Fanfare (팡파레, Lee Don-ku, 2019)

“I’m the only one who gets out alive!” insists an accidental antagonist in Lee Don-ku’s tense theatrical chamber piece, Fanfare (팡파레). The ironic title perhaps hints at the surreal pettiness of four criminals as they find themselves engaged in a pointless battle to the death trapped in a record shop / cafe bar one very bloody Halloween, but Lee’s drama is less concerned with their darkly comic fecklessness than with the rapidly changing power dynamics of an uncertain situation largely determined as they are by initial impressions and societal prejudices. 

That’s one reason no one pays too much attention to the mysterious J (Lim Hwa-young), a young woman we first meet putting on her makeup before getting a call from a man using a voice disguiser who is supposed to send her information on her upcoming “appointment”. We can’t really be sure what it is J’s job entails, but the three men who later take her hostage seem to have drawn the conclusion that she’s some kind of sex worker and largely regard her life as unimportant while believing that she poses no kind of threat to them. She, meanwhile, strangely calm bides her time watching largely passively while sometimes playing into their stereotypical view of her as a weak and defenceless woman, crying and pleading for her life. 

J later explains to her boss that she missed her appointment because she “ran into some fun guys” which may be a strange way of describing the evening’s events but perhaps makes sense given what we can gather of her. In fact she only snuck into the cafe a little before closing because she was early and needed somewhere to hang out, ordering a tequila from the sleazy barman, dressed as Dracula, while he continues to make somewhat inappropriate and flirtatious comments that she ignores. While he goes to tidy up after the Halloween party on the upper floor, a man comes to the door pleading to be let in explaining that his brother has been taken ill. J waves them through but of course it’s a ruse, they intended to rob the place but can’t figure out the till. Younger brother Hee-tae (Park Jong-hwan) goes looking for the barman but accidentally kills him, leaving the guys with a series of problems. To solve them, older brother Kang-tae (Nam Yeon-woo) calls an underworld friend, Sen (Lee Seung-won), promising him a share of his non-existent (?) drug stash in return for help. Sen calls “cleaner” Mr. Baek (Park Se-Jun), but after a series of arguments and altercations the situation continues to deteriorate. 

The problem is, perhaps, that everyone thinks of themselves as the good guy. Hee-tae is apparently in this out of desperation trying to pay off his student loans while painting his older half-brother Kang-tae as a deadbeat drop out whose involvement with drugs brings shame on their family, both boys keen to go home and see their mum anxious that they don’t cause her any more worry. Kang-tae meanwhile evidently thinks he’s some kind of gangster mastermind, entirely unaware he’s in way over his head but reacting to the news that his brother’s just killed someone with bemusement more than horror. Hee-tae didn’t think it was a good idea to involve anyone else in their situation but is persuaded by Kang-tae’s supposed underworld experience while later resenting him, wondering if he really has a valuable drug stash he never mentioned while forcing him to help in his criminal schemes knowing he needed the money. Meanwhile, the more experienced Sen thinks he’s in control but quickly finds himself outmanoeuvred in part because of the boys’ panicky naivety. Baek is there as a contractor but finds himself without protection, a continual outsider with only the necessity of his skills to leverage for his survival along with a possible professional alliance with Sen.  

Set almost entirely within the bar, Fanfare is testament to snowballing chaos of cumulative bad decisions along with the dangers of misreading others based on impressions formed through the prism of societal prejudice. Ironic music cues lend a sense of surreal irony, though Lee’s humour is pitch black as the gang of bumbling criminals eventually consumes itself while those assumed to have the least power simply wait for events to run their course.  


