Beasts Clawing at Straws (지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들, Kim Yong-hoon, 2020)

If you found a big bag full of money and then waited a while but no one came to claim it, what would you do? Many people would do as Jung-man (Bae Seong-woo) did, but sometimes gifts from the gods are sent to tempt you and are decidedly more trouble than they’re worth. Beasts Clawing at Straws (지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들, Jipuragirado Jabgo Sipeun Jibseungdeul) is an apt way to describe our small group of interconnected protagonists, each desperately trying to get their hands on the money not necessarily for itself but for the power and possibility it represents or simply to free themselves from a debt-laden existence. 

Jung-man finds the Louis Vuitton bag stuffed inside a locker at his part-time job in a bathhouse. It seems that he is feeling particularly powerless because he’s somehow lost the family business and either never told his extremely domineering mother (Youn Yuh-jung) or she’s simply forgotten, often going off on crazed rants about how her daughter-in-law is secretly plotting to kill them all. Meanwhile, across town, immigration officer Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung) is desperately trying to find his missing girlfriend, Yeon-hee (Jeon Do-yeon), who has, apparently, run off with all his money leaving him in a difficult position with vicious loan shark Park (Jung Man-sik), and melancholy hostess Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-bin) is miserably trapped in an abusive marriage and plotting escape with the help of Jin-tae (Jung Ga-ram), an undocumented migrant from China she met in the club. 

As expected the streams will eventually cross, it is all connected, though it’ll be a while before we start to figure out how in Kim Yong-hoon’s tightly controlled non-linear narrative, adapted from the novel by Japanese author Keisuke Sone. Other than the money the force which connects them is powerlessness. Some of them, maybe all, are “greedy” but it’s not necessarily riches that they want so much as a way out of their disappointing lives. Jung-man feels particularly oppressed because he’s made to feel as if he’s failed his father by losing the family business, something he’s constantly reminded of by his ultra paranoid, domineering mother who eventually pushes his wife down the stairs provoking a crisis point in the foundation of the family. If working part-time in a bathhouse in his 40s hadn’t left him feeling enough of a failure, he is further emasculated by being unable to pay his daughter’s university tuition after she fails to win a scholarship and informs them she’s planning to take a term or two off to earn the money by herself. 

Tae-young is in much the same position, humiliatingly trapped by having foolishly co-signed his girlfriend’s loan only for her to disappear off the face of the Earth, leaving him wondering if he’s just a complete idiot or something untoward has happened to her. He thinks he can regain control of the situation by slipping further into the net of criminality, helping an old uni friend who’s committed large-scale fraud escape to China in exchange for a cut of the loot (and secretly plotting to nab the lot with the help of his shady friend Carp (Park Ji-hwan) who works at the club). 

A crisis of masculinity is also behind Mi-ran’s life of misery as her husband takes out his resentment towards his reduced circumstances on his wife, beating her mercilessly while forcing her to work at a hostess bar to pay off their debts from unwise stock market investments. For her, the money is both revenge and a pathway to a better life. She wants to be free of her husband, and profit in the process. Unable to do it alone, she manipulates male power in the lovestruck Jin-tae all too eager to play white knight to a damaged woman. But Jin-tae is male failure too. When all’s said and done he’s still an innocent boy, not quite prepared for the ugliness of causing a man’s death even if he is a wife beating tyrant the world may be better off without. As an undocumented migrant, he’s pretty marginalised too. Taking advice on how to solve the Jin-tae problem, a more experienced player reminds Mi-ran that no one’s coming looking for an illegal alien and it’s not as if she actually likes him so he is infinitely expendable. 

In an odd way, getting the money is about not being an expendable person anymore. They want the money because they think it will give them back a degree of control over their lives, a kind freedom to move forward with a sense of possibility they do not currently have because of all their debts both financial and emotional. Yet they find themselves farcically scrabbling in chaos, beasts clawing at straws, as they try to outsmart each other and the universe to get their hands on the bag. The universe looks on and laughs, rejoicing in its darkly humorous punchline as the bag finds itself another owner, tempted by its dubious charms with only the promise of more chaos to ensue.


