Little Forest (리틀 포레스트, Yim Soon-rye, 2018)

Little forest korean posterWhen you don’t know what to do, you go home. The logic seems sound and indeed the idea is common in many cultures, but the heroine of Little Forest (리틀 포레스트) has gone home to an empty, snow covered house with the intention of burying herself away rather than basking the unconditional support of the people who raised her. Yim Soon-rye, leading light of the Korean New Wave, takes the original manga by Daisuke Igurashi which was previously adapted as a two-part, four hour exploration of Japanese rural life by Junichi Mori, and relocates it to Korea finding that urban malaise and youthful indecision are from isolated phenomena.

Hye-won (Kim Tae-ri) has come home “for a few days”. What she wants is to be alone for a while, to take a time out from her life before trying to figure out what to do next. Accordingly, as she’s in hiding, she didn’t want anyone to know she’s here but perspicacious aunt Bok-soon has spotted smoke on the horizon and come running. Bok-soon thought that Hye-won’s long absent mother who abandoned her in the last year of high school might have been making a rare visit and is surprised to find her daughter instead, though perhaps not quite so much as you’d think. Nothing stays secret for long in a village, and Hye-won’s return is soon discovered first by the slightly unwelcome attention of the older village ladies and then by her treasured childhood friends, Eun-sook (Jin Ki-joo) and Jae-ha (Ryu Jun-yeol) who gives her a pet dog to look after in the hope that she will be eventually decide to stay for good.

Hye-Won faces many of the same problems as the heroine of Mori’s Japanese adaptation, but whereas Ichiko had come back in defeat and heartbreak, Hye-won’s flight is mostly pride mixed with fear and awkwardness. She admires Jae-ha who once lived in the city but eventually came home to be himself, rejecting the conformist salaryman life to be his own his boss, but knows deep down that her decision to retreat to the country is a cowardly attempt to delay dealing with the problems of adult life. After her mother left, Hye-won went to Seoul for university where she, along with her boyfriend, was studying for a teaching exam which only he passed. Wounded, Hye-Won has run away. Refusing her boyfriend’s calls and cocooning herself inside her childhood home she delays the inevitable breakup conversion along with the galling need to congratulate him on his exam success while silently nursing her own humiliating failure to match him.

Rather than the strained relationship Ichiko had with her long absent mother, Hye-won’s feelings run more towards a healthy competition – she wants to exceed her mother in all things but most especially as a cook. Unsatisfied with the tasteless pre-packaged nature of big city food, Hye-won came home because she was hungry, spiritually but also physically. Rejoicing in nature’s bounty, she finds new and exciting ways to cook the various fruits and vegetables grown by her own hand, living closely with the land and running with the rhythms of the seasons. In Seoul she ate cold food all alone, at home she shares her table with her two friends eager to see what she’s come up with to combat the latest glut while filling their souls with the warmth of friendship.

Despite her mild resentment and lingering anger towards her mother for disappearing so abruptly, Hye-won eventually comes to a kind of acceptance, realising that her mother’s “little forest” was raising her but seeing as she declared to her intention to repot herself somewhere else, her mother’s work was done and now it’s time for Hye-won to find her own little forest and set about tending to that. Still unsure if she’s in the country because that’s where she needs to be or is merely afraid to leave and risk failure, Hye-won eventually finds the strength move forward, breaking out of her extended period of hibernation to look for her answers wherever they may lie. Filled with the joy of home cooking and soulful down-home wisdom, Little Forest adapts itself well enough to the Korean climate, finding that life in the country, hard as is it may be, offers its own rewards in the simple pleasures of unconditional friendship and the natural freedom to enjoy all nature has to offer.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Forever the Moment (우리 생애 최고의 순간, Yim Soon-rye, 2008)

forever the moment posterSports is one of society’s acceptable obsessions. Devotion to a football team, intense knowledge of baseball stats, and idolatry of athletes is not only respected, it is often required for any kind cultural fluency in the society in which one lives. Sportsmen and women, however, can become a disposable commodity. This is after all why the pay for sports stars is so high – the career is temporary. A brief moment in the spotlight can earn a top athlete a multitude of promotional contracts and role model status to hundreds of sporty kids, but when the music stops everyone loses interest. The heroes of Yim Soon-rye’s Forever the Moment (우리 생애 최고의 순간, Woori Saengae Chwegoui Soongan) achieved their 15 seconds of fame when the Korean women’s handball team won a couple of gold medals in the ‘90s before the sport returned to relative obscurity. Despite being gold medal winners, the women are in a precarious position, left without professional team contracts and lacking the necessary qualifications and experience to find well paid work outside of the sports world.

Yim frames her story around the 2004 Olympic Games in which the Korean women’s handball team came back from a disastrous slump to reach the final only to go home with silver after a penalty shootout defeat to Denmark. Mi-sook (Moon So-ri) was part of the gold medal winning 1992 team and is now a wife and mother. Her financial circumstances, however, are strained. When the supermarket handball team she’s been playing for is disbanded, Mi-sook counts herself lucky to get a job on the shop floor. Her husband (Sung Ji-ru), formerly a top male handball player, has been conned out of all his money by an unscrupulous business partner and is currently on the run from debt collectors leaving her a virtual single parent and desperate for money.

Money is the reason she eventually decides to come back to the Korean Women’s Olympic handball team. Mi-sook’s one time rival, Hye-kyeong (Kim Jung-eun), has been parachuted in to coach the Korean Olympic hopefuls after a successful run coaching in Japan. The team is in a sorry state – filled with inexperienced youngsters, it will need serious work to even qualify for the upcoming games let alone reach the podium. Hye-kyeong decides to get some of her old medal winning team-mates back to bring some strength to the ranks even if they’re all a little past their prime. Despite her best efforts, Hye-kyeong is soon sidelined for male coach (and old flame) Ahn Pil-seung (Uhm Tae-woong) who decides to junk the “Korean method” which uses speed as a weapon against the taller European challengers, and embark on a “science-based” European training regimen.

Yim deliberately moves away from the classic sports movie formula, eschewing the training montage and including only one lengthy match at the film’s climax. Forever the Moment prefers to concentrate on the internal struggles of its scrappy, underdog team the best hopes of which are middle-aged women with children whom society often writes off. Hye-kyeong is an earnest, driven woman who’s made a successful life for herself as a sports professional after her court life has come to a natural end, but she still loses out because she got divorced – the bigwigs are nervous about the proposition of a “divorced” woman occupying a “public” position, something that would hardly come up if she were a man. Made “acting coach”, Hye-kyeong is given hardly any time at all to prove herself before the experiment of “allowing” a woman to coach women is ruled unsuccessful and a man with little experience given full budgetary backing to replace her.

Hye-kyeong’s battles with Ahn may eventually take on the expected romantic dimension but it’s the relationships between the other players which become the film’s spine. Mi-sook has always made a point of distancing herself from handball, regarding it simply as a paycheck rather than a vocation – something which seems all the more relevant thanks to her ongoing troubles with her absent husband who is rapidly sinking into a breakdown over his humiliation and inability to support his wife and child. Struggling through adversity and working hard to achieve a physical goal, the teammates discover new strengths, growing as people and as athletes in their quest to be ready for the all important Athens games.

Forever the Moment is another in the long line of Korean films which celebrate the achievements Koreans can make when they come together and work hard to achieve their goal. As in real life, the Korean Women’s Olympic Handball Team are robbed of their final victory by circumstance and accident, but coming second becomes a victory in itself because of everything it took to get there. Less a sports movie than a subversive comment on the way women are often cast aside or underestimated, Forever the Moment is a tribute to the power of hard work and team spirit which becomes its own reward even when one falls short of the goal.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kilimanjaro (킬리만자로, Oh Seung-uk, 2001)

Kilimanjaro posterMt. Kilimanjaro is the world’s tallest free-standing mountain. Oh Seung-ok’s debut, Kilimanjaro (킬리만자로), is not a climbing story, at least not in that sense, but a story of a man trying to conquer his own mountain without really knowing why. Twin brothers Hae-shik and Hae-chul are mirrors of each other, a perfect mix of light and dark, but when one makes a choice to choose the darkness, it throws the other into despair and confusion. A noir-ish tale of fragmented identities and fatalistic retribution, Oh’s world of tired gangsters and impossible dreams is as icy and unforgiving as the summit of its titular mountain, offering little more than lonely deaths and eternal regrets.

Policeman Hae-shik (Park Shin-Yang) drifts in and out of consciousness, tied up in a room by his twin brother, Hae-chul, with Hae-chul’s children looking on. Hae-chul murders his family and then shoots himself all while his brother is tied up and helpless, a policeman without recourse to the law. Taken to task by his colleagues who want to know how he could have allowed any of this to happen, if not as a brother than as a cop, Hae-shik has little to offer them by way of explanation. To add insult to injury, he is also under fire for unethical/incompetent investigation, and is taken off the case. Suspended pending an inquiry, Hae-shik goes back to his hometown but is immediately mistaken for Hae-chul and attacked by gangsters Hae-chul had pissed off before he left town and killed himself. Saved by local petty gangster Thunder (Ahn Sung-Ki), Hae-shik assumes Hae-chul’s identity and slips into the life of hopeless scheming which ultimately led to his brother’s ugly, violent death.

The film’s title is, apparently, slightly ironic in referring to the film’s setting of a small fishing village in the mountainous Gangwon-do Providence, known to some as “Korea’s Kilimanjaro”. Each of the men in this small town is trapped by its ongoing inertia and continual impossibility. They want to make something of themselves but have few outlets to do so – their dream is small, owning a family restaurant, but still it eludes them and they soon turn to desperate measures in opposing a local gangster in the hope of finally improving their circumstances.

Despite the seemingly tight bond of the men in Thunder’s mini gang – a mentally scarred ex-soldier known as “The Sergeant” (Jung Eun-pyo) and nerdy religious enthusiast knows as “The Evangelical” (Choi Seon-jung) rounding out Hae-chul’s goodhearted chancer, none of them has any clue that Hae-shik is not Hae-chul, or that Hae-chul and his family are dead. No one, except perhaps Thunder, is very happy to see him but even so Hae-shik quickly “reassumes” his place at Thunder’s side and takes over Hae-chul’s role in the gang’s scheming.

Hae-shik and Hae-chul had formed a perfect whole of contradictory qualities, each with their own degrees of light and darkness. Hae-chul had been the “good” brother who worked hard at home taking care of his parents while Hae-shik headed to university and a career in the city, never having visited his hometown since (in fact, no one seems to know or has already forgotten that Hae-chul even had a twin brother). Hae-shik’s “goodness” might be observed in his career as a law enforcer, but he’s clearly not among the list of model officers, and his home life also seems to be a failure. Hae-chul’s family might also have failed, and his shift to a life of petty crime provides its own darkness but living in this claustrophobic, impossible environment his crime is one of wanting something more than that his world ever had to offer him.

As might be expected, Thunder’s plans do not unfold as smoothly as hoped. Ineptitude and finally a mental implosion result in a near massacre costing innocent lives taken in a fury of misdirected vengeance. Despite wishing for a quiet life spent with friends on the beach, heroes die all alone, like mountain climbers lost on a snowy slope unsure whether to go up or down. Attempting to integrate his contradictions, become his brother as well as himself, Hae-shik reaches an impasse that is pure noir, finally meeting his end through a case of “mistaken identity”.


 

Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Jeong Yoon-chul, 2017)

Warriors of the Dawn posterSome might say a king is the slave of his people, but then again he is a very well kept slave even if he is no more free than a serf at the mercy of a feudal lord. Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Daeribgoon), set in 1592 during the short-lived Japanese invasion, takes this idea to its heart in playing up the inherent similarities between the oppressed poor who are forced to impersonate the sons of wealthy men too grand for the battlefield, and the Crown Prince unwillingly forced to impersonate the King who has abandoned his people and run away to China to save his own skin. Though the Prince is young and afraid, with the help of his resentful mercenary brethren he begins to find the majesty buried inside himself all along but crucially never forgets what is like to feel oppressed so that he might rule nobly and fairly, unlike his more selfish father.

The tale begins with Tow (Lee Jung-Jae) – a “Proxy Soldier”, one of many from the Northern borderlands where the living is hard. Sons of feudal lords need not risk their lives on the battlefields while there is money to spend and so they buy the service of young men from poor families to stand in for them. The men take the name of the man they’re supposed to be but if they die, their family must send a replacement to serve out the remaining time or pay back the money that was given to them. At this point Tow’s main problem is the Jurchen rebels who’ve decided to live life their own way outside of the system of class hierarchy currently in place in feudal Korea.

The Japanese, however, are pressing on and making gains towards the capital. The King decides to flee, hoping to reach China where the Ming Emperor may be minded to help them. He cannot, however, simply abandon ship and decides to divide the court with the left behind contingent headed by his son, Crown Prince Gwang-hae (Yeo Jin-goo). Gwang-hae is young and inexperienced. Not having had a good relationship with his father, he’s mystified as to why he’s suddenly been given this “honour” but together with a selection of advisors he’s sent on a journey to found a second court at Gonggye, picking up scattered forces along the way. This brings him into contact with Tow and his contingent who become his main defenders.

Having lived a life inside the palace walls, Gwang-hae knows nothing of war or fighting and has brought a selection of books with him hoping to learn on the job. His ineptitude is likened to that of a young recruit to the band of Proxy Soldiers who has been forced to join on the death of his father but has no training and is too squeamish to kill, requiring Tow to come to his rescue as he later does for Gwang-hae. Tow is a born soldier yet reluctant, fully aware that he no longer exists and should he die another man with no name will step into his place with nary a pause. He continues to fight because he has no choice but he also feels an intense bond of brotherhood to his fellow men, something which later extends to Gwang-hae once his latent nobility begins to emerge.

Gwang-hae’s central conflict is between his advisors who council him towards austerity, and his deeper feelings which encourage him to sympathise with the ordinary people he meets along the way whose lives are being ruined thanks to the government’s failure to protect them. As it turns out, Gwang-hae is also low-born, in a sense, and therefore has inherited something of the common touch which separates him from the aloofness of his father. Though he is constantly told to make the “rational” choice he refuses – ordering troops to stop when they attempt to extort food from starving peasants, insisting on evacuating a village to safer ground, and then finally becoming a warrior himself in order to defend his people when no one else would.

Gwang-hae is, perhaps, a warrior for a new dawn and a flag that men like Tow can follow in the quest for a better world in which each man can keep his own name and fight for his own cause rather than that laid down for them by men with money or power. Despite the potential for a more urgent argument, Jeong mostly falls back on standard period aesthetics with overly familiar narrative beats heavily signposted by a subpar script. Warriors of the Dawn cannot decide whether it’s a film about catching the conscience of a king or the noble sacrifice of would be revolutionaries, failing to lend the essential weight to its duel arcs of rebirth and coming of age all of which makes for a long, hard march towards an inevitable conclusion.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

International trilogy (English subtitles)

The Prison (프리즌, Na Hyun, 2017)

prison poster bigPrison can be a paradise if you’re doing it right, at least if you’re a top gangster in the movies. Na Hyun’s The Prison (프리즌) paints an interesting picture of incarceration and the way it links into his nation’s infinitely corrupt power structures. When investigators wonder why a crime spree suddenly came to an end, one of the frequently offered explanations is that the perpetrator was most likely arrested for another crime but what if you could turn this obviously solid alibi to your advantage and get those already behind bars to do your dirty work for you?

Disgraced policeman Song Yoo-gun (Kim Rae-Won) has wound up imprisoned alongside several of the men he himself helped put away. Like many cops who suddenly find themselves on the other side of the bars, Yoo-gun’s life is not easy. Badly beaten, tortured, and threatened with amputation Yoo-gun eventually starts fighting back and seizes the most likely path to prison survival – allying himself with the inside’s big guy, Jung Ik-ho (Han Suk-Kyu). Ik-ho, a notorious gangster famous for eating the eyeballs of his enemies, is the one who’s really in charge around here, not least because he’s the one running the gang of prison based hitmen trotted out to take care of the bad guys’ hit list.

What starts out as an intriguing idea quickly descends into predictability as Yoo-gun and Ik-ho face off against each other, finding common ground and camaraderie but ultimately existing on the plains of good and evil. Yoo-gun has his own reasons for landing himself in prison but his policeman’s heart still loves truth and justice even if he’s forced to become a prisoner whilst in prison. While he goes along with Ik-ho’s crimes, joining in the violence and intimidation he practices, he also wants to take Ik-ho down even if it means becoming him in the process.

While the interplay between the two men forms the central axis of the film as they develop an odd kind of grudging friendship which may still end on the point of a knife at any moment, Na tries his best to recreate the world of the grim ‘80s action thriller. Technically speaking, The Prison is set in the ‘90s (not that viewers outside of Korea would notice aside from the external lack of mobile phones, computers, internet etc) but wants to be the kind of tough, bruisy, fight heavy action movie they don’t make any more in which a righteous hero defeats a large-scale conspiracy by jump kicking hoodlums. He almost succeeds in this aim, but never quite manages to anchor the ongoing background conspiracy elements with the intense pugilism of the prison environment.

Yoo-gun and Ik-ho are obviously a special case but aside from their efforts, prison life in Korea is not too bad – the guards are OK, the warden is ineffectual, and the inmates are running the show. Nevertheless the prison is the centre of the conspiracy as elite bad guys take advantage of put upon poor ones who’ve found themselves thrown inside thanks to ongoing social inequality, trading cushy conditions to guys who’re never getting out in return for committing state sponsored crimes. Needless to say, someone is trying to expose the conspiracy which would be very bad news for everyone but rubbing them out might prove counter productive in the extreme.

Na lets the in-house shenanigans drag on far too long, pitching fight after fight but failing to make any of his punches land with the satisfaction they seem to expect. Flirting with the interplay between Yoo-gun and Ik-ho in wondering how far Yoo-gun is prepared to go or whether he is destined to become his criminal mentor rather than destroy him, Na never fully engages with the central idea preferring to focus on the action at the expense of character, psychology, or the corruption which underlines the rest of the film. Nevertheless The Prison does have the requisite levels of high-octane fights and impressive set pieces including the fiery if predictable prison riot finale. Life behind bars isn’t all it’s cracked up to be after all, the corrupt elites of Korea will have to actually pay people to off their enemies. Predictable and poorly paced, The Prison is best when it sticks to throwing punches but might be more fun if it placed them a little better.


The Prison was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Throne (사도, Lee Joon-Ik, 2015)

the throneWhich one is worse, the son who tries to kill his tyrannical father, or the tyrannical father who executes his own son and heir? A collection of sad stories all round, Lee Joon-ik’s The Throne (사도, Sado) is a historically inspired tale of familial conflict played out on a national stage. Where another nation might have entered into a bloody civil war, this very private tragedy keeps its bloodshed within the palace walls but still does not lack for cruelty.

Told in a non-linear fashion, The Throne takes inspiration from the 1762 incident in which the ageing King Yeongjo has the Crown Prince, his son later named Sado, executed in the most brutal of ways – confinement inside a heavy wooden rice chest placed inside the castle courtyard where he will be denied food and water until events take their natural course. In flashbacks we see that the king did love his son once but as the boy grew older and became something other than what his father desired of him, his love turned to disappointment and then to fear and disgust. The legends say that Sado was a madman – a murderer or deviant who needed to be eliminated, or just the victim of a conspiracy, but his anger with his father is easily understandable even if it hadn’t been for a seemingly crucial episode where he was forced to endure a feat of painful endurance which almost cost him his life and, perhaps, provoked something akin to madness.

Yeongjo is an austere man, devoted to scholarship. He began Sado’s kingly tutelage at just two years old but even if he was a bright little boy he eventually grew bored with his father’s educational regime of dull rote learning and constant tests preferring the relative freedom of outdoor life with swords and arrows and far less judgement. Sado likes to paint too, but this also falls under his father’s definition of pointless frivolity and so is just another thing which earns him nothing but disdain from the man who would make him king.

Things come to a head when Yeongjo suddenly declares he wants to retire as a ruler and abdicate in favour of his son who is anything but ready. Settling on a regency agreement sounds like the ideal compromise but turns out to be quite the reverse as Sado is merely a stooge for his father who only uses the situation to perpetually humiliate him in front of his courtiers. Sado himself has different ideas to his father about how things should be done in that his father’s emphasis on keeping peace at court had largely resulted in deferring to the more powerful lords at the expense of the poor which is one way to rule country, but perhaps also the most selfish.

When Sado has a son who seems to be everything his father isn’t, tension only rises as Yeongjo first rejects the boy as an infant only to later seek deposing his son in favour of his grandson. Simply put, Sado is now surplus to requirements and despised by his father who also happens to be the king so things are not looking good for him even if he hadn’t descended into a kind of madness which, like Hamlet, briefly cleared and allowed him to stay his hand rather than kill a king where compassion proved his weakness.

Added to the historical intrigue and the tragic misunderstandings between fathers and sons, The Throne adds in a comment on the vagaries of rigid social systems which set out correct and incorrect ways of living, even down to the the ties on the hem of a pair of trousers. Sado wasn’t cut out for his father’s life of dry book learning and calculated appeasement. He was an artist and an athlete – a man of action who might have made a fine king at any other time but could never have been what his father wanted him to be (which was essentially just another version of himself). Yet no deviation can be permitted in this extremely regimented kingly court where a single misspoken word or misplaced action can be enough to seal your fate.

When prompted for a kind of explanation at the end of the film, Sado repeats one of the teachings from his father’s books – that in the end laws and decorum are less important than the men that stand in front of them. He placed the man before the idea but was not rewarded with the same degree of feeling – only a cold and dispassionate application of the law. In part an exploration of a historical event which is both personal and national tragedy, Sado is the time old story of a father and son who are unable to understand each other, snatching only a few brief moments of connection before the inevitable separation. A partial posthumous pardon only serves to deepen the tragedy of a son driven mad by his father’s unpredictable cruelty and even if the film ends on a note of melancholy reconciliation with the past, the central message of fathers attempting to force their own world on their unwilling sons is one that rewrites itself with each passing generation.


Reviewed at a “teaser” screening for the London Korean Film Festival.