Happy Ero Christmas (해피 에로 크리스마스, Lee Kun-dong, 2003)

Happy Ero ChristmasMany may feel that we’ve forgotten the true meaning of Christmas, but behind the consumerist frenzy aren’t we all just looking for warmth and connection to help us make it through the cold? Well, maybe not, at least as far as one enterprising old man at the centre of Happy Ero Christmas (해피 에로 크리스마스) would have it, but in Korea Christmas is also a time of romance and so our hapless hero hopes to harness the goodwill of the festive season to make this year truly special.

Rookie cop Byung-ki (Cha Tae-hyun) grew up in a hot spring resort famous for its healing waters and inhabited mostly by tourists and gangsters. As a small child dumped by his dad at the baths, Byung-ki suffered a traumatic incident which has defined the course of his life – a horrible gangster decided to throw him into the super hot pool as a kind of hazing exercise, something which caused him both physical and emotional pain. He swore when he grew up he’d get rid of all the gangsters for good, starting with Suk-doo (Park Yeong-gyu) who has a tattoo of the hot springs map symbol but with musical notes instead of steam on his arm.

Unfortunately, however, mostly what Byung-ki does is dress up as the local police mascot “Polibear” and hand out leaflets while taking care of all the other inconvenient station jobs like sweeping the foyer. When he’s not busy dreaming of crime fighting glory, he’s fantasising about the melancholy young woman at the bowling alley, Min-kyung (Kim Sun-a), with whom he’s dreamily in love though she doesn’t seem to know he exists. Min-kyung, as it happens, has hit a rough patch with her fireman boyfriend she started dating when he rescued her from a fire.

Meanwhile, across town, a sleazy old man claims to have discovered the true meaning of Christmas, and it’s X-rated. Rebranding the holiday “Sexmas”, he wants to make an adult movie about a randy Santa who gets kicked out of Santatown for sleeping with all the other Santas’ wives. Coincidentally, the recently released Suk-doo has decided to open a new club, the Sex Palace, during the holiday, while two sexually frustrated teens try to get dates with trombone players and idly fantasise about the abuse of flatfish by sailors at sea.

Suk-doo doesn’t even really remember Byung-ki and is at a bit of a loss as to why he seems to hate him. He spends his life obsessively rewatching Shunji Iwai’s snowy classic Love Letter and getting well and truly into the Christmas spirit to make up for lost time seeing as he spent the last one inside and found it very depressing. Inconveniently for Byung-ki, Suk-doo too develops a liking for Min-kyung after she accidentally spits on him from the roof of the bowling alley after going up there to have a little cry over her rubbish fireman boyfriend.

The thing is, as Min-kyung says, Suk-doo might not actually be that bad. He’s a sensitive soul who knows how to keep Christmas well, which, to be honest is a lot more than you can say for most of the guys in this town. Byung-ki’s efforts to win her heart are so subtle that she hasn’t even noticed most of them, even when he dutifully drops her home after finding her having a drunken karaoke session and she throws up in his police car. Nevertheless, Suk-doo is still a gangster, and gangsters can be awkward too but they’re a lot more dangerous when they are.

Predictably, some of Byung-ki’s most questionable tactics – going through Min-kyung’s bag after it gets left behind in his car when she throws up, quasi-stalking her, putting up a police alarm button right outside her house to let her know he’s only three minutes away etc are written off as awkward goofiness, something which Min-kyung eventually seems to appreciate after realising Suk-doo’s not so nice after all. Suk-doo, meanwhile, gets a sad back story about his mother supposedly dying on Christmas Day, which also happens to be Min-kyung’s birthday, with a series of awkward implications only later undercut by a late confession. As Byung-ki puts it, everyone dreams something special for Christmas be it a weird erotic escapade, or an innocent romance. Mostly everyone gets what they wanted from Santa’s sleigh, riding off into the snow with a new hope for the future whatever that might hold.


Original trailer (extreme low res, no subtitles)

The Pension (더 펜션, Ryu Jang-ha, Yang Jong-hyun, Yoon Chang-mo, Jung Heo Deok-jae, 2018)

The Pension poster“We’re all lonely beings” the proprietor of a small mountain lodge advances hoping to comfort a distressed guest. The temporary denizens of The Pension (더 펜션), a four part omnibus set in a charmingly old-fashioned forest hideaway, are indeed mostly lonely beings making use of this liminal place to process the taboo away from the prying eyes of civilisation, embracing the savagery of the natural world as they cast off conventional morality to pursue their illicit desires be they vengeful, violent, protective or loving.

We begin with darkness as our first pair of guests, a man, Choo-ho (Jo Han-chul), and his wife Mi-kyung (Park Hyo-joo), seem to be all too interested in the family next door. Eventually we discover that the couple have come with ill intentions and revenge on their mind, though the man they’re after doesn’t seem so bad to begin with – he asks them to dinner with his wife and son who seem happy, but the atmosphere grows tenser as he begins to drink and a darkness creeps in. Before long Mi-kyung has set her mind on poetic justice, leaving the other couple’s young son in peril while Choo-ho struggles with his desire to stop his wife making a terrible mistake while not wanting to upset her.

Unhappy families continue to be theme with the second pair of guests – a married couple hoping to rekindle their listless romance in the peace and tranquillity of the remote mountain lodge. While the arrival is pleasant enough, perhaps too much so as the husband (Park Hyuk-kwon) puts on a show of making the effort, despair creeps in when he realises he’d made sure to bring his wife’s (Lee Young-jin) favourite coffee but forgotten the grinder. He wants her all to himself, but she just wants to go home and worries about their young daughter staying with a mother-in-law she doesn’t seem to like very much. Eventually the couple decide they need some time apart and she ends up meeting someone else (Kim Tae-hoon) in the woods to whom she recounts all the loneliness and isolation she experiences in her married life, seemingly trapped by conventionality but unconvinced that anything would be very different if she left.

The hotel owner (Jo Jae-yoon) might agree with her – a lonely soul he is too, though it appears he opened this hotel for just that reason, burying himself away from his heartache by coming to live alone with the transient presence of strangers and peaceful isolation of the woods. His mother, however, is not convinced and is constantly nagging him to get married – in fact, she’s set up a meeting for the following day meaning he’ll have to close the shop. That might be a problem, because he gets a surprise guest in the middle of the night, a distressed woman (Shin So-yul) intent on staying in a very particular room. Finding it odd, he can hardly turn her away with nowhere else to go but a TV programme on the causes of suicide (loneliness, the decline of the traditional family, economic pressures etc) convinces him he ought to check on her. Assuming she is merely lovelorn (as is he), he tries to comfort her with platitudes but pulls away from her emotional need only to find himself eventually wounded only in a much more physical way as he idly fantasises what it might have been like if he’d gone back to her room and been a bit more sympathetic.

Our proprietor is notably absent in the final segment, replaced by a much younger man (Lee Yi-kyung) with much more urgent desires. Despite being there to do a job, the boy has brought his girlfriend whom he alienates by failing to explain a mysterious text from another girl all while making eyes at the attractive young woman (Hwang Sun-hee) staying next door who claims to be “from the future”. When another guest turns up and starts making a fuss about a missing engagement ring she supposedly left behind, everything becomes much more complicated than it seems but one thing is certain – there is precious little love to be found in this hotel where everyone has come to embrace the side of themselves the city does not allow to breathe.

Much more cynical and obviously comedic than the preceding three tales, the final chapter perhaps bears out the message that it’s not so much rest and relaxation people have come to The Pension for, but “privacy” or to be more exact “discretion”. Some came for love, others for lack of it, but all of them are looking for something they are unlikely to find here though the first couple could perhaps have found it if only they had stuck together. Nevertheless, hotels are transient places for a reason – take what you need from your stay and leave the rest behind.


The Pension screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on April 16, 7pm, at AMC River East 21.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해, Jeong Jae-eun, 2001)

take-care-of-my-catThe time after high school is often destabilising as even once close groups of friends find themselves being pulled in all kinds of different directions. So it is for the group of five young women at the centre of Jeong Jae-eun’s debut feature, Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해, Goyangileul Butaghae). All at or around 20, the age of majority in Korea, the girls were a tightly banded unit during high school but have all sought different paths on leaving. Lynchpin Tae-hee (Bae Doo-na) is responsible for trying to keep the gang together through organising regular meet ups but it’s getting harder to get everyone in the same place and minor differences which hardly mattered during school grow ever wider as adulthood sets in.

Cheerful scenes of high school mischief give way to the uncertain present as five old friends prepare to celebrate the 20th birthday of the group’s self appointed star, Hye-joo (Lee Yo-won). Hye-joo, however, has moved on to a high level office job in Seoul and is about to blow off her high school friends to hang out with her possibly sleazy boss, only to revert back to plan A when he cancels on her. Too cowardly to ring her friends in person, Hye-joo leaves the business of calling off the party to the chief organiser, Tae-hee, who rings round letting the other three girls – jobless Ji-young (Ok Ji-young), and half Chinese twins Bi-ryu (Lee Eun-sil) and Ohn-jo (Lee Eun-ju), know (and presumably has to then ring them all back to tell them the party’s back on).

Hye-joo moved farthest away from her roots both in terms of location and of her social ambitions through taking a well paid admin job in the city. Increasingly materialistic and status orientated, her friendship with the other girls suffers as she sees herself as transitioning to a higher social class. Ironically, her views are equally deluded as she continues to believe that her dedication and willingness to work hard can make up for her lack of a degree but quickly finds herself displaced when the next batch of newbies arrive.

This growing desire for material status has also contributed to a seemingly unbridgeable rift with Ji-young whose economic status is the most vulnerable. Orphaned and living in a shack with her elderly grandparents, Ji-young has recently lost her job and is having difficulty finding another one precisely because of her circumstances – one firm even point blank refuses her application because both of her parents are dead and they need a direct family member to vouch for her. Hye-joo is insensitive in the extreme and often flashes her money around whilst rubbing salt in Ji-young’s wounds by emphasising her lack of it and pouring cold water over her ideas of saving money to study abroad. Small digs like these and insisting that all the girls leave their home town to visit her in Seoul (leaving aside the additional costs for Ji-young whom she knows is having difficulty making ends meet) point to Hye-joon’s own sense of neediness and insecurity.

As a result, Ji-young distances herself from her friends, ashamed of her desperation and feeling unable to ask them for help. It is she who finds the cat of the title when she hears it mewing whilst trapped behind debris on her way home. The cat becomes almost a mirror of Ji-young – alone and abandoned on the streets with no one to look after her. Originally, Ji-young tries to give the kitten to Hye-joon as a birthday present only to have it immediately returned. The cat is then passed around among each of the friends looking for a more permanent kind of affection, but finding little in the way of stability.

The longest and most devoted guardian turns out to be Tae-hee who is perhaps most affected by the loss of her friends and changing circumstances. Tae-hee is from a moderately well off middle class family and has been helping out in her father’s business since leaving school (apparently without pay). Despite her lack of worry over material comforts, she finds herself feeling restless and increasingly interested in the “foreign” with dreams of taking off alone for adventures overseas. Her desire for freedom is partly down to her domineering father who simply overrules all of her decisions even down to ordering food in a restaurant. Tae-hee is the only one to reach out to Ji-young when she realises she might be in trouble and is the only one still there for her at the end. Their economic and familial circumstances may be different, but in their desire to escape the confines of the rundown Incheon for something outside of what it might have planned for them, the two girls are a perfect match.

Of the group of friends the twins receive the least attention, hovering on the sidelines, separate from the mini dramas erupting between the insensitive and self obsessed Hye-joo and the increasingly desperate Tae-hee and Ji-young. As a unit of two they have their own little world which seems much happier and more solid than that of any of the other girls and arguably have less need for the immediacy of their old friendships. They are therefore the ideal place to deposit them, in the form of a stray cat finally finding a home. The past has its place – in the past, the memories are warm and fluffy and deserve to be taken care of, but there comes a time you have to surrender full custody and be content to visit from time to time.

An extraordinarily well composed debut feature, Take Care of My Cat has a more European feeling than many a Korean coming of age drama but is filled with realistic detail such as the constant ringing of the girls’ ever present mobile phones and the onscreen representation of their straightforward text based conversation. There’s a kind of sadness associated with the transition from carefree adolescence to the difficult journey into adulthood with each of the girls discovering what it is they want out of life, or more aptly what it is they don’t want. Hye-joo emerges as the quasi-villain of the piece as she makes an obvious, superficial choice to follow the consumerist trend over valuing human relationships though it’s hard not to feel sorry for her when it appears she’s being set up for disappointment. Ending on a note of hopeful uncertainty, Jeong’s debut feature is a hymn to the theme of moving on but is careful to admit the bittersweet quality of a new beginning.


International trailer (English subtitles)