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.

Black Republic (그들도 우리처럼, Park Kwang-su, 1990)

Black Republic still 1In the Korea of 1990, a revolution had been fought, won, and then betrayed by its people. Successfully petitioning for democracy, the newly minted Korean electorate went ahead and voted for the chosen successor of the dictator they’d just spent so long trying to oust. Change comes slow, but it comes even if not quite the way you wanted it. Park Kwang-su’s first film Chilsu and Mansu, released in 1988 and set in the contemporary Seoul running to catch up to its Olympic aspirations, had made its own quiet protest about a hypocritical society’s rising social inequality. His follow up, Black Republic (그들도 우리처럼, Keduldo Urichurum), takes a journey back in time while keeping one foot in the present to show us a nation engulfed by a darkness that crushes love, dreams, and possibility all while dangling the shining hope of a better future that seems impossibly far away.

Tae-hun (Moon Sung-keun), a student protestor wanted by the police, heads into the mountains under an assumed name hoping to get a job in a mine. However, this is a period of intense economic volatility and the mining industry is collapsing. When his attempts to find work as a miner fail, Tae-hun (going under the name Gi-yeong) overhears a conversation in a cafe and manages to get a job in a local briquette factory.

Park opens in darkness as Tae-hun makes a phone call to his mother in which he never speaks and she reassures him that everything will be OK while the sound of a train gradually gathers in the background. When Tae-hun arrives at his destination, he finds himself in a barren, blackened land where everything is quite literally falling apart. The mines are closing and the landscape, desolate as it is, is peppered with derelict buildings and the modest, makeshift homes of the rural poor at the constant mercy of their greedy masters. As a newcomer, Tae-hun is not privy to the town’s secrets, but quickly comes to understand that though he may have escaped Seoul, the struggle is inescapable, because the struggle is Korea. The owner of the briquette factory is also some kind of loanshark involved in a suspiciously close arrangement with the local mine owner who is in the middle of a labour dispute with the miners who are petitioning for fair pay and better conditions. Haunted by the memories of his protest days, Tae-hun finds himself looking on at another candlelight procession calling for workers rights but rendered impotent, forced to remain silent or risk attracting the attention of the police.

Meanwhile, Tae-hun’s silence sees him unwittingly pulled into the orbit of those he would usually oppose. Seong-cheol (Park Joong-hoon), the illegitimate son of the factory boss, takes his own sense of crushing impossibility out on the entire town. Technically the “vice-president” of the factory, Seong-cheol is a sometime enforcer for his father’s greedy loan sharking business and thinks nothing of striding in and helping himself to the petty cash to spend on women and booze while gazing at the photo of his long absent mother. An invitation to dine with Seong-cheol and pals brings Tae-hun into contact with melancholy sex worker Yeong-sook (Shim Hye-Jin) who begins to fall for him when he skips out on her after Seong-cheol has pulled one of his usual tricks in giving her away in an attempt to buy friendship through influence.

Like Tae-hun, Yeong-sook is also trapped, running, and living under an assumed identity. Through her exposure to Tae-hun who is, after all, so different from the other men in the mountains, she begins to rediscover a sense of hope and possibility. Yeong-sook quits the illegal part of her job as a “coffee girl” and deepens her bond with Tae-hun through nursing him after he is arrested and beaten by the police who seem to harbour an innate suspicion towards him despite little evidence, but their love will require another act of faith and flight and the world in which they live may not let them to escape.

Everyone here is trapped, lying to themselves or others, wishing things were different than they are but has long since given up the hope they ever could be. While Tae-hun attempts to ride out the storm by burying his head in the coal dust, feeling it fill his lungs, struggling to breathe, Seong-cheol opposes his order with chaos, laying waste to half the town in a self destructive venting of his rage and resentment towards his selfish, unfeeling father, and a society he feels has already rejected him. Impossibility and hopelessness are the defining qualities of this world of corruption and exploitation in which there can be no escape or salvation, only crushing futility. Park closes with an ironic coda of swapped fates and tragic promise which places Tae-hun right where he was when we first met him, defeated by hope but still in motion, if for an uncertain direction.


