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)

Forever the Moment (우리 생애 최고의 순간, Yim Soon-rye, 2008)

forever the moment posterSports is one of society’s acceptable obsessions. Devotion to a football team, intense knowledge of baseball stats, and idolatry of athletes is not only respected, it is often required for any kind cultural fluency in the society in which one lives. Sportsmen and women, however, can become a disposable commodity. This is after all why the pay for sports stars is so high – the career is temporary. A brief moment in the spotlight can earn a top athlete a multitude of promotional contracts and role model status to hundreds of sporty kids, but when the music stops everyone loses interest. The heroes of Yim Soon-rye’s Forever the Moment (우리 생애 최고의 순간, Woori Saengae Chwegoui Soongan) achieved their 15 seconds of fame when the Korean women’s handball team won a couple of gold medals in the ‘90s before the sport returned to relative obscurity. Despite being gold medal winners, the women are in a precarious position, left without professional team contracts and lacking the necessary qualifications and experience to find well paid work outside of the sports world.

Yim frames her story around the 2004 Olympic Games in which the Korean women’s handball team came back from a disastrous slump to reach the final only to go home with silver after a penalty shootout defeat to Denmark. Mi-sook (Moon So-ri) was part of the gold medal winning 1992 team and is now a wife and mother. Her financial circumstances, however, are strained. When the supermarket handball team she’s been playing for is disbanded, Mi-sook counts herself lucky to get a job on the shop floor. Her husband (Sung Ji-ru), formerly a top male handball player, has been conned out of all his money by an unscrupulous business partner and is currently on the run from debt collectors leaving her a virtual single parent and desperate for money.

Money is the reason she eventually decides to come back to the Korean Women’s Olympic handball team. Mi-sook’s one time rival, Hye-kyeong (Kim Jung-eun), has been parachuted in to coach the Korean Olympic hopefuls after a successful run coaching in Japan. The team is in a sorry state – filled with inexperienced youngsters, it will need serious work to even qualify for the upcoming games let alone reach the podium. Hye-kyeong decides to get some of her old medal winning team-mates back to bring some strength to the ranks even if they’re all a little past their prime. Despite her best efforts, Hye-kyeong is soon sidelined for male coach (and old flame) Ahn Pil-seung (Uhm Tae-woong) who decides to junk the “Korean method” which uses speed as a weapon against the taller European challengers, and embark on a “science-based” European training regimen.

Yim deliberately moves away from the classic sports movie formula, eschewing the training montage and including only one lengthy match at the film’s climax. Forever the Moment prefers to concentrate on the internal struggles of its scrappy, underdog team the best hopes of which are middle-aged women with children whom society often writes off. Hye-kyeong is an earnest, driven woman who’s made a successful life for herself as a sports professional after her court life has come to a natural end, but she still loses out because she got divorced – the bigwigs are nervous about the proposition of a “divorced” woman occupying a “public” position, something that would hardly come up if she were a man. Made “acting coach”, Hye-kyeong is given hardly any time at all to prove herself before the experiment of “allowing” a woman to coach women is ruled unsuccessful and a man with little experience given full budgetary backing to replace her.

Hye-kyeong’s battles with Ahn may eventually take on the expected romantic dimension but it’s the relationships between the other players which become the film’s spine. Mi-sook has always made a point of distancing herself from handball, regarding it simply as a paycheck rather than a vocation – something which seems all the more relevant thanks to her ongoing troubles with her absent husband who is rapidly sinking into a breakdown over his humiliation and inability to support his wife and child. Struggling through adversity and working hard to achieve a physical goal, the teammates discover new strengths, growing as people and as athletes in their quest to be ready for the all important Athens games.

Forever the Moment is another in the long line of Korean films which celebrate the achievements Koreans can make when they come together and work hard to achieve their goal. As in real life, the Korean Women’s Olympic Handball Team are robbed of their final victory by circumstance and accident, but coming second becomes a victory in itself because of everything it took to get there. Less a sports movie than a subversive comment on the way women are often cast aside or underestimated, Forever the Moment is a tribute to the power of hard work and team spirit which becomes its own reward even when one falls short of the goal.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The President’s Barber (효자동 이발사, Lim Chan-sang, 2004)

president's barber posterWe each of us live in the midst of history being made, some of us closer to the action than others. Most of us don’t quite realise how close we are or fully understand our role in events until it’s too late, but in any case we’re all just too busy getting on with the business of living to give much thought such grand concepts as history or legacy. Song Kang-ho has made a name for himself playing genial everymen forever at the mercy of historical machinations, but before he was an apathetic Taxi Driver, he was an apathetic barber giving haircuts to a dictator he half imagined was a friend. The President’s Barber (효자동 이발사, Hyojadong Ibalsa) is part journey into the intersection between rosy childhood nostalgia and national trauma, and part subtle political satire on the moral corruptions of authoritarianism but its own soft heartedness is often at odds with the grimness of its purpose.

Sung Han-mo (like the counter for tofu) is a nice but dim sort who has his own barber’s studio right across from the Blue House. As his son (Lee Jae-eung) tells us in his cutsey voice over, Han-mo (Song Kang-ho) is easily led and content to do whatever the village leader tells him to do, including participating in the ongoing corruption surrounding the re-election of despotic president Rhee Syngman. Our narrator, the oddly named Nak-an, was born as a result of a brief indiscretion between his father and an assistant (Moon So-ri) who had, apparently, hoped to marry someone else from her home village if Han-mo hadn’t trapped her with maternity. She wanted wanted an abortion but didn’t find out until after the much publicised five month cut off, meaning Han-mo talked her into staying and little Nak-an acquired the unfortunate nickname of “five months Na-kan”.

The family live happily enough until the mid-1960s when Park Chung-hee stages a coup and declares himself “President for Life”. When Han-mo somehow manages to catch a “North Korean Spy”, he gets himself a commendation and the attention of the authorities (for good or ill). A KCIA agent dutifully turns up and hauls Han-mo off to the Blue House because the president needs a trim…

Park’s reputation underwent something of a rehabilitation for a time. He did, in the minds of those seeking to justify his tyrannical reign, preside over Korea’s economic recovery. Han-mo is one of many to prosper, in his case directly in working indirectly for the regime. Han-mo is a simple man, he doesn’t think about politics but often feels belittled and downtrodden, made a figure of fun by those close to him even whilst remaining a cheerful optimist. He doesn’t take much convincing to hitch his mule to Park’s waggon, enjoying the personal boost in his social standing and finally feeling like a someone in being introduced to the world of the elites even when he is forced to accept that he does not and cannot exist fully within it.

Han-mo cuts hair, chatting away the way a barber does without really realising either that he is a vox pop spy or that he might, at any time, say the wrong thing and land himself in serious trouble. Serious trouble arrives during a heated and extremely bizarre period of political hysteria surrounding the “Marxus” virus – a lamentable episode in which an epidemic of dysentery was blamed on North Korean spies and all those who suffered from the condition taken in for “questioning”. Only when his own family is threatened does Han-mo start to reconsider his role in the affair – his status as a peripheral member of the Blue House team is no help in protecting those close to him and he can no longer pretend he does not know what happens in those basements, and that it happens to ordinary people not just “suspicious” ones.

The low level satire derives from Han-mo’s background presence becoming foreground as a very personal spat between a couple of high ranking Blue House staffers gathers in intensity before exploding into events which will have profound, though short-lived, consequences for Korean political history. Han-mo sadly takes down his portrait of Park hanging in pride of place in his shop and replaces it with one of Chun Doo-hwan (who was bald). Still a simple man he has, at least, learned his lesson and prepares to turn down the “honour” of shaving a dictator’s chin. Korea, the film seems to unsubtly hint, is finding its feet again though there will be another long reckoning before it, like Han-mo and his family, is finally able to free itself of the militarist yoke.