Lovers of Woomuk-Baemi (우묵배미의 사랑, Jang Sun-woo, 1990)

The Lovers of Woomook-baemi posterJang Sun-woo, a former political activist and underground filmmaker, is best remembered for formal experimentation and pointed social commentary, but his third feature The Lovers of Woomook-Baemi (우묵배미의 사랑, Umukbaemi Eui Sarang) stands out in his filmography in its fiercely naturalistic portrayal of working class life on the margins of a society in flux. Based on a novel by Park Yeong-han, The Lovers of Woomook-baemi is a classic melodrama with infidelity at its core but it’s also a story of futility, the destructive effects of patriarchal social codes and toxic masculinity, and the frustrated promises of a new era for those excluded from its various benefits.

Jang begins his tale in the middle as Bae Il-do (Park Joong-hoon), a frustrated husband, returns home late to a troubled “wife” (Yoo Hye-ri) who promptly kicks him out again. Complaining furiously, Il-do dreams of another woman, Gong-ryae (Choi Myung-gil), with whom he had a brief affair, idly thinking that he might have been happy if he hadn’t got his current partner pregnant and got himself stuck with her for life even if they aren’t technically “married” in the legal sense.

Moving backwards, we see Il-do, having failed in Seoul, returning to his home village with his common-law wife Sae-daek and infant child after an offer of work in a small seamstressing firm. The only man among a room full of mostly elderly women, Il-do is something of a novelty but is also taken by the woman on the machine next to him, Gong-ryae, who he later learns is also unhappily married and intensely lonely in her small town existence. After some initial indecision, the pair embark on an affair (still illegal at the time of the film’s release) but their prospects for future happiness seem slim given the restrictive quality of their lives.

The world that Jang depicts, for all its naturalistic flair, is intensely misogynistic. Il-do’s early recollections of Gong-ryae revolve around her bad marriage to an impotent man (Lee Dae-Geun) who mercilessly beats her – indeed, we later see her turning up for work after suspicion has arisen about her relationship with Il-do with a black eye and bruises on her face while the other women giggle over the obvious awkward gossip. Domestic violence is, however, just a part of life in the village and the older women in particular view it as a sign of a healthy marriage. One woman even exclaims that she wishes she had a man to beat her but thinks she’s unlikely to find anyone given her age and the fact that she already has numerous children.

Il-do, by contrast, proves somewhat popular among the ladies at the shop because of his relative lack of machismo. Like Gong-ryae, Il-do is also a victim of domestic violence – his wife beats, slaps, and attacks him verbally, later even dragging home home by the testicles along a very public walk of shame. He is not above violence or aggression but as in much of Jang’s work, male violence is a sign of weakness rather than strength and each of Il-do’s violent episodes is more to do with defeat and repressed emotion than it is about strength or conquest. This also seems to be true for Gong-ryae’s husband whose violence and jealously is perhaps a reaction to his impotence, but when we later meet him we find a man much like Il-do. Chastened, Gong-ryae’s husband politely asks the man who bedded his wife if he knows where she is and if he sees her to please tell Gong-ryae that he’s sorry and wants her to come home.

As he does with Gong-ryae’s husband, Jang plays with our sympathies and allegiances, switching perspective to reveal to us that villains and victims are often one and the same. Sae-daek originally seems like our villain – a shrewish, henpecking “wife” who won’t let our hero go despite the evident toxicity of the pair’s non-marriage, but seen from her point of view we understand her plight. After running away from a violent home environment she winds up a bar hostess in the city where she builds up a spiky relationship with Il-do which goes south when he gets her pregnant. Despite this being the age of illegal adultery, it’s not so much a marriage certificate that binds a man and a woman together for good or ill but a child. As a neighbour puts it, a woman might leave her husband, but what sort of woman leaves a child? Sae-deok cannot care for her child alone and she cannot abandon it with Il-do and so she must keep him no matter how much personal suffering she must endure as the common law wife of a no good philandering ne’er do well.

Il-do likes to drift off into philosophical reveries in which he idly remarks on the futility of his existence, but in a very real sense he’s not wrong. He tried life in the city but it didn’t want him and he came home. Sae-deok, oddly enough, likes it in the village with its sense of community especially among the other put upon and oppressed women who attempt to support each other (whilst accidentally supporting the mechanisms which continue to oppress them), but there’s no pretending there’s anything more to life in Woomuk-Baemi than work and drink. Il-do knows this, as does Gong-ryae, and it’s their mutual sense of existential ennui which finally forces them together in an impossible attempt to rebel against the futility of their existence through transgressive sex and an attempt at emotional connection.

