Tomb of the River (강릉, Yoon Young-bin, 2021)

“Why did you turn this place into hell?” a reformed gangster asks his defeated enemy only to be told that nobody made the world this way, it is just is. In any case, Yoon Young-bin’s purgatorial gangster epic Tomb of the River (강릉, Gangneung) finds itself in a world of conflicting moral values in which organised crime has become increasingly legitimised conducted by men in sharp suits sitting in elegant surroundings but no less thuggish, violent, and immoral than it ever was. 

The two opposing forces are hippyish middle-aged enforcer Gil-suk (Yu Oh-seong) whose boss has adopted an anti-violence philosophy, and the psychotic Min-suk (Jang Hyuk) whom we first meet as the only survivor of a smuggling boat massacre hiding in the hold eating the dead bodies of his comrades whom he may or may not have killed himself. The battle ground is a new casino resort in the previously peaceful rural backwater of Gangneung shortly to host the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics. Gil-suk’s ageing boss decides to hand him the reins of the business but he objects out of old-fashioned gangster etiquette because the complex is technically located in an area handled by his colleague Chung-sub (Lee Hyun-kyun) who is currently in the boss’ bad books after a group of young people were found passed out having taken drugs in one of the karaoke rooms he manages. 

Gil-suk is perhaps a representative of disingenuous contemporary corporatised gangsters who still operate like thugs but do so with a veneer of elegance, his now elderly boss having achieved a state of zen in giving him small pieces of wisdom such as “don’t fight. If you fight you suffer whether you win or lose”. Gil-suk later echoes him when he tells his friend to leave Min-suk alone and that rather than fighting they should share a meal with him sometime instead acknowledging that his gang members’ lives seem to have been hard. But his compassion is as it turns out, misplaced, Min-suk is not the sort of man who can be befriended or softened with kindness for he is the personification of humanity’s baser instincts in unbridled selfishness and destructive desire. 

“I did it to survive” his underlings often justify themselves, believing they have no other option than to behave the way they do while Min-suk exploits the venality and misfortune of others as a kind of get out of jail free card promising to wipe their debts if they take the fall for his crimes. Sooner or later everyone betrays everyone else for reasons of greed or self-preservation, even Gil-suk eventually pulled towards the dark side while his policeman friend (Park Sung-geun) attempts to save him from himself. “What other choice did I have?”, he asks, but to conform to the dubious morality of the world around him. He criticises the police for a lack of action, but watches and does nothing as Min-suk carves up his entire squad of foot soldiers while patiently making his way towards him. 

The irony is that Gil-suk had been the good gangster, never wanting more than he needed and always happy to share. He is confused by the betrayal of his closest friends because he cannot understand their motivation. He had always thought of the resort as “ours” never considering that it could be “mine” while his friend tells him he should take it all because if he doesn’t someone else will. To prove his point Gil-suk tries to broker a peaceful solution by offering to share control with Min-suk in a process of appeasement, suggesting he take the club while he keeps the casino and they split the profits between them before eventually deciding to surrender it entirely in order to curry favour with an even shadier corporate gangster whose polite interest in the resort he’d previously rebuffed. 

Taking on spiritual dimensions in its gloomy backgrounds, battles fought under the light of a full moon, and the snow falling over the living and the dead in the melancholy final sequence Yoon’s hellish tale seems to take place in a gangster purgatory in which as Gil-suk finally announces romance really is dead, in its place only internecine violence and the intense desire to survive by any means possible mortal anxiety provoking only preemptive greed and cruelty. As Min-suk suggests “only death will end things” but everyone here is in a sense already dead only trapped in the eternal limbo of the gangster mentality. 


Tomb of the River streamed/screened as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Man Standing Next (남산의 부장들, Woo Min-ho, 2020)

“You have my full support. Do as you please” so says the dictator, unambiguously manipulative but still somehow inspiring the loyalty of his many underlings perhaps still too wedded to an idea or at least an ideology to countenance moving against him. It turns out that nothing really changes and whether it’s feudal Joseon or the modern nation state, there is intrigue in the court. Neatly adopting the trappings of a ‘70s conspiracy thriller, Woo Min-ho’s The Man Standing Next (남산의 부장들, Namsanui Bujangdeul) explores the events which led to the assassination of President Park Chung-hee, father of the recently deposed president Park Geun-hye, by a member of his own security team. Many of the names have been changed and historical liberties taken, but the lesson seems to be that there is always a man standing next in readiness to inherit the throne. 

Our hero is KCIA chief Kim Gyu-peong (Lee Byung-hun), preparing as the film opens to halt Park’s (Lee Sung-min) increasing authoritarianism by assassinating him. A combination of the personal and the political Gyu-peong’s eventual epiphany is precipitated by an old friend’s “defection”. Park Yong-gak (Kwak Do-won), former director of the KCIA which operated as a secret police force propping up Park Chung-hee’s oppressive regime, is giving testimony to an American inquiry into the so-called “Koreagate” scandal in which the KCIA is accused of bribing members of Congress to propagate favourable views of the Korean president and reverse Nixon’s decision to pull US troops from South Korea. Yong-gak uses the opportunity to denounce Park Chung-hee, planning to publish a memoir titled “Traitor of the Revolution” as an exposé of the inner workings of the KCIA.  

Somewhat ironically, Gye-peong and Yong-gak are old comrades who fought together in the “revolution” led by Park in the early 1960s following the ousting of corrupt autocrat Rhee Syngman. Yong-gak has become disillusioned with their cause and with Park himself, but this largely ignores the fact that Park’s revolution was mainly a repackaging of Japanese militarism, something signalled by an exchanged between Park and Gye-pyeong in Japanese to the effect that their days of revolution were their best. All of which makes Yong-gak’s wistful eulogising of a betrayed ideal along with his supposed admiration for democracy somewhat ironic. The essential motivator in their loss of faith, however, is also a militaristic one. They learn firstly that like any dictator Park has been embezzling from the state for years and has a collection of slush funds in Switzerland. That’s not the problem, the problem is that to manage them he’s been running a “private” intelligence service unknown even to the KCIA. They’ve been displaced, and their hurt is personal more than it is political. 

Yong-gak calls Park a traitor to their revolution and objects to the continuing human rights abuses for which he himself as a member of the KCIA has been directly responsible. All of this creates a series of crises for Gye-peong who is torn between loyalty to his old friend and Park while increasingly worried for his own safety. He begins to suspect that Gwak (Lee Hee-joon), Park’s security officer who had not fought with them in the revolution, may be the mysterious “Iago” figure Yong-gak had been warned about by the CIA. Increasingly sidelined, Gye-peong continues to do Park’s dirty work but draws attention to himself in his resistance towards the president’s increasingly militaristic rhetoric. Pro-democracy protests have already broken out in Busan in response to Park’s “unfair” treatment of the city’s governor and the opposition party. Gye-peong advises reinstating the governor with an apology. Gwak says frame the protestors as communists and Northern sympathisers and send in the tanks. “Cambodia killed three million people, is it such a big deal if we kill one or two million?” Gwak blurts out in a quip which seems to catch Park’s attention, the president now thinking himself untouchable. A militarist perhaps but an educated man who speaks good English and gets on well with the Americans, Gye-peong does not see the Khmer Rouge as a source of inspiration nor, like Yong-gak, does he think those values align with the ones he fought for bringing Park to power. 

Then again, even in the immediate chaos of the early ‘60s, it’s difficult to see how you could join that particular revolution without assuming it would come to this. Gye-peong has apparently been OK with human rights abuses and mass oppression, but has been quietly reassuring himself and others that Korea is changing, Park is preparing to move aside, and they are progressing towards democracy. In true conspiracy fashion, Woo paints Gye-peong as a tragic hero, unable to reconcile himself with the choices he has made or the radically different version of the world he is now seeing, but taking what is essentially a personal revenge in return for a slighting from a man to whom he’d given his life. Perhaps in a sense he thinks he’s saving Park from himself, or merely protecting the revolution he fought for from a cruel traitor, but in the end lacks the courage to carry it through. He thought Gwak was his Iago, but he missed the “man standing next” in the shadows. As the April Revolution led only to Park, so Park leads only to Chun and second military coup even more brutal than the last. Nothing really changes, but the next revolution will have to be one enacted by more peaceful means because the spectre of authoritarianism is eclipsed only in the freedom from fear.


The Man Standing Next is available to stream in the UK from June 25 and on download July 5 courtesy of Blue Finch Releasing.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해, Jeong Jae-eun, 2001)

take-care-of-my-catThe time after high school is often destabilising as even once close groups of friends find themselves being pulled in all kinds of different directions. So it is for the group of five young women at the centre of Jeong Jae-eun’s debut feature, Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해, Goyangileul Butaghae). All at or around 20, the age of majority in Korea, the girls were a tightly banded unit during high school but have all sought different paths on leaving. Lynchpin Tae-hee (Bae Doo-na) is responsible for trying to keep the gang together through organising regular meet ups but it’s getting harder to get everyone in the same place and minor differences which hardly mattered during school grow ever wider as adulthood sets in.

