Rolling (말아, Kwak Min-seung, 2021)

A young woman begins to find new purpose in the wake of global pandemic and unrelated familial loss in Kwak Min-seung’s charming indie debut, Rolling (말아, Mala). Trapped in an arrested adolescence of snack food and video games, Kwak’s heroine drifts along without direction still dependent on her ageing mother while reluctant to move forward or accept responsibility, yet after some gentle prodding perhaps begins to realise that different doesn’t necessarily mean wrong and that there are things she she may be good at if only she gave herself the chance. 

25-year-old Juri (Shim Dal-gi) dropped out of college and doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything at all which is perhaps understandable given it’s the middle of a global pandemic. Her mother Young-shim (Jung Eun-kyung), meanwhile is in something of a fix seeing as her kimbap cafe is already struggling with customers preferring to stay at home while the bills continue to climb just as she needs to take some time off to look after her own mother who has recently been taken ill. Seeing as Juri never answers her text messages, Young-shim takes the drastic step of putting Juri’s flat, on which she co-signed, on the market in order to get her attention, presenting her with the ultimatum that she either watch the store while she’s away or prepare to move out. Though reluctant, Juri agrees going through something of a baptism of fire not only learning how to make kimbap from scratch, but trying to mimic her mother’s cooking to cause as little disruption as possible to their regular customers. 

The kimbap conundrum exposes some of Juri’s insecurity as she worries she can’t measure up to her mum and the customers will be angry or disappointed that their favourite dishes aren’t quite the same. Nevertheless, she takes pride in her work and buckles down to run the cafe as best she can albeit with a slightly reduced menu even if slightly disappointed not to be making as much as her mother usually would. As the friendly auntie from the bakery, Chun-ja (Jung Eui-Soon), points out, however, times are hard for everyone and no one’s really doing the kind of business they’d been doing the year before. Many businesses have already closed while others wonder if it’s really worth trying to carry on when no one knows when or if the situation will improve. 

The weighty responsibility of saving her mother’s store begins to give Juri a new sense of confidence as do her interactions with her customers including a good looking if nervous young man, Won (Park Hyo-won), for whom she makes a note to remove the yellow radish noticing that he always picks them out, and with whom she later ends up on an accidental date delivering a bulk order for a hiking club. A bored little boy meanwhile sick of being cooped up inside asks her some very direct questions but later concedes her kimbap are “OK” which is all things considered high praise. The experience gives her the motivation to start looking for a regular job, but the world of employment is not always kind to those who take a little time to find their way, a rather rude interviewer pointing out that if she quit college she could quit the company while condescendingly asking if there’s anything she’s good at aside from word processing and driving only for her to suddenly realise there actually might be (though it won’t be very helpful in terms of this particular opportunity). 

Her isolated, studenty lifestyle and recent business experience provide Juri with the means to turn the situation to her advantage, thinking outside of the box to expand her mother’s business while making use of all of her skills old and new to take control over her life no longer “dependent” on her mother but working alongside her. Originating from a web drama, Kwak’s gently humorous drama makes the most of the uncanniness of everyday life during the pandemic as Juri’s world ironically expands through working in the cafe dealing with quirky customers and even potential romance while also contending with anxiety over her grandmother’s health and her mother’s business but finally stepping into herself with a new sense of confidence and possibility for the future.


Rolling screens 16th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Snowball (최선의 삶, Lee Woo-jung, 2020)

Three teenage girls seeking escape from an unsatisfying adolescence find only betrayal and disappointment in Lee Woo-jung’s sensitive adaptation of the novel by Lim Solah, Snowball (최선의 삶, Choisunui Sarm). Each oppressed by a resolutely patriarchal society, the three women nevertheless differ in the their respective traumas and resentments finding solidarity in the strength of their friendship only to witness it crumble when its barriers must necessarily be confronted. “Why did you do this to me?” Kang-yi (Bang Min-ah) eventually asks, only to receive no answer and realise that in the end they did to and for themselves. 

Though perhaps feeling a sense of familial rejection in the otherwise peaceful home she shares with her overly religious Buddhist mother, emotionally reserved father, and a little dog also yearning for love, Kang-yi is ostensibly the least burdened of her friends if facing a similar sense of detachment. Aloof golden child So-young (Han Sung-min) is clever and pretty, everything seems to go right for her as Kang-yi enviously explains, except for her dream to become a model and actress which her family apparently don’t support. Ah-ram (Shim Dal-gi), by contrast, is quirky and rebellious with a tendency to collect stray animals and other items from the street little caring who they may or may not belong to but is also trapped in abusive home with an authoritarian father. When So-young one day suggests running away together the other girls agree, but after the novelty wears off and they begin to run out of money the realities of a forced adulthood are suddenly brought home to them. 

The depths of their naivety are perhaps signalled in an early and misguided attempt to misuse a potentially predatory middle-aged man who offers them money for food, allows them to stay in his apartment, and suggests an improbably low stress job they might be able to do for him. As she’s want to do, Ah-ram runs off with his wallet only to begin feeling sorry him seeing as there’s so little in it and he is so clearly lonely even if So-young proclaims him a creep. Picking up a mattress in the street the girls end up sleeping in a stairwell, only for Kang-yi and So-young to return and find Ah-ram apparently beaten and raped by a man she later willingly returns to, talking as if such brutal treatment is a normal part of any relationship. “Children, when you’re in love you sometimes get into fights” she depressingly explains, later implying that her violent boyfriend has become her pimp as she slides into sex work in an effort to provide economic support to all three of them. 

