Zokki (ゾッキ, Naoto Takenaka, Takayuki Yamada, & Takumi Saitoh, 2020)

“Thanks to secrets carefully kept by people the world keeps turning” according to one of the many heroes of Zokki (ゾッキ), a series of intersecting vignettes adapted from the cult manga by Yoshiharu Tsuge and directed by three of Japan’s most prominent actor-directors, Naoto Takenaka (whose Nowhere Man also adapted Tsuge), Takayuki Yamada and Takumi Saitoh. According to the philosophical grandpa who opens the series of elliptical tales everyone has their secrets and without them you may die though each of the protagonists will in fact share their secrets with us if by accident or design. 

Seamlessly blended, the various segments slide into and around each other each taking place in a small rural town and primarily it seems around 2001 though as we’ll discover the timelines seem curiously out of joint as motifs from one story, a broken school window, an awkward moment in a convenience store, the retirement of a popular gravure model/AV actress etc, randomly appear in another. This is however all part of the overarching thesis that life is an endless cycle of joy and despair in which the intervals between the two gradually shrink as you age before ceasing to exist entirely. 

Or so says our first protagonist, Fujimura (Ryuhei Matsuda), a socially awkward man heading off on a random bicycling road trip in which he has no particular destination other than “south” or maybe “west” as he later tells a potential friend he accidentally alienates. Fujimura’s unspoken secret seems to link back to a moment of high school trauma in which he betrayed one burgeoning friendship in order to forge another by joining in with bullying gossip and eventually got his comeuppance. Meanwhile the reverse is almost true for Makita (Yusaku Mori) who relates another high school tale in which he overcame his loneliness by befriending Ban (Joe Kujo), another odd young man rejected by teachers and the other pupils for his often strange behaviour such as his tendency to shout “I want to die”. Ban claims to have heard a rumour that Makita has a pretty sister and Makita goes along with it, eventually having to fake his sister’s death in order to seal the lie only for Ban to find happiness in his adult life largely thanks to Makita’s act of deception. 

The broken window which brought them together turns up in another tale, that of Masaru (Yunho) whose adulterous father Kouta (Takehara Pistol) took him on a midnight mission to steal a punching bag (and some adult DVDs) from the local high school only to encounter a sentient mannequin/ghost who is later likened to the young woman from Fujimura’s past. Bar some minor embarrassment there’s no real reason the ghost sighting would need to be kept secret, the deception in this case more to do with Kouta’s affair and his subsequent departure from his son’s life only to make an unexpected return a decade later. The affair also makes him a target for fisherman Tsunehiko, the betrayed husband and one of the fisherman celebrating the birthday of a colleague along with an existentially confused Fujimura. Meanwhile, Fujimura’s fed up neighbour secretly writes a rude word on a note to himself instead of the usual “good morning” only to realise it’s been moved when he opens the local video store the next morning. 

Eventually coming full circle, Zokki insists what goes around comes around, everything really is “an endless cycle”, and that in the grand scheme of things secrets aren’t always such a bad thing. They keep the world turning and perhaps give the individual a sense of control in the necessity of keeping them if running with a concurrent sense of anxiety. The criss-crossing of various stories sometimes defying temporal logic hints at the mutability of memory while allowing the creation of a zany Zokki universe set in this infinitely ordinary small town in rural northern Japan. As the various protagonists each look for an escape from their loneliness, unwittingly spilling their secrets to an unseen audience, the endless cycle continues bringing with it both joy and sorrow in equal measure but also a kind of warmth in resignation. Beautifully brought together by its three directors working in tandem towards a single unified aesthetic, Zokki defies definition but rejoices in the strange wonder of the everyday in this “obscure corner of the world”.


Zokki streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It will also screen in London on 24th October as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

NYAFF intro

The Prayer (간호중, Min Kyu-dong, 2020)

“I’m just wondering if they all live with nothing to live for and whether it has any meaning to live like that. And if I am no different.” a beleaguered daughter muses contemplating her own future while caring for her mother (Moon Sook) who has been bedridden in a coma for the last decade. A perhaps controversial advocation for euthanasia, Min Kyu-dong’s expansion of his entry into the SF8 series The Prayer (간호중, Ganhojung) offers a timely exploration of the nature of empathy, the limits of AI technology, the ageing society, and the destructive effects of inequality as mankind’s children find themselves wracked by the existential pain of human suffering. 

Set in the near future in which high schools are bulldozed to build additional care centres, The Prayer revolves around the relationship between the melancholy Jung-in (Lee Yoo-young) worrying if prolonging her mother’s life in this way is really what she’d want, and the robotic care nurse she’s hired to look after her, Ho-joong (also Lee Yoo-young). As we discover, Jung-in has taken advantage of the offer to have herself listed alongside her mother as a target for care leaving Ho-joong with an ironic conflict torn between her duty to look after Jung-in’s mother and witnessing the toll caring for her is taking on Jung-in who frequently expresses depressive thoughts and potentially suicidal ideations. 

In order to provide comfort to patients, the androids are designed with the same face as the primary guardian, meaning Jung-in is in someways in dialogue with herself while Ho-joong becomes increasingly confused in her imperfect, in some ways childish, application of human empathy. Fixated on Jung-in with a devotion which turns towards the romantic, she comes to the logical conclusion that in order to save her secondary patient the obvious choice is to sacrifice the first but has seemingly no understanding of the effect that may have on Jung-in who may be worn out and emotionally drained but would obviously feel responsible should anything happen to her mother at the hands of the robot nurse she hired because she has developed unintended feelings towards her. 

