A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생, Kim Jee-woon, 2005)

bitterweet life posterAs Boss Kang (Kim Young-chul) tells the hero of Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생, Dalkomhan Insaeng), no matter how well things are going, it only takes one mistake to make it all float away. Like any good film noir, the forces which conspire to ruin the quiet, orderly life of cooler than thou gangster Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) are those of desire as they come in conflict with codes of loyalty and decency. Sun-woo, like many a lonely hitman before him, finally wakes up to the emptiness of his life only to find no point of escape except the one he has often provided for others in precisely the same situation.

Smartly suited, Sun-woo is the trusted manager of the casino bar, Dolce Vita. Taken away from his elegant dessert in the upstairs restaurant, Sun-woo deals with a group of rowdy customers in true gangster fashion by launching in with a series of jump kicks and quickly thrown punches that reveal just why it is Sun-woo rules the roost. Sun-woo’s boss, Kang, has a special mission for his most trusted minion – keep an eye on his much younger girlfriend, Hee-soo (Shin Min-a), while he travels to Shanghai for three days. Kang thinks Hee-soo is having an affair. If she is, Sun-woo’s options are either to call Kang right away or take affirmative action on his own initiative.

Sun-woo investigates, but much to his surprise finds himself taken with Hee-soo. She is indeed having an affair, something which Sun-woo tries to ignore but finally has to be dealt with. A sudden pang of sympathy stops him from contacting Kang or pulling the trigger. Instead he decides to let the pair go on the condition they never see each other again. Thinking it’s all behind him, Sun-woo tries to go back to his regular job but he’s still dealing with the fallout from playing whistleblower on a high ranking gangster’s son.

Kim opens with an arty black and white sequence of tree branches swaying. In the story offered in voice over a disciple asks whether it is the trees or the wind which are moving, but the master replies that is is neither – it is the heart and mind which move. Like the branches, Sun-woo’s heart has begun to stir. Not love exactly, or lust, but movement. Sun-woo gazes at the way Hee-soo’s hair brushes her shoulder, at the way she walks and smiles at him. Listening to her cello rehearsal, his own emotional symphony begins, dangerously unbalancing his previously one-note existence with its identical suits and minimalist apartments.

Yet if Sun-woo’s downfall is Hee-soo and her alluring vitality, it was Kang’s first. An ageing gangster, Kang feels foolish taking up with a young girl but just can’t help himself. He loves the way Hee-soo couldn’t care less about what other people think, but that also worries him because she’ll never care what he thinks. Kang’s childishly romantic gift of a kitschy lamp with two owls huddling together on the base is the perfect symbol of his misplaced hopes – oddly innocent yet ultimately redundant. Notably, the lamp is one of many things shattered when Sun-woo takes Hee-soo’s lover to task.

Realising he has been betrayed, though not quite for the reasons he thinks, Sun-woo vows revenge. Everything has gone wrong, and he no longer believes in any kind of future which has him in it. Pausing only to send a more mature romantic gift to Hee-soo, an elegant lamp she’d admired on one of their shopping trips, he marches off towards certain death no longer caring for own life in his quest for vengeance and retribution. Repeating Kang’s questions back to him, asking for the real reason any of this happened, doesn’t get him very far but even if these two men have shared the same folly, they fail to understand each other even in death.

Returning to the master and his pupil, the closing coda recounts another story in which the pupil wakes up from a dream, weeping. The master asks him if he’s had a nightmare but the pupil says no, he’s had the sweetest of dreams. He’s crying because he’s awake and knows his dream can never come true. Sun-woo too has woken up, he knows there’s nothing for him now except to accept his fate. He has but been asleep, dreaming a sweet dream, and now he must wake and taste life’s bitterness just as he prepares to leave it.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Memoir of a Murderer (살인자의 기억법, Won Shin-yeon, 2017)

memoir of a murderer posterMemory, particularly traumatic memory, coupled with the inability to overcome painful truths through the act of forgetting, has a become an essential part of Korean cinema. The “hero” at the centre of Won Shin-yeon’s Memoir of a Murderer (살인자의 기억법, Salinjaui Gieokbeob), adapted from the novel by Kim Young-Ha, literally cannot remember his past crimes – he is suffering from dementia possibly brought on by brain damage sustained in an accident 17 years previously. The inability to remember is not the same as forgetting, and forgetting is not the same as ignoring, but there are some truths so essential that a superficial inability to recall them does not destroy their power.