Black Republic was screened as part of the Korean Cultural Centre’s Korean Film Nights 2018: Rebels With a Cause screening series. It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Forgotten (기억의 밤, Jang Hang-jun, 2017)

forgotten posterEver wondered if you’re living in a simulacrum? Strangely, the thought isn’t one which occurs to the hero of Jang Hang-jun’s Forgotten (기억의 밤, Gieokui Bam) despite his sense of déjà vu and the uncanny eeriness of his world. Then again, perhaps that’s because he is wilfully complicit in his own life lie, afraid to open the door and confront the ghosts trapped inside his psyche seemingly desperate get out. A tense psychological thriller, Forgotten is also a symbolist drama in which Jin-seok, a man literally trapped in the past, is forced to free himself from a locked room mystery only to discover his own dark truths.

Following some distressed sounds from someone who claims not to be able to remember whatever it is they’re being interrogated about, we find a young man, Jin-seok (Kang Ha-neul), peacefully asleep on his mother’s shoulder as his family drive to their new home. Jin-seok is an anxious young man under a lot of stress studying to retake university exams while his brother, Yoo-seok (Kim Mu-yeol), is the archetypal good Korean son. He is handsome (if a little geeky looking), clever, good at sports, patient and kind. In short Yoo-seok is everyone’s hero, not least his little brother’s, while Jin-seok is a nervous wreck who rarely leaves the house and makes sure to have his discman with him when he does to block out the noise and fury of city life. According to the prominently displayed calendar, it is May 1997.

Things start to go awry when Jin-seok finds out that the house’s previous owner has left some property in the upstairs room which he will collect at a later date. The family aren’t supposed to go in there ’til he does and so the brothers will be sharing a room. Jin-seok is however fascinated by the locked door and the strange noises he thinks he can hear coming from upstairs. Things go from bad to worse when Jin-seok witnesses Yoo-seok being kidnapped in the street only to return 19 days later with no memory of where he’s been. Little by little, Jin-seok comes to doubt that the man who has returned is really his brother, but if he isn’t, then who is he and why is any of this happening?

Like all good gothic mysteries, the first problem is Jin-seok’s supposedly fragile mental state. His family repeatedly check he’s taking his medication and take care to ensure his life is as stress free as possible, apparently afraid that he will relapse into some kind of breakdown the cause of which may be partly the reason that the family has moved to a quieter area. Thus neither he nor we can be sure if everything he experiences is real, a product of his strained mind, or a problem with his medication.

Wedded to this story is the coded past of Korea in 1997 struck by the Asian economic crisis which, the film seems to say, provoked a kind of paranoid madness generalised across society. In this difficult climate in which jobs were scarce and even those in professional occupations faced a significant drop in living standards, extreme solutions began to seem attractive. A young woman and her daughter are murdered and the killer never caught, a little boy orphaned and abandoned by his relatives who keep his family’s money for themselves, a young man resolves to commit a terrible transgression in the hope of saving a loved one, and all because of a tragic accident and some random numbers on a screen. 

Jang Hang-jun turns the relatively low budget to his advantage in creating a world of intense uncanniness, somehow realer than real but never quite right. Gradually peeling back the layers of Jin-seok’s existence to expose the wires below, Jang’s artistry becomes apparent as the world comes into focus albeit presenting a different kind of mystery. Anchored by the impressive performance of a deglammed Kang Ha-neul, Forgotten is as bleak a tragedy as they come. The truth may set one free, but not quite in the way the saying implies and there are some things with which is it impossible to live. The unseen legacy of a traumatic era sends its invisible shockwaves through the present and out into the future, and perhaps the only way to survive them is to avoid opening the door.


Streaming worldwide via Netflix.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Green Fish (초록 물고기, Lee Chang-dong, 1997)

Green Fish poster

You can never go home again. Lee Chang-dong’s debut, Green Fish (초록 물고기, Chorok Mulgogi), is as much a chronicle of his rapidly modernising nation’s gradual loss of innocence as it is that of its melancholy hero, Makdong (Han Suk-kyu), whose simple dream of family harmony is destroyed by the forces of desire and oppression. Perpetually someone’s little brother, Makdong struggles but finds no schoolyard protectors in his ongoing quest for leadership and direction from someone or something external to himself. All he finds is a gradual descent into darkness and criminality in which misplaced loyalties eventually carry the heaviest of penalties.