Beasts Clawing at Straws streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app Aug. 29 to Sept. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Svaha: The Sixth Finger (사바하, Jang Jae-hyun, 2019)

The thing about prophesies and the prophets who proclaim them, is that they only have power if people choose to believe in them. “Faith” can become a convenient cover for those who’d rather not explain themselves, a mechanism for manipulating sometimes vulnerable people looking for a greater truth or a purpose in their lives. Svaha: The Sixth Finger’s (사바하) dogged pastor is intent on investigating religious crimes and exploiting spiritual charlatans but he of course has his own agenda, that mostly being that he’s keen to get money off his clients who are in turn hoping to bolster their authority by rooting out “heresies”.

Leader of the Far Eastern Religious Research Institute, a kind of religious detective agency employing only himself, an undercover assistant, and a “deaconess” secretary, Pastor Park (Lee Jung-jae) makes his money flagging up dodgy and/or exploitative practices connected with organised religion. According to him, freedom of religion is “overly” protected, and he is alone on the frontlines of a spiritual war against unscrupulous cultists. Though some kind of protestant, he often works for/against the Catholic Church and is good friends with a Buddhist monk who gives him a tip off about a weird sect he can’t get a handle on, Deer Hill. 

Meanwhile, a young girl, Geum-hwa (Lee Jae-in), explains to us that she was born with an “evil” twin clamped to her leg. The twin wasn’t expected to survive, but is still living with Geum-hwa and her family who keep her locked up in a shed like a beast. Rightly or wrongly, Geum-hwa connects her sister with the deaths of her parents which occurred fairly soon after the children were born. Her grandfather, with whom Geum-hwa now lives, never even registered the birth of a second child out of fear and shame, never expecting her to survive this long. When a truck hits a bridge and exposes the hidden body of a murdered teenager, the police start investigating too, eventually leading them to two young men loosely connected with the shady Buddhist cult. 

“This world is one big muddy mess”, according to the cultists at Deer Hill. It’s not difficult to see why people might be looking for spiritual reassurance in such a chaotic world, but it’s exactly that need that places like Deer Hill may be seeking to exploit. Nevertheless, the only thing that Park’s undercover agent turns up is that there doesn’t appear to be anything untoward. Deer Hill doesn’t accept offerings from its members and even gives money away to the needy. Tellingly, the real nitty gritty to Park’s clients is in doctrinal deviation, they only really want to know what kind of Buddhism it is that they do and if it’s in line with broader teachings of the faith. 

A further tip off leads them to the mysterious Je-seok (Jung Dong-hwan), a legendary Buddhist priest who studied in Japan but apparently devoted himself to the Independence movement and is said to have achieved enlightenment. Je-seok’s teachings are dark in the extreme, “Pain is the fruit of faith” goes his mantra, “pain purifies your blood”. He believes that he is the “light” that will conquer the “darkness” by snuffing out “snakes”. One of his disciples, brainwashed as a vulnerable young man and encouraged to do terrible things in the name of good, begins to doubt his teachings when confronted with a possible hole in his logic and the very real human cost of his strategy. 

Not quite as cynical as he seems, Park retains his faith. It’s ironic that all this is taking place at Christmas and centres on the prophesied birth of a child that threatens someone’s sense of personal power. Unlike most, Park has always regarded Christmas as a “sad” holiday, unable to forget that Jesus’ birth was accompanied by the mass murder of innocent baby boys. He wonders where God is now and why he permits these things to happen. Park has faith that God sent Jesus into the world for the greater good, but Je-seok has convinced his followers that the same is true of him, that he has come to banish the darkness and that all their pain and suffering is fuel in a holy war. Their faith has been redirected and misused for the benefit of a false prophet, while his opposite number has been made to live a life of bestial misery solely because of superstitious prejudice. The police is a fairly irrelevant presence in this series of spiritual transgressions, but there is much less clarity to be had in “truth” than one might hope with “faith” the only solution in an increasingly uncertain world.


Svaha: The Sixth Finger is currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories).

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Drug King (麻藥王 / 마약왕, Woo Min-ho, 2018)

Drug King posterKorean cinema has been in a reflective mood of late, keen to re-examine the turbulent post-war era in the wake of a second wave of democratic protest and political turmoil. Even so, dealing with the difficult Park Chung-hee era has remained sensitive with the legacy of life under a repressive regime apparently very much still felt. Woo Min-ho’s Drug King (麻藥王 / 마약왕, Mayakwang) is first and foremost a crime doesn’t pay story, but it’s also a subtle condemnation of authoritarianism and the corruption and cronyism that goes along with it. Painting its hero’s rise as a consequence of the society in which he lives, it perhaps implies the new wind of egalitarian democracy made such amoral venality a thing of the past but then again is at pains to show that nothing really changes when it comes to greed and resentment.

