Josée (조제, Kim Jong-kwan, 2020)

When Isshin Inudo’s adaptation of the 1984 short story by Seiko Tanabe Josée, The Tiger and The Fish was released back in 2003, it quickly gained popularity across Asia and is fondly remembered by many as a melancholy love story neatly anticipating the junai boom that would arrive a year later. Nevertheless, almost 20 years on the film’s depiction of disability might seem very of its time while its heavy focus on the male hero’s internal conflict realising that in the end he wasn’t strong enough to fight for love may also seem misplaced. Very loosely inspired by the same short story, Kim Jong-kwan’s Josée (조제) while still largely told from the hero’s point of view does its best to redress the balance in returning agency to the heroine as she resolves to live a freer and more independent life if still to a degree confined by an internal sense of ableism. 

As the film opens, Josée (Han Ji-min) is lying in the road having been thrown out of her electric wheelchair. Student Young-seok (Nam Joo-hyuk) comes to her rescue, grabbing a nearby stool while inspecting the chair only to discover the wheel is broken and the power is out. Thinking quickly he borrows a wheelbarrow from a storeowner and takes both her and the wheelchair back to her home where he’s treated to a meal but also endures Josée’s scorn, she feeling quite ambivalent thinking that she should repay his kindness but also not really wanting to engage with him. Young-seok meanwhile is somewhat captivated by her mystery, later helping her grandmother out after spotting her struggling with a heavy cabinet in the street and thereafter becoming a regular fixture in the young woman’s home. 

Unlike the earlier version, the reasons for Joseé’s largely self-imposed isolation are internal rather than to do with social stigma towards disability or a history of abuse. Nevertheless she harbours a degree of trauma owing to having been abandoned as a child and is reluctant to form close relationships with others which is one reason why she rebuffs Young-seok’s attempts at friendship believing he too would one day leave her while there is also a rather large age gap between them, Young-seok still a student in his early 20s while it appears Josée is at least 10 – 15 years older. Through Young-seok’s intervention Josée discovers that there are systems in place she could go to for support along with community organisations that are keen to help her live independently as an integrated member of society the only reason she had not found them before being her desire for isolation partly caused by the mistaken belief she is wanted by the police. 

Young-seok meanwhile despite his earnest desire to help her is still somewhat immature, naively asking his sometime college girlfriend insensitive questions about her rent and living arrangements while unable to understand the consequences of his actions in carrying on an affair with one of his professors and being exploited by another. Josée accuses him of pitying her which he perhaps does but is also drawn to her because of her sense of mystery discovering that little of what she says of herself is true, merely the expression of the escapist fantasies she uses to overcome the inertia of her life. The irony is that Young-seok is attracted to her precisely because of this quality of otherness and unknowability, while through forming a relationship with him she grows to know and love herself, finally accepting that she is worthy of love if also perhaps viewing herself as a burden as if she would trap Young-seok with her in world of isolation unfairly denying him the right to the fullness of the life. 

Because of her isolation Josée experiences the world differently, living vicariously through books travelling the world in spirit if not in body. Her marginalisation is compounded by her poverty, unable to afford the things that would make her life easier and unaware that there is help available because of her distrust of of authority figures born of her previous experiences which contributes to her desire for solitude. Yet through her relationship with Young-seok she begins to develop a sense of possibility, embracing her independence in driving an adapted car at the film’s conclusion while reconnecting with a childhood friend and his partner not to mention having a little cat to take care of at home. “I’m OK now, I’m not lonely” she offers, if a little sadly, romanticising the memory of love if not its actuality. Imbued with a deep sense of romantic melancholy, Kim’s richly textured drama nevertheless hands agency back to Josée who finally comes to love and accept herself through loving and being loved by another person seizing her independence to live a full and active life but ready to accept the help and support of others as she does so. 


Josée screens 14th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Great Battle (안시성, Kim Kwang-sik, 2018)

Great Battle posterThe moral of every Korean war film, period and modern, is that Koreans are resilient and resourceful. They can accomplish great things when they work together in a spirit of collective good. Kim Kwang-sik’s The Great Battle (안시성, Ansi-seong), is no different in this regard for being set in 645AD when Goguryeo is threatened by the warlike Tang Dynasty which has its eyes firmly set on conquest.

Meanwhile, there is drama in the court. The king has been usurped and most of the lords have fallen behind General Yeon (Yu Oh-seong) who promises to vanquish the Tang, but to do so he intends to cede territory and abandon his fellow citizens (mostly peasants) to the mercy of Emperor Li (Park Sung-woong). However, the governor of Ansi understandably objects and has alone chosen to stand against Yeon in support of his people, vowing to fend off the Tang all alone by defending his garrison to the last man if necessary. To facilitate his plan, Yeon orders Ansi native and earnest cadet Samul (Nam Joo-hyuk), still grieving for the loss of his brother in a previous battle, to infiltrate the recalcitrant fortress and assassinate Yang (Jo In-sung) so that the territory can be razed.

Having been inducted into the city and despite his fierce loyalty to Yeon, Samul begins to question his mission the longer he is exposed to Yang’s unfettered nobility. A lord but also a man of the people, Yang thinks of himself as a leader among equals. He is not the type to observe from the safety of the rear lines, but proudly wades into battle alongside his men, unafraid to risk his life in their service. In fact, Yang is also perfectly aware of Samul’s true intentions, but is prepared to let him bide his time as a son of Ansi in the hope that he can be turned. Orders, as it turns out, are less important than doing the right thing, and Yang, out of sense of loyalty to the old king refuses to throw his lot in with Yeon, especially if it means he is supposed to throw away the lives of his subjects without a fight.

This necessarily means that the people of Ansi are left with the prospect of fending off the entire might of the Chinese Empire with only a garrison army and limited resources. Of course, they succeed – largely through ingenious stratagems and a sense of solidarity. The Tang, not to be outdone, decide to build an entire artificial mountain in order to fight on Yang’s level, bedding in for months of siege as they do so, but there is no crisis Yang cannot overcome and Emperor Li is about to discover he has seriously underestimated the capabilities of Goguryeo warriors when their backs are to the wall.

Not for nothing does Li eventually mutter that it’s bad idea to go about invading Korea and instruct his successors never to bother trying. Sacrifices, however, must be made – many of them romantic. Yang’s dynamic sister (Kim Seol-hyun), a talented bow woman, has long been in love with the head of his cavalry (Uhm Tae-goo) but Yang tells them to delay their happiness until after the war while he himself nurses a broken heart over a young woman who ended up becoming a shamaness (Jung Eun-chae) and later falls into the hands of the Tang. Not everyone is as convinced by Yang’s boldness as he is, and even some of his own people decide perhaps it would be better to simply acquiesce in the face of such overwhelming odds, but Yang remains firm. He will protect his fortress and the people inside it from anything which threatens their peaceful way of life.

In contrast to Yeon’s authoritarian austerity, Yang’s leadership is one built on nobility and fellow feeling. He hopes to create a freer, more equal society in which the king exists to serve the people rather than the other way around. The battle for Ansi is then an oddly revolutionary affair as they fend off imperialists on either side, bowing neither to Li nor to Yeon in steadfastly defending their principles against overwhelming odds. Kwang achieves truly epic scale through the modern wonder of CGI and ensures his battles are suitably gruelling while keeping the patriotism in check as Yang makes himself stand for something bigger than nationhood or ancient nobility in solidarity as he leads from the front but gives the power back to his people.


The Great Battle was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)