Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Jeong Yoon-chul, 2017)

Warriors of the Dawn posterSome might say a king is the slave of his people, but then again he is a very well kept slave even if he is no more free than a serf at the mercy of a feudal lord. Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Daeribgoon), set in 1592 during the short-lived Japanese invasion, takes this idea to its heart in playing up the inherent similarities between the oppressed poor who are forced to impersonate the sons of wealthy men too grand for the battlefield, and the Crown Prince unwillingly forced to impersonate the King who has abandoned his people and run away to China to save his own skin. Though the Prince is young and afraid, with the help of his resentful mercenary brethren he begins to find the majesty buried inside himself all along but crucially never forgets what is like to feel oppressed so that he might rule nobly and fairly, unlike his more selfish father.

The tale begins with Tow (Lee Jung-Jae) – a “Proxy Soldier”, one of many from the Northern borderlands where the living is hard. Sons of feudal lords need not risk their lives on the battlefields while there is money to spend and so they buy the service of young men from poor families to stand in for them. The men take the name of the man they’re supposed to be but if they die, their family must send a replacement to serve out the remaining time or pay back the money that was given to them. At this point Tow’s main problem is the Jurchen rebels who’ve decided to live life their own way outside of the system of class hierarchy currently in place in feudal Korea.

The Japanese, however, are pressing on and making gains towards the capital. The King decides to flee, hoping to reach China where the Ming Emperor may be minded to help them. He cannot, however, simply abandon ship and decides to divide the court with the left behind contingent headed by his son, Crown Prince Gwang-hae (Yeo Jin-goo). Gwang-hae is young and inexperienced. Not having had a good relationship with his father, he’s mystified as to why he’s suddenly been given this “honour” but together with a selection of advisors he’s sent on a journey to found a second court at Gonggye, picking up scattered forces along the way. This brings him into contact with Tow and his contingent who become his main defenders.

Having lived a life inside the palace walls, Gwang-hae knows nothing of war or fighting and has brought a selection of books with him hoping to learn on the job. His ineptitude is likened to that of a young recruit to the band of Proxy Soldiers who has been forced to join on the death of his father but has no training and is too squeamish to kill, requiring Tow to come to his rescue as he later does for Gwang-hae. Tow is a born soldier yet reluctant, fully aware that he no longer exists and should he die another man with no name will step into his place with nary a pause. He continues to fight because he has no choice but he also feels an intense bond of brotherhood to his fellow men, something which later extends to Gwang-hae once his latent nobility begins to emerge.

Gwang-hae’s central conflict is between his advisors who council him towards austerity, and his deeper feelings which encourage him to sympathise with the ordinary people he meets along the way whose lives are being ruined thanks to the government’s failure to protect them. As it turns out, Gwang-hae is also low-born, in a sense, and therefore has inherited something of the common touch which separates him from the aloofness of his father. Though he is constantly told to make the “rational” choice he refuses – ordering troops to stop when they attempt to extort food from starving peasants, insisting on evacuating a village to safer ground, and then finally becoming a warrior himself in order to defend his people when no one else would.

Gwang-hae is, perhaps, a warrior for a new dawn and a flag that men like Tow can follow in the quest for a better world in which each man can keep his own name and fight for his own cause rather than that laid down for them by men with money or power. Despite the potential for a more urgent argument, Jeong mostly falls back on standard period aesthetics with overly familiar narrative beats heavily signposted by a subpar script. Warriors of the Dawn cannot decide whether it’s a film about catching the conscience of a king or the noble sacrifice of would be revolutionaries, failing to lend the essential weight to its duel arcs of rebirth and coming of age all of which makes for a long, hard march towards an inevitable conclusion.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

International trilogy (English subtitles)

Come, Together (컴, 투게더, Shin Dong-il, 2017)

come, together posterToo fast, too loud, too bright. The pressure cooker society threatens to explode in Shin Dong-il’s sympathetic portrayal of one family’s period of crisis in Come, Together (컴, 투게더). When sorrows come they come not single spies but in battalions – redundancy (of several kinds), betrayal, anxieties academic and financial, the Parks have more than their fare share to deal with but the cumulative effect of their individual troubles quickly overwhelms their ordinary, middle-class existence, exposing the tiny fractures in its foundation hitherto papered over by chasing the dream of materialism.

