Coin Locker Girl (차이나타운, Han Jun-hee, 2015)

coin locker girl posterFamily in Korean films, unlike those say of Japan, has always been something of a double edged sword. Coin Locker Girl (차이나타운, AKA Chinatown) takes the idea of “family” and twists it around, bites into it to test its veracity, and offers a wry smirk as the metal begins to bend. Set in Incheon’s Chinatown, Han Jun-hee’s noirish thriller sends its heroine down a series of dark alleyways as she both fights and fights to retain her humanity whilst inhabiting an extremely inhuman world.

Il-young (Kim Go-eun) was found, covered in blood, hidden away in a coin locker, an abandoned child with no clue as to her identity or that of the woman who gave birth to her. Named and taken in by a collection of beggars at the station, she began her life as a street rat though not, perhaps, entirely unloved or friendless. As a young child she was then taken by gangsters working for a fearless female gang boss known as “Mom” (Kim Hye-soo). Mom is not one to suffer fools and feels no compunction in getting rid of those no longer useful to her. She soon puts Il-young to work, pamphleteering, begging, and eventually debt collecting as she grows older under Mom’s watchful eyes. By the time Il-young is almost come of age, she has an older brother and a sister as well as a younger brother with learning difficulties whom Mom still looks after despite her otherwise unsentimental approach to life.

The trouble starts when Mom sends Il-young to collect a debt from the young son of a man who’s skipped the country. Seok-hyeon (Park Bo-gum) is not like the typical clients she’s met before. He opens his door, invites her in, even offers to feed her before she leaves. Il-young finds all of this very strange. She’s never met anyone “nice” before and wonders what his angle is. Seok-hyeon, however, does not appear to have much of an angle aside from perhaps the usual one. Spending a bit of time with him, Il-young begins to develop certain feelings which see her swapping her Mom-style slacks and jackets for pretty summer dresses. Despite his son’s faith in him, Seok-hyeon’s father has not kept his end of the bargain and so Mom decides it’s time to call in the debt by offing Seok-hyeon and harvesting his organs. Il-young has a choice – between the woman she calls “Mom”, and a naive young man she has come to like though he has no place in her kill or be killed world.

One of the most attractive qualities about the young Il-young was that she didn’t exist. No birth certificate and no identity meant that she could be Mom’s to do with as she pleased. Consequently, adolescent Il-young has a more complicated relationship with her “Mom” than most young women but is also acutely aware of the debt of gratitude which is owed, the precariousness of her position, and the reality that she has nowhere else to go should she decide to try and break away from the world in which she has been raised. Never quite sure what her relationship to Mom is, Il-young has come to think of the other children in the same situations as siblings, but again cannot be sure that they feel the same.

Like many a good film noir, the tragedy lies in not completely closing off one’s heart as the harshness of the world dictates. Mom rejects those who are not useful and terminates those who have betrayed her with extreme prejudice, but despite herself she cannot destroy Il-young. Stepping back from her code, her orders are to let Il-young live, condemning her to a fate perhaps worse than death but alive all the same. Mom is betrayed by another child figure enacting a petty act of revenge, but her decision to let Il-young live is the one which threatens to condemn her. Having believed herself an unloved, unwanted child, Il-young is left with two terrible legacies of abandonment and the feeling that she will never leave that coin locker in which she has been trapped since birth. The cycle of maternal sacrifice continues, though Il-young has the opportunity to change her fate by taking charge of it, picking up where Mom left off but with greater compassion even within the confines of her still cruel world.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017. Also screening at Manchester (11 Nov) and Glasgow (16 Nov).

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Queen of the Night (밤의 여왕, Kim Je-young, 2013)

Queen of the NightThere are only two things which spring to mind on hearing the words “Queen of the Night” – Mozart and…something else. Anyway, Kim Je-yeong’s Queen of the Night (밤의 여왕, Bamui Yeowang) is about neither of these. It’s about a dreadfully self-centred IT guy who finds out something he didn’t previously know about his wife and then decides to go all CIA about it. It’s also about her boss who turns out to have a connection to her hidden past and a taste for date rape. Queen of the Night is a comedy in which in which nothing seems very funny, at least if you don’t happen to be a nerdy IT guy whose dream it is to marry a kind and “frugal” woman who will have just emerged from a nunnery or spent her formative years at a conservatoire where all male contact was expressly prohibited.

