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 Dude in Me (내안의 그놈, Kang Hyo-jin, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Dude in Me poster 3“What’s more important than being with your family?” – A cynical crime boss is forced to reconsider his life choices following a series of crises which see him inadvertently swap bodies with a dimwitted high school boy in Kang Hyo-jin’s take on the classic genre, The Dude in Me (내안의 그놈, Naean-ui Geunom). Less a story of two men from different generations learning from each other, Kang’s film leans heavily into patriarchal myths as its jaded hero is given a second chance at youth and discovers he may have made a grave error in choosing to reject love in favour of advancement.

17 years after breaking up with high school sweetheart Mi-sun (Ra Mi-ran), Pan-su is a high flying “businessman” in the newly corporatised world of suited gangster thuggery. Old habits die hard, however, as his current problem is his minion’s failure to put sufficient pressure on the last holdout in an area they’ve earmarked for redevelopment – Jong-gi (Kim Kwang-kyu), the earnest owner of a carpentry firm intent on holding on to the family business. It’s during a visit to Jong-gi’s that Pan-su stops off at a ramen joint he used to go to in his youth, only to discover that the young woman who owned the restaurant all those years ago has moved on which is why his favourite dish doesn’t taste like it used to.

Inside, he gets into a heated debate with the new owner while a portly high school boy, Dong-hyun (Jung Jin-young), who needs to leave in a hurry, discovers he’s lost his wallet. The old lady bamboozles Pan-su into paying for the kid’s (unusually large) meal, assuring him that she has “something in store” for him. That “something” turns out to be Dong-hyun falling from a nearby roof and landing on Pan-su’s head. When Pan-su wakes up, he realises he’s in Dong-hyun’s body while Dong-hyun is presumably still inside his which remains in a coma.

Such is the force of Pan-su’s personality that he’s able to convince his chief underling of his real identity pretty quickly, but it remains a serious problem for him that a once serious gangster is humiliatingly trapped in the body of a misfit high schooler ostracised by all but the equally bullied Hyun-jung (Lee Soo-min) for his pudgy physique and dimwitted cowardice. Pan-su makes little attempt to blend into Dong-hyun’s life, behaving much as he has before and seemingly oblivious to the commotion his newfound boldness provokes in those around him. Though Dong-hyun’s new crazy backbone could be written off as a bizarre side effect of his head injury, the contrasts between the diffident teenager and unpredictable gangster do not end there. Where everything about Pan-su screams control from his obsession with straightening other people’s ties to habitually wiping down surfaces, Dong-hyun is the sort of boy who doesn’t think too far beyond his belly. Indeed, Dong-hyun’s vast appetite does not sit well with Pan-su’s uptight concern for his health even as his new body finds it almost impossible to resist the lure of tasty junk food in truly staggering proportions.

Nevertheless, Pan-su gradually begins to take ownership of Dong-hyun’s body, doing him the “favour” of “improving” it by shedding all that weight and revealing the hot guy trapped inside. Part of the reason he decides to do that is realising that the mother of Dong-hyun’s childhood friend Hyun-jung is none other than love of his life Mi-sun, who seems to have remained single since they broke up around the time in which Hyun-jung must have been conceived. Wielding his newfound hotness as a weapon, he vows to protect Hyun-jung in the most fatherly of ways – by teaching her to protect herself through shared self-defence classes. He will, however, need to sort out a few other problems on his his own, going up up against an entrenched system of delinquency and a dangerously predatory high school prince who likes to invite vulnerable girls to his parties as a form of entertainment.

Meanwhile, he’s still dealing with the ongoing gang war and a series of personal problems relating to his treacherous wife and austere father-in-law who praises “family values” above all else. Living as a high school boy again and realising that he’s got a daughter whose life he has entirely missed out on because of a choice he has always on some level regretted forces Pan-su to wonder if his ill-gotten gains were really worth the lonely, loveless years. Strangely, perhaps only Dong-hyun is brave enough to admit for him that perhaps they weren’t and what he really wants is a warmer kind of “family” than the cold obligation of gangster brotherhood. A quirky tale of softening bad guys and toughening soft ones, The Dude in Me eventually locates a happy medium in the merger of the professional and personal as a new family rises up in Mi-sun’s homely new restaurant filled with warmth and possibility in having rediscovered the simple joys of true human connection.


The Dude in Me was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International 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)