Swing Kids (스윙키즈, Kang Hyeong-cheol, 2018)

Swing Kids poster 2“Fuck Ideology” the embittered hero of Kang Hyeong-cheol’s Swing Kids (스윙키즈) exclaims, pushing back against his casually cruel commanding officer from the comparative safety of the stage on which he decides to cast off his frustration through a natural love of dance. It may be too much of a truism to suggest you can dance your way to freedom while a very literal prisoner of war, but in any case Kang eventually shows us that sooner or later someone will be along to crush even the smallest of dreams and it may not be the people you’d most expect.

The film opens with a propaganda newsreel that eventually skews pro-North in lamenting the poor conditions at the Koje POW camp where a small civil war recently broke out between those who remain fiercely loyal and those who have been seduced by American freedoms and no longer wish to return. Unfavourably comparing Koje with a camp in the North which is run under strict adherence to the Geneva convention so you’d hardly even think there was a war on at all, the film ends by casting shade on the American forces’ casual cruelty and inability to keep their house in order. The old commander having been sacked, newbie General Roberts (Ross Kettle) is keen to reform the camp’s image and so he hatches on the idea of getting Sergeant Jackson (Jared Grimes), who used to be a Broadway tap dancer, to teach the “commies” the American dance of freedom which seems tailor-made for front page photo sensation.

Jackson is reluctant to take the job but is persuaded when Roberts attempts to threaten him over his complicated personal life which has seen him breaking regulations to earn extra bucks in the hope of getting transferred back to Okinawa where he apparently had a woman he wanted to marry and a child he needed to make legitimate. Time and again we’re told that getting sent to the Korean War is something that happens to soldiers who’ve made mistakes, which might explain why the camp appears to be staffed by a collection of thoroughly unpleasant, incompetent foot soldiers while Roberts himself is mostly interested in raising its profile to save his own reputation.

“Communism, Capitalism. If nobody knew what they were, no one will kill or be killed” a young woman points out, quite reasonably before awkwardly wading into an ill-advised debate over who is more oppressed – ethnic minorities or women in a time of war. Sgt. Jackson who hails from the land of the free had to abandon his dream of the stage because of racism and continues to experience persistent micro aggressions from junior soldiers who refuse to follow his orders. The Korean internees are often no better, throwing up their own racial slurs and parading their cultural ignorance by reserving a special layer of scorn just for him in addition to that they feel for the Americans who have, after all, wandered onto their land and decided to have a war on it while making them join in. Communism and Capitalism, another soldier intones, are concepts made by and for the Russians and Americans, they have precious little to do with him so why are he and his loved ones supposed to die over an ideological disagreement?

Hero of the North Ki-soo (Do Kyung-soo) remains conflicted. He was loyal and truly believed in his cause, but secretly has the heart of a dancer and longs for the freedom of physical movement. He can’t talk to Jackson, or to another of the Swing Kids who is a lonely Chinese soldier who can only speak Mandarin (Kim Min-Ho), but discovers that they do have a shared language in dance and are able to communicate on an elemental level that makes culture an irrelevance. Feisty young woman Yang Pallae (Park Hye-su), who, out of necessity, has learned to speak three additional languages (English, Mandarin, and Japanese), discovers something much the same as she reluctantly begins dancing even though there’s no money it, while lovelorn Kang Byung-sam (Oh Jung-se) wants to dance to become famous because he’s become separated from his wife and thinks that then she’d be able to find him again. 

As Pallae puts it, when she puts the tap shoes on all the awful things go away. Pointedly introducing the big dance number, Jackson describes the Swing Kids as longing for freedom and liberalism while fighting for their rights, speaking as much for himself thoroughly fed up with the manipulative Roberts who seems set to hang the bunch of them out to dry as he is for the disparate collection of dancers whose young lives have been ruined by the chaos of war. “Fuck ideology” indeed, all they want to do is dance but repressive regimes aren’t good with people having fun expressing themselves and so even this small dream seems to grow ever more distant. What started off as a cheerful musical comedy undergoes a decidedly Brechtian tonal shift in its final moments, neatly underlining the terror and unpredictability of life in war but nevertheless extremely hard to reconcile with the inspirational cheerfulness of all that’s gone before. Still for the vast majority of its running time, Swing Kids is a joyful celebration of the universal language of movement and an ode to the power of escapist fantasy in a cruel and confusing world.


Swing Kids screens for free in Chicago on Sept. 14 as part of the ninth season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema where actor Jared Grimes is expected to appear for a Q&A. It is also available on US blu-ray courtesy of Well Go USA.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Default (국가부도의 날, Choi Kook-hee, 2018)

Default poster 1The Korean economic miracle came to an abrupt halt in 1997. In an event the media labelled “the day of national humiliation”, the Korean government went to the IMF for a bailout in order to avoid bankruptcy. So, what went wrong? Choi Kook-hee’s Default (국가부도의 날, Gukga-budo-eui Nal) looks back at the fateful seven days before the country would go bust, asking serious questions about why it found itself in this position and why it chose to opt for external assistance rather than fix its own problems. The answer is, as always, a mix of disaster capitalism, incompetency, and a healthy disinterest in the lives of the less well off.

As if to signal its hubris, the Korea of 1997 is busy celebrating its accession to the OECD and emergence on the world stage as a major player, escaping post-war austerity once and for all. Young Koreans have embraced consumerism with gusto. Luxury goods and foreign travel are becoming increasingly popular with the government insisting everything is on the up and up. However, listeners to Son Sook’s Woman’s Era are telling a different story – cafes not getting customers, businesses going under, people not getting paid. With the Asian Financial Crisis mounting, the Korean Won is being hit hard and the government does not have the reserves to cover its debts. A high ranking Bank of Korea official, Si-hyun (Kim Hye-soo), has concluded that the nation has one week to find a solution before everything comes to a grinding halt.

Meanwhile, self-interested merchant banker Yoon (Yoo Ah-in) has come to the same conclusion on his own but his aims are very different. Where Shi-hyun sees crisis, Yoon sees opportunity. He quits his job and starts calling up wealthy clients with an innovative pitch. Explaining to them that the country is about to go bust, he outlines a plan to short the government which will make them a lot of money though at the expense of those without who will be hung out to dry when it all goes to hell.

As Yoon tells his investors, the trouble is that the entirety of the modern Korean Economy is built on lies. An underling is tasked with explaining the crisis to the president in simple terms, only for Si-hyun to grimly suggest he tell him “we spent borrowed money like it was water hoping to get an extension and here we are”. Factory owner Gap-soo (Heo Joon-ho) is excited to receive a large order from a major department store, but put off when he realises that they intend to pay him with a promissory note. The department store CEO belittles his concerns, implying that he can’t be much of a player if he doesn’t know that’s how business is done these days. Gap-soo’s partner is all for it and so they sign, but when banks go bust promissory notes become worthless and they need ready cash to pay their staff and suppliers.

Si-hyun tries to make the case for saving the economy to protect the working classes but her advice falls on deaf ears. Often the only woman in the room, Si-hyun is dismissed as a “secretary” while the all male officials make a point of talking to her male assistant and accusing her of being “sentimental” when she points out that people will starve if they put their plan into action. The conclusion that she gradually comes to is that the crisis is an elaborate game being played by elites for their own gain at the expense of ordinary men and women all across the country. Odious finance ministers prioritise saving the Chaebols, warning their friends and cronies, while deliberately running down the clock so the country will have no other option than running to the IMF full in the knowledge that an IMF bailout comes with considerable strings which will vastly constrain their sovereignty and economic freedom – effectively handing control over to the Americans who will use it as an excuse to extend their own business interests by insisting on destructive labour reforms which will devastate the working classes.

Si-hyun’s exasperation leaves her making a last ditch effort to get the government to see sense only for the IMF negotiator (Vincent Cassel) to make her removal another of his red lines, her plain speaking instantly deemed “inappropriate”. Meanwhile, Yoon’s headlong descent into amoral profiteering begins to prick at his conscience even as he tries to justify his actions to himself. 20 years later, it might seem as if the crisis is over but its effects are very much still felt. Gap-soo’s factory may have survived, but it’s running on exploited foreign labour while the Chaebols continue to run rampant over the increasingly unequal Korean economy. None of the problems have been solved and another crisis is always on the horizon. Tense and infuriating, Default is a story of moral as well as financial bankruptcy which places the blame firmly on systemic corruption and the undue influence of self-interested elites while acknowledging that little has changed in the last 20 years leaving the little guy very much at the mercy of capricious Chaebol politics.


Default was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It will also be screened as the next teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival on 20th May at Regent Street Cinema, 7pm.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Princess and the Matchmaker (궁합, Hong Chang-pyo, 2018)

Princess and the Matchmaker posterLove – is it an act of fate or of free will? For the women of 18th century Korea, romance is a girlish affectation which must be outgrown in order to fulfil one’s proper obligations to a new family and the old by becoming the ideal wife to a man not of one’s own choosing. Love, in this world, would be more than an inconvenience. It would be a threat to the social order. In Hong Chang-pyo’s The Princess and the Matchmaker (궁합, Gunghab), each and every decision is dictated by birth, but as our soothsayer reminds us, serendipitous meetings can change all that’s gone before.

A severe drought is plaguing the subjects of Joseon, and their eyes are on their king to sort it out. For complicated reasons, many assume the pause in the rains is down to the gods’ wrath over the aborted wedding of problematic princess Songhwa (Shim Eun-kyung) some three years previously. Even before her failed marriage made her a flawed woman, Songhwa had always been tainted with an aura of ill fortune seeing as her mother died in childbirth. A reading of her astrological charts implied her presence was bad for the king (Kim Sang-kyung) and so she was sent away only to be called back when another reading revealed her presence may be essential to the king’s recovery from illness. She’s been at the court ever since but the taboo of her supposed bad luck has never left her. The king determines he’ll have to marry Songhwa off to improve the public mood but with her reputation who will they be able to find for a husband? With names thin on the ground, the king decides on a series of open auditions with the royal astrologer announcing the “winner” after a thorough examination of their birth charts.

It goes without saying that no one is especially interested in Songhwa’s opinion. Still naive and innocent, Songhwa is quite looking forward to finally getting married though a frank conversation with a recently hitched friend perhaps helps to lower her expectations. Still, she’d at least like to see the face of the man she’ll be spending the rest of her life with and so she sneaks out of the palace and goes investigating. Her first ventures outside of the walls which have protected her all her life are marked by a sense of magical freedom, though what she sees there later shocks her. Her subjects starve, and blame her for their starving. Lamenting the poor nobleman who will be taking one for the team in marrying the notoriously ugly and difficult Princess Songhwa, they pray for her wedding day and the rain they fully expect to fall.

Given all of this ill feeling towards the princess, it doesn’t take much to guess what sort of men are prepared to toss their hats into the ring. The suitors may look attractive on the surface, as Songhwa discovers, but each has faults not visible in his stars. One is a child, another a womanising playboy. It comes to something when the worst possible match isn’t the murderous psycho posing a philanthropist but the ambitious social climber who will stop at nothing to advance his cause.

Some might say the sacred art of divination is a bulwark against court intrigue, but this like anything else is open to manipulation. The king’s old astronomer has been taking bribes for years – something brought to light by ace investigator with a talent for divination Seo Do-yoon (Lee Seung-gi) with help from shady street corner soothsayer Gae-shi (Jo Bok-rae). Appointed to the position himself, Seo unwittingly holds the keys to Songhwa’s future though that isn’t something he’d given particular consideration to. His job was just to read the charts before everything started getting needlessly complicated. When his list of candidates goes missing he has no choice but to start visiting the ones he can remember in person which is how he ends up repeatedly running into Songhwa in disguise and, despite himself, beginning to fall in love with her.

Songhwa, trapped in a golden cage, longs to live a life of her own free from the patriarchal demands of a hierarchical society. She bucks palace authority by sneaking out on her own, but never seriously attempts to avoid her miserable fate or resist the tyranny of an arranged marriage, only to be allowed foreknowledge of the kind of life for which she has been destined. Nevertheless, determining her own future later becomes something within her grasp once the corruption has been uncovered and the art of prophecy exposed for what it is. Destiny is more malleable than it first seems and as Seo advises the king, when compassion reigns the heavens will open. True harmony is not born of a rigid adherence to facts and figures assigned by the arbitrary conditions of birth, but by a careful consideration of the feelings of others. A life without love is as starved as one without rain and the truly harmonious kingdom is the one in which all are free to feel it fall where it may.


The Princess and the Matchmaker was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International teaser trailer (English subtitles)