Steel Rain (강철비, Yang Woo-suk, 2017)

Steel Rain posterA little way in to Steel Rain (강철비, Gangchulbi), one of its heroes – a Blue House official, gives a pointed lecture on Korea’s past to some students of Geopolitical History. Fiercely critical of Korea’s previous subjugation by Japan, he laments that his nation was not able to free itself from the Japanese yoke and was awarded its freedom with the end of a wider political conflict which saw the Japanese “empire” collapse. According to Kwak Cheol-u, Korea has never quite lost its cultural admiration for its former colonisers which is why its most prominent corporations – Samsung, Haeundae etc, are all direct competitors with similar Japanese firms (and are only now pushing past them in terms of global market penetration and technological innovation).

Switching tack, he wonders why it is that Japan lost a war and Korea got cut in two by two new “colonising” forces. In his oft observed mantra, Kwak (Kwak Do-won) insists that the citizens of a divided nation suffer more from those who seek to manipulate the division for their own ends than they do from the division itself, which is where we find ourselves in the contemporary era of my button’s bigger than his button in which “capitalist pig dogs” face off against “dirty commies”. Adapting his own webcomic, Yang’s action thriller is among the most recent in a long line of North/South buddy movies and even if its cold-war paranoia feels distinctly old hat, it just goes to prove that everything old is new again.

Eom Cheol-u (Jung Woo-sung), a former North Korean special forces agent, is called back into the fold by his old commander for a very special mission. Tensions are about to boil over in the perpetually precarious state and the Dear Leader’s life is under threat from a suspected coup. Eom is to silence one of the conspirators in return for which he will be given elite status and his family will be well looked after. Unfortunately, the mission does not go to plan and Eom ends up witnessing a missile strike on a welcome meeting at a Chinese managed factory in which the (mostly young and female) employees are murdered in cold blood. Managing to escape with the Dear Leader himself who is seriously wounded, Eom travels over the border along with two young girls. From this point on he’s in conspiracy thriller territory trying to work out just what’s going on and who he can really trust.

The symbolism is rammed home by the fact that our two heroes, Kwak and Eom, have the same first name – Cheol-u, only one uses the characters for “strong friendship” and the other “bright world”. Taken together they paint a pretty picture, brothers in arms despite the political difficulties which place them on differing sides of an arbitrary line drawn up by a foreign power without much consideration for those divided by it. As in many North/South buddy movies of recent times, the North Korean agent displays the best qualities of his nation in his essential “goodness” – a caring husband and father, he executes his mission with maximum efficiency but bears no ill will towards those outside of it and is keen to protect the people of North Korea from almost certain doom should a nuclear war break out between the two peoples. Kwak, by contrast, is more of a schemer whose moral universe is much less black and white. A fluent Mandarin speaker he’s in tight with a North Korean official who keeps trying to talk him into taking a research post at a Chinese university while his family life is somewhat complicated thanks to a divorce from his plastic surgeon wife.

Meanwhile, the film is at pains to point out that Korea became the focus point of the first East/West proxy war and, in Kwak’s view at least, remains insufficiently important in the eyes of its “allies” to merit much direct consideration. Thus our boardroom squabbles are often reduced to the looming face of the American President “advising” the Korean officials on the best course of action while others worry about what Japan is going to think and wonder if the US secretly values the opinion of the Japanese more than the Koreans on the ground. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the government is in a transitionary phase in which a new president has been elected but not sworn in. The crisis may well play out entirely within the old president’s final hours which means that diplomatically he has little to lose and as he is a conservative, might as well milk the situation for all it’s worth. In short, he’s as keen to ruffle diplomatic feathers and bring the situation to a head as everyone else is and war looks more likely than not. The central message is that, as Kwak is fond of implying, governments care little for their people or that millions may die when idea of division is so easily manipulated, especially if it’s not “their” people who will be doing the dying.

Not for nothing is the new president seen reading copy of Willy Brandt’s book on successful reunification, even if he begs his outgoing predecessor to consider the economic impact of any possible change in relations with a Northern neighbour. The North Korean official also warns that China is not keen on the idea of a war seeing as that will necessarily mean an influx of North Korean refugees no one wants to take responsibility for. The cold war may be about to turn hot, but the heroics that cool it down turn out to be of a much less gung-ho nature than might be expected, relying on personal sacrifice and a perhaps outdated code of honour. Nevertheless, the crisis is averted not through macho posturing but through “diplomatic channels” and a careful balancing of powers. Perhaps not so farfetched after all.


