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

Tunnel (터널, Kim Seong-hun, 2016)

TunnelIn 1925 an avid cave explorer, Floyd Collins, became trapped in a narrow crawl space. Though he was discovered and help came with food and water, a cave in left him sealed off down there and fourteen days later he died of thirst and exposure. As tragic as this obviously is, Floyd Collins is remembered for another reason – his rescue became one of the earliest mass media crazes. The surrounding media furore also inspired the 1951 Billy Wilder classic Ace in the Hole in which a grizzled reporter attempts to manipulate the fate of a man trapped in a cave for the maximum media coverage with the consequence that his delays cost the man his life. Jung-soo, a father on his way home with a birthday cake for his young daughter is about to join the marooned underground club when a shoddily built tunnel collapses sealing him inside. Unfortunately for Jung-soo, he finds that times have not changed all that much.

Jung-soo (Ha Jung-woo) was having a good day. He’d closed an important deal and has a birthday cake in the back of his car ready for his little girl when he gets home. He also ends up with two free bottles of water for not making a fuss when a hard of hearing old timer working at the petrol station gives him a full tank rather the $30’s worth he’d asked for. It all comes crashing down, literally, when he starts hearing strange noises shortly after entering a newly completed tunnel. Driving as fast as he can, Jung-soo is still trapped under falling debris and unable to escape though otherwise uninjured. Luckily, Jung-soo’s phone still works and he’s able to get enough signal to dial the emergency services but as he’ll discover, the matter of coming to his rescue may not be as straightforward as one might hope.

Just before Jung-soo heads into the tunnel which has only been open for around a month, there’s a sign testifying to happy and safe construction. It transpires that the tunnel was completed far too quickly, corners were cut, and public safety not properly respected. Corporate corruption and margin squeezing become a constant theme as more and more faults are discovered with the tunnel’s structure right down to missing manuals and incorrect blueprints. As one sardonic construction worker puts it, who follows the rules these days anyway? In light of recent tragedies, the government can no longer be trusted to assure public safety by insuring that its infrastructure, and the third party companies which run it, are fit for purpose and operating in line with public safety standards. The fact is that the construction of the sister tunnel to this one is already underway and there have also been hundreds of other recorded safety incidents in other facilities around the country. Construction means jobs, and money, and progress – who would want to let a little thing like safety stand in the way?

If money grabbing culture and government laissez-faire are two of the greatest evils, the third leg of the tripod is mass communications who see only the story and not the human. In fact, the first people to call Jung-soo back after his emergency call are the reporters parked in their van directly outside the tunnel’s entrance. Even Jung-soo’s wife, Se-hyun (Bae Doona), only discovers her husband’s fate from a TV displaying breaking news at a supermarket. Once she drops everything to get to him, she’s quickly trotted out for endless photo-ops with government officials and rescue workers to sell the story that the entire country is behind Jung-soo in his horrendous ordeal and working hard to get him out of there. The mouth of the tunnel is now a media circus as reporters parasitically dig in, raking up whatever kind of news they can spin for good copy. When it looks like Jung-soo may be rescued, one reporter even seems upset that he hasn’t quite broken the record set by the survivors of the Sampoong Department Store collapse in 1995 (notably also directly caused by corporate greed).

Jung-soo himself accepts his situation with a stoic calmness. Sensibly rationing out his water and battery life on his cellphone, he beds in for the long haul. Before long, the TV news has even declared him a national hero for maintaining his compassionate humanity even in the face of crisis. More resourceful than most, Jung-soo is making the best of things when all he can do is wait, hoping that the authorities will finally come to his rescue. Unfortunately the authorities he’s waiting on are largely the same ones responsible for this entire mess and aside from the valiant commander of the rescue squad Dae-kyoung (Oh Dal-su) are more interested in being able to resume construction on the sister tunnel (which involves more of the blasting that may have destabilised the tunnel in first place) and deflecting the embarrassment of this high profile infrastructure project having gone so catastrophically wrong.

Kim Seong-hun keeps the tension high as Jung-soo fights for his life by simply trying to survive long enough for someone to reach him. Genuinely fraught and claustrophic, Tunnel is not without a healthy dose of black humour lightening the mood in even the bleakest of circumstances. The political subtext is refreshingly subtle yet perfectly clear as Jung-soo finds himself literally buried underneath a national scandal and branded an inconvenient truth by those whose interests lie in maintaining the illusion of compassionate government anchored by friendly corporations. Tense, thrilling, and frightening on more than one level, Tunnel is an unexpectedly thoughtful disaster movie detailing one good man’s struggles to escape from underneath the destruction caused by pervasive social ills.

US release trailer (English subtitles)

A Hard Day (끝까지 간다, Kim Sung-hoon, 2014)

2014 - A Hard Day (still 2)In an unprecedented level of activity, here is another review up on – 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!