Young-soo (Chun Jung-myung) is a lonely, middle-aged computer guy whose continual search for love is often undermined by his money-saving mania which extends to leaving his lunchtime blind date waiting while he runs back to the office to retrieve the discount coupon he’d intend to use to buy her a cheap meal. All he wants is a wife who is “frugal” and kind. One day he ventures into a Subway and lays eyes on the girl of his dreams, Hee-joo (Kim Min-jung), who doesn’t seem to notice him and also seems to be the reason this is store completely packed out with middle-aged salarymen. Finally she sees him, the pair start dating, and eventually get married.

Everything is amazing, Young-soo has never been happier. The pair have bought their own apartment in Seoul and are even about to get rid of Young-soo’s horrible old fridge. Young-soo’s life begins to derail when his good-looking but sleazy boss, Park Chang-joo (Kang Sung-ho), asks him to install a dodgy surveillance app across the office network but it’s a trip to a uni reunion which plants doubts in Young-soo’s mind as to how well he really knows his wife.

Without giving too much away, Queen of the Night’s big secret is not what you think it is. In fact it’s nothing at all. All it amounts to is that Hee-joo was once young and a bit mixed up. She spent some time abroad, didn’t feel like she fit in, came back to Korea and felt even more out-of-place. So she started going to clubs and hanging out with delinquents – how scandalous! Of course, Young-soo wanted a nice, level-headed girl who was careful with money so this information disturbs him. Hee-joo has definitely outgrown her wild years and is exactly the woman he wants her to be, but Young-soo just can’t let it go.

The ironic thing is, spineless Young-soo is conflicted about employing the spy program but does it anyway while planning to write a blocking program to stop it working. Meanwhile he’s basically stalking his wife, googling her on the internet and trying to track down her old friends to find out who she really was before he met her. Simply asking Hee-joo does not occur to him.

The world Hee-joo is forced to live in is extremely misogynistic. Young-soo’s suspicions are first aroused when he is talked into making a rare appearance at a uni reunion after being assured he can take his new wife with him. Young-soo only wants to do this to show off that’s netted himself such a lovely, pretty girl but the reunion itself takes a turn for the strange when the wives (there is only one female computer engineer in the group and she apparently owes her graduation to Young-soo who supposedly ghostwrote her thesis for her, because you know women and computers, right?) are expected to participate in a bizarre talent contest to win white goods by showing off their special skill. Hee-joo ends up winning a kimchi fridge her mother-in-law had been desperate for by showing off her smooth moves on the dance floor, much to Young-soo’s surprise and mild displeasure.

Aside from being thrust into combat with the other wives of engineers, Hee-joo is also forced to contend with the unwanted attentions of Young-soo’s boss, Park. As part of his attempts to defeat the spying app, Young-soo discovers surveillance footage of Park taking women back to his office and spiking their drinks after which he assaults them. Despite seeming outraged, Young-soo does nothing at all about this. When Hee-joo looks set to become his latest victim, Young-soo busts a gut to save her but later descends into a bout of victim blaming, preferring to bring up the small amount of info he’s discovered about Hee-joo’s past to imply this was all her fault. Matters are made worse by Young-soo’s geeky friend (Kim Ki-bang) who spends too much time on the internet and assures him that the reason he and Hee-joo haven’t conceived is because of the anti-sperm antibodies in her system generated by promiscuity. Absolute and total rubbish, but Young-soo falls for it without reservation, largely because he has such low self-worth that he assumes any woman who falls for him must in some way be damaged.

