Bring Me Home (나를 찾아줘, Kim Seung-woo, 2019) [Fantasia 2020]

“They were all like me” a drowning man exclaims, trying to justify his inhumanity but gaining only poetic retribution as he finds himself shackled, quite literally, to his crimes. Kim Seung-woo’s debut feature Bring Me Home (나를 찾아줘, Nareul Chajajwo) stars Lady Vengeance herself, Lee Young-ae, in her first big screen leading role since Park Chan-wook’s seminal thriller once again cast as a figure of wounded maternity coming for systemic societal corruption and the savagery born of hopeless desperation in her singleminded determination to retrieve her son and take him with her even if with a dark destination in mind. 

Six years previously, Jung-yeon’s (Lee Young-ae) son Yoon-su vanished from a playground at six years old. Since then, her husband (Park Hae-joon), formerly a teacher, has spent every waking moment looking for him while she works as a hospital nurse where her colleagues describe her as a cool, infinitely professional presence. She continually berates herself for a vague memory of wanting a break from her child, exhausted by the act of caring for him as if she somehow brought this on herself or at any rate gave the universe her permission to take him away. Just when the conditions of her life seemed as if they were about to improve with her husband agreeing to return to work, he is killed in a car accident while pursuing a lead which turned out to be useless anyway, a cruel prank played by insensitive children. Left so totally alone, Jung-yeon begins to consider suicide only to receive another promising lead. A boy who looks like Yoon-su and has a burn on his back and a birthmark behind his ear, is working at a fishing pool in a rural town.

The sad truth is Yoon-su or not, the “family” running the fishing pool have “adopted” two displaced children which they use for slave labour, cruelly abusing them both physically and sexually. It’s this essential act of inhumanity which alerts the corrupted community to the danger presented by Jung-yeon. They could give the boy back, claim the reward, and hope she asks no more questions, but the likelihood is all their dirty dealings would be exposed and then they’d have to replace him. Corrupt policeman Sgt. Hong (Yoo Jae-myung) who for some reason seems to be in charge of the fishing pool is confident he can make all of this go away, pretending to be sympathetic to Jung-yeon’s search but insisting that there is no such boy while introducing her to the landlady’s “son” , keeping “Minsu” chained up in the shed. 

Sgt. Hong is fond of reminding people that he works for the government, a symbol of corrupt and oppressive authority obsessed with maintaining his own status as the man in charge apparently insecure in his sense of control. He claims that he was only able to do the things that he has done because no one really cared. Hundreds of people came through and saw Minsu, none of them said anything until another officer noticed that he looked quite like the boy on the news and was struck by the large reward on offer. The same officer accepted a pay off not to say anything, but apparently took the money and talked anyway. Even Jung-yeon’s brother-in-law tries to get money out of her and then comes up with an elaborate ruse to get his hands on the reward after accidentally being given the tip-off. The only one of the gang to treat Minsu with any sort of compassion eventually turns against Jung-yeon out of fear, citing the economic precariousness of the town. He’s worried that their business will be ruined, more shops will close, and as an ex-con he’ll never find another job which is a problem because he wants money to make sure his son goes to university so he doesn’t end up like him. 

“The living must go on living” another of the gang agrees, indifferent to the costs or the consequences of their actions through it’s difficult to see how their desire to save the town could ever justify their treatment of these displaced children, dehumanising Minsu because of his learning difficulties. Jung-yeon finds one of her fliers pasted on a pillar partially covered by another one for missing dog while the gang’s most deranged member keeps his own wanted poster listing rape and murder on the wall of his shack as if it were some kind of commendation. Hinting at a dark history of missing children as evidenced in one young man’s (Lee Won-geun) recollections of being adopted abroad mistakenly believing that his parents had abandoned him, Bring Me Home eventually descends into archetypal pulp for its misty finale, returning to the mythic vistas of desolation in which it began with the dishevelled Jung-yeon walking the shore of life and death consumed by futility in the depths of her maternal guilt, but does perhaps offer a glimmer of hope in the crushing irony of its final revelations. 