Returning home from his mandatory military service, still dressed in his warm weather combats, Makdong inhales a taste of freedom by hanging out of the open train doorway. He notices a woman doing the same thing a few doors down. Her red scarf floats away on the breeze and hits Makdong in the face. Later he notices the same woman being hassled by a gang of louts and decides to intervene. Despite his military uniform, Makdong is no great warrior and he’s quickly beaten up and humiliated, retreating to the bathroom where he soaks the woman’s scarf in water and puts it over his bloodied face, inhaling her scent through the fabric as it somehow expresses his otherwise repressed scream.

Vowing revenge for his humiliation Makdong jumps off the train and attacks the louts with a heavy stone trophy, but he mistimes his attack and ends up running after the departing carriages before being forced to abandon all hope of catching up and concentrate on evading the louts who are once again on his tail. On his arrival home, Makdong discovers nothing is as he left it. His family is scattered – father dead, mother going mad, one brother married and a policeman though apparently also a drunk, other brother a wideboy punk, little sister working as a hostess, where there were fields now there are apartment blocks as far as the eye can see, only his older brother with developmental disabilities remains the same. Unable to find work, Makdong chases the scent of the woman on the train, eventually encountering her in the city. Miae (Shim Hye-jin) is a nightclub singer involved with petty gangster Bae Tae-gon (Moon Sung-keun). Remaining close to her, Makdong finds himself drawn ever further into Maie’s self destructive spiral of desire and darkness.

Makdong, whose name literally means “youngest sibling”, is perpetually looking for a family. Turned away from the chaos of his childhood home, he looks for it in the traditional place of the dispossessed male – the gang. Desperate to prove himself and be accepted, Makdong is willing to undergo any kind of pain and humiliation. Given his first job, he sings a snatch of the karaoke song playing in the bar about a prodigal son who disappoints his parents, looks himself in the mirror then hesitates before slamming the stall door shut across his fingers, leaving them swollen and bloodied. He then picks a fight with a rival gangster to give Bae Tae-gon an excuse to settle a score. Bae, solicitous, expresses irritation with Makdong’s act of self-harm but also gives him a leg up into the organisation, something which does not prove universally popular with the already established crew.

Bae’s decision to make Makdong his latest “little brother” (a sort of pun on his name and Bae’s position as the gang’s “big brother”), is mirrored in Bae’s own turbulent relationship with his superior/rival, Yang-gil (Myung Gye-nam). Yang-gil, setting up shop right across from Bae’s establishment, describes Bae disparagingly as a scrappy puppy dog biting at his master’s heels. Much as he feels humiliated by Yang-gil’s authoritative disdain, he refuses to move against him, ordering his guys to back off even though it makes him look weak and diminishes him in the eyes of his followers. Just as Makdong has placed his faith in Bae, Bae’s is already installed in Yang-gil, something which Makdong tragically fails to understand.

Makdong’s loyalty to Bae also presents a conflict in his desire for Miae. A much stereotyped gangster’s moll, Miae is the melancholy nightclub singer familiar from classic noir. Her world is just as ruined and broken as Makdong’s. She wants to leave Bae and his life of violent chaos in which she’s often pimped out to serve his interests, but she’s looking for someone to help her, just as Makdong is looking for someone to defend him. A long train journey brings the pair together in a moment of innocent tenderness, but presented with a choice Makdong choses Bae and his new world of male chivalry over his original act of white knight rescue which brought him to Miae’s attention in the first place. Later he makes another, more final choice, burning Miae’s scarf which he’d been carrying like a talisman all along. The flames reflected in his sunglasses give him eyes of fire, but behind the frames there are tears too as he bids goodbye to one dream in the mistaken belief of buying himself another.

Facing his end, Makdong rings home and reminisces about a story of idealised childhood innocence in which he spent a day at the river with his siblings, trying to catch the green fish of the title from under a railway bridge. Earlier on the family had another picnic in a similar spot which quickly degenerated into a chaotic family spat with the trains passing ominously behind them. The world that Makdong wants is already fading, he is, in some sense, already its ghost and the future has no place for him. His dreams were small – a modest family restaurant, and a return to the warmth and security he felt as a child surrounded by unconditional love. His family, however, no longer support him, he is alone and unloved. The world has moved past him like a train leaving the station, Makdong runs but he can’t catch up. The future belongs to those who can move fast enough to adapt to the new reality of modern Korean life, not to old romantics like Makdong who still believe in archaic ideals of family and brotherhood. Yet, there is something of that old world remaining in the posthumous fulfilment of Makdong’s only wish, even if he himself is not permitted to witness it.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Cabaret scene (no subtitles)