I Can Speak (아이 캔 스피크, Kim Hyun-seok, 2017)

I Can Speak posterGenre in Korean cinema has always been a more fluid affair than it might be elsewhere, but careering from zany generational comedy to affecting historical drama is perhaps a bold choice. I Can Speak (아이 캔 스피크) is, in many ways, the story of an old woman’s personal revolution as she finds herself repurposing her “Goblin Granny” credentials to pursue justice for a great evil she spent a lifetime hiding from, but it’s also an unabashedly political attack on a legacy of unresolved national trauma. Nevertheless, despite its slightly awkward straddling of cheeky comedy and heartrending melodrama, I Can Speak does at least manage to lay bare a series of entrenched social problems affecting all areas of modern Korean society while also making a fairly uncontroversial (at home at least) political point.

Park Min-jae (Lee Je-hoon) has just transferred to the local council offices in a rundown area of Seoul. Seeing as he’s new and very by the book, he doesn’t know that everyone in the office is terrified of “Goblin Granny” (Na Moon-hee)  – an old woman who turns up every single day with a list of complaints and things around the neighbourhood that could do with being fixed. Min-jae, unaware of Goblin Granny’s fortitude, attempts to deal with her complaints in a bureaucratic manner. He is no match for Ok-boon’s bloodymindedness, but his straightforward approach eventually earns her respect.

Ok-boon is the sort of old woman familiar to many municipal offices in that she is essentially lonely and comes in to complain about things just to make her presence felt. She does have a few friends, however – one being the lady who runs the local convenience store, and the other a woman of around her own age who can speak fluent English. Ok-boon decides she ought to learn English too and enrols in an expensive cram school but is abruptly kicked out of the class which is almost entirely filled with youngsters because of her old lady ways. On the way out, however, she runs into Min-jae who was there to check that his extremely high TOEIC scores were still valid. Ok-boon manages to talk Min-jae into giving her English lessons in return for decreasing the burden on the municipal offices by making fewer complaints.

I Can Speak begins firmly in the realms of bureaucratic comedy as the council workers find themselves cowering in front of Goblin Granny while simultaneously enjoying their cushy jobs for life which require almost no effort in their daily activities. Some in the community assume Ok-boon is a horrible old busybody who likes making trouble and pulling other people up on their various social failings but her community patrols come from a good place. The woman who runs a small stall in the market assumes Ok-boon reported her to the police for selling alcohol to a minor but that’s not the sort of thing that Ok-boon would think worth reporting, which is why she doesn’t think much of breaking city regulations to enjoy a drink outside her friend’s shop. Everything she reports is because she genuinely worries someone may get hurt and her main area of concern is with the strange goings on around the market which is earmarked for “regeneration”. Her concerns are not unfounded as she discovers when she overhears some of the council workers talking about taking backhanders to push the redevelopment through while making use of “external labour” in the form of shady gangsters tasked with clearing the area so the ordinary people who live in the old fashioned neighbourhood will consent to quietly move away. Perhaps because no one ever stood up for her, or because she’s sick of being pushed around, Ok-boon is not going to go quietly nor is she going to allow any of her friends to be taken away without a fight.

Ok-boon is perhaps attempting to fight something else, something she has been afraid to revisit for most of her life. The fact is that Ok-boon was one of many Korean women forcibly abducted by the Japanese army at the end of the Second World War and subjected to heinous, inhuman treatment as sex slave in one of the many “comfort woman stations” which existed throughout Japanese occupied territory. After the war, she was disowned by her family who saw only shame in her suffering and insisted she tell no one what had happened in fear of damaging her family’s reputation. One of the reasons Ok-boon wants to learn English is to be able to talk to her little brother again who she has not seen since they were children and has apparently forgotten how to speak Korean after spending a lifetime in the US.

English does however give her back something that she’d lost in the form of a familial relationship with the otherwise closed off Min-jae who is also raising a teenage brother (Sung Yoo-bin) following the death of their parents. It is true enough that it is sometimes easier to talk about painful things in a second language – something Min-jae demonstrates when he shifts into English to talk about his mother’s death. Abandoning Korean allows Ok-boon to begin dismantling the internalised shaming which has kept her a prisoner all these years, too afraid to talk about what happened in the war in case she be rejected all over again. Her worst fears seem to have come true when her old friends learn about her past, but what they feel for her is empathy rather than shame, hurt that Ok-boon was never able to confide in them and unsure what it is they should say to her now.

Ok-boon learns that she “can speak” – not only English but that she has the right to talk about all the things that happened to her and the long-lasting effect they have had on her life, that she has nothing to be ashamed of and has a responsibility to ensure nothing like this ever happens again. English becomes a bridge not only between her past and future, but across cultures and eras as she finds herself bonding with a Dutch woman giving a testimony much similar to her own and receiving the same kind of ignorant, offensive questions from the American law makers as well as cruel taunts from a very undiplomatic Japanese delegation. Undoubtedly, the final sequence is a very pointed, almost propagandistic attack on persistent Japanese intransigence but then its central tenet is hard to argue with. Tonally uneven, and perhaps guilty of exploiting such a sensitive issue for what is otherwise a standard old lady regains her mojo comedy, I Can Speak is an affecting, if strange affair, which nevertheless makes a virtue of learning to find the strength to stand up for others even if it causes personal pain.


I Can Speak screens at the New York Asian Film Festival on 12th July, 6.30pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles/captions)

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)

The Exclusive: Beat The Devil’s Tattoo (특종: 량첸살인기, Roh Deok, 2015)

The Exclusive Beat the DevilSome people just can’t keep themselves out of trouble. The down on his luck reporter at the centre of Roh Deok’s The Exclusive: Beat the Devil’s Tattoo (특종: 량첸살인기, Teukjong: Ryangchensalingi) is something of a trouble magnet as he makes mistake after mistake, requiring lie after lie to try and put him back on the straight and narrow. Unfortunately for him the deeper he gets the closer he turns out to be to the “real” truth. Only by that stage everyone has lost interest in “the truth” anyway – who cares about little things like facts against the overwhelming power of a constructed narrative.

Lazy, self obsessed reporter Heo (Cho Jung-Seok) is about to be fired from his job as a TV news reporter after publishing some inaccurate material that causes problems for the station’s sponsors. He also has a bigger problem at home in that his heavily pregnant wife has thrown him out and seems intent on a divorce. When he gets a shady sounding tip from a dubious source regarding a series of murders, Heo decides to check it out alone. Coming to the conclusion that he really has caught a killer, Heo rips a strange handwritten note down from the walls and takes it straight to his boss in the hopes of getting back in her good books. The note goes viral and Heo finds himself reading it out on prime time news but he has a real problem on his hands when he realises the guy from the basement is an actor in a play and has nothing to do with the killings at all.

Attempting to kill the story, Heo forges a second note designed to deflect press attention but it has the opposite effect and only creates more hysteria surrounding the case. Trying to play both sides by exposing the real killer whilst keeping his own involvement a secret, Heo is in way over his head and risks losing far more than just his career if he can’t find a way to smooth all of this out.

The problem here is, everything’s a PR hook. With one eye on the ratings, every reporter is a marketeer, spinning every string of facts into an easily sellable ball of fluff intended to draw in viewers who only read the headline anyway. Heo was never the kind of crusading journalist who has a serious dedication to the craft or an attachment to idealistic notions of holding the nation to account, but even so his self-serving actions begin to create a conflict in his heart as the true nature of his profession is thrown into stark relief. Even whilst lying through his teeth in attempt to save his own skin, Heo is astonished by the cold and cynical actions of his boss who simply does not care if the information is accurate so long as it sells. Far from getting him fired, Heo’s web of duplicity gets him a series of promotions and a not inconsiderable pay bump which is quite something considering a minor mistake was about to end his journalistic career before all of this started.

While all of this is going on, Heo is also busy with the problem of his failing marriage. Fairly dense when it comes to matters of the heart, Heo thinks he can win his wife back now that he’s sort of famous and doing really well at work, which is ignoring the fact that his wife seems to have left him because of his self obsessed and controlling behaviour. Drunk and lurking outside of their previously shared home, Heo doesn’t do himself any favours by jealously attacking an artist his wife had been working with at the gallery she has now opened with a friend (and which Heo had tried to prevent, apparently uncomfortable with the idea of a working wife). His wife’s relationship with her artist will also have an unexpected effect on the serial killer case as it leads her to make a dangerous decision trying to work out what exactly her husband is up to (worried in case he’s secretly been investigating her, but no, Heo is still too self focussed to have even thought about worrying over his wife’s “affairs”).

Roh adopts a quirky, satirical tone backed up by the goofy comedy music which often seems at odds with the grizzly serial killer goings on, but then that’s sort of the point. No one, not even the police who are painted as incompetent idiots both ignorant of and completely dependent on the media, really cares very much about the seven people who have already died or the countless others that might be at risk if the killer is not caught. The only thing that matters is the spin, so long as everything can be massaged into a believable narrative the case will have been solved, facts be hanged (literally). When it comes down to it, Heo solves the case by accident and then can’t say anything about it for fear of incriminating himself, allowing the killer to look like a hero with the frightened public led to believe the threat is still out there. Heo then faces a choice between exposing a truth which might destroy him or continuing to live with the heavy burden of a painful secret but in the end the choice is not even his. No one is listening. The only choices left are raving like a mad man in the face of indifference, or accepting his boss’ aphorism that truth is a relative construct and that “the truth” is whatever you choose to believe. The path of blissful ignorance suddenly seems much more attractive.


International trailer (English subtitles)