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)