The Scarlet Letter (주홍글씨, Byeon Hyeok, 2004)

The Scarlet Letter posterSouth Korea has long had a reputation for being among the most conservative of East Asian nations, perhaps because of a strong Christianising influence, but even so the fact that adultery was only fully decriminalised in 2015 is something of a surprise. Ironically enough the legislation was enacted in the defence of women who enjoyed few legal rights and would be left destitute if their husbands left them, suffering not only the humiliation and social stigma of divorce but also having no independent income and very little possibility of gaining one. Nevertheless it quickly became another tool of social control, branding “harlots” rather than protecting “wives”. Byeon Hyeok’s The Scarlet Letter (주홍글씨, Juhong Geulshi) was released in 2004, which is a whole decade before adultery was removed from the statue books, and draws inspiration from the book of the same name by Nathaniel Hawthorne in which a young woman becomes a social outcast after giving birth to an illegitimate child.

Cocksure policeman Ki-hoon (Han Suk-kyu) lives in a world of his own dominion. Married to the elegant concert cellist Su-hyun (Uhm Ji-won), Ki-hoon is also carrying on an affair with the bohemian nightclub singer Ga-hee (Lee Eun-ju). One fateful day he is called to the scene of a bloody murder. The owner of a photographer’s studio has been found with half his head caved in and the prime suspect is his wife, Kyung-hee (Sung Hyun-ah), who found the body. Once she’s had some time to recover from the shock, Kyung-hee offers up some possible evidence regarding a local photographer who may have been semi-stalking her – something which had caused tension between herself and her husband. The photographer claims Kyung-hee asked him to take the photos, and others besides, but denies he was romantically interested in her or that the couple had been having an affair.

The murder case floats in the background as Ki-hoon’s personal life spirals ever more out of control. Both Su-hyun and Ga-hee are pregnant with his child and it seems inevitable the affair will be exposed. Ki-hoon fears this not out of guilt in causing emotional harm to one or both of his women, but out of a sense that it will be very annoying, inconvenient, and burdensome for him. When his wife does eventually confront him about the affair, Ki-hoon’s response is to ignore it and carry on as normal by acting excited about the baby as if to remind Su-hyun that she is already tied to him and it will be almost impossible for her to leave. Meanwhile, he refuses to give up Ga-hee whose mental state seems to be fracturing under the intense pressure of her need for Ki-hoon and his continuing disregard for the feelings of others.

Ki-hoon is a classic noir hero, wading into a morass of moral ambiguity and hurtling headlong towards an existential reckoning. A late, yet fantastically obvious, twist offers another perspective which the film has no time to expand on so caught up is it in the moral ruining of Ki-hoon in suggesting that oppressive social codes have in some way contributed to this intense situation, forcing three people into an uncomfortable love triangle where everyone has ended up with the wrong partner. Byeon does, however, choose to emphasise “morality” in lending a spiritual slant to Ki-hoon’s fall rather than choosing to attack the social oppression of Korea’s intensely conservative culture in which all the power was in Ki-hoon’s hands (even if he uses it to ruin himself, later left in a state of spiritual emptiness filled only with guilt and shame).

The reckoning comes in a literal evocation of Ki-hoon’s claustrophobic love life in which he finds himself trapped in an inescapable black hole, waiting to find out if he will be released or condemned to suffer an eternity of pain for his various transgressions. Byeon never quite manages to marry his higher purpose to the noir narrative, leaving his avant-garde final set piece out of place in an otherwise straightforward thriller while his final twist falls flat in retreading well worn genre cliches. Frank in terms of its depiction of sex and nudity, The Scarlet Letter takes on an anti-erotic quality, painting its various scenes of actualised sex as passionless acts of compulsion with only those of fantasy somehow imbued with colour and light though its melancholy conclusion suggests even these may carry a heavy price.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Master (마스터, Cho Ui-seok, 2016)

master posterCorruption has become a major theme in Korean cinema. Perhaps understandably given current events, but you’ll have to look hard to find anyone occupying a high level corporate, political, or judicial position who can be counted worthy of public trust in any Korean film from the democratic era. Cho Ui-seok’s Master (마스터) goes further than most in building its case higher and harder as its sleazy, heartless, conman of an antagonist casts himself onto the world stage as some kind of international megastar promising riches to the poor all the while planning to deprive them of what little they have. The forces which oppose him, cerebral cops from the financial fraud devision, may be committed to exposing his criminality but they aren’t above playing his game to do it.

