Secret Reunion (의형제 / 義兄弟, Jang Hoon, 2010)

secret reunion posterStrangely enough, North Koreans in South Korean films are often marked by a naive nobility, filled with all the “goodness” that is otherwise so absent from the hypocritical egalitarianism of the nation that raised them. Jang Hoon’s Secret Reunion (의형제 / 義兄弟, Uihyeongjae) is a perfect example of the ongoing trend in its direct contrasting of a pure hearted North Korean operative betrayed by his comrades, and the cynical NIS officer who turns to a shady career in the private sector when a botched operation gets him fired. An interesting look at North/South relations, Secret Reunion is equal parts buddy cop comedy and probing thriller but places the heartfelt connection between its perfectly mirrored protagonists firmly at its centre.

North Korean agent Song (Gang Dong-won) reads a bedtime story to his unborn child over a telephone whilst preparing for an operation south of the border, while NIS officer Lee (Song Kang-ho) bickers with his wife about their daughter’s education. Song, along with another agent, Tae-soo (Yoon Hee-seok), is to meet a top North Korean hitman known as Shadow (Jeon Kuk-Hwan) and assist in his mission to take out a prominent North Korean defector. Horrified by Shadow’s abrupt murder of the target’s wife and mother-in-law, Song draws on Shadow in defence of the man’s young son whom Shadow has also marked for death and places himself in the firing line in the process but is “saved” when Lee and the NIS turn up following a tip-off from Tae-soo who has betrayed them. Lee and Song briefly catch sight of each other but the operation is a bust which allows both Shadow and Song to escape whilst causing mass civilian casualties from stray police bullets and general panic.

Six years later Lee, fired from the NIS and divorced by his wife, spots Song again during his shady line of work as a finder of missing persons which often sees him tracking down runaway mail order brides from Vietnam. Unable to go home after being branded a traitor, Song is living as a casual labourer under a false South Korean identity. Unbeknownst to Lee he recognises the NIS agent but is unaware Lee has recognised him, especially when he offers him a job at his “company”. Song, intrigued, accepts in the hope of getting enough money together to bring his family to the South while Lee is hoping Song will lead him to Shadow and path back into the NIS but despite their best efforts the two men begin to develop a deep and warm understanding of each other even whilst working at cross purposes.

Song and Lee are indeed mirror images. When we first meet Song he’s eagerly embracing his role as a father and lamenting the fact that he cannot be with his pregnant wife while promising to be home soon. Lee, by contrast, argues with his wife over the phone and abruptly hangs up to go back to police business. Neither man is able to have the close and loving relationship with their daughters they would like – Song because he cannot return home and worries for the safety of his family, and Lee because his wife has remarried and moved to England. Lee’s loss of family is a personal failure first and foremost, but also a consequence of the botched operation in which Song escaped – hence Lee’s desire to capture Song is also part payback for ruining his life, but one which is frustrated by his gradual awakening to Song’s uncomplicated pureheartedness and identification with his own separation from his wife and child.

Song’s nobility is used against him by the heartless North Korean hitman, Shadow, who decries the “pathetic Southerners ruled by emotion” and warns Song that the “Great Nation cannot tolerate someone so fragile” when taken to task over his heartless murder of the defector’s South Korean family members. Lee, the NIS agent, resorts to barely legal immorality when stripped of his authority in becoming a finder of missing persons. The work largely involves tracking down trafficked women who’ve been tricked into coming to South Korea to marry rich and handsome men but often find themselves shackled to cruel husbands who regard them as slaves to be beaten and tortured. Yet Lee sends them back, knowing exactly what will happen to them when he does – something which Song refuses to allow. Despite coming from a brutalising regime, Song has retained his innate humanity, battles injustice and (tries to) protect the weak where Lee, a police officer in a (recently) democratic developed nation, quips about the nature of capitalism being learning to find happiness in stealing the wealth of others and is content to make himself complicit in a system he otherwise does not condone.

Despite their differences the two men come to see themselves in the other, discovering the better qualities of an “enemy” and becoming conflicted in anticipating the day when they will eventually have to confront the secrets they’ve been keeping. Jang keeps the tension high as Lee and Song play each other while Shadow dances around in the background, presumably playing a game which is entirely his own. Nevertheless the bonds of brotherhood between North and South are firmly repaired in Lee and Song’s eventual transition to blood brothers, restoring their severed familial connections whilst building and strengthening new ones.


