Confession (자백, Yoon Jong-seok, 2022)

An accused man and the woman sent to defend him battle over the elusive nature of objective truth in Yoon Jong-seok’s steely psychological thriller, Confession (자백, Jabaek). A remake of the Spanish film Contratiempo, Confession is nevertheless the latest in a longline of Korean films critical of expanding chaebol culture and the utter entitlement of the elite who assume they have the right to do whatever they want because their money, status, and connections protect them from any potential consequences of their actions. Then again as the lawyer tells her client, salvation is never painless. 

Min-ho (So Ji-sub) had something of a golden life. Married to the daughter of the chairman of a large corporation, he was a rising star of cybersecurity who had even been named IT businessman of the year but was about to throw it all away through a lengthy affair with a woman, Se-hee (Nana), whom he has now been accused of killing. You’d have to admit, he had a motive and the circumstantial evidence against him is convincing yet Min-ho claims that he didn’t do it and there was a third party involved in this otherwise locked room mystery. 

Much of the film takes place in a claustrophobic wooden cabin in the woods all but cut off by heavy snow in which Min-ho has chosen retreat after his chairman father-in-law managed to get his arrest warrant canceled. What emerges is a psychological battle between Ms. Yang (Kim Yunjin), the fancy lawyer hired by the chairman, and Min-ho who have somewhat opposing goals. Min-ho wants her to sign the documents confirming her as his legal counsel and therefore making anything he might have said subject to privilege while she presses him for the location of vital evidence while trying to expose the objective truth behind Min-ho’s selective testimony. 

Neither of them are reliable narrators, Ms. Yang coming up with potential scenarios and at times implying she has evidence that she does not in order to push Min-ho towards revealing the facts of the case. As she says, a lawyer can only help you if you’ve been rigorously honest because she in turn needs to construct a narrative that can undercut the prosecution’s case. The truth might in one sense be irrelevant, as she implies when advising that they frame Se-hee as the villain suggesting that she orchestrated a plot to blackmail Min-ho over their affair in a mix of vengeance and greed when he decided to end their relationship because he could no longer bear the guilt of cheating on his wife. 

Yet there are further transgressions in Min-ho’s past aside from his affair and it’s the attempt to cover them up more than the affair itself which has landed him in so much trouble. As he tells the lawyer, he doesn’t just want to avoid prison but is set on total exoneration unwilling to accept any kind of responsibility for what is currently happening to him. Because of his wealth and status he believes he is not subject to the same laws as everyone else and that even if he had killed Se-hee as his lawyer is beginning to suspect, he would still not be guilty of any crime. “What’s important is to survive” he tells the lawyer revealing his inner ruthlessness along with the complacent reckless streak which might hinder her attempts to defend him. 

There’s no denying that the film’s earliest twists are obvious and heavily foreshadowed but like a seasoned lawyer it is also laying a trap that leaves its final revelations extremely satisfying in implying a kind of justice at least is possible in this inherently corrupt society where dodgy lawyers and elite privilege go hand in hand to destroy the lives of ordinary people. Dark in its implications, the cat and mouse game between lawyer and client who each lie in an attempt to expose the truth hints at the malleability of what is considered to be “true” in the way in which we all construct the narrative of our lives to suit ourselves while denying the realities of others. There may be no such thing as objective truth, but guilt and complacency will still come for you in the end. Visually referencing Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Yoon’s tense psychological drama is in its own way hopeful in its reeling conclusion even if as the lawyer says salvation is never painless. 


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

International trailer (English subtitles)

Be with You (지금 만나러 갑니다, Lee Jang-hoon, 2018)

be with you Korean posterWhen Nobuhiro Doi’s Be With You was released in 2004, it followed the even more popular Crying Out Love in the Centre of the World as the second in a wave of “jun-ai” or “pure love” romantic dramas in which the heroes and heroines struggle to move past romantic tragedy. Where Be With You differed from the genre norm was on its focus on a love that was already successful – the couple were older, had married, and even had a son before their happiness was taken from them by a cruel illness. Lee Jang-hoon, adapting the source novel by Takuji Ichikawa, shifts the setting to Korea but more or less follows Doi’s blueprint with a number of notable exceptions.

Rather than the framing sequence which kicks off the original, Lee opens with the beautifully illustrated picture book Soo-a (Son Ye-jin) made for her son shortly before she passed away. In the book a cute mummy penguin lives up above in Cloudland watching her baby through a crack in the clouds. When the rainy season arrives, the mummy penguin will be able to catch the Raindrop Train to come back to Earth, but before the summer ends she’ll have to return else she’ll lose her place among the clouds and won’t be able to watch over her son even from afar.

Little Ji-ho (Kim Ji-hwan) has taken the book to heart and really believes his mother will come back when the first rains fall. His father, Woo-jin (So Ji-sub), knows better but hasn’t the heart to tell his son that the book is just a story and that he will never see his mother again. Against the odds, Ji-ho and Woo-jin do indeed find a woman who looks exactly like Soo-a collapsed in an abandoned railway tunnel in the forest but she has no memory of her life as a wife and mother or of the family who’ve been patiently waiting for her return.

In contrast to her counterpart in Doi’s original, Son Ye-jin’s Soo-a is a much less passive presence, less inclined to simply go along with her new circumstances and keen to remind us that the decision to “work or lurk” is entirely her own. Likewise, Lee scales back on Woo-jin’s disability, rendering it far less visible than it had been in Doi’s adaptation. Bar some barbed comments from insensitive relatives at Soo-a’s funeral who question Woo-jin’s ability to raise his son alone, Woo-jin suffers little by the way of stigma regarding his medical condition though he does worry he might have embarrassed his son by pushing himself too hard at a school sports day and making himself ill in the process. Rather than the typical “jun-ai” selfish selflessness which caused the hero to breakup with his one true love out of a noble desire not to be a burden, Woo-jin’s decision is perhaps more out of pride and insecurity than it is out of misplaced consideration.