The extent of Ho-joong’s “feelings” are indeed at the heart of the matter as evidenced by her strange conversations with a well-meaning nun, Sister Sabina (Ye Soo-Jung), who is originally dismissive unwilling to recognise that a manmade creation may also desire access to God. As incongruous as it sounds, Ho-joong’s awakening spirituality positions her as uniquely human and as trapped as one of her patients, tormented by the pain of being alive and finally confined to table on which she claims to be experiencing near torture at the hands of those seeking to understand her “malfunction”. Her German manufacturers locate the fault in her advanced language processing unit, as if the problem were that she understands too well when perhaps it’s more that her empathy is based in a different metric and prone to misunderstand the irrationality of human impulses towards guilt and love. 

That’s also the problem with the unit next door owned by Mrs. Choi (Yum Hye-ran) whose husband (Yoon Kyung-ho) seems to be suffering from advanced dementia which often causes him to become violent or unpredictable. Unlike Jung-in, however, Mrs. Choi could only afford a basic model which offers little in the way of empathy nor will it care for her. Consequently, she appears to be overburdened with her husband’s care, doing laundry and tidying up after his frustrations cause him to trash his hospital room. The machine offers her only censure while the duty of care ironically prevents her from attending to her own health. Seeking help she turns to the manufacturer who bluntly tells her she doesn’t understand how to operate the machine and advises she ask her kids to teach her, only it appears that Mrs. Choi may have had a child in the past from whom she has become estranged and is otherwise all alone. Older than Jung-in, she despairs for the quality of her life and has no one to protect or care for her, pushing her towards a dark decision. 

Both women wonder if life is worth living if it means living like this, but have very different options open to them given their economic disparity. Having learned to feel pain, Ho-joong begs to be freed of it, positions now reversed as Sister Sabina becomes her caregiver. She accuses the nun of hypocrisy, that she allows her suffer by refusing to end her pain in order to preserve her own conscience in insisting to do so would be a “sin”. “What do I go through this pain for!” Ho-joong cries as if throwing herself into a fiery pit of existential torment while a cold authority insists she must continue to suffer. Min makes a powerful if perhaps controversial argument for the right to end one’s own suffering at a time of one’s own choosing if also leaning uncomfortably into the burdens of care as Mrs Choi and Jung-in too struggle with themselves while trying to do what’s best for those they love, but ultimately discovers a kind of serenity as his robot nurse encounters the spiritual and with it a release form the pain of living. 


The Prayer streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It will also screen in London on 22nd October as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival.

The Book of Fish (자산어보, Lee Joon-ik, 2021)

An “evil learning sinner” and a young man fixated on Neo-Buddhist thought develop an unlikely friendship while compiling an encyclopaedia about sea life in Lee Joon-ik’s contemplative period drama, The Book of Fish (자산어보, Jasaneobo). Like those of Hur Jin-ho’s Forbidden Dream, the hero of Lee’s historical tale of competing ideologies dreams of a classless future but is exiled from mainstream society not for his revolutionary rejection of a Confucianist hierarchal society but for his embrace of Western learning and religion. 

Like his two brothers, Chung Yak-jeon (Sol Kyung-gu) reluctantly joins the imperial court but later falls foul of intrigue when the progressive king falls only to be replaced by his underage son controlled by the more conservative dowager empress. Having converted to Christianity, Yak-jeon and his brothers are faced with execution but unexpectedly reprieved when the oldest agrees to renounce Catholicism and root out other secret Christians. Yak-jeon is then exiled to a remote island while his better known brother, the poet Yak-yong (Ryu Seung-ryong), is sent to the mountains. On his arrival, the local governor introduces Yak-jeon as a “traitor” and instructs the islanders not to be too friendly with him but island people do not have it in them to be unjustly unkind and so Yak-jeon is, if warily, welcomed into their community. “He maybe be a traitor, but he’s still a guest” his new landlady (Lee Jung-eun) explains as she prepares him some of the local seafood. 

Yet Yak-jeon encounters resistance from an unexpected source, intellectual fisherman Chang-dae (Byun Yo-han) who goes to great lengths to acquire scholarly books despite his otherwise low level of education. Somewhat patronisingly, Yak-jeong offers to tutor him, but Chang-dae is a rigid thinker who believes the world is going to hell because people have forgotten their Confucian ideals so he’s no desire to be taught by a treacherous “evil learner” or be sucked in to his dangerous Catholicism. Surprisingly, however, for a man who risked death rather than renounce his religion, Yak-jeong is no fanatic and in fact does not appear to practice Christianity at any point while living on the island. What he professes is that Eastern and Western thought need not be enemies but can go hand in hand while a rigid adherence to any particular doctrine is what constitutes danger. 

Chang-dae had insisted that he studied “to become a better human” but he also has a large class chip on his shoulder as the illegitimate son of a nobleman who refuses to acknowledge him, fully aware that as a “lowborn” man he is not allowed to take the civil service exam and in any case would not have the money to buy his way in to the court. Despite later professing egalitarianism, Yak-jeong treats the islanders, and particular Chang-dae, with a degree of superiority extremely irritated by Chang-dae’s refusal to become his pupil in the slight of his elite status often making reference to his “low birth”. Confessing his desire for a classless society with no emperor, however, Yak-jeong encounters unexpected resistance as the young man finds it impossible to envisage a world free of social hierarchy based on rights of birth and swings back towards desiring the approval of his elite father in the determination to climb the ladder rather than pull it down. 