International trailer (English subtitles)

The Merciless (불한당: 나쁜 놈들의 세상, Byun Sung-hyun, 2017)

merciless posterHeroic bloodshed is alive and well and living in Korea. The strange love child of Na Hyun’s The Prison, and Park Hoon-jung’s New World, the first gangster action drama from Byun Sung-hyun (previously known for light comedies), The Merciless (불한당: 나쁜 놈들의 세상, Boolhandang: Nabbeun Nomdeului Sesang) more than lives up to its name in its noirish depiction of genuine connection undercut by the inevitability of betrayal. Inspired as much by ‘80s Hong Kong cinema with its ambitious, posturing tough guys and dodgy cops as by the more immediate influence of the seminal Infernal Affairs, Byun’s brutal tale of chivalry is, as he freely admits, an exercise in style, but its aesthetics do, at least, help to elevate the otherwise generic narrative.

That would be – the complicated relationship between young rookie Hyun-su (Im Siwan) and grizzled veteran Jae-ho (Sol Kyung-gu). Hyun-su proves himself in prison by besting current champions bringing him to the attention of Jae-ho – the de facto prison king. Sharing similar aspirations, the pair form a tight, brotherly bond as they hatch a not so secret plan to take out Jae-ho’s boss, Ko (Lee Kyoung-young), leaving Jae-ho a clear path to the top spot of a gang engaged in a lucrative smuggling operation run in co-operation with the Russian mob and using the area’s fishing industry as an unlikely cover.

We’re first introduced to Jae-ho through reputation in the film’s darkly comic opening scene in which Ko’s resentful, cowardly nephew Byung-gab (Kim Hee-won), has a strange conversation with a soon to be eliminated colleague. Byung-gab says he finds it hard to eat fish with their tiny eyes staring back at you in judgement. He admires Jae-ho for his ice cold approach to killing, meeting his targets’ gaze and pulling the trigger without a second thought.

Jae-ho is, indeed, merciless, and willing to stop at nothing to ensure his own rise through the criminal underworld. He will, however, not find it so easy to pull that trigger when he’s staring into the eyes of sometime partner Hyun-su. Neither of the two men has been entirely honest with the other, each playing a different angle than it might at first seem but then caught by a genuine feeling of brotherhood and trapped in storm of existential confusion when it comes to their individual end goals. Offering some fatherly advice to Hyun-su, Jae-ho recites a traumatic childhood story and cautions him to trust not the man but the circumstances. Yet there is “trust” of a kind existing between the two men even if it’s only trust in the fact they will surely be betrayed.

Byun rejoices in the abundance of reversals and backstabbings, piling flashbacks on flashbacks to reveal deeper layers and hidden details offering a series of clues as to where Jae-ho and Hyun-su’s difficult path may take them. Truth be told, some of these minor twists are overly signposted and disappointingly obvious given the way they are eventually revealed, but perhaps when the central narrative is so fiendishly convoluted a degree of predictability is necessary.

The Merciless has no real political intentions, but does offer a minor comment on political necessity in its bizarre obsession with the fishing industry. The police know the Russians are involved in drug smuggling and using the local fishing harbour as a front, but as fishing rights are important and the economy of primary importance they’d rather not risk causing a diplomatic incident by rocking the boat, so to speak. The sole female presence in the film (aside from Hyun-su’s sickly mother), determined yet compromised police chief Cheon (Jeon Hye-jin), is the only one not willing to bow to political concerns but her methods are anything other than clean as she plants seemingly vast numbers of undercover cops in Jae-ho’s outfit, only to find herself at the “mercy” of vacillating loyalties.

Heavily stylised, Byun’s action debut does not quite achieve the level of pathos it strives for in an underwhelming emotional finale but still manages to draw out the painful connection between the two anti-heroes as they each experience a final epiphany. An atmosphere of mistrust pervades, as it does in all good film noir, but the central tragedy is not in trust misplaced but trust manifesting as a kind of love between two men engulfed by a web of confusion, betrayal, and corrupted identities.


Screening as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2017 at Regent Street Cinema on 3rd November, 6.30pm. The Merciless will also screen at:

and will be released by StudioCanal on 13th November.

International trailer (English subtitles)

 

The Last Princess (덕혜옹주, Hur Jin-ho, 2016)

last-princessReview of Hur Jin-ho’s The Last Princess first published by UK Anime Network.


