Gyeong-ah’s Daughter (경아의 딸, Kim Jung-eun, 2022)

“It’s not your fault. And it’s not mine either.” a young woman declares, finally freeing herself of internalised shame while trying to live under the oppressively patriarchal social codes of contemporary Korea in Kim Jung-eun’s quietly enraged drama, Gyeong-ah’s Daughter (경아의 딸, Gyeongaheui Ddal). As the title implies, the film is as much about parents and children and the various ways the older generation unwittingly fail the younger in mistakingly clinging to the conservative ideas that defined their own youth but bring nothing but misery to all as it is about the pervasive misogyny of the modern society. 

Pushed to the edge, Yeon-su (Ha Yoon-Kyung) exclaims that she cannot bear being Gyeong-ah’s (Kim Jung-Young) daughter sick of her overly possessive, controlling parenting along with her initial failure to support her during one of the most miserable moments of her life. As the film opens, Gyeong-ah facetimes her daughter and the pair chat cheerfully for a while even though Gyeong-ah criticises Yeon-su’s new haircut as she shows her around her new apartment showing off the cheerful lights she’s stringed above her bed. But then, the conversation takes a turn for the strange with Gyeong-ah suddenly insisting that Yeon-su prove she is alone, taking the phone to the bathroom to show her there’s no one hiding in there and then even out in the hall in the event that she knew her mother might ask. We can well understand why Yeon-su, who is a grown woman about to start her first job as a high school teacher, might prefer to keep her mother at arm’s length unwilling to take the trouble of sharing her private life with her.  

It’s this sense of distance that informs Gyeong-ah’s reaction when she suddenly receives a strange video from an unknown number and realises that it is a sex tape featuring her daughter. First of all she feels betrayed that Gyeong-ah lied to her when she repeatedly, and invasively, asked if she had a boyfriend while otherwise badgering her about not being married. But then she also feels ashamed, horrified, to see her daughter engage in behaviour that she views as somehow sordid. When Gyeong-ah confronts Yeon-su she blames her, disgusted that her adult daughter was sexually active in the first place but doubly so that she allowed herself to be filmed while doing it. 

The fact that Yeon-su knew her boyfriend, Sang-hyun (Kim Woo-Kyum), was filming and did not stop him is brought up repeatedly as if this is all her fault for being so stupid or perhaps perverse to have agreed to it. As we discover, Yeon-su broke up with Sang-hyun because he was possessive and controlling a fact he proved by continuing to harass her with relentless text messages and phone calls to which she did not respond. Eventually he turns up at her place of work with flowers and does not take well to Yeon-su’s attempt to explain that his actions are not “romantic” but have actively frightened her. As she gets into a taxi to leave, he further threatens her by giving the cab driver her address reminding her that he knows where she lives while making it clear to him that she’s his woman. “What a reliable boyfriend” the driver quips, chuckling that he probably suspects he might kidnap her. Yeon-su wisely decides to go to her mother’s instead, only to get another earful about the dangers of staying out too late alone. 

Sang-hyun’s decision to send the sex tape to all of Yeon-su’s close contacts including Gyeong-ah is another attempt to exercise control over her life as act of revenge in being scorned. A sense of patriarchal entitlement seems to surround her. When a (negative) pregnancy test is found at the school, the principal mutters about conducting some kind of witch hunt on the look out for teenage lovers adding that “girls today are shameless” as if the boy bears no responsibility or else is simply led astray by a “bad” girl who should be taught a lesson in feminine purity. Later in a cafe, Gyeong-ah hears a man remark that he’s “popular with women at work”, when he makes a move they can’t resist him. Unable to cope with rejection, Sang-hyun destroys Yeon-su’s life yet faces no consequences of his own. She can no longer bear to be looked at, distancing herself from her friends and taking a leave of absence from her job barely leaving a tiny one-room apartment and forced to pay exorbitant sums to a data security company to try and erase the video from the internet knowing it will never really be “over” because someone could always just reupload it. 

On going to the police she’s again asked if she consented to the video being filmed and told that in practice no one really gets convicted for these crimes because they just say their phone was stolen or that they were hacked. Even Yeon-su’s lawyer later pressures her to settle out of court while she’s further harassed by Sang-hyun’s otherwise well-meaning mother who is forced to realise that she’s raised such a fragile boy. Gyeong-ah in turn is forced to reckon with her maternal failures, that though Yeon-su had supported her through her abusive marriage she was not there when she needed her and in fact tried to reinforce the same oppressive social codes that caused her nothing but misery all through her life. When the report of a woman who had killed her husband after long years abuse being sentenced to a lengthy prison term plays on the television in a cafe, even Gyeong-ah’s best friend exclaims that a woman should stick with her husband no matter what unable to understand what might have motivated the woman’s actions. 

