On the Line (보이스, Kim Gok & Kim Sun, 2021)

“Voice phishing is all about empathy” according to the sociopathic villain at the centre of Kim Gok & Kim Sun’s crime thriller On the Line (보이스, Voice), ironically hinting at his heartless greed leveraging as he admits people’s fear and hope against them and actively revelling in their misery. The Korean title, Voice, hints at the nebulous quality of the scam that in the end a reassuring voice is all people fall for but at the same time there is indeed a lot on the line not least for the embattled hero fighting back against the corruptions of contemporary capitalism.

Former policeman Seo-joon (Byun Yo-han) is currently working a job in construction after being forced out of the police when one of his investigations implicated the son of a prominent person. Finally starting to get back on his feet, he’s offered a big promotion by his supportive boss and is about to buy a house with his wife Miyeon (Won Jin-A) but then everything starts to go wrong. A potential accident threatens Seo-joon’s new sense of success while unbeknownst to him, Miyeon is currently on the phone with a man claiming to be a lawyer friend of his who tells her that he’s been arrested because of a fatality on site but if she sends the lawyer money for a “settlement” Seo-joon will be released with no further consequences. Unable to get in touch with her husband and fooled by number spoofing when she tries to call the site, Miyeon takes out the money intended to pay the deposit on the house and hands it over only realising her mistake when the scammers turn off the jammers they’d hidden at the construction site and Seo-joon rings her back to find out what’s wrong. So shocked is she that gets hit by a car and is in hospital in a coma when Seo-joon learns that his boss got scammed too and has taken his own life in shame in having lost so much money meant for his employees. 

As the open intertitles relate, voice phishing telephone fraud is a rising problem which aside from landing its victims in inescapable debt can ruin lives and relationships not to mention cause intense feelings of humiliation which lead those affected to consider harming themselves. Using vast data sets often fraudulently obtained, the scammers are able to perfectly profile their victims who as the villainous Gwak (Kim Mu-yeol) points out are already living in the “hell” of the contemporary society amid employment and financial crises that leave them feeling desperate enough for help that they don’t ask too many questions of a friendly voice on the phone. The workers at the vast call centre in China operated by gangster Cheon (Park Myung-hoon) are all Korean and many of them pressed by debts some of them even scam victims themselves so damaged by the internecine assault of contemporary capitalism as to have given in and agreed to ruin others just as they have already been ruined.

Seo-joon’s primary goal is to get his money back with a little revenge on the side as he takes the police to task and then leads them by the nose to the gang’s base in China, all that time in construction standing him in good stead as he climbs through lift shafts and ventilation ducts trying to expose the scammers and bring them to justice. The police force is first seen to be hamstrung by the high-tech nature of the case while their hands are tied because the gang is operating out of a foreign sovereign nation but are then kicked into gear by super cop Seo-joon who ironically can act with less restraint for no longer being an official law enforcement officer. 

Even so, it becomes clear this kind of crime isn’t going away even if this particular gang is taken down because the most valuable commodity in the world of today is personal data and there’s more and more of that available with every passing second. There is indeed a lot on the line not least the nature of the contemporary society dragged ever further into a spiralling race to the bottom, the effects of an exploitative social system from the abuse of migrant workers to the anxiety of high unemployment rates and poor working conditions simply more tools to be manipulated by scammers promising a helping hand with a reassuring voice on the phone telling you they have the solution to all your problems but this too involves a small fee, just a tiny investment in your future you’d be foolish not to make. A timely condemnation of the amoral venality of contemporary capitalism, Kim & Kim’s steely thriller sends its hero on a quest for justice both personal and societal while pursuing the duplicitous voices all the way to the end of the line. 


On the Line screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley, San Diego April 22 & 25 as part of this year’s SDAFF Spring Showcase.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Search Out (서치 아웃, Kwak Jung, 2020)

A trio of disillusioned youngsters kick back against Hell Joseon by chasing down an internet serial killer in Kwak Jung’s dark cyber thriller, Search Out (서치 아웃). As the title implies, the three are each looking for something to tell them that they still have time, their dreams are still achievable, and their lives are worth living, yet as they discover there are those keen to convince them otherwise including a mysterious online presence who seemingly takes advantage of those already in despair and pushes them towards a dark and irreversible decision. 

The hero, Jun-hyeok (Kim Sung-cheol), is currently job hunting while working part-time in a convenience store. His best friend, Seong-min (Lee Si-eon) is desperate to join the police force but having trouble passing the civil service exams. To pass the time, Jun-hyeok also does odd jobs for people who need help under the pseudonym “Genie” via his social media accounts, but when he’s unexpectedly approached by a woman in the same boarding house who tells him that she’s in a dark place and needs someone to talk to, he turns her down out of embarrassment afraid that his “real” identity might be exposed and ashamed to admit that “Genie” is just regular guy who can’t get a job. Unfortunately, however, the young woman is later found dead in an apparent suicide. 