Our hero, Lee Doo-sam (Song Kang-ho), starts out as a jeweller dabbling in smuggling in Busan in 1972. Just as the smuggling business starts to take off, Doo-sam’s boss falls out with his friends in high places and decides to throw him to the wolves while he escapes abroad to safety. Doo-sam, not one to be beaten, starts coming up with ideas. Mobilising his wife (Kim So-jin) to get him out of jail through a combination of bribery and blackmail, he teams up with the area’s smuggling king to act on a tip-off he got from a Korean-Japanese yakuza and begins producing popular drug Crank for export to Japan.

As the opening voice over explains, Crank is a dangerous stimulant developed by the Japanese during the war and given to factory workers and kamikaze pilots because of its ability to eliminate both fear and fatigue. It is also highly addictive and provides an extreme high which have made it a popular recreational drug but, crucially, the real value is economic. The rising Japan is keen to make use of foreign labour, and Korea is keen to up its export capability. This, coupled with poor regulation of the workforce, has led to extreme exploitation in which factory workers are encouraged to hop themselves up on stimulants to keep working overtime for the sake of economic expansion. Thus, the influx of Crank is, in many ways, simply another facet of ongoing Japanese imperialism.

Not that Lee Doo-Sam cares very much about that. An honest prosecutor later puts it to him that he’s contributing to the exploitation of ordinary workers who might earn a few pennies extra for working a few more hours but at the cost of their health and wellbeing, while he gets filthy rich off the back of their misery. Doo-sam is, however, unrepentant. In the beginning he just wanted to provide for his wife, children, and unmarried sisters, but perhaps he also wanted to kick back against his reduced circumstances and he certainly did enjoy playing the big man. In any case, it has paid off. Doo-sam too has friends in high places and they won’t want to let him sit in a police cell for long in case he starts feeling chatty.

Times change, however, and whatever standing and influence Doo-sam thought he’d accrued his life is built on sand. When Park is assassinated by a member of his own security team, all those contacts are pretty much useless because the cronies are now out in the cold. There are protests in the streets and the wind of a new era is already blowing through even if it is still a fair few years away. That bold new era will, it hopes, do away with men like Doo-sam and their way of thinking, eradicating corruption and backhanders in favour of honest meritocracy. Naive, perhaps, and idealistic but it is true enough that Doo-sam is a man whose era has passed him by while he, arrogantly, burned all his bridges and gleefully sacrificed love and friendship on the altar of greed and empty ambition.

Hubris is Doo-sam’s fatal flaw, but he remains a weasel to the end only too keen to sell out his associates in order to save his own skin. He may claim he was only trying to live a “decent” life, but his definition of “decent” may differ wildly from the norm. Nevertheless, perhaps he was just like many scrappy young men of post-war years, desperate, hungry, and left with few honest options to feed his family if one who later found himself corrupted by backstreet “success” and the dubious morals of the world in which he lived which encouraged him to disregard conventional morality in favour of personal gain. Much more about life in Korea in the authoritarian ‘70s than it is about crime, The Drug King is nevertheless an ironic tragedy in which its drug peddling hero eventually enables the birth of a dedicated narcotics squad and helps to dismantle system which allowed him to prosper all while grinning wildly and, presumably, planning his next move.


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

International trailer (English subtitles)

Key tracks from the (fantastic) soundtrack:

Jung Hoon-Hee – Flower Road

Kim Jung Mi – Wind

The Battle: Roar to Victory (봉오동 전투, Won Shin-yeon, 2019)

The Battle roar to voctory poster 1Besides seeing the birth of Korean cinema, 1919 was something of a flashpoint in the nation’s 20th century history. Japan had annexed Korea in 1910, thereafter instituting an increasingly brutal colonialist regime. On March 1, 1919 the people rose up in an act of mass protest inspired by the provision for “Self-Determination” included in US president Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points speech outlining a path towards enduring peace. Though the protest was peaceful, it was quickly suppressed by Japanese troops resulting in thousands of deaths and mass incarcerations.