In the end, Il-do is dragged (by the short and curlies) back into the past – literally, as Sae-deok takes him back to his mother’s house to complain about the terrible way she’s been treated. Creating a scene outside, Sae-deok eventually manages to get through to her mother-in-law who had previously rejected her because of her lowly peasant background and history of sex work, enabling the two women to bond in their shared disappointment with Il-do who has now failed as a “man” on every possible level. Briefly reuniting with Gong-ryae in the greenhouse in which they used to meet, now reduced to ruins, Il-do declares that his love is like a mummy – wrapped so well it will endure for thousands of years without decay, but it’s already too late. Choices have been made, implicitly, which cannot be reversed. Jang leaves his protagonist where he started – frustrated and inert, suffering without hope in an oppressive environment which he knows, in his heart, he does not possess the courage to resist.


Available on region free blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive which also includes an audio commentary in English from film scholars Darcy Paquet and Marc Raymond, and Tony Rayns’ documentary The Jang Sun-woo Variations, as well as a 36 page bilingual booklet featuring essays by Rayns and film critic Lee Yeon-ho. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Nowhere to Hide (인정사정 볼 것 없다, Lee Myung-se, 1999)

Nowhere to hide posterOne of Korea’s foremost visual stylists, Lee Myung-se’s work has often been under appreciated at the time of its release. His desire to experiment finds fertile ground in the intensely kinetic ode to the police procedural, Nowhere to Hide (인정사정 볼 것 없다, Injeongsajeong bol Geos Eobsda). A tale of cops and robbers, Nowhere to Hide follows a cop who talks too much on the trail of a silent assassin who is, in fact, an expert at hiding in plain sight through the art of disguise. Moving quickly from one intense, beautifully choreographed set piece to the next, Lee draws inspiration from the crime-tinged tragedies of old Hollywood and beyond whilst embracing those of his home nation in the classic twin pairing of actors Ahn Sung-ki as the enigmatic assassin, and Park Joong-hoon as the bullheaded cop hot on his trail.

Lee opens in black and white with Inspector Woo (Park Joong-hoon) in full on gangster mode as he wanders through a ruined landscape, pausing only to tie his shoelace while the pulsing, punkish music continues in the background, before he walks in on an entire room of besuited gangsters and calmly sits down to introduce himself. Sometime later, Sungmin (Ahn Sung-ki), in sunshades and trench coat, patiently bides his time before committing a dramatic murder and making off with a mysterious briefcase.

What follows then is a game of cat and mouse as Woo chases the ghost of Sungmin through dingy back allies and neighbourhood dive bars, taking his more serious partner, Kim (Jang Dong-kun), whose more primary motivations include his family or more particularly his little girl, along for the ride. Woo lives only for his work, drawing more thrill from the chase than he is likely to admit. Through his pursuit of Sungmin, Woo draws closer to a side of himself he hoped to avoid, burying his natural rebelliousness in service of the law. We see him brutally interrogate suspects, even at one point trussing one up like a prize pig and suspending him between two desks in the middle of the police station. It is, in this sense, Woo who is left with “nowhere to hide”. As a young man, he had a violent streak which might well have led him into crime if his father had not pointed him towards the police, but he can no longer claim to be very much different than the quarry he pursues. His true nature has been laid bare by his opposing number.

Woo’s rage and unpredictable energy are tempered by Kim’s evenhandedness, but after a job goes wrong and Kim kills a suspect by mistake he starts to fall apart. Suddenly Woo cannot rely on Kim to save him from himself and then tragically fails to save Kim during another operation, leaving him open to serious injury. His quest is now as much one of vengeance and personal feeling as it is of justice.

Sungmin, by contrast, says not one word in the entirety of the film. A felt presence more than a seen one, he slips in and out of personas, escaping from the scene in various disguises as a figure more of legend than of reality. A close relationship with a bar hostess girlfriend is Woo’s way in to Sungmin’s world, correctly identifying a weakness and pressing it, pursuing a more concrete route to the centre of Sungmin’s existence than simply tracking him through the shady netherworld in which he lives.

The two men run from and mirror each other as pictures of action and stillness, resistance and urgency. Through a relentless pursuit of capture or escape, neither can evade the shadow of himself, each moving closer to their true selves as repressed elements surface and threaten to destroy the whole. Woo and Sungmin are each on a mutually destructive pursuit of the self as much as they are for their own, self defined goals.

