Youngju (영주, Cha Sung-duk, 2018)

Youngju poster 1In the midst of a changing society, the Korean family has come increasingly under the microscope. Where festival favourite Last Child took a pair of grieving parents and saw them unwittingly bond with the boy involved with their own son’s death, Cha Sung-duk’s sensitive indie debut Youngju (영주) finds an orphaned young woman turning to the man who caused the accident which killed her parents in search of some kind of reparation but unexpectedly discovering him to be good and kind if carrying his own burden. Yearning for the warmth of family, she wonders if it would be alright to leave the past behind and embrace this new chance of togetherness, but the truth will out and once known may make her bright new future an impossibility.

19-year-old Youngju (Kim Hyang-gi) lost her parents five years ago and, despite being a minor under Korean law, is the legal guardian for her 15-year-old brother Youngin (Tang Joon-sang). She’s given up her schooling to do a host of part-time jobs in order to support the pair of them while hoping to save for Youngin’s college education, but she’s also being hounded by a domineering aunt who keeps trying to sell the family home out from under her more it seems out of a sense of greed and entitlement than concern for the kids’ wellbeing. Alternating between telling Youngju she needs to take more responsibility and shutting her down by instructing her to “leave these things up to the adults” the aunt is a problematic presence in the kids’ lives leaving them technically not without family but deprived of the support that Korean society expects a family to provide. On a car ride home, Youngju’s aunt tells her to give up and think of her as a mother, only for Youngju to snap back that she’s no longer a child and has no need of a one. The aunt’s “have it your own way” attitude implies she’s made the right decision, but young as she is Youngju can’t know that it doesn’t matter how old you are, everyone still needs a mother at one time or another.

She begins to find one in an unexpected place after hitting rock bottom when Youngin falls in with a bad crowd and gets himself into trouble. As he’s underage, the matter can be settled with a fine, but the kids don’t have that kind of money and Youngju’s attempts to get it lead only to humiliation and betrayal. Resentful of her circumstances, she decides to track down the truck driver who fell asleep at the wheel and caused the traffic accident that killed her parents, hoping to take some kind of revenge by somehow making him pay. Once there she ends up getting a job in their family-run tofu shop where the man’s wife, Hyang-sook (Kim Ho-jung), takes to her immediately with maternal warmth even jokingly referring to her as her younger daughter with a regular customer while delighting in cooking up extra meals for to take home and share with her “family”.

Of course, what Hyang-sook doesn’t know is that Youngju has no family other than Youngin who is trapped in youth detention until she can get the money to get him out. Though the relationship between the siblings is understandably close because they have no one else, it’s also fraught with difficulty and confusion, Youngin feeling guilty and resentful of his older sister’s sacrifices on his behalf, wondering if she’s ashamed of him for not being more help and for constantly getting into trouble. Youngju, meanwhile, keeps her new work family a secret, merely telling her brother that she got the money she needed from her boss rather than their horrible aunt, replying to his question about why anyone would lend them money out of the goodness of their hearts with only “they’re good people”.

The Kims are indeed “good people”, despite whatever preconceptions Youngju might have had about them. Hyang-sook is good and kind, practicing true Christian values of love and forgiveness. Realising that Youngju meant to steal from them, she simply gives her the money because she can see that she’s a “good kid” and seems to be in some kind of desperate difficulty with which she’d like to help her. Hyang-sook takes the melancholy young woman to her heart like a daughter, but Youngju remains uncertain that her forgiveness could extend to the extent of her lies if she knew the real reason she arrived in their lives. Increasingly guilty, she finds herself feeling that she needs to tell the truth but knowing that if she does the fragile sense of family she’s found with the Kims may be irreparably broken. 