Chang-dae finds himself caught between two fathers who embody two differing ways of being, Yak-jeong advising him to think for himself rather than blindly follow Confucianist thought, while his father encourages him to towards the court and the infinite corruptions of the feudal order. Chang-dae does begin to interrogate some of the more persistently problematic elements of Confucian teaching including its views on women and entrenched social hierarchy but also feels insecure and desperately desires conventional success and entrance into a world he thinks unfairly denied to him. Once there, however, he discovers he cannot submit himself to duplicities of feudalism. The islanders are being taxed to into oblivion, not only is there a random counter-intuitive tax on pine trees but the government is also extracting taxes from the family members of the deceased as well as newborn babies while cutting sand into the rice rations it promises in return. His father and superiors laugh at him for his squeamishness, seeing nothing at all wrong in the right of the elite to exploit the poor. Trying to blow a whistle, Chang-dae is reminded that the courtly system is an extension of the monarchy, and so criticising a lord is the same as criticising the king which is to say an act of treason. 

Having been accused of treason himself, Yak-jeong declines to enact his revolutionary ideas penning only a couple of books during his time in exile in contrast to his brother who published many treatises on effective government. Yak-jeong explains he dare not risk writing his real views which is why he’s immersed himself in the beauty of the natural world, exercising his curiosity writing about fish while making use of Chang-dae’s vast knowledge of the sea. The two men develop a loose paternal bond but are later separated by conflicting desires, Chang-dae eventually choosing conventional success over personal integrity only to regret his decision on being confronted with the duplicities of the feudal order. Shot in a crisp black and white save for two brief flashes of colour and inspired by traditional ink painting, Lee’s contemplative drama finds itself at a fracture point of enlightenment as two men debate the relative limits of knowledge along with the most effective way to resist a cruel and oppressive social order but eventually discover only wilful self exile as Chang-dae learns to re-embrace his roots as an islander along with the openminded simplicity of Yak-jeong’s doctrine of catholicity in learning. 


The Book of Fish screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

Breakout Brothers (逃獄兄弟, Mak Ho-Pong, 2020)

“I’m treating this as a vacation” says affable triad Chan (Louis Cheung Kai-Chung) of his three month prison term, after all it’s rent free and three meals a day who could say no to that in the difficult economic environment of pre-handover Hong Kong? Nevertheless, it’s hardly a vacation if you can’t cut it short and Chan, along with two buddies, will eventually find reasons to want to leave. Mak Ho-pong’s genial prison break comedy Breakout Brothers (逃獄兄弟) takes occasional subversive potshots against an increasingly corrupt social order but eventually discovers that you can’t escape social responsibility while the real reward is indeed the friends you make along the way. 

That is at least the conclusion that newbie prisoner Mak (Adam Pak Tin-Nam) comes to after being pulled into an escape plan formulated by petty gangster Chan who decides to make a break for it after learning that his dear mother has been taken ill and needs a kidney transplant which only he can give her. Thinking of his prison time as a vacation from the pressures of everyday life, Chan has been a low maintenance prisoner and therefore assumed the warden would agree to a temporary release to let him help his mum, but Warden Tang (Kenny Wong Tak-Ban) who has already served a “life sentence” of 30 years in post has recently been promised a promotion and doesn’t want anything to mess it up like a prisoner turning fugitive while on hospital leave. Spotting a workman disappearing from a storeroom and emerging Mario-style from a manhole on the other side of the fence Chan gets an idea and enlists Mak, an architect inside after being framed for taking bribes, to help him figure out the logistics, and Big Roller (Patrick Tam Yiu-Man), leader of the prison’s second biggest gang, for access and protection. 

The guys’ predicaments are perhaps embodiments of the age, Chan wanting out for reasons of filial piety while for Big Roller it’s in a sense the reverse in learning the daughter he was told had died is in fact alive and about to be married. Mak meanwhile wants out because he’s a sitting duck inside, the shady construction CEO who framed him for singing off on lax safety procedures which led to a fire in a prominent building having enlisted the services of rival gangster Scar (Justin Cheung Kin-Seng) to intimidate him into dropping his appeal. Hints of institutional corruption extend to the colonial prison system with guards quite clearly intimidated by prisoners and often turning a blind eye to cellblock violence while it’s also implied that Warden Tang has in a sense facilitated the rise of Scar at the expense of Big Roller as a means of maintaining order. He, like the colonial authorities, will soon be on his way but anticipating his own freedom is keen there be no trouble which is why he refuses Chan’s compassionate leave and extends little sympathy to new boy Mak. 

In any case, the real draw is the bumbling crime caper of the guys planning a heist-style escape which is, in the history of prison escapes, not an especially elaborate one. The prison is not exactly max security, and as they plan to escape during the celebrations for the Mid-August festival none of them are anticipating much difficulty in making it to the outside though as expected not quite everything goes to plan. Mak, meanwhile, eventually takes Big Roller’s advice and decides to stay inside to clear his name properly while the gang ensure his safety rather than try to live as a guilty fugitive and possibly be caught only to end up with more time. The other two have more pressing temporary goals and have not perhaps considered what to do after they’ve completed them, believing only that their lives are untenable if they cannot fulfil their duties as father and son respectively. 