Lee frames all of this within his characteristically ironic world view, painting the drama as comedy imbued with its own kind of cartoonish slapstick. Throwing in cinematic homages from a brief nod to Battleship Potemkin to an ending plucked straight out of The Third Man, Lee mixes freeze frames with an odd jump dissolve technique which lends his intensely beautiful choreography an impressionistic, fleeting quality. Two men chase the shadow of the other, engaged in a desperate game of hide and seek, but when the game is up neither may like what they see.


Robbery sequence (dialogue free)

The Rules of the Game (게임의 법칙, Jang Hyun-soo, 1994)

Rules of the GameEvery game has its rules, but then again perhaps the game lies in learning how to bend them to one’s advantage. Owing a debt to a Pacino/De Palma diptych – Scarface and the later but then just released Carlito’s Way, Jang Hyun-soo’s Rules of the Game (게임의 법칙, Gameui beobjig) was the first in a resurgence of contemporary action dramas which had gone out of fashion since their 1970s heyday. The story is a timeless one of a young man looking for gangland fame, his loyal girlfriend, and the duo’s loveable third wheel of a degenerate gambler whose sob story may actually turn out to be truer than it seemed.

Young-dae (Park Joong-hoon) is a young upstart in a tiny town. Bored with his life of daily drudgery washing cars, he decides to upsticks to the city, taking his adoring girlfriend Tae-suk (Oh Yeon-su) with him. Young-dae plans on engineering a meeting with famed ganger Gwang-cheon and pledging his allegiance to him, hoping to set himself on the road to gangland success. Things get off to a bad start when the pair of naive country bumpkins run into to smooth talking conman Man-su (Lee Kyoung-young) on a train. Man-su claims to know Gwang-cheon and writes a letter of recommendation before suddenly announcing they’re at his stop and jumping off the train leaving Young-dae and and Tae-suk with a healthy dinner bill.

The city proves particularly hostile to the out of towers as Young-dae realises joining a gang is not as simple as marching in, dropping to your knees and exclaiming “I will die for you, please accept me”. Repeatedly striking out, Young-dae distances himself from Tae-suk who ends up working as a hostess for the gangster Young-dae still hasn’t been able to meet. Finally spotting an opportunity to prove himself by interrupting a gang raid, Young-dae gets a foot on the ladder but as an outsider in an established gang he’s always going to be a liability.

Meanwhile, Man-su has continued to get himself into trouble with cards and is a constant thorn in the side to Gwang-cheon’s guys. After a beating leaves him crippled, Man-su turns to Young-dae for retribution. Young-dae, Man-su, and Tae-suk form an odd, sometimes volatile trio as they try to survive and make Young-dae’s gangster dreams come true while Man-su dreams to going to Saipan where the sun shines everyday and everything is palm trees and summer fruits.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise Saipan is a place Young-dae will never go, no matter how much he might want to. After getting into the gang and reuniting with Tae-suk, Young-dae does seem to be getting himself together but success soon goes to his head. He begins dressing in snappy suits moving from brown, to blue, to white, and drives a BMW around town as if he really owned it. As Tae-suk points out, he’s just a driver – a driver for a top gangster, but a driver all the same. In his desperation to reach the top, Young-dae makes himself a figure of suspicion in the mind of the boss he is so desperate to impress, inadvertently placing a target on his own back.

Jang may have pegged De Palma as an influence, one which is very much felt in the Tony Montana-esque story arc and Carlito’s Way denouement, but his shooting style is pure Hong Kong by way of John Woo – frantic action shot in slow motion. Young-dae is a slap-happy lover of violence, never one to let to the opportunity of getting into a fight pass him by. This is quite a good quality in an aspiring foot soldier, even if not in a potential boyfriend though Tae-suk does her best to tame him, but his impetuosity and naive faith in others’ ability to abide by the “rules” of gangsterdom are at the heart of his eventual downfall. His later decision to mistreat a fellow would-be minion who echoes his own phrase back to him “I will die for you, please accept me” is a clear indicator of how far he has moved away from the scrappy boy who left his village full of angry dreams even if something of his youthful innocence is later returned in his desire to leave the gangster world far behind for a life of ease and friendship with Man-su and Tae-suk in tranquil Saipan. The rules of the game, however, rarely reward missteps and Young-dae will pay heavily for his misplaced faith.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Radio Star (라디오 스타, Lee Joon-ik, 2006)

