Height of the Wave (파고, Park Jung-bum, 2019)

Height of the Wave poster“The suspects are all the residents” says the world weary police chief at the end of Park Jung-bum’s uncharacteristically forgiving island drama Height of the Wave (파고, Pago). Island communities are often thought of as innocent idylls, the city’s corruption lying far off over the horizon, but where there are people there is suffering and perhaps there’s nowhere completely free of human cruelty.

Recently divorced maritime police woman Yeon-su (Lee Seung-yeon) has been seconded to a remote island to act as its police chief for two years. She’s brought her deeply resentful teenage daughter with her, and is currently struggling with a “panic disorder” she’s keen to keep a secret. Meanwhile, island’s sleazy foreman, handsy and making inappropriate comments about the scent of Yeon-su’s hair, is hard at work to a get a designation as a “desirable destination” and attract much needed funding. His plans are disrupted, however, when Yeon-su overhears some worrying comments from the island’s only young woman, Yae-eun (Lee Yeon), which suggest she is indulging in sex work (which is illegal). Yeon-su investigates, becoming worried for Yae-eun who is an orphan and seems to be a little different than you might expect for a woman of her age, and contacts the mainland for support. As you might expect, this does not go down well with the foreman who worries that his precious designation might be denied if word got out about the base immorality lurking in his town.

Traumatised by her career as a policewoman on the mainland which mainly involved retrieving the bodies of those who’d committed suicide by drowning, Yeon-su might have come, or been sent, to the island as quiet place to recover. The island is after all a liminal space, between one state and another, where one might pause for reflection before preparing to move forward. Yae-eun, who lost her parents at sea, is trapped because of her fear of water and terror that someday a great wave will swallow everything and everyone. Yeon-su fears something similar, unable to sleep on thinking about all the bodies she never managed to save that sunk to the bottom of the ocean never to be seen again.

Yeon-su’s daughter Sangyi (Choi Eun-seo) recognises the similarities in the anxieties of the two women, bonding with Yae-eun out of a shared sense of betrayal and abandonment but finding it more difficult to forgive her mother for her increasingly strange behaviour, the breakdown of her parents’ marriage, and for bringing her to this barren place. Early on, Sangyi tries to join in with some of the other children, but finds them playing a cruel game in which they’re trying to kill off the sleepy ants on the grounds that they will soon invade and destroy all their houses. Sangyi, perhaps identifying with the “alien” bugs, tries to stop the kids crushing the ants before they’ve even done anything but is then othered herself, ironically put in “jail” with the chickens as a hostile element. “It’s your fault” a boy tells her, “we wanted to be friends”.

From the perspective of the foreman and perhaps others in the village, Yeon-su is a burrowing termite intent on undermining their foundations. This is an island, after all, and they do things a bit differently. What’s normal here, might not be appropriate on the mainland. It seems that Yae-eun has been accepting money in exchange for sex, and that she might not be fully capable of understanding the implications of her actions, but if she’s making a free choice to sell her body and is not in that sense being exploited by a third party then perhaps some might say that is her own business. The situation is complicated, however, when Yae-eun reveals she may have been doing this as young as 17, which means she was underage. Yeon-su wants to protect the young woman, all alone on an island full of possibly predatory old men and cared for only by an “uncle” (Park Jung-bum) and a “grandpa”, but has to accept that her desire to do so may involve short-term harm in that Yae-eun is terrified of getting on boats which means she is unable to escape her present environment even if she wanted to.

Yae-eun immediately recognises something in the other woman. “You look so lonely, chief”, she tells her placing artificial flowers on the altar of a disused church reassured by the fact they never change, “I thought I was the only lonely one”. The foreman tries to get the others on board by referring to Yae-eun as everybody’s child, literally raised by a village, but he wants to forcibly export her to the mainland so that she won’t mess up his desirable island plan by embarrassing him when the inspection committees arrive. Yae-eun’s uncle apologises for not being better able to protect her, complaining that the villagers are “blinded by money”, and have decided to sacrifice her rather than risk destroying their chances of financial gain. Yeon-su’s attempts to help have merely created a different, perhaps more dangerous, set of problems that expose but do not intend to heal a painful hypocrisy. Tellingly, it is Sangyi who eventually proposes the only positive solution in her desire to help Yae-eun overcome her fear of water but even this has its darkness because it is also a path to exiling her from the island possibly against her will to cover up the “scandal” of her existence. The wave may not be so high that it drowns us all, but it’s as well to learn to swim.


