Go Back (고백, Seo Eun-young, 2020)

“I guess bruises disappear because they sink deep inside of you” a traumatised woman explains in Seo Eun-young’s emotionally complex social drama, Go Back (고백, Gobaek). Literally translating as “confession” the film’s title hints at a neater conclusion than is ultimately offered in this complicated web of trauma, abuse, and patriarchal violence. While perhaps making an awkward defence of law enforcement through its idealistic if sometimes authoritarian heroine, Seo never shies away from suggesting that women suffer disproportionately in a society which often refuses to take their safety seriously. 

This message is brought home in the opening sequence in which rookie policewoman Ji-won (Ha Yoon-kyung) is out jogging while a news item plays on a large screen reporting on the investigation into the murder of a female tourist which the police have apparently bungled. Shortly after she runs into another woman who seems troubled with stains around the rolled sleeves of her shirt which look like they could be blood. The woman recognises Ji-won as a policewoman, though she can’t remember having met her before, but refuses her offer of help before leaving with a little girl. When a ransom note is sent to the media asking everyone in the country to donate a token amount of money to save a kidnapped child, Ji-won can’t shake the idea that the woman is somehow involved. 

The woman, O-sun (Park Ha-sun), is a social worker at a nearby welfare centre where she has acquired a reputation for being somewhat volatile, on one occasion having been arrested for grabbing the father of one her clients around the neck. O-sun and her boss Mi-yeon (Seo Young-hwa) are worried that a local girl, Bo-ra (Gam So-Hyun), is being physically abused by her father who has an alcohol dependency problem but are apparently powerless to do much about it despite the fact that their apartment is filthy and Bo-ra often misses school. Their problem is that many people still believe that physical punishment is an appropriate method of discipline and so it’s easy for abusers to insist they have done nothing wrong even when it’s clear there is an abusive pattern of behaviour in play, while knocks and bruises are often written off as the result of horseplay. Even a doctor’s evidence is apparently not enough to have a child removed from an abusive environment, another client of theirs hospitalised and needing cranial surgery yet likely to be returned to his parents against medical advice insisting his injuries can only be the result of longterm abuse. 

This attitude contributes to a claim made by both Ji-won and O-sun that people are often too afraid to ask for help from the authorities, the tacit explanation being that they don’t believe the authorities can help them or may in fact make the situation worse. Ji-won’s theory is that victims don’t report crime because they fear reprisals from their aggressors, something later born out by her attempt to help a young woman after spotting a suspicious man lurking outside her house while off duty. Ji-won flashes her badge and scares him off, but the man comes back later and this time he doesn’t wait outside. The woman had been reluctant to accept her help fearful that just that sort of thing might happen if he saw her talking to the police. Meanwhile she finds herself subject to low level sexist micro aggressions at work where they make her the literal poster girl for community policing while refusing to let her go on night patrol. Like O-sun she’s accused of caring too much and failing to regulate her emotions, but is also patronised by a male detective pissed off after she solves cases he couldn’t be bothered to investigate properly seemingly wounding his male pride and undercutting his authority by overstepping her responsibility as a uniformed officer. 

Nevertheless, despite the incompetence and disinterest exhibited by her male colleagues, Ji-won’s shining idealism becomes an awkward defence of law enforcement which skews accidentally authoritarian in her fierce love of justice. Brought in to discuss policing as a career, she advises a class of primary school children to snitch on their friends if they spot them doing something “suspicious” like harming animals or starting fires which might seem fair enough but also insists that lack of eye contact indicates guilt which might further discourage shy or traumatised kids from asking for help. She criticises the male officers for being too concerned with punishing criminals and not enough with protecting the innocent, but also insists on retribution rather than appreciating that keeping people safe is a more complex matter than simply locking “bad people” away.

Acutely aware of the legacy of her own trauma, O-sun is desperate to save Bo-ra from the same fate but is at a loss as to how given the resources available to her under the law. Bo-ra meanwhile worries about all the other disadvantaged children and hopes someone’s going to do something to help them too. All is not quite as it seems, but Ji-won and O-sun ultimately discover a sense of solidarity in their mutual desire for equality in justice while uniting to protect Bo-ra from the legacy of trauma. Tightly plotted, Seo’s mystery drama casts a patriarchal and indifferent society as its primary villain but also makes heroes of those who try, however imperfectly, to help those who need it no matter what society might say.