Cheerful scenes of high school mischief give way to the uncertain present as five old friends prepare to celebrate the 20th birthday of the group’s self appointed star, Hye-joo (Lee Yo-won). Hye-joo, however, has moved on to a high level office job in Seoul and is about to blow off her high school friends to hang out with her possibly sleazy boss, only to revert back to plan A when he cancels on her. Too cowardly to ring her friends in person, Hye-joo leaves the business of calling off the party to the chief organiser, Tae-hee, who rings round letting the other three girls – jobless Ji-young (Ok Ji-young), and half Chinese twins Bi-ryu (Lee Eun-sil) and Ohn-jo (Lee Eun-ju), know (and presumably has to then ring them all back to tell them the party’s back on).

Hye-joo moved farthest away from her roots both in terms of location and of her social ambitions through taking a well paid admin job in the city. Increasingly materialistic and status orientated, her friendship with the other girls suffers as she sees herself as transitioning to a higher social class. Ironically, her views are equally deluded as she continues to believe that her dedication and willingness to work hard can make up for her lack of a degree but quickly finds herself displaced when the next batch of newbies arrive.

This growing desire for material status has also contributed to a seemingly unbridgeable rift with Ji-young whose economic status is the most vulnerable. Orphaned and living in a shack with her elderly grandparents, Ji-young has recently lost her job and is having difficulty finding another one precisely because of her circumstances – one firm even point blank refuses her application because both of her parents are dead and they need a direct family member to vouch for her. Hye-joo is insensitive in the extreme and often flashes her money around whilst rubbing salt in Ji-young’s wounds by emphasising her lack of it and pouring cold water over her ideas of saving money to study abroad. Small digs like these and insisting that all the girls leave their home town to visit her in Seoul (leaving aside the additional costs for Ji-young whom she knows is having difficulty making ends meet) point to Hye-joon’s own sense of neediness and insecurity.

As a result, Ji-young distances herself from her friends, ashamed of her desperation and feeling unable to ask them for help. It is she who finds the cat of the title when she hears it mewing whilst trapped behind debris on her way home. The cat becomes almost a mirror of Ji-young – alone and abandoned on the streets with no one to look after her. Originally, Ji-young tries to give the kitten to Hye-joon as a birthday present only to have it immediately returned. The cat is then passed around among each of the friends looking for a more permanent kind of affection, but finding little in the way of stability.

The longest and most devoted guardian turns out to be Tae-hee who is perhaps most affected by the loss of her friends and changing circumstances. Tae-hee is from a moderately well off middle class family and has been helping out in her father’s business since leaving school (apparently without pay). Despite her lack of worry over material comforts, she finds herself feeling restless and increasingly interested in the “foreign” with dreams of taking off alone for adventures overseas. Her desire for freedom is partly down to her domineering father who simply overrules all of her decisions even down to ordering food in a restaurant. Tae-hee is the only one to reach out to Ji-young when she realises she might be in trouble and is the only one still there for her at the end. Their economic and familial circumstances may be different, but in their desire to escape the confines of the rundown Incheon for something outside of what it might have planned for them, the two girls are a perfect match.

Of the group of friends the twins receive the least attention, hovering on the sidelines, separate from the mini dramas erupting between the insensitive and self obsessed Hye-joo and the increasingly desperate Tae-hee and Ji-young. As a unit of two they have their own little world which seems much happier and more solid than that of any of the other girls and arguably have less need for the immediacy of their old friendships. They are therefore the ideal place to deposit them, in the form of a stray cat finally finding a home. The past has its place – in the past, the memories are warm and fluffy and deserve to be taken care of, but there comes a time you have to surrender full custody and be content to visit from time to time.

An extraordinarily well composed debut feature, Take Care of My Cat has a more European feeling than many a Korean coming of age drama but is filled with realistic detail such as the constant ringing of the girls’ ever present mobile phones and the onscreen representation of their straightforward text based conversation. There’s a kind of sadness associated with the transition from carefree adolescence to the difficult journey into adulthood with each of the girls discovering what it is they want out of life, or more aptly what it is they don’t want. Hye-joo emerges as the quasi-villain of the piece as she makes an obvious, superficial choice to follow the consumerist trend over valuing human relationships though it’s hard not to feel sorry for her when it appears she’s being set up for disappointment. Ending on a note of hopeful uncertainty, Jeong’s debut feature is a hymn to the theme of moving on but is careful to admit the bittersweet quality of a new beginning.


International trailer (English subtitles)