Byung-su (Sol Kyung-gu) was once a serial killer. That is to say, he was the “noble” kind of serial killer who only killed “bad” people (in his own moral judgment) such as instigators of domestic violence, heartless loan sharks, or people who harm animals. These days Byung-su is a successful vet living with his grown-up daughter, Eun-hee (Seol Hyun). Having recently confirmed that he has Alzheimer’s, the doctor says possibly a result of trauma from that earlier car crash, Byung-su does not know what to do for the best seeing as he’ll have to give up work. An unexpected collision with a young man in a swanky silver car, Min Tae-ju (Kim Nam-Gil), gives Byung-su something else to think about when he notices what looks like blood dripping from the boot. Locking eyes with the man in question, Byun-su knows instantly that Tae-ju is just like him – a killer, probably the man behind a series of unsolved murders. Byung-su might have let this go as a matter of professional courtesy were it not for a few nagging doubts – did Tae-ju see in him what he saw in Tae-ju, and if he did will Eun-hee, who is a perfect match with the currently known victims in the unsolved serial killing case, be in additional danger due to her father’s accidental encounter?

Then again, did any of that actually happen? Byung-su’s rapidly deteriorating memory cannot be relied upon. Perhaps there was no crash, perhaps there was no body or the body was that of a deer, perhaps Byung-su is simply mixing up his original car crash with something more metaphorical. In an effort to help him remember where he is, Eun-hee has given her father a dictaphone so he can leave himself messages of things he might forget – when he took his medication, places he needs to go, the names of people he met but can’t remember. Unbeknownst to her, Byung-su has already engaged himself in a wider program of remembering by trying to write down his own life story, including all the grisly details of his serial killing past, in a kind of memoir on his computer. Though Byung-su struggles to remember details or ensure he has everything clearly the way it really happened, muscle memory speaks for itself and his body will never forget its murderous past. Freed from the moderating force of Byung-su’s remaining humanity, Byung-su worries what his body may do on his behalf while his mind is absent.

Byung-su positions himself as morally good, believing that his mission of killing “bad” people is a kind of service to humanity. When he begins to doubt himself, that perhaps he is both the old serial killer and the new but has “forgotten” his most recent victims, his justification starts to fall apart. Almost a father and son, Byung-su and his suspect come from different generations and grew up in very different political and social circumstances, yet both carry the scars of domestic violence. Violent fathers beget violent sons yet Byung-su, he believes, has chosen a better path in ridding the world of bullies whereas his opposing number has chosen to blame the victim in preying on the weak.

Alzheimer’s leaves Byung-su permanently vulnerable, not least to self betrayal, rendering him unable to even recognise his enemy or remember why it was he seems to suspect him. Despite the inability to remember, Byung-su retains his instinctive suspicion of Tae-ju, but is unable to evade the possibility that his misgivings are a mix of self-projection and a more natural paternal wariness. His world is in constant shift between realities founded on imperfect memory. Not until he has faced the truth in all its ugliness can he hope to reorder his existence. The act of forgetting cannot solve all one’s problems – the absence of superficial pain merely provokes a kind of numbness while the root causes remain. Byung-su cannot kill the killer in himself, and is condemned to chase his own ghost through various unrealities until it finally catches up with him. Filled with (extremely) dark humour and oddly warm naturalistic detail, Memoir of a Murderer operates on a deeper level than it first might appear, stepping away from literal truths in favour of metaphorical ones but finding little of either.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Master (마스터, Cho Ui-seok, 2016)

master posterCorruption has become a major theme in Korean cinema. Perhaps understandably given current events, but you’ll have to look hard to find anyone occupying a high level corporate, political, or judicial position who can be counted worthy of public trust in any Korean film from the democratic era. Cho Ui-seok’s Master (마스터) goes further than most in building its case higher and harder as its sleazy, heartless, conman of an antagonist casts himself onto the world stage as some kind of international megastar promising riches to the poor all the while planning to deprive them of what little they have. The forces which oppose him, cerebral cops from the financial fraud devision, may be committed to exposing his criminality but they aren’t above playing his game to do it.

“Entrepreneur” Jin Hyun-pil (Lee Byung-hun), CEO of the One Network financial organisation which is about to make an unprecedented move into investment banking, is in the middle of an energising speech to his investors. He’s booked a massive stadium with lighting and stage effects worthy of a veteran rock star and is doing his best snake oil speech to convince the ordinary people who’ve invested their life savings in his obviously dodgy pyramid scheme that he’s going to make banking great again by handing ownership back to the masses. Many are convinced by his inspirational attitude, but Captain Kim Jae-myung (Gang Dong-won) of the financial crimes division smells a rat. He knows there’s something very wrong here and is determined to bring Jin down before his exploits ruin the lives of even more innocent families just trying to make a better life for themselves.

