The President’s Barber (효자동 이발사, Lim Chan-sang, 2004)

president's barber posterWe each of us live in the midst of history being made, some of us closer to the action than others. Most of us don’t quite realise how close we are or fully understand our role in events until it’s too late, but in any case we’re all just too busy getting on with the business of living to give much thought such grand concepts as history or legacy. Song Kang-ho has made a name for himself playing genial everymen forever at the mercy of historical machinations, but before he was an apathetic Taxi Driver, he was an apathetic barber giving haircuts to a dictator he half imagined was a friend. The President’s Barber (효자동 이발사, Hyojadong Ibalsa) is part journey into the intersection between rosy childhood nostalgia and national trauma, and part subtle political satire on the moral corruptions of authoritarianism but its own soft heartedness is often at odds with the grimness of its purpose.

Sung Han-mo (like the counter for tofu) is a nice but dim sort who has his own barber’s studio right across from the Blue House. As his son (Lee Jae-eung) tells us in his cutsey voice over, Han-mo (Song Kang-ho) is easily led and content to do whatever the village leader tells him to do, including participating in the ongoing corruption surrounding the re-election of despotic president Rhee Syngman. Our narrator, the oddly named Nak-an, was born as a result of a brief indiscretion between his father and an assistant (Moon So-ri) who had, apparently, hoped to marry someone else from her home village if Han-mo hadn’t trapped her with maternity. She wanted wanted an abortion but didn’t find out until after the much publicised five month cut off, meaning Han-mo talked her into staying and little Nak-an acquired the unfortunate nickname of “five months Na-kan”.

The family live happily enough until the mid-1960s when Park Chung-hee stages a coup and declares himself “President for Life”. When Han-mo somehow manages to catch a “North Korean Spy”, he gets himself a commendation and the attention of the authorities (for good or ill). A KCIA agent dutifully turns up and hauls Han-mo off to the Blue House because the president needs a trim…

Park’s reputation underwent something of a rehabilitation for a time. He did, in the minds of those seeking to justify his tyrannical reign, preside over Korea’s economic recovery. Han-mo is one of many to prosper, in his case directly in working indirectly for the regime. Han-mo is a simple man, he doesn’t think about politics but often feels belittled and downtrodden, made a figure of fun by those close to him even whilst remaining a cheerful optimist. He doesn’t take much convincing to hitch his mule to Park’s waggon, enjoying the personal boost in his social standing and finally feeling like a someone in being introduced to the world of the elites even when he is forced to accept that he does not and cannot exist fully within it.

Han-mo cuts hair, chatting away the way a barber does without really realising either that he is a vox pop spy or that he might, at any time, say the wrong thing and land himself in serious trouble. Serious trouble arrives during a heated and extremely bizarre period of political hysteria surrounding the “Marxus” virus – a lamentable episode in which an epidemic of dysentery was blamed on North Korean spies and all those who suffered from the condition taken in for “questioning”. Only when his own family is threatened does Han-mo start to reconsider his role in the affair – his status as a peripheral member of the Blue House team is no help in protecting those close to him and he can no longer pretend he does not know what happens in those basements, and that it happens to ordinary people not just “suspicious” ones.

The low level satire derives from Han-mo’s background presence becoming foreground as a very personal spat between a couple of high ranking Blue House staffers gathers in intensity before exploding into events which will have profound, though short-lived, consequences for Korean political history. Han-mo sadly takes down his portrait of Park hanging in pride of place in his shop and replaces it with one of Chun Doo-hwan (who was bald). Still a simple man he has, at least, learned his lesson and prepares to turn down the “honour” of shaving a dictator’s chin. Korea, the film seems to unsubtly hint, is finding its feet again though there will be another long reckoning before it, like Han-mo and his family, is finally able to free itself of the militarist yoke.


Office (오피스, Hong Won-chan, 2015)

office posterThe pressure cooker society threatens to explode in Hong Won-chan’s Office (오피스). The writer of recent genre hits The Chaser and The Yellow Sea, Hong has long experience of examining those living on the edge but in his directorial debut he takes things one step further in depicting an entire society running to keep up with itself, furiously chasing its own tail with barely suppressed rage. Not so much survival of the fittest as survival of the least scrupulous, the world of Office is the one in which the mad become the most sane, escaping the constraints of corporate oppression through social revenge but taking the innocent along with them.

Salaryman Byun-guk (Bae Seong-woo) has the soulless eyes of one whose dreams have already died. Dejectedly he sits alone at a coffee shop before cramming himself into the commuter train home where he sits, silently, among his busy family. They wonder why he hasn’t changed out of his suit, shed his corporate persona for his familial one, but when Byung-guk gets up he returns brandishing a hammer which he then, as if in a trance, uses to bludgeon to death his loving wife, disabled son, and senile mother.

Byun-guk flees the scene of crime and is loose somewhere in the city. The police search his office for clues but his colleagues have already come up with their unified version of events, keeping the company out of it by claiming that they all loved Byun-guk and are shocked that he could have done something so horrifying. Meanwhile, intern Mi-rae (Go Ah-sung), who regarded Byun-guk as her only friend in the office, is upset but perhaps not quite so shocked. Excluded from the interoffice cliquery, no one has thought to brief Mi-rae on the party line leaving her a prime target for police inspector Choi (Park Sung-woong).

Byun-guk and Mi-rae are two of a piece – members of the upright and hardworking lower classes who have done everything right but somehow have never been accepted by their peers. Mi-rae, an ordinary girl from Gwangju who worked to lose her accent in her teens dreaming of the high life in Seoul, is shy and mousy but works hard – harder than anyone, to prove herself worthy of Seoul’s unrealistic demands. Her colleagues, privileged, confident, and also harried, do not forgive her for this. They find her earnestness “creepy”, her desire to succeed “suspicious”. Cruelly taken down a peg or two by a colleague taking out her own frustrations on the office nobody, another tries to comfort her with some advice – don’t try so hard, you make us all look bad and we wonder what your need is hiding. Mi-rae isn’t really hiding anything save her slowly fragmenting mental state and the overwhelming need to be accepted to a club that, in truth, is not open to people like her who value their integrity and still believe deep down that working hard and being honest are the only paths to true success.

Korean society, it seems, has become a giant chain of screaming. Byun-guk has been repeatedly passed over for promotion despite being the most reliable employee in the office but his ineffectual boss is overly wedded to the shouting school of business management. Faced with results he doesn’t like, Byun-guk’s boss picks someone to shout at to make them better but offers no further guidance. Railing at the police for not doing their job as if screaming will some how provoke major results even outside of the office, the boss can’t know that police also have their own chain of screaming and Choi has his own boss already taking care of that side of things, demanding results rather than truth or justice.

The meek are taking their inheritance ahead of schedule, but their revenge is born both of societal corruption and rejection. People like Byun-guk and Mi-rae, who are quiet, honest, kind but perhaps not good with people, become the bugs in a system which simultaneously holds them up as essential cogs. Those who cannot just pretend, grease the wheels with superficial social niceties, and accepted their place in the chain of screaming in order to climb further up it are condemned to wander idly around its lower levels going quietly mad until, perhaps, the system crushes them or else collapses.


International trailer (English subtitles)

The Exclusive: Beat The Devil’s Tattoo (특종: 량첸살인기, Roh Deok, 2015)

The Exclusive Beat the DevilSome people just can’t keep themselves out of trouble. The down on his luck reporter at the centre of Roh Deok’s The Exclusive: Beat the Devil’s Tattoo (특종: 량첸살인기, Teukjong: Ryangchensalingi) is something of a trouble magnet as he makes mistake after mistake, requiring lie after lie to try and put him back on the straight and narrow. Unfortunately for him the deeper he gets the closer he turns out to be to the “real” truth. Only by that stage everyone has lost interest in “the truth” anyway – who cares about little things like facts against the overwhelming power of a constructed narrative.

Lazy, self obsessed reporter Heo (Cho Jung-Seok) is about to be fired from his job as a TV news reporter after publishing some inaccurate material that causes problems for the station’s sponsors. He also has a bigger problem at home in that his heavily pregnant wife has thrown him out and seems intent on a divorce. When he gets a shady sounding tip from a dubious source regarding a series of murders, Heo decides to check it out alone. Coming to the conclusion that he really has caught a killer, Heo rips a strange handwritten note down from the walls and takes it straight to his boss in the hopes of getting back in her good books. The note goes viral and Heo finds himself reading it out on prime time news but he has a real problem on his hands when he realises the guy from the basement is an actor in a play and has nothing to do with the killings at all.

Attempting to kill the story, Heo forges a second note designed to deflect press attention but it has the opposite effect and only creates more hysteria surrounding the case. Trying to play both sides by exposing the real killer whilst keeping his own involvement a secret, Heo is in way over his head and risks losing far more than just his career if he can’t find a way to smooth all of this out.

The problem here is, everything’s a PR hook. With one eye on the ratings, every reporter is a marketeer, spinning every string of facts into an easily sellable ball of fluff intended to draw in viewers who only read the headline anyway. Heo was never the kind of crusading journalist who has a serious dedication to the craft or an attachment to idealistic notions of holding the nation to account, but even so his self-serving actions begin to create a conflict in his heart as the true nature of his profession is thrown into stark relief. Even whilst lying through his teeth in attempt to save his own skin, Heo is astonished by the cold and cynical actions of his boss who simply does not care if the information is accurate so long as it sells. Far from getting him fired, Heo’s web of duplicity gets him a series of promotions and a not inconsiderable pay bump which is quite something considering a minor mistake was about to end his journalistic career before all of this started.

While all of this is going on, Heo is also busy with the problem of his failing marriage. Fairly dense when it comes to matters of the heart, Heo thinks he can win his wife back now that he’s sort of famous and doing really well at work, which is ignoring the fact that his wife seems to have left him because of his self obsessed and controlling behaviour. Drunk and lurking outside of their previously shared home, Heo doesn’t do himself any favours by jealously attacking an artist his wife had been working with at the gallery she has now opened with a friend (and which Heo had tried to prevent, apparently uncomfortable with the idea of a working wife). His wife’s relationship with her artist will also have an unexpected effect on the serial killer case as it leads her to make a dangerous decision trying to work out what exactly her husband is up to (worried in case he’s secretly been investigating her, but no, Heo is still too self focussed to have even thought about worrying over his wife’s “affairs”).

Roh adopts a quirky, satirical tone backed up by the goofy comedy music which often seems at odds with the grizzly serial killer goings on, but then that’s sort of the point. No one, not even the police who are painted as incompetent idiots both ignorant of and completely dependent on the media, really cares very much about the seven people who have already died or the countless others that might be at risk if the killer is not caught. The only thing that matters is the spin, so long as everything can be massaged into a believable narrative the case will have been solved, facts be hanged (literally). When it comes down to it, Heo solves the case by accident and then can’t say anything about it for fear of incriminating himself, allowing the killer to look like a hero with the frightened public led to believe the threat is still out there. Heo then faces a choice between exposing a truth which might destroy him or continuing to live with the heavy burden of a painful secret but in the end the choice is not even his. No one is listening. The only choices left are raving like a mad man in the face of indifference, or accepting his boss’ aphorism that truth is a relative construct and that “the truth” is whatever you choose to believe. The path of blissful ignorance suddenly seems much more attractive.


International trailer (English subtitles)