Bring Me Home streamed as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Tune in for Love (유열의 음악앨범, Jung Ji-woo, 2019)

Tune in for love poster 2The course of true love never did run smooth. Another in the recent series of nostalgic ‘90s romances, Tune in for Love (유열의 음악앨범, Yooyeolui Eumakaelbum) takes a pair of nervous youngsters and charts the course of their love story over a decade which, though not quite turbulent, saw its share of difficulties and a host of technological changes. “Miracles are nothing special” the heroine tells us, but when it comes to love miracles are all there is and in the end you’ll just have to learn to trust them.

On Oct. 1, 1994 Hyeon-u (Jung Hae-in) walks into Mi-su’s (Kim Go-eun) bakery looking for something with tofu in it. While inside, he hears the first broadcast of Yoo Yeol’s Music Album, a new morning program which seems to signal the beginning of a new era. Though Mi-su is quick to realise that the only reason someone would be desperately looking for plain tofu early in the morning is because they’ve just been released from prison, she decides to offer him a part-time job in the bakery where he becomes a member of the family alongside her “aunt” Eun-ja (Kim Guk-Hee) who’s taken care of her since her mother died. His past, however, refuses to let him go however much he tries to move away from it. Tracked down by his delinquent friends, Hyeon-u is unable to return to the bakery and will spend the next decade trying to do just that.

Fate parts the youngsters repeatedly, but always brings them back together again seemingly by chance. Military service, changes of address, miscommunication and changing technology all conspire to keep them apart but like any good rom-com the problems aren’t so much circumstantial as personal. A deeply wounded young man, Hyeon-u is taken with the familial atmosphere at the bakery because he feels a sense of acceptance he hasn’t anywhere else, but deep down he still doubts he deserves the “normal life” he so deeply craves. His friends doubt it too, always turning up unexpectedly to remind him of their shared trauma and the debt of guilt he can’t repay. His insecurity prevents him from sharing the source of his pain with Mi-su, keeping her somehow outside the bubble of his shame as the only one capable of knowing the “real” him. She meanwhile is frustrated in realising that he’s holding something back, hurt he doesn’t trust her enough to let him in, and worrying he’ll never truly be ready for full commitment. 

Nevertheless, though often apart they remain painfully in sync, until that is fate brings them back together. As young man with a checkered past and no safety net, Hyeon-u has to fight twice as hard to get ahead, eventually graduating high school and getting into college while supporting himself with part-time jobs. Mi-su, meanwhile, is burdened by the knowledge that she’s lost her mother’s bakery and is desperate to get it back. Dreaming of being a writer, she turns down an internship at the all important radio show to go for a steady job she’s told is at a publisher’s but is actually somewhere more like a print shop where she’s stuck doing incredibly boring admin work. Hyeon-u is unable to get back in touch with her after miraculously reappearing because he’s ashamed to admit that he ended up getting in trouble again thanks to his awful friends even though it really wasn’t his fault. She meanwhile confesses that a part of her was relieved not to hear from him because she too is unhappy in herself, feeling lost and confused, disappointed not to be living the kind of life she could be proud of. 

Times change, but their one constant is the radio show broadcasting every morning and providing additional though indirect methods of communication when they are otherwise unable to make contact. Pay phones give way to email and then to mobiles all the way into the early days of the smartphone era, but face to face conversation remains the most difficult. Mi-su gives up on Hyeon-u while he, ironically, probably does sort something out by having a good old fashioned punch up with his generally unhelpful friend. She wonders if she’s better off to make the “smart” choice rather than waiting on love. Hyeon-u is hurt that in the end she didn’t trust him, but is eventually made realise that the problem was that he didn’t trust himself. Then again, you can’t fight the power of true connection or the pain of its absence, all you need to do is a little fine tuning to make sure the signal comes through loud and clear.


Currently available to stream online via Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories)

Netflix trailer (English subtitles)

Jo Pil-ho: The Dawning Rage (악질경찰, Lee Jeong-beom, 2019)

Jo Pil-ho- The Dawning Rage posterThe Man From Nowhere’s Lee Jeong-beom returns five years after No Tears for the Dead with another retro crime thriller, though this time one with additional bite as he digs into a nation quite clearly failing its young. Another of the recent films set in the post-Sewol world, Jo Pil-ho: The Dawning Rage (악질경찰, Akjilkyungchal) is a noirish voyage through an intensely corrupt society in which Chaebols act with impunity while goodhearted schoolgirls are branded delinquents and left to fend for themselves by the “adults” who seem to have abandoned all sense of social responsibility.