Height of the Wave was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Short clip (dialogue free)

Alive (산다, Park Jung-bum, 2014)

alive-poster“There’s no safe place in this world” intones a pure hearted soul partway through Park Jung-bum’s relentlessly bleak exploration of the human condition, Alive (산다, Sanda). When your existence is defined by impossibility, it may be hard to see the light but to stop looking for it altogether doesn’t bear thinking about. A fierce condemnation of the hypocrisies of a capitalistic society, Alive wants to ask if simply breathing is enough when every breath is unending pain and the faint hope of a better life a cruel irony in an otherwise desperate existence.

Labourer Jung-chul (Park Jung-bum) lives in the ruins of his former family home destroyed in a landslide which also killed his parents. He is responsible both for his sister, Soo-yun (Lee Seung-yeon), who has extreme mental health issues, and her young daughter Hana (Shin Haet-bit). When the construction job ends for the winter, Jung-chul turns a crisis into an opportunity by volunteering to fill-in at the soy bean paste factory owned by the man for whom Soo-yun has been working as a cook to stop him firing her after she had an episode and did not show up for work. Things are going well, but the impending marriage of his haughty daughter to a middle-class salaryman is beginning to weigh on the factory owner’s mind. Worrying about the dowry, he summarily fires a number of longterm employees. Jung-chul, ever the opportunist, seizes the chance to get his construction site buddies over to the factory but his constant attempts to profit from the misfortune of others are destined to end only in disaster.

Trapped in the snowbound mountains, Jung-chul has little realistic chance of escape. His life is hard and marked only by physical exertion while stretched to emotional breaking point thanks to the complicated situation surrounding his sister. Despite himself, Jung-chul resents Soo-yun who has retreated into a near catatonic state in order to escape the misery of her life. She is often to be found at the local bus terminal where she picks up strangers and then returns to her ruined village for acts of self harm in an attempt to embrace vitality through suffering. Jung-chul is suffering too and he can’t forgive his sister for her attempts at mental absence, condemning her for her “shamelessness” rather than attempting to deal with her declining mental health and the physical harm in which it places her.

Jung-chul sees himself as the “pillar” of the family, that without him his sister and niece will be left out in the cold with nothing to sustain them. Yet his desire to protect his own cannot entirely explain his increasing dog eat dog mentality or his willingness to engage in the system of circular exploitations which defines the world in which he lives. “It obeys me better when it’s kept hungry” a woman snaps at Hana when she attempts to feed a performing parrot, somehow encapsulating the insidious logic of rampant capitalism. Jung-chul thinks he can’t afford to think about the employees his boss fired because someone is always going to lose out and it’s enough to make sure it isn’t him, but he doesn’t see that his refusal to stand up for others leaves him vulnerable and alone.

The world of the factory boss is an oddly feudal one in which his major preoccupation is his paternal obligation to provide a dowry for his daughter with the implication that the wedding may not take place at all if he cannot fulfil it. The boss’ daughter, having spent time in the US, objects to her father’s callous treatment of his employees who remain with absolutely no workplace protections and are not even offered severance pay despite being axed deep in the harshness of winter. Nevertheless, when her wedding is threatened she reverts to type. Her dad cut corners and made a mistake, but she’s going to find a scapegoat and cover it up, justifying her decision with the rationale that she’s “protecting” the workers. Obeying feudal obligations, the fired employees all turn up to her meeting at which she tearfully talks about a way to save the factory despite the fact that the factory has just betrayed them and trampled all over a lifetime’s unquestioning loyalty.

Meanwhile, Jung-chul’s simpleminded friend Myung-hoon (Park Myung-hoon) dreams of a new life in the Philippines where the people are kind and you never have to worry about the cold. Unlike Jung-chul, Myung-hoon can’t bring himself to betray his sense of justice even if he eventually succumbs to a kind of poetic recompense in order to save his own dream if only by stopping Jung-chul from ruining himself completely. Nevertheless, as bleak as this world is, it is not devoid of hope as Jung-chul eventually realises through the innocent sound of a child practicing piano. Shining a light for his sister, he finally remembers to close the door on an act of calculated pettiness, accepting that his responsibility extends further than his household and that only by opposing the injustice done to others can he hope to change his hopeless world and begin to feel alive once again.


