I Can Speak (아이 캔 스피크, Kim Hyun-seok, 2017)

I Can Speak posterGenre in Korean cinema has always been a more fluid affair than it might be elsewhere, but careering from zany generational comedy to affecting historical drama is perhaps a bold choice. I Can Speak (아이 캔 스피크) is, in many ways, the story of an old woman’s personal revolution as she finds herself repurposing her “Goblin Granny” credentials to pursue justice for a great evil she spent a lifetime hiding from, but it’s also an unabashedly political attack on a legacy of unresolved national trauma. Nevertheless, despite its slightly awkward straddling of cheeky comedy and heartrending melodrama, I Can Speak does at least manage to lay bare a series of entrenched social problems affecting all areas of modern Korean society while also making a fairly uncontroversial (at home at least) political point.

Park Min-jae (Lee Je-hoon) has just transferred to the local council offices in a rundown area of Seoul. Seeing as he’s new and very by the book, he doesn’t know that everyone in the office is terrified of “Goblin Granny” (Na Moon-hee)  – an old woman who turns up every single day with a list of complaints and things around the neighbourhood that could do with being fixed. Min-jae, unaware of Goblin Granny’s fortitude, attempts to deal with her complaints in a bureaucratic manner. He is no match for Ok-boon’s bloodymindedness, but his straightforward approach eventually earns her respect.

Ok-boon is the sort of old woman familiar to many municipal offices in that she is essentially lonely and comes in to complain about things just to make her presence felt. She does have a few friends, however – one being the lady who runs the local convenience store, and the other a woman of around her own age who can speak fluent English. Ok-boon decides she ought to learn English too and enrols in an expensive cram school but is abruptly kicked out of the class which is almost entirely filled with youngsters because of her old lady ways. On the way out, however, she runs into Min-jae who was there to check that his extremely high TOEIC scores were still valid. Ok-boon manages to talk Min-jae into giving her English lessons in return for decreasing the burden on the municipal offices by making fewer complaints.

I Can Speak begins firmly in the realms of bureaucratic comedy as the council workers find themselves cowering in front of Goblin Granny while simultaneously enjoying their cushy jobs for life which require almost no effort in their daily activities. Some in the community assume Ok-boon is a horrible old busybody who likes making trouble and pulling other people up on their various social failings but her community patrols come from a good place. The woman who runs a small stall in the market assumes Ok-boon reported her to the police for selling alcohol to a minor but that’s not the sort of thing that Ok-boon would think worth reporting, which is why she doesn’t think much of breaking city regulations to enjoy a drink outside her friend’s shop. Everything she reports is because she genuinely worries someone may get hurt and her main area of concern is with the strange goings on around the market which is earmarked for “regeneration”. Her concerns are not unfounded as she discovers when she overhears some of the council workers talking about taking backhanders to push the redevelopment through while making use of “external labour” in the form of shady gangsters tasked with clearing the area so the ordinary people who live in the old fashioned neighbourhood will consent to quietly move away. Perhaps because no one ever stood up for her, or because she’s sick of being pushed around, Ok-boon is not going to go quietly nor is she going to allow any of her friends to be taken away without a fight.

Ok-boon is perhaps attempting to fight something else, something she has been afraid to revisit for most of her life. The fact is that Ok-boon was one of many Korean women forcibly abducted by the Japanese army at the end of the Second World War and subjected to heinous, inhuman treatment as sex slave in one of the many “comfort woman stations” which existed throughout Japanese occupied territory. After the war, she was disowned by her family who saw only shame in her suffering and insisted she tell no one what had happened in fear of damaging her family’s reputation. One of the reasons Ok-boon wants to learn English is to be able to talk to her little brother again who she has not seen since they were children and has apparently forgotten how to speak Korean after spending a lifetime in the US.

English does however give her back something that she’d lost in the form of a familial relationship with the otherwise closed off Min-jae who is also raising a teenage brother (Sung Yoo-bin) following the death of their parents. It is true enough that it is sometimes easier to talk about painful things in a second language – something Min-jae demonstrates when he shifts into English to talk about his mother’s death. Abandoning Korean allows Ok-boon to begin dismantling the internalised shaming which has kept her a prisoner all these years, too afraid to talk about what happened in the war in case she be rejected all over again. Her worst fears seem to have come true when her old friends learn about her past, but what they feel for her is empathy rather than shame, hurt that Ok-boon was never able to confide in them and unsure what it is they should say to her now.

Ok-boon learns that she “can speak” – not only English but that she has the right to talk about all the things that happened to her and the long-lasting effect they have had on her life, that she has nothing to be ashamed of and has a responsibility to ensure nothing like this ever happens again. English becomes a bridge not only between her past and future, but across cultures and eras as she finds herself bonding with a Dutch woman giving a testimony much similar to her own and receiving the same kind of ignorant, offensive questions from the American law makers as well as cruel taunts from a very undiplomatic Japanese delegation. Undoubtedly, the final sequence is a very pointed, almost propagandistic attack on persistent Japanese intransigence but then its central tenet is hard to argue with. Tonally uneven, and perhaps guilty of exploiting such a sensitive issue for what is otherwise a standard old lady regains her mojo comedy, I Can Speak is an affecting, if strange affair, which nevertheless makes a virtue of learning to find the strength to stand up for others even if it causes personal pain.


I Can Speak screens at the New York Asian Film Festival on 12th July, 6.30pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles/captions)

Spirits’ Homecoming (귀향, Cho Jung-rae, 2016)

sprits-homecomingOf all the awful things that happened in the middle part of the 20th century, the trafficking, incarceration, enslavement and forced prostitution of women and girls from across Asia (including at least 65 Dutch women in what is now known as Indonesia) who were abducted for use as “comfort women” by the Japanese military remains one of the least discussed and most controversial. The issue (arguably) runs most deeply in Korea which had been experiencing a prolonged and often brutal era of colonial rule even prior to the intensification of hostilities in the early 1940s. The torment these women faced did not end with the ceasefire as entrenched social attitudes left them not only with a lifetime of physical and psychological trauma but also internalised shame which made it difficult for them to talk about their experiences even to those closest to them. Now more than ever, it is important that this story be told and the long suffering of these women, many of whom are no longer with us, is finally acknowledged.

In 1943, fourteen year old Jung-min (Kang Hana) is an only child living with her cheerful father and stern mother somewhere in rural Korea. Energetic and headstrong, Jung-min thinks it sport to take a handmade amulet from one of her friends in a game despite her friend’s obvious distress. This earns her another switch beating from her disappointed mother who, regretfully, later makes her a similar amulet of her own. However, the amulet does Jung-min little good in the short term as the soldiers finally arrive and take her away with them to an uncertain destination.

Packed into a freight train with other similarly aged girls in the same situation, Jung-min is able to keep her cool and bonds with the girl next to her, Young-hee (Seo Mi-ji), who is already physically ill aside from the additional stress. Far from the shoe factory one of the girls had imagined, this collection of children is bound for a military brothel where they will be required to speak only Japanese, remaining within their tiny rooms which store only a mattress and water bucket, and endure repeated rape and violence at the hands of their captors.

Running parallel to the 1943 narrative is a jump forward to 1991 around the time in which the government finally decides to address the comfort woman issue with calls for registration so that all women affected may apply for any available compensation. Young-ok (Son Sook), now an older woman making a living from textiles and sewing amulets just like Jung-min’s, is only one of these women. Through her friendship with a shaman and her protege Eun-kyung (Choi Ri), Young-ok finds her thoughts returning to the past once again.

