Kingmaker (킹메이커, Byun Sung-hyun, 2022)

It’s the political paradox. You can’t do anything without getting elected but to get elected you might have to abandon whatever it was you wanted to do in the first place. Loosely based on the real life figures of Kim Dae-jung and his political strategist Eom Chang-rok, the heroes of Byun Sung-hyun’s Kingmaker (킹메이커) are obsessed with the question of whether the ends justify the means and if it’s possible to maintain integrity in politics when the game itself is crooked while the film suggests that in the end you will have to live with your choices and your compromises either way and if it’s a better world you want to build perhaps you can’t get there by cheating your way to paradise.

The son of a North Korean migrant, Seo Chang-dae (Lee Sun-kyun) is an embittered and frustrated pharmacist with a talent for spin. When his friend complains about a neighbour stealing his eggs from his chicken coop and denying all knowledge because he’s well connected and knows he can get away with it, Chang-dae’s advice is to plant one of his own chickens in the other guy’s coop and catch him red handed. Impressed by the impassioned political speechmaking of labour activist Kim Woon-bum (Sol Kyung-gu), he writes him a letter offering his services and then marches down to his office to convince him that he is the guy to break his losing streak and finally get him elected so they can “change the damned world”. 

The problem is that all of Chang-dae’s ideas are like the chicken scam, built on the manipulation of the truth, but you can’t deny that they work. He plays the other side, the increasingly authoritarian regime of Park Chung-hee, at their own game, getting some of their guys to dress up as the opposing party and then set about offending a bunch of farmers by being generally condescending and entitled. They stage fights and perform thuggish violence to leave the impression that Park’s guys are oppressive fascists while asking for the “gifts” the Park regime had given out to curry favour back to further infuriate potential voters. Later some of their own guys turn up with the same gifts to send the message that they’re making up for all Park’s mistakes. At one point, Chang-dae even suggests staging an attack on Woon-bum’s person to gain voter sympathy, an idea which is met with total disdain by Woon-bum and his team many of whom are at least conflicted with Chang-dae’s underhanded tactics. 

But then as he points out, if they want to create a better, freer Korea in which people can speak their minds without fear then they have to get elected first. It may be naive to assume that you can behave like this and then give it all up when finally in office, but Chang-dae at least is committed to the idea that the ends justify the means. Woon-bum meanwhile is worried that Chang-dae has lost sight of what the ends are and is solely focussed on winning at any cost. He has an opposing number in slimy intelligence agent Lee (Jo Woo-Jin) who serves Park in much the same way Chang-dae serves Woon-bum, but Chang-dae fatally misunderstands him, failing to appreciate that for Lee Park’s “revolution” is also a just cause for which he is fighting just as Chang-dae is fighting for freedom and democracy. In an uncomfortable touch, Lee seems to be coded as gay with his slightly effeminate manner and tendency towards intimate physical contact adding an additional layer to his gradual seduction of Chang-dae whose friendship with Woon-bum also has its homoerotoic qualities in its quiet intensity. 

The final dilemma lies in asking whether or not Woon-bum could have won the pivotal election of 1971, preventing Park from further altering the constitution to cement his dictatorship and eventually declaring himself president for life, if he had not parted ways with Chang-dae and tried to win more “honestly”. If so, would they have set Korea on a path towards the better world they envisaged or would they have proved little different, their integrity already compromised by everything they did to get there poisoning their vision for the future? The fact that history repeats itself, Woon-bum and his former rival Young-ho (Yoo Jae-myung) splitting the vote during the first “democratic” presidential election and allowing Chun Doo-hwan’s chosen successor to win, perhaps suggests the latter. In any case, it’s Chang-dae who has to live with his choices in having betrayed himself, as Woon-bum had feared too obsessed with winning to remember why he was playing in the first place. “All my ideas about justice were brought down by my own hand” he’s forced to admit, left only with self-loathing defeat in his supposed victory. Some things don’t change, there is intrigue in the court, but “putting ambition before integrity will get you nowhere” as Chang-dae learns to his cost. 


Kingmaker screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Hunt (헌트, Lee Jung-jae, 2022)

“How long can you fight violence with violence?” one accidental ally asks another towards the conclusion of actor and star Lee Jung-jae’s 80s-set directorial debut, Hunt (헌트). As the title implies, this is a story of two men stalking each other but also each ironic representatives of an ideological divide both seeking a better future while torn between violent overthrow and peaceful revolution in the dying days of a Cold War in what could be termed its ground zero. 