Fanfare screens at Chicago’s Lincoln Yards Drive-in on April 30 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Tiger in Winter (호랑이보다 무서운 겨울손님, Lee Kwang-kuk, 2018)

Tiger in Winter poster“Life just keeps getting harder” sighs a weary policeman charged with extracting a coherent statement from an accidental hero who only wants to talk about a tiger. Lee Kwang-kuk’s third feature, A Tiger in Winter (호랑이보다 무서운 겨울손님, Horangiboda Museoun Gyeoulsonnim), is in some ways a more conventional exercise in comparison with the time bending reflexivity of his earlier work, but the journey he takes us on is similarly circular as a melancholy young man finds himself chased out of his natural habitat and cast adrift, outside of his comfort zone too resentful to crawl back into a familiar cage but too afraid to embrace his freedom. 

On the day a tiger escapes from the zoo, Gyeong-yu (Lee Jin-wook), a failed writer, “loses” his day job and has to temporarily vacate his apartment because his girlfriend’s parents are coming to visit and she evidently hasn’t told them she is “living in sin”. Gyeong-yu offers to stay and meet them, but bristles when his girlfriend wonders if he’s ready to make a firm a commitment. He packs and leaves, planning to return in a few days’ time when the coast is clear. Decamping to a friend’s place, Gyeong-yu continues his night “job” as a designated driver which brings him into contact with an old girlfriend – Yoo-jung (Ko Hyun-jung), who is also a writer and apparently successful but suffering from an extended bout of writer’s block and has descended into a self destructive spiral of alcohol fuelled existential desperation.

After reconnecting with Gyeong-yu, Yoo-jung pulls down a book he once gave her from her well stocked bookcase – a Korean translation of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway’s hero fights his age as manifested in a powerful marlin and dreams of youth in the lions of Africa. The film’s English title, “A Tiger in Winter”, is perhaps a mild pun on “The Lion in Winter” which again tells of a once proud old man struggling to deal with his bodily decline, only Gyeong-yu is still young even if he feels himself diminished and brought low by life. Unlike the old man, he has stopped fighting and accepted his defeat. He no longer writes and flounders aimlessly, running away from the things that frighten him without aim or purpose. The loosed tiger is a manifestation of the fears Gyeong-yu refuses to fight which render him both physically and artistically impotent.

Writing, or perhaps art of any kind, becomes its own kind of vice – a dangerous addition, a need which must be sated or displaced without which the rest of life remains hollow. Unable to satisfy her need for creation, Yoo-jung has crumbled under the pressure of her own expectations and retreated into the comforting world of the permanently tipsy even whilst knowing that the alcohol itself inhibits her ability to create and forever separates her from that which would make her whole. She wants to stop, throws away her soju, but can’t move past her inability to face herself and resolve her creative doubts. Yoo-jung wants the quick fix, and like any addict, she is past caring about the harm she might do to herself and others in the pursuit of it.

Gyeong-yu, meanwhile, almost wallows in his degradation as he allows himself to be belittled by the customers who call for his services and insist on treating him like a servant. Designated driving doesn’t seem like a particularly safe arrangement for either party – many of Gyeong-yu’s customers are extremely drunk and willingly allowing a man they don’t know to drive them somewhere in their own car while they are barely conscious, while conversely many refuse to pay or accuse Gyeong-yu of damaging the car while berating him for acting in an insufficiently humble manner. Yet it’s not humiliation that knocks Gyeong-yu out of his stupor but trauma and a direct confrontation with someone else’s despair.

Tigers lurk everywhere, though when Gyeong-yu finally learns to look his in the eye it’s a very cute and non-threatening sort of tiger which perhaps makes him feel foolish for having evaded it for so long. Lee may not be playing with time in his usual fashion, but he sends Gyeong-yu retreating into the past all the same in an attempt to hide from his fears only to discover you can’t walk backwards into the future. An exploration of the destructive power of the creative urge, the soul crushing inertia of artistic block, and the continuing rootlessness of a life lived in flight, A Tiger in Winter is another beautifully poetic character drama from Lee whose world weary optimism loses nothing in its seeming simplicity.


A Tiger in Winter was screened as the final teaser for the London Korean Film Festival which will open on 1st November with Microhabitat. The full programme for this year’s event is now available on the official website – tickets on sale soon!

International trailer (English subtitles)