“Entrepreneur” Jin Hyun-pil (Lee Byung-hun), CEO of the One Network financial organisation which is about to make an unprecedented move into investment banking, is in the middle of an energising speech to his investors. He’s booked a massive stadium with lighting and stage effects worthy of a veteran rock star and is doing his best snake oil speech to convince the ordinary people who’ve invested their life savings in his obviously dodgy pyramid scheme that he’s going to make banking great again by handing ownership back to the masses. Many are convinced by his inspirational attitude, but Captain Kim Jae-myung (Gang Dong-won) of the financial crimes division smells a rat. He knows there’s something very wrong here and is determined to bring Jin down before his exploits ruin the lives of even more innocent families just trying to make a better life for themselves.

Their way in is through Jin’s systems guy, Park (Kim Woo-bin), who’s been in on the scam from the beginning but is pretty much amoral and has been working his own angle on the whole thing. Spineless and opportunistic, Park is primed for police manipulation even if it takes him a few flip-flops before he picks any kind of side aside from his own. Kim is after Jin’s mysterious ledger which contains a host of information on his backers which would cause considerable damage to those involved and give the police the kind of leverage they need to expose Jin’s enterprise for what it really is. However, before they can spring the trap, Jin escapes with his ill gotten gains and goes into hiding leaving hundreds of innocent families who’ve fallen victim to his scams destitute, frightened, and humiliated.

Playing against type, Lee Byun-hun inhabits his sleazy, TV evangelist meets cult leader of a villainous conman with relish as he lies, cheats, steals and weasels his way out of trouble. After a potential liability is killed, Jin enjoys his crimson morning smoothie with unusual delight leaving a bright red bloodstain across his upper lip as he ironically mutters “what a shame” watching the news footage of his flunky’s death. Not content with the vast amount of money he stole by exploiting the innocent dreams of people with little else, Jin tries the same thing again abroad, taking his “wife” Mama (Jin Kyung) with him though even she seems to know Jin is not to be trusted and could turn on her at any moment. Cornered, the only words of wisdom Jin has to offer is that perhaps he made a mistake in trying to run to the Philippines, he should have tried Thailand instead.

Starring three of South Korea’s biggest actors, Lee Byun-hun, Gang Dong-won, and Kim Woo-bin, Master takes on an almost tripartite structure as the upper hand passes between the three protagonists. Systems analyst Park is mostly out for himself and switches between each side more times than can be counted before gaining something like a conscience and committing to a particular cause while Kim and Jin mastermind a cat and mouse game advancing and retreating yet stepping further into each other’s territory. The game is an ugly one. Master is a fitting and timely indictment of those who make impossible promises to vulnerable people desperate enough to take the bait in the hope of making a better life for themselves and their families, yet it also fails to capitalise on its themes, preferring to leave them as subtle background elements to the cerebral games of one-upmanship and fractured loyalties between Jin, Kim, and Park. Over long at 143 minutes, Master is unevenly paced yet picks up for its Manila set, action packed finale which is out of keeping with much of what has gone before but ends things on an entertaining, upbeat note as justice is served, wrongs righted, and the truth revealed.


Master was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Missing (미씽: 사라진 여자, E Oni, 2016)

missing posterReview of E Oni’s Missing (미씽: 사라진 여자, Missing: Sarajin Yeoja) first published by UK Anime Network.


Since ancient times drama has had a preoccupation with motherhood and a need to point fingers at those who aren’t measuring up to social expectation. E Oni’s Missing plays out like a Caucasian Chalk Circle for our times as a privileged woman finds herself in difficult circumstances only to have her precious daughter swept away from her just as it looked as if she would be lost through a series of social disadvantages. Missing is partly a story of motherhood, but also of women and the various ways they find themselves consistently misused, disbelieved, and betrayed. The two women at the centre of the storm, desperate mother Ji-sun (Uhm Ji-won) and her mysterious Chinese nanny Han-mae (Gong Hyo-jin) are both in their own ways tragic figures caught in one frantic moment as a choice is made on each of their behalves which will have terrible, unforeseen and irreversible consequences.