Perhaps for this reason, the Mainland-friendly conclusion has each of the men recommitting themselves to paying their debts to society, Chan even insisting that he’s going to use his time wisely to improve his education in order to be a better husband and son while Big Roller promises to become a carpenter for real. Mak gets a partial vindication in that the shady CEO is finally forced to face justice while also realising that his slightly elitist, individualist stance has been mistaken thanks to the warm and genuine relationships he’s discovered inside. More comedy crime caper than tense prison break thriller, Breakout Brothers remains true to its name in prioritising the unconventional friendship that develops between the trio as they bond in a shared sense of existential rather than literal imprisonment. 


Breakout Brothers screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Sinkhole (싱크홀, Kim Ji-hoon, 2021)

Financial security is built on shaky ground in Kim Ji-hoon’s harrowing disaster dramedy Sinkhole (싱크홀) in which one man’s home-owning triumph quite literally crumbles beneath his feet. The latest in a recent series of movies lamenting the sometimes lax safety culture of the Korean construction industry, Sinkhole is also a crushing indictment of a society ruled by house prices in which social status is largely defined by the owning of property while the young in particular struggle to climb out of a deep well of societal despair. 

As the film opens, the Park family is about to move in to their new flat, the first they’ve ever owned albeit with a frighteningly large mortgage, in the middle of a seasonal downpour. Only when they arrive, they discover the movers haven’t even started unloading because their apparently irresponsible neighbour Man-su (Cha Seung-won) has inconsiderately parked his car in front of the entrance and isn’t answering his phone. Patriarch Dong-won (Kim Sung-kyun) ends up in an awkward confrontation with the abrasive apartment dweller which is inconvenient because Man-su apparently works in just about every business in the area which means he continues to run into him just about everywhere he goes. 

Anyway, that’s the the least of his problems because, having made this giant investment, Dong-won can’t help thinking there’s something wrong with his new dream home especially when his adorably polite young son Su-chan points out that his marbles roll across the floor of their own accord. Worried they may have a subsidence problem, Dong-won checks his windows open properly and records evidence of ominous cracks in the pavement outside but struggles to get the other residents to agree to maintenance checks in fear that not getting the answer they want will bring down the value of their property. 

Property prices are apparently everything. Homeownership is an unobtainable dream for many, yet Dong-won already feels insecure in his purchase especially as his colleagues seem relatively unimpressed by the fact his flat is in a recently gentrified area and comparatively modest. Bamboozled into hosting a housewarming, he’s mildly embarrassed to realise the view from his balcony is of nicer, much more expensive luxury flats just across the river which are likely to remain far out of his reach. Nevertheless, his colleague, Seung-hyun (Lee Kwang-soo) declares himself jealous in part because he’s still renting a studio flat and feels that dating let alone marriage is impossible without being in a position to get a multi-room apartment. His colleague Eun-ju (Kim Hye-jun) is in the same predicament but prefers to see it as simply being at a certain stage on the ladder.  

This dream of future security is however quite literally built on shaky ground. There are definitely problems with Dong-won’s new apartment which become increasingly severe from the tilting floors to cracked glass and interruptions with the water supply presumably caused by cost-cutting and shoddy construction practices. When the building collapses into a sinkhole, Dong-won is trapped inside with work colleagues Seung-hyun and Eun-ju along with Man-su and his teenage son Seung-tae (Nam Da-reum). Despite the inherent horror of the situation, Kim keeps the atmosphere light as the small band of survivors attempts to manage as best they can, finding an awkward solidarity while trying to attract the attention of the emergency services and eventually making a daring escape using whatever tools are available to them. 

Even so, as much as the small band of almost strangers bond thanks to their desperate circumstances, there is an uncomfortable conservatism at play especially in the film’s treatment of a working class single mother and her son living in an apartment on the floor below Dong-won’s. That aside, Sinkhole offers a fierce criticism of an increasingly consumerist society in which house prices are all anyone talks about and homeownership is the only badge of social success. 11 years of patient sacrifice is swallowed in an instant, sucked into an abyss of corporate malfeasance, while Dong-won is left to climb out of the hole he’s in on his own. It’s small wonder that some of the survivors decide to drop out of the system altogether, ditching the idea of rooted homeownership for nomadic freedom in buying a small caravan rather than participate in the property market or climb the corporate ladder. “Don’t be happy in 10 years, be happy today!” they enthusiastically chant. The entire society is, it seems, sitting on a sinkhole which might give any minute, what’s the point in investing in a future which could disappear from beneath your feet without reason or warning? 


Sinkhole screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Samjin Company English Class (삼진그룹 영어토익반, Lee Jong-pil, 2020)

“The year of 1995 will mark the first year of our globalisation” according to the opening stock footage in Lee Jong-pil’s tale of tempered feminism and corporate anxiety, Samjin Company English Class (삼진그룹 영어토익반, Samjingeurup Yeongeotoikban). Partly a nostalgia fest for a mid-90s sense of aspiration which would come to a crashing halt with the financial crisis just two years later, Lee chronicles a society in flux as a new generation of women find themselves kicking back against the ingrained patriarchal attitudes of a conservative society while at the same time experiencing a gradual sense of disillusionment with growing internationalism that ironically sends them straight back into the arms of the chaebol. 

