Bungee Jumping of Their Own (번지점프를 하다, Kim Dae-seung, 2001)

Bungee Jumping on theie own posterLove is a continuous stream, according to the debut film of Kim Dae-seung, Bungee Jumping of Their Own (번지점프를 하다, Bungee Jump Hada). The title may sound whimsical, but it’s less the physical act of fall and rebound we’re talking about here than a spiritual bounce, souls which spring from one body to another and eventually find their way home. Kim presents eternity as one great confluence and love as an enduring bond which survives not only death and time but transcends existence itself. Love is a spiritual cause, but, as the rather muddy philosophy goes on to suggest, perhaps not so free of social mores as it would like to believe itself to be.

In 1983 university student In-woo (Lee Byung-hun) meets the love of his life, Tae-hee (Lee Eun-ju), as she steals a place under his umbrella during a violent rainstorm. Shy and introverted, In-woo waits at the bus stop where Tae-hee abruptly left him hoping to see her again, finally encountering her by chance on his university campus. Despite his diffidence, the pair eventually become a couple and are very happy together but In-woo will shortly have to leave for his military service. He asks Tae-hee to meet him at the station, waiting once again only to be left alone on the platform as the trains fly by.

Flashforward 17 years to the start of a new millennium and In-woo is now a slick, confident man entering middle-age, married to someone else and with a small daughter of his own. He teaches high school and is the kind of inspirational teacher many dream of being, well-respected by his students for his patience and faith as he remains committed to stand up for them no matter what. In-woo might have thought he’d put the memory of Tae-hee to the back of his mind to go on living, but a strange young man, Hyun-bin (Yeo Hyeon-soo), begins to reawaken in him the buried memory of his first love. Seeing echoes of Tae-hee in the young male student, In-woo finds himself facing several different kinds of social and internal pressures to which he had previously given little thought.

Arriving in 2001, Bungee Jumping of Their Own is (sadly) one of the first “mainstream” films to touch on the theme of homosexuality, only the film itself is quite determined to negate any kind of homosexual reading into its central love affair – it is, after all, not “Hyun-bin” that In-woo is falling in love with, but the reincarnated soul of Tae-hee, which is to say a “female” soul and not a male one. Though Kim’s metaphor of existence as a great river through which love endures across time and societies ought to make gender and the physical body an irrelevance, same-sex love is relegated to an inappropriate absurdity. In a playful conversation about reincarnation in which In-woo and Tae-hee pledge their love to one another, In-woo jokingly asks what would happen if he were too were reincarnated as a girl, to which Tae-hee replies that they’d just have to wait for the next reincarnation. Despite the endurance of their love, it is apparently not viable outside of a traditional male/female pairing and any other iteration is tragedy to which the only solution is suicide and the hope for a quick reincarnation to find each other again in more socially appropriate forms.

Nevertheless, Kim does also do his best to criticise a still conservative society’s prejudice against homosexuality though this too has its problematic elements in unwittingly conflating two issues which ideally speaking are better not conflated. In-woo is a teacher falling in love with a boy who is not only a minor but also his student – a situation clearly inappropriate in any and all circumstances. However, the while the crusty old dinosaurs in the staffroom lament the new liberal society and fear being branded sex pests for leering at the girls, claiming it’s their own fault for “looking like that”, In-woo comes in for an especial level of vitriol targeted not at a pervy teacher but simply at a “gay” man while Hyun-bin is gradually ostracised by his friends simply for being the object of his affection and therefore tarred with the gay brush.

Meanwhile, the conflicted In-woo goes to see a doctor to correct his “sickness” only to be told that his responses indicate a “normal” heterosexual man with that caveat that he should also regard his interest in men as a “normal” part of life. Desperate to not to acknowledge his same-sex desire, In-woo becomes violent towards his wife in an effort to reinforce his masculinity, unwilling to discuss with her the real reasons their marriage has always been hollow – not his possible bisexuality, but that he has only ever loved Tae-hee and will only ever love Tae-hee in whichever form she appears.