Our hero and the titular “bad cop” of the Korean title, is Jo Pil-ho (Lee Sun-kyun) – a corrupt police officer who abuses his position to force criminals to commit crime on his behalf. Recently, he’s teamed up with a teenage safecracker, Gi-chul (Jung Ga-ram), and is also involved in an ill-advised business relationship with a petty gangster. IA are all over him, but they don’t have anything yet. Everything is about to change, however, when an angry Pil-ho decides it would be a good idea to rob the police warehouse. The gangster’s minion makes a mistake and the place blows up with Gi-chul trapped inside. Suddenly it’s not looking so rosy for Pil-ho who is now implicated in a series of crimes only to discover that there is far more going on than he could have anticipated. The warehouse fire appears to be connected to an ongoing corruption case involving one of Korea’s biggest conglomerates and Pil-ho may have just destroyed key evidence without realising in an attempt to save his own skin.

Despite himself, Pil-ho is not such a bad guy. He’s corrupt and greedy, but he has a moral compass and probably sees himself as kicking back against the system rather than abusing it seeing as he only seems to take money from sources he feels could stand to lose. This is perhaps why he finds himself increasingly shaken by his investigations, eventually forced to pick a side – surrender to Chaebol influence as a willing underling or expose the corruption possibly at the cost of his own life.

In true noir fashion his own past comes back to haunt him as he re-encounters the father of a young woman (Im Hyeong-gook), Song Ji-won (Park So-eun), who died in the ferry tragedy and had wanted to become a policewoman when she grew up. Pil-ho was the officer charged with the empty gesture of presenting him with a police uniform with his daughter’s name on it. In an unlikely coincidence, the girl Pil-ho needs to find, Mina (Jeon So-nee), was Ji-won’s best friend. Alone and without family, Mina has been living by her wits on the streets but as Mr. Song points out she’s not a bad kid at heart and goes to great lengths to protect those close to her.

Despite their original mutual distrust, a kind of camaraderie eventually builds up between the cynical cop and the jaded teen who views the so-called “adults” around her with nothing more than contempt. Her admiration for Pil-ho begins when he beats up a sleazy backstreet doctor who tries to swap treatment for sexual favours and then continues as Pil-ho, against the odds, begins to look out for her in ways no one else ever has. Mina, like many kids, is simply trying to survive in a world which is often actively hostile to her existence, but unlike Pil-ho she has avoided becoming cynical and remains committed to protecting those weaker than herself even if others may write her off as a lost cause delinquent.

Set in Ansan which, as an ironic sign tells us before falling to the ground, is the “city of happiness”, Dawning Rage locates itself in a haunted land in which the lingering effects of the ferry tragedy are impossible to ignore. Pil-ho begins catching sight of teenagers everywhere but their presence only seems to highlight absence while providing a kind of chorus watching and observing the adults around them in order to learn how to live. The corrupt Chaebol cites his provision of scholarships as evidence of his commitment to building a fairer society, all while knowing that by doing so he is really buying influence and loyalty. He spins a yarn about his humble origins and makes a show of inspiring the next generation, but thinks nothing of silencing those who stand in the way of his selfish aims.

The corruption rains down from above – the Chaebols make their money and they cut corners, leaving ordinary people squeezed. Fear and deference are the primary contributors to the societal decline which placed innocent young people directly, if unwittingly, in harm’s way. This is Pil-ho’s “dawning rage” as he awakens himself to the depths of injustice within his own society with which he had blindly gone along thinking only of himself. With a distinctly 1970s aesthetic, Dawning Rage is a dark conspiracy thriller in which the system is so hopelessly corrupt as to be beyond saving. Pil-ho is a “bad cop” who turns out to be acting for the public good after all but finds himself pushed towards the dark side by the intransigence of his society and forced into an act of violent revenge both personal and social.


