Office (오피스, Hong Won-chan, 2015)

office posterThe pressure cooker society threatens to explode in Hong Won-chan’s Office (오피스). The writer of recent genre hits The Chaser and The Yellow Sea, Hong has long experience of examining those living on the edge but in his directorial debut he takes things one step further in depicting an entire society running to keep up with itself, furiously chasing its own tail with barely suppressed rage. Not so much survival of the fittest as survival of the least scrupulous, the world of Office is the one in which the mad become the most sane, escaping the constraints of corporate oppression through social revenge but taking the innocent along with them.

Salaryman Byun-guk (Bae Seong-woo) has the soulless eyes of one whose dreams have already died. Dejectedly he sits alone at a coffee shop before cramming himself into the commuter train home where he sits, silently, among his busy family. They wonder why he hasn’t changed out of his suit, shed his corporate persona for his familial one, but when Byung-guk gets up he returns brandishing a hammer which he then, as if in a trance, uses to bludgeon to death his loving wife, disabled son, and senile mother.

Byun-guk flees the scene of crime and is loose somewhere in the city. The police search his office for clues but his colleagues have already come up with their unified version of events, keeping the company out of it by claiming that they all loved Byun-guk and are shocked that he could have done something so horrifying. Meanwhile, intern Mi-rae (Go Ah-sung), who regarded Byun-guk as her only friend in the office, is upset but perhaps not quite so shocked. Excluded from the interoffice cliquery, no one has thought to brief Mi-rae on the party line leaving her a prime target for police inspector Choi (Park Sung-woong).

Byun-guk and Mi-rae are two of a piece – members of the upright and hardworking lower classes who have done everything right but somehow have never been accepted by their peers. Mi-rae, an ordinary girl from Gwangju who worked to lose her accent in her teens dreaming of the high life in Seoul, is shy and mousy but works hard – harder than anyone, to prove herself worthy of Seoul’s unrealistic demands. Her colleagues, privileged, confident, and also harried, do not forgive her for this. They find her earnestness “creepy”, her desire to succeed “suspicious”. Cruelly taken down a peg or two by a colleague taking out her own frustrations on the office nobody, another tries to comfort her with some advice – don’t try so hard, you make us all look bad and we wonder what your need is hiding. Mi-rae isn’t really hiding anything save her slowly fragmenting mental state and the overwhelming need to be accepted to a club that, in truth, is not open to people like her who value their integrity and still believe deep down that working hard and being honest are the only paths to true success.

Korean society, it seems, has become a giant chain of screaming. Byun-guk has been repeatedly passed over for promotion despite being the most reliable employee in the office but his ineffectual boss is overly wedded to the shouting school of business management. Faced with results he doesn’t like, Byun-guk’s boss picks someone to shout at to make them better but offers no further guidance. Railing at the police for not doing their job as if screaming will some how provoke major results even outside of the office, the boss can’t know that police also have their own chain of screaming and Choi has his own boss already taking care of that side of things, demanding results rather than truth or justice.

The meek are taking their inheritance ahead of schedule, but their revenge is born both of societal corruption and rejection. People like Byun-guk and Mi-rae, who are quiet, honest, kind but perhaps not good with people, become the bugs in a system which simultaneously holds them up as essential cogs. Those who cannot just pretend, grease the wheels with superficial social niceties, and accepted their place in the chain of screaming in order to climb further up it are condemned to wander idly around its lower levels going quietly mad until, perhaps, the system crushes them or else collapses.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Kilimanjaro (킬리만자로, Oh Seung-uk, 2001)

Kilimanjaro posterMt. Kilimanjaro is the world’s tallest free-standing mountain. Oh Seung-ok’s debut, Kilimanjaro (킬리만자로), is not a climbing story, at least not in that sense, but a story of a man trying to conquer his own mountain without really knowing why. Twin brothers Hae-shik and Hae-chul are mirrors of each other, a perfect mix of light and dark, but when one makes a choice to choose the darkness, it throws the other into despair and confusion. A noir-ish tale of fragmented identities and fatalistic retribution, Oh’s world of tired gangsters and impossible dreams is as icy and unforgiving as the summit of its titular mountain, offering little more than lonely deaths and eternal regrets.

