The Book of Fish (자산어보, Lee Joon-ik, 2021)

An “evil learning sinner” and a young man fixated on Neo-Buddhist thought develop an unlikely friendship while compiling an encyclopaedia about sea life in Lee Joon-ik’s contemplative period drama, The Book of Fish (자산어보, Jasaneobo). Like those of Hur Jin-ho’s Forbidden Dream, the hero of Lee’s historical tale of competing ideologies dreams of a classless future but is exiled from mainstream society not for his revolutionary rejection of a Confucianist hierarchal society but for his embrace of Western learning and religion. 

Like his two brothers, Chung Yak-jeon (Sol Kyung-gu) reluctantly joins the imperial court but later falls foul of intrigue when the progressive king falls only to be replaced by his underage son controlled by the more conservative dowager empress. Having converted to Christianity, Yak-jeon and his brothers are faced with execution but unexpectedly reprieved when the oldest agrees to renounce Catholicism and root out other secret Christians. Yak-jeon is then exiled to a remote island while his better known brother, the poet Yak-yong (Ryu Seung-ryong), is sent to the mountains. On his arrival, the local governor introduces Yak-jeon as a “traitor” and instructs the islanders not to be too friendly with him but island people do not have it in them to be unjustly unkind and so Yak-jeon is, if warily, welcomed into their community. “He maybe be a traitor, but he’s still a guest” his new landlady (Lee Jung-eun) explains as she prepares him some of the local seafood. 

Yet Yak-jeon encounters resistance from an unexpected source, intellectual fisherman Chang-dae (Byun Yo-han) who goes to great lengths to acquire scholarly books despite his otherwise low level of education. Somewhat patronisingly, Yak-jeong offers to tutor him, but Chang-dae is a rigid thinker who believes the world is going to hell because people have forgotten their Confucian ideals so he’s no desire to be taught by a treacherous “evil learner” or be sucked in to his dangerous Catholicism. Surprisingly, however, for a man who risked death rather than renounce his religion, Yak-jeong is no fanatic and in fact does not appear to practice Christianity at any point while living on the island. What he professes is that Eastern and Western thought need not be enemies but can go hand in hand while a rigid adherence to any particular doctrine is what constitutes danger. 

Chang-dae had insisted that he studied “to become a better human” but he also has a large class chip on his shoulder as the illegitimate son of a nobleman who refuses to acknowledge him, fully aware that as a “lowborn” man he is not allowed to take the civil service exam and in any case would not have the money to buy his way in to the court. Despite later professing egalitarianism, Yak-jeong treats the islanders, and particular Chang-dae, with a degree of superiority extremely irritated by Chang-dae’s refusal to become his pupil in the slight of his elite status often making reference to his “low birth”. Confessing his desire for a classless society with no emperor, however, Yak-jeong encounters unexpected resistance as the young man finds it impossible to envisage a world free of social hierarchy based on rights of birth and swings back towards desiring the approval of his elite father in the determination to climb the ladder rather than pull it down. 

Chang-dae finds himself caught between two fathers who embody two differing ways of being, Yak-jeong advising him to think for himself rather than blindly follow Confucianist thought, while his father encourages him to towards the court and the infinite corruptions of the feudal order. Chang-dae does begin to interrogate some of the more persistently problematic elements of Confucian teaching including its views on women and entrenched social hierarchy but also feels insecure and desperately desires conventional success and entrance into a world he thinks unfairly denied to him. Once there, however, he discovers he cannot submit himself to duplicities of feudalism. The islanders are being taxed to into oblivion, not only is there a random counter-intuitive tax on pine trees but the government is also extracting taxes from the family members of the deceased as well as newborn babies while cutting sand into the rice rations it promises in return. His father and superiors laugh at him for his squeamishness, seeing nothing at all wrong in the right of the elite to exploit the poor. Trying to blow a whistle, Chang-dae is reminded that the courtly system is an extension of the monarchy, and so criticising a lord is the same as criticising the king which is to say an act of treason. 

Having been accused of treason himself, Yak-jeong declines to enact his revolutionary ideas penning only a couple of books during his time in exile in contrast to his brother who published many treatises on effective government. Yak-jeong explains he dare not risk writing his real views which is why he’s immersed himself in the beauty of the natural world, exercising his curiosity writing about fish while making use of Chang-dae’s vast knowledge of the sea. The two men develop a loose paternal bond but are later separated by conflicting desires, Chang-dae eventually choosing conventional success over personal integrity only to regret his decision on being confronted with the duplicities of the feudal order. Shot in a crisp black and white save for two brief flashes of colour and inspired by traditional ink painting, Lee’s contemplative drama finds itself at a fracture point of enlightenment as two men debate the relative limits of knowledge along with the most effective way to resist a cruel and oppressive social order but eventually discover only wilful self exile as Chang-dae learns to re-embrace his roots as an islander along with the openminded simplicity of Yak-jeong’s doctrine of catholicity in learning. 


The Book of Fish screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

Extreme Job (극한직업, Lee Byeong-heon, 2019)

Extreme Job poster 2Another in the increasingly popular trend of multi-territory simultaneous productions, Twenty director Lee Byeong-heon’s Extreme Job (극한직업, Geukan Jigeop) shares its premise with recent Chinese hit Lobster Cop but swaps low budget zaniness for the kind of high concept comedy that dominated Korean cinema in the 2000s. Where the Chinese version was perhaps bold in making its law enforcers look like idiots, the Korean version is very much in the long tradition of idiotic but sincere policemen eventually making good, if perhaps more by accident than design.

The film opens with Chief Go (Ryu Seung-ryong) dangling on a window washing wire and making small talk with his quarry who then manages to get away leaving Go quite literally spinning in the wind. The rest of the team give chase, but the guy eventually ends up in a bad way with the gang’s exploits causing a multi-car pileup and a significant amount of public damage for which Go and his team are now responsible. Facing the threat of disbandment, the team senses opportunity when they get a lead on the Korean HQ of a notorious international drug gang and vow to break the case before a rival squad to prove their worth as police officers.

Bedding in for a 24-hr stakeout, Go & co hole up in a small fried chicken restaurant which happens to be right next to the bad guys’ hide-out only to discover the moribund eatery will soon be closing. The good news is the property is up for sale and Chief Go, borrowing the life savings of rookie Jae-hoon (Gong Myung), decides it’s worth the investment to crack the case. The only problem is, despite having been the only visitors for days, the guys keep getting interrupted by potential customers and are forced to open the chicken shop for real as a cover with the secretly excited officer Ma (Jin Seon-kyu) as chief fryer. Ma’s family recipe rib sauce proves an unexpected hit with chicken lovers and so a new food sensation is born, which is an inconvenience when you’re trying to balance running a restaurant with taking down a drug den.

Like Lobster Cop, Extreme Job satirises modish internet success as something as down to earth and ordinary as fried chicken becomes the latest foodie sensation. So taken with their success are they, that the guys begin to forget about the drug dealers in order to facilitate their chicken business all the while conveniently forgetting that they’re technically moonlighting even if it’s in service of an active investigation (albeit one they weren’t actually assigned to). Deciding that they’ve gone too far the guys raise the price to extreme levels, but that only makes the problem worse as does an attempt to rebuff the attentions of a foodie TV programme who then take against them and attempt to ruin their reputation at the worst possible moment.

Meanwhile, Go’s loyal wife is pleased with the extra money coming in but also suspicious. She doesn’t really like him being a policeman – mostly because his nickname is “zombie” on account of all the times he’s nearly died, but she probably wouldn’t want to be married to a chicken shop manager either. For some reason, owning a chicken shop seems to be a shameful occupation that everyone is embarrassed about, though through his unexpected business success Go eventually learns to embrace his inner chicken man and become a better police officer because of it.

The one officer intent on watching the bad guys finds himself excluded from the group as the others regard him as a shirker for not helping out with the chicken business. Nevertheless, in true cop comedy fashion, it’s team work that counts as the guys come to understand their complimentary strengths and start working together as a unit so they can take down the drug dealers if in bumblingly idiosyncratic fashion. As if to ram the point home, Lee closes with Leslie Cheung’s iconic theme from A Better Tomorrow running in the background to remind us that this has all been about brotherhood, togetherness, and holding the line as much as it’s been about fried chicken success. Slapstick laughs collide with ironic familial comedy and a dose of mild social commentary as the bumbling cops eventually make good by embracing their inner chicken men and reclaiming their dignity in the process.


Extreme Job was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Seven Years of Night (7년의 밤, Choo Chang-min, 2018)

Seven Years of Night posterThe sins of the father are visited upon the son. Cycles of abuse and fatalistic retribution are a persistent theme in Korean cinema but Choo Chang-min plunges them to new depths of tragic inevitability in his adaptation of the best selling novel by Jeong You-jeong. The biblically titled Seven Years of Night (7년의 밤, 7 Nyeonui Bam) pits two visions of failed fatherhood against each other as two broken men attempt to restore order to their lives but damn their children in the process through their own refusal to engage with past trauma.

In 2004, security guard Hyun-su (Ryu Seung-ryong) buys an apartment he can’t afford in order to placate his wife who is in constant worry over their precarious financial circumstances. Hyun-su can’t really manage the interest payments on the mortgage so the family will be renting out the fancy apartment and moving to a remote house provided by his new employers at a hydroelectric dam. On the day that he was supposed to go and check over his new accommodation, Hyun-su partied hard with his former colleagues and set off drunk, getting into an altercation with another driver on the way. Lost in a thick fog and fuzzy from the drink, he hits a little girl who ran out in the middle of the road, panics and hides her body, planning to forget any of this ever really happened.

Forgetting is not, however, something anyone is permitted to do in Choo’s world of elemental retribution in which the buried past is always destined to make its way to the surface sooner or later. The lake around the dam was once home to a village which was sunk, intact, to make way for its construction. Locals fear the water with superstitious dread, believing the lake sucks the souls of men and is polluted with something darker and older than industrial corruption. Attempting to drown the inconvenient may have its appeal, but nothing stays underwater for long and the harder you try to push it down, the faster it will rise.

Unfortunately for Hyun-su, the father of the girl he has killed, known to all as Dr. Oh (Jang Dong-gun), is not a man to be messed with. Dr. Oh, apparently an upscale dentist in the city, rules over all with a tyrannical authority and, as he owns almost all the land around here, enjoys a near feudal level of deference from the villagers. Violent and controlling, Oh’s wife, who describes him as the Devil incarnate, has recently escaped and gone into hiding leaving their small daughter Se-ryung (whose name is coincidentally the same as that of the sunken village) alone to face his wrath. Doubtless, Dr. Oh was raised with an authoritarian father of his own and is unable to see beyond himself and understand that his reign of terror prevents him from achieving the very thing he craves – the love of his wife and daughter.

Desperate for revenge, needing to prove that this is all someone else’s fault to avoid admitting that his own violence drove his wife from him and his daughter into the path of another violent man, Dr. Oh vows poetic retribution by targeting the life of Hyun-su’s innocent son, Seo-won (Go Kyung-pyo). Increasingly disturbed by his crime, Hyun-su dreams of his own father – a violent drunk with PTSD from a pointless war whose death he longed for and who he swore never to become, only to be confronted with a vision of himself as a small boy in the face of his own son watching his father strike his mother in anger. Hyun-su sees. He sees what his father passed to him and what he fears he will pass to his own son. He wants to break the curse, but doesn’t know how. 

Still, Hyun-su would drown the world to save his son even if he hates him for it. Seo-won, left with a series of dubious legacies, struggles to emerge from the shadow of his father’s crimes, is disowned by his family as the son of a murderer and cast out from regular society as one polluted by murderous blood but eventually saves himself through skills learned from a second father, himself hoping to atone for a selfish decision that led only to tragedy. Deliberately disjointed and self-reflexive, Seven Years of Night is a dark tale of supernatural dread masking a horror all too real in the impossible task of exorcising the living ghost of defeated male pride.


Seven Years of Night was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International teaser trailer (English subtitles)