or play the thing through to the end, however painful it may be. Park takes a different route than in the original novel which makes both of its heroines the victims of someone else’s avaricious plot of revenge against the cruelty of an unequal world, eventually reinforcing their bond by a shared rejection of their victimhood, but even when their passions eventually erupt the lovemaking begins as a another “con” where Sook-hee takes on the role of the Count, “educating” the assumedly “innocent” Hideko in the ways of desire.

Trapped within an oppressive gilded cage of a prison, Hideko has become the embodiment of desire for her cruel and eccentric uncle and the groups of men he invites to listen to her read erotic literature as if reciting a classical play. Complete with sideshows of sex dolls and theatrical scenery, Hideko is forced to act out the scenes from the books as an actress on the stage for an audience rapt in silence. Unable to escape alone, Hideko is offered new hope by Sook-hee’s straightforward outrage which allows the pair to destroy or repurpose the instruments of their oppression for their own pleasure. This is, in essence, their form of revenge in which they simply remove themselves from an abusive environment leaving the men behind to wonder at what’s gone wrong and later to destroy themselves without any additional help.

Filled with a gothic sense of impossible desires and uncertain judgements, The Handmaiden is unafraid of the genre’s melodramatic roots but is all the better for it. Beautifully photographed, this opulent world of swishing ball gowns and gloved hands is undercut by the ugliness of quisling collaborator Kouzuki and his basement of horrors. Erotically charged but ultimately driven by love, The Handmaiden is another unconventionally romantic effort from Park albeit one coloured by his characteristic sense of gothic darkness.


Reviewed at 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)