In-woo makes a point of teaching his students that “different” does not mean “wrong” but it’s apparently not a lesson he’s able to internalise. Kim plays with dualities, idealises imperfect symmetries, and shows us that things which might seem “different” from one perspective are in essence the same, yet he walks back his message of acceptance to emphasise the importance of conforming to social norms rather than allowing the love between Tae-hee and In-woo to exist in the physical world in any other iteration than male/female. Nevertheless, Kim’s true intention of painting love as a continuous stream made possible by cosmic serendipity is a romantic notion difficult to resist and even if his reasoning proves occasionally hollow he has perhaps opened a door towards a greater understanding.


Bungee Jumping on Their Own was screened as part of the Rebels With a Cause series at the Korean Cultural Centre London.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Green Fish (초록 물고기, Lee Chang-dong, 1997)

Green Fish poster

You can never go home again. Lee Chang-dong’s debut, Green Fish (초록 물고기, Chorok Mulgogi), is as much a chronicle of his rapidly modernising nation’s gradual loss of innocence as it is that of its melancholy hero, Makdong (Han Suk-kyu), whose simple dream of family harmony is destroyed by the forces of desire and oppression. Perpetually someone’s little brother, Makdong struggles but finds no schoolyard protectors in his ongoing quest for leadership and direction from someone or something external to himself. All he finds is a gradual descent into darkness and criminality in which misplaced loyalties eventually carry the heaviest of penalties.

Returning home from his mandatory military service, still dressed in his warm weather combats, Makdong inhales a taste of freedom by hanging out of the open train doorway. He notices a woman doing the same thing a few doors down. Her red scarf floats away on the breeze and hits Makdong in the face. Later he notices the same woman being hassled by a gang of louts and decides to intervene. Despite his military uniform, Makdong is no great warrior and he’s quickly beaten up and humiliated, retreating to the bathroom where he soaks the woman’s scarf in water and puts it over his bloodied face, inhaling her scent through the fabric as it somehow expresses his otherwise repressed scream.

Vowing revenge for his humiliation Makdong jumps off the train and attacks the louts with a heavy stone trophy, but he mistimes his attack and ends up running after the departing carriages before being forced to abandon all hope of catching up and concentrate on evading the louts who are once again on his tail. On his arrival home, Makdong discovers nothing is as he left it. His family is scattered – father dead, mother going mad, one brother married and a policeman though apparently also a drunk, other brother a wideboy punk, little sister working as a hostess, where there were fields now there are apartment blocks as far as the eye can see, only his older brother with developmental disabilities remains the same. Unable to find work, Makdong chases the scent of the woman on the train, eventually encountering her in the city. Miae (Shim Hye-jin) is a nightclub singer involved with petty gangster Bae Tae-gon (Moon Sung-keun). Remaining close to her, Makdong finds himself drawn ever further into Maie’s self destructive spiral of desire and darkness.

Makdong, whose name literally means “youngest sibling”, is perpetually looking for a family. Turned away from the chaos of his childhood home, he looks for it in the traditional place of the dispossessed male – the gang. Desperate to prove himself and be accepted, Makdong is willing to undergo any kind of pain and humiliation. Given his first job, he sings a snatch of the karaoke song playing in the bar about a prodigal son who disappoints his parents, looks himself in the mirror then hesitates before slamming the stall door shut across his fingers, leaving them swollen and bloodied. He then picks a fight with a rival gangster to give Bae Tae-gon an excuse to settle a score. Bae, solicitous, expresses irritation with Makdong’s act of self-harm but also gives him a leg up into the organisation, something which does not prove universally popular with the already established crew.

Bae’s decision to make Makdong his latest “little brother” (a sort of pun on his name and Bae’s position as the gang’s “big brother”), is mirrored in Bae’s own turbulent relationship with his superior/rival, Yang-gil (Myung Gye-nam). Yang-gil, setting up shop right across from Bae’s establishment, describes Bae disparagingly as a scrappy puppy dog biting at his master’s heels. Much as he feels humiliated by Yang-gil’s authoritative disdain, he refuses to move against him, ordering his guys to back off even though it makes him look weak and diminishes him in the eyes of his followers. Just as Makdong has placed his faith in Bae, Bae’s is already installed in Yang-gil, something which Makdong tragically fails to understand.

Makdong’s loyalty to Bae also presents a conflict in his desire for Miae. A much stereotyped gangster’s moll, Miae is the melancholy nightclub singer familiar from classic noir. Her world is just as ruined and broken as Makdong’s. She wants to leave Bae and his life of violent chaos in which she’s often pimped out to serve his interests, but she’s looking for someone to help her, just as Makdong is looking for someone to defend him. A long train journey brings the pair together in a moment of innocent tenderness, but presented with a choice Makdong choses Bae and his new world of male chivalry over his original act of white knight rescue which brought him to Miae’s attention in the first place. Later he makes another, more final choice, burning Miae’s scarf which he’d been carrying like a talisman all along. The flames reflected in his sunglasses give him eyes of fire, but behind the frames there are tears too as he bids goodbye to one dream in the mistaken belief of buying himself another.

Facing his end, Makdong rings home and reminisces about a story of idealised childhood innocence in which he spent a day at the river with his siblings, trying to catch the green fish of the title from under a railway bridge. Earlier on the family had another picnic in a similar spot which quickly degenerated into a chaotic family spat with the trains passing ominously behind them. The world that Makdong wants is already fading, he is, in some sense, already its ghost and the future has no place for him. His dreams were small – a modest family restaurant, and a return to the warmth and security he felt as a child surrounded by unconditional love. His family, however, no longer support him, he is alone and unloved. The world has moved past him like a train leaving the station, Makdong runs but he can’t catch up. The future belongs to those who can move fast enough to adapt to the new reality of modern Korean life, not to old romantics like Makdong who still believe in archaic ideals of family and brotherhood. Yet, there is something of that old world remaining in the posthumous fulfilment of Makdong’s only wish, even if he himself is not permitted to witness it.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Cabaret scene (no subtitles)

The Concubine (후궁: 제왕의 첩, Kim Dae-seung, 2012)

the-concubineYou can become the King of all Korea and your mum still won’t be happy. So it is for poor Prince Sungwon (Kim Dong-wook) who becomes accidental Iago in this Joseon tale of betrayal, cruelty, and love turning to hate in the toxic environment of the imperial court – Kim Dae-seung’s The Concubine (후궁: 제왕의 첩, Hugoong: Jewangui Chub). Power and impotence corrupt equally as the battlefield shifts to the bedroom and sex becomes weapon and currency in a complex political struggle.

Prince Sungwon first catches sight of official’s daughter Hwa-yeon (Cho Yeo-jeong) after a hunting party and develops a dangerous attraction to her. His possessive parent, the Queen Mother (Park Ji-young), finds this worrying and manoeuvres to take Hwa-yeon out of the picture by having her brought to court as a concubine of the king. Hwa-yeon, however, has a love of her own in the roguish hanger-on Kwon-yoo (Kim Min-jun) and is willing to risk her life by defying the imperial orders and running away with him. The pair consummate their union but are discovered at first light whereupon Hwa-yeon agrees to go to court on the condition Kwon-yoo’s life is spared.

Some years later, Hwa-yeon is the reigning queen as the mother of the sickly king’s only son but her life becomes considerably more complicated when the king dies in mysterious circumstances. Power passes back to the Queen Mother who puts her son, Sungwon, on the throne, making Hwa-yeon and the young prince direct threats to her power base. Sungwon is still in love with Hwa-yeon but his mother forbids him from pursuing her. Forbidding is something his mother does quite a lot of, and it’s not long before Sungwon becomes frustrated with his lack of real power. Matters come to a head when Kwon-yoo also resurfaces as a eunuch at the imperial court.

