The President’s Barber (효자동 이발사, Lim Chan-sang, 2004)

president's barber posterWe each of us live in the midst of history being made, some of us closer to the action than others. Most of us don’t quite realise how close we are or fully understand our role in events until it’s too late, but in any case we’re all just too busy getting on with the business of living to give much thought such grand concepts as history or legacy. Song Kang-ho has made a name for himself playing genial everymen forever at the mercy of historical machinations, but before he was an apathetic Taxi Driver, he was an apathetic barber giving haircuts to a dictator he half imagined was a friend. The President’s Barber (효자동 이발사, Hyojadong Ibalsa) is part journey into the intersection between rosy childhood nostalgia and national trauma, and part subtle political satire on the moral corruptions of authoritarianism but its own soft heartedness is often at odds with the grimness of its purpose.

Sung Han-mo (like the counter for tofu) is a nice but dim sort who has his own barber’s studio right across from the Blue House. As his son (Lee Jae-eung) tells us in his cutsey voice over, Han-mo (Song Kang-ho) is easily led and content to do whatever the village leader tells him to do, including participating in the ongoing corruption surrounding the re-election of despotic president Rhee Syngman. Our narrator, the oddly named Nak-an, was born as a result of a brief indiscretion between his father and an assistant (Moon So-ri) who had, apparently, hoped to marry someone else from her home village if Han-mo hadn’t trapped her with maternity. She wanted wanted an abortion but didn’t find out until after the much publicised five month cut off, meaning Han-mo talked her into staying and little Nak-an acquired the unfortunate nickname of “five months Na-kan”.

The family live happily enough until the mid-1960s when Park Chung-hee stages a coup and declares himself “President for Life”. When Han-mo somehow manages to catch a “North Korean Spy”, he gets himself a commendation and the attention of the authorities (for good or ill). A KCIA agent dutifully turns up and hauls Han-mo off to the Blue House because the president needs a trim…

Park’s reputation underwent something of a rehabilitation for a time. He did, in the minds of those seeking to justify his tyrannical reign, preside over Korea’s economic recovery. Han-mo is one of many to prosper, in his case directly in working indirectly for the regime. Han-mo is a simple man, he doesn’t think about politics but often feels belittled and downtrodden, made a figure of fun by those close to him even whilst remaining a cheerful optimist. He doesn’t take much convincing to hitch his mule to Park’s waggon, enjoying the personal boost in his social standing and finally feeling like a someone in being introduced to the world of the elites even when he is forced to accept that he does not and cannot exist fully within it.

Han-mo cuts hair, chatting away the way a barber does without really realising either that he is a vox pop spy or that he might, at any time, say the wrong thing and land himself in serious trouble. Serious trouble arrives during a heated and extremely bizarre period of political hysteria surrounding the “Marxus” virus – a lamentable episode in which an epidemic of dysentery was blamed on North Korean spies and all those who suffered from the condition taken in for “questioning”. Only when his own family is threatened does Han-mo start to reconsider his role in the affair – his status as a peripheral member of the Blue House team is no help in protecting those close to him and he can no longer pretend he does not know what happens in those basements, and that it happens to ordinary people not just “suspicious” ones.

The low level satire derives from Han-mo’s background presence becoming foreground as a very personal spat between a couple of high ranking Blue House staffers gathers in intensity before exploding into events which will have profound, though short-lived, consequences for Korean political history. Han-mo sadly takes down his portrait of Park hanging in pride of place in his shop and replaces it with one of Chun Doo-hwan (who was bald). Still a simple man he has, at least, learned his lesson and prepares to turn down the “honour” of shaving a dictator’s chin. Korea, the film seems to unsubtly hint, is finding its feet again though there will be another long reckoning before it, like Han-mo and his family, is finally able to free itself of the militarist yoke.


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.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Robbery sequence (dialogue free)