Hee-joo is allowed to get her own back, to a point, by reuniting with some of her delinquent friends to scare the living daylights out of Park before telling Young-soo to get lost. He, of course, tries to win her back but he’ll have to learn to love her past too if he’s to have any chance of regaining his bright and happy future. This is a positive step, in a sense, as Young-soo seems to have acknowledged Hee-joo is a person and not just a personification of his hopes and dreams, but it’s also painted as a kind of forgiveness rather an acknowledgement of his totally inappropriate behaviour. Nothing about this is funny to anyone born after 1780, it is rather profoundly depressing. Queen of the Night may shine a little light on male/female relations in modern-day Korea but the picture it paints is far from inspiring.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

New Trial (재심, Kim Tae-yun, 2017)

new trialIt’s a strange paradox that in a land defined by corruption of the legal system, your only hope my lie in a new trial. So it is for the hero of Kim Tae-yun’s latest film. Inspired by a real life miscarriage of justice (a case which was in fact still continuing at the time of filming), New Trial (재심, Jaesim) takes aim at everything from social inequality to unscrupulous lawyers and abuse of police power. A teenager pays dearly for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, not only losing 10 years of his life but the entire possibility of his future now that he’s forever branded a criminal. That’s aside from leaving his ageing (now blind mother) alone with no means of support and the additional burden of trying to clear her son’s name.

In the year 2000, reckless teen Hyeon-woo (Kang Ha-Neul) gets himself mixed up in the stabbing of a taxi driver. Despite sticking around to do his civic duty, he gets arrested, tried, talked into a false plea bargain confession and serves 10 years behind bars. Hyeon-woo might have been released after serving his time but he’s not the carefree kid he was before. Sullen, angry, and an ex-con without qualifications, he can’t find a job and has the additional burden of trying to care for his now blind mother. Even if he technically confessed to the crime because his conviction was inevitable and he wanted to get out faster so his mother wasn’t left alone, Hyeon-woo has his hopes permanently fixed on a retrial so he can clear his name once and for all.

Enter shady lawyer Park Jun-young (Jung Woo). Park is not your usual pick for a social justice case. He became a lawyer for the big bucks and macho posturing. After he loses a big case, incurs numerous debts, and is left by his wife and child, Park joins a big firm on a pro-bono basis, hoping to pick up a big client, impress them and get another permanent position. Thus he stumbles on Hyeon-woo’s case and, given the notoriety of the incident, thinks there may be some mileage in it.

Park may start off as the cynical, winner takes all school of legally savvy but morally bankrupt attorney but the more he looks into Hyeon-woo’s case the angrier he finds himself getting. Not only was Hyeon-woo betrayed by the police who knew the identity of the real killer but chose to scapegoat a poor boy instead, but he was also ordered to pay vast sums in compensation to the victim’s family. Saddled with an irreparable debt for a crime he did not commit, Hyeon-woo has reason for his passive aggressive defeatism and lack of faith in Park but gradually begins to come back to life when provided with real hope of achieving his goal of a new trial.

Yet much of the drama revolves around the two as they negotiate an uneasy trust. Hyeon-woo has been let down before by men in who said they could help only to make a speedy exit taking Hyeon-woo’s hard won money and faith in the future with them. Park starts off claiming Hyeon-woo’s guilt or innocence is an irrelevant detail, all that matters to him is winning the case and thereby getting his career back on track. Flitting through periods of winning and losing faith in each other the two are eventually able to come together in their common goal, each working for justice not just for Hyeon-woo but for all the other Hyeon-woos betrayed by political and judicial corruption.

The real life case which inspired New Trial is still not settled but the man who inspired the originally slippery Park has gone on to become Korea’s new trial king – coming to the rescue of those who find themselves at the mercy of shady forces and railroaded into paying for something they did not do. Park finds few allies in his new quest for social justice, and none among the ranks of the swanky lawyer elites he was so desperate to join, but every movement needs a leader and perhaps this one starts with a man called Park and a massive change of heart.


New Trial was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

One Way Trip (글로리데이, Choi Jeong-yeol, 2016)

one-way-trip-posterReview of Choi Jeong-yeol’s One Way Trip first published by UK Anime Network.