Set concretely in 1995, Lee frames his Working Girl-esque drama around the lives of three office ladies each beginning to age out of their potentially dead end jobs. An evolution of the secretarial pool, office ladies are treated more or less as domestic staff in the corporate environment often assisting the, largely but not exclusively, male workers with admin tasks such as teaching them how to use the fax machine or operate IT software while otherwise expected to perform traditionally feminine roles keeping the office clean and tidy or fetching drinks and cigarettes for their bosses. As such they are largely invisible, the men often talking indiscreetly in front of them because they don’t really matter. No one takes an office lady seriously even while they are perceived as essential, if interchangeable, in the functioning of the office. 

All very capable women, Ja-young (Go Ah-sung), Yuna (Esom), and Bo-ram (Park Hye-su) are looked down on by the few female members of the regular salaried staff because, largely for socio-economic reasons, they have no university degrees. Still, beginning to age out of office lady life they are faced with a conventional choice of finding a husband or attempting to gain a promotion into the ranks of permanent workers. It’s for this reason that they begin taking the company’s English classes, hoping a high TOEIC score will as they’ve been promised smooth the path towards employment. Women coming of age in a newly democratised Korea with its eyes on the rest of the world, they want more out of life than perhaps the previous generation would have done though Ja-young in particular is noticeably ahead of her time wanting not just career success but personal fulfilment. She was glad to work for Samjin because she thought they made products that enriched people’s lives and thinks her work should have a value to society aside from providing personal material comfort. 

That’s one reason she’s determined to do something when she discovers a Samjin factory has been spewing industrial waste into the waters surrounding a small rural village. As office ladies, the three women occupy a liminal space within the company that in a sense makes it easier for them to investigate but gives them little power to affect real change. Conflicted, Ja-young witnesses the company reach a settlement with the villagers assuring them the leak has been small, will have no lasting affect on their health or livelihood, and has been dealt with effectively. Her niggling doubts lead her uncover the cover up, but in this version of the story the enemy turns out not to be large corporations or chaebol greed but duplicitous foreigners taking advantage of the situation to facilitate their own goals of dominating Korean business, in this case by engineering a merger with a Japanese company brokered by an improbably handsome Korean-American corporate mole (David Lee McInnis). 

In fact, the solution that is found in one sense empowers the ranks of the office lady as Ja-young marshals the resentment of her cohorts towards challenging the corrupt status quo, but also makes an awkward defence of chaebol culture as the point of resistance lies in forcing the elderly chairman to reassume personal responsibility over his company. “Yankee go home!” he unsubtly exclaims before discovering that he no longer has much control because he runs a “corporation” in which the shareholder is king. The fact that the industrial pollution is entirely the fault of the chairman’s feckless son promoted above his abilities for dynastic reasons is quietly forgotten as if he were merely a bad apple later forced to face justice for his corporate misconduct while the system largely remains unchanged. Meanwhile, the parallel progress of the three Tess McGill’s eventually hints at a sea change in work culture that allows them to smash the unfair barriers to corporate success but in reality only grants them an unequal access to a patriarchal social order which otherwise remains the same as it ever was. 

Of course, the male members of staff are also in themselves constrained by this oppressive working culture, portrayed largely as spineless corporate drones blindly following orders for the sake of their careers only later given courage to do the right thing by the office ladies’ rebellion. Nevertheless, there is something pleasantly aspirational in the idealistic determination of Ja-young and her friends to succeed on their own terms even if their progress is ultimately undercut by a thinly veiled nationalism that repositions chaebol culture as force for good while forcing the women back into complicity with an inherently oppressive, patriarchal society defined by corporate success. 


Samjin Company English Class screened & streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

I Don’t Fire Myself (나는 나를 해고하지 않는다, Lee Tae-gyeom, 2020)

“All we asked for is not to die” a disgruntled employee reasonably explains, finally finding her voice on being confronted with the consequences of her complicity. Lee Tae-gyeom’s impassioned workplace drama I Don’t Fire Myself (나는 나를 해고하지 않는다, Naneun Nareul Haegohaji Anneunda) is the story of one woman’s path towards reclaiming agency over her life, but it’s also a subtle condemnation of rampant capitalism and the various ways entrenched social mores can set the oppressed against each other, hiding from the very ways they are each victims of the same social order. 

30-ish Jeong-eun (Yoo Da-in) is a talented employee working at an electrical company but her capability only makes her a threat to her male bosses. Insisting that “it’s not about whether a woman can do the job”, her superior forces her to accept a one-year transfer to a rural electrical engineering subcontractor promising that if she works out the contract she can come back to HQ. Resolving to make the best of a bad situation Jeong-eun soon realises her new boss is not keen to have her. Her presence is an obvious inconvenience to the other three male employees who must now put a curtain up so they can change into their work clothes while resenting the unexpected intrusion into their working life. What soon becomes clear to Jeong-eun is that her new assignment is in reality just an elaborate form of “banishment room”-style constructive dismissal. Her old boss is trying to make her working life so miserable that she’ll quit on all her own. 