The imperial court is a golden prison and a world in itself. Once entered, it cannot be escaped. Everyone is vying for power but no one really has any. The king’s ill health and lack of a direct heir has left him dangerously vulnerable and the Queen Mother in a position of unusual strength. If one thing is clear, it’s that she has had to play a long game to get here, done terrible things in the name of power or self preservation, and will stop at nothing to make sure she remains on top.

The Queen Mother’s ascendency is contrasted with Hwa-yeon’s fall as she finds herself forced into the court against her will. Realising her total lack of agency as the court ladies are instructed to obey protocol in undressing her for the bath rather than allowing her to undress herself, Hwa-yeon exclaims that she has no right to her own body. Hwa-yeon’s body is, now, imperial property to be used and abused by the king for his pleasure and his alone. However, the Queen Mother may have met her match in the steely and intelligent politician’s daughter who seems just as well equipped to play the game as she is.

Much has been made of the sexual content of The Concubine which was largely sold on its titillating qualities. However, even if the adult content is frank it is far from erotic as sex becomes a tool of control and manipulation – one of the few available to the subjugated women of the court environment. Aside from the first love scene between Hwa-yeon and her true love, Kwon-yoo (which is perhaps the least direct), none of the subsequent scenes is fully consensual, each a part of a wider scheme or courtly ritual. Rather than an expression of love or intimacy, sex is an act of mutual conquest in which each side, essentially, loses.

Sungwon finds himself powerless both politically and romantically, unable to wrest power away from his controlling mother or win the heart of the already brutalised Hwa-yeon. A prisoner of his own circumstances, Sungwon’s increasing feelings of impotence manifest in violence and erratic behaviour as his obsession with Hwa-yeon borders on madness. Far from a liberation, Sungwon’s sex life is, in a sense literally, dictated as his ritualised consummation of marriage is conducted in front of an audience shouting out commands from behind screen doors who eventually criticise him for his lack of stamina. Kwon-yoo has been robbed of his ability to engage in this game and his desire for revenge is intense yet he will have to take it from the shadows by stealth if at all.

Director Kim Dae-seung manages the intrigue well in crafting the intensely claustrophobic environment of the oppressive court whilst ensuring motivations and desires remain crystal clear. There are no winners here even if there is a reigning champion claiming the throne. The cycle of violence and manipulation seems set to continue as even those who entered as innocents leave with blood on their hands, having become the very thing they fought so hard against. Often beautifully shot with opulent production values, The Concubine is an ice cold thriller in which desire competes with reason but rarely, if ever, with love.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Spirits’ Homecoming (귀향, Cho Jung-rae, 2016)

sprits-homecomingOf all the awful things that happened in the middle part of the 20th century, the trafficking, incarceration, enslavement and forced prostitution of women and girls from across Asia (including at least 65 Dutch women in what is now known as Indonesia) who were abducted for use as “comfort women” by the Japanese military remains one of the least discussed and most controversial. The issue (arguably) runs most deeply in Korea which had been experiencing a prolonged and often brutal era of colonial rule even prior to the intensification of hostilities in the early 1940s. The torment these women faced did not end with the ceasefire as entrenched social attitudes left them not only with a lifetime of physical and psychological trauma but also internalised shame which made it difficult for them to talk about their experiences even to those closest to them. Now more than ever, it is important that this story be told and the long suffering of these women, many of whom are no longer with us, is finally acknowledged.

In 1943, fourteen year old Jung-min (Kang Hana) is an only child living with her cheerful father and stern mother somewhere in rural Korea. Energetic and headstrong, Jung-min thinks it sport to take a handmade amulet from one of her friends in a game despite her friend’s obvious distress. This earns her another switch beating from her disappointed mother who, regretfully, later makes her a similar amulet of her own. However, the amulet does Jung-min little good in the short term as the soldiers finally arrive and take her away with them to an uncertain destination.