Policeman Hae-shik (Park Shin-Yang) drifts in and out of consciousness, tied up in a room by his twin brother, Hae-chul, with Hae-chul’s children looking on. Hae-chul murders his family and then shoots himself all while his brother is tied up and helpless, a policeman without recourse to the law. Taken to task by his colleagues who want to know how he could have allowed any of this to happen, if not as a brother than as a cop, Hae-shik has little to offer them by way of explanation. To add insult to injury, he is also under fire for unethical/incompetent investigation, and is taken off the case. Suspended pending an inquiry, Hae-shik goes back to his hometown but is immediately mistaken for Hae-chul and attacked by gangsters Hae-chul had pissed off before he left town and killed himself. Saved by local petty gangster Thunder (Ahn Sung-Ki), Hae-shik assumes Hae-chul’s identity and slips into the life of hopeless scheming which ultimately led to his brother’s ugly, violent death.

The film’s title is, apparently, slightly ironic in referring to the film’s setting of a small fishing village in the mountainous Gangwon-do Providence, known to some as “Korea’s Kilimanjaro”. Each of the men in this small town is trapped by its ongoing inertia and continual impossibility. They want to make something of themselves but have few outlets to do so – their dream is small, owning a family restaurant, but still it eludes them and they soon turn to desperate measures in opposing a local gangster in the hope of finally improving their circumstances.

Despite the seemingly tight bond of the men in Thunder’s mini gang – a mentally scarred ex-soldier known as “The Sergeant” (Jung Eun-pyo) and nerdy religious enthusiast knows as “The Evangelical” (Choi Seon-jung) rounding out Hae-chul’s goodhearted chancer, none of them has any clue that Hae-shik is not Hae-chul, or that Hae-chul and his family are dead. No one, except perhaps Thunder, is very happy to see him but even so Hae-shik quickly “reassumes” his place at Thunder’s side and takes over Hae-chul’s role in the gang’s scheming.

Hae-shik and Hae-chul had formed a perfect whole of contradictory qualities, each with their own degrees of light and darkness. Hae-chul had been the “good” brother who worked hard at home taking care of his parents while Hae-shik headed to university and a career in the city, never having visited his hometown since (in fact, no one seems to know or has already forgotten that Hae-chul even had a twin brother). Hae-shik’s “goodness” might be observed in his career as a law enforcer, but he’s clearly not among the list of model officers, and his home life also seems to be a failure. Hae-chul’s family might also have failed, and his shift to a life of petty crime provides its own darkness but living in this claustrophobic, impossible environment his crime is one of wanting something more than that his world ever had to offer him.

As might be expected, Thunder’s plans do not unfold as smoothly as hoped. Ineptitude and finally a mental implosion result in a near massacre costing innocent lives taken in a fury of misdirected vengeance. Despite wishing for a quiet life spent with friends on the beach, heroes die all alone, like mountain climbers lost on a snowy slope unsure whether to go up or down. Attempting to integrate his contradictions, become his brother as well as himself, Hae-shik reaches an impasse that is pure noir, finally meeting his end through a case of “mistaken identity”.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Green Fish (초록 물고기, Lee Chang-dong, 1997)

Green Fish poster

You can never go home again. Lee Chang-dong’s debut, Green Fish (초록 물고기, Chorok Mulgogi), is as much a chronicle of his rapidly modernising nation’s gradual loss of innocence as it is that of its melancholy hero, Makdong (Han Suk-kyu), whose simple dream of family harmony is destroyed by the forces of desire and oppression. Perpetually someone’s little brother, Makdong struggles but finds no schoolyard protectors in his ongoing quest for leadership and direction from someone or something external to himself. All he finds is a gradual descent into darkness and criminality in which misplaced loyalties eventually carry the heaviest of penalties.

Returning home from his mandatory military service, still dressed in his warm weather combats, Makdong inhales a taste of freedom by hanging out of the open train doorway. He notices a woman doing the same thing a few doors down. Her red scarf floats away on the breeze and hits Makdong in the face. Later he notices the same woman being hassled by a gang of louts and decides to intervene. Despite his military uniform, Makdong is no great warrior and he’s quickly beaten up and humiliated, retreating to the bathroom where he soaks the woman’s scarf in water and puts it over his bloodied face, inhaling her scent through the fabric as it somehow expresses his otherwise repressed scream.

Vowing revenge for his humiliation Makdong jumps off the train and attacks the louts with a heavy stone trophy, but he mistimes his attack and ends up running after the departing carriages before being forced to abandon all hope of catching up and concentrate on evading the louts who are once again on his tail. On his arrival home, Makdong discovers nothing is as he left it. His family is scattered – father dead, mother going mad, one brother married and a policeman though apparently also a drunk, other brother a wideboy punk, little sister working as a hostess, where there were fields now there are apartment blocks as far as the eye can see, only his older brother with developmental disabilities remains the same. Unable to find work, Makdong chases the scent of the woman on the train, eventually encountering her in the city. Miae (Shim Hye-jin) is a nightclub singer involved with petty gangster Bae Tae-gon (Moon Sung-keun). Remaining close to her, Makdong finds himself drawn ever further into Maie’s self destructive spiral of desire and darkness.

Makdong, whose name literally means “youngest sibling”, is perpetually looking for a family. Turned away from the chaos of his childhood home, he looks for it in the traditional place of the dispossessed male – the gang. Desperate to prove himself and be accepted, Makdong is willing to undergo any kind of pain and humiliation. Given his first job, he sings a snatch of the karaoke song playing in the bar about a prodigal son who disappoints his parents, looks himself in the mirror then hesitates before slamming the stall door shut across his fingers, leaving them swollen and bloodied. He then picks a fight with a rival gangster to give Bae Tae-gon an excuse to settle a score. Bae, solicitous, expresses irritation with Makdong’s act of self-harm but also gives him a leg up into the organisation, something which does not prove universally popular with the already established crew.

Bae’s decision to make Makdong his latest “little brother” (a sort of pun on his name and Bae’s position as the gang’s “big brother”), is mirrored in Bae’s own turbulent relationship with his superior/rival, Yang-gil (Myung Gye-nam). Yang-gil, setting up shop right across from Bae’s establishment, describes Bae disparagingly as a scrappy puppy dog biting at his master’s heels. Much as he feels humiliated by Yang-gil’s authoritative disdain, he refuses to move against him, ordering his guys to back off even though it makes him look weak and diminishes him in the eyes of his followers. Just as Makdong has placed his faith in Bae, Bae’s is already installed in Yang-gil, something which Makdong tragically fails to understand.

Makdong’s loyalty to Bae also presents a conflict in his desire for Miae. A much stereotyped gangster’s moll, Miae is the melancholy nightclub singer familiar from classic noir. Her world is just as ruined and broken as Makdong’s. She wants to leave Bae and his life of violent chaos in which she’s often pimped out to serve his interests, but she’s looking for someone to help her, just as Makdong is looking for someone to defend him. A long train journey brings the pair together in a moment of innocent tenderness, but presented with a choice Makdong choses Bae and his new world of male chivalry over his original act of white knight rescue which brought him to Miae’s attention in the first place. Later he makes another, more final choice, burning Miae’s scarf which he’d been carrying like a talisman all along. The flames reflected in his sunglasses give him eyes of fire, but behind the frames there are tears too as he bids goodbye to one dream in the mistaken belief of buying himself another.

Facing his end, Makdong rings home and reminisces about a story of idealised childhood innocence in which he spent a day at the river with his siblings, trying to catch the green fish of the title from under a railway bridge. Earlier on the family had another picnic in a similar spot which quickly degenerated into a chaotic family spat with the trains passing ominously behind them. The world that Makdong wants is already fading, he is, in some sense, already its ghost and the future has no place for him. His dreams were small – a modest family restaurant, and a return to the warmth and security he felt as a child surrounded by unconditional love. His family, however, no longer support him, he is alone and unloved. The world has moved past him like a train leaving the station, Makdong runs but he can’t catch up. The future belongs to those who can move fast enough to adapt to the new reality of modern Korean life, not to old romantics like Makdong who still believe in archaic ideals of family and brotherhood. Yet, there is something of that old world remaining in the posthumous fulfilment of Makdong’s only wish, even if he himself is not permitted to witness it.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Cabaret scene (no subtitles)

Radio Star (라디오 스타, Lee Joon-ik, 2006)

radio star posterWhat do you do if you’ve just directed a box office smashing, taboo busting, giant mega hit? Well, you could direct Star Wars, but if you’re Lee Joon-ik you go back to basics with a low budget, heartwarming tale of friendship and failure. Radio Star (라디오 스타) reunites frequent costars Ahn Sung-ki and Park Joong-hoon whose shared history runs all the way back to ‘80s movies Chilsu and Mansu, Two Cops, and Nowhere to Hide. ‘80s nostalgia plays not a small part in Lee’s film as it takes a washed up one hit wonder from 20 years back and gives him a new opportunity to shine…if only he can get over himself first.

1988 was something of a banner year for Korea, a newly minted democracy the country put itself on the international map with that year’s Olympic Games taking place in Seoul. It was also a big year for rock star Choi Gon (Joong-hoon) who scored a chart topping mega hit with his song The Rain and You which won him a prestigious musical prize. However, it all went to his head and despite the best efforts of his best friend and manager Park Min-soo (Ahn Sung-ki), 18 years later in 2006 Gon is a cafe singer with a habit of getting into fights which land him in jail. After yet another “incident”, Min-soo is having trouble finding the money to bail his friend out, until, that is he hits on the opportunity of selling Gon’s name as a radio host in an isolated rural town.

Of course, this doesn’t go down well with Gon who’s still every inch the edgy rockstar despite his reduced circumstances. Eventually Min-soo talks him into taking the gig but he’s anything but enthusiastic about his new life as a disembodied voice talking to a handful of country bumpkins who still have transistor radios. Gradually, through learning to appreciate his surroundings Gon begins to understand exactly what it is that’s important in his life.

Playing off its central dynamic, Radio Star undoubtedly brings a lot with it in the casting of Ahn and Park whose similar trajectories add to the film’s otherwise straightforward narrative. Min-soo appears to have only the one client to whom he remains completely devoted (even neglecting his wife and daughter in the process) though it’s true Gon’s career has not gone in the hoped for direction. Still dressing like an ‘80s rock god with sunglasses, torn jeans and a leather jacket, Gon is his own worst enemy as he plays the rockstar game all the way into a jail cell he fully expects Min-soo will get him out of. His new assignment as a local radio DJ is one he finds beneath his dignity and only takes because he thinks it’s a favour to a friend (rather than a friend doing a favour for him), but when it brings him unexpected success he finds that it’s all worth nothing if Min-soo isn’t there to enjoy it with him.

Though many in the small town barely remember Choi Gon or his iconic, prize winning song, he still has a few fans in the form of local garage band East River (played by real life punk band No Brain) who become devoted supporters of the show even helping to spread the word and putting on a special celebratory tribute concert. Ironically enough, the show starts to take off with Gon’s nonchalant approach to hosting which often sees him abandoning the mike to a random local either by phone or getting a guest into the studio. Sliding into talk radio territory, Gon begins taking calls and offering (to begin with) flippant advice on such topics as jobs for the unemployed and the proper rules for card games but he’s soon involved in a campaign to help a shy florist declare his love to a bank cashier and eventually makes a heartfelt personal appeal in support of a little boy who’s father has run off, encouraging him to come back home if only to apologise for making the kid think it’s all his fault that his dad went away.

It’s undoubtably small scale stuff, which of course means that it’s infinite in scope as Gon’s growing sense of interconnectedness takes the show out of the local area and eventually all the way to Seoul after the East River boys’ internet fan site gives him a potentially global (well, to anyone who can speak Korean) reach. As Min-soo points out, stars don’t shine alone – they reflect the light they’re given, and therefore Gon’s only rises because of his friendship with Min-soo and the support he begins to win from the local people once he drops the aloof rockstar persona and begins to engage. Necessarily sentimental and drenched in the dust of broken dreams, Radio Star is a sometimes melancholic though warm tribute to the power of friendship and redemptive possibilities offered by unlikely second chances.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Gon’s prizewinning song – Rain and You as sung by Park Joong-hoon

And sung by Korean punk band No Brain

 

The Himalayas (히말라야, Lee Suk-hoon, 2015)

HimalayasBecause it’s there. As good a reason as any for doing anything but these were the only three words of explanation offered by George Mallory in answer to the question “Why climb Everest?”. In Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, the heroine reacts in a similarly philosophical fashion when asked “Why do you want to dance?” replying with the question “Why do you want to live?”. What makes some people prepared to dance until their feet bleed and their toes break, and sends others to the peaks of snowcapped mountains staring death in the face as they go, is something which cannot be fully explained in words but cannot be denied by those who hear its calling.

Korea’s most well known mountain climber, Um Hong-gil (Hwang Jung-min), was undoubtedly one who heard the call and The Himalayas (히말라야) is his story (more or less). Based on his real life exploits, the film charts his continuing successes as an international climber until a foot injury forces him to remain on a more usual altitude, but the real heart of the story is in his growing relationship with rookie Moo-taek (Jung Woo) who’s every bit as fearless as he is. Together the pair scale the peaks of the world’s highest mountain ranges until it’s finally time for Hong-gil to hang up his pick and keep his feet on the ground for good.

However, tragedy strikes as one of Hong-gil’s closest friends is suddenly killed after getting caught in an unexpected storm. The mountain ranges of the world are littered with the corpses of unfortunate climbers who got into difficulty and couldn’t be rescued. The bodies remain where they fell, becoming one with mountain itself in a lonely climbers graveyard, frozen and perfect for eternity. Risking your own life to retrieve the lifeless body of a friend may seem like a perverse, irrational thing to do, yet understandable. Wracked with guilt and grief, Hong-gil assembles a team and embarks on a sentimental journey to bring his friend home, and, ironically, learn to let him go.

What starts off as a sports movie with its training sequences and tough coach inspires maverick rookie routine branches off into the classic expeditionary adventure format before falling into its unexpected home genre – the melodrama. Though in one sense a kind of biopic, the realm aim is to get those tears rolling as these brave men and women risk all for glory and comradeship in pushing the limits of the human condition far past their breaking points.

Hong-gil himself is, despite his gruff exterior, a dreamer and idealist in love with the soulful purity of the mountains. His is a journey of self discovery as he tells us that there is no pretence when it comes to mountain climbing. When you’re up there alone, just you and the vast snow covered emptiness, all of your masks and defences fall away. Hong-gil climbs the mountain to explore landscape of his own mind. He also objects to the often uttered phrase “conquer” a mountain as he believes the mountain gives you permission to ascend making this way of thinking disrespectful and even likens the mountain itself to woman when bemoaning Moo-taek’s pointlessly noble romantic gesture by stating that you don’t conquer the “mountain” you console it.

For all that, the real world is ever present as we see in one particularly awkward marketing pitch in which Hong-gil is trotted out as a model to have the prospective sponsor’s logo plastered all over him in the hopes that they will fund an expedition. When someone raises the very sensible point that this could look very bad for them should one of the climbers die with their logo on their chest, the marketing guys slowly start peeling them all off – velcro solves everything, it seems.

The team also becomes a marketing tool for their nation, carrying the Korean flag around with them for any photo opportunities which might present themselves. When tragedy strikes and the remainder of the Korean expeditionary group refuse to go after their fallen friend (the right and practical decision given the weather conditions and the low probability of success), base camp puts out a message over the radio in English pleading for help. The British contingent continue with their crosswords and cups of tea, steadfastly ignoring the emotional mayday call. The Chinese at least begin reassuring each other that it’s far too dangerous to contemplate.

The Himalayas begins as a comedy but the laughs fall away once the tears start rolling. Though it may affect a poetic tone the philosophical meandering is generally at the service of the melodrama which is very much underpinned by male bonding, pride, honour, debt and responsibility. Hong-gil’s “Human Expedition” is one of grief stricken madness but a perfectly understandable one in which he both needs to atone for “abandoning” his mountaineering brother and come to terms with the fact that the death zone has claimed another sacrifice. Often impressively filmed, The Himalayas suffers from its extremely melodramatic, sentimental tone which is only exacerbated by the intrusion of its loud and syrupy score. Anchored by strong performances from its leading players including Hwang Jung-min as the tough yet sensitive Hong-gil and Jung Woo as the young firebrand Moo-taek, The Himalayas spends too long at the destination rather than on the journey and ultimately fails to make either its character drama or expeditionary environment sufficiently engaging.


Seen as part of a teaser programme for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival 2016.

US release trailer: