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)

Red Carpet (레드카펫, Park Bum-soo, 2014)

red carpet posterExpectation is a heavy burden for a film. Not just the hopes built by excessive hype, but the way it chooses to define itself in advance. Of course, particularly with big budget studio movies it’s marketing men who decide all that rather than filmmakers but still, it’s hard to escape the feeling of confusion when the way a film was marketed works against its true nature. For a film like Red Carpet (레드카펫), an indie rom-com with a strangely innocent heart, it cuts both ways. The salacious hook is that this is a story of porno hell – tortured artists, egotistical men, and abused women. This is couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, Red Carpet is deeper than it seems, asking real questions about the place of the porn industry in a modern society and attacking our own unfair and hypocritical judgements on its existence.

Park Jun-woo (Yoon Kye-Sang) is a lifelong cinephile who dreams of making award winning films he can watch on a Sunday afternoon with his parents, but life has been unkind to him and so he’s been working in the adult video industry for the last ten years. His life changes when he arrives home one day to find a strange young woman waiting there who accuses him of being a prowler and repeatedly hits him over the head with a frying pan. When the police get involved and take Jun-woo’s side seeing as he has the proper documentation it’s revealed that the woman, who has just returned for an extended period living in Spain, has been duped by a housing scam. Jung-woo, being the kindly soul he is, lets the woman, Eun-soo (Koh Joon-hee), live with him until she figures things out. Eun-soo is also a former child actress keen to get back into the profession and takes a keen interest in some of Jung-woo’s scripts never knowing exactly what kind of films it is that he really makes…

Though the setting is the porn industry, director Park makes sure to keep things light and humorous, showing the reality of adult video making but avoiding directly displaying it on the screen. Jung-woo’s work is almost entirely themed around porn parodies of famous movies as in the first shoot we witness where we gradually realise that the whole thing is Oldboy remade as a sex film (apparently including the corridor hammer fight, though no one’s figured out what to do with that yet). More amazing titles follow including the amusing “Inspect Her Gadget”.

Jung-woo may be conflicted about his career as a porn director, longing for the chance to make more “serious” films, but the rest of the crew is fairly happy with their choice of profession. This is, after all, just a job the same as any other. No one here is forced to work in the porn industry. There are no gangsters, no women trapped, abused, or forcibly hooked on drugs to keep them compliant. Everyone here seems to have made a free choice to engage in this type of work and is free to stop anytime they choose.

The problem, in this sense, is ours. Jung-woo and the crew face constant social stigma for what they do. At several points someone (well, always a man) is asked if they watch porn – to which they sheepishly admit, giving the impression that it is something they rarely do and are ashamed of doing. This central fallacy is the entire problem, everyone is watching the films Jung-woo makes – probably thousands more people have watched his adult movies online than have seen the legit movie which was plagiarised from a script that he wrote but was not allowed to direct because he didn’t have the “experience”. Yet everyone disapproves of pornography, tries to deny they watch it, and has the impression that people who make these films are in some way damaged or perverted. Enjoying a meal together in a restaurant, the gang are accosted by a “fan” who asks for a photo with a “famous actress” only to suddenly grab her breast. Just because she’s an actress in adult movies, the man thinks it’s OK to grab her  – “she sells her body”, so what’s the problem? The man, who obviously watches porn, does not think of the people who make it as other human beings but as commercial products existing only for his pleasure.

Jung-woo, in a sense, thinks this too but doesn’t quite realise until he’s made to read out a statement at a press conference in which he’s supposed to apologise for his “unethical” behaviour but refuses, avowing that neither himself or his crew has ever felt ashamed of the work they do. Jung-woo’s dreams are directly contrasted with Eun-soo’s as she works hard to become a legitimate actress all the while loosing her individual freedom to the marketing concerns of her agency and facing the prospect of being forced to abandon Jung-woo, whom she has come to care for, in order to keep her new career and avoid the “scandal” of being in any way associated with the porn industry.

Even if it seems like people such as Jung-woo are not allowed their dreams, it can still all work out in the end as long you’re true to yourself and accepting of everything you are and were. Jung-woo’s early career was harmed by an unscrupulous competitor who stole Jung-woo’s shot and took the credit himself but his “success” may only be temporary because he’s living a lie of artistic integrity while Jung-woo and Eun-soo have maintained their authenticity even when it looked like it may cost them everything they wanted. Improbably sweet and charming, Red Carpet is an innocent love story in which dreams come true through hard work, perseverance, and compromise but finally through truthfulness in the refusal to be shamed for simply being what you are.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Battleship Island (군함도, Ryoo Seung-Wan, 2017)

battleship island posterKorean cinema has been in a reflective mood of late. The ongoing series of colonial era dramas have sometimes leaned towards uncomfortable and uncompromising nationalism but among the more recent, there has also been an attempt to ask more serious questions about collaboration and capitulation of ordinary people living under a brutal and often cruel regime. While Age of Shadows dramatised this particular problem through the conflicted figure of a former resistance fighter turned Japanese military police offer, The Battleship Island (군함도, Goonhamdo) goes further in its depiction of those who dedicated themselves entirely to the Japanese Empire and were willing to oppress their fellow Koreans to do so. That is not to ignore the hellish conditions which define the very idea of Hashima as an off shore labour camp where depravity rules, exploitation is hidden, and the camp commander is free to run his ship however he sees fit.

In early 1945 Korea is still under Japanese colonial rule and ordinary Koreans are liable for conscription into the Imperial Japanese army whether they like it or not. Gang-ok (Hwang Jung-min) and his daughter Sohee (Kim Soo-ahn) are members of a popular jazz band but Gang-ok has a habit of getting himself into trouble and so they are tricked into getting on a boat to Japan hoping for a safer, more lucrative life. Where they end up is Hashima – otherwise known as “Battleship Island”. Gang-ok and Sohee are separated with Gang-ok stripped of his musical instruments and Sohee, who is only a child, carted off with the other women destined for the “comfort station”.

Ryoo wastes little time demonstrating the immense evil buried in places like Hashima. A deep seam coal mine in the middle of the sea, the island is a fortress prison from which escape is impossible. Early on, three small boys decide to flee after their friend is killed in a cave-in only for one to be shot and the other two drowned by the lazy soldiers of a Japanese patrol boat who couldn’t be bothered to fish them out of the water. The miners are beaten, starved, tortured and manipulated into submission knowing that capitulation is their best route to survival. Not only are these men the subjects of forced labour, they are also made liable for the “costs” involved in their own enslavement with the bill for their transportation, food, clothes, and tools deducted from their “wages” which are supposed to be paid into their bank accounts for access on release. Those killed whilst working are supposed to receive compensation for their families but as will later be revealed, systematic corruption means their families may not even know their loved ones are dead let alone that they are being denied the money rightfully owed to them.

Things get even worse for little Sohee who is forced into a kimono and smothered with makeup to “entertain” some of the Japanese officers on the island. She manages to buy herself some time when she realises the Korean record the camp commander puts on to “comfort” the “comfort women” is one she is actually singing on. This new discovery earns her and her father a slightly improved status in the camp though she may not be safe for long. Gang-ok has already reverted to his tried and tested methods for getting out of sticky situations, making himself a kind of camp fixer aided by his ability to speak Japanese.

The Korean prisoners are represented by a former resistance leader, Yoon Hak-chul (Lee Kyoung-Young), who offers rousing speeches in public but privately is not quite all he seems. Gang-ok gets himself mixed up in a Resistance operation run by an OSS (Song Joong-ki) plant on site to rescue Yoon who eventually uncovers several inconvenient truths which make his mission something of a non-starter. Yoon’s empty rhetoric and self serving grandeur represent the worst of the spiritual crimes discovered on Hashima but there is equal ire for the turncoat Koreans who act as enforcers for the Japanese, issuing beatings and siding with their oppressors in the desperation to escape their oppression. Tragically believing themselves to have switched sides, the turncoats never realise that the Japanese hold them in even lower regard than those they have betrayed.

It is hard to avoid the obvious nationalistic overtones as the Japanese remain a one dimensional evil, smirking away as they run roughshod over human rights, prepare to barter little girls and send boys into dangerous potholes all in the name of industry. At one point Gang-ok cuts an Imperial Japanese flag in half to make the all important ramp which will help the captive Koreans escape the island before being summarily murdered to destroy evidence of Japanese war crimes which is a neat kind of visual symbolism, but also very on the nose. Once again, the message is that Koreans can do impossible things when they work together, as the impressively staged, horrifically bloody finale demonstrates, but as Ryoo also reminds us there no “heroes”, only ordinary people doing the best they can in trying times. 


Currently on limited UK cinema release!

Original trailer (English subtitles)