Under the Kims’ influence, Youngju encourages her brother that he too needs to try to be better, that they should try “live a better life”, but he understandably feels betrayed by her desire to look for family somewhere else, rejecting their parents’ memory and siding with the architect of all their misfortune. Having made peace with her own tragedy, Hyang-sook may say there’s no point blaming anyone but obviously feels a deep-seated sense of vicarious guilt that for all her pity may make it impossible for Youngju to return to that same level of intimacy as daughter unconditionally loved and supported by kind and forgiving people. In the opening scene, Youngju jokingly asked her brother which of their parents he’d most like to bring back and picked her dad because he was going to take them to a theme park, but it’s grief for her mother(s) that finally overwhelms her, convincing her perhaps that now she really is alone. Even so, the sun rises again and we get the impression that Youngju will be alright in the end, walking sorrowfully off towards a “better life” but perhaps resolved to doing so with no one by her side.


Youngju was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Birthday (생일, Lee Jong-un, 2019)

Birthday posterOn 16th April 2014, a ferry carrying mostly teenagers on a school trip sank taking 304 passengers and crew down with it. The Sewol Ferry tragedy was to have profound ramifications, asking a series of questions as to corporate and political corruption in the society which had permitted such an accident to happen and then failed to mount an effective rescue. In the five years since, many films have probed the causes and implications of the tragedy, but Lee Jong-un’s Birthday (생일, Saengil) is not so much interested in the incident itself as in the nature of grief and all the more so when it takes place across a national canvas.

Lee picks up three years after the sinking as husband and father Jung-il (Sol Kyung-gu) returns to Korea after five years of working away in Vietnam. So disconnected is he from his family, that he was only vaguely aware that they had moved and has trouble finding the new apartment. When he gets there, his wife Soon-nam (Jeon Do-yeon) pretends to be out, sending Jung-il back to stay with his understanding sister who tries to fill him in on the various reasons he might not be welcome at his own door.

The loss of the couple’s oldest child, Su-ho (Yoon Chan-young), in the ferry tragedy is only gradually revealed though it’s clear that there is an absence in the family home. Soon-nam has kept Su-ho’s room exactly as he left it – school uniform hanging on the wardrobe door, unfinished school work on the desk, post-its seemingly everywhere. Meanwhile, youngest daughter Ye-sol (Kim Bo-min) is often left to her own devices while Soon-nam buries herself in work and shuts out everything that reminds her that her son is never coming home.

While some of the other parents have formed a tightly bonded community forged by shared grief and anger, Soon-nam wants no part of it. Invited to a gathering after bumping into other parents at the memorial site, she lasts barely a few minutes before accusing them of turning their suffering into an excuse for frivolity. It’s not as if she could ever forget what happened to her son, but when the ferry tragedy is on every street corner, on the radio, on the news, it becomes impossible to ignore. Soon-nam wants her grief to herself. Her son and her loss. She isn’t interested in sharing him with anyone else, be that an increasingly angry society or her little girl who is now terrified of water and worried about her mum.

Jung-il, burdened with guilt for having abandoned his family, tries to address his grief in a more positive sense by re-embracing his role as a father to Ye-sol who was so small when he left that she doesn’t really remember him. Though Lee is not particularly interested in the political ramifications of the tragedy, she does subtly point the finger at the effects of economic pressure on the ordinary family which have seen Jung-il exile himself abroad and Soon-nam working so hard just to keep her head above water that Ye-sol is caught in the middle. Jung-il wasn’t there when his family needed him, and there’s precious little he can do for them now other than try to be around.

The other members of the support group have been holding birthday parties for some of the kids who passed away, turning the solemnity of a memorial service into a celebration of life. Soon-nam is against the idea – she would rather save the day for herself in private commemoration, but Jung-il is broadly in favour. Probed, he has to admit he barely knew the young man his son was becoming and that this party might be the only way to reconnect with the boy he lost. A passport that will never be stamped, colleges that will never be applied to, weddings that will never take place – the finality of the loss is crippling, but in holding the birthday parties those left behind are able to find a kind of acceptance in shared remembrance and a confirmation that their loved ones were loved and will continue to be loved even in their absence. A sensitive yet uncompromising exploration of the sometimes forgotten personal dimension to a national tragedy, Birthday is a beautifully complex evocation of learning to live with loss and a strangely uplifting, cathartic experience.