Yet Gyeong-ah continues to ask her daughter why she’s not married, forcing her into this selfsame cycle of abuse and control. The old man that Gyeong-ah looks after has several sons, yet they’ve hired a middle-aged woman to look after him while his daughter, a successful lawyer, looks in occasionally and beats herself up that she’s somehow failing in her duty of care. She explains that she didn’t want to get married, but might have liked to have children, eventually sympathising with Gyeong-ah’s dilemma and offering some free life and legal advice to an increasingly depressed Yeon-su, though Gyeong-ah had perhaps judged her implying that she was wrong to choose a career over becoming a wife and mother. Gyeong-ah is beginning to realise the mistake in her complicity, but as Yeon-su says it’s not her fault and nothing good will come of it until each of them learns to stop blaming themselves so they can move on with their lives. When Gyeong-ah finally removes the family portrait from her wall and leaves it out for the bin men, just as Yeon-su had tried to do with the remnants of her relationship with Sang-hyun, it’s as if she’s freeing herself from the outdated patriarchal social codes that convinced her she had no right to resist or claim her own agency over her life. Yeon-su has perhaps taught her a valuable lesson while rediscovering her self-confidence and fighting back against the sheer entitlement of the fragile men that thought it was their right to ruin her life by shaming her into submission. 


Gyeong-ah’s Daughter screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Moving On (남매의 여름밤, Yoon Dan-bi, 2019)

Life is a series of partings, but somehow they never seem to get any easier. The heroine of Yoon Dan-bi’s award-winning debut feature Moving On (남매의 여름밤, Nammaewui Yeoreumbam) seems to have already developed a healthy sense of nostalgia for an irretrievable past despite her young age, acutely aware of her silent grandfather’s aching loneliness though somehow unable to ease it. Yet it’s the complicated business of family that she finds herself sorting out one difficult summer while temporarily displaced, living in a sense in the past as her equally lost father attempts to rediscover some kind of foothold in the modern society by moving back into his childhood home.

Teenage Ok-ju (Choi Jung-un) takes one last look around her old apartment before her dad Byunggi (Yang Heung-joo) drives them to grandpa’s, a place and indeed man she doesn’t know particularly well. In fact, she’s worried he might not even know they’re coming. When they arrive, it turns out grandpa isn’t there, he’s in hospital after being struck down by heatstroke. As they will every other time we see them bar the last, Ok-ju and her younger brother Dong-ju (Park Seung-joon) enter the house alone, waiting patiently for their father to come back while still not really quite at home, fearful of causing a disturbance in an unfamiliar environment. When they finally return it seems as if Ok-ju’s hunch might have been right, her father asks grandpa for permission to stay to which he merely gives a few words of assent. 

Byunggi paints their stay as something like a summer holiday, which it is in a way, a brief moment of pause while they figure out what to do next. What he hasn’t told the kids is that he’s broke, selling factory second sneakers on the street in an unsuccessful attempt to make ends meet while he studies to pass an exam to get a better job. They’re piling into grandpa’s two-bed, two-storey home because they don’t have money for rent. Yet like any teenage girl Ok-ju has the usual worries. She wants $700 from her father for cosmetic surgery, partly as she later explains to her aunt Mijung (Park Hyun-young) because the boy she’s been seeing only texts her when she texts him leaving her feeling insecure in her looks and mistakenly believing he’d be more proactive if her eyes were more generic. Later she swipes a pair of her dad’s trainers to give to him as a birthday present, trying to buy his attention, and then another trying to sell them to get the money her dad wouldn’t give her not realising the trainers are fake. The awakening she gets is then two-fold, firstly that she made a huge mistake turning to crime and secondly realising that her dad’s a fraud, a failed businessman who’s resorted to peddling knock offs and moving back in with his father because he can’t support his family. 

Meanwhile, she’s still harbouring a great deal of resentment towards her absent mother who has for unknown reasons left the family. She argues with her cheerful brother Dong-ju who still wants to maintain contact with her, angrily accusing him of having no pride when quite the reverse is true. It’s she who is too proud to admit she misses her mother and too hurt to forgive her for her abandonment. She rejects Dong-ju’s right to choose for himself, insisting that he shouldn’t see their mother because she doesn’t want to, trying to enforce sibling solidarity but only further driving a wedge between herself and her brother as she reduces him to tears in the absurdity of her misplaced rage. With father and mother both discredited, only the arrival of aunt Mijung provides an alternative source of adult reliability but aunt Mijung has problems too, sneaking out at night to drink and smoke while contemplating a middle-aged divorce from her possibly abusive husband. 

There’s an odd kind of symmetry in the secondary family that is thrown together at grandpa’s, Ok-ju and Dong-ju younger versions of Byunggi and Mijung living in their childhood home now cast in the parental roles if somewhat awkwardly. They have each in a sense failed, Byunggi unemployed and separated from his wife and Mijung heading for a divorce. They’ve come “home” to be children again, get a reset on middle-aged disappointment while contemplating future loneliness as they consider the problem of grandpa, asking themselves if he might not be better off in a home as his health declines especially after the kids go back to school and they’ll need to hire a carer. Mijung wants to sell, but it’s impossible to sort the desire to do right by dad from the material lure of turfing him out his own house to unlock its hidden equity. Figuring out what’s going on, Ok-ju is further disappointed in her father. After all, it’s just not right. But he fires back at her that stealing his dad’s house out from under him isn’t so different from what she did when she took the shoes, which is a point but maybe not the one he thinks he’s making. 