Go Back screens in Chicago on Sept. 24 as part of the 13th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema 

International trailer (English subtitles)

Money (돈, Park Noo-ri, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

money poster 1“Could you ask him something for me,” the beleaguered yet victorious protagonist of Park Noo-ri’s Money (돈, Don) eventually asks, “what was he going to use the money for?”. Wealth is, quite literally it seems, a numbers game for the villainous Ticket (Yoo Ji-tae) whose favourite hobby is destabilising the global stock market just for kicks. As for Cho Il-hyun (Ryu Jun-yeol), well, he just wanted to get rich, but where does getting rich get you in the end? There’s only so much money you can spend and being rich can make you lonely in ways you might not expect.

Unlike most of his fellow brokers, Cho Il-hyun is an ordinary lad from the country. His parents own a small raspberry farm and he didn’t graduate from an elite university or benefit from good connections, yet somehow he’s here and determined to make a success of himself. In fact, his only selling point is that he’s committed the registration numbers of all the firms on the company books to memory, and his ongoing nervousness and inferiority complex is making it hard for him to pick up the job. A semi-serious rookie mistake lands the team in a hole and costs everyone their bonuses, which is when veteran broker Yoon (Kim Min-Jae) steps in to offer Il-hyun a way out through connecting him with a shady middle-man named “The Ticket” who can set him up with some killer deals to get him back on the board.

Il-hyun isn’t stupid and he knows this isn’t quite on the level, but he’s desperate to get into the elite financial world and willing to cheat to make it happen. As might be expected his new found “success” quickly goes to his head as he “invests” in swanky apartments and luxury accessories, while his sweet and humble teacher girlfriend eventually dumps him after he starts showering her with expensive gifts and acting like an entitled elitist. It’s not until some of his fellow brokers who also seem to have ties to Ticket start dying in mysterious circumstances that Il-hyun begins to wonder if he might be in over his head.

Unlike other similarly themed financial thrillers, it’s not the effects of stock market manipulation on ordinary people which eventually wake Il-hyun up from his ultra capitalist dream (those are are never even referenced save a brief reflective shot at the end), but cold hard self-interest as he finally realises he is just a patsy Ticket can easily stub out when he’s done with him. Yoon only hooked him up in the first place because he knew he’d be desperate to take the bait in order to avoid repeated workplace humiliation and probably being let go at the end of his probationary period. What he’s chasing isn’t just “money” but esteem and access to the elite high life that a poor boy from a raspberry farm might have assumed entirely out of his reach.

It’s difficult to escape the note of class-based resentment in Il-hyun’s sneering instruction to his mother that she should “stop living in poverty” when she has the audacity to try and offer him some homemade chicken soup from ancient Tupperware, and it’s largely a sense of inferiority which drives him when he eventually decides to take his revenge on the omnipotent Ticket. Yet there’s a strangely co-dependent bond between the two men which becomes increasingly difficult pin down as they wilfully dance around each other.

The world of high finance is, unfortunately, a very male and homosocial one in which business is often conducted in night-clubs and massage parlours surrounded by pretty women. There is only one female broker on Il-hyun’s team. The guys refer to her as “Barbie” and gossip about how exactly she might have got to her position while she also becomes a kind of trophy conquest for Il-hyun as he climbs the corporate ladder. Meanwhile, there is also an inescapably homoerotic component to Il-hyun’s business dealings which sees him flirt and then enjoy a holiday (b)romance with a Korean-American hedge fund manager (Daniel Henney) he meets at a bar in the Bahamas, and wilfully strip off in front of Ticket ostensibly to prove he isn’t wearing a wire while dogged financial crimes investigator Ji-cheol (Jo Woo-jin) stalks him with the fury of a jilted lover.

Obsessed with “winning” in one sense or another, Il-hyun does not so much redeem himself as simply emerge victorious (though possibly at great cost). Even his late in the game make up with Chaebol best friend Woo-sung (Kim Jae-young), who actually turns out to be thoroughly decent and principled (perhaps because unlike Il-hyun he was born with wealth, status, and a good name and so does not need to care about acquiring them), is mostly self-interest rather than born of genuine feeling. In answer to some of Il-hyun’s early qualms, Ticket tells him that in finance the border between legal and illegal is murky at best and it may in fact be “immoral” not to exploit it. What Il-hyun wanted wasn’t so much “money” but what it represents – freedom, the freedom from “labour” and from from the anxiety of poverty. Life is long and there are plenty of things to enjoy, he exclaims at the height of his superficial success, but the party can only last so long. What was the money for? Who knows. Really, it’s beside the point.


Money was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet (동주, Lee Joon-ik, 2016)

2016-03-12-1457751627-4889573Review of Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet (동주, Dong-ju) first published by UK Anime Network.