From the outside the Parks are just like any typical middle-class family. They live in a nice apartment with a greenhouse balcony and plenty of space for three. Dad Beom-goo (Lim Hyung-guk) is a moderately successful salaryman, but his world collapses when he’s abruptly let go in the most insensitive of ways by his slimy boss. Mum Mi-yeong (Lee Hye-eun) is a credit card saleswoman who earns by commission and is well used to the hard sell. Teenage daughter Han-na (Chae Bin) has taken a year out to retake her university entrance exams but is now in limbo after not doing well enough to be accepted but having been ranked 18th on the waiting list, anxiously waiting to find out if enough people decide to decline the place she is so desperate to win.

Beom-goo losing his job of 18 years is not just humiliating and embarrassing, but as the family are already in huge debt it is also extremely worrying. As a middle-aged man, it’s unlikely Beom-goo is going to be able to find a comparable position in Korea’s competitive labour market where switching companies is still not the norm and most employees are hired right out of college. Having spent the last 18 years debasing himself to flatter his bosses, it’s galling in the least to realise he’s simply been replaced with a younger, cheaper employee he himself helped learn the ropes. Deprived of his breadwinner status, Beom-goo is supposed to be doing the housework but the boredom quickly gets to him and he spends most days lounging around in his pants lamenting his sorry state. That is until he meets the man from upstairs (Kim Jae-rok) who happens to be in a similar position and begins to lead Beom-goo astray before hinting at a much darker course for himself than the one he’s set Beom-goo on.

Mi-yeong is now the sole provider but her work is extremely stressful – not just the high pressure world of sales, but the bitchy, backstabbing atmosphere in the mostly female office. The job is to get people to sign up for credit cards they don’t really need and probably can’t afford, adding to the pressures of the consumerist society which have already landed the Parks in financial difficulty themselves. Mi-yeong is good at her job, she knows how to get people to sign on the dotted line but she’s also desperate enough to risk breaking the rules. When she’s undercut by a colleague whose situation she has misread, Mi-yeong takes it extremely personally, vowing revenge not just on the colleague but on the boss who refused to back her up and the client who betrayed her.

Mi-yeong’s rage and resentment are to have tragic, unforeseen consequences, threatening to deliver everything she’d dreamed of but at a terrible price. Han-na faces a similar dilemma as she finds herself staring at the list of 17 people in the queue in front of her and silently hoping some of them get hit by busses. The tense atmosphere at home only adds to Han-na’s stress levels as Beom-goo’s increasing impotence finds him playing father of the house like never before and deliberately undermining her sense of self esteem by repeatedly bringing up her failure to get into college. Unlike either of her parents, Han-na does at least have a positive influence in her life in the form of friend Yoo-gyeong (Lee Sang-hee), whom both her parents disapprove of because of her deliberate choice to live outside the mainstream.

Yoo-gyeong, though only in her early ‘20s, owns her own store selling leather bracelets and uses the proceeds to fund her free spirited lifestyle of taking off backpacking across whichever land takes her fancy. When Han-na says she wishes she could live like Yoo-gyeong, Yoo-gyeong bristles, insisting that she’d support whichever decision Han-na makes but that she ought to live her own life the way she wants rather than emulating someone else. Also, by way of an aside, she points out that people seem to assume she does exactly as she pleases but that’s not quite the case. In fact, it may be that Yoo-gyeong is, in a sense, forced to live a life outside of the mainstream simply by virtue of who she is and that her frequent flights to pastures new are a kind of escape or of running away from various social pressures at home.

Irrespective of whether or not they get what they thought it was they wanted, each is forced to reassess their way of living, realising that their relentless pursuit of material gain and the socially accepted definition of success has only made them miserable. Rather than continuing down the road to ruin, the Parks decide to choose happiness by simply dropping out, resetting their lives with the intention of doing what it is they want to do rather than what it is they think they’re supposed to. Waking up from a conformist delusion reawakens the freedom to embrace individual desires but it also restores the family to its previously happy state, released from the strain of modern life in favour of simpler, more essential pleasures.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (select English subtitles from captions menu)