Still, sometimes events can overtake you. Walking downstairs late one evening Ok-ju is struck by the sight of her grandfather sitting sadly alone listening to a melancholy song from his youth about lost love, overcome with nostalgia and a deep sense of loneliness, a longing for something or someone perhaps the family of bygone days. The Korean title, “a brother and sister’s summer night”, has its sense of poignancy too as the pair are forced to contemplate summer’s end, processing loss as they adjust to the new normal of their unusual family circumstances Ok-ju finding an adult accommodation with disappointment as she prepares to “move on” from this summer interlude into a much less certain world. Shot with warmth and naturalism, Yoon’s debut captures a family on the brink of disintegration but does perhaps find a kind of solidarity in the siblings’ self-reliance as they face the summer night alone but also together. 


Moving On streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Winter’s Night (겨울밤에, Jang Woo-jin, 2018)

Winter's Night poster“You clumsy man, don’t lose her again!” a busybody landlady instructs the hero of Jang Woo-jin’s Winter’s Night (겨울밤에, gyeoulbam-e), neatly cutting to the heart of the matter with just a few well directed words. In Korean cinema, the is past always painfully present but our pair of dejected lovers haunt themselves with echoes of lost love and pangs of regret mixed with a hollow fondness for the days of youth. The fire has long since died, but the memory of its warmth refuses to fade.

We first meet Eun-ju (Seo Young-hwa) and her husband Heung-ju (Yang Heung-joo) in a taxi driven by an extremely chatty man of about the same age which is to say around 50. Heung-ju, sitting uncomfortably in the front while his wife sits alone in the back, explains that he first came to this area 30 years previously when he did his military service. Bored and perhaps irritated by her husband’s conversation, Eun-ju realises she has lost her phone and insists they turn back to go and look for it at the temple they have just left. Heung-ju is annoyed but makes a show of humouring his wife while she refuses to leave, forcing the couple to stay overnight in a small inn that he later realises is the same place they stayed 30 years ago on the very night that they first became a couple.

As is pointed out to Eun-ju several times, losing a phone is an inconvenient and expensive mistake but perhaps not the end of the world. Nevertheless she continues to hunt for it as if it were her very soul, eventually explaining to a confused monk that it is all she has and even if she were to buy another one it wouldn’t be the same. Eun-ju’s attachment to her phone may hint at a deeper level of loss which has contributed to the distance she feels between herself and her husband, but the search is as much metaphorical as it is literal, sending both husband and wife out on a quest to look for themselves amid the icy caves and snow covered bridges.

An early attempt to check CCTV yields a pregnant image of a young soldier (Woo Ji-hyun) and a girl (Lee Sang-hee) sitting across from each other before they disappear and are replaced by the older Eun-ju and Heung-ju. Eun-ju later re-encounters the younger couple several times, becoming witness to their impossibly innocent romance which is such an eerie reminder of her own that one wonders if they are simply ghosts of her far off past. The soldier, an earnest, shy poet tries and fails to stop the girl walking onto the same thin ice that Eun-ju will later brave not quite so successfully, while the girl gleefully tells him that she has recently broken up with her boyfriend. They are young and filled with hope for the future, while Eun-ju is older and filled only with disappointment. Still, there is something in her that loves these young not-yet-lovers for all the goodness that is in them as she takes the younger woman, and her younger self, in her arms and warmly reassures her that the future is not so bleak as it might one day seem.

Meanwhile, a petulant Heung-ju has gone out looking for his “lost” wife but been distracted by the shadow of another woman (Kim Sun-young) wandering across the back of his mind. He drinks too much and ends up singing sad solo karaoke before discovering an old flame sleeping on a hidden sofa. She doesn’t immediately recognise Heung-ju and so runs away in fear, but later joins him for a drink over which she flirts raucously but probably not seriously while he moons over his wife, mourns an old friend, and recalls their student days lived against the fiery backdrop of the democracy movement.

Together again the couple attempt to talk through their mutual heartaches, expressing a mild resentment at the other’s unhappiness and their own inability to repair it, but seem incapable of bridging the widening gulf which has emerged between them. Trapped in an endless loop of romantic melancholy, the pair fail to escape the wintery temple where, it seems, a part of them will always remain, haunting the desolate landscape with the absence of recently felt warmth. A beautifully pitched exploration of middle-aged malaise and the gradual disillusionment of living, Winter’s Night tempers its vision of unanswerable longing with quiet hope as its two dejected lovers hold fast to the desire to begin again no matter how futile it may turn out to be.


Winter’s Night was screened as the first teaser for the 2019 London Korean Film Festival. Tickets for the next teaser screening, Default at Regent Street Cinema on 20th May, are already on sale.

Original trailer (English subtitles)