The Battle: Roar to Victory (봉오동 전투, Bongodong Jeontoo) situates itself a year after the protest as the Independence Movement began to intensify, and is inspired by real life events apparently often absent from the textbooks in which several factions eventually came together to wipe out an “elite’ squad of Japanese troops which had been put together to take down guerrilla Resistance fighters. Our heroes have been charged with collecting money from a fundraiser and conveying it to the Independence Movement in exile in Shanghai but are drawn into a wider battle against Japanese brutality on their way.

The Japanese colonial forces are indeed brutal, if often cowardly. When we first meet crazed commander Yasukawa (Kazuki Kitamura), he’s butchering a tiger in some kind of symbolic act of intense barbarity. To smoke out the Resistance fundraiser, the Japanese military begin razing villages, killing the men and raping the women, even going so far as to shoot small children for sport. When veteran Resistance fighter Hae-cheol (Yoo Hae-jin) raids a command post, he makes a point of taking a hostage who himself seems to be a teenage recruit. Hae-cheol lets the boy live not only out of a sense of compassion, but also because he wants him to take what he’s seen back to Japan, including the aftermath of a Japanese assault on an ordinary Korean village.

Yukio (Kotaro Daigo), as the boy later gives his name, is, unlike his fellow officers, conflicted and confused. Apparently a member of the elite himself, the son of a prominent military figure, Yukio gave up a bright academic future to join the army and find out what it is that Japan does with its advanced weaponry. Asked what he thinks now that he’s seen for himself, he says that he’s ashamed, that his worst fears have been confirmed. According to Yukio, his nation is suffering from an intense inferiority complex which is leading it to commit acts of extreme barbarity in order convince itself it is equal to any other imperial power.

The Japanese officers veer from the crazed, bloodthirsty Yasukawa who views his mission as some kind of hunting expedition, to the merely weak and cowardly. The Independence fighters, however, come from all over Korea speaking many dialects (some less mutually intelligible than others) and with many different motivations but all with the desire to free their country from Japanese oppression. Ace captain Jang-ha (Ryu Jun-yeol) is a born soldier, but those who support him are largely street fighters and “bandits” not always welcomed into the movement by the so-called intellectual “nobles” running the show from a position of social superiority. Then again, as Hae-cheol puts it, no one can be sure how many guerrilla soldiers there are because any farmer is a potential sleeper agent.

In any case, the Resistance fighters pursue their mission selflessly, manipulating the complacent Japanese troops to lure them into a mass ambush while trying to ensure the money still makes its way to Shanghai to preserve the movement. Despite the “Roar to Victory” subtitle, it’s important to note that the Independence Movement was still in a nascent state and would continue opposing Japanese oppression until Korea’s liberation at the end of the war. Covering the legendary battle of Battle of Fengwudong, the film ends with forward motion as the Resistance commander (a late and great cameo from a giant of Korean cinema) points ahead towards the next target, the well known Battle of Cheongsanri, in which the Japanese military reportedly suffered over 1200 casualties at the hands of Independence forces. Overly gory and lacking in subtlety, The Battle: Roar to Victory is unabashedly patriotic but does its best to suggest the costs and compromises of guerrilla warfare as its selfless heroes put aside their differences to fight for a better Korea.


The Battle: Roar to Victory was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Unstoppable (성난황소, Kim Min-ho, 2018)

Unstoppable poster 5Can a person ever really change? The answer might be more complex than it seems but then again, you might not quite want them to change as much as you might think you do. Ma Dong-seok is quickly becoming Korean cinema’s MVP, in the genre stakes at least, and has begun to make a career for himself as a big hearted teddy bear of a man with gigantic heavy fists. It’s a legacy he very much embraces in the oddly light hearted Unstoppable (성난황소, Seongnan Hwangso) which sees him play a former gangster gone straight whose latent violent streak is reawakened when he becomes a warrior for love.

Dong-cheol (Ma Dong-seok) was once a notorious tough guy but gave up the streets when he met “an angel”, nurse Ji-soo (Song Ji-hyo), and married her. These days, he works a regular low pay labour job at the fish market but is always dreaming of better things which is why he’s constantly getting scammed by the latest get rich quick scheme proposed by one of his dodgy friends. The trouble starts when Dong-cheol is rear ended by some shady types and gets out of his car to ask for insurance details. Sensing danger but now fully reformed, Dong-cheol remains calm and refuses to engage but Ji-soo isn’t having any of it. She verbally lays into the gangsters and insists on compensation. When Dong-cheol returns home to find his apartment in disarray after arguing with Ji-soo about his unwise financial decisions during a birthday dinner at a fancy restaurant they can’t afford, he has an inkling about what may have occurred but finds the police slow and unsympathetic leaving him to take matters into his own hands.