So brutalised is she, that Ah-ram thinks nothing of the abuse she continues to suffer while So-young solipsistically wallows in a sense of defeat and despair. It’s at this point she whips out a credit card she’s apparently been carrying all along, her choice not to use it seemingly less about the possibility of its being traced than a stubborn desire to insist she is as underprivileged as her two friends. As we later discover, Kang-yi lied about her address to get into the school and in fact lives in a run-down semi-rural area some distance away, secretly regarded as even more of a hick provincial by the upwardly mobile So-young. Nevertheless, it’s not class differences which eventually shatter their friendship but repressed sexuality. One extremely hot evening, So-young and Kang-yi share a moment of physical intimacy but while it only seems to bind Kang-yi more closely to her friend, So-young is unable to cope with the taboo realisation of her desires and becomes increasingly irritable, distancing herself from both of the other girls before abruptly deciding to call the experiment in independence short and return to her parental home. 

All Kang-yi wants is a return to their former friendship, but So-young’s repression eventually turns violent. Rejecting Kang-yi and Ah-ram she becomes a part of the popular set and embarks on a campaign of bullying that leaves Kang-yi both physically bruised and emotionally wounded. Yet she is also in her own way repressed, unable to accept her parents’ love for her and often ignoring the plaintive cries of the family dog longing to be picked up and held. Neither she nor Ah-ram are able to conceive of a future for themselves, Kang-yi’s sense of rejection eventually pushing her towards a self-destructive act of violence that will further rob her of possibility and the potential for happiness. Captured with a restless, roving energy imbued with with the colours of twilight, Lee’s melancholy indie drama suggests that not even friendship can provide a refuge from the pressures of the modern society and its relentlessly oppressive social codes in which internalised shame can quickly snowball into an avalanche of violence.


Snowball screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Festival trailer (no subtitles)

Tune in for Love (유열의 음악앨범, Jung Ji-woo, 2019)

Tune in for love poster 2The course of true love never did run smooth. Another in the recent series of nostalgic ‘90s romances, Tune in for Love (유열의 음악앨범, Yooyeolui Eumakaelbum) takes a pair of nervous youngsters and charts the course of their love story over a decade which, though not quite turbulent, saw its share of difficulties and a host of technological changes. “Miracles are nothing special” the heroine tells us, but when it comes to love miracles are all there is and in the end you’ll just have to learn to trust them.

On Oct. 1, 1994 Hyeon-u (Jung Hae-in) walks into Mi-su’s (Kim Go-eun) bakery looking for something with tofu in it. While inside, he hears the first broadcast of Yoo Yeol’s Music Album, a new morning program which seems to signal the beginning of a new era. Though Mi-su is quick to realise that the only reason someone would be desperately looking for plain tofu early in the morning is because they’ve just been released from prison, she decides to offer him a part-time job in the bakery where he becomes a member of the family alongside her “aunt” Eun-ja (Kim Guk-Hee) who’s taken care of her since her mother died. His past, however, refuses to let him go however much he tries to move away from it. Tracked down by his delinquent friends, Hyeon-u is unable to return to the bakery and will spend the next decade trying to do just that.

Fate parts the youngsters repeatedly, but always brings them back together again seemingly by chance. Military service, changes of address, miscommunication and changing technology all conspire to keep them apart but like any good rom-com the problems aren’t so much circumstantial as personal. A deeply wounded young man, Hyeon-u is taken with the familial atmosphere at the bakery because he feels a sense of acceptance he hasn’t anywhere else, but deep down he still doubts he deserves the “normal life” he so deeply craves. His friends doubt it too, always turning up unexpectedly to remind him of their shared trauma and the debt of guilt he can’t repay. His insecurity prevents him from sharing the source of his pain with Mi-su, keeping her somehow outside the bubble of his shame as the only one capable of knowing the “real” him. She meanwhile is frustrated in realising that he’s holding something back, hurt he doesn’t trust her enough to let him in, and worrying he’ll never truly be ready for full commitment. 

Nevertheless, though often apart they remain painfully in sync, until that is fate brings them back together. As young man with a checkered past and no safety net, Hyeon-u has to fight twice as hard to get ahead, eventually graduating high school and getting into college while supporting himself with part-time jobs. Mi-su, meanwhile, is burdened by the knowledge that she’s lost her mother’s bakery and is desperate to get it back. Dreaming of being a writer, she turns down an internship at the all important radio show to go for a steady job she’s told is at a publisher’s but is actually somewhere more like a print shop where she’s stuck doing incredibly boring admin work. Hyeon-u is unable to get back in touch with her after miraculously reappearing because he’s ashamed to admit that he ended up getting in trouble again thanks to his awful friends even though it really wasn’t his fault. She meanwhile confesses that a part of her was relieved not to hear from him because she too is unhappy in herself, feeling lost and confused, disappointed not to be living the kind of life she could be proud of. 

Times change, but their one constant is the radio show broadcasting every morning and providing additional though indirect methods of communication when they are otherwise unable to make contact. Pay phones give way to email and then to mobiles all the way into the early days of the smartphone era, but face to face conversation remains the most difficult. Mi-su gives up on Hyeon-u while he, ironically, probably does sort something out by having a good old fashioned punch up with his generally unhelpful friend. She wonders if she’s better off to make the “smart” choice rather than waiting on love. Hyeon-u is hurt that in the end she didn’t trust him, but is eventually made realise that the problem was that he didn’t trust himself. Then again, you can’t fight the power of true connection or the pain of its absence, all you need to do is a little fine tuning to make sure the signal comes through loud and clear.


Currently available to stream online via Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories)

Netflix 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)