Money (돈, Park Noo-ri, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

money poster 1“Could you ask him something for me,” the beleaguered yet victorious protagonist of Park Noo-ri’s Money (돈, Don) eventually asks, “what was he going to use the money for?”. Wealth is, quite literally it seems, a numbers game for the villainous Ticket (Yoo Ji-tae) whose favourite hobby is destabilising the global stock market just for kicks. As for Cho Il-hyun (Ryu Jun-yeol), well, he just wanted to get rich, but where does getting rich get you in the end? There’s only so much money you can spend and being rich can make you lonely in ways you might not expect.

Unlike most of his fellow brokers, Cho Il-hyun is an ordinary lad from the country. His parents own a small raspberry farm and he didn’t graduate from an elite university or benefit from good connections, yet somehow he’s here and determined to make a success of himself. In fact, his only selling point is that he’s committed the registration numbers of all the firms on the company books to memory, and his ongoing nervousness and inferiority complex is making it hard for him to pick up the job. A semi-serious rookie mistake lands the team in a hole and costs everyone their bonuses, which is when veteran broker Yoon (Kim Min-Jae) steps in to offer Il-hyun a way out through connecting him with a shady middle-man named “The Ticket” who can set him up with some killer deals to get him back on the board.

Il-hyun isn’t stupid and he knows this isn’t quite on the level, but he’s desperate to get into the elite financial world and willing to cheat to make it happen. As might be expected his new found “success” quickly goes to his head as he “invests” in swanky apartments and luxury accessories, while his sweet and humble teacher girlfriend eventually dumps him after he starts showering her with expensive gifts and acting like an entitled elitist. It’s not until some of his fellow brokers who also seem to have ties to Ticket start dying in mysterious circumstances that Il-hyun begins to wonder if he might be in over his head.

Unlike other similarly themed financial thrillers, it’s not the effects of stock market manipulation on ordinary people which eventually wake Il-hyun up from his ultra capitalist dream (those are are never even referenced save a brief reflective shot at the end), but cold hard self-interest as he finally realises he is just a patsy Ticket can easily stub out when he’s done with him. Yoon only hooked him up in the first place because he knew he’d be desperate to take the bait in order to avoid repeated workplace humiliation and probably being let go at the end of his probationary period. What he’s chasing isn’t just “money” but esteem and access to the elite high life that a poor boy from a raspberry farm might have assumed entirely out of his reach.

It’s difficult to escape the note of class-based resentment in Il-hyun’s sneering instruction to his mother that she should “stop living in poverty” when she has the audacity to try and offer him some homemade chicken soup from ancient Tupperware, and it’s largely a sense of inferiority which drives him when he eventually decides to take his revenge on the omnipotent Ticket. Yet there’s a strangely co-dependent bond between the two men which becomes increasingly difficult pin down as they wilfully dance around each other.

The world of high finance is, unfortunately, a very male and homosocial one in which business is often conducted in night-clubs and massage parlours surrounded by pretty women. There is only one female broker on Il-hyun’s team. The guys refer to her as “Barbie” and gossip about how exactly she might have got to her position while she also becomes a kind of trophy conquest for Il-hyun as he climbs the corporate ladder. Meanwhile, there is also an inescapably homoerotic component to Il-hyun’s business dealings which sees him flirt and then enjoy a holiday (b)romance with a Korean-American hedge fund manager (Daniel Henney) he meets at a bar in the Bahamas, and wilfully strip off in front of Ticket ostensibly to prove he isn’t wearing a wire while dogged financial crimes investigator Ji-cheol (Jo Woo-jin) stalks him with the fury of a jilted lover.

Obsessed with “winning” in one sense or another, Il-hyun does not so much redeem himself as simply emerge victorious (though possibly at great cost). Even his late in the game make up with Chaebol best friend Woo-sung (Kim Jae-young), who actually turns out to be thoroughly decent and principled (perhaps because unlike Il-hyun he was born with wealth, status, and a good name and so does not need to care about acquiring them), is mostly self-interest rather than born of genuine feeling. In answer to some of Il-hyun’s early qualms, Ticket tells him that in finance the border between legal and illegal is murky at best and it may in fact be “immoral” not to exploit it. What Il-hyun wanted wasn’t so much “money” but what it represents – freedom, the freedom from “labour” and from from the anxiety of poverty. Life is long and there are plenty of things to enjoy, he exclaims at the height of his superficial success, but the party can only last so long. What was the money for? Who knows. Really, it’s beside the point.