Consumed with guilt, Jun-hyeok tries to ease his conscience but accidentally stumbles across a weird account the young woman had been interacting with shortly before she died. “Ereshkigal” asks all the wrong questions of those already in a dark place, probing them about the meaning of life and whether their lives are really worth living before, as Jun-hyeok later realises, blackmailing them into completing various “missions”. Paradoxically, Jun-hyeok’s quest to stop the mysterious online threat is partly a way of absolving himself of guilt while simultaneously fighting back against those same feelings of despair that he too feels as a young man who can’t seem to get his foot on the ladder, rudely insulted by a cocky high school kid for being an “adult” still doing a student’s job. 

Seong-min feels much the same, indulging his love of justice as a man who just wants to protect and serve and feels it’s unfair he’s being prevented from doing so because he struggles with paperwork when his true strengths lie in the field. Turning to a private detective when the police won’t listen to them, the guys team up with frustrated hacker Noo-rie (Heo Ga-yoon) who like them also feels as if she’s stagnating, slumming it with a shady job at the detective agency when she obviously has major IT skills. A psychiatrist Jun-hyeok meets through his Genie job warns them that the killer may be leveraging his victims’ feelings of despair to convince them that the only way to escape suffering is through death. Despite himself, it’s a sentiment that Jun-hyeok can well understand. 

Like other young people his age, he attempts to mask his sense of loneliness through social media, another weakness the killer sees fit to exploit. Yet as a potential suspect later points out, “it’s fun to peek at others’ private lives” exposing himself as a banal voyeur while simultaneously revealing the unexpected vulnerability of those who live online. In any case, the final revelations are perhaps expected, and not, in the way they bare out the inequalities of the contemporary Korean society. Jun-hyeok starts to wonder if it really was all his fault from the very beginning as his own not quite innocent but largely accidental moment of social media notoriety may have had unintended, unforeseen consequences even as he sought a kind of justice in exposing wrongdoing by the rich and powerful. 

Nevertheless, as Seong-min is fond of saying, “you must do what’s right. You must bring justice”. Others might argue that it’s “natural to kill others to survive”, but the trio at least prefer mutual solidarity as they work together to take down the killer while fighting their own demons along with the continued indifference of the authorities which are supposed to protect them. Partly a treatise on why you should be more careful about what you post online and how you interact with others in general, Kwak’s steely thriller is also a story of three young people searching out a reason to live and finding it largely in each other as they come to an acceptance of life’s ambiguities but also of their right to define them for themselves. 


Search Out streams in the US March 24 – 28 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Fengshui (명당, Park Hee-gon, 2018)

FengShui poster 1A would-be-dynast gets overly involved with a weird spiritualist and almost (?) ruins the nation. Does that sound a little familiar? As metaphors go, it might be a stretch but then so much of Park Hee-gon’s Fengshui (명당, Myeong-dang) is just that. Set in the late 19th century, Park’s film is the third in a loose trilogy themed around Korean fortune telling traditions (following The Face Reader, and The Princess and the Matchmaker), but rather than questioning the efficacy of its art asks a series of questions about its application and the internecine lengths those who lust for power or otherwise feel themselves unfairly oppressed will go to to reclaim their rightful position.

Our hero, unwisely honest fengshui master Jae-sang (Cho Seung-woo), is the only one brave enough to point out that the site chosen for the burial of the late king is cursed, but inevitably he is ignored. He is of course right, which means he must be eliminated which is why a troop of soldiers working for the nefarious Kim clan show up and burn his house down, executing his wife and child by the sword when they manage to escape. 13 years later, he finds his expertise called on again when the weak and inexperienced king begins to suspect the Kim clan is plotting against him and that their shenanigans over his father’s grave may have something to do with it.

Like any typical Korean period drama, Fengshui is chiefly concerned with palace intrigue, only this intrigue is stranger than most in its bizarre obsession with the possibilities of manipulating spiritual power through acquiring “auspicious” land for whichever purpose one might wish from conceiving an heir to making sure your line holds power. The Kims are convinced they can win the throne (if by proxy) through digging up their ancestors and replanting them in more advantageous places only to discover that the grass is (literally) always greener. Still, they will stop at nothing from outright murder to psychological game playing in order to manipulate the teenage king into acting as their puppet.

One might ask themselves what the point is, what’s so great about being king anyway? The actual king might say not much, as he discovers himself a humiliated, hollow figure who wields no real power seeing as his soldiers seem set to side with Kim. Heungseon (Ji Sung), however, his “cheerful” uncle might feel differently after experiencing a lifetime of just the same. Forced to prance about doing party tricks for the Kims, barking and eating scraps from the floor like a mangy dog, he might say that being king is the only way to reclaim your self-respect and ensure you will never be at the mercy of ruthless men ever again.

The real key, however, is presented at the end when Jae-sang and his money loving friend Yong-shik (Yoo Jae-myung) are visited some years later by two men in suits who want to know the best place to start a military school to train Independence fighters. Jae-sang, having vowed to stop looking for places to bury people so he can find one to save them, is only too happy to oblige and even comes up with the name “Shinheung Military Academy” (a real school which is also, quite bizarrely, the subject of a smash hit musical). The point is further brought home with Kim’s descendent standing next to a family grave and lamenting that it can’t have been auspicious enough because they’ve lost all their power since the Japanese arrived. The subtext seems to be that feudal corruption and a subversion of traditional values such as ancestor worship and filial piety contributed to the gradual weakening of the Korean state which was plagued by insecure kings and political finagling until finally “sold” to foreign powers in the early 20th century.

Indeed, the ambitious usurpers eventually burn the soul of Korea in order to ensure their own, or rather their children’s, futures even at the expense of their nation’s. Literally fighting over a grave, the elites waste their time on pointless, internecine dynastic squabbling while ordinary people continue to suffer. Jae-sang, having given up on his own petty quest for revenge, comes to the conclusion that all this looking back is a waste of time when what they should be thinking about is the future – not burying things, but planting them. It is a good lesson, but, Park seems to suggest, perhaps one that has not yet been fully learned.


Screened as the latest teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival. The next teaser screening, Zhang Lu’s Ode to the Goose, takes place on 19th August at Picturehouse Central.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Running Wild (야수, Kim Sung-soo, 2006)

Running wild posterHeroic bloodshed meets corruption drama in the retro debut feature from Kim Sung-soo (b. 1971 – not to be confused with the director of Beat/Asura), Running Wild (야수, Yasu). Over the top macho action mingles with saccharine family drama as two seemingly very different law enforcement officials realise they aren’t that different after all as their relentless pursuit of a mob boss turned “legitimate businessman” with political aspirations becomes increasingly intense. Filled with typically 70s touches from split screens to zooms and descents into ridiculous displays of male aggression set against the pounding rhythms of an action score, Running Wild is a story of the law on fire but one which never quite knows which side it’s on.

Straight-laced prosecutor Oh (Yoo Ji-tae) has been slumming it in the boonies for the last few years after his attempt to bring down top gangster Yoo Kang-jin (Son Byong-ho) was derailed because of the dirt Yoo has on a selection of important people. Stopping only to take out a local big wig mobster, Oh is finally on his way back to Seoul with settling scores firmly on his mind. Meanwhile, maverick cop Jang (Kwon Sang-woo) collects his younger half-brother from jail and takes him to see their seriously ill mother in hospital. While Jang is busy meticulously filling in a lottery ticket, Dong-jik (Lee Joong-moon) is knifed by his old buddies and so Jang now has his own score to settle with the Dokang family.

Eventually teaming up to take down their common enemy, Jang and Oh have very different approaches to law enforcement. Oh hates the likes of Yoo because they break the social order while Yoo is a bully who profits from the suffering of others and laughs at the likes of Oh while he does it. Oh believes in the supremacy of the law, that the law is his greatest weapon and the one unassailable force that even men like Yoo will eventually have to submit to. Yoo feels differently. For Yoo the law is an irrelevance or even a symbol of other men’s naivety; he will overcome it and live outside of its control.

While Oh pins his hopes on the proper operation of the law, Jang pins his on his fists. Flailing wildly, Jang is more thug than cop – urging Oh to abandon his ridiculous righteousness and do what it takes to take the bad guys down even if that means planting evidence and beating information out of suspects. He is a classic angry man, frustrated by his powerlessness in the face of his mother’s illness and his inability to protect his makeshift family. Blaming himself for Dong-jik’s death and for failing to prevent his flirtation with criminality, Jang spars with his step-sister, half rejecting her role as primary care-giver to the mother he can’t save and part longing to see her as a true and permanent member of the family which constantly eludes him.

Family becomes a recurrent theme as both Jang and Oh ruin their respective relationships through their unconventional working lives. Despite finally getting back to Seoul, Oh’s wife plans to leave the husband whose obsession with his work, or more particularly his vendetta with Yoo, has consumed him while Jang’s family life remains a total mess. Yoo, by contrast, now a legitimised CEO playing golf with the rich and famous, enjoys lovely family meals with his elegantly dressed wife and cute little children who seem to adore him.

The law, it seems, is not robust enough to withstand the finagling of the corrupt criminal class who ride the waves of their power and influence all the way to the top. Oh steps further towards the edges of his noble goal, at which point he has to admit his quest is also one of personal revenge more than of truth or justice. Both men ruin themselves in stupid acts of self destruction, turning themselves into grenades thrown against a regime content to protect its inherent injustices. Running Wild, the pair fight fire with fire but also become victims of the system which oppresses them. Kim piles on the retro style but lets the old fashioned heroics run away from him abetted by the bombastic Kenji Kawai score. Nevertheless, Running Wild is a stylish enough calling card even if its aesthetics trump its sincerity.


Currently streaming on Netflix UK (and possibly other territories)

Original trailer (English subtitles)