Currently available to stream online via Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Heart Blackened (침묵, Jung Ji-woo, 2017)

Heart Blackened posterMost of us like to kid ourselves that you can become rich and successful by working hard and playing by the rules, but it takes a certain kind of ruthlessness to climb the chaebol tree. Corrupt CEO Yim Tae-san (Choi Min-sik) is about to have his mettle tested in Jung Ji-woo’s Silent Witness remake Heart Blackened (침묵, Chimmuk). Wealth, money, power, networks of control and manipulation – Tae-san has all these, but a crucial failure to keep his house in order is about to bring it all crashing down. Unless, of course, he can find an acceptable way out. There are some difficult choices to be made but nothing is quite as it first seems in this world of interpersonal gamesmanship and high stakes machinations.

A widower, Tae-san is in a seemingly happy relationship with famous singer Yuna (Lee Honey). His dreams of familial bliss, however, hit rocky ground when his grown-up but still young daughter refuses to accept his new love. Despite Yuna’s attempts to win her over, Mira (Lee Soo-kyung) hates her potential step-mother with unusual intensity. Matters come to a head when some of Mira’s friends alert her to a sex tape going viral on the internet recorded some years previously and featuring Yuna with an old boyfriend. Mira demands a conference and Yuna dutifully comes, hoping for a rapprochement but getting a tirade of abuse. The next morning, Yuna is discovered close to death in the car park underneath her apartment building where a fire has been set presumably to destroy crucial evidence. Mira is arrested but can’t remember anything about the night in question. Tae-san hires an old friend of Mira’s, Choi Hee-jeong (Park Shin-hye), who has now become a defence attorney, in an attempt to get her some moral support from a compassionate lawyer.

Tae-san’s motivations remain opaque and inscrutable. He appears to think his daughter did it, so why does he hire a friendly but second rate, relatively inexperienced lawyer to defend her when he could use his vast wealth to hire the best of the best or even have the case thrown out altogether? As might be expected for someone in his position, Tae-san is a corrupt businessman with a shady past. He has a history with the prosecutor working on this case who has an interest in trying to get at him through his daughter but Tae-san tries buying him off anyway. To Tae-san money is everything. There is nothing which cannot be bought, nothing which cannot be done by a man with “means”, and no trap which cannot be sprung by a man in total control. So why is he letting his daughter go through all this when he could have found a way to pull her out of it?

As it turns out, there are things money can’t buy (but in a round about way, you might be able to make a cash sacrifice in order to prove how much you want them). As part of their investigations, Tae-san and Hee-jong rub up against creepy super fan Dong-myeong (Ryoo Joon-Yeol), otherwise known as “Cableguy”, who’s been stalking Yuna for years and has secret cameras installed all over her apartment building meaning he may have crucial footage of the incident. To Dong-myeong, however, money is “worthless” in comparison to love, family, and friendship (or so he says). Taking the stand, Tae-san amps up his fascistic chaebol survival of the fittest rhetoric in reiterating that “not all lives are equal” and that saying there’s nothing to be done is only the defeatist excuse of the perpetual failure. If he believes the things he says, then Tae-san is indeed a “vile man” as the prosecutor brands him, but then again Tae-san’s relationship to the “truth” is not altogether a faithful one.

Tae-san believes that “money fixes everything” and whatever else he may have done, it’s hard to argue with his final assessment. What Tae-san is experiencing may well be karma for his life of corporate machinations, but it’s not quite of the kind you might expect. Mira, the archetypal chaebol child – spoiled, entitled, selfish, and arrogant, has in a sense been ruined by her father’s failure to teach her there are things more important than money and it’s a lesson both of them will find hard to learn. A chaebol chastened, Tae-san is a man brought low by his own ideology but it’s hard not to feel sorry him as he finds himself back on the path to righteousness having lost everything even if the real villain is the world which blackened his heart to such an intense degree.


Heart Blackened was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Believer (독전, Lee Hae-young, 2018)

Believer posterJohnnie To’s darkly comical tale of a weaselly meth cook with an extremely strong survival instinct and the austere policeman who can’t resist taking his bait might seem perfectly primed for a Korean remake in its innate pessimism and awkward bromance. Lee Hae-young’s Believer (독전, Dokjeon), however, merely borrows the bones of To’s Drug War while doubling down on its central conceit as reckless obsession leads to the undoing of both our heroes, each forced to confront the futility of their respective, mutually dependent quests.