Money was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Heart Blackened (침묵, Jung Ji-woo, 2017)

Heart Blackened posterMost of us like to kid ourselves that you can become rich and successful by working hard and playing by the rules, but it takes a certain kind of ruthlessness to climb the chaebol tree. Corrupt CEO Yim Tae-san (Choi Min-sik) is about to have his mettle tested in Jung Ji-woo’s Silent Witness remake Heart Blackened (침묵, Chimmuk). Wealth, money, power, networks of control and manipulation – Tae-san has all these, but a crucial failure to keep his house in order is about to bring it all crashing down. Unless, of course, he can find an acceptable way out. There are some difficult choices to be made but nothing is quite as it first seems in this world of interpersonal gamesmanship and high stakes machinations.

A widower, Tae-san is in a seemingly happy relationship with famous singer Yuna (Lee Honey). His dreams of familial bliss, however, hit rocky ground when his grown-up but still young daughter refuses to accept his new love. Despite Yuna’s attempts to win her over, Mira (Lee Soo-kyung) hates her potential step-mother with unusual intensity. Matters come to a head when some of Mira’s friends alert her to a sex tape going viral on the internet recorded some years previously and featuring Yuna with an old boyfriend. Mira demands a conference and Yuna dutifully comes, hoping for a rapprochement but getting a tirade of abuse. The next morning, Yuna is discovered close to death in the car park underneath her apartment building where a fire has been set presumably to destroy crucial evidence. Mira is arrested but can’t remember anything about the night in question. Tae-san hires an old friend of Mira’s, Choi Hee-jeong (Park Shin-hye), who has now become a defence attorney, in an attempt to get her some moral support from a compassionate lawyer.

Tae-san’s motivations remain opaque and inscrutable. He appears to think his daughter did it, so why does he hire a friendly but second rate, relatively inexperienced lawyer to defend her when he could use his vast wealth to hire the best of the best or even have the case thrown out altogether? As might be expected for someone in his position, Tae-san is a corrupt businessman with a shady past. He has a history with the prosecutor working on this case who has an interest in trying to get at him through his daughter but Tae-san tries buying him off anyway. To Tae-san money is everything. There is nothing which cannot be bought, nothing which cannot be done by a man with “means”, and no trap which cannot be sprung by a man in total control. So why is he letting his daughter go through all this when he could have found a way to pull her out of it?

As it turns out, there are things money can’t buy (but in a round about way, you might be able to make a cash sacrifice in order to prove how much you want them). As part of their investigations, Tae-san and Hee-jong rub up against creepy super fan Dong-myeong (Ryoo Joon-Yeol), otherwise known as “Cableguy”, who’s been stalking Yuna for years and has secret cameras installed all over her apartment building meaning he may have crucial footage of the incident. To Dong-myeong, however, money is “worthless” in comparison to love, family, and friendship (or so he says). Taking the stand, Tae-san amps up his fascistic chaebol survival of the fittest rhetoric in reiterating that “not all lives are equal” and that saying there’s nothing to be done is only the defeatist excuse of the perpetual failure. If he believes the things he says, then Tae-san is indeed a “vile man” as the prosecutor brands him, but then again Tae-san’s relationship to the “truth” is not altogether a faithful one.

Tae-san believes that “money fixes everything” and whatever else he may have done, it’s hard to argue with his final assessment. What Tae-san is experiencing may well be karma for his life of corporate machinations, but it’s not quite of the kind you might expect. Mira, the archetypal chaebol child – spoiled, entitled, selfish, and arrogant, has in a sense been ruined by her father’s failure to teach her there are things more important than money and it’s a lesson both of them will find hard to learn. A chaebol chastened, Tae-san is a man brought low by his own ideology but it’s hard not to feel sorry him as he finds himself back on the path to righteousness having lost everything even if the real villain is the world which blackened his heart to such an intense degree.


Heart Blackened was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Believer (독전, Lee Hae-young, 2018)

Believer posterJohnnie To’s darkly comical tale of a weaselly meth cook with an extremely strong survival instinct and the austere policeman who can’t resist taking his bait might seem perfectly primed for a Korean remake in its innate pessimism and awkward bromance. Lee Hae-young’s Believer (독전, Dokjeon), however, merely borrows the bones of To’s Drug War while doubling down on its central conceit as reckless obsession leads to the undoing of both our heroes, each forced to confront the futility of their respective, mutually dependent quests.

