The Closet (클로젯, Kim Kwang-bin, 2020)

Parents in Korean horror films are often uniquely flawed but go to great lengths to redeem themselves through saving their children from supernatural peril. This much is true for the narcissistic hero of Kim Kwang-bin’s grief-stricken ghost story, The Closet (클로젯). The title, perhaps in contrast to its first implications, has a poignant quality as it represents in one sense a place of safety for children trying to protect themselves from the things that frighten them but of course it is no safe place and only leaves them trapped, vulnerable, and traumatised by a world of adult cruelty they are far too innocent to understand. 

Architect Sang-won (Ha Jung-woo) lost his wife in a car accident in which he was driving. He has just bought a large house in the country where it’s quiet and the air is clean to help his young daughter Ina (Heo Yool) recover from her trauma, but his decision is causing trouble in his professional life because his firm prefer their architects to be onsite during in builds and Sang-won obviously needs to be with Ina until he can find a nanny. Ina is generally avoidant around her father, something which probably isn’t helped by her overhearing him blame all his problems on her while arguing with work on the phone, but her personality undergoes an abrupt change after she opens the closet door in her new bedroom, rendering her suddenly cheerful while carrying around a strange doll. 

Sang-won’s first concern is the manky old toy which irritates him because he’d gone to trouble to buy Ina a fancy limited edition doll as a present which she hasn’t played with. Ina is probably ageing out of dolls, and doubtless not that impressed with the supposed pedigree of her father’s gift seeing as neither is she old enough to appreciate a purely decorative present, but in any case Sang-won’s gesture was largely for himself as he proves flagging up how much trouble he went to to get it without, it seems, thinking about what Ina might actually like. When the accident happened, Sang-won was having a minor argument with his wife because he hadn’t made it to Ina’s school concert. He was faintly dismissive, superficially apologetic but clearly unrepentant in choosing his career over his family. Still traumatised over his role in the accident, Sang-won fails to connect with his daughter out of a mix of emotional unavailability, guilt, and intense resentment.

Facing potential humiliation at work on learning he’s been “paired” with a younger architect, Sang-won gets a random local woman to watch Ina, telling her he’ll be away for two months but will visit at weekends. With all of the craziness in the house the “nanny” quits and Ina goes mysteriously missing soon after. Sang-won goes to the police and then the media, but once they catch sight of his medication and mental health profile, he all but becomes a suspect in his daughter’s disappearance, some thinking he killed her and is covering it up and others pitying him as a madman who simply doesn’t remember having harmed his child. An exorcist (Kim Nam-gil), however, has another explanation and Sang-won, though originally sceptical, is forced to trust him because he is the only one who doesn’t think him guilty of murdering his little girl. 

As might be expected, Sang-won’s paternal failures are the root of all his problems. Not only did he neglect his family before the accident, but continues to reject his paternity while rendered a single parent, hoping to palm his daughter off on a nanny so he can go back to concentrating on his career. Questioned by the well-meaning but insensitive exorcist, Sang-won is forced to realise he knows nothing about his little girl. He has no idea if she likes K-pop or if she has any friends. Faced with her continued indifference, he was planning to send her away to an art therapy camp, throwing his hands up in the air and declaring fatherhood too difficult. As the exorcist points out, kids are smart and they know when they aren’t wanted. It’s precisely this feeling of insecurity which has invited in the supernatural. Sang-won will have to prove his paternal love if he truly wants to bring his daughter home. 

The grudge-bearing ghost, it seems, is trying to provide a refuge for all those other children bullied, mistreated, or neglected by the adults who were supposed to protect them, but all Sang-won can do is apologise on behalf of failed fathers everywhere which is, it has to be said, not much of a victory even if refocuses our attention on the true villainy which is sadly much more societal than it is supernatural. In any case, Sang-won doesn’t seem to have changed very much even if he’s had something of a humbling and been superficially restored as a “good” father rededicating himself to raising his daughter. The final sting, however, is perhaps a little on the flippant side even as it reminds us of the evils still lurking in the dark corners of our societies. 


International trailer (English subtitles)

Beasts Clawing at Straws (지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들, Kim Yong-hoon, 2020)

If you found a big bag full of money and then waited a while but no one came to claim it, what would you do? Many people would do as Jung-man (Bae Seong-woo) did, but sometimes gifts from the gods are sent to tempt you and are decidedly more trouble than they’re worth. Beasts Clawing at Straws (지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들, Jipuragirado Jabgo Sipeun Jibseungdeul) is an apt way to describe our small group of interconnected protagonists, each desperately trying to get their hands on the money not necessarily for itself but for the power and possibility it represents or simply to free themselves from a debt-laden existence. 

Jung-man finds the Louis Vuitton bag stuffed inside a locker at his part-time job in a bathhouse. It seems that he is feeling particularly powerless because he’s somehow lost the family business and either never told his extremely domineering mother (Youn Yuh-jung) or she’s simply forgotten, often going off on crazed rants about how her daughter-in-law is secretly plotting to kill them all. Meanwhile, across town, immigration officer Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung) is desperately trying to find his missing girlfriend, Yeon-hee (Jeon Do-yeon), who has, apparently, run off with all his money leaving him in a difficult position with vicious loan shark Park (Jung Man-sik), and melancholy hostess Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-bin) is miserably trapped in an abusive marriage and plotting escape with the help of Jin-tae (Jung Ga-ram), an undocumented migrant from China she met in the club. 

As expected the streams will eventually cross, it is all connected, though it’ll be a while before we start to figure out how in Kim Yong-hoon’s tightly controlled non-linear narrative, adapted from the novel by Japanese author Keisuke Sone. Other than the money the force which connects them is powerlessness. Some of them, maybe all, are “greedy” but it’s not necessarily riches that they want so much as a way out of their disappointing lives. Jung-man feels particularly oppressed because he’s made to feel as if he’s failed his father by losing the family business, something he’s constantly reminded of by his ultra paranoid, domineering mother who eventually pushes his wife down the stairs provoking a crisis point in the foundation of the family. If working part-time in a bathhouse in his 40s hadn’t left him feeling enough of a failure, he is further emasculated by being unable to pay his daughter’s university tuition after she fails to win a scholarship and informs them she’s planning to take a term or two off to earn the money by herself. 

Tae-young is in much the same position, humiliatingly trapped by having foolishly co-signed his girlfriend’s loan only for her to disappear off the face of the Earth, leaving him wondering if he’s just a complete idiot or something untoward has happened to her. He thinks he can regain control of the situation by slipping further into the net of criminality, helping an old uni friend who’s committed large-scale fraud escape to China in exchange for a cut of the loot (and secretly plotting to nab the lot with the help of his shady friend Carp (Park Ji-hwan) who works at the club). 

A crisis of masculinity is also behind Mi-ran’s life of misery as her husband takes out his resentment towards his reduced circumstances on his wife, beating her mercilessly while forcing her to work at a hostess bar to pay off their debts from unwise stock market investments. For her, the money is both revenge and a pathway to a better life. She wants to be free of her husband, and profit in the process. Unable to do it alone, she manipulates male power in the lovestruck Jin-tae all too eager to play white knight to a damaged woman. But Jin-tae is male failure too. When all’s said and done he’s still an innocent boy, not quite prepared for the ugliness of causing a man’s death even if he is a wife beating tyrant the world may be better off without. As an undocumented migrant, he’s pretty marginalised too. Taking advice on how to solve the Jin-tae problem, a more experienced player reminds Mi-ran that no one’s coming looking for an illegal alien and it’s not as if she actually likes him so he is infinitely expendable. 

In an odd way, getting the money is about not being an expendable person anymore. They want the money because they think it will give them back a degree of control over their lives, a kind freedom to move forward with a sense of possibility they do not currently have because of all their debts both financial and emotional. Yet they find themselves farcically scrabbling in chaos, beasts clawing at straws, as they try to outsmart each other and the universe to get their hands on the bag. The universe looks on and laughs, rejoicing in its darkly humorous punchline as the bag finds itself another owner, tempted by its dubious charms with only the promise of more chaos to ensue.


Beasts Clawing at Straws streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app Aug. 29 to Sept. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Confidential Assignment (공조, Kim Sung-hoon, 2017)

confidential assignmentSouth Korean cinema has a fairly ambivalent attitude to its policemen. Most often, detectives are a bumbling bunch who couldn’t find the killer even if he danced around in front of them shouting “it was me!” whereas street cops are incompetent, lazy, and cowardly. That’s aside from their tendency towards violence and corruption but rarely has there been a policeman who gets himself into trouble solely for being too nice and too focussed on his family. Confidential Assignment (공조, Gongjo), though very much a mainstream action/buddy cop movie, is somewhat unusual in this respect as it pairs a goofy if skilled and well-meaning South Korean police officer, with an outwardly impassive yet inwardly raging North Korean special forces operative.

In the South, Gang (Yu Hae-jin) is hot on the trail of a suspect he’s been chasing for quite some time but just as he’s finally about to catch him, his phone starts ringing. The cute ringtone featuring a little girl’s voice saying “daddy, pick up – don’t pretend to be working” is impossible to ignore and so Gang answers, chats to his daughter, and lets the suspect get away. In the dog house at work, Gang winds up with all the rubbish jobs before finally being saddled with a “special assignment” – babysitting a North Korean policeman as part of a collaborative detail chasing a possible defector/dangerous criminal the North are keen to drag back home for possibly inhumane treatment.

The Northerner, Lim (Hyun Bin), has his own reasons for chasing the criminal in that he is the only surviving member of a squad wiped out when a superior officer decided to go rogue and run off with a set of plates for printing counterfeit money. The North need the plates back, but Lim’s motives are personal more than merely patriotic and what he wants is vengeance for the death of someone close to him rather than protecting the embarrassing secret of North Korea’s counterfeit currency conspiracy.

For obvious reasons neither of the two men is able to trust the other but the confusion and suspicion is only increased by Gang’s total lack of knowledge about the case. All he knows is that they’re looking for a defector – no more, no less. Lim isn’t happy about having a South Korean cop getting in his way and quickly ditches him as soon as possible only for Gang to turn on his ace detective abilities and eventually end up at the same place through policeman’s instinct. Gradually a sort of grudging camaraderie builds up between the two as they’re forced to spend more time together and their odd couple buddy cop antics become the film’s main draw.

Lim, knowing nothing of life in the South yet suspicious of Gang, goes along with some of Gang’s goofier attempts to rein him in such as extended gag in which he gets him to put on an ankle bracelet by telling him that it’s a secret detective’s badge, reassuring him that his is in the cleaners, only for him to meet another suspicious type out on the road. So that he can keep track of him better, Gang’s superiors order him to take Lim home so he can watch him day and night much to the consternation of his wife but delight of his slightly younger sister-in-law who is instantly smitten by Lim’s chiseled features. Lim reacts to all of this with obvious vigilance but comes to like and respect Gang’s family who eventually welcome him into their home without reservation, even taking pains to try cooking North Korean food when he appears reluctant to join them at mealtimes.

Never quite engaging with the political subtext, Confidential Assignment is less about North/South co-operation than it is about complementary skills and the creation of an unexpectedly complete buddy cop unit. Gang is instantly impressed (and a little scared) by Lim’s obvious physical capabilities as he leaps from high balconies and fights off a whole room of bad guys armed only with soggy toilet roll, but Lim also comes to respect Gang’s bravery, kindness, and dedication to his family. Confidential Assignment might not be the most nuanced cinematic portrayal of North/South relations but its good-natured warmth, silly comedy, and impressively staged action scenes make it one of the most entertaining.


Confidential Assignment was screened as part of the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)