The Map Against the World (고산자, 대동여지도, Kang Woo-suk, 2016)

map-against-the-worldThe map is not the territory – as the old adage goes. There’s always a difference between the thing itself and the perception of it but, as the “hero” of The Map Against the World (고산자, 대동여지도, Gosanja, Daedongyeojido) points out, if you’re about to set off on a long journey it’s a good idea to not to rely on a linear map else you’ll run out of good shoes long before you reach your destination. Kim Jeong-ho (Cha Seung-Won) was, apparently, a real person (though little is known about him) who set out to make a proper map of the Korean peninsula after a cartographic error led to the death of his father and many other men from his village when they ran out of resources crossing what they thought was one mountain but turned out to be one mountain range.

The difficulty here is that The Map Around the World pivots around a man who is so crazed and obsessive in his quest that he causes serious problems not only for himself in a difficult political climate, but also for those close to him whose lives he ruins through neglect and abandonment. Is he a hero for following his dreams even though they cost others so dearly? The film seems to say yes, but it’s a difficult message to swallow.

Ever since Kim Jeong-ho’s father died, he’s been obsessed with the idea of creating an accurate map of the Korean peninsula from end to end including the “Dokdo” (or which ever name you wish to use) islands. Consequently, he spends much of his life wandering around on his own which has made him a bit strange. Returning home after a four year absence, Jeong-ho does not seem to be aware that time has been passing even in Seoul and his little daughter, Soon-sil (Nam Ji-hyun), is now all grown up. Jeong-ho also has a kind of relationship with his neighbour, Mrs. Yeonju (Shin Dong-mi), who has been looking after Soon-sil but it’s all a bit awkward.

Aside from Jeong-ho’s terrible performance as a family man, the main intrigue centres around his big philosophy – open access to information for everyone from the nobleman to the peasant. In order to make sure maps remain as accurate as possible, he’s hit on the idea of producing woodblocks so they can be reproduced en masse with fewer errors and then sold to anyone who wants one so that people are free to travel wherever they wish. This is an extraordinarily destabilising idea in the increasingly paranoid world of the late Joseon era under the Regent Heungseon Daewongun (Yu Jun-sang). The woodblocks are dangerous because the elites do not wish the common man to possess that kind of knowledge, would rather people did not travel very much, and there is always the old “national security” fear in which the rulers assert the danger of spies and invaders getting their hands on such an accurate guide to the terrain.

Of course, Heungseon Daewongun ruling as a Regent for his young son means there is also a simmering battle for power running in the background as second tier nobles snap away at each other trying to increase their status in the hope of making a bid for the big chair. Heungseon Daewongun has reason enough to be paranoid but his rule is an austere one in which all foreign elements are to be eliminated in their entirety.

Kim Jeong-ho’s world is difficult and often frightening but Jeong-ho cares for nothing but maps aside from the idea of the free exchange of information. The early part of the film is, broadly, a quirky comedy about an amiable eccentric laughing his way out of trouble whilst evading debt collectors and trying to earn the forgiveness of the women he’s abandoned with nary a word for the last four years.

Jokes about Jeong-ho’s awkward relationship with his neighbour, mild irritation with the idea that his now grown up daughter has a boyfriend, and buddy comedy with the guy helping him carve the woodblocks suddenly seem out of place when the film descends into a morass of cruelty and horror with no apparent warning. Jeong-ho himself is beaten by authorities determined to obtain his maps by underhanded means seeing as Jeong-ho wants them to be available to the people and therefore refuses to surrender them into the “care” of the state. When that doesn’t work, he places himself in line for more harassment, but that’s nothing compared to what happens when a secret sect of Christians (banned for fear of foreignness) is uncovered in the village. Brutally tortured and instructed to denounce others, the villagers are then publicly beheaded. Suddenly, maps don’t seem so important any more.

Nevertheless, Jeong-ho quickly gets over the stubbornness that has cost him the things he held most dear (aside, it seems, from maps) to get right back out there and do some hardcore cartography. The film ends on an oddly upbeat note as Jeong-ho ventures forth on another adventure, edging ever closer to completing his mission, but even if he is about to make his “dream” come true, that same dream has just got a number of people killed. Jeong-ho’s quest to make the maps available to all could be seen as resistance to the oppressiveness of the state, but it isn’t, he just really likes maps and thinks you should too. The Gangchi (otherwise known as “Japanese” sealions, apparently hunted into extinction by Japanese fishermen in the 1970s) frolic happily off the waters of Dokdo as Jeong-ho approaches, but it hardly seems like a cause for celebration.

Over long and tonally inconsistent, The Map Against the World is a frustrating and often dull experience. Hold the map against the world and see what you see, errors and imperfections everywhere. Yet fighting oppression through cartography is a difficult task, and when it comes down to it a map against the world is not enough on its own. Filled with picturesque shots of Korea’s natural beauty, The Map Against the World displays generally high production values but can’t decide if it’s the story of a valiant revolutionary waging a cultural war for freedom of information in the middle of a paranoid dictatorship, or just a film about a madman trying to map ever changing terrain. Jeong-ho’s quest may be a noble one, but his single minded determination and willingness to sacrifice other people’s lives in its service is far from heroic leaving the film’s bittersweet finale feeling very hollow indeed.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Matter of Interpretation (꿈보다 해몽, Lee Kwang-kuk, 2015)

matterofinterpretation_keyartFirst published on UK Anime Network – review of Lee Kwang-kuk’s A Matter of Interpretation (꿈보다 해몽, Ggumboda Haemong).


Romance Joe director Lee Kwung-kuk returns to the director’s chair with a another meta take on modern Korean life only this time he’s interested in the nature of dreams vs reality. A Matter of Interpretation is, ironically, a little closer to Lee’s mentor Hong Sang-soo thanks to its repeated dream motifs but always stands at a slightly more abstracted angle than the comparatively more realistic Hong. Building on the promise of Romance Joe, A Matter of Interpretation further marks Lee out as a talent to watch in modern Korean cinema.

The film begins with a group of performers nervously waiting in a rather circus-like theatre before eventually deciding to cancel the performance because no tickets have been sold. Yeon-shin, the star actress, storms out and goes for a smoke in a nearby park. Her boyfriend eventually finds her and they talk about the film project Yeon-shin has just been bumped from in favour of a young pop idol. They break up and we time jump to the same bench some point later as Yeon-shin talks to a policeman who, it turns out, can also interpret dreams. Yeon-Shin has had a dream about attempting to commit suicide in an abandoned car only to find a man (who now has the face of Seo, the policeman) tied up in the car’s boot.

The car itself ends up becoming a recurrent theme in the film, appearing in the dreams of multiple people and eventually in reality (maybe?). The policeman (who frequently pulls out a pocket watch and seems to be late for a very important date) interprets Yeon-shin’s dream as being about regret over rashly ending her relationship with her boyfriend and a mixture of guilt and worry that he quit his theatre job soon after and she hasn’t heard from him since. There are other repeated motifs such as the date 7th February circled on a calendar and, like Romance Joe, a pre-occupation with suicide but A Matter of Interpretation proves an apt title for a film that’s so bound up with playful symbolism.

Also like Romance Joe, A Matter of Interpretation owes a lot to Lee’s mentor Hong Sang-soo. Like Hong, Lee has opted for a concentration of static camera shots with his subjects centrally framed like a conventional landscape photograph albeit with the occasional creeping zoom. However, where Hong can be deliberately repetitious, Lee’s repeated motifs take on a different kind of playfulness – deliberately disorientating us with his mix of dream and reality to the point where we can’t really be sure which of the two is the “real” world. He’s also ported over his love of Alice in Wonderland (or this time Through the Looking Glass) which adds another surrealistic layer of whimsy to the film.

Ultimately, A Matter of Interpretation builds on the promise of Romance Joe to create something that feels much more well thought out as well as much more affecting than Joe’s rather distant atmosphere. Much of this is thanks to Shin Dong-mi’s engaging performance (even more so than her winning turn as the “coffee waitress” prostitute in Romance Joe) as the aging actress Yeon-shin who’s coming to regret some of her previous life choices and wondering how things might have been different. Whimsical is probably the best way to describe the film. It isn’t trying to be deep or profound so much as playfully thoughtful though its complex, interconnecting narrative symbolism is certainly likely to spur post viewing debate. Less contrived and undoubtedly more fun than Romance Joe, A Matter of Interpretation marks a definite step up for director Lee Kwang-kuk and hints at even more meta tales of playful absurdity to come from this promising director.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.

Romance Joe (로맨스 조, Lee Kwang-kuk, 2011)

romance-joeReview of Lee Kwang-kuk’s Romance Joe (로맨스 조) up at UK Anime Network. First saw this at the LFF a couple of years ago but now it’s back alongside Lee’s latest film A Matter of Interpretation at the London Korean Film Festival.


Lee Kwang-kuk’s meta romantic comedy drama first got a London outing at the BFI film festival back in 2012 but now makes a welcome return visit as part of the 2015 Korean film festival in a strand dedicated to its director. Playing alongside a short film, Hard to Say, which was completed by Lee in-between Romance Joe and his new film A Matter of Interpretation, the film brings Lee’s meta concerns to the fore and offers plenty of Alice in Wonderland inspired absurdity to its otherwise straightforward plot elements.

Romance Joe is a film with many levels. On the first layer, we have an elderly couple arriving in Seoul to look for their son who came to the city to be a director 18 years ago but he’s not been in contact recently so they’re worried. His friend greets them and tells them their son had been feeling depressed lately over the suicide of a well known actress. He then starts to tell them about an idea for a screenplay he’s had about a director with writer’s block who checks into a motel where he’s told another set of stories by a prostitute who delivers coffee as a cover. From here the stories radiate out like cracks in a broken mirror though we never quite get the answers we’ve been looking for.

Lee has worked extensively with Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo and his shadow looms large over the film. From the cutesy title cards to the static camera with occasional creeping zooms and often unbearably awkward situations, there is certainly a lot of Hong in Lee’s film. However, where Hong takes the same situation and replays it with a different outcome, Lee gives you a set of intersecting stories which spring forth from each other. Lee’s interests are more surreal and metaphysical than Hong’s which are, ostensibly, more naturalistic in feeling than Lee’s almost hyperreal world.

In contrast to Hong’s social comedies, Lee also digs a little darker into the Korean psyche and reveals a strange preoccupation with suicide and abandoned children. The furthest point back in the film deals with the lonely mid forest suicide attempt of a teenage schoolgirl who’s become a figure of fun thanks to a loud mouth “boyfriend”. Her rescuer may (or may not be) the man we later come to know as Romance Joe. Though the two eventually bond, the story is not an altogether happy one as they’re rushed into fairly adult decisions which neither of them is really ready for.

Later, a young boy who may (or may not) be the child of the high school girl arrives at the “cafe” from which the prostitute operates looking for his mother who apparently last wrote to him from that address sometime ago and has since disappeared. Later, the prostitute receives a call from her own son safely in the country being cared for by grandparents while his mother earns the money in the city.

In many ways it’s a series of sad yet inevitable stories leaping out from inside each other each more heart rending than the last, though somehow it never becomes as affecting as you’d like it to be. Romance Joe feels like a deliberate experiment in form or at least a dedication to pushing conventional narrative structures into new and exciting places but it does so in a way that’s self consciously about form rather than content so that it never quite takes hold. It wants to discuss time and memories and stories but ends up mostly talking about itself and, in truth, a little lengthily, still Romance Joe does at least manage to offer an intriguing, beautifully filmed and often enjoyable surrealist tale that will have your mind in knots long after you see it.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.

 

A Hard Day (UK Anime Network Review)

2014 - A Hard Day (still 2)In an unprecedented level of activity, here is another review up on UK-anime.net – this time Korean black comedy crime thriller, A Hard Day (끝까지 간다, Kkeutkkaji Ganda) which was shown at the London Film Festival and the London Korean Film Festival and is now out on DVD from Studio Canal.


For most people, a “hard day” probably means things like not being able to find a parking space, missing your train, the office coffee machine being broken and your boss having a mental breakdown right on the office floor but for not-totally-honest-but-sort-of-OK Seoul policeman Gun-su “hard” doesn’t quite begin to cover it.

Gun-su is driving furiously and arguing with his wife on the phone because he’s skipped out on his own mother’s funeral to rush to “an important work matter” which just happens to be that he has the only key to a drawer which contains some dodgy stuff it would have been better for internal affairs not to find – and internal affairs are on their way to have a look right now. So pre-occupied with the funeral, probable career ending misery and the possibility of dropping his fellow squad members right in it, Gun-su is driving way too fast. Consequently he hits something which turns out to be man. Totally stressed out by this point, Gun-su does the most sensible thing possible and puts the body in the boot of his car and continues on to the police station. Just when he thinks he’s finally gotten away with these very difficult circumstances, things only get worse as the guy the he knocked over turns out to be the wanted felon his now disgraced team have been assigned to track down. Oh, and then it turns out somebody saw him take the body too and is keen on a spot of blackmail. Really, you couldn’t make it up!

Some might say the Korean crime thriller format is all played out by this point, but what A Hard Day brings to the genre is a slice of totally black humour that you rarely see these days. Gun-su is obviously not an honest guy, but he’s not a criminal mastermind either and his fairly haphazard way of finding interesting solutions to serious problems is a joy to watch. This isn’t the first film where someone happens on the idea of hiding a body in a coffin, but it might be the first where said person uses a set of yellow balloons to block a security camera, his daughter’s remote control soldier to pull a body through an air conditioning duct and his shoelaces to prize the wooden nails out of his own mother’s coffin to safely deposit an inconvenient corpse inside. Gun-su (mostly) manages to stay one step ahead of whatever’s coming for him, albeit almost by accident and with Clouseau like ability to emerge unscathed from every deadly scrape. He’s definitely only slightly on the right side of the law but still you can’t help willing him on in his ever more dastardly deeds as he tries to outwit his mysterious opponent.

Though it does run a little long, refreshingly the plot remains fairly tight though it is literally one thing after another for poor old Gun-su. A blackly comic police thriller, A Hard Day isn’t claiming to be anything other than a genre piece but it does what it does with a healthy degree of style and confidence. The action scenes are well done and often fairly spectacular but they never dominate the film, taking a back seat to some cleverly crafted character dynamics. Frequent Hong Sang-soo collaborator Lee Sung-kyun excels as the slippery Gun-su whose chief weapon is his utter desperation while his nemesis, played by Cho Jing-woong, turns in an appropriately menacing turn as a seemingly omniscient master criminal.

Yes, A Hard Day contains a number of standard genre tropes that some may call clichés, but it uses them with such finesse that impossible not to be entertained by them. Bumbling, corrupt policemen come up against unstoppable criminals only to find their detective bones reactivating at exactly the wrong moment and threatening to make everything ten times worse while the situation snowballs all around them. However, A Hard Day also has its cheeky and subversive side and ends on a brilliantly a-moralistic note that one doesn’t normally associate with Korean cinema in particular. It may not be the most original of films, but A Hard Day is heaps of morbidly comic fun!