Obsessed with tracking down a mysterious drug lord known only as “Mr. Lee”, narcotics cop Won-ho (Cho Jin-woong) asks a favour from an old informant only to see her murdered, leaving him only a vague clue by tracing an infinity symbol on a crumpled receipt moments before passing away. Warned off the Mr. Lee case, Won-ho finally gets a lead when an explosion at a drug lab brings scorned righthand woman Oh (Kim Sung-ryung) into his office promising to spill the beans in return for protection and immunity. Sadly, Won-ho couldn’t protect her either, but there was another unexpected survivor in the form of low level middleman Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol).

Traumatised by the death of his mother in the same explosion, Rak initially says nothing under interrogation but suddenly wakes up on learning that the lab’s dog also survived and has been rescued by the police. Unlike the “hero” of To’s film, Rak is small fry (if well connected) and is not looking at anything more than significant prison time. Rak may not be fighting for his life but he has a number of reasons for switching sides, especially once Won-ho fills him in on Mr. Lee’s backstory and long history of abrupt purges.

Despite working for the organisation, neither Oh nor Rak had ever met “Mr. Lee”. No one knows anything about them – gender, nationality, name, or location. In fact, there may not even be a Mr. Lee. Perhaps “Mr. Lee” is merely the “god” of drug dealers – an abstract idea almost given flesh but existing in a spiritual sense alone. Nevertheless, the idea of a Mr. Lee has completely captured the heart of compassionate police detective Won-ho whose all encompassing need to find him has already severely destabilised his life. After failing to protect his informant, Won-ho’s complaint against Mr. Lee is now a personal as well as professional one. Not so much out of vengeance (though there is that too), but a need to make the deaths count and his mounting losses meaningful.

Yet as another Mr. Lee contender later puts it, salvation may not be a matter of faith and if your faith has been misplaced, death may be a healing. In believing so deeply in the idea of “Mr. Lee”, Won-ho has given him form and created an idol to be worshipped through devotion. “Brian” (Cha Seung-won), a higher ranking gangster and former preacher chased out of the US for getting his congregation hooked on cocaine, has his own particular brand of faith based problems but subscribes to much the same philosophy. He may really be Mr. Lee (as may anyone), but if he isn’t he’s determined to convince himself he is in order to see himself as something more than the failed son of a chaebol dad who couldn’t hack it in the family business or in the pulpit. Brian would be happy to die as Mr. Lee rather than going on living as “himself”. Won-ho, unable to understand why kids do drugs asks his informant who explains it’s mostly because life is rubbish. Later someone says something similar to Brian, that he’d rather delude himself with the belief that he’s “someone” rather than face the emptiness.

Despite himself, and as Rak is eager to remind him, Won-ho is dependent on his informant for the pursuit of his case. Won-ho is reluctant to trust him even though Rak seems to be actively working to protect him in this extremely dangerous and largely unfamiliar world. Rak, by contrast, is aware he hasn’t won Won-ho’s faith, but assures him that’s OK because Rak trusts him. Rak does indeed seem to have the upper hand along with mysterious motivations and a fishy backstory, but Won-ho’s desperation to get close to Mr. Lee leaves him wide-open, unwilling to trust his guide but too invested to consider cutting him loose. “Belief” becomes its own drug, a transformative ritual act which gradually erodes all other needs and leaves only emptiness in their place. Won-ho can’t even remember why he started chasing Mr. Lee, but all that remains of him is the chase – a true believer suddenly bereft of a cause. Lee Hae-young takes To’s nihilistic cynicism and subverts it with a focus on the personal as both men fight self created images of their individual demons but find themselves unable to escape from their mutually assured identities.


Believer was screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

The King (더 킹, Han Jae-rim, 2017)

the king posterAbsolute power corrupts absolutely, but such power is often a matter more of faith than actuality. Coming at an interesting point in time, Han Jae-rim’s The King (더 킹) charts twenty years of Korean history, stopping just short of its present in which a president was deposed by peaceful, democratic means following accusations of corruption. The legal system, as depicted in Korean cinema, is rarely fair or just but The King seems to hint at a broader root cause which transcends personal greed or ambition in an essential brotherhood of dishonour between men, bound by shared treacheries but forever divided by looming betrayal.