Unlike many a similarly themed action drama, Unstoppable is keen to emphasise the sweet and innocent love between Dong-cheol and Ji-soo with even the climactic argument between them neutered shortly before Ji-soo is taken. Dong-cheol is not a violent man at heart, but is prepared to meet violence with violence where necessary and he does not like to lose. He takes damage, but never gives up the fight not because he’s angry and hellbent on revenge but because he loves his wife and is desperate to make sure nothing bad happens to her while he is around to prevent it. Meanwhile, Ji-soo is far from a damsel in distress. Refusing to be cowed, she keeps her wits about her and protects the other women kidnapped by the gang while she looks for a way to escape.

The fact is, there seem to have been a lot of unexplained disappearances of young women in this city – something which Dong-cheol becomes aware of while hanging around the police station, yet the authorities have not made much headway on the case. Dong-cheol quickly works out that he’s potentially dealing with an organised crime network which makes its money out of trafficking kidnapped women all over Asia and that, unlike himself, the families of these women largely opted to take the “compensation” money left in their place by the gangsters rather than fight back. This in itself annoys him, though not quite as much as being forced to play the gangsters’ game in order to maximise the chances of getting to Ji-soo before it’s too late.

What quickly becomes apparent to flamboyant gangster Ki-tae (Kim Sung-oh) is that he’s made quite a big mistake, even if that mistake might be more fun than hassle. Ji-soo is not the victim type and her husband will stop at nothing to get her back which means he’s fighting a war on two fronts, both surprised and somewhat amused to be met with such unexpected resistance. Still, Dong-cheol is determined to barrel through fists flying while his bumbling sidekicks – old comrade Choon-sik (Park Ji-hwan) and fast talking fixer Gomsajang (Kim Min-jae), handle the investigation from the sidelines. Undercutting the essential darkness of the “lone vigilante takes on heinous human trafficking ring” narrative with warmhearted humour, Unstoppable proves an ideal vehicle for the increasingly popular Ma Dong-seok which finds unexpected sweetness in the genuine connection between its perfectly matched husband and wife team.


Unstoppable was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

1987: When the Day Comes (1987, Jang Joon-hwan, 2017)

fullsizephoto931939The political history of Korea is long and complex and oftentimes sad. The events depicted in 1987: When the Day Comes (1987), pivotal as they were, occurred just 30 years ago. Yet the recent past has also been one marked by protest, public anger, and political scandal though this time around with far less fear or danger. The protests of 1987 were a different story. The rule of Chun Doo-hwan, a military dictator who had seized power following the assassination of the previous dictator, Park Chung-hee, was one of extreme oppression which had already seen a widespread massacre of peaceful protestors by the state in Gwangju in 1980. Chun’s term, under the constitution, was set at seven years after which many hoped for a path to modern democracy but those hopes were dashed when he announced an intention to appoint his successor rather than call a free and fair election.

In depicting the climactic events of that summer, Jang Joon-hwan begins with chaos as a doctor is summoned to a mysterious room where a young man lies unconscious in a pool of water. The police have gone too far, and boy has died during interrogation. Aware of the potential danger of the public finding out that the state has in effect murdered a suspect in an act of torture, the head of the ACIB, Park (Kim Yun-seok), orders the body to be quickly cremated. This, however, needs a certificate signed by a prosecutor and Prosecutor Choi (Ha Jung-woo) is fed up with the ACIB and unwilling to cooperate especially as he smells a rat with the cause of death for a healthy 22-year-old listed as a “heart attack”. Not wanting to be on the wrong side of it if it does get out, Choi refuses the cremation and orders an autopsy which in itself triggers a series of other events eventually bringing the government to its knees.

The state remains cruel and duplicitous. The death of Park Jong-chul (Yeo Jin-goo) would become a catalyst and a rallying call, not just for the injustice of it but for the injustice of covering it up. Park’s family are denied their basic rights, his mother and sister literally dragged away from the morgue screaming while his traumatised father looks on in silent agony. They say that Park was a communist, that he died of fear because he weak while claiming all along to have done no wrong. Only when the “truth” begins to emerge does the ACIB decide to hang a few of its guys out to dry, urging them to “patriotically” take one for the team and head to prison for a while with a hefty compensation package to help sweeten the deal.

The death in custody becomes just one event in a situation spiralling out of control. Paranoid in the extreme, the Chun regime is also working on bringing down a “North Korean Spy Network” controlled by a democracy activist on the run who, unbeknownst to them, is also working with the Catholic Church who will eventually prove pivotal in delivering the truth to the people. Meanwhile, the press has also decided to jump ship, ignoring the government’s carefully crafted guidelines in favour of running actual news. Chun’s iron grip is slipping.

Jang’s biggest takeaway is that corrupt regimes crumble when enough people find the strength to go on saying no. It begins with Choi refusing to stamp a certificate then travels to the reporter who won’t back down, passes on to the secret revolutionaries bravely carrying messages at great personal costs, the not so secret clergy who perhaps have more protection to speak their minds (up to a point) than most, and of course the students in the streets who risked their lives to build a better future. One of the few completely fictional characters, the niece (Kim Tae-ri) of a prison guard (Yu Hae-jin) charged with conveying messages to an activist in hiding, proves the most illuminating in her inward struggle towards the democratisation movement. Afraid of the consequences and preferring to remain politically apathetic, she is eventually radicalised through witnessing the brutality of the regime first hand and suffering personal loss because of it.

Playing out as a taut thriller, 1987: When the Day Comes has a lived in authenticity from the motif of being constantly deprived of one shoe by a cruel and absurd regime to the deadly serious ridiculousness of men like Park who hate “the enemy” enough to destroy the thing they claim to love in pursuit of it. Timely and filled with melancholy nostalgia, Jang’s depiction of the pivotal events of 30 years ago is also a rallying cry in itself and an important reminder that the fight for justice is never truly won.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

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)

The Outlaws (범죄도시, Kang Yoon-sung, 2017)

The outlaws posterBack in 2004, a hero cop made the headlines by cleaning up Chinatown when he took into custody 32 known gang members in Seoul’s Garibong district. Based on the real life case, The Outlaws (범죄도시, BumJoedoshi, AKA Crime City), is the debut feature from Kang Yoon-sung in which Ma Dong-seok adds goodhearted yet compromised policeman to his list of increasingly impressive leading performances. Truth be told the role does little to stretch his current range but fits comfortably into Ma’s well worn persona of noble bruiser as he plays fatherly commander to his fiercely loyal team and avuncular mentor to a brave boy in the district who wants to help free the area from the dangerous gang violence which leaves not just businesses but lives under threat.

Ma Seok-do (Ma Dong-seok) is the only force stopping Garibong from descending into a hellish war zone of gang violence and destruction. A local resident, Ma is well respected in the area and knows the territory well enough to navigate its various challenges. Rather than take on the gangs wholesale he attempts to placate them, brokering an uneasy equilibrium which keeps the violence contained and helps to protect ordinary people from its effects. All of that goes out the window when a new threat arrives in the form of vicious gangster Jang Chen (Yoon Kye-sang) and his two minions whose methods are unsubtle in the extreme, ending with rival gang bosses chopped up and placed inside suitcases over nothing more than a trifling gambling debt.

Jang is a new and terrifying threat because he sees no need to play by the “rules”. A peace cannot be brokered with him and he cannot be reasoned with. Ma knows the time has come for action but even with police resources behind him is ill equipped to become, in effect, Garibong’s latest gang leader. To this end he makes a surprising decision – asking the residents for help. The residents, however, remain terrified. How can he ask them to inform on gangsters to whom they’re still paying protection money? Ma’s promise is a big one – to do what no one thought could be done in neutralising the organised crime threat by conducting a mass arrest of foot soldiers from across the gangland spectrum.

Ma Dong-seok makes fantastic use of his trademark sarcasm as the regular neighbourhood guy who also happens to be a top cop. Kang mixes a fair amount of humour into an otherwise dark and violent tale such as the recurrent presence of two lowly pamphleteers who are eventually pressed into more serious service for Ma, his trickery and manipulation of a suspect (which is also a way to save him from a death sentence on being sent back to China), and Ma’s love of drunken karaoke and lamb skewers with the boys. Ma thinks nothing of arming a gangster with a stab vest, setting up another in a public bath, or playing gangland politics for all they’re worth, but when it really counts he’s as straight as they come, protecting the residents of Garibong like the lone sheriff of some outpost town, equal parts officer of the law and disappointed dad.