Only, as a friend of Jeong-eun’s points out, neither of them can afford to quit because it’s so unlikely they’ll be able to find alternative employment. Jeong-eun was good at her job, but as a woman she has very little chance of career advancement and had to work twice as hard as the men just to be employed. Perhaps for these reasons, she refuses to quit resolving to stick out the year in the sticks to see what happens, but her new manager refuses to give her any work and is himself pressured by the higher ups to either push Jeong-eun towards resignation or engineer a reason to fire her. Her male colleagues only come to resent her more when it’s revealed that the substation is expected to cover her salary out of their budget which is also being reduced meaning someone will likely be out of a job. Hoping to win their trust and respect, she studies electrical engineering manuals in her off hours and offers to accompany them into the field but is quickly undone by anxiety as she looks up at the tall towers of the electricity pylons unsure how she could ever scale them. 

There is something of a potent metaphor in Jeong-eun’s attempts to climb these infinite structures while the men around her laugh and try to pull her down. Latterly sympathetic colleague Seo (Oh Jung-se) snaps at her that for men like him getting fired is worse than dying and the reason she can’t climb is that for her it never will be. But Seo has in a sense miscalculated. Jeong-eun may be educated and middle class, but as she claps back to her getting fired and dying are synonyms. They are each victims of the same system, but blind to the ways they are similarly misused. Jeong-eun knows only too well the costs of getting fired, her grief over a close friend who took her own life after being forced out of her job possibly contributing to her self-destructive drinking problem. Seo meanwhile is constantly being reprimanded for falling asleep on the job, largely because he also works a series of part-time gigs to make ends meet such as manning the till in a convenience store and working as an Uber driver. As Jeong-eun discovers this dangerous, highly skilled work which is essential both for public safety and economic support pays almost nothing while the workers are also expected to provide their own protective safety gear including electric resistant overalls which run to $1000. 

The inspectors sent to undermine Jeong-eun and pressure the manager harp on about how the company has already been privatised and can no longer afford “inefficiency” while continuing to exploit their employees and ride rough shod over both employment law and people’s basic rights. Jeong-eun has three months to decide if she wants to try suing them for constructive dismissal but is warned that if she does the company will retaliate and even if she wins the quality of her working life may not improve. Yet if everyone goes on thinking only of themselves the company will continue to get away with their nefarious practices 

Pushed to breaking point, Jeong-eun’s epiphany comes only after a colleague is killed after being asked to fix a transmission tower in unsafe conditions while her slimy boss shows up to pressure his young daughter who can’t be more than 10 to sign away her right to proper compensation. She realises that she’s been “fired” by everyone in her life from her parents to her company, but has also been wilfully complicit in her reluctance to rock the boat believing that if you work hard and follow the rules you’ll eventually succeed even while intellectually knowing that that way of thinking is merely another tool used by the powerful to maintain their grip on power. She realises that she doesn’t need to fire herself too, seizing her own agency to mount a resistance towards the amoral venality of her ultra capitalist bosses by refusing to play by their rules anymore. A subtle yet pointed attack on the radiating effects of Korea’s notoriously poor labour law, I Don’t Fire Myself allows its educated middle-class heroine to find unexpected solidarity with a working-class labourer while ending on a note of positivity as Jeong-eun finds the courage to climb alone in the hope of bringing the light to others much like herself. 


I Don’t Fire Myself streams in the US Aug. 18 to 23 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original teaser trailer (English subtitles)

Snowball (최선의 삶, Lee Woo-jung, 2020)

Three teenage girls seeking escape from an unsatisfying adolescence find only betrayal and disappointment in Lee Woo-jung’s sensitive adaptation of the novel by Lim Solah, Snowball (최선의 삶, Choisunui Sarm). Each oppressed by a resolutely patriarchal society, the three women nevertheless differ in the their respective traumas and resentments finding solidarity in the strength of their friendship only to witness it crumble when its barriers must necessarily be confronted. “Why did you do this to me?” Kang-yi (Bang Min-ah) eventually asks, only to receive no answer and realise that in the end they did to and for themselves. 

Though perhaps feeling a sense of familial rejection in the otherwise peaceful home she shares with her overly religious Buddhist mother, emotionally reserved father, and a little dog also yearning for love, Kang-yi is ostensibly the least burdened of her friends if facing a similar sense of detachment. Aloof golden child So-young (Han Sung-min) is clever and pretty, everything seems to go right for her as Kang-yi enviously explains, except for her dream to become a model and actress which her family apparently don’t support. Ah-ram (Shim Dal-gi), by contrast, is quirky and rebellious with a tendency to collect stray animals and other items from the street little caring who they may or may not belong to but is also trapped in abusive home with an authoritarian father. When So-young one days suggests running away together the other girls agree, but after the novelty wears off and they begin to run out of money the realities of a forced adulthood are suddenly brought home to them. 

The depths of their naivety are perhaps signalled in an early and misguided attempt to misuse a potentially predatory middle-aged man who offers them money for food, allows them to stay in his apartment, and suggests an improbably low stress job they might be able to do for him. As she’s want to do, Ah-ram runs off with his wallet only to begin feeling sorry him seeing as there’s so little in it and he is so clearly lonely even if So-young proclaims him a creep. Picking up a mattress in the street the girls end up sleeping in a stairwell, only for Kang-yi and So-young to return and find Ah-ram apparently beaten and raped by a man she later willingly returns to, talking as if such brutal treatment is a normal part of any relationship. “Children, when you’re in love you sometimes get into fights” she depressingly explains, later implying that her violent boyfriend has become her pimp as she slides into sex work in an effort to provide economic support to all three of them. 