Filmic biopics of real life historical figures are not generally known for their fierce adherence to fact, but The Last Princess (덕혜옹주, Deokhyeongjoo) is unusually honest in its approach in the sense that it includes a brief opening statement to the effect that the film pays very little attention to historical veracity. Hur Jin-ho adapts the story of Korea’s last princess, Yi Deok-hye (Son Ye-jin), as recounted in a novel by Kwon Bi-young, whilst indulging the genre he’s best known for – romantic melodrama. Another of the recent spate of films to address Korea’s colonial past, The Last Princess is the story of a woman who was fiercely loyal to her homeland, even in the face of harsh opposition and final rejection by the very people she’d been striving so hard to protect.

Told in a non-linear fashion, The Last Princess spans the majority of Deok-hye’s life from her opulent childhood in the royal palace to her eventual repatriation to Korea in the mid 1960s. In 1919, nine years after Korea had been annexed by the Japanese, Deok-hye lives in the palace with her loving father, the former Emperor (Baek Yoon-sik), and her mother, the concubine Lady Yang (Park Joo-mi). Her carefree days soon end when she witnesses her father’s death by poison and comes to understand her precarious position as puppet royalty of a subjugated regime.

Her life, and those of her remaining family members, is largely in the hands of a traitorous civil servant, Han (Yoon Je-moon), whose fierce loyalty to the Japanese emperor knows no bounds. Deok-hye is unwilling to assist him in his desire to use her as a tool to promote the “Japanisation” of the country and so is packed off to the mainland to study with the promise that she can return to live with her mother in Korea after her studies have ended. Needless to say she does not return.

In a touch of cinematic romanticism, the film elides two characters into one in the otherwise fictional character of Kim Jang-han (Park Hae-il). The son of a resistance fighter loyal to the emperor, Jang-han was betrothed to Deok-hye when they were both children and later returns to her as an adult in Japan where he is active in the Resistance, before coming back to find her years after the war. Jang-han hatches a plan to help Deok-hye and the other royal family members escape for exile in Shanghai but the the pair are eventually separated.

Recalling other recent Korean Resistance movies Age of Shadows and Assassination, The Last Princess has its share of action as Deok-hye and Jang-han attempt to escape the Japanese occupation and foster the revolution from abroad. The villain of the piece this time around is not so much the Japanese but the Koreans who willingly helped them as as exemplified here by the odious Han. Han is the most typically melodramatic character and only lacks a moustache to twirl to complete the effect. Hellbent on ingratiating himself with the Japanese, Han is determined to harness his princess’ appeal to sell the virtues of the Japanese state. When Deok-hye resolutely refuses to play along, he threatens her family members and friends in an attempt to force her compliance but finds her love for her country too strong to be bent by his egocentric cruelty.

Sent away and kept a virtual prisoner far from home, there is little Deok-hye is able to do in service of her nation. Introduced to the Resistance operating in Japan, she begins to see a way to help and eventually finds herself taking a stand when blackmailed into reading out a propaganda speech in front of a collection of forced labourers. Beginning the speech in Japanese as ordered, Deok-hye finds she cannot continue and eventually makes her real feelings known in Korean as she instructs the people in front of her not to give up, she will be right along side them fighting to regain their homeland. In a touch of Casablanca inspired drama, a chorus of Arirang suddenly springs up among the crowd, much to the consternation of the Japanese officers expecting a show of contrition, as the Princess herself is whisked off to pay a heavy price for her “betrayal”.

The Last Princess forces its heroine through constant loss – of her home, of her position, of her family, of a future, of love, of a child, of happiness, of her mind, and most importantly of her nationality. Deok-hye never wanted to be Japanese, did not travel to Japan of her own volition, and did her best to resist even at great personal cost. Nevertheless she finds eventually finds herself barred from her homeland due to opposing political concerns when the fledgling Republic fears the misuse of a powerful symbol like a royal family to frustrate the democratic future. Played with wonderful sensitivity by leading actress Son Ye-jin, Deok-hye suffers as her nation suffers, longing for independence both personal and national but finding only new cages everywhere she goes. Despite the unconvincing ageing makeup of the latter part of the film and an overly intrusive score, The Last Princess is an impressively produced prestige picture which plays its melodrama credentials to the max but is also undoubtedly moving in recounting the tragic story of its heroine whose constant misuse and lack of agency mirror much of the history of the nation she holds so dear.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Cart (카트, Boo Ji-young, 2014)

