Seire (세이레, Park Kang, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

A new father finds himself plagued by strange dreams and an unquiet dread in Park Kang’s eerie paternal horror, Seire (세이레). Seire refers to the first three weeks of a baby’s life in which the family is expected to limit external contact and avoid any taboos especially those having to do with death. Such superstition might seem out of place in the modern society but then when you think about it it makes sense, limiting the number of people interacting with your medically vulnerable newborn helps protect it from illness or infection while dealing with grief in the wake of new life is necessarily difficult. 

Even so, Woo-jin (Seo Hyun-woo) is beginning to get fed up with his wife Hae-mi’s (Shim Eun-woo) obsession with ritualistic superstition. “Don’t engage in anything unusual” she ominously instructs him as he leaves to run an errand after a night of fevered dreams sleeping on the sofa. That Woo-jin is tired isn’t surprising, he’s the father of a newborn after all, but he seems to be weighed down by something more than bodily fatigue and has been having strange visions featuring fruit knives, rotten apples, and a woman who is not his wife. When he receives a text informing him that an old friend from university, Se-young (Ryu Abel), has passed away, Hae-mi tries to talk him out of going to the funeral advising him to send money instead rather than risk breaking a taboo during the baby’s Seire but Woo-jin doesn’t really believe in any of this stuff and not going to the funeral’s not really an option for him especially, as we later realise, as he may have had unfinished business with the deceased. 

Superstition becomes an odd kind of fault line in the couple’s relationship not so much in a matter of belief but of commitment. Hae-mi reads Woo-jin’s reluctance to abide by the superstitious practices she’s been taught as an early paternal failure, a sign that he wasn’t interested enough in his son’s welfare to follow a few simple rules for a period of three weeks while Woo-jin equally sees Hae-mi’s insistence on them as a personal rejection which is on one level fair enough when she’s literally pelting him with salt and refusing to let him into their bedroom let alone near the baby. To divert the misfortune born of attending the funeral, Hae-mi asks Woo-jin to commit three acts of theft, telling him that it won’t harm anyone and then they’ll be able to stop worrying except that it will definitely harm someone and perhaps everyone if Woo-jin gets caught and ends up losing his job. 

Despite claiming not to believe in any of this superstition, Woo-jin is very into traditional medicine and it seems there may be a connection to the strange events around him though it might not explain his fractured state of mind or increasing inability to tell dream from reality. He is quite literally haunted by the manifestation of a previous transgression which is already playing on his mind given his recent fatherhood. Paternal anxiety is indeed at the root of all his troubles, though we can also see that he feels belittled by his wealthy brother-in-law who makes a show of buying all the fancy meat for a family dinner while it later becomes clear that his relationship with Hae-mi is newer than we might have assumed and cemented by the birth of a baby Woo-jin may perhaps on some level resent. But it’s his own guilt that haunts him in the end, failing to deal with the implications of his past actions and their result whether by accident or design. 

Drifting between dream, memory, and a confused reality, Park imbues the everyday with a sense of dread and eerieness defined by an ever-present evil which must be constantly warded off though as it turns out Woo-jin’s darkness very much lies within. Some things you think are just superstitions really aren’t, Hae-mi’s sister annoyed by her superstitious mother’s instruction not to eat lettuce while pregnant which is probably more to do with E. coli than fear of a supernatural curse, though there seems to be no real reason why you shouldn’t eat apples at night save the superstition they cause unrestful sleep. Is this all happening to Woo-jin because he broke a taboo? In many ways yes, and his self-haunting seems set to continue in the impossibility of gaining forgiveness for the unforgivable. 


Seire screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Spiritwalker (유체이탈자, Yoon Jae-geun, 2021)

“Who do you think I am?” the amnesiac hero of Yoon Jae-geun’s existential thriller Spiritwalker (유체이탈자, Yucheitalja) eventually asks having gained the key to his identity but continuing to look for it in the eyes of others. Yet as he’s told by an unlikely spirit guide, maybe knowing who you are isn’t as important as knowing where you’ve come from and where it is you’re going advising him to retrace his steps in order to piece his fragmented sense of self back together. 

A man (Yoon Kye-sang) comes round after a car accident with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He arrives at the hospital after a homeless man (Park Ji-hwan) calls an ambulance for him, but quickly realises he might be in some kind of trouble especially as the police are keen to find out who shot him and why. With that in mind, he decides to make a break for it but finds his sense of reality distorted once again as the world around him changes eventually realising that he’s shifted into the body of another man somehow connected to his “disappearance”. In fact this happens to him every 12 hours which is in many ways inconvenient as his impermanence hampers his ability to keep hold of the evidence he’s gathered while preventing him from making allies save for the homeless man who is the only one to believe his body-hopping story. 

As the homeless man points out, no-one in his camp really knows who they are anymore and to a certain extent it doesn’t really matter (in fact, he never gives his own name) because they have already become lost to their society as displaced as the hero if in a slightly different way forever denied an identity. What the homeless man teaches him, however, is that the essence of his soul has remained figuring out that at the very least he’s a guy who prefers hotdogs to croquettes even if he can’t remember why which is as good a place to found a self on as anywhere else. Even so, through his body-hopping journey he begins to notice that all of his hosts are in someway linked, inhabiting the same world and each possessing clues to the nature of his true identity. 

The central mystery, meanwhile, revolves around a high tech street drug originating in Thailand which causes hallucinations and a separation of body and soul apparently trafficked to Korea via a flamboyant Japanese gangster with the assistance of the Russian mafia in league with corrupt law enforcement members of which have begun getting dangerously high on their own supply with terrible if predictable results. This sense of uncertainty, that everyone is operating under a cover identity and those we assumed to be “good” might actually be “bad” and vice versa leans in to Yoon’s key themes in which nothing is really as it seems. Body and soul no longer align, the hero constantly surprised on catching sight of “himself” in mirrors, not knowing his own face but realising that this isn’t it while desperate for someone to “recognise” him as distinct from the corporeal form he currently inhabits. Though they may not be able to identify him, some are able to detect that he isn’t “himself”, behaving differently than expected, speaking in a different register, or moving in a way that is uniquely his own even while affected by other physical limitations such as one host’s persistent limp. 

Inevitably, the hero’s path back to reclaiming his identity lies in unlocking the conspiracy of which he finds himself at the centre, figuring out which side he’s on and what his highest priorities are or should be in gaining a clear picture of his true self as distinct from the self that others see. High impact hand-to-hand combat sequences give way to firefights and car chases while the hero finds himself constantly on the run in an ever shifting reality, Yoon employing some nifty effects as an apartment suddenly morphs into a coffee shop as the hero shifts from one life to another existentially discombobulated by the lives of others but always on the search for himself and a path back to before finding it only in the returned gaze of true recognition. 


Spiritwalker is released on blu-ray in the US April 12 courtesy of Well Go USA.

Interntational trailer (English subtitles)

Aloners (혼자 사는 사람들, Hong Sung-eun, 2021)

“No one would notice your absence anyway” a belligerent caller ironically argues with an increasingly distressed call centre employee, as so many do in a hierarchical society attempting to bolster his sense of self-esteem by bullying others he perceives to be below him in this case a faceless young woman on the other side of a telephone divide. Hong Sung-eun’s Aloners (혼자 사는 사람들, Honja Saneun Saramdeul), or as the Korean title would have it, those who live alone, is in part a critique of urban alienation but also a deep character study in grief and loneliness in which a young woman’s fear of abandonment has ironically caused her to retreat from the world. 

30ish Jina (Gong Seung-yeon) is the number one employee at a credit card call centre despite, as her boss (Kim Hae-na) reveals, having taken an extravagant two days off for her mother’s funeral hinting at the dehumanising nature of contemporary capitalism. Rarely deviating from the script, Jina has an especial talent for lending a sense of warmth and humanity to the otherwise robotic dialogue even playing along with a man who rings up often noted on his file as having a mental illness to enquire if he can get a retroactive credit card that would work if he time travelled to 2002. Mostly, she seems to keep herself to herself but is always staring at her phone screen, taking lunch alone at the kind of restaurant where you order via a machine while watching videos of other people eating. We see her return home to what we assume is a tiny one room apartment, curtains always closed with boxes piled up in front, while her fridge and microwave are right next to the bed. Wondering if there’s a bathroom somewhere seeing as this doesn’t look like the sort of building where you’d have to share, we begin to hear other people speaking assuming the walls must also be thin or else Jina just has noisy neighbours only to realise that she is in fact listening to a live feed of her father’s (Park Jeong-Hak) living room captured from a security camera she set up to keep an eye on her mum. 

She seems to see the same slightly strange neighbour (Kim Mo-beom) smoking on the balcony as she leaves and returns, only to discover after reporting a bad smell that he has in fact been dead for at least a week apparently crushed under a pile of magazines he’d been obsessively hoarding. This instance of “lonely death” of a person who is not elderly but in fact a similar age to herself forces Jina into a contemplation of the way she’s lived her life while a change in her working routine as her boss tasks her with training a new recruit pushes her back the other way. An extremely young woman alone in the city for the first time, Sujin (Jang Da-eun) is isolated in other ways struggling to make friends at the office and finding her attempts to bond with reluctant mentor Jina largely rebuffed. Claiming she prefers to be alone, Jina’s aloofness is almost aggressive but it’s Sujin’s empathy, a quality which makes her a bad fit for the call centre, that eventually causes a shift as she alone takes the time to ask the troubled caller why he wants to go back to 2002 only to hear that he is also intensely lonely and longs for the sense of communal happiness he experienced during the World Cup. 

Jina had claimed she enjoyed taking the calls, and as we realise she is never really “alone” in that she is always connected via her phone screen if with headphones to block out the outside world or else surrounded by voices in her apartment. The irony is that, as she later admits, Jina is alone because she fears becoming so and the best way to prevent becoming alone is to actively choose it. Fearing abandonment or rejection, she maintains only one-sided connections, a ghost surrounded by other ghosts in the centre of a city. “I hope you find a better place” Jina eventually offers during an awkward telephone apology, a slightly funereal sentiment as if she were seeing someone off not long for this world but also perhaps meant for herself as she begins to exorcise her sense of incurable loneliness willing to brave the risk of heartbreak for mutual connection. “More and more people failing to find their place in society” runs the tag line on the exploitative article about the lonely death, attributing his sense of alienation to a neglectful childhood and societal bullying as if implying it was up to him to fit in rather than for society to find a place for him. Jina meanwhile may in a sense have reassumed ownership over her environment, finally opening the curtains and perhaps no longer confined to a single room while, ironically, taking some time for herself redefining her boundaries with an often indifferent society.  


Aloners screens on 5th November as part of this year’s London Korean 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)

A Boy and Sungreen (보희와 녹양, Ahn Ju-young, 2018)

A boy and sungreen poster 1Figuring out who you are is a normal part of growing up, but if you start to suspect that parts of the puzzle have been kept from you it can become an even more complicated business. The hero of Ahn Ju-young’s delightfully charming debut A Boy and Sungreen (보희와 녹양, Boheewa Nokyang) thought he was doing OK. Maybe he worried that he was a little bit weedy and resented being picked on by the snooty kids at school, but he always had his good friend Nok-yang (Kim Ju-a) to hide behind and she always had his back. Realising that his mum (Shin Dong-mi) may have a new romance on the cards entirely destabilises his worldview, sends his anxiety into overdrive, and reawakens a series of as yet unresolved abandonment issues resulting from losing his father at a young age.

What Bo-hee (Ahn Ji-ho) discovers on “running away” to visit a woman he kind of remembers might be his half-sister, is that his mother might have lied to him and the father he thought was dead might actually still be alive. Together with his best friend Nok-yang, he resolves to investigate and find out if his father is still out there somewhere, if he still thinks of him, what sort of man he might be, and, crucially, why he chose to abandon his son. Still upset with his mother and childishly resentful, Bo-hee avoids going home and installs himself at his “half-sister” Nam-hee’s (Kim So-ra), an air hostess who turns out to be a cousin temporarily taken in by Bo-hee’s mum when she ran away from home as a teenager, where is he is cared for by her surprisingly supportive boyfriend Sung-wook (Seo Hyun-woo).

Tellingly, Sung-wook is also an orphan with no family, raised in an orphanage with no parental models yet easily slipping into a positive paternal role. Both Bo-hee and Nok-yang are being raised in single parent families, Bo-hee believing until recently that his father had died, while Nok-yang lost her mother in childbirth and lives with her salty grandma and distant father. In conservative Korean society they each experience a degree of stigma for not having the “full” complement of parents with some of the snooty kids at school even assuming that’s why they’re friends, but the pair largely rejoice in each other’s company and have learned to pay them no mind.

Meanwhile, Bo-hee is experiencing strange anxiety-like attacks which eventually turn out to be something more serious, but neatly underline his intense adolescent confusion. Finding out his mother has a boyfriend not only forces him to confront his father’s absence, but also deepens the sense of anxious rootlessness he feels as someone without an extended family network. As Nok-yang somewhat insensitively puts it, what if the boyfriend turns out to be an “evil stepmother” and pushes him out of his family home, where will he go then? That kind of thinking is what leads him to track down Nam-hee, “certain” that she won’t turn him away because, he believes, they share the same father.

Despite maintaining an intense belief in the power of blood connection, Bo-hee remains distrustful of the idea of family and uncertain in his own identity. Even his name, which is really just “Boy” like the unnamed protagonist of a young adult novel, bothers him in that is uncomfortably close to slightly rude word, not to mention being somewhat unusual. Nok-yang has an unusual name too, but hers has a lovely, if sad, story behind it about her dad seeing rays of sunshine through the trees on the way home from the hospital and deciding to name her after that, whereas Bo-hee’s seems to be random. Thanks to his quest to track down his dad, Bo-hee finally comes to understand the meaning behind his name and accept himself for himself rather than longing to be just like everyone else.

Like all small children, Bo-hee thought everything that happened in his life was somehow his fault, that his dad left because of something he did or that there was just something wrong with him that his dad couldn’t love. What he realises is that his father’s decision was his father’s and nothing to do with him. It wasn’t his fault that his father left and there is nothing about him that means anyone else in his life is likely to leave without warning. In a roundabout way, looking for his dad helps to rebuild a sense of the family he didn’t think he had, becoming more secure in his relationship with his mother, bonding with Sung-wook and Nam-hee, and remembering that whatever happens he and Nok-yang will always be there for each other.


A Boy and Sungreen was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Juror 8 (배심원들, Hong Seung-wan, 2019)

Juror 8 poster 1What is the role of the law in a free and democratic society? In an effort to democratise justice, Korea held its first jury trial in 2008 giving “the people” a voice in the courts. As might be expected the judiciary had its doubts. Where judges and lawyers are best placed to assess the evidence and draw their conclusions, might not ordinary citizens be swayed by emotion or argument? Then again, compassion might be a force sorely lacking in a legal process some might feel to have become too efficient in its keenness to see justice is done speedily, losing all important scrutiny and allowing corruption and complacency to sneak their way in.

Juror 8 (배심원들, Baesimwondeul), a courtroom comedy drama, subtly puts the nation on trial as it asks what the point of the law is if it’s wielded like a blunt object. The case in hand concerns a middle-aged man, Kang Du-sik (Seo Hyun-woo), accused of hitting his elderly mother (Lee Yong-yi) on the head with a hammer and then throwing her off the balcony to disguise the crime. Though the defendant made a confession to police shortly after the incident, he did so vaguely from a hospital bed after being knocked out and now claims he can’t remember the events in question. This presents a problem for the judiciary who had chosen this case for the first jury trial precisely because it seemed so open and shut, all the jury was supposed to do was consider sentencing. Now they’re being asked to consider guilt or innocence and asking lots of awkward questions in what was supposed to be a token effort on behalf of law enforcement to demonstrate that it is listening.

Everything might have gone to plan if it hadn’t been for problematic “Juror 8” Nam-woo (Park Hyung-sik ) who, despite giving some worryingly conservative answers in his interview, instantly sympathises with the suspect and worries that there are too many unanswered questions in the evidence presented. His conviction only strengthens when he wanders off trying to get to the patent office to file sample of a self-defence device he was trying to launch as a business and accidentally meets Kang who seems despondent and frightened, worried he really might be guilty but fundamentally unable to remember.

More cynical minds might ask if Kang’s memory lapse is merely convenient and he hopes to exploit the jury trial to win acquittal through sympathy. Having noticed that Kang has no fingers, Nam-woo insists on a test to see if he is able to swing a hammer only for others to point out that there is no real way to know if he is not physically able to do it or chooses not to to aid his case. Meanwhile, Kang sits sullenly like a defeated ball of pent-up rage, eventually exploding when the jury is handed a letter he claims he was forced to write expressing frustration with his mother’s refusal to sign a legal separation form so that he would be eligible to receive welfare payments.

As his lawyer later puts it, the real villain here is poverty. Kang was raised by a single-mother, something still frowned upon, who had to leave him alone to go out to work. She locked the door from the outside to keep him safe, but that also meant he was unable to escape a house fire and was badly burned at only five years old sustaining prominent facial scarring and the loss of the fingers on both hands which means he is unable to work and cannot easily write. According to the testimony, Kang and his mother argued constantly over money, especially since her job washing dishes at a restaurant came to an end. As her son and dependent, he was unable to claim benefits and wanted, the prosecution claims, to legally sever ties. When his mother refused, they allege that he lost his temper, killed her, and tried to make it look like an accident.

Nam-woo is unconvinced as is another juror whose 30 years as an embalmer tell him that the head wound was unlikely to have been caused by a hammer. Juror 6 is dismissed for speaking out in court, his exuberance held up as an example of teething problems in the jury system, but his words strike a chord with some of the other jurors who wonder if the smug expression on the forensic scientist is there to mask the fact that he didn’t really bother to investigate because there had already been a confession and all he needed to do was “confirm” the police’s findings. Time and again, the jurors accidentally uncover the failings of justice in a system geared towards efficiency. Kang was pushed to confess by police keen to meet their targets, the confession then became basis for deprioritising his case. Or as some of the legal minds put it, they got “sloppy” because there was no sense in devoting time and energy to a matter already closed.

The same thing happens in the jury room. The jurors are ordinary people. They have lives waiting for them. Nam-woo wants to file his paperwork for the business loan, another juror has a child to get back to, one is a salaryman with an angry boss on the phone. Everyone has a vested interest in getting this over with as quickly as possible so they can all go home, but they also take their responsibilities seriously – much more seriously than they were intended to. Korea is a conservative society in which it is natural to follow the guidance of the authorities and the collective will, and so it seems natural to everyone that you simply rubber-stamp whatever the judge says. Nam-woo is a bit different, he notices details and he asks awkward questions. “Just go with the flow” the other jurors urge him, “when in doubt follow their lead”, but he wants to do what feels right. The exasperated businessman orders him to fall in with the boss, in this case the judge, but crumbles when another juror asks for his own opinion. He doesn’t have one, because he’s corporate drone and he’s been conditioned to do whatever the boss says without really thinking about it.

In any case, the jury system itself is a bit of a sham. The jury’s opinion is not legally binding, the judge only has to take it under advisement and can overrule. Sympathetic judge Kim (Moon So-ri), defended in her appointment as “strong and resolute like a man”, is fighting her own battles in a male-dominated arena, hoping for a long overdue promotion following the successful handling of this high profile case she only got through lottery. She begins to notice things she might not have when it was just a formality of sentencing a man who had confessed, but she is under pressure to maintain control and authority while demonstrating the magnanimity of the state. The jurors’ deliberations expose their pettiness and snobbery, some taking against Kang just because he lives in the poor part of town, but also their keenness to ensure the law is fair and exists to protect and not to oppress. Genial and humorous, Juror 8 addresses a serious subject with a lightness of touch and a subtlety that gently exposes the shortcomings of its society while placing its faith in “the people” to make a compassionate choice in the face of a fierce pressure to conform.


Juror 8 screens in Chicago on Sept. 12 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema season 9 where director Hong Seung-wan will be in attendance for an introduction and Q&A moderated by Korean cinema expert Darcy Paquet.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Heart Blackened (침묵, Jung Ji-woo, 2017)

Heart Blackened posterMost of us like to kid ourselves that you can become rich and successful by working hard and playing by the rules, but it takes a certain kind of ruthlessness to climb the chaebol tree. Corrupt CEO Yim Tae-san (Choi Min-sik) is about to have his mettle tested in Jung Ji-woo’s Silent Witness remake Heart Blackened (침묵, Chimmuk). Wealth, money, power, networks of control and manipulation – Tae-san has all these, but a crucial failure to keep his house in order is about to bring it all crashing down. Unless, of course, he can find an acceptable way out. There are some difficult choices to be made but nothing is quite as it first seems in this world of interpersonal gamesmanship and high stakes machinations.

A widower, Tae-san is in a seemingly happy relationship with famous singer Yuna (Lee Honey). His dreams of familial bliss, however, hit rocky ground when his grown-up but still young daughter refuses to accept his new love. Despite Yuna’s attempts to win her over, Mira (Lee Soo-kyung) hates her potential step-mother with unusual intensity. Matters come to a head when some of Mira’s friends alert her to a sex tape going viral on the internet recorded some years previously and featuring Yuna with an old boyfriend. Mira demands a conference and Yuna dutifully comes, hoping for a rapprochement but getting a tirade of abuse. The next morning, Yuna is discovered close to death in the car park underneath her apartment building where a fire has been set presumably to destroy crucial evidence. Mira is arrested but can’t remember anything about the night in question. Tae-san hires an old friend of Mira’s, Choi Hee-jeong (Park Shin-hye), who has now become a defence attorney, in an attempt to get her some moral support from a compassionate lawyer.

Tae-san’s motivations remain opaque and inscrutable. He appears to think his daughter did it, so why does he hire a friendly but second rate, relatively inexperienced lawyer to defend her when he could use his vast wealth to hire the best of the best or even have the case thrown out altogether? As might be expected for someone in his position, Tae-san is a corrupt businessman with a shady past. He has a history with the prosecutor working on this case who has an interest in trying to get at him through his daughter but Tae-san tries buying him off anyway. To Tae-san money is everything. There is nothing which cannot be bought, nothing which cannot be done by a man with “means”, and no trap which cannot be sprung by a man in total control. So why is he letting his daughter go through all this when he could have found a way to pull her out of it?

As it turns out, there are things money can’t buy (but in a round about way, you might be able to make a cash sacrifice in order to prove how much you want them). As part of their investigations, Tae-san and Hee-jong rub up against creepy super fan Dong-myeong (Ryoo Joon-Yeol), otherwise known as “Cableguy”, who’s been stalking Yuna for years and has secret cameras installed all over her apartment building meaning he may have crucial footage of the incident. To Dong-myeong, however, money is “worthless” in comparison to love, family, and friendship (or so he says). Taking the stand, Tae-san amps up his fascistic chaebol survival of the fittest rhetoric in reiterating that “not all lives are equal” and that saying there’s nothing to be done is only the defeatist excuse of the perpetual failure. If he believes the things he says, then Tae-san is indeed a “vile man” as the prosecutor brands him, but then again Tae-san’s relationship to the “truth” is not altogether a faithful one.

Tae-san believes that “money fixes everything” and whatever else he may have done, it’s hard to argue with his final assessment. What Tae-san is experiencing may well be karma for his life of corporate machinations, but it’s not quite of the kind you might expect. Mira, the archetypal chaebol child – spoiled, entitled, selfish, and arrogant, has in a sense been ruined by her father’s failure to teach her there are things more important than money and it’s a lesson both of them will find hard to learn. A chaebol chastened, Tae-san is a man brought low by his own ideology but it’s hard not to feel sorry him as he finds himself back on the path to righteousness having lost everything even if the real villain is the world which blackened his heart to such an intense degree.


Heart Blackened was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Believer (독전, Lee Hae-young, 2018)

Believer posterJohnnie To’s darkly comical tale of a weaselly meth cook with an extremely strong survival instinct and the austere policeman who can’t resist taking his bait might seem perfectly primed for a Korean remake in its innate pessimism and awkward bromance. Lee Hae-young’s Believer (독전, Dokjeon), however, merely borrows the bones of To’s Drug War while doubling down on its central conceit as reckless obsession leads to the undoing of both our heroes, each forced to confront the futility of their respective, mutually dependent quests.

Obsessed with tracking down a mysterious drug lord known only as “Mr. Lee”, narcotics cop Won-ho (Cho Jin-woong) asks a favour from an old informant only to see her murdered, leaving him only a vague clue by tracing an infinity symbol on a crumpled receipt moments before passing away. Warned off the Mr. Lee case, Won-ho finally gets a lead when an explosion at a drug lab brings scorned righthand woman Oh (Kim Sung-ryung) into his office promising to spill the beans in return for protection and immunity. Sadly, Won-ho couldn’t protect her either, but there was another unexpected survivor in the form of low level middleman Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol).

Traumatised by the death of his mother in the same explosion, Rak initially says nothing under interrogation but suddenly wakes up on learning that the lab’s dog also survived and has been rescued by the police. Unlike the “hero” of To’s film, Rak is small fry (if well connected) and is not looking at anything more than significant prison time. Rak may not be fighting for his life but he has a number of reasons for switching sides, especially once Won-ho fills him in on Mr. Lee’s backstory and long history of abrupt purges.

Despite working for the organisation, neither Oh nor Rak had ever met “Mr. Lee”. No one knows anything about them – gender, nationality, name, or location. In fact, there may not even be a Mr. Lee. Perhaps “Mr. Lee” is merely the “god” of drug dealers – an abstract idea almost given flesh but existing in a spiritual sense alone. Nevertheless, the idea of a Mr. Lee has completely captured the heart of compassionate police detective Won-ho whose all encompassing need to find him has already severely destabilised his life. After failing to protect his informant, Won-ho’s complaint against Mr. Lee is now a personal as well as professional one. Not so much out of vengeance (though there is that too), but a need to make the deaths count and his mounting losses meaningful.

Yet as another Mr. Lee contender later puts it, salvation may not be a matter of faith and if your faith has been misplaced, death may be a healing. In believing so deeply in the idea of “Mr. Lee”, Won-ho has given him form and created an idol to be worshipped through devotion. “Brian” (Cha Seung-won), a higher ranking gangster and former preacher chased out of the US for getting his congregation hooked on cocaine, has his own particular brand of faith based problems but subscribes to much the same philosophy. He may really be Mr. Lee (as may anyone), but if he isn’t he’s determined to convince himself he is in order to see himself as something more than the failed son of a chaebol dad who couldn’t hack it in the family business or in the pulpit. Brian would be happy to die as Mr. Lee rather than going on living as “himself”. Won-ho, unable to understand why kids do drugs asks his informant who explains it’s mostly because life is rubbish. Later someone says something similar to Brian, that he’d rather delude himself with the belief that he’s “someone” rather than face the emptiness.

Despite himself, and as Rak is eager to remind him, Won-ho is dependent on his informant for the pursuit of his case. Won-ho is reluctant to trust him even though Rak seems to be actively working to protect him in this extremely dangerous and largely unfamiliar world. Rak, by contrast, is aware he hasn’t won Won-ho’s faith, but assures him that’s OK because Rak trusts him. Rak does indeed seem to have the upper hand along with mysterious motivations and a fishy backstory, but Won-ho’s desperation to get close to Mr. Lee leaves him wide-open, unwilling to trust his guide but too invested to consider cutting him loose. “Belief” becomes its own drug, a transformative ritual act which gradually erodes all other needs and leaves only emptiness in their place. Won-ho can’t even remember why he started chasing Mr. Lee, but all that remains of him is the chase – a true believer suddenly bereft of a cause. Lee Hae-young takes To’s nihilistic cynicism and subverts it with a focus on the personal as both men fight self created images of their individual demons but find themselves unable to escape from their mutually assured identities.


Believer was screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

A Tiger in Winter (호랑이보다 무서운 겨울손님, Lee Kwang-kuk, 2018)

Tiger in Winter poster“Life just keeps getting harder” sighs a weary policeman charged with extracting a coherent statement from an accidental hero who only wants to talk about a tiger. Lee Kwang-kuk’s third feature, A Tiger in Winter (호랑이보다 무서운 겨울손님, Horangiboda Museoun Gyeoulsonnim), is in some ways a more conventional exercise in comparison with the time bending reflexivity of his earlier work, but the journey he takes us on is similarly circular as a melancholy young man finds himself chased out of his natural habitat and cast adrift, outside of his comfort zone too resentful to crawl back into a familiar cage but too afraid to embrace his freedom. 

On the day a tiger escapes from the zoo, Gyeong-yu (Lee Jin-wook), a failed writer, “loses” his day job and has to temporarily vacate his apartment because his girlfriend’s parents are coming to visit and she evidently hasn’t told them she is “living in sin”. Gyeong-yu offers to stay and meet them, but bristles when his girlfriend wonders if he’s ready to make a firm a commitment. He packs and leaves, planning to return in a few days’ time when the coast is clear. Decamping to a friend’s place, Gyeong-yu continues his night “job” as a designated driver which brings him into contact with an old girlfriend – Yoo-jung (Ko Hyun-jung), who is also a writer and apparently successful but suffering from an extended bout of writer’s block and has descended into a self destructive spiral of alcohol fuelled existential desperation.

After reconnecting with Gyeong-yu, Yoo-jung pulls down a book he once gave her from her well stocked bookcase – a Korean translation of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway’s hero fights his age as manifested in a powerful marlin and dreams of youth in the lions of Africa. The film’s English title, “A Tiger in Winter”, is perhaps a mild pun on “The Lion in Winter” which again tells of a once proud old man struggling to deal with his bodily decline, only Gyeong-yu is still young even if he feels himself diminished and brought low by life. Unlike the old man, he has stopped fighting and accepted his defeat. He no longer writes and flounders aimlessly, running away from the things that frighten him without aim or purpose. The loosed tiger is a manifestation of the fears Gyeong-yu refuses to fight which render him both physically and artistically impotent.

Writing, or perhaps art of any kind, becomes its own kind of vice – a dangerous addition, a need which must be sated or displaced without which the rest of life remains hollow. Unable to satisfy her need for creation, Yoo-jung has crumbled under the pressure of her own expectations and retreated into the comforting world of the permanently tipsy even whilst knowing that the alcohol itself inhibits her ability to create and forever separates her from that which would make her whole. She wants to stop, throws away her soju, but can’t move past her inability to face herself and resolve her creative doubts. Yoo-jung wants the quick fix, and like any addict, she is past caring about the harm she might do to herself and others in the pursuit of it.

Gyeong-yu, meanwhile, almost wallows in his degradation as he allows himself to be belittled by the customers who call for his services and insist on treating him like a servant. Designated driving doesn’t seem like a particularly safe arrangement for either party – many of Gyeong-yu’s customers are extremely drunk and willingly allowing a man they don’t know to drive them somewhere in their own car while they are barely conscious, while conversely many refuse to pay or accuse Gyeong-yu of damaging the car while berating him for acting in an insufficiently humble manner. Yet it’s not humiliation that knocks Gyeong-yu out of his stupor but trauma and a direct confrontation with someone else’s despair.

Tigers lurk everywhere, though when Gyeong-yu finally learns to look his in the eye it’s a very cute and non-threatening sort of tiger which perhaps makes him feel foolish for having evaded it for so long. Lee may not be playing with time in his usual fashion, but he sends Gyeong-yu retreating into the past all the same in an attempt to hide from his fears only to discover you can’t walk backwards into the future. An exploration of the destructive power of the creative urge, the soul crushing inertia of artistic block, and the continuing rootlessness of a life lived in flight, A Tiger in Winter is another beautifully poetic character drama from Lee whose world weary optimism loses nothing in its seeming simplicity.


A Tiger in Winter was screened as the final teaser for the London Korean Film Festival which will open on 1st November with Microhabitat. The full programme for this year’s event is now available on the official website – tickets on sale soon!

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Vanished (사라진 밤, Lee Chang-hee, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

The Vanished posterThe past refuses to die in The Vanished (사라진 밤, Sarajin Bam) – Lee Chang-hee’s remake of the 2012 Spanish thriller, The Body. Ghosts, of one sort or another, torment both of our male leads – a dogged policeman and increasingly unhinged husband, as they try to solve the mystery of a disappearing corpse whilst each battling a degree of latent resentment towards various forces of social oppression. A tale of conflicting bids for vengeance, The Vanished pits an emasculated trophy husband against a controlling career woman wife while the forces of order look on in disapproval but then all is not quite as it seems and perhaps this is not the story we first assumed it to be.

The horror-inflected tale begins in a morgue on a rainy night as a disinterested security guard becomes unexpectedly spooked by his surroundings. Discovering one of the trays open and a body missing, the guard panics and feels himself stalked by something undead before being clubbed on the back of the head and knocked out. Maverick cop with a traumatic past Woo Joong-sik (Kim Sang-Kyung) arrives on the scene and discovers the missing cadaver belonged to prominent businesswoman Yoon Seol-hee (Kim Hee-Ae). The cause of death is thought to have been a heart attack brought on by her workaholic lifestyle but Joong-sik isn’t so sure. He hauls in the “trophy husband” – improbably good-looking university professor and sometime employee of Seol-hee’s pharmaceuticals company, Jin-han (Kim Kang-Woo). Jin-han has come straight from the flat of his pregnant mistress and is understandably on edge as every move he makes only further incriminates him in the “death” of his wife.

Increasingly unhinged, Jin-han is certain that Seol-hee is not really dead and has embarked on an elaborate plan of revenge for his affair with a student, Hye-jin (Han Ji-An). Lee wastes no time in confirming that Jin-han had at least intended to do away with his wife. Jin-han was apparently no longer interested in her money and would have wanted a divorce but believed his wife to be a ruthless woman who would never willingly let him go. Using an experimental anaesthesia drug, he hoped to get rid of her undetected but now fears that she has somehow woken up and wants her revenge. What Jin-han wanted, he claims, was his freedom – Seol-hee, an older career woman, bought him with trinkets, belittles his work, and refuses him all agency. He was tired of playing the toy boy and wanted his life back and so he chose to reassert his manhood through murder.

Of course, all is not quite as it seems. Through Joon-sik’s investigations, Jin-han comes to believe that perhaps Seol-hee planned the whole thing – anticipating that he would try to use the drug against her and engineering a situation in which she would fake her own death just to get back at him. Whether a ghost or not, Seol-hee haunts him, threatens his happy future with the sweet and innocent Hye-jin who calls him professor and respects him as a learned man, and seems set to achieve her goal if only by driving Jin-han out of his mind with worry and confusion.

Meanwhile, Joon-sik is battling another series of oppressive presences in the form a grudge against “the wealthy” possibly relating to a mysterious traumatic incident from his past, and a boss who wants him to find the missing body as quickly as possible and then forget the whole thing given the fact that Seol-hee and Jin-han had been a “celebrity couple” which makes all of this quite embarrassing for everyone. The two men end up engaged in a cat and mouse game as Jin-han becomes convinced that he’s the real victim in all this and is at the centre of an elaborate conspiracy leaving his pregnant girlfriend alone and vulnerable, while Joon-sik continues to push him towards confessing that he took the body and hid it possibly in some kind of fugue state.

“The body” is perhaps a better title as the concept itself comes in for constant reappraisal and we gradually understand that not everyone is talking about the same thing, leaving aside the complete erasure of Seol-hee as a woman with a name who may have been murdered by a vengeful husband (as unpleasant as she is later shown to be) in favour of viewing her simply as a nameless corpse or grudge bearing ghost. Twists pile on twists and history rewrites itself, but the buried past will someday be unearthed and justice served, if with a side order of irony.


The Vanished was screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)