So brutalised is she, that Ah-ram thinks nothing of the abuse she continues to suffer while So-young solipsistically wallows in a sense of defeat and despair. It’s at this point she whips out a credit card she’s apparently been carrying all along, her choice not to use it seemingly less about the possibility of its being traced than a stubborn desire to insist she is as underprivileged as her two friends. As we later discover, Kang-yi lied about her address to get into the school and in fact lives in a run-down semi-rural area some distance away, secretly regarded as even more of a hick provincial by the upwardly mobile So-young. Nevertheless, it’s not class differences which eventually shatter their friendship but repressed sexuality. One extremely hot evening, So-young and Kang-yi share a moment of physical intimacy but while it only seems to bind Kang-yi more closely to her friend, So-young is unable to cope with the taboo realisation of her desires and becomes increasingly irritable, distancing herself from both of the other girls before abruptly deciding to call the experiment in independence short and return to her parental home. 

All Kang-yi wants is a return to their former friendship, but So-young’s repression eventually turns violent. Rejecting Kang-yi and Ah-ram she becomes a part of the popular set and embarks on a campaign of bullying that leaves Kang-yi both physically bruised and emotionally wounded. Yet she is also in her own way repressed, unable to accept her parents’ love for her and often ignoring the plaintive cries of the family dog longing to be picked up and held. Neither she nor Ah-ram are able to conceive of a future for themselves, Kang-yi’s sense of rejection eventually pushing her towards a self-destructive act of violence that will further rob her of possibility and the potential for happiness. Captured with a restless, roving energy imbued with with the colours of twilight, Lee’s melancholy indie drama suggests that not even friendship can provide a refuge from the pressures of the modern society and its relentlessly oppressive social codes in which internalised shame can quickly snowball into an avalanche of violence.


Snowball screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Festival trailer (no subtitles)

A Leg (腿, Chang Yao-sheng, 2020)

“Life is long. We all have some regrets.” a grieving widow is told by a disingenuous doctor in full damage limitation mode. He’s not necessarily wrong, nor is his advice that the widow’s pointless quest to retrieve her late husband’s amputated limb has little practical value though of course it means something to her and as he’d pointed out seconds earlier a physician’s duty is to alleviate suffering of all kinds. Apparently inspired by the true story of director Chang Yao-sheng’s mother, A Leg (腿, Tuǐ) is in many ways a story of letting go as the deceased man himself makes a presumably unheard ghostly confession while his wife attempts to do the only thing she can in order to lay him to rest. 

Husband Zi-han (Tony Yang) is in hospital to deal with a painful, seemingly necrotic foot which eventually has to be amputated in a last ditch attempt to cure his septicaemia. “Keep the leg and lose your life, or keep your life and lose the leg” the otherwise unsympathetic doctor advices wife Yu-ying (Gwei Lun-mei) in a remark which will come to seem ironic as, unfortunately, Zi-han’s case turns out to be more serious than first thought and he doesn’t make it through the night. Grief-stricken, Yu-ying leaves in an ambulance with the body but later turns back, determined to retrieve the amputated foot in order that her husband be buried “complete” only it turns out that it’s not as simple as she assumed it would be. 

The loss of Zi-han’s foot is all the more ironic as the couple had been a pair of ballroom dancers. As Yu-ying makes a nuisance of herself at the hospital, Zi-han begins to narrate the story of their romance which began when he fell in love with a photo of her dancing in the window of his friend’s photography studio. Explaining that, having died, he’s reached the realisation that everything beautiful is in the past only he was too foolish to appreciate it, Zi-han looks back over his tragic love story acknowledging that he was at best an imperfect husband who caused his wife nothing but pain and disappointment until the marriage finally broke down. He offers no real explanation for his self-destructive behaviour save the unrealistic justification that he only wanted Yu-ying to live comfortably and perhaps implies that his death is partly a means of freeing her from the series of catastrophes he brought into her life. 

Given Zi-han’s beyond the grave testimony, the accusation levelled at Yu-ying by his doctor that the couple could not have been on good terms because Zi-han must have been ill for a long time with no one to look after him seems unfair though perhaps hints at the guilt Yu-ying feels in not having been there for her husband when he needed her. As we later discover, however, this is also partly Zi-han’s fault in that he over invested in a single piece of medical advice and resisted getting checked out by a hospital until he managed to sort out an insurance scam using his photographer friend, wrongly as it turned out believing he had a few months slack before the situation became critical and paying a high price for his tendency to do everything on the cheap. Nevertheless, Yu-ying’s quest to reattach his leg is her way of making amends, doing this one last thing for the husband whom she loved deeply even though he appears to have caused her nothing but misery since the day they met. 