Ji-sun is a busy woman. Recently divorced from her philandering doctor husband, Ji-sun is in the middle of a nasty custody battle over her daughter, Da-eun, which she has technically already lost though refuses to concede. Seeing as Ji-sun is barely ever at home (and when she is, she’s often still working), Chinese nanny, Han-mae is on hand to help her out. Han-mae’s Korean is imperfect, but she’s good with Da-eun and seems to have the knack for calming both the little one and her mum.

Other than the custody battle heating up as Ji-sun’s mother-in-law is intent on getting her grand-daughter away from her son’s awful former wife, Ji-sun’s life was functioning pretty well, all things considered. When she comes home one day and realises Han-mae and Da-eun aren’t around she’s a little put out but assumes they’re just delayed, have stopped off with friends, or are off somewhere having a lovely time without her. When they haven’t comeback by nightfall Ji-sun starts to worry.

Missing does its best not to judge either of the women. Though there is the subtle criticism of Ji-sun’s parental absenteeism, it’s largely manifested through her own feelings of guilt and fear as she’s placed in the difficult position of unexpected, middle-aged single parenthood. Divorced from her cold-hearted, selfish, lothario of a husband, Ji-sun would have needed to get a high paying job and maintain a middle class lifestyle to have any hope of keeping her daughter though the need to maintain both of those things would necessarily mean that she won’t be able to spend a lot of time with her child. Torn between the need to prove she can support herself alone and the need to play a fuller role in her daughter’s life, Ji-sun is understanably squeezed from both ends and left with little choice about any of it.

The problems both she and Han-mae face are those of an inherently sexist and intolerant society which forces them to prove themselves as women and judges them harshly when it believes they’ve deviated from the expected course. Ji-sun’s bosses make overtly sexist comments towards her, exclaiming that this is why they “don’t like employing mothers”, the police don’t want to believe her kidnap story because she’s just another hysterical woman, and her ex-husband knows he can take their daughter simply because he’s a man with a good job and a ready home.

Han-mae’s life has been darker and crueller, though hers is a greater struggle as she finds herself in an even lower status through being non-Korean and having poor language skills. Language skills are something she’s actively been denied in order to keep her from trying to escape a life of serfdom but in any case Han-mae’s prospects are not good. Ji-sun’s investigations take her to some very dark places as she searches for her child and begins to understand the reasons why she was taken. As a mother, as woman, and as a human being it is impossible to not to understand why Han-mae’s story ends the way it does, but it’s also impossible to not acknowledge a degree of unwittingly complicity in her ongoing suffering.

The last scene brings us unwelcomely back to that early debate surrounding the true mother and the unbreakable bond between a parent and a child, solving a complex problem neatly and smoothing it over with the gloss of emotion. Early on in the courtroom, Ji-sun says she’d do whatever it it took to keep her daughter, even run away with her if she had to. Later she says so again to a shady guy in a police cell who has more idea of what “anything” might mean, but Ji-sun was already doing quite a lot for Da-eun in running herself ragged just for the right to be near her. Neither Ji-sun or Han-mae were in any way at fault in the series of events which brought them to this point, a decision was made for them which was to have terrible, irreversible consequences. The two women are victims of the same oppressive social codes, but life is very different for each of them and if Ji-sun had been guilty of anything at all it was a blinkered way of living in which women like Han-mae are a barely visible presence except when needed to fulfil their allotted role.


Reviewed as part of a series of teaser screenings for the London Korean Film Festival 2017 the next of which, Queen of Walking, takes place at Regent Street Cinema on 22nd May 2017 at 7.30pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Silenced (경성학교: 사라진 소녀들, Lee Hae-Young, 2015)

the-silencedThe Silenced (경성학교: 사라진 소녀들, Gyeongseonghakyoo: Sarajin Sonyeodeul) has all the classic genre aspects of the boarding school horror story familiar to fans of gothic literature everywhere, but this is no Victorian tale of repressed sexuality and hallucinatory psychosis. What The Silence does is take all of these essential elements and remix them as a metaphor for the horror of colonialism. Surrounded by quislings and forced into submission in order to survive, how does the essential soul of an oppressed people survive? The Silence would seem to argue that perhaps it can’t, but can evolve and learn to resist its colonisers even if it has to bend to do so.