Lee Joon-ik’s previous film, The Throne, was a big budget period affair examining the well known story of tragic prince Sado who was, in a sense, murdered by his own nation as personified by his  father, the king, for failing to bow to a tyrannous regime. Lee’s followup, Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet, charts a similarly melancholy path in its exploration of the life and times of its titular wordsmith, unhappily born into an age of anti-intellectual fervour with only the desire to write verses. Yet another of the recent films to address the Korea’s colonial history, Dong-ju, like its hero, may be the most contemplative as it raises a number of questions not only about the nature of resistance but also of its intrinsic values.

Growing up in a Korean religious settlement in Manchuria, Dong-ju (Kang Ha-neul) and his cousin Mong-gyu (Park Jung-min) have been largely cushioned from the effects of the Japanese occupation, but are aware it’s only a matter of time before their village loses its special status and is swallowed by the powers at be. Both boys have literary aspirations with the more bombastic Mong-gyu opting for prose and the dreamier Dong-ju committed to the far less well received world of poetry. Firm friends as they are, literary rivalry aside, each is bound for a different course as Mong-gyu becomes increasingly involved with the independence movement whereas Dong-ju’s rebellion remains largely on the page.

After travelling to Japan as students, both Dong-ju and Mong-gyu are arrested for insurrection and incarcerated in the notorious Fukuoka prison where they are used as human subjects for experimentation. Regularly dosed with mysterious injections which blister the skin and weaken the constitution, neither lives long enough to see the return of their nation’s sovereignty just a few weeks later with Japan’s defeat at the end of the war.

Beginning with Dong-ju’s prison interrogation, the film is largely told through flashback as it follows the course of Dong-ju’s life from his adolescence in the village to domestic university and finally to Japan where he faces constant threat as an alien Korean in the land of the oppressor. Both he and Mong-gyu are committed to the idea that conscientious literature can change the world, even founding a student magazine dedicated to progressive texts. Mong-gyu, however, does not place the same faith in the art of poetry as does his friend, and eventually decides to head to China to join the left-wing arm of the Resistance movement in exile, only to become disillusioned with their extreme tactics.

Despite his loss of faith in Communist dogma, Mong-gyu remains committed to the idea of direct action and the eventual ushering in of the egalitarian revolution preceded by the expulsion of the Japanese. Far from opposing the draft of Korean students into the Japanese army, Mong-gyu plans to harness it to fill the army with capable, trained fifth columnists who will use the skills they learn in a foreign army to retake their homeland. After a brush with the ruling regime, Dong-ju tries to join the more active side of the resistance alongside his friend but is rebuffed. Mong-gyu knows his friend is not a born soldier and is much more valuable as a poet than on the front lines.

Dong-ju’s poetry is often not overtly political, anti-Japanese, or even anti-colonialist, but it is written in Korean – a daring act of political resistance in itself. During this era, Japanese was the dominant language, used in all official institutions and most schools (Dong-ju and Mong-gyu’s excluded because of its special religious status). One of the problems Dong-ju faces during his interrogation is that he delayed adopting a Japanese name much longer than was wise and subsequently continued to disseminate literature in Korean. When language is suppressed and nationhood denied to the extent that even names have been erased, what other means is there to reclaim an identity other than literature, and of literature what more powerful than poetry?

Dong-ju’s resistance to the brutalisation of of an oppressive regime is entirely internal. He writes in his native language about the things which matter, of his loneliness and youthful anxiety much of which is born of the uncertainty of his times. During his interrogation he is forced to sign a confession of his “crimes”, which he does, but with equal amounts of pride and shame as he wonders if his commitment to literature was time well spent when his comrades were dying in the streets. Was it responsible of him to commit himself to poetry rather than to medicine with all of its more immediately humanitarian benefits, or should he have thrown away the pen for the gun and joined the combatants in the armed struggle?

Mong-gyu, by contrast, feels only shame when he signs his papers which amount to a list of failed manifesto promises. Yes, he did plan all of these things but realised none of them, placing the lives of his friends in jeopardy as his did so. Perhaps he, like Dong-ju, should have agitated for social change through culture, rather than trying to fight an empire using only the empire’s cast offs.

There are no real answers to these questions, Korea regained its independence thanks to the collapse of the Japanese overseas empire rather than armed insurrection or the gradual enlightenment of the citizenry. Both men are left with a lingering sense of shame and impotence at having been unable to accomplish more in their cruelly shortened lives. Yet as for Dong-ju, there is rebellion enough in his poetry which bares all of his own soul as he suffered the torment of a poet forbidden from poetry, writing in a language proscribed by those that would seek to destroy the essence of his culture.

