Vertigo (버티고, Jeon Gye-soo, 2019)

To many, the word “vertigo” is synonymous with a fear of heights, but in essence it refers more to a sense of unbalance, a giddiness born of having lost sight of the ground, temporarily unable to orient yourself within an environment which no longer seems to make sense. The heroine of Jeon Gye-soo’s artfully composed Vertigo (버티고) fears she is suffering with the medical variety caused by an ongoing problem with her inner ear which leaves her with recurrent tinnitus and a permanent sense of wooziness. She is also, however, suffering with a kind of existential dizziness, trapped in a constant state of anxiety in feeling entirely untethered to the world. 

30-something Seo-young (Chun Woo-hee), is a contract worker at an ad company with an office on the upper floors of a high-rise building. Unbeknownst to her colleagues, she’s been having an affair with her handsome, once divorced boss, Jin-soo (Yoo Teo), but he seems to be holding something back from her, insisting on keeping their relationship secret and reluctant to introduce her to his grown-up son. Meanwhile, she’s subject to most of the minor micro-aggressions plaguing women in the work place which run from being expected to come in early to do menial tasks like refilling the photocopier and tidying the shelves, to casual sexual harassment. Somewhat out of it, Seo-young has managed to avoid most of that and thinks she’s moved past the stage of having to play the office lady game by keeping the men entertained at the not-technically-compulsory-but-you-still-have-to-go afterwork get-togethers. Her friend Yedam (Park Ye-young), however, has her getting worried, at once complaining about their sleazy team leader asking for massages and reminding her that they need to turn on the charm at least until their contracts are renewed. 

Being a “contract worker” and not a salaried employee is certainly a major cause of Seo-young’s anxiety, leaving her feeling unanchored in her professional life in the knowledge that she could soon be unceremoniously cut loose for reasons largely unconnected to her performance. As a woman in her 30s it will be increasingly difficult to find a new job while a still patriarchal society will most likely write her off for daring to reject marriage in favour of work but failing to make a success of it. Her male bosses and colleagues, regular employees all, use her precarious status against her, expecting that she “play nice” to get a recommendation for further employment and threatening to tank her career if she doesn’t toe the line. She muses on going “far away” with Jin-soo, perhaps to Argentina, a land of passion where people dance the tango and drink wine late into the evening, but on some level knows it’s a just a comforting fantasy. 

Regularly visiting an ear doctor, Seo-young tries to overcome her sense of unease through medical means, unwittingly returning to the source of her trauma buried in a painful childhood which regularly resurrects itself in her toxic relationship with her mother who only rings to belittle her success while complaining about her string of relationships with terrible men and unsatisfying life with Seo-young’s step-father. Seo-young can’t find firm ground because she is essentially unanchored, left dangling by a failure of the traditional family and seemingly with no “real” friends. She begins experiencing panic attacks at work, retreating to unoccupied rooms to calm herself by looking out at the horizon. 

Meanwhile, her growing despair has been spotted by window cleaner and bookshop clown Gwan-woo (Jeong Jae-kwang) who is carrying a sadness of his own. He pities and protects her, supporting from the other side of the glass in a way which is not, strictly speaking, OK but is filled with such innocence and unspoken connection that it largely overcomes the otherwise unpalatable quality of his stalkerish devotion. Gwan-woo is, in a sense, a man who’s unafraid to fall, secure in his ties to the world and literally anchored by his position in society. Seo-young yearns to overcome her sense of anxiety, find firm footing and a sense of support, at once reassured by the presence of Gwan-woo and perhaps disturbed by it. She is, however, feeling her way back to solid ground, gaining the desire to climb safe in the knowledge that someone will be there to catch her even when she feels like falling. 


Vertigo streamed as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival. It was also due to screen as part of the 10th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Ode to My Father (국제시장, JK Yoon, 2014)

ode_to_my_father_stillReview of JK Yoon’s Ode to My Father (국제시장, Gukjeshijang) – first published by UK Anime Network.


Of late, we’ve seen a lot of films attempt to trace the history of a nation through the story of one man and his family which ultimately becomes a metaphor for the that of the land itself. Many of these have come from China which shares something of the turbulent history that has affected the Korean peninsula over the last hundred years. In Ode to My Father, director JK Youn has tried to pay tribute both to his own father and to all the fathers of modern Korea who underwent great difficulties and suffered immensely in the hope of building a better, happier, future for their own children.

Mostly we view events from the point of view of Duk-soo – an old man at the beginning of the film who has made a success of himself and is surrounded by a large, loving family though seems to retain a kind of unresolved sadness. When we travel back with him, he’s just a small boy fleeing his homeland with his parents and siblings. As the oldest, he’s put in charge of his sister only to have her cruelly snatched away from him during the final escape. This event colours the rest of Duk-soo’s life as he carries with him both the tremendous guilt of having failed to protect his sister and of losing his father has he went back to look for her. The remaining family members gather together at the small imported goods shop belonging to an aunt which becomes another motif of the film.

Growing into manhood, Duk-soo is now the man of the house with both his siblings and his mother to provide for. Making countless sacrifices which see him abandoning his own dreams and travelling abroad to seek better paid work – first in the coalmines of West Germany and later the warzone of Vietnam, Duk-soo puts his family before himself every single time. Working tirelessly, Duk-soo grows up but inside he’s forever the little boy on a boat watching his father drift away him and desperately hoping he’ll some day miraculously turn up at the shop with a smile and an improbable story.

This is a story of painful separations and the shockwaves they send through the rest of one’s life and of all the lives throughout history. Having fled the Chinese and the communists in the North, Duk-soo and his family are excited about the prospect of being able to go home at the “end” of the war. However, this is a war which is still not technically over, merely suspended by a truce, and Duk-soo will never see his hometown again. Eventually, during the ‘80s, 30 years since Duk-soo was separated from his father and sister, a nationwide campaign is held to try and re-unite family members forced apart by the traumatic events of the 1950s. Entire squares in the city are covered with people desperately looking for each other wearing signs with their relatives’ names and point of last sighting, clothing etc all in the hope of finally finding each other again. Needless to say, some of these people are luckier than others and there are tears of both joy and sadness.

Still, all in all, Duk-soo and South Korea made a success of themselves even if there’s a resulting ache from the great wound which has split the nation in two. Much of the story is universal – a father’s love for his family, but Ode to My Father will obviously speak loudest to Koreans who can identify more strongly with the historical context. Yoon has also injected some humorous incidents involving real life Korean historical celebrities which may mystify international viewers even if they’re sign posted well enough that one gets the gist of it anyway.

Unabashedly sentimental and oftentimes overblown, Ode to My Father nevertheless succeeds in tugging at the heartstrings in all the intended ways. A paean to the post war generation and all that they endured in building the modern Korea that their children could live in without fear or hunger, Ode to My Father is in the end far too sugary but also, it has to be said, affecting.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.