Obsessed with tracking down a mysterious drug lord known only as “Mr. Lee”, narcotics cop Won-ho (Cho Jin-woong) asks a favour from an old informant only to see her murdered, leaving him only a vague clue by tracing an infinity symbol on a crumpled receipt moments before passing away. Warned off the Mr. Lee case, Won-ho finally gets a lead when an explosion at a drug lab brings scorned righthand woman Oh (Kim Sung-ryung) into his office promising to spill the beans in return for protection and immunity. Sadly, Won-ho couldn’t protect her either, but there was another unexpected survivor in the form of low level middleman Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol).

Traumatised by the death of his mother in the same explosion, Rak initially says nothing under interrogation but suddenly wakes up on learning that the lab’s dog also survived and has been rescued by the police. Unlike the “hero” of To’s film, Rak is small fry (if well connected) and is not looking at anything more than significant prison time. Rak may not be fighting for his life but he has a number of reasons for switching sides, especially once Won-ho fills him in on Mr. Lee’s backstory and long history of abrupt purges.

Despite working for the organisation, neither Oh nor Rak had ever met “Mr. Lee”. No one knows anything about them – gender, nationality, name, or location. In fact, there may not even be a Mr. Lee. Perhaps “Mr. Lee” is merely the “god” of drug dealers – an abstract idea almost given flesh but existing in a spiritual sense alone. Nevertheless, the idea of a Mr. Lee has completely captured the heart of compassionate police detective Won-ho whose all encompassing need to find him has already severely destabilised his life. After failing to protect his informant, Won-ho’s complaint against Mr. Lee is now a personal as well as professional one. Not so much out of vengeance (though there is that too), but a need to make the deaths count and his mounting losses meaningful.

Yet as another Mr. Lee contender later puts it, salvation may not be a matter of faith and if your faith has been misplaced, death may be a healing. In believing so deeply in the idea of “Mr. Lee”, Won-ho has given him form and created an idol to be worshipped through devotion. “Brian” (Cha Seung-won), a higher ranking gangster and former preacher chased out of the US for getting his congregation hooked on cocaine, has his own particular brand of faith based problems but subscribes to much the same philosophy. He may really be Mr. Lee (as may anyone), but if he isn’t he’s determined to convince himself he is in order to see himself as something more than the failed son of a chaebol dad who couldn’t hack it in the family business or in the pulpit. Brian would be happy to die as Mr. Lee rather than going on living as “himself”. Won-ho, unable to understand why kids do drugs asks his informant who explains it’s mostly because life is rubbish. Later someone says something similar to Brian, that he’d rather delude himself with the belief that he’s “someone” rather than face the emptiness.

Despite himself, and as Rak is eager to remind him, Won-ho is dependent on his informant for the pursuit of his case. Won-ho is reluctant to trust him even though Rak seems to be actively working to protect him in this extremely dangerous and largely unfamiliar world. Rak, by contrast, is aware he hasn’t won Won-ho’s faith, but assures him that’s OK because Rak trusts him. Rak does indeed seem to have the upper hand along with mysterious motivations and a fishy backstory, but Won-ho’s desperation to get close to Mr. Lee leaves him wide-open, unwilling to trust his guide but too invested to consider cutting him loose. “Belief” becomes its own drug, a transformative ritual act which gradually erodes all other needs and leaves only emptiness in their place. Won-ho can’t even remember why he started chasing Mr. Lee, but all that remains of him is the chase – a true believer suddenly bereft of a cause. Lee Hae-young takes To’s nihilistic cynicism and subverts it with a focus on the personal as both men fight self created images of their individual demons but find themselves unable to escape from their mutually assured identities.