Tae-soo (Jo In-sung) is the classic poor boy made good. His mother abandoned the family when he was only six because she couldn’t cope with his father’s rampant criminality. Do bad things and you’ll go to hell, she told her son but perhaps Tae-soo already feels himself to be there and so doesn’t worry so much about those “bad things” that are a normal part of his life. The top fighter at his school, Tae-soo finds his calling when he sees his tough as nails father kneeling on the ground, pleading furiously in front of a skinny bespectacled man wearing a fancy suit. The man is a prosecutor and walks with the swagger of someone whose every action is government backed, his authority is absolute.

Tae-soo knuckles down, starts studying and gets into Seoul University. An accidental brush with the pro-democracy protest movement lands him in the army but thanks to lying about his hometown on his registration form he gets an easy posting meaning he has even more time to study for the bar. Everything seems to fall into place – he qualifies, gets his dream job, even marries a beautiful, intelligent, feisty woman who also happens to come from a wealthy elite family. The poor boy from Mokpo has made it, but prosecuting isn’t all he thought it would be. Tae-soo is a civil servant which means, like it does the world over, that he’s overworked and underpaid. When he rubs up against a dodgy case he’s made an offer he can’t refuse – drop it, and get a promotion to the big leagues where celebrity prosecutors enjoy lavish lifestyles filled with parties, drinks, and pretty girls. He knows it’s not right, but this is what he’s always wanted and Tae-soo is soon seduced.

Tae-soo’s seduction causes him a few pangs of conscience, but he was, as he was assumed to be, easy pickings. The case in question is a sickening if ordinary one – a teacher has molested a pupil but as the teacher is the son of an influential man and the single mother of the girl in question has learning difficulties, the case has been made to go away. Tae-soo is outraged, hauls the man back in, re-opens the case and obtains additional evidence and witness testimonies which confirm the girl’s story and will have the teacher sent to jail. His seduction is easy – they simply offer to make him one of them, and Tae-soo agrees, sacrificing not only this little girl but potentially many others for his own greed and satisfaction.

Tae-soo is redeemed, in a sense, thanks to his association with a childhood friend who helps him out by taking care of the teacher through “unofficial” means. Choi Du-il (Ryu Jun-yeol) is Tae-soo’s flip side, another poor boy done good but this time on the other side of the law. An ambitious gangster, Du-il is also loyal, just, and honourable – at least within a gangster code. The “errand boy” for this group of thuggish lawyers who behave like gangsters while the gangsters act like politicians with literal rather than metaphorical attack dogs, Du-il senses he’s walking a dangerous path to nowhere at all and has only his friendship with Tae-soo to believe in.

The genuine bond between the two men is one of the few redeeming features of Tae-soo’s increasingly compromised existence in which he sells his soul for the false approval of the man he regards as a “King” in the figure of all powerful, amoral chief prosecutor Han (Jung Woo-Sung). Tae-soo’s story is a conventional one of a basically good yet weak man struggling with a choice he’s made against his better judgement yet it’s not until it’s cost him everything he holds dear that he starts to reconsider.

Han Jae-rim weaves in archive footage and musical cues to evoke the changing eras which will be more obvious to Korean audiences – a case in point being the dramatic positioning of the suicide of former president Roh Moo-hyun in 2009. Roh had been a progressive president, often unpopular during his time in office thanks to his inability to pass his policies, and was later tarnished with a corruption scandal but found his reputation posthumously reappraised following his death which was seen both as a declaration of innocence and as a symbol of his deep love for his country and its people. Tae-soo’s change of heart seems to accelerate after Roh’s suicide which drew vast crowds of mourning (and knowing smirks from sleazy prosecutors Han and his sidekick Yang) as his own run in with death prompts a re-evaluation of his place in the grand scheme of things.

The King ends on a rather trite message – that every man is his own king and in the end the choices are all yours (though it seems to hope the choices made will be more altruistic than those of Han, Yang, and the earlier Tae-soo). The power wielded by men like Han is fragile – they need lackies, and if they can’t get them the system crumbles, but they’re also hollow, frightened opportunists who are so desperate they’re even bringing in shady seeming shamans to avoid having to make difficult policy decisions. Tae-soo turns their own tricks back on them with masterstrokes of irony, vowing revenge and perhaps getting it, along with self respect and a re-orientated moral compass but then again, power abhors a vacuum.