Streaming worldwide via Netflix.

Steel Rain will also receive its international festival premiere as the opening night gala of the Udine Far East Film Festival on 20th April.

Far East Film Festival trailer (no subtitles)

A Taxi Driver (택시 운전사, Jang Hoon, 2017)

A Taxi Driver PosterIn these (generally) well connected days of mass communication when every major event is live broadcast to the world at large, it’s difficult to remember a time when dreadful things might be happening the next town over yet no one knows (or perhaps dares to ask). Until 1979, Korea had been under the control of an oppressive dictatorship which was brought to a sudden and bloody end by the murder of the president, Park Chung-hee, at the hands of one of his aides. Though the democracy movement had been growing, hopes of installing a modern governmental system were dashed with the accession of the de facto president, General Chun Doo-hwan, who reinstated martial law, placing troops on the streets on the pretext of a possible North Korean invasion. In an event known as the Gwanjgu Uprising, a long term peaceful protest led by the area’s large student population was brutally suppressed with large numbers dead or wounded by government soldiers.

Meanwhile, in Seoul, regular Joe taxi driver Kim Man-seob (Song Kang-ho) is trying to go about his everyday business and is finding all of this protesting very irritating, especially when he is forced to swerve to avoid a young man running from riot police and breaks the wing mirror on his otherwise pristine vehicle. Man-seob thinks these kids don’t know they’re born, if they’d spent time abroad like he did in Saudi Arabia, they’d know that few places are quite as nice as Korea is. A single father raising his young daughter alone, Man-seob’s major worry is money. He’s four months behind on his rent and his daughter keeps getting into fights with the landlord’s son. Actually, the rent might not be such a pressing problem seeing as Man-seob’s landlord is a close friend and colleague – close enough for him to cheekily ask to borrow the money to “pay” it so his friend’s wife will stop being so mean. When he overhears another driver boasting that he’s picked up an improbably large fare that’s exactly the same amount as the money Man-seob owes, Man-seob bluffs his way into stealing it out from under him. Man-seob, however, has not stopped to consider why a foreigner wants to pay him an insane amount of money to drive from Seoul to provincial Gwangju.

Like many in the Korea of 1980, Man-seob is a man just trying to get by. He has his private sorrows, but largely avoids thinking about the big picture. To him, the Seoul protest movement has become such normal inconvenience that he keeps cream in his car to help cope with the smell of the smoke bombs. He thinks all of this rancour is just kids out of control and will eventually blow over when order is restored.

Others feel differently. A BBC journalist relocated from Korea to Tokyo describes the situation as “tense” and avows that this time something may be about to break. Tokyo in 1980 is a nice place to live, but extremely boring if you’re an international journalist and so German reporter Peter (Thomas Kretschmann) catches the next flight out with the intention of investigating the rumours of state sponsored violence coming out Gwangju.

Though Man-seob’s original motivation is the money, the events he witnesses in Gwangju have a profound effect on the way he sees his country. Bypassing roadblocks and sneaking into a city under lockdown, Man-seob and Peter witness acts of extreme violence as the army deploys smoke grenades, beatings, and bullets on a peaceful assembly of ordinary people. Prior to the military’s intervention, the atmosphere is joyful and welcoming. The people of Gwangju dance and sing, share meals with each other, and all are excited about the idea of real social change. This juxtaposition of joy and kindness with such brutal and uncompromising cruelty eventually awakens Man-seob’s wider consciousness, forcing him to rethink some early advice he gave to his daughter concerning her difficult relationship with the little boy next-door to the effect that non-reaction is often the best reaction.

Rather than focus on the Uprising itself, Joon presents it at ground level through the eyes of the previously blind Man-seob and the jaded Peter. Inspired by real events though heavily fictionalised (despite a search which continued until his death, Peter was never able to discover the true identity of the taxi driver who had helped him), A Taxi Driver (택시 운전사, Taxi Woonjunsa) is a testament to the everyman’s historical importance which, even if occasionally contrived, speaks with a quiet power in the gradual reawakening of a self-centred man’s sense of honour and personal responsibility.


A Taxi Driver was screened as the sixth teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival 2017. Tickets for the next and final film, The Villainess which screens along with the official programme launch at Regent Street Cinema on 11th September, are on sale now.

Original trailer (English subtitles)