Nevertheless the timeless innocence of the couple’s early courtship (such as it was) retains its essential sweetness. As Soo-a can’t remember her romantic past, Woo-jin recounts his recollection of it to her in all its painful honesty, and in return later gets to hear her side of events thanks to the diary she left behind for him to read. Having met in high school, the pair entertained crushes on each other they assumed were unrequited, never quite working up the courage to declare themselves and squandering opportunities through nerves and awkwardness. Reliving their original romance the couple fall in love all over again only to be parted by a season’s end.

Yet it is familial love rather than the romantic which eventually takes centre stage as the love of Soo-a and Woo-jin envelops their son in something deeper and richer than your average tragic love story and becomes all the more poignant for it. Realising her time is short, Soo-a sets about teaching her husband and son how to live without her – showing Ji-ho how cook eggs, how to do the washing, how to keep the place tidy etc while giving them a few more happy memories to see them through and reminding them to take care of each other in her absence. Dreamlike and ethereal as Lee effortlessly blends one time period into another in a vast web of memory, Be With You is a heartbreaking drama in which a family must attempt to come to terms with irreparable loss through learning to treasure past happiness and living on in its memory.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Also screened as the first in a series of teaser screenings for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival. The next screening in the series will be Memoir of a Murderer on 21st May, Regent Street Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

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)

The Throne (사도, Lee Joon-Ik, 2015)

the throneWhich one is worse, the son who tries to kill his tyrannical father, or the tyrannical father who executes his own son and heir? A collection of sad stories all round, Lee Joon-ik’s The Throne (사도, Sado) is a historically inspired tale of familial conflict played out on a national stage. Where another nation might have entered into a bloody civil war, this very private tragedy keeps its bloodshed within the palace walls but still does not lack for cruelty.

Told in a non-linear fashion, The Throne takes inspiration from the 1762 incident in which the ageing King Yeongjo has the Crown Prince, his son later named Sado, executed in the most brutal of ways – confinement inside a heavy wooden rice chest placed inside the castle courtyard where he will be denied food and water until events take their natural course. In flashbacks we see that the king did love his son once but as the boy grew older and became something other than what his father desired of him, his love turned to disappointment and then to fear and disgust. The legends say that Sado was a madman – a murderer or deviant who needed to be eliminated, or just the victim of a conspiracy, but his anger with his father is easily understandable even if it hadn’t been for a seemingly crucial episode where he was forced to endure a feat of painful endurance which almost cost him his life and, perhaps, provoked something akin to madness.

Yeongjo is an austere man, devoted to scholarship. He began Sado’s kingly tutelage at just two years old but even if he was a bright little boy he eventually grew bored with his father’s educational regime of dull rote learning and constant tests preferring the relative freedom of outdoor life with swords and arrows and far less judgement. Sado likes to paint too, but this also falls under his father’s definition of pointless frivolity and so is just another thing which earns him nothing but disdain from the man who would make him king.

Things come to a head when Yeongjo suddenly declares he wants to retire as a ruler and abdicate in favour of his son who is anything but ready. Settling on a regency agreement sounds like the ideal compromise but turns out to be quite the reverse as Sado is merely a stooge for his father who only uses the situation to perpetually humiliate him in front of his courtiers. Sado himself has different ideas to his father about how things should be done in that his father’s emphasis on keeping peace at court had largely resulted in deferring to the more powerful lords at the expense of the poor which is one way to rule country, but perhaps also the most selfish.

When Sado has a son who seems to be everything his father isn’t, tension only rises as Yeongjo first rejects the boy as an infant only to later seek deposing his son in favour of his grandson. Simply put, Sado is now surplus to requirements and despised by his father who also happens to be the king so things are not looking good for him even if he hadn’t descended into a kind of madness which, like Hamlet, briefly cleared and allowed him to stay his hand rather than kill a king where compassion proved his weakness.

Added to the historical intrigue and the tragic misunderstandings between fathers and sons, The Throne adds in a comment on the vagaries of rigid social systems which set out correct and incorrect ways of living, even down to the the ties on the hem of a pair of trousers. Sado wasn’t cut out for his father’s life of dry book learning and calculated appeasement. He was an artist and an athlete – a man of action who might have made a fine king at any other time but could never have been what his father wanted him to be (which was essentially just another version of himself). Yet no deviation can be permitted in this extremely regimented kingly court where a single misspoken word or misplaced action can be enough to seal your fate.

When prompted for a kind of explanation at the end of the film, Sado repeats one of the teachings from his father’s books – that in the end laws and decorum are less important than the men that stand in front of them. He placed the man before the idea but was not rewarded with the same degree of feeling – only a cold and dispassionate application of the law. In part an exploration of a historical event which is both personal and national tragedy, Sado is the time old story of a father and son who are unable to understand each other, snatching only a few brief moments of connection before the inevitable separation. A partial posthumous pardon only serves to deepen the tragedy of a son driven mad by his father’s unpredictable cruelty and even if the film ends on a note of melancholy reconciliation with the past, the central message of fathers attempting to force their own world on their unwilling sons is one that rewrites itself with each passing generation.


Reviewed at a “teaser” screening for the London Korean Film Festival.