Packed into a freight train with other similarly aged girls in the same situation, Jung-min is able to keep her cool and bonds with the girl next to her, Young-hee (Seo Mi-ji), who is already physically ill aside from the additional stress. Far from the shoe factory one of the girls had imagined, this collection of children is bound for a military brothel where they will be required to speak only Japanese, remaining within their tiny rooms which store only a mattress and water bucket, and endure repeated rape and violence at the hands of their captors.

Running parallel to the 1943 narrative is a jump forward to 1991 around the time in which the government finally decides to address the comfort woman issue with calls for registration so that all women affected may apply for any available compensation. Young-ok (Son Sook), now an older woman making a living from textiles and sewing amulets just like Jung-min’s, is only one of these women. Through her friendship with a shaman and her protege Eun-kyung (Choi Ri), Young-ok finds her thoughts returning to the past once again.

The younger Koreans of 1943 had known only the Japanese occupation, were educated in Japanese, and had been taught that they were “true countrymen” as one Jung-min’s friends puts it. Jung-min’s carefree, rural town is almost untouched by politics as Korean is spoken freely, folk traditions permitted, Arirang sung in the fields, and teenage girls wander around freely with no one to say to much about it. All this ends one day when the soldiers arrive, forcibly abducting Jung-min and any other young woman in the area without even a word of explanation to their parents or families. Despite the gradual erosion of their cultural identity, these women are now members of a subjugated nation so far below those of mainland birth that they barely qualify as people at all.

The treatment that these women undergo, many of them only children, is truly horrific from repeated rape to physical violence, starvation, and the ever present threat of death. Only Japanese is to be spoken in the camp which houses women and girls from both Korea and China, watched over by a Korean middle man and a Japanese madam. Allowed out of their fetid rooms for brief periods of respite (or later different kinds of work) the girls attempt to make the most of things, singing folk songs and remembering happier times. There is no real possibility of escape other than that found by one of the girls who has already gone mad after one of the visiting troops brought her own brother with it.

Indeed, there is no true escape even after the war’s end. Seeing the testimony of another former comfort woman on the television and hearing news of the programme to register women affected by wartime atrocity both for purposes of research and possible compensation, Young-ok is motivated to speak out. When she approaches a young man at the post-office to ask for the relevant forms, her nerves fail her, only to overhear the behind the counter conversation about the comfort women programme. It seems, there have been no claimants so far. The man behind the desk is unsurprised but also childishly amused. “You’d have to be some kind of loony to come out with all that kind of thing” he says, “it’s a bit…well…isn’t it?”. Not only have these women suffered immense physical and psychological trauma, they’ve also been forced into internalised shame thanks to conservative social attitudes regarding purity and surrender.

In this way, Spirits’ Homecoming (귀향, Kwihyang) stops being about Japan and Korea but becomes a wider commentary about the place of women in society and, more specifically, what happens to women in time of war. Many of the soldiers remark that the girls remind them of their sisters, yet they still go ahead with the things they do, treating these women as little more than receptacles for the fluids of their lust and rage, not much more sentient than a metal bucket. The Japanese soldiers are fairly one dimensional in their evilness, save for one who has the courage to say no, but his decision to help the girls brings only disaster for all, himself included. Berated as “bitches” for the Japanese army, the girls are denied any kind of agency and, should they outlive their usefulness, are taken off to a “better place” which smacks of the old lie told to children whose beloved dog has been taken to live a happier life “on a farm”.

Nothing can be said or done to repair what was done to these young women or return any of the things which were taken from them, but at least in telling their story there can be a kind of restitution and an end to the ongoing shame which continues to engulf their lives even though they themselves were always blameless. In reality many of these girls never got to come home, a fact which the shamanistic rites at the film’s conclusion intend to rectify, allowing Young-ok a chance to reconnect with a fallen friend whose spirit is finally guided homeward to the peaceful family life of the pre-war years. A necessarily difficult watch, Spirits’ Homecoming is a sensitive treatment of its horrific subject matter which, even if edging towards the sentimental, is resolutely unafraid to lay bare the degree of suffering inflicted on these women not only during the wartime years but throughout the rest of their lives.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)