Young men just trying to do the right thing often end up losing out in the long run – so it is for the four best friends at the centre of Choi Jeong-yeol’s One Way Trip (글로리데이, AKA Glory Day). Caught right on the liminal divide between adolescence and adulthood, each of the four has a different path set before him, not entirely of their own choosing. De facto leader Young-bi (Ji Soo) seems the most directionless of the four but as the only one with a driving license he’s found an old banger of a van and got the guys together for one last road trip before Sang-woo (Suho) enlists in the military. Joined by city councilman’s son Ji-gong (Ryoo Joon-Yeol) and Doo-man (Kim Hee-Chan), a reluctant baseball player, the boys take off for the last real trip of their adolescent lives.

Things do not go to plan as the opening sequence features the guys furiously running away from the police, more worried about their parents finding out than any more serious consequences, but tragedy strikes when Sang-woo is knocked over in a hit and run accident. With Sang-woo unconscious in the hospital, the remaining three guys find themselves locked up on assault charges which later graduate murder. How did their peaceful trip turn out like this?

Told largely through flashbacks explaining both the events of that night and the guys lives, One Way Trip examines the effect of a traumatic incident on each of the boys as they find their friendship coming under increasing pressure. Hanging around near the harbour, the guys spot a couple having a domestic dispute in a nearby car before the man drags the woman outside and proceeds to accuse her of having an affair whilst becoming increasingly violent. Headstrong Young-bi decides to intervene but goes too far in picking a fight with the guy while the woman gets herself to safety. When the violent husband falls into a nearby boat, the guys get scared and run off but the battered wife has already called the police who wind up chasing them through the town.

Panicking in the police station, distraught Young-bi gets himself into even more trouble sending their case straight up to the detectives. Though originally sympathetic, the police change their tune when it turns out that the woman involved is a high profile TV news reader. In an attempt to protect her reputation, she refuses to back the boys’ story and implicates them in the murder of her husband. The police, not overly interested in the finer details of the case, want a speedy resolution – a desire which is only echoed from further up where head office is getting pressure from the media.

These are all nice, ordinary kids who’ve never been in any kind of trouble before but suddenly they’re being encouraged to turn on each other and engineer the best possible outcome for themselves as individuals. Ji-gong’s mother (Moon Hee-kyung) is a prim woman most worried about what the neighbours will think, not to mention the impact on her husband’s political career. Doo-man’s father (Yoo Ha-bok) is even more panicked than his son and immediately starts making every conceivable kind of fuss at the police station, including attempted bribery. Young-bi, by contrast, has no one to speak for him as the only responsible adult is his older brother (Kim Dong-wan) – his father is already in jail. To the other parents, the answer is obvious, blame it on the no good delinquent their “nice” kid has been lead astray by and forget about the whole thing.

Though these boys are almost men, they have very little control over their own lives which continue to be dictated by parental expectation. Ji-gong’s overbearing mother locks him in the house to try and force him to study while Doo-man’s father ignores his pleas that he can’t stand playing baseball and is sick of all the other players resentment because they know he’s only on the team because his father put him there. Young-bi has no firm parental input but his feelings about his family circumstances are what lead him to try and help a woman in peril, as well as the reason he loses his temper so quickly. Sang-woo, the most blameless among the boys, has only his grandmother whom he wanted to spare a life of hardship by serving in the military followed by a solid government guaranteed job afterwards.

Fear and external pressures start to work their magic on the three previously innocent guys who thought they were doing something good but have ended up paying the price. Heartbreak and betrayal are the order of the day as money, power, and influence will always win out over justice, goodness and friendship. Injustice is the force that governs the world, Young-bi thought he was doing the right thing by coming to the aid of a woman under attack only for everyone else to tell him he should have just minded his own business and not gotten involved. Bookended scenes of the four guys together having fun on the beach only reinforce the stark contrast between their youthful innocence, naively believing in friendship and the essential goodness of helping others, and their post-trip awakening to the self-centred indifference of the adult world.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer:

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: