1987: When the Day Comes (1987, Jang Joon-hwan, 2017)

fullsizephoto931939The political history of Korea is long and complex and oftentimes sad. The events depicted in 1987: When the Day Comes (1987), pivotal as they were, occurred just 30 years ago. Yet the recent past has also been one marked by protest, public anger, and political scandal though this time around with far less fear or danger. The protests of 1987 were a different story. The rule of Chun Doo-hwan, a military dictator who had seized power following the assassination of the previous dictator, Park Chung-hee, was one of extreme oppression which had already seen a widespread massacre of peaceful protestors by the state in Gwangju in 1980. Chun’s term, under the constitution, was set at seven years after which many hoped for a path to modern democracy but those hopes were dashed when he announced an intention to appoint his successor rather than call a free and fair election.

In depicting the climactic events of that summer, Jang Joon-hwan begins with chaos as a doctor is summoned to a mysterious room where a young man lies unconscious in a pool of water. The police have gone too far, and boy has died during interrogation. Aware of the potential danger of the public finding out that the state has in effect murdered a suspect in an act of torture, the head of the ACIB, Park (Kim Yun-seok), orders the body to be quickly cremated. This, however, needs a certificate signed by a prosecutor and Prosecutor Choi (Ha Jung-woo) is fed up with the ACIB and unwilling to cooperate especially as he smells a rat with the cause of death for a healthy 22-year-old listed as a “heart attack”. Not wanting to be on the wrong side of it if it does get out, Choi refuses the cremation and orders an autopsy which in itself triggers a series of other events eventually bringing the government to its knees.

The state remains cruel and duplicitous. The death of Park Jong-chul (Yeo Jin-goo) would become a catalyst and a rallying call, not just for the injustice of it but for the injustice of covering it up. Park’s family are denied their basic rights, his mother and sister literally dragged away from the morgue screaming while his traumatised father looks on in silent agony. They say that Park was a communist, that he died of fear because he weak while claiming all along to have done no wrong. Only when the “truth” begins to emerge does the ACIB decide to hang a few of its guys out to dry, urging them to “patriotically” take one for the team and head to prison for a while with a hefty compensation package to help sweeten the deal.

The death in custody becomes just one event in a situation spiralling out of control. Paranoid in the extreme, the Chun regime is also working on bringing down a “North Korean Spy Network” controlled by a democracy activist on the run who, unbeknownst to them, is also working with the Catholic Church who will eventually prove pivotal in delivering the truth to the people. Meanwhile, the press has also decided to jump ship, ignoring the government’s carefully crafted guidelines in favour of running actual news. Chun’s iron grip is slipping.

Jang’s biggest takeaway is that corrupt regimes crumble when enough people find the strength to go on saying no. It begins with Choi refusing to stamp a certificate then travels to the reporter who won’t back down, passes on to the secret revolutionaries bravely carrying messages at great personal costs, the not so secret clergy who perhaps have more protection to speak their minds (up to a point) than most, and of course the students in the streets who risked their lives to build a better future. One of the few completely fictional characters, the niece (Kim Tae-ri) of a prison guard (Yu Hae-jin) charged with conveying messages to an activist in hiding, proves the most illuminating in her inward struggle towards the democratisation movement. Afraid of the consequences and preferring to remain politically apathetic, she is eventually radicalised through witnessing the brutality of the regime first hand and suffering personal loss because of it.

Playing out as a taut thriller, 1987: When the Day Comes has a lived in authenticity from the motif of being constantly deprived of one shoe by a cruel and absurd regime to the deadly serious ridiculousness of men like Park who hate “the enemy” enough to destroy the thing they claim to love in pursuit of it. Timely and filled with melancholy nostalgia, Jang’s depiction of the pivotal events of 30 years ago is also a rallying cry in itself and an important reminder that the fight for justice is never truly won.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

On the Beach at Night Alone (밤의 해변에서 혼자, Hong Sang-soo, 2017)

on the beach at night alone posterIt might be unkind to suggest that Hong Sang-soo has essentially been remaking the same film for much of his career, but then again his most characteristic approach is one of re-examination, taking one event and turning it around to see how things might have played out differently if fate had only been kinder. On the Beach at Night Alone (밤의 해변에서 혼자, Bamui Haebyunaeseo Honja) eschews Hong’s usual repetitions, but zooms in deeper on its protagonist’s agonising emotional crisis as she attempts to deal with the fallout from a passionate yet inadvisable affair with a married director which threatens to destroy not only her personal life but also the professional in conservative Korean society. The elephant in the room is, of course, that lead actress Kim Min-hee and the film’s director Hong Sang-soo were themselves involved in a messy affair which scandalised their home nation, forcing the lovers abroad and away from media speculation but perhaps not from the uncomfortable questions surrounding their relationship.

Divided into two parts shot by different cinematographers, the film begins in Hamburg where well known actress Young-hee (Kim Min-hee) has travelled to visit a friend, Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa), to clear her head and get away from all the fuss at home. Jee-young has been living in the city for a few years since her own marriage ended – like Young-hee she came to visit a friend and subsequently decided to stay. Young-hee thinks perhaps she could do the same but is surprised when her friend reacts negatively to the idea of her moving in. The two women chat and try to talk out Young-hee’s ongoing indecision and emotional turmoil while she waits to see if her married film director lover will really come to Hamburg to meet her as he says he will or lose his nerve at the last moment.

The second half picks up some time later with Young-hee (presumably the same Young-hee or at least a woman with a very similar backstory) in a cinema watching a film. She’s gone home to Korea and to her tiny seaside hometown rather than the harsh streets of Seoul. Whilst there she runs into a series of old friends, many of whom have also boomeranged back from the big city, finding it relentless and unforgiving in its unrealistic expectations of their desire for success. Young-hee is just as mixed-up as she was in Hamburg, but her collection of friends prove less reliable sounding boards than the world weary yet perceptive Jee-young.

Hong’s films have often revolved around self-centred, neurotic men who treat women badly while the women remain exasperated yet resigned and only occasionally hurt. Digging deep, Hong makes an effort to look at something from the other side in painting a picture of the real emotional damage done by the kinds of affairs his usual protagonist may engage in (though to be fair most of protagonists are eventually rebuffed by their objects of affection). Kim’s nuanced performance is raw and painful. Hurt and brokenhearted, Young-hee is angry with her former lover but still, she misses him, wonders how he is, hopes he’ll be alright but also, in a way, that he won’t.

Young-hee is a mess of contradictions – she says she won’t wait and then she waits, she says she won’t drink and then she does (to excess), she says she’s overly direct yet she consistently avoids speaking directly, she says harasses people and messes everything up but all she seems to do is isolate herself and avoid connection, she goes to Hamburg to escape and then feels trapped. Jee-young, a little older, seems to have pinned herself down but says she feels somewhat jealous of Young-hee’s youth, her confidence and capacity for desire. There is a melancholy quality to Jee-young’s conviction that she is “the kind of person who lives alone”, but she harbours no resentment towards her former husband, only a mild sense of regret in having wasted his time. Young-hee may be filled with desire, but has no idea what for.

On the Beach at Night Alone shares its title with a poem by Walt Whitman which, like many of Whitman’s poems, is essentially about the interconnectedness of all things and overwhelming sensation of suddenly feeling a part of a great confluence of existence. It is in that sense ironic as Young-hee and many of her friends continue to feel isolated and alone, playing it safe and avoiding the risk of true connection only to find settling for the sure thing more painful than the emotional implosion of Young-hee’s daringly bold affair of the heart. A night on a beach alone affords her the opportunity of sorting things out, if only in her head, finally learning to stand up and walk away towards an uncertain, but hopefully self-determined, future.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet (동주, Lee Joon-ik, 2016)

2016-03-12-1457751627-4889573Review of Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet (동주, Dong-ju) first published by UK Anime Network.


Lee Joon-ik’s previous film, The Throne, was a big budget period affair examining the well known story of tragic prince Sado who was, in a sense, murdered by his own nation as personified by his  father, the king, for failing to bow to a tyrannous regime. Lee’s followup, Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet, charts a similarly melancholy path in its exploration of the life and times of its titular wordsmith, unhappily born into an age of anti-intellectual fervour with only the desire to write verses. Yet another of the recent films to address the Korea’s colonial history, Dong-ju, like its hero, may be the most contemplative as it raises a number of questions not only about the nature of resistance but also of its intrinsic values.

Growing up in a Korean religious settlement in Manchuria, Dong-ju (Kang Ha-neul) and his cousin Mong-gyu (Park Jung-min) have been largely cushioned from the effects of the Japanese occupation, but are aware it’s only a matter of time before their village loses its special status and is swallowed by the powers at be. Both boys have literary aspirations with the more bombastic Mong-gyu opting for prose and the dreamier Dong-ju committed to the far less well received world of poetry. Firm friends as they are, literary rivalry aside, each is bound for a different course as Mong-gyu becomes increasingly involved with the independence movement whereas Dong-ju’s rebellion remains largely on the page.

After travelling to Japan as students, both Dong-ju and Mong-gyu are arrested for insurrection and incarcerated in the notorious Fukuoka prison where they are used as human subjects for experimentation. Regularly dosed with mysterious injections which blister the skin and weaken the constitution, neither lives long enough to see the return of their nation’s sovereignty just a few weeks later with Japan’s defeat at the end of the war.

Beginning with Dong-ju’s prison interrogation, the film is largely told through flashback as it follows the course of Dong-ju’s life from his adolescence in the village to domestic university and finally to Japan where he faces constant threat as an alien Korean in the land of the oppressor. Both he and Mong-gyu are committed to the idea that conscientious literature can change the world, even founding a student magazine dedicated to progressive texts. Mong-gyu, however, does not place the same faith in the art of poetry as does his friend, and eventually decides to head to China to join the left-wing arm of the Resistance movement in exile, only to become disillusioned with their extreme tactics.

Despite his loss of faith in Communist dogma, Mong-gyu remains committed to the idea of direct action and the eventual ushering in of the egalitarian revolution preceded by the expulsion of the Japanese. Far from opposing the draft of Korean students into the Japanese army, Mong-gyu plans to harness it to fill the army with capable, trained fifth columnists who will use the skills they learn in a foreign army to retake their homeland. After a brush with the ruling regime, Dong-ju tries to join the more active side of the resistance alongside his friend but is rebuffed. Mong-gyu knows his friend is not a born soldier and is much more valuable as a poet than on the front lines.

Dong-ju’s poetry is often not overtly political, anti-Japanese, or even anti-colonialist, but it is written in Korean – a daring act of political resistance in itself. During this era, Japanese was the dominant language, used in all official institutions and most schools (Dong-ju and Mong-gyu’s excluded because of its special religious status). One of the problems Dong-ju faces during his interrogation is that he delayed adopting a Japanese name much longer than was wise and subsequently continued to disseminate literature in Korean. When language is suppressed and nationhood denied to the extent that even names have been erased, what other means is there to reclaim an identity other than literature, and of literature what more powerful than poetry?

Dong-ju’s resistance to the brutalisation of of an oppressive regime is entirely internal. He writes in his native language about the things which matter, of his loneliness and youthful anxiety much of which is born of the uncertainty of his times. During his interrogation he is forced to sign a confession of his “crimes”, which he does, but with equal amounts of pride and shame as he wonders if his commitment to literature was time well spent when his comrades were dying in the streets. Was it responsible of him to commit himself to poetry rather than to medicine with all of its more immediately humanitarian benefits, or should he have thrown away the pen for the gun and joined the combatants in the armed struggle?

Mong-gyu, by contrast, feels only shame when he signs his papers which amount to a list of failed manifesto promises. Yes, he did plan all of these things but realised none of them, placing the lives of his friends in jeopardy as his did so. Perhaps he, like Dong-ju, should have agitated for social change through culture, rather than trying to fight an empire using only the empire’s cast offs.

There are no real answers to these questions, Korea regained its independence thanks to the collapse of the Japanese overseas empire rather than armed insurrection or the gradual enlightenment of the citizenry. Both men are left with a lingering sense of shame and impotence at having been unable to accomplish more in their cruelly shortened lives. Yet as for Dong-ju, there is rebellion enough in his poetry which bares all of his own soul as he suffered the torment of a poet forbidden from poetry, writing in a language proscribed by those that would seek to destroy the essence of his culture.

Filming in a crisp, washed out black and white, Lee imbues his world with a sense of melancholy and lost potential as two young men find themselves at the mercy of their times, fighting for their own independence as distinct from that of their nation but once again being denied. A necessarily sombre film unafraid to acknowledge the darkest edges of the colonial period, Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet is a celebration of the enduring power of the poetic form as exemplified by Dong-ju’s beautifully heartbreaking lines.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)