In order to placate her, the slimy hospital chief offers to have a buddhist sculptor carve a wooden replica of Zi-han’s leg made from wood destined for a statue of Guan-yin goddess of mercy but Yu-ying eventually turns it down, struck by the beauty of the object but convinced that turning it to ash along with her husband’s body would be wrong while believing that wood ash and bone ash are fundamentally different. She regrets having ticked the box on the consent form stating she didn’t want to keep the “specimen”, never for one moment assuming that her husband would not recover. Despite their dancing dreams, she thought the leg was worth sacrificing against the long years they would have spent together after, though this too seems a little unlikely considering the state of their relationship prior to her discovery of Zi-han’s precarious health. Zi-han meanwhile is filled with regret for his continually awful behaviour and the obvious pain he caused his wife. Getting his leg back allows him to begin “moving on” while doing something much the same for Yu-ying though his afterlife pledge about the endurance of love seems a little trite given how he behaved while alive. A little more maudlin than your average quirky rom-com, A Leg nevertheless takes a few potshots at a sometimes cold, cynical, and inefficient medical system, inserting a plea for a little more empathy from a pair of unexpectedly sympathetic police officers, while insisting that it’s important to dance through life with feeling for as long as you’re allowed. 


A Leg screens Aug. 14  & streams in the US Aug. 15 – 20 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

A Balance (由宇子の天秤, Yujiro Harumoto, 2020)

“What’s moral isn’t always what’s best” according to the morally compromised heroine at the centre of Yujiro Harumoto’s A Balance (由宇子の天秤, Yuko no Tenbin). To Yuko (Kumi Takiuchi), a balance is what a documentarian should strike, not taking one side or another but shining a light on hidden truths. The irony is that in seeking to expose one truth she accidentally stumbles on another uncomfortably close to home and although her job is to highlight injustice finds herself making the decision to do the opposite concluding that in this case, and perhaps many others, keeping quiet may actually be what’s best for victims, victimisers, and everyone in-between. 

As the film opens, Yuko is shooting a potentially manipulative interview with the grieving father of a young woman, Hiromi, who took her own life after becoming the subject of scandal and rumour when it was revealed she may have been involved in an inappropriate “relationship” with a teacher. The teacher, Mr. Yano, eventually took his own life too leaving behind him a note proclaiming his innocence and explaining that death is the manner he has chosen for his resistance. Yuko is sympathetic to Mr. Hasebe (Yuya Matsuura), but also perhaps verging on the unethical in the depth of the questions she asks him of his daughter’s death. Soon enough a conflict emerges between the nature of the documentary Yuko would like to make which is more contemplative than polemical, and the “routine piece on bullying” the TV studio think they’ve commissioned. Consequently, we see the suits redacting problematic lines in Yuko’s scripts in editorial meetings, misrepresenting Mr. Hasebe’s words in removing his criticism of mass media which he blames for hounding Mr. Yano to his death and thereby depriving him of answers. 

Yuko remains determined to provide “a balance” in interviewing Yano’s surviving family members including his mother Toshiko (Mitsuko Oka) and sister Shiho (Misa Wada), but discovers them tyrannised by the treatment they’ve received at the hands of the media and a vindictive society. Toshiko near collapses towards the end of the interview when asked if there was anything the family could have done to prevent this tragedy happening, inviting Yuko to visit her at home whereupon she discovers her living in near total darkness, afraid to go out lest she be recognised and explaining that she has few possessions in case she has to move again in a hurry because someone has exposed her address online. This little old lady is living in terror because of something her son was accused of which later caused him to take his own life and even that did not end the torment for his family. 

Meanwhile, in an ironic touch, Yuko discovers that a young woman, Mei (Yumi Kawai), attending the cram school owned by her father where she also teaches part-time has become pregnant and claims her father, Mr. Kinoshita (Ken Mitsuishi), is responsible having accepted sex in lieu of her overdue fees. Yuko does not want to disbelieve her and confronts her father, holding up her iPhone as a record, who admits that what Mei has said is true. Yuko tells herself she’s doing what’s best for Mei, bonding with her as two women who lost their mothers young (as did Hiromi), understanding that she may not want to go to the authorities because of the lingering stigma of being involved such a scandal. But she also can’t deny that her actions are self-interested in that she doesn’t want her doc pulled or her career messed up by her father’s transgression, something which gets harder to ignore when she discovers Mei’s pregnancy may be high risk and requires immediate medical treatment from a proper hospital to ensure her safety. 

The lines become ever more blurred, Yuko developing a quasi-maternal relationship with the motherless Mei which is in its way perfectly genuine even as she pays their overdue gas bill and worries about her potentially abusive father (Masahiro Umeda), but is nevertheless coloured by her desire both to cover up this harmful secret and to atone for her father’s wrongdoing. For his part, Mr. Kinoshita wants to confess but as Yuko points out he’d be doing it to unburden himself which in effect would merely shift the burden onto others including Mei but also Yuko herself, her documentary team, the other students at the cram school, and in effect everyone else they’ve ever known. 

Yet can Yuko be an effective arbiter of the truth especially when, as it turns out, neither she nor anyone else is being entirely honest? Her job is to present information in such a way that conclusions can be drawn, but she is herself making decisions in selecting the information she presents and the manner in which she presents it. She may resent the interference of the studio, but in reality they aren’t doing anything she hasn’t already done even if they are acting less out of a sense of integrity than commercial concern. “Whatever we put together is the truth” as her exasperated producer (Yota Kawase) finally insists. It’s in this same conflict that she begins to lose her sense of balance, trying to help those victimised by an unforgiving society while attempting to protect herself from unwelcome consequences of social scandal aided and abetted by the industry in which she herself works. “Ask them who is the real victimiser” Toshiko asks of Yuko taking aim at the mass media who have shamed her into a life of total darkness, but all Yuko can in the end do is turn her camera back on herself in contemplation of her shattered integrity.  


A Balance screens Aug. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)