Believer was screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Jeong Yoon-chul, 2017)

Warriors of the Dawn posterSome might say a king is the slave of his people, but then again he is a very well kept slave even if he is no more free than a serf at the mercy of a feudal lord. Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Daeribgoon), set in 1592 during the short-lived Japanese invasion, takes this idea to its heart in playing up the inherent similarities between the oppressed poor who are forced to impersonate the sons of wealthy men too grand for the battlefield, and the Crown Prince unwillingly forced to impersonate the King who has abandoned his people and run away to China to save his own skin. Though the Prince is young and afraid, with the help of his resentful mercenary brethren he begins to find the majesty buried inside himself all along but crucially never forgets what is like to feel oppressed so that he might rule nobly and fairly, unlike his more selfish father.

The tale begins with Tow (Lee Jung-Jae) – a “Proxy Soldier”, one of many from the Northern borderlands where the living is hard. Sons of feudal lords need not risk their lives on the battlefields while there is money to spend and so they buy the service of young men from poor families to stand in for them. The men take the name of the man they’re supposed to be but if they die, their family must send a replacement to serve out the remaining time or pay back the money that was given to them. At this point Tow’s main problem is the Jurchen rebels who’ve decided to live life their own way outside of the system of class hierarchy currently in place in feudal Korea.

The Japanese, however, are pressing on and making gains towards the capital. The King decides to flee, hoping to reach China where the Ming Emperor may be minded to help them. He cannot, however, simply abandon ship and decides to divide the court with the left behind contingent headed by his son, Crown Prince Gwang-hae (Yeo Jin-goo). Gwang-hae is young and inexperienced. Not having had a good relationship with his father, he’s mystified as to why he’s suddenly been given this “honour” but together with a selection of advisors he’s sent on a journey to found a second court at Gonggye, picking up scattered forces along the way. This brings him into contact with Tow and his contingent who become his main defenders.

Having lived a life inside the palace walls, Gwang-hae knows nothing of war or fighting and has brought a selection of books with him hoping to learn on the job. His ineptitude is likened to that of a young recruit to the band of Proxy Soldiers who has been forced to join on the death of his father but has no training and is too squeamish to kill, requiring Tow to come to his rescue as he later does for Gwang-hae. Tow is a born soldier yet reluctant, fully aware that he no longer exists and should he die another man with no name will step into his place with nary a pause. He continues to fight because he has no choice but he also feels an intense bond of brotherhood to his fellow men, something which later extends to Gwang-hae once his latent nobility begins to emerge.

Gwang-hae’s central conflict is between his advisors who council him towards austerity, and his deeper feelings which encourage him to sympathise with the ordinary people he meets along the way whose lives are being ruined thanks to the government’s failure to protect them. As it turns out, Gwang-hae is also low-born, in a sense, and therefore has inherited something of the common touch which separates him from the aloofness of his father. Though he is constantly told to make the “rational” choice he refuses – ordering troops to stop when they attempt to extort food from starving peasants, insisting on evacuating a village to safer ground, and then finally becoming a warrior himself in order to defend his people when no one else would.

Gwang-hae is, perhaps, a warrior for a new dawn and a flag that men like Tow can follow in the quest for a better world in which each man can keep his own name and fight for his own cause rather than that laid down for them by men with money or power. Despite the potential for a more urgent argument, Jeong mostly falls back on standard period aesthetics with overly familiar narrative beats heavily signposted by a subpar script. Warriors of the Dawn cannot decide whether it’s a film about catching the conscience of a king or the noble sacrifice of would be revolutionaries, failing to lend the essential weight to its duel arcs of rebirth and coming of age all of which makes for a long, hard march towards an inevitable conclusion.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

International trilogy (English subtitles)

Missing (미씽: 사라진 여자, E Oni, 2016)

missing posterSince ancient times drama has had a preoccupation with motherhood and a need to point fingers at those who aren’t measuring up to social expectation. E Oni’s Missing plays out like a Caucasian Chalk Circle for our times as a privileged woman finds herself in difficult circumstances only to have her precious daughter swept away from her just as it looked as if she would be lost through a series of social disadvantages. Missing is partly a story of motherhood, but also of women and the various ways they find themselves consistently misused, disbelieved, and betrayed. The two women at the centre of the storm, desperate mother Ji-sun (Uhm Ji-won) and her mysterious Chinese nanny Han-mae (Gong Hyo-jin) are both in their own ways tragic figures caught in one frantic moment as a choice is made on each of their behalves which will have terrible, unforeseen and irreversible consequences.