cartUp until very recently, many of us lucky enough to live in nations with entrenched labour laws have had the luxury of taking them for granted. Mandated breaks, holidays, sick pay, strictly regulated working hours and overtime directives – we know our rights, and when we feel they’re being infringed we can go to our union representatives or a government ombudsman to get our grievances heard. If they won’t listen, we have the right to strike. Anyone who’s been paying attention to recent Korean cinema will know that this is not the case everywhere and even trying to join a union can not only lead to charges of communism and loss of employment but effective blacklisting too. Cart (카트), inspired by real events, is the story of one group of women’s attempt to fight back against an absurdly arbitrary and cruel system which forces them to accept constant mistreatment only to treat their contractual agreements with cavalier contempt.

Sun-hee (Yum Jung-ah) is a loyal employee at the Mart. She’s had zero penalty points for five whole years and has been told that she’s about to be transferred from a temp worker contract to a regular employee position. Run more like a cult than a supermarket, the Mart’s workers all wear pristine blue and white uniforms and recite the dramatic sounding company credo every morning, vowing to increase sales whilst honouring customer service, and are instructed to say “Welcome Beloved Customer!” to each and every visitor. Eager to take on extra overtime with no extra pay and always at the beck and call of brusque manager Choi (Lee Seung-joon), Sun-hee is respected by her colleagues but perhaps not always liked as her goody two-shoes persona both makes them look bad and encourages the management to continue taking advantage.

Sun-hee’s dreams are about to crumble when the evil corporate suits at HQ decide it would be cheaper to fire all the temp workers and use outsourced labour instead. Despite all her long years of hard work and sacrifice, not only is she not getting her secure position, she might not have a job at all. Some of the other women decide they’ve had enough with their poor working conditions and it’s worth taking the chance on forming a union to fight head office together. Sun-hee is reluctant but is eventually convinced to become one of the spokespeople, after all, if they won’t listen to miss five years no penalties, who will they listen to?

It’s worth asking the question why all these terrible jobs with low pay and frequently exploitative conditions are being done exclusively by women. All of the workers on temporary contracts are female from the cleaning staff to the shelf stackers and cashiers, but all come from different backgrounds from young university graduates to old ladies and ordinary working wives and mothers. The management is unwilling to listen to the concerns of their staff because they are “only women”, “working for pocket money” and should just be grateful that the store gave them something to do rather than being bored at home. Pointing out that many of these women are single mothers or live in difficult economic circumstances meaning they need that money to eat would likely not go down well with these fiercely conservative, wealthy executives whose only response is to tell the women not to be so silly and to stop making a fuss over nothing because the men have business to do.

After just ignoring the women fails and they decide to go on strike eventually occupying the store for a longterm sit in, the company go on the image offensive, offering minor concessions including the reinstatement of some, but not all, workers and other small improvements designed to guilt some of the employees with more pressing circumstances to cross the picket line. Eventually, they go to the extreme measures of employing armed thugs and riot police to remove the women by force. In contrast with other similarly themed films from other countries, there is no attempt to get the press onside to expose the company’s workings and the only news reports seen in the film are extremely biased, painting the women as selfish loonies making trouble for everyone by refusing to shut up and accept the status quo.

Following a fairly standard trajectory, the main narrative thrust is the gradual blossoming of near brainwashed and timid employee Sun-hee into a firebrand campaigner for social justice. Through being encouraged to stand up for the other women, Sun-hee becomes concerned not just with her own treatment but the general working environment in Korea. This new found indignation also helps rebuild her relationship with her sullen teenage son after he experiences some workplace discrimination of his own which his mother is able to sort out for him now that she is not prepared to simply smile, nod, and apologise every time someone attempts to get their own way through intimidation.

Cart treats an important issue with the kind of levity and interpersonal drama which make it primed for a screen one hit rather than a later night run in screen five catering to those already aware of the issues. It probably isn’t going to agitate for any direct social change and according to the final caption the outcome of the original incident was more of a bittersweet accomplishment rather than an outright victory. Still, the fight goes on, even if you find yourself ramming a supermarket trolley into a riot officer’s shield to get the message across – an effect which Cart mimics in its quest to ensure as many people as possible get the memo that the time for passive acceptance has long since passed.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)