The younger Koreans of 1943 had known only the Japanese occupation, were educated in Japanese, and had been taught that they were “true countrymen” as one Jung-min’s friends puts it. Jung-min’s carefree, rural town is almost untouched by politics as Korean is spoken freely, folk traditions permitted, Arirang sung in the fields, and teenage girls wander around freely with no one to say to much about it. All this ends one day when the soldiers arrive, forcibly abducting Jung-min and any other young woman in the area without even a word of explanation to their parents or families. Despite the gradual erosion of their cultural identity, these women are now members of a subjugated nation so far below those of mainland birth that they barely qualify as people at all.

The treatment that these women undergo, many of them only children, is truly horrific from repeated rape to physical violence, starvation, and the ever present threat of death. Only Japanese is to be spoken in the camp which houses women and girls from both Korea and China, watched over by a Korean middle man and a Japanese madam. Allowed out of their fetid rooms for brief periods of respite (or later different kinds of work) the girls attempt to make the most of things, singing folk songs and remembering happier times. There is no real possibility of escape other than that found by one of the girls who has already gone mad after one of the visiting troops brought her own brother with it.

Indeed, there is no true escape even after the war’s end. Seeing the testimony of another former comfort woman on the television and hearing news of the programme to register women affected by wartime atrocity both for purposes of research and possible compensation, Young-ok is motivated to speak out. When she approaches a young man at the post-office to ask for the relevant forms, her nerves fail her, only to overhear the behind the counter conversation about the comfort women programme. It seems, there have been no claimants so far. The man behind the desk is unsurprised but also childishly amused. “You’d have to be some kind of loony to come out with all that kind of thing” he says, “it’s a bit…well…isn’t it?”. Not only have these women suffered immense physical and psychological trauma, they’ve also been forced into internalised shame thanks to conservative social attitudes regarding purity and surrender.

In this way, Spirits’ Homecoming (귀향, Kwihyang) stops being about Japan and Korea but becomes a wider commentary about the place of women in society and, more specifically, what happens to women in time of war. Many of the soldiers remark that the girls remind them of their sisters, yet they still go ahead with the things they do, treating these women as little more than receptacles for the fluids of their lust and rage, not much more sentient than a metal bucket. The Japanese soldiers are fairly one dimensional in their evilness, save for one who has the courage to say no, but his decision to help the girls brings only disaster for all, himself included. Berated as “bitches” for the Japanese army, the girls are denied any kind of agency and, should they outlive their usefulness, are taken off to a “better place” which smacks of the old lie told to children whose beloved dog has been taken to live a happier life “on a farm”.

Nothing can be said or done to repair what was done to these young women or return any of the things which were taken from them, but at least in telling their story there can be a kind of restitution and an end to the ongoing shame which continues to engulf their lives even though they themselves were always blameless. In reality many of these girls never got to come home, a fact which the shamanistic rites at the film’s conclusion intend to rectify, allowing Young-ok a chance to reconnect with a fallen friend whose spirit is finally guided homeward to the peaceful family life of the pre-war years. A necessarily difficult watch, Spirits’ Homecoming is a sensitive treatment of its horrific subject matter which, even if edging towards the sentimental, is resolutely unafraid to lay bare the degree of suffering inflicted on these women not only during the wartime years but throughout the rest of their lives.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Familyhood (굿바이 싱글, Kim Tae-gon, 2016)

familyhoodThere are three kinds of actors – those who wait for roles, those who choose roles, and those who make roles for themselves. Ageing actress Go Ju-yeon (Kim Hye-soo) claims to be the third type, but at any rate she’s currently between gigs and facing professional scandals and personal crises from each and every direction. An unusual family drama, Familyhood (굿바이 싱글, Gotbai Singkeul, AKA Goodbye Single) is the coming of age story of a middle aged woman finally forced into adulthood through an unlikely friendship with a pregnant teenage girl.

A veteran TV star of over twenty years, Go Ju-yeon is perhaps better known for her scandalous relationships with younger men than her onscreen performance. Having worked hard to get where she is, perhaps Ju-yeon is entitled to play the diva, but her “difficult” personality alienates all but her most loyal staff. However, there’s one thing Ju-yeon has been missing – a traditional family life with a loving husband and children. She thinks her latest boyfriend, Ji-hoon (Kwak Si-yang),  a fellow TV star twelve years her junior, may the “the one”, but as it turns out he’s a no good two timing louse using her for her money and star status.

Heartbroken Ju-yeon swears off men forever and decides to buy herself a slice of unconditional love by becoming a mother. Turned down for an adoption because of her obvious unsuitability as evidenced by her appearances in the tabloids and by the fact that she just made this decision a few seconds ago, Ju-yeon figures it’s worth the nine month waiting period to do things the old fashioned way. Unfortunately she’s left it too late as a doctor’s appointment reveals she’s already heading into the menopause. Ju-yeon’s luck changes when she comes to the rescue of a teenage mother in the lift when a more conservative family decides it’s OK to lay into a vulnerable child they don’t even know.

Ju-yeon hits on an idea – buy the girl’s baby and raise it as her own. Dan-ji (Kim Hyun-soo) is an orphan living with her tough as nails older sister so it doesn’t take her long to agree to Ju-yeon’s suggestion even if she has her misgivings. Coming with her own contract prepared detailing her monetary compensation, Dan-ji has given this a lot more thought than the mother in waiting Ju-yeon but a sisterly bond eventually begins to develop between the two women despite the clear instruction to avoid getting attached. However, as Dan-ji’s presence begins to reinvigorate her fortunes, Ju-yeon begins to forget about her original career/romance replacer mission and has less and less time for the surrogate teenage daughter she irresponsibly promised to take care of.

Having lost her mother at a young age and spent all of her adult life in the pampered showbiz arena, Ju-yeon is a forty year old awkward woman child with a severe case of tunnel vision. As Dan-ji points out, Ju-yeon is a pure hearted sort but she’s also selfish and immature, jumping from one thing to the next and never stopping to consider the effect of her actions on those around her. Ju-yeon’s decision to become a mother is a similarly rash and selfish one as she only considers the upside of the boundless love she’s about to receive from this tiny bundle who is duty bound to love her, whilst failing to think about the practicalities of child rearing from the impact on her career and social life to the negative publicity she will receive as a single mother in a still relatively conservative society.

It’s these kinds of double standards which the film seems to want to lay bare as Ju-yeon attempts to come to the rescue of Dan-ji, albeit for selfish motives. Dan-ji, planning to get an abortion, has told no one other than her best friend about the pregnancy and is worried about the school finding out, not least because she is their representative at an inter school art contest. The boy who fathered her child had the temerity to ask if it was his before stealing a ring belonging to his mother to pay for an abortion. He is now off on an international golfing trip representing the country, but Dan-ji is imprisoned, kept out of sight so that Ju-yeon can claim the child is hers. Ju-yeon and Dan-ji first meet when Ju-yeon takes a smug family to task over their decision to loudly criticise Ju-yeon for her “immoral” ways in a hospital lift. After a long journey Ju-yeon will do the same again, only more loudly and even help to win over a few supporters from the collection of conservative mothers waiting for their kids after the art contest.

Kim creates a cosy world filled with calming pastel colours almost as if Ju-yeon really does live in a nursery. Ju-yeon wants to be a mother but still needs mothering herself and mostly gets it from her best friend and stylist Pyung-gu (Ma Dong-seok). Despite vowing to look after Dan-ji at least until her baby is born, it’s Dan-ji who mostly ends up looking after Ju-yeon, providing comfort and comparatively grown up advice whilst Ju-yeon mopes and eats ice-cream. Only when her schemes backfire and Ju-yeon faces losing everything does she finally begin to realise how she’s taken the people in her life for granted. What emerges is a new kind of family in which good friends enjoy food together because they want to eat rather than because someone insisted on cooking. Taking in everything from the ageist sexism of the entertainment industry to teenage pregnancy and neglected children, Kim Tae-gon’s Familyhood is a smart, socially conscious comedy making a heartfelt plea for a more understanding world.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)