radio star posterWhat do you do if you’ve just directed a box office smashing, taboo busting, giant mega hit? Well, you could direct Star Wars, but if you’re Lee Joon-ik you go back to basics with a low budget, heartwarming tale of friendship and failure. Radio Star (라디오 스타) reunites frequent costars Ahn Sung-ki and Park Joong-hoon whose shared history runs all the way back to ‘80s movies Chilsu and Mansu, Two Cops, and Nowhere to Hide. ‘80s nostalgia plays not a small part in Lee’s film as it takes a washed up one hit wonder from 20 years back and gives him a new opportunity to shine…if only he can get over himself first.

1988 was something of a banner year for Korea, a newly minted democracy the country put itself on the international map with that year’s Olympic Games taking place in Seoul. It was also a big year for rock star Choi Gon (Joong-hoon) who scored a chart topping mega hit with his song The Rain and You which won him a prestigious musical prize. However, it all went to his head and despite the best efforts of his best friend and manager Park Min-soo (Ahn Sung-ki), 18 years later in 2006 Gon is a cafe singer with a habit of getting into fights which land him in jail. After yet another “incident”, Min-soo is having trouble finding the money to bail his friend out, until, that is he hits on the opportunity of selling Gon’s name as a radio host in an isolated rural town.

Of course, this doesn’t go down well with Gon who’s still every inch the edgy rockstar despite his reduced circumstances. Eventually Min-soo talks him into taking the gig but he’s anything but enthusiastic about his new life as a disembodied voice talking to a handful of country bumpkins who still have transistor radios. Gradually, through learning to appreciate his surroundings Gon begins to understand exactly what it is that’s important in his life.

Playing off its central dynamic, Radio Star undoubtedly brings a lot with it in the casting of Ahn and Park whose similar trajectories add to the film’s otherwise straightforward narrative. Min-soo appears to have only the one client to whom he remains completely devoted (even neglecting his wife and daughter in the process) though it’s true Gon’s career has not gone in the hoped for direction. Still dressing like an ‘80s rock god with sunglasses, torn jeans and a leather jacket, Gon is his own worst enemy as he plays the rockstar game all the way into a jail cell he fully expects Min-soo will get him out of. His new assignment as a local radio DJ is one he finds beneath his dignity and only takes because he thinks it’s a favour to a friend (rather than a friend doing a favour for him), but when it brings him unexpected success he finds that it’s all worth nothing if Min-soo isn’t there to enjoy it with him.

Though many in the small town barely remember Choi Gon or his iconic, prize winning song, he still has a few fans in the form of local garage band East River (played by real life punk band No Brain) who become devoted supporters of the show even helping to spread the word and putting on a special celebratory tribute concert. Ironically enough, the show starts to take off with Gon’s nonchalant approach to hosting which often sees him abandoning the mike to a random local either by phone or getting a guest into the studio. Sliding into talk radio territory, Gon begins taking calls and offering (to begin with) flippant advice on such topics as jobs for the unemployed and the proper rules for card games but he’s soon involved in a campaign to help a shy florist declare his love to a bank cashier and eventually makes a heartfelt personal appeal in support of a little boy who’s father has run off, encouraging him to come back home if only to apologise for making the kid think it’s all his fault that his dad went away.

It’s undoubtably small scale stuff, which of course means that it’s infinite in scope as Gon’s growing sense of interconnectedness takes the show out of the local area and eventually all the way to Seoul after the East River boys’ internet fan site gives him a potentially global (well, to anyone who can speak Korean) reach. As Min-soo points out, stars don’t shine alone – they reflect the light they’re given, and therefore Gon’s only rises because of his friendship with Min-soo and the support he begins to win from the local people once he drops the aloof rockstar persona and begins to engage. Necessarily sentimental and drenched in the dust of broken dreams, Radio Star is a sometimes melancholic though warm tribute to the power of friendship and redemptive possibilities offered by unlikely second chances.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Gon’s prizewinning song – Rain and You as sung by Park Joong-hoon

And sung by Korean punk band No Brain

 

Chilsu and Mansu (칠수와 만수, Park Kwang-su, 1988)

Chilsu MansuThough not a big box office hit at the time of its release, Park Kwang-su’s Chilsu and Mansu (칠수와 만수, Chil-su wa Man-su) is not only fondly remembered by its contemporary audience chiefly because of the amusing performances of its still popular leading actors, but is also credited with kicking off what would become known as Korean New Wave. Released in 1988 and set sometime in 1987, this is the new Seoul emerging into democracy after decades of military rule and looking ahead to the glory of the 1988 Seoul olympics. However, as ever, the future has not been evenly distributed and there are those who find themselves unable to climb its ladder through no fault of their own.