Filming in a crisp, washed out black and white, Lee imbues his world with a sense of melancholy and lost potential as two young men find themselves at the mercy of their times, fighting for their own independence as distinct from that of their nation but once again being denied. A necessarily sombre film unafraid to acknowledge the darkest edges of the colonial period, Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet is a celebration of the enduring power of the poetic form as exemplified by Dong-ju’s beautifully heartbreaking lines.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Train to Busan (부산행, Yeon Sang-ho, 2016)

Train to BusanMany people all over the world find themselves on the zombie express each day, ready for arrival at drone central, but at least their fellow passengers are of the slack jawed and sleep deprived kind, soon be revived at their chosen destination with the magic elixir known as coffee. The unfortunate passengers on an early morning train to Busan have something much more serious to deal with. The live action debut from one of the leading lights of Korean animation Yeon Sang-ho, Train to Busan (부산행, Busanhaeng) pays homage to the best of the zombie genre providing both high octane action from its fast zombie monsters and subtle political commentary as a humanity’s best and worst qualities battle it out for survival in the most extreme of situations.

Workaholic fund manager Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is having a series of very bad days. His wife has left him and for unclear reasons, also left their young daughter, Soo-an (Kim Soo-ahn), in her father’s care though apparently wants custody in the ugly divorce battle that now seems inevitable. It’s Soo-an’s birthday but all she wants is to catch a train to Busan to see her mum and if she has to she’ll even go by herself. After his attempt at a birthday present spectacularly backfires, Seok-woo gives in and agrees to take Soo-an to her mother’s before catching the next train back after dropping her off. Unfortunately, they have picked a very bad day to take the train.

Yeon Sang-ho takes his time to build to the central train based set piece but is is careful to create an atmosphere which makes it plain that there is something very wrong with this seemingly everyday set up. After a brief dig about pig farmers losing out to government policy on foot and mouth disease and irresponsible hit and run drivers leaving deer corpses behind them for someone else to deal with, he has a parade of emergency vehicles racing past Seok-Woo and Soo-an on their trip to the station while ash rains down on their car. Seok-woo is still focussed on work though sleepy on the train so he misses Soo-an’s shocked reaction to a station guard being rugby tackled just as the train is leaving while a mass of improbable early morning revellers are trying to break through the line of staff holding them back at the platform steps.

Patient zero bounds onto the train just as the doors close though one wonders why no one is paying much attention to this obviously distressed young woman as she stumbles and writhes around in the train carriage before the virus fully takes hold. Just as we think someone is about to come to her aid, it turns out to be a case of a snooty passenger taking offence at the presence of an “odd person” on the train. The “odd person” turns out to be a homeless guy whose mutterings of “dead, all dead” take on a prophetic air rather than the ramblings of a mad man that the train guards assume them to be.

This kind of stereotypical othering and the selfish refusal to help fellow humans in need is at the very heart of the film. Seok-woo admonishes his goodhearted daughter when she repeatedly makes an effort to be a kind and decent person by giving up her seat for an old lady or wanting to stop and help others escape the zombie onslaught. However, Soo-an’s goodness wins through as she in turn chastises her father and explains that his selfishness and lack of regard for the feelings of other people is the very reason her mother left the family. Even if he begins by cruelly closing the door on the film’s most heroic character and his pregnant wife, Seok-woo gradually begins to develop a sense of social responsibility whether out of simple pragmatism or genuine fellow feeling.

Workaholic fathers with minimal connections to their offspring may be something of a genre trope but, as father-to-be Sang-hwa says, fathers often get a bad rap – making all of the sacrifices and enjoying none of the rewards. In an attempt to show solidarity with Seok-Woo, Sang-hwa assures him that his daughter will understand why he worked so hard all the time when she grows up and reiterates that true fatherhood is about self-sacrifice. This is one sense plays into the earlier themes of Seok-Woo’s self-centred viewpoint in asking if he really is working hard for his family or only wants to been as such, maintaining his own social status and upperclass lifestyle and completing it with a perfectly posed family photo. A father is supposed to protect his daughter and now Soo-an has only him to rely on, if Seok-woo is going ensure her survival he will have to decide what kind of sacrifices he’s prepared to make on her behalf.

If the film has a villain it isn’t the rabid zombie hordes who, after all, are only obeying their programming, it’s personal, corporate, and political greed. The clearest embodiment of this is in the panicked businessman who frequently tries to issue orders to the train staff and insists the train take him to his preferred destination. After trying to get the homeless man thrown off the train early on, the fascistic businessman picks up a lackey in the form of a steward and begins trying to exclude all the “suspicious” people from his general vicinity. Cruel and cowardly, the businessman’s selfish actions only cause more problems for everyone else whilst whipping up unhelpful paranoia among those who will need to work together to survive. Literally feeding even his most loyal comrades to zombies to buy himself time to escape, this egotistical CEO is the perfect metaphor for cannibalistic nature of the capitalist system which is, as Sang-hwa said, content to let the “useless” fall behind.

That’s not to forget the actual undead threat. Yeon Sang-ho’s walking dead take inspiration from his animated work and move quickly with jerky, uncanny movements more like Butoh dancers than the usual stupefied shufflers. The set pieces are expertly choreographed and well shot, maintaining the tension throughout though the increase in scale towards the final stretch is at odds with the leaner, meaner approach of the early scenes. Despite eventually giving in to melodrama in a heavily signposted script, Yeon Sang-ho’s live action debut is an impressive effort making room for his standard social concerns whilst also providing innovative zombie thrills. Yeon Sang-ho’s message is clear, when disaster strikes no one can survive alone, the only chance for salvation lies in altruistic compassion. In the end the best weapon against the darkness is a children’s song as innocence finally triumphs over fear.


UK release trailer:

Twenty (스물, Lee Byeong-heon, 2015)

Twenty Movie PosterReview of Lee Byeong-heon’s Twenty (스물, Seumool) up at UK Anime Network. I really felt so old watching this film.


The age at which you become “an adult” varies according to your culture but in Korea, as in Japan, at 20 you become fully grown up with all the rights and responsibilities that carries. The three guys at the centre of the Korean film Twenty are just walking through this magic doorway which marks the end of their childhoods and the beginning of their adult lives. The road has forked for them and they have to decide which path to take. However, they’ll have to take their minds off the opposite sex long enough to make a decision.

To state the obvious, Twenty is aimed at a very specific audience and is likely to please a certain group of people very well whilst leaving others a little lost and bemused. It stars a collection of popular and very good looking younger Korean actors and actresses and is largely about what it’s like to be on the cusp of adulthood in contemporary Korea. What it’s not is a hard hitting drama. The target audience for this movie is people who are in their teens or early twenties, so they know what it is to be young, now. They just want to laugh along or sympathise with others in a similar position.

We meet the three guys, Chi-ho (popular rich kid), Dong-woo (put upon poor boy), and Gyung-Jae (doing OK middle class guy) towards the end of their high school years. The boys became friends after falling for the same girl who eventually picked Chi-ho but being boys they had a fist fight about it and are now bonded for their rest of their lives. In many ways they’re quite different, Chi-ho is rich, good looking and only interested in girls whereas Dong-woo comes from quite an impoverished background which means he’ll find it difficult to pursue his studies past high school because he needs to be supporting his mother and siblings. Gyung-Jae is almost the protagonist and is a typical middle class boy who’ll go to college and probably do alright for himself. He’s also a typical “nice guy” with a selection of fairly ordinary romantic issues (bar one interesting aspect which is raised but never followed up on) but being pretty level headed he’ll almost certainly get over it.

At twenty they have the whole of their lives ahead of them – or they kind of do given the fairly restrictive nature of Korean society. Chi-ho just thinks about sex. His parents are rich so he just lives in a perpetual adolescence where he hasn’t applied for university but hasn’t decided on a job either. He watches lots of movies and mopes but honestly he’s just a bit lost and afraid to admit it. Dong-woo wants to be a manga artist and decides to repeat the last year of high school whilst continuing to work all the other hours to support his family all the while feeling guilty about trying to pursue his dream rather than accepting the offer of a steady office job at his uncle’s company. Gyung-Jae actually has it pretty easy as his problems are just the normal sort of romantic growing pains everybody goes through and realising that makes them a little easier for him.

The film is not really a serious examination of the problems young people face. Even the eventual looming of military service is treated in quite a matter of fact way. Twenty is more of a celebration of being young and that it’s OK to be a bit lost and stupid when you’ve just left school. It gets surprisingly crude given that it’s aimed at a comparatively conservative Korean audience but generally gets away with it thanks to its cheeky tone. Undoubtedly hilarious in places (the “fist fight” finale in a Chinese restaurant being a late highlight) Twenty is a film that will play best to those around the same age as its protagonists in real terms and truthfully doesn’t offer so much for those who are already little older but it is nevertheless very funny and likely to entertain Korean idol fans of any age.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.