Screened as part of a season of teaser screenings for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Age of Shadows (밀정, Kim Jee-woon, 2016)

age-of-shadowsWhen the country of your birth has been occupied by another nation, what do you do? Do you fight back, insist on your independence and expel the tyrants, or quickly bow to your new overlords and resign yourself to no longer being what you once were? Kim Jee-woon becomes the latest director to take a look at Korea’s colonial past with the Resistance based thriller Age of Shadows (밀정, Miljung) which owes more than a little to Melville’s similarly titled Army of Shadows, as well as classic cold war spy dramas The Third Man and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

The film opens with an impressive set piece in which two Resistance members, Jang-ok (Park Hee-soon), and Joo (Seo Young-joo) are betrayed whilst trying to sell a Buddhist statue. Joo is captured but Jang-ok makes a run for it as what looks like the entire Japanese garrison of Seoul chases him, running gallantly over the picturesque Korean rooftops. Cornered, Jang-ok is confronted by Korean born Japanese policeman Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho), once a Resistance member himself and a former comrade in arms of Jang-ok. This is the point Jung-chool’s carefully crafted collaboration beings to fracture – his friend, rather than allow himelf to be captured, shouts “Long Live Korea” and blows his own brains out.

His mission a failure, Jung-chool is then moved onto the next investigation which aims to dig out the Resistance top brass in the city. Jung-chool’s Japanese boss Higashi (Shingo Tsurumi) wants him to infiltrate the cell headed by antique dealer and photographer Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) in the hope that it will lead them to head honcho, Jung (Lee Byung-hun). However, Higashi also saddles him with a very young but high ranking Japanese official, Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo), to “help” him bring in Woo-jin.

In Jung-chool’s final conversation with Jang-ok, his friend berates him for the decision to turn traitor and work for the Japanese rather than against them. Jung-chool asks him if he thinks independence is a credible aim, implying he’s long since given up believing in the idea of the Japanese ever being overthrown. Jang-ok evidently believed in it enough to sacrifice his own life, but other comrades have also abanoned the cause and actively betrayed the movement in much more serious ways than Jung-chool’s pragmatic side swapping.

Even if Jung-chool has decided that if you can’t beat the Japanese you may as well join them, he’s coming to the realisation that his superiors, even if they’ve previously treated him warmly, will never regard him as equal to the Japanese personnel. Hashimoto’s sudden arrival undercuts Jung-Chool’s career progress and reminds him that he serves a very distinct purpose which may soon run out of currency. Higashi, having seduced Jung-chool with promises of a comfortable life and praise for his skills, does not trust his Korean underling enough to send him out on his own. This personal wound may do more to send him reeling back to the other side than anything else, especially as his “replacement” Hashimoto is a crazy eyed psychopath who has half a mind to burn the entire city just to be sure of getting his man.

A man who’s been turned once can be turned again and so mastermind Jung decides to prod Jung-chool in the hope that he’ll become an asset rather than a threat. As he puts it, what’s more frightening than feeling your heart move and Jung-chool’s certainty has already been shaken. Song Kang-ho perfectly inhabits Jung-chool’s conflicted soul as his old patriotic feelings start to surface just as he begins to truly see his masters for what they are. Always keeping his intentions unclear, Jung-chool is the ideal double agent, playing both sides or maybe neither with no clear affiliation.

Like Army of Shadows, the final nail in the coffin is delivered by a sentimental photograph. In this chaotic world of betrayals and counter betrayals, there can be no room for love or compassion other than loyalty to one’s comrades and to the movement. Yet against the odds Woo-jin comes to trust Jung-chool implicitly, certain that he will finally choose the side of freedom rather than that of the oppressor. The relationship between the two men provides the only real moments of comic relief, though others members of the group are less well defined including an underwritten part for Woo-jin’s Chinese love interest (Han Ji-min) who isn’t permitted to do very much other than model some elegant twenties outfits.

Maintaining tension throughout, Kim intersperses psychological drama as betrayal piles on betrayal, with intense action sequences including a particularly claustrophobic train based game of hide and seek. Inspired by real historical events, Kim does not claim any level of authenticity but sets out to tell the story of the double dealing inside a man’s heart as he weighs up duty and self interest and asks himself how far he’s willing to go for the sake of either. The age of “shadows” indeed, these are hollow men whose identities have been eroded, living only for today but in certainty of the bright tomorrow. Kim’s examination of this turbulent period is both a big budget prestige picture with striking production values, and a tense, noir-inflected thriller in the mould of Melville, but also a nuanced human drama unafraid to ask the difficult questions which lie at the heart of every spy story.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)