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

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

The Journals of Musan (무산일기, Park Jung-bum, 2011)

Journals of Musan posterIf you’ve made it out of North Korea, travelled all the way through China, and finally arrived in the promised land of the South, you might expect to find yourself in a kind of paradise free of violence, fear, and oppression, where opportunity and freedom rule. The reality, however, is rarely so pleasant. Those arriving from the North do so with little support, face constant stigma and the threat of exploitation, and may end up just as hungry and alone as before. The hero of Park Jung-bum’s Journals of Musan (무산일기, Musanilgi) is one such lonely soul who finds himself tested and betrayed until cheated even out of his own innocence.

After months in a resettlement centre, Seung-chul (Park Jung-bum) is living with a friend in a rundown flat next to a village knocked down to pave the way for yet another batch of swanky middle-class homes on the periphery of an ever expanding city. Assisted by a friendly policeman who urges him not to tell his prospective employers that he’s come from the North, only that he’ll work hard, Seung-chul looks for honest work but finds it difficult to come by, not only thanks to the mild stigma attached to being a defector but his relative lack of equivalent qualifications, and restrictions on his movements. Meanwhile his roommate, Kyung-chul (Jin Yong-ok), has decided the best buck’s a fast buck and started an individual enterprise “assisting” his fellow North Koreans sending money home via his uncle in China for a “small fee”. The only job Seung-chul can get is pasting up fliers for clubs and bars often over those for other establishments at the behest of an exploitative gang leader who rarely pays him and threatens to take the work away altogether if Seung-chul continues to refuse the less legal jobs he’s often “offered”.

Seung-chul is an innocent, godly soul who truly believes it should be possible to live honestly and with kindness in a land of freedom. His only refuge is the local church of which he is a devout member, but even here he is an invisible outsider who sits and eats alone only just brave enough to venture in in the first place. Developing a fondness for a pretty woman in the choir gives Seung-chul another reason to attend, and eventually a hope of a job too when he silently follows her to the karaoke bar she works in where they happen to be in need of another pair of hands.

The church, however, is just one of the many institutions to renege on their promises, offering relatively little in terms of real support to suffering men like Seung-chul who are granted only superficial welcome. Sook-young (Kang Eun-jin), the young woman Seung-chul idolises, is ashamed of her job in the karaoke bar which she feels to be immoral and in conflict with her otherwise intense religiosity, taking against Seung-chul on spotting him at church in fear that he will spill the beans and out her as an impure woman among her flock. Seung-chul would never do such a thing, though as he points out he doesn’t have any friends there to spill the beans to anyway.

In any case he continues to admire her from afar while she remains oblivious though slightly irritated to think he may have formed an attachment to a “helper” girl after he gets into a fight with a drunken patron who was touching her inappropriately. “Why do you care about people like that?” she asks him, tellingly, exposing her religiosity as the puritanical kind all about rules and oppression and not at all about compassion or kindness. Sook-young looks down on the helper girls as fallen women, advising Seung-chul that a godly man like himself has no business falling for “that sort of girl” before firing him when she catches him singing hymns in the karaoke booth, convinced that his excuse of not knowing any other songs must be a lie.

Sook-young seems to have no idea Seung-chul is from the North. True enough he speaks little but no one picks up on his accent and he’s been trained not to volunteer the information for fear of rejection. Once she finds out, Sook-young is full of remorse, actively inducting Seung-chul into the church and making him her good deed for the day. It’s not only the social stigma that plagues Seung-chul, but a kind of exoticisation. Kyung-chul’s other sideline is earning money through lectures to anti-communist organisations to whom he parrots the accepted line on North Korea – the violence, the oppression, the famine, though stopping short of the full horror. Seung-chul, unwillingly dragged to a church support group, reveals the full extent of what it cost him to survive and discovers no one quite wanted that level of honesty or is willing to help him in the depths of his despair. All anyone wants of a defector is to say what it is they want to hear, any deviation from the accepted line will not be tolerated in an eerie echo of all they’ve escaped.

Gazing at an expensive tailored suit, Seung-chul chases dreams of success but finds only exploitation and abandonment. His only real attachment is to a little dog brought in off the street to whom he shows the tenderness no one has yet shown him but even this small comfort is not enough to sustain him in the fiercely capitalist environment of modern day Seoul. Seung-chul is presented with a choice, one which strains the fragile innocence he’d been careful to preserve for his new life, and finds himself no better than the world which surrounds him. North or South, survival has a price but you can damn yourself by paying it even in the knowledge that those around you sold out long ago.


The Journals of Musan was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Quiet Dream (춘몽, Zhang Lu, 2016)

Review of Zhang Lu’s A Quiet Dream (춘몽, Chun-mong) first published by UK Anime Network.


A North Korean defector, a lonely orphan, and a nerdy landlord walk into a bar but also, perhaps, into a dream or several dreams in Zhang Lu’s latest chronicle of lovelorn city dwellers and their eccentric days of tiresome banality. Dreams, reality, and wish fulfilment mingle freely in this run down land of cheerful hopelessness populated by the displaced and permanently fugitive. Zhang’s film is as elusive as it is melancholy but offers its painful meditations with good humour and kindness even if it sees little possibility of escape.

Everyone is in love with pretty barmaid, Yeri (Han Ye-ri). Yeri bears this with good grace as she divides her attentions equally between her three suitors, nervous landlord Jong-bin (Yoon Jong-bin), petty criminal Ik-june (Yang Ik-june), and sorrowful North Korean defector Jung-bum (Park Jung-bum). Having come to Korea as a teenager after her mother died, Yeri tracked down her estranged father only for him to suffer a serious illness requiring round the clock care soon after. When she’s not serving drinks or looking after dad, Yeri spends her time with the three guys, drinking, visiting the Korean Film Archive, or chatting with the romantic teenage poetess (Lee Joo-young) so obviously, painfully, in love with her that Yeri is able to do little other than ignore it in an attempt to let her down gently.

Dreamscape aside, the problems each of the protagonists is facing is real enough. Yeri’s life yields its own sorrows as her heartfelt rendition of Li Bai’s famous ode to homesickness makes plain as do her frequent references to her mother and the quest for a mysterious crater bound lake. Having lost a mother and found a father she loses again when he is taken ill and she is left to care for a man she barely knew in the most intimate of ways. Her burden is a heavy one and her dreams filled with the idea of abandoning it as her father’s wheelchair careers emptily down the hill on which they live. A visit to a fortune teller proves far from reassuring when he informs her that her father will live a long life, but abruptly changes the subject when it comes to a more personal projection.

The three guys could almost be aspects of her own personality turning up to haunt her but each of Yeri’s men (as she later describes them) is battling his own kind of despair. Jung-bum’s is the most pronounced as he battles bipolar disorder and possible PTSD from North Korean labour camps. A refugee with no one to protect him, Jung-bum falls victim to workplace exploitation only be fired because his eyes are “too sad” and it’s bringing his boss down. Ik-june, kinder than anyone gives him credit for, thinks he can help him through his gangland godfather “Mr. Jellyfish” but Ik-june can’t decide how far he really wants to be in the criminal underworld and is in disgrace after laughing at a funeral. Jong-bim lays claim to control over everything in sight as he’s “the landlord” only it’s his father who actually owns the land and Jong-bim is arrested in an almost adolescent sense of powerlessness.

Nevertheless, their days are ones of gentle dreaming as the guys push their luck but refuse to compete for the love of Yeri, preferring to share the unique light she seems to bring into their darkened world. Dreams and reality flow into one another without thought or warning leaving each indistinct as Yeri dances drunkenly on a rooftop only to turn around and find her trio of suitors disappeared, though the surreal characters which people the city including an old lady who collects cans, bottles and cardboard to place outside an old wardrobe on the side of the road which she uses “to pray” might make “reality” a difficult thing to believe in in any case.

Purgatorial as their existence is, the melancholy collective seem to find a comforting symbiosis in their personal miseries. Filming through mirrors and opaque curtains Zhang rejects any idea of certainty or concrete realities. The Chinese characters which accompany the film’s original title effectively mean “short lived illusion”, lending a poetic air to the otherwise surreal goings on, painting this greyed out land as a temporary container for eternal woes. At the film’s end we either wake up or fall asleep, or perhaps merely exchange one dream for another but despite all of the heartache and desperation this strange world is one defined by warmth and basic human goodness.


A Quiet Dream was screened as part of a teaser programme for the London Korean Film Festival. The next screening in the series will be E Oni’s Missing at Picturehouse Central on April 10, 2017. Tickets on sale now directly from Picturehouse.

Original trailer (English subtitles)