Korea, 1938. Teenage girl Ju-ran (Park Bo-Young) is dropped off by her rather cool step-mother at a hospital school before her parents relocate to Tokyo. On arrival, Ju-ran switches to her Japanese name of Shizuko which raises a stir among her new schoolmates because another girl with the same name previously occupied her new bed before disappearing suddenly without a word of goodbye. Her physical resemblance to the previous Shizuko, coupled with her ill-health, provokes mistrust among the other girls, especially top girl Yuka and her minions. Shizuko is now expected to get used to all of the school’s arcane rules and regulations as soon as possible or risk harsh punishment. This includes “treatment” for her illness which involves frequent distribution of pills, injections, and other experimental courses. Before long Shizuko begins to notice odd behaviour among the girls, some of whom begin to disappear.

After a lengthy series of diplomatic manoeuvres beginning in the Meiji era, Japan annexed Korea in 1910 beginning a period of direct rule which would continue until the end of the Second World War. During this period, Japanese became the dominant, official language and mainland Japanese culture sought to displace that of the indigenous Korean society. The school, as an official institution, is careful to follow these regulations to the letter. Each of the pupils has a Japanese name which becomes their “official” designation, the Korean identity is “buried” with Korean birth names used only with close friends whose trust is certain.

Similarly, the school’s official language is Japanese with lessons and official business always conducted in the appropriate language. Linguistic shifts suddenly become an interesting phenomenon as the girls continue to talk to each other in their native Korean in the school room and out (even if sticking to Japanese names) but maintain order by obeying commands in the language of authority. The headmistress generally sticks to Japanese, at least when she’s at the lectern, but notably switches to Korean when addressing a girl personally or when she wishes to appear kind and non-threatening rather than authoritarian. This point is further brought home when one girl descends into a fit of rage and attacks another, ranting and raving in Japanese whilst gripping the other girl’s throat. Korean is both the language of kindness and friendship as opposed to the coldness and violence of the official Japanese, and a tool to be manipulated in order to create a false sense of camaraderie between colonised and coloniser.

The school is staffed by collaborators working with the Japanese authorities and training these young women to be model Japanese citizens. Part of their classwork involves a large embroidery project sewing beautiful pink cherry blossoms onto a map of Korea – a motif which is later chillingly repeated by sewing those same flowers onto the body the body of a collaborator. Tokyo has become a kind of magical wonderland paradise and the school even offers the girls hope of advancement there through winning a competition based on physical ability in which the school will select the two most promising candidates and dispatch them to the capital. The headmistress, once the final mystery has been exposed, begs the Japanese military forces to put their faith in her because she is determined to become a loyal Japanese citizen and leave this backward Korea behind forever.

The main thrust of the narrative centres around the interplay between these teenage girls who stand in for a subjugated people, ruled over by their collaborating teachers. Shizuko (Ju-ran) strikes up a friendship with Kazue (or Yeong-duk to restore her Korean name), previously the best friend of her predecessor. The two girls become closer though the the disappearance of the previous Shizuko always stands between them. Beginning to solve the mystery, the two girls are the only opposition to the ruling regime as they accept the various “benefits” of their treatment and education, and return to use them against their oppressors. The girls’ innocence has been corrupted by their experiences, but this same corruption is the very thing which allows them to take a stand for their independence.

Though the supernatural is posited as the ultimate enemy, the solution of the mystery leads straight back into the political realm rather than any less Earthly kind of evil. Director Lee Hae-young generates a supremely creepy atmosphere from the opening sequence onwards which empahises the gothic aesthetic and inescapable presence of something dark lurking in the shadows. Though using minimal instances of jump scares, supernatural episodes, and hallucinatory images, the film pushes its horrors into the real world even if the solution it ultimately offers is more akin to a superhero origin story than a revolutionary uprising. Beautifully photographed, The Silenced is the story of those denied a voice realising they have the right to rebel but like any gothic horror story paints its central battle as an ongoing, unwinnable fight against the darkness.


Original trailer (select English subs from settings menu)