Based on a story by (banned at the time) Taiwanese writer Huang Chunming, the film begins with the blaring sirens which denote a “civil defence drill” is about to take place. Chilsu is forced off the bus he’d been travelling on and takes refuge in a video arcade where he encounters college student Jina. After the drill ends Chilsu continues to pursue her at her job working part-time in a Burger King. When he gets back to work, Chilsu finds that his boss has paid someone else to cover the time he was missing. Chilsu argues with him and quits but pesters the man he’s just met, Mansu, to take him on as an assistant and help him find work. The pair become friends and begin working together as billboard painters but one fateful outburst seems fit to change both of their lives forever.

Chilsu is an animated fellow who’s constantly wandering off to do his own thing to the consternation of everyone else. He’s a chancer and an opportunist and, as it turns out, a compulsive liar. Almost everything he says is untrue. In order to get closer Jina, he tells her he’s an art student and tries to impress her by speaking English with stories of going to America to study where his brother has a house in Miami. He dresses like Bruce Springsteen and has Stars and Stripes patterned T-shirts but his taste for Americana is merely aspirational, he has no education or connections and his stories about going to America to study are a fantasy. He does have an older sister who has apparently been disowned by their father for fraternising with Americans and may have have gone to America with a man, but no one even knows if she’s alive or dead.

Mansu, by contrast is sullen and standoffish. He drinks too much and says little though his anger is of the subdued kind. His problem is that his father had, and continues to have, communist sympathies which he refuses to renounce. This causes a problem for Mansu because each time he receives a background check he gets flagged up and in one notable instance he’s refused a passport that would enable him to take an overseas job precisely because of his father’s record. He’s trapped in poorly paid menial work through no fault of his own simply because of something that his father did that is nothing at all to do with him.

Chilsu is also resentful of his father who worked as a “houseboy” for the American military but now does nothing much of anything at all. After Chilsu’s mother died, his father remarried and lives off his second wife’s earnings. A drunk and a layabout, Chilsu’s father sets a poor example for his son who is terrified of becoming just as feckless and miserable as his deadbeat dad. Both men are paying the price for the actions of the previous generation who have left them with nothing but barriers preventing them from escaping the years of difficulty for the bright and shining future that men like themselves are building for other people’s sons to prosper in.

The climax of the film occurs as the pair are just finishing a giant billboard for an alcoholic drink and are taking a break. Chilsu climbs up on top of the billboard and Mansu goes up to join him. The pair get chatting and Chilsu eventually confesses his lies as he realises all of his dreams have been shattered. He has no hope left, no possible future to consider. Mansu is now angry for both of them and takes this opportunity to scream in rage into the uncaring void that is the expanding city below. Obviously, they can’t be heard or understood but the pair’s wild gesticulations create quite a show for the people down below and a crowd starts to gather. This results in the police being called and a further agressive motion by Chilsu makes them think the pair have petrol bombs. Neither of the two quite realises the fuss they’ve caused by unwittingly making a “political protest”, possible suicide bid or perhaps both. This absurd misunderstanding will have profound consequences for both of them.

This final scene continues the tragicomical tone that has characterised the film so far which adds to its absurdist quality rather than pushing it into a harder political statement. Chilsu and Mansu was the first film of Park Kwang-su who had already been politically active during the dark years of the dictatorship and was committed to socially-conscious filmmaking. Kicking off a similar trend for years to come, Chilsu and Mansu is an early example of commercial realist cinema that although not a big hit on original release has gone on to be regarded as an enormously important step in the history of modern Korean cinema.


Chilsu and Mansu is the fourth in the Korean Film Archive’s series of remastered blu-ray releases and like the others in the series includes English subtitles on not only the main feature but also the commentary track with director Park Kwang-su and film critic Kim Young-jin. The discs also boast an image gallery and the set comes with a 42 page booklet in both English and Korean plus a 20 page photo booklet.

You can also watch the entirety of Chilsu and Mansu (pre-restoration version) with English subtitles for free via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel

No trailer but here’s a prominent song from the film’s soundtrack which includes some early Korean rap: