Sunny (님은 먼곳에, Lee Joon-ik, 2008)

Sunny 2008 posterLove, apparently, makes people do stupid things. So, apparently, does the absence of love. Lee Joon-ik’s Sunny (님은 먼곳에, Nimeun Meongotyi) takes another roundabout look at the recent past through the medium of music in the unlikely tale of a poor village girl married off to a resentful man whose love for another has sent him reeling off into a foreign war. While it’s nice to see this familiar story from the often neglected point of view of the unwanted wife, Lee’s tale is more one of male folly and the various ways a woman’s life is dictated by patriarchal values than it is of love and determination in the face of extreme danger.

Soon-yi (Soo Ae) sings a plaintive love song by contemporary singing star Kim Chu-ja for her fellow housewives in a small village, but her moment of reverie is broken when her domineering mother-in-law (Lee Joo-sil) arrives and orders everyone back to work. Victim of an arranged marriage, Soon-yi has been abandoned by her husband Sang-il (Uhm Tae-woong) who ran off to join the army right after the wedding. A letter he receives in the barracks tells us that he had a love in Seoul whom he was (presumably) forced to give up on in order to submit to his mother’s chosen bride (why he did this is never explained). Nevertheless, Sang-il’s mum is desperate for an heir from her only son and packs Soon-yi off for a conjugal visit every month. Sang-il, however, refuses any intimacy with his new wife, coldly rolling over as he tells Soon-yi to stop coming, wondering if she really has any idea what “love” is seeing as she’s obviously so blind to his emotional pain.

The next time Soon-yi tries to visit Sang-il she finds out he’s got himself sent to Vietnam – a source of panic to his devoted mother who blames her daughter-in-law for alienating her son so badly he’s decided to go off and get himself killed on a foreign battlefield rather than endure married life at home. Kicked out from her marital household and disowned by her birth family, Soon-yi decides to track Sang-il down in war-torn Vietnam, teaming up with a shady con-artist/musician (Jung Jin-young) as her only passage out of the country. 

The central problem is that Soon-yi does not love Sang-il. How could she, she barely knows him and their only on screen meeting is one filled with awkwardness, contempt, and resentment. Yet Soon-yi suddenly becomes bold, leaves her village, and refuses to back down until she finds Sang-il and convinces him to accept her as his wife. Given that he’s gone all the way to Vietnam in order to avoid her, it’s unclear what Soon-yi hopes to achieve in this – is her great gesture of sacrifice and perseverance supposed to make Sang-il suddenly abandon his resentment at his personal powerlessness and submit himself to inescapable (accidentally female) forces of social oppression?

Nevertheless, Soon-yi’s pureheartedness wins over all as they become unwilling allies in her quest. The innocence of the enterprise is soon stained with blood as Lee gives way to the bloody unpleasantness of the battlefield reality which our merry band of chancers are ultimately unable to escape. Eventually captured by the Viet Cong, they discover a mini society forged in underground tunnels complete with schools for the many children living in the dark. The Americans, by contrast, are cold and unyielding, cruelly executing the enemy and refusing to help Soon-yi in her quest until she makes a considerable sacrifice of her own.

Soon-yi, rechristened Sunny for her onstage persona, quickly becomes a pawn looking for a foothold in the midst of male squabbling. While Soon-yi’s determination to find Sang-il might have achieved melodramatic weight if it had been a real love story rather than a petty quest to remind an errant, weak willed man of his social obligations, it strains belief that she would really go this far just to save a man who can’t stand her (or really, cannot stomach the representation of his own moral cowardice), let alone that both the Korean and US armies would eventually allow a near silent young woman anywhere near an active battlefield just because she misses her husband. Enlivened by the energetic score of early ‘70s hits, Sunny is entertaining enough but never earns its contrived narrative nor manages to invest its heroine’s quest with any kind of weight or meaning, leaving her a passive presence in the film that bears her name.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kim Chu-ja’s My Love is Far Away

The Battleship Island (군함도, Ryoo Seung-Wan, 2017)

battleship island posterKorean cinema has been in a reflective mood of late. The ongoing series of colonial era dramas have sometimes leaned towards uncomfortable and uncompromising nationalism but among the more recent, there has also been an attempt to ask more serious questions about collaboration and capitulation of ordinary people living under a brutal and often cruel regime. While Age of Shadows dramatised this particular problem through the conflicted figure of a former resistance fighter turned Japanese military police offer, The Battleship Island (군함도, Goonhamdo) goes further in its depiction of those who dedicated themselves entirely to the Japanese Empire and were willing to oppress their fellow Koreans to do so. That is not to ignore the hellish conditions which define the very idea of Hashima as an off shore labour camp where depravity rules, exploitation is hidden, and the camp commander is free to run his ship however he sees fit.

In early 1945 Korea is still under Japanese colonial rule and ordinary Koreans are liable for conscription into the Imperial Japanese army whether they like it or not. Gang-ok (Hwang Jung-min) and his daughter Sohee (Kim Soo-ahn) are members of a popular jazz band but Gang-ok has a habit of getting himself into trouble and so they are tricked into getting on a boat to Japan hoping for a safer, more lucrative life. Where they end up is Hashima – otherwise known as “Battleship Island”. Gang-ok and Sohee are separated with Gang-ok stripped of his musical instruments and Sohee, who is only a child, carted off with the other women destined for the “comfort station”.

Ryoo wastes little time demonstrating the immense evil buried in places like Hashima. A deep seam coal mine in the middle of the sea, the island is a fortress prison from which escape is impossible. Early on, three small boys decide to flee after their friend is killed in a cave-in only for one to be shot and the other two drowned by the lazy soldiers of a Japanese patrol boat who couldn’t be bothered to fish them out of the water. The miners are beaten, starved, tortured and manipulated into submission knowing that capitulation is their best route to survival. Not only are these men the subjects of forced labour, they are also made liable for the “costs” involved in their own enslavement with the bill for their transportation, food, clothes, and tools deducted from their “wages” which are supposed to be paid into their bank accounts for access on release. Those killed whilst working are supposed to receive compensation for their families but as will later be revealed, systematic corruption means their families may not even know their loved ones are dead let alone that they are being denied the money rightfully owed to them.

Things get even worse for little Sohee who is forced into a kimono and smothered with makeup to “entertain” some of the Japanese officers on the island. She manages to buy herself some time when she realises the Korean record the camp commander puts on to “comfort” the “comfort women” is one she is actually singing on. This new discovery earns her and her father a slightly improved status in the camp though she may not be safe for long. Gang-ok has already reverted to his tried and tested methods for getting out of sticky situations, making himself a kind of camp fixer aided by his ability to speak Japanese.

The Korean prisoners are represented by a former resistance leader, Yoon Hak-chul (Lee Kyoung-young), who offers rousing speeches in public but privately is not quite all he seems. Gang-ok gets himself mixed up in a Resistance operation run by an OSS (Song Joong-ki) plant on site to rescue Yoon who eventually uncovers several inconvenient truths which make his mission something of a non-starter. Yoon’s empty rhetoric and self serving grandeur represent the worst of the spiritual crimes discovered on Hashima but there is equal ire for the turncoat Koreans who act as enforcers for the Japanese, issuing beatings and siding with their oppressors in the desperation to escape their oppression. Tragically believing themselves to have switched sides, the turncoats never realise that the Japanese hold them in even lower regard than those they have betrayed.

It is hard to avoid the obvious nationalistic overtones as the Japanese remain a one dimensional evil, smirking away as they run roughshod over human rights, prepare to barter little girls and send boys into dangerous potholes all in the name of industry. At one point Gang-ok cuts an Imperial Japanese flag in half to make the all important ramp which will help the captive Koreans escape the island before being summarily murdered to destroy evidence of Japanese war crimes which is a neat kind of visual symbolism, but also very on the nose. Once again, the message is that Koreans can do impossible things when they work together, as the impressively staged, horrifically bloody finale demonstrates, but as Ryoo also reminds us there no “heroes”, only ordinary people doing the best they can in trying times. 

Currently on limited UK cinema release!

Original trailer (English subtitles)