Their way in is through Jin’s systems guy, Park (Kim Woo-bin), who’s been in on the scam from the beginning but is pretty much amoral and has been working his own angle on the whole thing. Spineless and opportunistic, Park is primed for police manipulation even if it takes him a few flip-flops before he picks any kind of side aside from his own. Kim is after Jin’s mysterious ledger which contains a host of information on his backers which would cause considerable damage to those involved and give the police the kind of leverage they need to expose Jin’s enterprise for what it really is. However, before they can spring the trap, Jin escapes with his ill gotten gains and goes into hiding leaving hundreds of innocent families who’ve fallen victim to his scams destitute, frightened, and humiliated.

Playing against type, Lee Byun-hun inhabits his sleazy, TV evangelist meets cult leader of a villainous conman with relish as he lies, cheats, steals and weasels his way out of trouble. After a potential liability is killed, Jin enjoys his crimson morning smoothie with unusual delight leaving a bright red bloodstain across his upper lip as he ironically mutters “what a shame” watching the news footage of his flunky’s death. Not content with the vast amount of money he stole by exploiting the innocent dreams of people with little else, Jin tries the same thing again abroad, taking his “wife” Mama (Jin Kyung) with him though even she seems to know Jin is not to be trusted and could turn on her at any moment. Cornered, the only words of wisdom Jin has to offer is that perhaps he made a mistake in trying to run to the Philippines, he should have tried Thailand instead.

Starring three of South Korea’s biggest actors, Lee Byun-hun, Gang Dong-won, and Kim Woo-bin, Master takes on an almost tripartite structure as the upper hand passes between the three protagonists. Systems analyst Park is mostly out for himself and switches between each side more times than can be counted before gaining something like a conscience and committing to a particular cause while Kim and Jin mastermind a cat and mouse game advancing and retreating yet stepping further into each other’s territory. The game is an ugly one. Master is a fitting and timely indictment of those who make impossible promises to vulnerable people desperate enough to take the bait in the hope of making a better life for themselves and their families, yet it also fails to capitalise on its themes, preferring to leave them as subtle background elements to the cerebral games of one-upmanship and fractured loyalties between Jin, Kim, and Park. Over long at 143 minutes, Master is unevenly paced yet picks up for its Manila set, action packed finale which is out of keeping with much of what has gone before but ends things on an entertaining, upbeat note as justice is served, wrongs righted, and the truth revealed.


Master was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Tunnel (터널, Kim Seong-hun, 2016)

TunnelIn 1925 an avid cave explorer, Floyd Collins, became trapped in a narrow crawl space. Though he was discovered and help came with food and water, a cave in left him sealed off down there and fourteen days later he died of thirst and exposure. As tragic as this obviously is, Floyd Collins is remembered for another reason – his rescue became one of the earliest mass media crazes. The surrounding media furore also inspired the 1951 Billy Wilder classic Ace in the Hole in which a grizzled reporter attempts to manipulate the fate of a man trapped in a cave for the maximum media coverage with the consequence that his delays cost the man his life. Jung-soo, a father on his way home with a birthday cake for his young daughter is about to join the marooned underground club when a shoddily built tunnel collapses sealing him inside. Unfortunately for Jung-soo, he finds that times have not changed all that much.

Jung-soo (Ha Jung-woo) was having a good day. He’d closed an important deal and has a birthday cake in the back of his car ready for his little girl when he gets home. He also ends up with two free bottles of water for not making a fuss when a hard of hearing old timer working at the petrol station gives him a full tank rather the $30’s worth he’d asked for. It all comes crashing down, literally, when he starts hearing strange noises shortly after entering a newly completed tunnel. Driving as fast as he can, Jung-soo is still trapped under falling debris and unable to escape though otherwise uninjured. Luckily, Jung-soo’s phone still works and he’s able to get enough signal to dial the emergency services but as he’ll discover, the matter of coming to his rescue may not be as straightforward as one might hope.

Just before Jung-soo heads into the tunnel which has only been open for around a month, there’s a sign testifying to happy and safe construction. It transpires that the tunnel was completed far too quickly, corners were cut, and public safety not properly respected. Corporate corruption and margin squeezing become a constant theme as more and more faults are discovered with the tunnel’s structure right down to missing manuals and incorrect blueprints. As one sardonic construction worker puts it, who follows the rules these days anyway? In light of recent tragedies, the government can no longer be trusted to assure public safety by insuring that its infrastructure, and the third party companies which run it, are fit for purpose and operating in line with public safety standards. The fact is that the construction of the sister tunnel to this one is already underway and there have also been hundreds of other recorded safety incidents in other facilities around the country. Construction means jobs, and money, and progress – who would want to let a little thing like safety stand in the way?

If money grabbing culture and government laissez-faire are two of the greatest evils, the third leg of the tripod is mass communications who see only the story and not the human. In fact, the first people to call Jung-soo back after his emergency call are the reporters parked in their van directly outside the tunnel’s entrance. Even Jung-soo’s wife, Se-hyun (Bae Doona), only discovers her husband’s fate from a TV displaying breaking news at a supermarket. Once she drops everything to get to him, she’s quickly trotted out for endless photo-ops with government officials and rescue workers to sell the story that the entire country is behind Jung-soo in his horrendous ordeal and working hard to get him out of there. The mouth of the tunnel is now a media circus as reporters parasitically dig in, raking up whatever kind of news they can spin for good copy. When it looks like Jung-soo may be rescued, one reporter even seems upset that he hasn’t quite broken the record set by the survivors of the Sampoong Department Store collapse in 1995 (notably also directly caused by corporate greed).

Jung-soo himself accepts his situation with a stoic calmness. Sensibly rationing out his water and battery life on his cellphone, he beds in for the long haul. Before long, the TV news has even declared him a national hero for maintaining his compassionate humanity even in the face of crisis. More resourceful than most, Jung-soo is making the best of things when all he can do is wait, hoping that the authorities will finally come to his rescue. Unfortunately the authorities he’s waiting on are largely the same ones responsible for this entire mess and aside from the valiant commander of the rescue squad Dae-kyoung (Oh Dal-su) are more interested in being able to resume construction on the sister tunnel (which involves more of the blasting that may have destabilised the tunnel in first place) and deflecting the embarrassment of this high profile infrastructure project having gone so catastrophically wrong.

Kim Seong-hun keeps the tension high as Jung-soo fights for his life by simply trying to survive long enough for someone to reach him. Genuinely fraught and claustrophic, Tunnel is not without a healthy dose of black humour lightening the mood in even the bleakest of circumstances. The political subtext is refreshingly subtle yet perfectly clear as Jung-soo finds himself literally buried underneath a national scandal and branded an inconvenient truth by those whose interests lie in maintaining the illusion of compassionate government anchored by friendly corporations. Tense, thrilling, and frightening on more than one level, Tunnel is an unexpectedly thoughtful disaster movie detailing one good man’s struggles to escape from underneath the destruction caused by pervasive social ills.


US release trailer (English subtitles)

Ode to My Father (국제시장, JK Yoon, 2014)

ode_to_my_father_stillReview of JK Yoon’s Ode to My Father (국제시장, Gukjeshijang) – first published by UK Anime Network.


Of late, we’ve seen a lot of films attempt to trace the history of a nation through the story of one man and his family which ultimately becomes a metaphor for the that of the land itself. Many of these have come from China which shares something of the turbulent history that has affected the Korean peninsula over the last hundred years. In Ode to My Father, director JK Youn has tried to pay tribute both to his own father and to all the fathers of modern Korea who underwent great difficulties and suffered immensely in the hope of building a better, happier, future for their own children.

Mostly we view events from the point of view of Duk-soo – an old man at the beginning of the film who has made a success of himself and is surrounded by a large, loving family though seems to retain a kind of unresolved sadness. When we travel back with him, he’s just a small boy fleeing his homeland with his parents and siblings. As the oldest, he’s put in charge of his sister only to have her cruelly snatched away from him during the final escape. This event colours the rest of Duk-soo’s life as he carries with him both the tremendous guilt of having failed to protect his sister and of losing his father has he went back to look for her. The remaining family members gather together at the small imported goods shop belonging to an aunt which becomes another motif of the film.

Growing into manhood, Duk-soo is now the man of the house with both his siblings and his mother to provide for. Making countless sacrifices which see him abandoning his own dreams and travelling abroad to seek better paid work – first in the coalmines of West Germany and later the warzone of Vietnam, Duk-soo puts his family before himself every single time. Working tirelessly, Duk-soo grows up but inside he’s forever the little boy on a boat watching his father drift away him and desperately hoping he’ll some day miraculously turn up at the shop with a smile and an improbable story.

This is a story of painful separations and the shockwaves they send through the rest of one’s life and of all the lives throughout history. Having fled the Chinese and the communists in the North, Duk-soo and his family are excited about the prospect of being able to go home at the “end” of the war. However, this is a war which is still not technically over, merely suspended by a truce, and Duk-soo will never see his hometown again. Eventually, during the ‘80s, 30 years since Duk-soo was separated from his father and sister, a nationwide campaign is held to try and re-unite family members forced apart by the traumatic events of the 1950s. Entire squares in the city are covered with people desperately looking for each other wearing signs with their relatives’ names and point of last sighting, clothing etc all in the hope of finally finding each other again. Needless to say, some of these people are luckier than others and there are tears of both joy and sadness.

Still, all in all, Duk-soo and South Korea made a success of themselves even if there’s a resulting ache from the great wound which has split the nation in two. Much of the story is universal – a father’s love for his family, but Ode to My Father will obviously speak loudest to Koreans who can identify more strongly with the historical context. Yoon has also injected some humorous incidents involving real life Korean historical celebrities which may mystify international viewers even if they’re sign posted well enough that one gets the gist of it anyway.

Unabashedly sentimental and oftentimes overblown, Ode to My Father nevertheless succeeds in tugging at the heartstrings in all the intended ways. A paean to the post war generation and all that they endured in building the modern Korea that their children could live in without fear or hunger, Ode to My Father is in the end far too sugary but also, it has to be said, affecting.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.

 

Veteran (베테랑, Ryoo Seung-wan, 2015)

1439210220_베테랑1Review of Ryoo Seung-wan’s Veteran (베테랑) – first published on UK Anime Network.


One of the top Korean box office hits of 2015, Ryoo Seung-wan’s Veteran is a glorious throw back to the uncomplicated days of ‘80s buddy cop crime comedy thrillers. A little less than subtle in its social commentary, Veteran nevertheless takes aim at corrupt corporate culture and the second generation rich kids who inherit daddy’s company but are filled with an apathetic, bored arrogance that is mostly their own.

Seo Do-cheol (Hwang Jung-min) is, as one other officer puts it, the kind of police officer who joined the force just to beat people up. He loves to fight and isn’t afraid of initiating a little “resisting arrest” action just to make things run a little more smoothly. However, when he strikes up a friendship with a put upon truck driver and his cute as a button son only to miss a crucial telephone call that eventually lands said truck driver in the hospital, Do-cheol’s sense of social justice is inflamed. After trying to join a trade union, Bae, the truck driver, is unceremoniously let go from his company. On taking his complaint directly to the head of Sin Jin Trading, play boy rich kid Tae-oh, Bae is subjected to the most cruel and humiliating “interview” of his life before apparently attempting to commit suicide after having realised the utter hopelessness of his situation. Incensed on his new friend’s behalf, Do-cheol is determined to take down these arrogant corporatists what ever the costs may be!

Veteran makes no secret of its retro roots. It even opens with a joyously fun sequence set to Blondie’s 1979 disco hit, Heart of Glass. Like those classic ‘80s movies, Veteran manages to mix in a background level of mischievous comedy which adds to the overall feeling of effortless cool that fills the film even when things look as if they might be about to take a darker turn. The action sequences are each exquisitely choreographed and filled with sight gags as the fight crazy Do-cheol turns just about any random object that appears to be close to hand into an improbable weapon.

Make no mistake about it either, this is a fight heavy film. Though Veteran has a very masculine feeling, it is to some degree evened out by the supreme Miss Bong whose high class high kicks can take out even the toughest opponents and seem to have most of her teammates looking on in awe, and the withering gaze of Do-cheol’s put upon wife who seems determined to remind him that he’s not some delinquent punk anymore but a respectable police officer with a wife and child who could benefit from a little more consideration.

Indeed, Tae-oh and his henchmen aren’t above going after policemen’s wives in an effort to get them to back off. Though this initial overture begins with an attempt at straightforward bribery (brilliantly dealt with by  Mrs. Seo who proves more than a match more the arrogant lackeys), there is a hint of future violence if the situation is not resolved. Tae-oh is a spoiled, psychopathic rich kid who lacks any kind of empathy for any other living thing and actively lives to inflict pain on others in order to breathe his own superiority. Probably he’s got issues galore following in his successful father’s footsteps and essentially having not much else to do but here he’s just an evil bastard who delights in torturing poor folk and thinks he can do whatever he likes just because he has money (and as far as the film would have it he is not wrong in that assumption).

He also loves to fight and finally meets his match in the long form finale sequence in which everything is decided in a no holds barred fist fight between maverick cop and good guy Do-cheol and irredeemable but good looking villain Tae-oh. Veteran never scores any points for subtlety and if it has any drawbacks it’s that its characterisations tend to be on the large side but what it does offer is good, old fashioned (in a good way) action comedy that has you cheering for its team of bumbling yet surprisingly decent cops from the get go. Luckily it seems Veteran already has a couple of sequels in the pipeline and if they’re anywhere near as enjoyable as the first film another new classic franchise may have just been born.


Reviewed at the first London East Asia Film Festival and the London Korean Film Festival.