The President’s Barber (효자동 이발사, Lim Chan-sang, 2004)

president's barber posterWe each of us live in the midst of history being made, some of us closer to the action than others. Most of us don’t quite realise how close we are or fully understand our role in events until it’s too late, but in any case we’re all just too busy getting on with the business of living to give much thought such grand concepts as history or legacy. Song Kang-ho has made a name for himself playing genial everymen forever at the mercy of historical machinations, but before he was an apathetic Taxi Driver, he was an apathetic barber giving haircuts to a dictator he half imagined was a friend. The President’s Barber (효자동 이발사, Hyojadong Ibalsa) is part journey into the intersection between rosy childhood nostalgia and national trauma, and part subtle political satire on the moral corruptions of authoritarianism but its own soft heartedness is often at odds with the grimness of its purpose.

Sung Han-mo (like the counter for tofu) is a nice but dim sort who has his own barber’s studio right across from the Blue House. As his son (Lee Jae-eung) tells us in his cutsey voice over, Han-mo (Song Kang-ho) is easily led and content to do whatever the village leader tells him to do, including participating in the ongoing corruption surrounding the re-election of despotic president Rhee Syngman. Our narrator, the oddly named Nak-an, was born as a result of a brief indiscretion between his father and an assistant (Moon So-ri) who had, apparently, hoped to marry someone else from her home village if Han-mo hadn’t trapped her with maternity. She wanted wanted an abortion but didn’t find out until after the much publicised five month cut off, meaning Han-mo talked her into staying and little Nak-an acquired the unfortunate nickname of “five months Na-kan”.

The family live happily enough until the mid-1960s when Park Chung-hee stages a coup and declares himself “President for Life”. When Han-mo somehow manages to catch a “North Korean Spy”, he gets himself a commendation and the attention of the authorities (for good or ill). A KCIA agent dutifully turns up and hauls Han-mo off to the Blue House because the president needs a trim…

Park’s reputation underwent something of a rehabilitation for a time. He did, in the minds of those seeking to justify his tyrannical reign, preside over Korea’s economic recovery. Han-mo is one of many to prosper, in his case directly in working indirectly for the regime. Han-mo is a simple man, he doesn’t think about politics but often feels belittled and downtrodden, made a figure of fun by those close to him even whilst remaining a cheerful optimist. He doesn’t take much convincing to hitch his mule to Park’s waggon, enjoying the personal boost in his social standing and finally feeling like a someone in being introduced to the world of the elites even when he is forced to accept that he does not and cannot exist fully within it.

Han-mo cuts hair, chatting away the way a barber does without really realising either that he is a vox pop spy or that he might, at any time, say the wrong thing and land himself in serious trouble. Serious trouble arrives during a heated and extremely bizarre period of political hysteria surrounding the “Marxus” virus – a lamentable episode in which an epidemic of dysentery was blamed on North Korean spies and all those who suffered from the condition taken in for “questioning”. Only when his own family is threatened does Han-mo start to reconsider his role in the affair – his status as a peripheral member of the Blue House team is no help in protecting those close to him and he can no longer pretend he does not know what happens in those basements, and that it happens to ordinary people not just “suspicious” ones.

The low level satire derives from Han-mo’s background presence becoming foreground as a very personal spat between a couple of high ranking Blue House staffers gathers in intensity before exploding into events which will have profound, though short-lived, consequences for Korean political history. Han-mo sadly takes down his portrait of Park hanging in pride of place in his shop and replaces it with one of Chun Doo-hwan (who was bald). Still a simple man he has, at least, learned his lesson and prepares to turn down the “honour” of shaving a dictator’s chin. Korea, the film seems to unsubtly hint, is finding its feet again though there will be another long reckoning before it, like Han-mo and his family, is finally able to free itself of the militarist yoke.


Secret Reunion (의형제 / 義兄弟, Jang Hoon, 2010)

secret reunion posterStrangely enough, North Koreans in South Korean films are often marked by a naive nobility, filled with all the “goodness” that is otherwise so absent from the hypocritical egalitarianism of the nation that raised them. Jang Hoon’s Secret Reunion (의형제 / 義兄弟, Uihyeongjae) is a perfect example of the ongoing trend in its direct contrasting of a pure hearted North Korean operative betrayed by his comrades, and the cynical NIS officer who turns to a shady career in the private sector when a botched operation gets him fired. An interesting look at North/South relations, Secret Reunion is equal parts buddy cop comedy and probing thriller but places the heartfelt connection between its perfectly mirrored protagonists firmly at its centre.

North Korean agent Song (Gang Dong-won) reads a bedtime story to his unborn child over a telephone whilst preparing for an operation south of the border, while NIS officer Lee (Song Kang-ho) bickers with his wife about their daughter’s education. Song, along with another agent, Tae-soo (Yoon Hee-seok), is to meet a top North Korean hitman known as Shadow (Jeon Kuk-Hwan) and assist in his mission to take out a prominent North Korean defector. Horrified by Shadow’s abrupt murder of the target’s wife and mother-in-law, Song draws on Shadow in defence of the man’s young son whom Shadow has also marked for death and places himself in the firing line in the process but is “saved” when Lee and the NIS turn up following a tip-off from Tae-soo who has betrayed them. Lee and Song briefly catch sight of each other but the operation is a bust which allows both Shadow and Song to escape whilst causing mass civilian casualties from stray police bullets and general panic.

Six years later Lee, fired from the NIS and divorced by his wife, spots Song again during his shady line of work as a finder of missing persons which often sees him tracking down runaway mail order brides from Vietnam. Unable to go home after being branded a traitor, Song is living as a casual labourer under a false South Korean identity. Unbeknownst to Lee he recognises the NIS agent but is unaware Lee has recognised him, especially when he offers him a job at his “company”. Song, intrigued, accepts in the hope of getting enough money together to bring his family to the South while Lee is hoping Song will lead him to Shadow and path back into the NIS but despite their best efforts the two men begin to develop a deep and warm understanding of each other even whilst working at cross purposes.

Song and Lee are indeed mirror images. When we first meet Song he’s eagerly embracing his role as a father and lamenting the fact that he cannot be with his pregnant wife while promising to be home soon. Lee, by contrast, argues with his wife over the phone and abruptly hangs up to go back to police business. Neither man is able to have the close and loving relationship with their daughters they would like – Song because he cannot return home and worries for the safety of his family, and Lee because his wife has remarried and moved to England. Lee’s loss of family is a personal failure first and foremost, but also a consequence of the botched operation in which Song escaped – hence Lee’s desire to capture Song is also part payback for ruining his life, but one which is frustrated by his gradual awakening to Song’s uncomplicated pureheartedness and identification with his own separation from his wife and child.

Song’s nobility is used against him by the heartless North Korean hitman, Shadow, who decries the “pathetic Southerners ruled by emotion” and warns Song that the “Great Nation cannot tolerate someone so fragile” when taken to task over his heartless murder of the defector’s South Korean family members. Lee, the NIS agent, resorts to barely legal immorality when stripped of his authority in becoming a finder of missing persons. The work largely involves tracking down trafficked women who’ve been tricked into coming to South Korea to marry rich and handsome men but often find themselves shackled to cruel husbands who regard them as slaves to be beaten and tortured. Yet Lee sends them back, knowing exactly what will happen to them when he does – something which Song refuses to allow. Despite coming from a brutalising regime, Song has retained his innate humanity, battles injustice and (tries to) protect the weak where Lee, a police officer in a (recently) democratic developed nation, quips about the nature of capitalism being learning to find happiness in stealing the wealth of others and is content to make himself complicit in a system he otherwise does not condone.

Despite their differences the two men come to see themselves in the other, discovering the better qualities of an “enemy” and becoming conflicted in anticipating the day when they will eventually have to confront the secrets they’ve been keeping. Jang keeps the tension high as Lee and Song play each other while Shadow dances around in the background, presumably playing a game which is entirely his own. Nevertheless the bonds of brotherhood between North and South are firmly repaired in Lee and Song’s eventual transition to blood brothers, restoring their severed familial connections whilst building and strengthening new ones.


International trailer (English subtitles)

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)

A Taxi Driver (택시 운전사, Jang Hoon, 2017)

A Taxi Driver PosterIn these (generally) well connected days of mass communication when every major event is live broadcast to the world at large, it’s difficult to remember a time when dreadful things might be happening the next town over yet no one knows (or perhaps dares to ask). Until 1979, Korea had been under the control of an oppressive dictatorship which was brought to a sudden and bloody end by the murder of the president, Park Chung-hee, at the hands of one of his aides. Though the democracy movement had been growing, hopes of installing a modern governmental system were dashed with the accession of the de facto president, General Chun Doo-hwan, who reinstated martial law, placing troops on the streets on the pretext of a possible North Korean invasion. In an event known as the Gwanjgu Uprising, a long term peaceful protest led by the area’s large student population was brutally suppressed with large numbers dead or wounded by government soldiers.

Meanwhile, in Seoul, regular Joe taxi driver Kim Man-seob (Song Kang-ho) is trying to go about his everyday business and is finding all of this protesting very irritating, especially when he is forced to swerve to avoid a young man running from riot police and breaks the wing mirror on his otherwise pristine vehicle. Man-seob thinks these kids don’t know they’re born, if they’d spent time abroad like he did in Saudi Arabia, they’d know that few places are quite as nice as Korea is. A single father raising his young daughter alone, Man-seob’s major worry is money. He’s four months behind on his rent and his daughter keeps getting into fights with the landlord’s son. Actually, the rent might not be such a pressing problem seeing as Man-seob’s landlord is a close friend and colleague – close enough for him to cheekily ask to borrow the money to “pay” it so his friend’s wife will stop being so mean. When he overhears another driver boasting that he’s picked up an improbably large fare that’s exactly the same amount as the money Man-seob owes, Man-seob bluffs his way into stealing it out from under him. Man-seob, however, has not stopped to consider why a foreigner wants to pay him an insane amount of money to drive from Seoul to provincial Gwangju.

Like many in the Korea of 1980, Man-seob is a man just trying to get by. He has his private sorrows, but largely avoids thinking about the big picture. To him, the Seoul protest movement has become such normal inconvenience that he keeps cream in his car to help cope with the smell of the smoke bombs. He thinks all of this rancour is just kids out of control and will eventually blow over when order is restored.

Others feel differently. A BBC journalist relocated from Korea to Tokyo describes the situation as “tense” and avows that this time something may be about to break. Tokyo in 1980 is a nice place to live, but extremely boring if you’re an international journalist and so German reporter Peter (Thomas Kretschmann) catches the next flight out with the intention of investigating the rumours of state sponsored violence coming out Gwangju.

Though Man-seob’s original motivation is the money, the events he witnesses in Gwangju have a profound effect on the way he sees his country. Bypassing roadblocks and sneaking into a city under lockdown, Man-seob and Peter witness acts of extreme violence as the army deploys smoke grenades, beatings, and bullets on a peaceful assembly of ordinary people. Prior to the military’s intervention, the atmosphere is joyful and welcoming. The people of Gwangju dance and sing, share meals with each other, and all are excited about the idea of real social change. This juxtaposition of joy and kindness with such brutal and uncompromising cruelty eventually awakens Man-seob’s wider consciousness, forcing him to rethink some early advice he gave to his daughter concerning her difficult relationship with the little boy next-door to the effect that non-reaction is often the best reaction.

Rather than focus on the Uprising itself, Joon presents it at ground level through the eyes of the previously blind Man-seob and the jaded Peter. Inspired by real events though heavily fictionalised (despite a search which continued until his death, Peter was never able to discover the true identity of the taxi driver who had helped him), A Taxi Driver (택시 운전사, Taxi Woonjunsa) is a testament to the everyman’s historical importance which, even if occasionally contrived, speaks with a quiet power in the gradual reawakening of a self-centred man’s sense of honour and personal responsibility.


A Taxi Driver was screened as the sixth teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival 2017. Tickets for the next and final film, The Villainess which screens along with the official programme launch at Regent Street Cinema on 11th September, are on sale now.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Memories of Murder (살인의 추억, Bong Joon-ho, 2003)

memories_of_murderThe Korea of the mid-1980s was a society in flux though you might not know it looking at the sleepy small town about to be rocked by the country’s very first publicised spate of serial killings. Between 1986 and 1991, at least ten women ranging in age from schoolgirls to grandmothers were murdered while the killer seemingly got away with his crimes, either dying, fleeing or perhaps getting arrested on other charges explaining the abrupt end to his crime spree. Bong Joon-ho’s fictionalised take on the case, Memories of Murder (살인의 추억, Salinui Chueok), is not so much interested in the killer’s identity, but wants to ask a few hard questions about why the crimes took place and why they were never solved.

In October of 1986, Inspector Park (Song Kang-ho) rides a junk cart out to a paddy field where a farmer has found the decomposing body of a woman blocking a drainage ditch at the edge of his land. Park quickly confirms that it is, in fact, the body of a murdered woman and tries to look unphased while a strange little boy distracted from his bug catching neatly echoes everything he says, playing policeman while the other children run roughshod over the crime scene trailing their butterfly nets behind them.

Needless to say Park and his bruiser partner, Cho (Kim Roe-ha), are ill equipped to handle a case of this magnitude, especially when it becomes clear that the murder is not an isolated episode. They are later joined by a more experienced officer from Seoul, Seo (Kim Sang-kyung), who is not used to country ways and finds it hard to adjust to their distinctly old fashioned and unscientific approach to law enforcement. Park, resentful at being saddled with a babysitter from the city and made to feel as if his small town skills aren’t good enough is determined to prove that he knows his stuff even as he begins to realise that perhaps policing really isn’t for him.

Park is the kind of policeman every small town has. Placing great faith in his detective’s instinct, Park is sure that he “just knows” who is naughty and who is nice. He asks suspects to look directly into his eyes so that he can assess whether they’re telling him the truth but it’s more of a party trick than anything else, looking into Park’s earnest gaze most suspects will crack. Early on Park’s boss gives him a test – two boys have been brought in and are patiently filling out forms. One caught the other in the middle of raping his sister, stopped him, and dragged him to the police station. Which one is the brother and which the rapist? Park feels sure he knows, and one could certainly make an educated guess based on the number and positioning of bruises on the suspects’ faces, but attempting to identify criminality based solely on perceived shiftiness or not liking the look of someone is crossing the line from professional instinct to ignorant prejudice.

The truth is that Park knows he’s no great shakes as a law enforcer. He was never meant to be – small town cops don’t generally do a lot of crime solving, they maintain order through the visible presence of authority. Thus he takes against city boy Seo because he instantly feels threatened by his urban sophistication and big city ways. Seo is perhaps not the best cop Seoul had to offer, but he is trained investigative techniques entirely alien to Park and Cho. The extent to which they’re out of their depth is obvious when they seem to know they’re supposed to secure the crime scene, but can’t, allowing valuable evidence to be carelessly destroyed.

Park’s investigative techniques involve making scrapbooks of shady local guys and browbeating suspects, eventually trying to railroad a young man with learning difficulties into confessing to the crime through a process of physical violence and mental attrition. Put out by Seo’s more concrete leads, Park’s only other contribution is to suggest they start looking for guys with no pubic hair which sees him waste more time hanging out in public baths and doing a lot of inappropriate staring. Wasting time is Park’s biggest crime though, amusingly enough, he and Seo end up in exactly the same place when Park consults a Shaman and Seo pursues a more rational line of enquiry lending credence to the idea that neither of them is really much better than the other.

What gets lost is that a woman, and then several more women, are dead and there is a man out there preying on wives, sisters, and mothers yet nothing much is being to protect them save reminding them to take care of themselves. Park wants the kudos of catching a killer but he barely thinks about the consequences of arresting the wrong man, it doesn’t seem to occur to him that the real killer would still be out there posing a threat to every woman in the town. Despite the fact that this is a small place where the victims are known to most people, there is little in the way of public grief or even sadness. The only sign of public feeling is in the small protest held outside the police station when a member of a local church is arrested.

The protest may be the key. In this strained era, Korea was reaching the end of its period under the control of a military dictatorship with the Olympics still a few years away and democracy the bright dream of brave radicals. Park and co. are the “friendly” face of the ruling regime, one of their secondary roles is doing the government’s dirty work. Hence when they really need extra manpower to chase a suspect they are denied it because everyone in the local area has been sent to suppress a protest in a nearby town. This is a scant few years after the Gwanju massacre, “suppression” means more than just standing around with riot shields designed to intimidate. Yes, there’s a crazed killer on the loose, but he is only a symptom and manifestation of a social order which has long since abandoned the idea of protecting its citizens in order to more effectively oppress them.

A woman can walk down a street in broad daylight and be terrified by a man trying to ask for directions because she has been taught to be afraid and knows the threat is real. A television news report on the trial of a policeman accused of violence and sexual assault reminds us why she can’t trust Park. Her government does not care about her. It could make more of an effort to solve these crimes, but it won’t, because the appearance of order is always preferential to its reality. The memories of murder run deep, they speak of all the stifled impulses of a life under a dictatorial regime. No one does anything because there is nothing to be done.

The identity of the killer is, in this sense, irrelevant – it is the society which is ultimately responsible for creating him and then for failing to put an end to his crimes. Park and Seo, eventually working together through a kind of cross pollination, think they’ve found their man but can’t prove it because Korea doesn’t have DNA testing facilities and they need to wait for results from an American lab. The evidence is circumstantial yet convincing, and one can’t be sure. The face of evil is “plain” and “ordinary”, much like your own. If you want to find the answer, start looking closer to home.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Age of Shadows (밀정, Kim Jee-woon, 2016)

age-of-shadowsWhen the country of your birth has been occupied by another nation, what do you do? Do you fight back, insist on your independence and expel the tyrants, or quickly bow to your new overlords and resign yourself to no longer being what you once were? Kim Jee-woon becomes the latest director to take a look at Korea’s colonial past with the Resistance based thriller Age of Shadows (밀정, Miljung) which owes more than a little to Melville’s similarly titled Army of Shadows, as well as classic cold war spy dramas The Third Man and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

The film opens with an impressive set piece in which two Resistance members, Jang-ok (Park Hee-soon), and Joo (Seo Young-joo) are betrayed whilst trying to sell a Buddhist statue. Joo is captured but Jang-ok makes a run for it as what looks like the entire Japanese garrison of Seoul chases him, running gallantly over the picturesque Korean rooftops. Cornered, Jang-ok is confronted by Korean born Japanese policeman Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho), once a Resistance member himself and a former comrade in arms of Jang-ok. This is the point Jung-chool’s carefully crafted collaboration beings to fracture – his friend, rather than allow himelf to be captured, shouts “Long Live Korea” and blows his own brains out.

His mission a failure, Jung-chool is then moved onto the next investigation which aims to dig out the Resistance top brass in the city. Jung-chool’s Japanese boss Higashi (Shingo Tsurumi) wants him to infiltrate the cell headed by antique dealer and photographer Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) in the hope that it will lead them to head honcho, Jung (Lee Byung-hun). However, Higashi also saddles him with a very young but high ranking Japanese official, Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo), to “help” him bring in Woo-jin.

In Jung-chool’s final conversation with Jang-ok, his friend berates him for the decision to turn traitor and work for the Japanese rather than against them. Jung-chool asks him if he thinks independence is a credible aim, implying he’s long since given up believing in the idea of the Japanese ever being overthrown. Jang-ok evidently believed in it enough to sacrifice his own life, but other comrades have also abanoned the cause and actively betrayed the movement in much more serious ways than Jung-chool’s pragmatic side swapping.

Even if Jung-chool has decided that if you can’t beat the Japanese you may as well join them, he’s coming to the realisation that his superiors, even if they’ve previously treated him warmly, will never regard him as equal to the Japanese personnel. Hashimoto’s sudden arrival undercuts Jung-Chool’s career progress and reminds him that he serves a very distinct purpose which may soon run out of currency. Higashi, having seduced Jung-chool with promises of a comfortable life and praise for his skills, does not trust his Korean underling enough to send him out on his own. This personal wound may do more to send him reeling back to the other side than anything else, especially as his “replacement” Hashimoto is a crazy eyed psychopath who has half a mind to burn the entire city just to be sure of getting his man.

A man who’s been turned once can be turned again and so mastermind Jung decides to prod Jung-chool in the hope that he’ll become an asset rather than a threat. As he puts it, what’s more frightening than feeling your heart move and Jung-chool’s certainty has already been shaken. Song Kang-ho perfectly inhabits Jung-chool’s conflicted soul as his old patriotic feelings start to surface just as he begins to truly see his masters for what they are. Always keeping his intentions unclear, Jung-chool is the ideal double agent, playing both sides or maybe neither with no clear affiliation.

Like Army of Shadows, the final nail in the coffin is delivered by a sentimental photograph. In this chaotic world of betrayals and counter betrayals, there can be no room for love or compassion other than loyalty to one’s comrades and to the movement. Yet against the odds Woo-jin comes to trust Jung-chool implicitly, certain that he will finally choose the side of freedom rather than that of the oppressor. The relationship between the two men provides the only real moments of comic relief, though others members of the group are less well defined including an underwritten part for Woo-jin’s Chinese love interest (Han Ji-min) who isn’t permitted to do very much other than model some elegant twenties outfits.

Maintaining tension throughout, Kim intersperses psychological drama as betrayal piles on betrayal, with intense action sequences including a particularly claustrophobic train based game of hide and seek. Inspired by real historical events, Kim does not claim any level of authenticity but sets out to tell the story of the double dealing inside a man’s heart as he weighs up duty and self interest and asks himself how far he’s willing to go for the sake of either. The age of “shadows” indeed, these are hollow men whose identities have been eroded, living only for today but in certainty of the bright tomorrow. Kim’s examination of this turbulent period is both a big budget prestige picture with striking production values, and a tense, noir-inflected thriller in the mould of Melville, but also a nuanced human drama unafraid to ask the difficult questions which lie at the heart of every spy story.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

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.