Birthday was screened as the opening night gala of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Seven Years of Night (7년의 밤, Choo Chang-min, 2018)

Seven Years of Night posterThe sins of the father are visited upon the son. Cycles of abuse and fatalistic retribution are a persistent theme in Korean cinema but Choo Chang-min plunges them to new depths of tragic inevitability in his adaptation of the best selling novel by Jeong You-jeong. The biblically titled Seven Years of Night (7년의 밤, 7 Nyeonui Bam) pits two visions of failed fatherhood against each other as two broken men attempt to restore order to their lives but damn their children in the process through their own refusal to engage with past trauma.

In 2004, security guard Hyun-su (Ryu Seung-ryong) buys an apartment he can’t afford in order to placate his wife who is in constant worry over their precarious financial circumstances. Hyun-su can’t really manage the interest payments on the mortgage so the family will be renting out the fancy apartment and moving to a remote house provided by his new employers at a hydroelectric dam. On the day that he was supposed to go and check over his new accommodation, Hyun-su partied hard with his former colleagues and set off drunk, getting into an altercation with another driver on the way. Lost in a thick fog and fuzzy from the drink, he hits a little girl who ran out in the middle of the road, panics and hides her body, planning to forget any of this ever really happened.

Forgetting is not, however, something anyone is permitted to do in Choo’s world of elemental retribution in which the buried past is always destined to make its way to the surface sooner or later. The lake around the dam was once home to a village which was sunk, intact, to make way for its construction. Locals fear the water with superstitious dread, believing the lake sucks the souls of men and is polluted with something darker and older than industrial corruption. Attempting to drown the inconvenient may have its appeal, but nothing stays underwater for long and the harder you try to push it down, the faster it will rise.

Unfortunately for Hyun-su, the father of the girl he has killed, known to all as Dr. Oh (Jang Dong-gun), is not a man to be messed with. Dr. Oh, apparently an upscale dentist in the city, rules over all with a tyrannical authority and, as he owns almost all the land around here, enjoys a near feudal level of deference from the villagers. Violent and controlling, Oh’s wife, who describes him as the Devil incarnate, has recently escaped and gone into hiding leaving their small daughter Se-ryung (whose name is coincidentally the same as that of the sunken village) alone to face his wrath. Doubtless, Dr. Oh was raised with an authoritarian father of his own and is unable to see beyond himself and understand that his reign of terror prevents him from achieving the very thing he craves – the love of his wife and daughter.

Desperate for revenge, needing to prove that this is all someone else’s fault to avoid admitting that his own violence drove his wife from him and his daughter into the path of another violent man, Dr. Oh vows poetic retribution by targeting the life of Hyun-su’s innocent son, Seo-won (Go Kyung-pyo). Increasingly disturbed by his crime, Hyun-su dreams of his own father – a violent drunk with PTSD from a pointless war whose death he longed for and who he swore never to become, only to be confronted with a vision of himself as a small boy in the face of his own son watching his father strike his mother in anger. Hyun-su sees. He sees what his father passed to him and what he fears he will pass to his own son. He wants to break the curse, but doesn’t know how. 

Still, Hyun-su would drown the world to save his son even if he hates him for it. Seo-won, left with a series of dubious legacies, struggles to emerge from the shadow of his father’s crimes, is disowned by his family as the son of a murderer and cast out from regular society as one polluted by murderous blood but eventually saves himself through skills learned from a second father, himself hoping to atone for a selfish decision that led only to tragedy. Deliberately disjointed and self-reflexive, Seven Years of Night is a dark tale of supernatural dread masking a horror all too real in the impossible task of exorcising the living ghost of defeated male pride.


Seven Years of Night was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International teaser trailer (English subtitles)