Ji-sun is a busy woman. Recently divorced from her philandering doctor husband, Ji-sun is in the middle of a nasty custody battle over her daughter, Da-eun, which she has technically already lost though refuses to concede. Seeing as Ji-sun is barely ever at home (and when she is, she’s often still working), Chinese nanny, Han-mae is on hand to help her out. Han-mae’s Korean is imperfect, but she’s good with Da-eun and seems to have the knack for calming both the little one and her mum.

Other than the custody battle heating up as Ji-sun’s mother-in-law is intent on getting her grand-daughter away from her son’s awful former wife, Ji-sun’s life was functioning pretty well, all things considered. When she comes home one day and realises Han-mae and Da-eun aren’t around she’s a little put out but assumes they’re just delayed, have stopped off with friends, or are off somewhere having a lovely time without her. When they haven’t comeback by nightfall Ji-sun starts to worry.

Missing does its best not to judge either of the women. Though there is the subtle criticism of Ji-sun’s parental absenteeism, it’s largely manifested through her own feelings of guilt and fear as she’s placed in the difficult position of unexpected, middle-aged single parenthood. Divorced from her cold-hearted, selfish, lothario of a husband, Ji-sun would have needed to get a high paying job and maintain a middle class lifestyle to have any hope of keeping her daughter though the need to maintain both of those things would necessarily mean that she won’t be able to spend a lot of time with her child. Torn between the need to prove she can support herself alone and the need to play a fuller role in her daughter’s life, Ji-sun is understanably squeezed from both ends and left with little choice about any of it.

The problems both she and Han-mae face are those of an inherently sexist and intolerant society which forces them to prove themselves as women and judges them harshly when it believes they’ve deviated from the expected course. Ji-sun’s bosses make overtly sexist comments towards her, exclaiming that this is why they “don’t like employing mothers”, the police don’t want to believe her kidnap story because she’s just another hysterical woman, and her ex-husband knows he can take their daughter simply because he’s a man with a good job and a ready home.

Han-mae’s life has been darker and crueller, though hers is a greater struggle as she finds herself in an even lower status through being non-Korean and having poor language skills. Language skills are something she’s actively been denied in order to keep her from trying to escape a life of serfdom but in any case Han-mae’s prospects are not good. Ji-sun’s investigations take her to some very dark places as she searches for her child and begins to understand the reasons why she was taken. As a mother, as woman, and as a human being it is impossible to not to understand why Han-mae’s story ends the way it does, but it’s also impossible to not acknowledge a degree of unwittingly complicity in her ongoing suffering.

The last scene brings us unwelcomely back to that early debate surrounding the true mother and the unbreakable bond between a parent and a child, solving a complex problem neatly and smoothing it over with the gloss of emotion. Early on in the courtroom, Ji-sun says she’d do whatever it it took to keep her daughter, even run away with her if she had to. Later she says so again to a shady guy in a police cell who has more idea of what “anything” might mean, but Ji-sun was already doing quite a lot for Da-eun in running herself ragged just for the right to be near her. Neither Ji-sun or Han-mae were in any way at fault in the series of events which brought them to this point, a decision was made for them which was to have terrible, irreversible consequences. The two women are victims of the same oppressive social codes, but life is very different for each of them and if Ji-sun had been guilty of anything at all it was a blinkered way of living in which women like Han-mae are a barely visible presence except when needed to fulfil their allotted role.


Reviewed as part of a series of teaser screenings for the London Korean Film Festival 2017 the next of which, Queen of Walking, takes place at Regent Street Cinema on 22nd May 2017 at 7.30pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Helpless (화차, Byun Young-joo, 2012)

121003-006_1211020310103Review of Byun Young-joo’s Helpless (화차, Hwacha) first published by UK Anime Network


Can you ever really know another person? Everything you think you know about the people closest to you is founded on your own desire to believe what they’ve told you is the fundamental truth about themselves, yet you’ll never receive direct proof one way or the other. Byun Young-joo’s Helpless is based on Miyuki Miyabe’s popular novel Kasha (available in an English translation by Alfred Birnbaum under the title All She Was Worth) which literally means “fiery chariot” and is the name given to a subset of yokai who feed on the corpses of those who have died after accumulating evil deeds, which may tell you something about the direction this story is headed. After his fiancée suddenly disappears, one man discovers the woman he loved was not who she claimed to be, but perhaps also discovers that she was exactly who he thought she was all along.

Mun-ho (Lee Sun-kyun) and Seon-young (Kim Min-hee) are newly engaged and on their way to deliver a wedding invite to his parents in person. They seem bubbly and excited, still cheerful in the middle of a long car journey. It’s doubly surprising therefore when Mun-ho returns to the car after stopping at a service station to find that Seon-young has disappeared. Seon-young is not answering her phone and has left her umbrella behind despite the pouring rain which only leaves Mun-ho feeling increasingly concerned. His only clue is her distinctive hair clip lying on the floor of the petrol station toilet. Reporting his fiancée’s disappearance to the police, Mun-ho is more or less fobbed off as they come to the obvious conclusion that the couple must have argued and Seon-young has simply left him, as is her right. Confused, hurt, and worried Mun-ho turns to his old friend, Jong-geun (Cho Seong-ha), a recently disgraced ex-policeman, to help him understand what exactly has happened to the woman he thought he loved.

Mun-ho, helpless as the title, has no idea what might have transpired – has she been abducted? Was she in trouble, was someone after her? Did she simply get cold feet as the policemen suggested? A trip to Seon-young’s apartment reveals the place has been pretty thoroughly turned over leaving little trace behind, the entire apartment has even been swept for fingerprints in chillingly methodical fashion. Another clue comes from a close friend who’d been looking into the couple’s finances and found some improprieties in Seon-young’s past which he’s surprised she wouldn’t have mentioned. Perhaps she was embarrassed or ashamed of her credit history, but running out onto the motorway in the pouring rain without even stopping to pick up an umbrella seems like a massive overreaction for such an ordinary transgression.

What transpires is a tale of identity theft, vicious loan sharks, parental neglect, and the increasingly lonely, disconnected society which opens doors for the predatory. Usurious loans become an ironic recurring theme as they ruin lives left, right and centre. Following the financial crash, a father takes out a loan from gangsters to support his business but promptly goes missing. His wife is so distraught that she becomes too depressed to care for their daughter who ends up in a catholic orphanage. Gangsters have their own rules, the debt passes to the girl, young as she is, who is then forced to pay in non-monetary services until she finally escapes only to discover the torment is not yet over. Meanwhile, another woman takes out a series of loans to cover credit card debt and is forced to declare bankruptcy, left only with a lingering sense of shame towards her ailing mother who then dies in a freak accident leaving her a windfall inheritance which she uses to buy a fancy headstone for the woman she was never able to look after whilst still alive.

The original identity theft is only made possible by this fracturing of traditional communities in favour of impersonal city life. Nobody really knows anybody anymore – Seon-young had claimed to have no family and no close friends so there was no one to vouch for her. Many other young women are in similar positions, orphaned and unmarried, living in urban isolation with only work colleagues to wonder where they’ve got to should they not arrive at the office one day. Loneliness and boredom leave the door wide open for opportunists seeking to exploit such weaknesses for their own various gains.

Byun hints that something is wrong right away by switching to anxious, canted and strange angles filled with oddly cramped compositions. The eerie score enhances the feeling of impending doom as Mun-ho continues to dig into Seong-young’s past, finding confusion and reversals each way he looks. Seong-young was not who she claimed to be, and her tragic past traumas can in no way excuse her later conduct, but even if Mun-ho’s faith in her was not justified, there is a kind of pureness in his unwavering love which adds to the ongoing tragedy. Mun-ho fell in love with the woman Seong-young would have been if life had not been so cruel, and perhaps that part of her loved him too, but life is cruel and now it’s too late. An intriguingly plotted, relentlessly tense thriller Helpless will make you question everything you ever thought you knew about your nearest and dearest, but it is worth remembering that there are some questions it is better not to ask.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)