The incongruously comical tone harks back to the ‘70s maverick cop golden age in which the lines between law breaker and law enforcer were always blurred but you knew who the good guys were because they had all the best lines. If Kang is aiming for this branded mix of grit and humour he doesn’t quite find it and the comedy sometimes undercuts his more serious intentions but it is undeniably good fun all the same. Ma Dong-seok’s warmhearted maverick is quite rightly the star of the show, but his rivalry with Yoon Kye-chang’s Jang Chen fails to ignite with Chen never quite seeming as menacing as intended. Nevertheless even if Kang’s gangland action comedy has little to add to an already crowded arena, it does at least provide a fitting showcase for Ma’s talents in its sarcastic, world weary policeman who may have one foot on the wrong side of the law but always acts in the name of justice.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

 

Asura: The City of Madness (아수라, Kim Sung-soo, 2016)

asura-poster

Review of Kim Sung-soo’s Asura: The City of Madness first published by UK Anime Network.


Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. It’s a shame the title City of Violence was already taken, Asura: The City of Madness (아수라, Asura) is a place of chaos in which carnage has become currency. Re-teaming with actor Jung Woo-sung fifteen years after Musa the Warrior, Kim Sung-soo’s Asura: The City of Madness is, at heart, B-movie pulp steeped in the hardboiled world of tough guys walking alone through the darkness, but even if film noir’s cynicism is out in force, there’s precious little of its essentially chivalrous mentality to be found in this fiercely amoral universe.

World weary policeman Han (Jung Woo-sung) has been moonlighting as the “gun-dog” of corrupt crime boss mayor, Park (Hwang Jung-min), and soon plans on quitting the legitimate force to work for city hall full time. After helping Park “relocate” an inconvenient witness, Han runs into a problem when another policeman turns up and promptly gets killed, drawing unwanted attention to his shady second job. This also brings him into contact with a righteous prosecutor, Kim (Kwak Do-won), who claims to be hellbent on exposing Park’s not quite legal operations and ousting him from power in the hope of a less corrupt regime emerging. Despite his lofty claims, Kim’s methods are little different from Park’s. Han soon finds himself caught in the middle of a legal cold war as he tries to play both sides one against the other but slowly finds neither worth betraying.

The film’s title, Asura, is inspired by the creatures from Indian mythology who are imbued with immense supernatural power yet consumed by negative emotion, relentlessly battling each other in a quest for material rather than spiritual gain. The very male world of Annam is no different as men trade blows like money and wear their wealth on their faces. There are no good guys in Annam, each is involved in a desperate fight to survive in which none can afford luxuries such as pity or morality. Han emerges as the film’s “hero” not out of any kind of nobility or a desire to do good, but simply in being the least actively bad. Able to see the world for what it is – a hell of chaos and cruelty, Han is, perhaps, the best man his environment allows him to be but this same knowledge eats away at him from the inside as he’s forced to act in a way which betrays his own sense of righteousness.

Annam is a world founded on chaos. The forces which are supposed to represent order are the very ones which perpetuate a state of instability. The police are universally corrupt, either working for themselves or in the pay of larger outside forces, and the municipal authorities are under the control of Park – a vicious, mobbed up, sociopath. Prosecutor Kim who claims to represent the resistance against this cosmology of corruption is not what he seems and is, in fact, another part of the system, willing to resort to blackmail, torture, and trickery in order to achieve his vainglorious goal. Yet for all that, the force that rules is mere chance – the most meaningful deaths occur accidentally, the result of shoddy construction work and high testosterone or in the indecision of betrayal. Death is an inevitability for all living creatures, but these men are, in a sense, already dead, living without love, without honour, and without pity.

Kim Sung-soo makes a point of portraying violence in all of its visceral reality as bones crack and blood flows with sickening vitality. The film is extreme in its representation of what could be termed ordinary violence as men engage as equals in hand to hand combat until the machetes and hacksaws come out to combat the shootout finale, complete with the Korean hallmark corridor fight.

Beautifully shot with a neo-noir aesthetic of the nighttime, neon lit city filled with crime ridden back alleys, Asura: The City of Madness is a grimy, hardboiled tale of internecine violence fuelled by corruption and self serving compliance. The ‘80s style lowkey synth score adds a note of anxiety to the proceedings, hinting towards an almost supernatural presence in this strange city populated by the walking dead and morally bankrupt. An epic of “unheroic” bloodshed, Asura: The City of Violence presents a world which thrives on pain where men ease their suffering by transferring it to others. Bleak and nihilistic in the extreme, this is the hard edge of pulpy B-movie noir in which the men in the shadows wish they were as dark as the city streets, but find themselves imprisoned within a series of private hells which are entirely of their own making.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Violent Prosecutor (검사외전, Lee Il-hyeong, 2016)

112997_47166_106Review of Lee Il-hyeong’s A Violent Prosecutor first published by UK Anime Network.


Police brutality is something of a hot button issue at the moment, so it’s a little disconcerting to see a film like A Violent Prosecutor (검사외전, Geomsawejeon) casting a rogue cop with a penchant for forced confessions as its hero. Then again, the theme plays into the obvious retro charm on offer and the film does, at least, make it plain that violence should have no place in law enforcement. The debut feature from director Lee Il-Hyeong, A Violent Prosecutor has a distinctly ‘70s vibe from its quirky credits sequence to the carefully managed tone which manages to be both serious and not at the same time.

Hwang Jung-min plays hardline prosecutor Byun Jae-wook, feared more than respected because of his willingness (or perhaps eagerness?) to indulge in physical violence in the name of justice. Already known as a trouble maker, Byun’s maverick status is an exploitable weakness and so when he kicks up a fuss trying to expose an obvious cover up, he’s framed for wrongful death after a witness dies in police custody.

Sent to prison among many of the men he helped to put there, Byun quickly finds his feet by providing free legal advice to the guards. Five years later, Byun has become the one of the prison’s top dogs but he’s still intent on clearing his name and nailing the guys who did this to him. Enter suave conman Chi-won (Gang Dong-won) and Byun sees an opening…

Aside from Byun’s problematic approach to his work, he’s definitely one of the good guys as justice, politics, and business have all come together in a whirlwind of mutually beneficial corruption. The whole mess begins during an environmental protest against an industrial complex which is about to be built right next to a bird sanctuary. The evil corporate bozos don’t want any delays so they pay a bunch of gangsters to infiltrate the protest and start a riot to make the environmentalists look like crazed, violent, loonies. Unsurprisingly, public opinion about the development improves following the unpleasant actions of the protestors. The police were just supposed to go along with this (police in Korean films never seem very interested in solving crimes after all), but Byun is different, he smells a rat and he’s not going to roll over and let powerful corporations abuse justice.

Unfortunately, his dedication is not matched by his colleagues who are more interested in their own careers than abstract concepts like truth or justice. Receiving pressure from above and realising Byun can’t be talked down, they decide to take drastic action. One of Byun’s bosses, Kang (Kim Eung-soo), later decides to move into politics, having solidified support through this alliance with the money guys, and is then interested in nothing other than his own success – lying, cheating, and smiling his way to the top. Corruption stemming from the power of monied corporations has become a constant theme in recent Korean cinema and A Violent Prosecutor makes good use of its cinematic background even if treating the subject matter in a necessarily light way.

Essentially, A Violent Prosecutor is a buddy comedy in which the two guys at the centre are kept apart for much of the film. Byun uses his hard won legal knowledge to fight his way out of prison by playing by the book, learning the error of his ways in the process. More often than not, he’s the straight man to Chi-won’s constant scamming as the charming conman comes up with one zany scheme after another trying to keep himself out of trouble whilst also helping Byun enact his plan of revenge. Actor Gang Dong-won is on fine form as the slippery but somehow loveable Chi-won whose main line of work is scamming chaebol daughters out of their inheritances by convincing them he’s a Korean-American Penn State business school graduate, peppering his speech with Americanisms but clueless when challenged on his English. He also deserves bonus points for subverting the “escape from prison dressed as a guard” trope by trying to escape from a corridor full of thugs by blending in with the very men sent to capture him.

Ending in a spectacular, if ridiculous, courtroom finale in which Byun defends himself by forcing a confession in a new, more acceptable way, A Violent Prosecutor delivers the necessary “justice” to all who seek it. Byun learns the error of his ways and accepts that his own violence was at least partly to blame for the way the situation developed, but also ensures that he gets justice for everyone else so that the rich and powerful can’t be allowed to ride roughshod over the people with no one to defend them. A smart buddy comedy, A Violent Prosecutor isn’t exactly the exploitative action fest the title seems to promise but is undoubtedly influenced by the bad cop movies of the ‘70s and excels at finding humour even in the strangest of places.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English Subtitles)