As the film opens, the South Korean president, a stand-in for an unnamed Chun Doo-hwan, faces mass protest from local Korean-American democracy activists on return to his hotel while on a diplomatic visit to Washington. His security team is itself somewhat compromised in that it is a joint operation between foreign and domestic intelligence teams neither of which have must trust in the other. When it’s discovered that a plot is underway to assassinate the president, foreign intelligence chief Park (Lee Jung-jae) is taken hostage but insists on capturing the suspect only for domestic chief Kim (Jung Woo-sung) to abruptly shoot him, leading Park to wonder if Kim did it to keep him quiet rather than simply to neutralise an immediate threat. Assuming North Korea is most likely behind the plot, each begins to suspect the other is a mysterious double agent known as Donglim. 

What soon becomes apparent is that the two men, the domestic and the foreign, are being pitted against each other by the questionable authority that is the Chun regime. Recently promoted from the military, Kim had in fact instigated Park’s torture in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of the previous president, also a military dictator, Park Chung-hee. Both men appear to be conflicted in their association with an authoritarian government in the wake of widespread state violence including the brutal suppression of the Gwangju Uprising in May 1980. Nevertheless, both are party to acts of torture many of them enacted on teenage democracy activists they routinely smear as communists. 

In short, no one could really blame anyone who wanted to overthrow this brutal regime but as oppressive as it is, it’s also backed by the Americans who would rather keep Chun in power than risk the students’ wishes that the American military pull out of Korea coming to fruition lest it lead to a similar situation in Okinawa, which had only returned to Japanese sovereignty a decade earlier, undermining their ongoing foreign policy goals in Asia. If there is one clear villain, aside from Chun, it’s the shady the international order that is content to watch authoritarian leaders enact violence on their people when it supports their own interests. Nevertheless, it’s also true that Park and Kim’s personal vendetta sparks major diplomatic incidents in two sovereign nations which in any other case would seem primed to turn this cold war hot.

What emerges is a cat and mouse game in which each attempts to unmask the other while on increasingly unstable ground unable even to rely on support from their superiors who in any case answer directly to Chun. It seems there are several factions who would like to unseat him even if they do not necessarily object to authoritarian rule only to persistent state violence against citizens who are more often than not mere children. The differences between Park and Kim are ideological in more ways than one, torn between the belief that only violence can free them from violence and the desire to seek a better solution but each agreeing that assassination is the only viable path to deposing Chun and ushering in a better future despite the failure of the assassination of the previous president to do the same . 

Anchored by strong performances from veteran actors Lee Jung-jae and Jung Woo-sung, the film also features a host of cameos from some of the nation’s top stars including Hwang Jung-min as a manic North Korean airforce defector and Lee Sung-min in a small but pivotal role as a Korean-Japanese asset. With notably high production values and truly astonishing action sequences, Lee excels in capturing the paranoid atmosphere of the conspiracy thriller and an almost unbearable tension between its twin protagonists who will later discover that they are quite literally on the same bus even if they have very different destinations in mind. 


Hunt screened as the opening night gala of this year’s London East Asian Film Festival and arrives in UK cinemas/digital on 4th November courtesy of Altitude Films.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)

Alienoid (외계+인 1부, Choi Dong-hoon, 2022)

According to the strangely warmhearted AI robot at the centre of Choi Dong-hoon’s Alienoid (외계+인 1부), the universe is already finished, destined only to tear itself apart in destructive instability. According to him, his society evolved, became compassionate and forgiving, yet like many others sought to avoid a problem it did not want to deal with in exiling its most dangerous prisoners to the minds of oblivious Earthlings who apparently rarely realise they’re sharing body and soul with an alien killing machine until that is one decides to escape. 

Thunder (Kim Dae-myung), an AI unit accompanying the sullen Guard (Kim Woo-bin) who is also a kind of guardian, paints the aliens as dangerous mutants who live only for violence yet it might be worth considering that their rebellion may be justified as members of an oppressed minority apparently considered harmful to mainstream society were it not for the fact their plan involves poisoning the Earth’s atmosphere to free their brethren while suffocating humanity in the process. Guard is fond of saying that he cares nothing for humans and does not involve himself in human affairs, yet it’s obvious that as much as his duty is to ensure the aliens stay captive he feels a responsibility to protect humanity, coming to care for an infant child Thunder spirited away in compassion after its mother died when the alien hosted inside her tried to escape. 

There is something a little curious in the fact these alien beings have chosen to live in what is our present day when according to them time is not linear but happening all at once and they appear to have the ability to travel through it at will, even stashing mutant criminals back in the 14th century where a Taoist dosa magician, “The Marvellous Muruk” (Ryu Jun-yeol) is on the hunt for the Divine Blade and a young woman who “shoots thunder” (Kim Tae-ri). Alien technology may seem like magic even if rooted in “science”, but feudal Korea is a place of majestic fantasy in which wizardry is apparently very real to the extent that a pair of powerful sorcerers tour the land hawking magical supplies such as random sutra stickers and mirrors that enlarge whatever passes through them to mysteriously masked warrior monks. Yet as we can see the girl who shoots thunder is merely welding a pistol, a kind of halfway house of technology which seems like strange magic to the people of Goryeo but nothing more than a child’s toy to the laser-wielding robotic aliens. 

In any case, Choi eventually connects these two worlds bridged by temporal conspiracy as if implying that the future’s salvation lies only in the past. Guard is forced to reflect that their strange act of colonial imperialism in secretly implanting alien prisoners in human minds may have been misguided when challenged by his plucky little girl (Choi Yu-ri) who has already realised there’s something a little different about her distant dad while the fact she’s effectively being raised by two men passes as incidental detail even as the Guard is stalked by her best friend’s apparently smitten aunt (Lee Honey). 

This being the first instalment in a two part film, there is a notable lack of resolution in its closing moments though Choi excels in world building running from hard sci-fi to feudalistic fantasy imbued with the strange magic of technology and underpinned by an interrogation humanity as the heroes battle through time looking for a way to repair an “unstable” world ruled by greed and violence and largely find it in each other. While the chief thrill may come from the incongruity of a young woman firing a pistol in the age of the crossbow (not to mention blasting her way out of a coffin), Choi packs in a series of innovative action sequences shot with a knowing irony as Muruk faces off against the masked monks in the past while the Guard and Thunder try their best to keep the aliens at bay with their high tech weaponry, shooting electric pulses from their palms and dodging lasers but still making a last ditch attempt by leaping at the enemy spaceship and trying to stab it in the heart. Whether this disordered world can be stabilised through a moment of cosmic connection will have to wait for part two, but this opening instalment at least is quite literally a charming affair.


Alienoid is in US cinemas from Aug. 26 courtesy of Well Go USA.

US trailer (English subtitles)

Voice of Silence (소리도 없이, Hong Eui-jeong, 2020)

“Once you join a family, you have to pitch in, right?” the aphorism-loving protagonist of Hong Eui-jeong’s disturbingly warmhearted crime caper Voice of Silence (소리도 없이, Sorido Eopsi) explains to a little girl who has recently come into his “care” as she dutifully begins massaging the earth towards a half-buried body. Partly an exploration of the family bond and its propensity to arise even in the most duplicitous of circumstances, Hong’s ironically cheerful drama is also a mild condemnation of the modern society and its capacity to push good people to do bad things in its infinite oppressions. 

Egg farmer Chang-bok (Yoo Jae-myung), for example, is a man of faith who places great stock in protestant virtues of hard work and humility. Yet he sees no irony in the sign reading “Today’s honest sweat is tomorrow’s happiness” on the wall of a disused barn where he carries out his second job preparing torture victims for gangsters and then disposing of the bodies even going so far as to say a little prayer for them, bible in hand, as he places them into shallow graves in the forest. He and his mute partner Tae-in (Yoo Ah-in) dutifully wait outside as the violence takes place, rejecting entirely their sense of complicity with the corruption of the gangster world viewing themselves only as providing a service and taking pride in providing it well.

Nevertheless, when their “manager” pays them an unexpected visit and gives them an unusual assignment of “looking after” a person for a few days they can hardly refuse even as Chang-bok reminds him it’s not in their job description. Contrary to expectation, however, the “person” turns out not to be sequestered gangster but an 11-year-old girl, Cho-hee (Moon Seung-ah), whose father is haggling over a ransom payment. When the manager is consumed by the same system he previously operated, it leaves them with a problem. They can’t simply let the girl go because the kidnappers want their cut, but the father won’t pay up and so the only other option is handing her over to child traffickers. Chang-bok and more particularly Tae-in would rather that didn’t happen, but on the other hand they aren’t really doing too much to actively prevent it. 

Just as Chang-bok and and Tae-in are “egg farmers”, the child traffickers run their business out of a moribund chicken farm. The rural economy is apparently not faring so well in the modern society. Yet Hong’s countryside vistas are presented as an idyllic paradise with bluer than blue, cloudless skies and fields of verdant green. Then again those who live off the land are perhaps most aware of its compromises and of the price of survival. Chang-bok is fond of spouting vaguely religious aphorisms such as “whatever you do, do your best and be humble. Always be thankful for what you have”, later blaming his predicament on his recent laxity in attending church, but evidently sees no contradiction between his creed and way of life. He doesn’t want to hand Cho-hee over the child traffickers, but he won’t resist it either merely seeing it as an inevitable consequence of events already in play in which he is but a passive participant. 

Tae-in, meanwhile, though literally voiceless is beginning to reject his passivity. Apparently raised by Chang-bok from infancy, he is currently a guardian to a mysterious “sister”, Moon-joo (Lee Ga-eun) around 15 years younger than he is though no mention is made of their parents or what might have happened to them. Charged with taking care of Cho-hee he finds himself developing a paternal fondness for her while she quite unexpectedly slides neatly into his home, bringing a strangely maternal if perhaps in its own way problematic order in tidying the place up and giving Tae-il a more concrete sense of familial rootedness. When the pair picked her up, they wondered if Cho-hee’s father was haggling over the ransom amount because the kidnappers took his daughter when they meant to take his son. Chang-bok is morally outraged, believing sons and daughters should be treated the same and shocked a father would’t immediately do everything he could to protect his little girl. But Cho-hee knows only too well that they value her brother more and in fact doubts her father will help her. She carries these old fashioned patriarchal values into Tae-in’s village home, brushing Moon-joo’s rather feral hair, teaching her to fold clothes away neatly, instructing her to speak more politely to her brother and not to start eating until he has taken his first bite. 

Despite themselves, the four become an accidental family cheerfully enjoying ice lollies on a hot summer’s day trying to figure out a polaroid camera which has been bought for a slightly less happy purpose. There is perhaps an idea that Cho-hee might simply not return to her wealthy, urban family in which she feels unwanted and inferior but stay here in the more “innocent” countryside where the people are “honest”, value their daughters the same as their sons (even the child traffickers apparently charge the same discriminating only by age and blood type), and bury their bodies together. Chang-bok and Tae-in aren’t bad people, just members of a corrupt society who’ve internalised a sense of powerlessness that encourages them to be “humble” and complicit doing what they can to survive. Each marginalised by disability, Chang-bok walking with a pronounced limp and Tae-in rendered impotent by his inability to speak, they do not want to turn to “crime” but are trapped at the bottom of the social hierarchy and dependent on the illicit economy. Is Cho-hee any worse off with them than with the father who wouldn’t pay to get her back? The jury is most definitely out. 


Voice of Silence streamed as part of the Glasgow Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Baseball Girl (야구소녀, Choi Yun-tae, 2019)

According to the title card which opens Choi Yun-tae’s Baseball Girl (야구소녀, Yagoosonyeo), an obscure regulation in the founding principles of the Korean Baseball League placed a bar on players who were “biologically non-male”, a ban which was struck down in 1996 allowing women to play professionally though attitudes it seems are much harder to change than regulations. In contrast to the grand tradition of Korean sports dramas, the contest is not a game but the right to play in one and the opposing team not talented rivals but sneering sexism and a conformist society. 

Joo Soo-in (Lee Joo-young) made the papers as the first girl to play in her high school team in over 20 years. Casting an eye around her room we see her trophies and discover that she is a talented pitcher known for top speed fastballs, but then as others seem to put it her balls are only fast “for a girl”. All she’s ever dreamed of is playing professionally and, after all, there’s nothing in the rulebook to say she can’t but that’s all anyone ever tells her. Why can’t I? she asks them, but the only answer they have for her is that it simply isn’t done. Lined up with her teammates following a meeting with a scout from the big leagues, Soo-in watches as only one of her friends, Jeong-ho (Kwak Dong-yeon), is picked. The others all walk off with resignation, accepting that they’ll need to find alternate careers but Soo-in doesn’t back down. 

Soo-in’s determination places her at odds with her working class family, her harried mother (Yum Hye-ran) continually insisting that she’s being childish and unreasonable and should give up her dreams to do something more practical with her life or risk becoming like her father (Song Young-Kyu) who is perpetually unemployed, unable to provide for the family while repeatedly failing the exam to become a licensed estate agent. There’s no shame in giving up when there’s no chance of success, her mother tells her, aligning her quest with her father’s as an egotistical act of prideful selfishness. As a teenage girl, however, Soo-in cannot help but feel the slight of her parents’ lack of support, resenting her mother’s understandable prioritisation of the ability to earn as she pushes Soo-in towards taking an office job in the factory where she works right out of high school in the belief that she’s helping her towards an economically stable life. 

Meanwhile, the new coach on the team, Jin-tae (Lee Joon-Hyuk), is quick to sideline her, viewing her as ridiculous and deluded. It’s not because you’re a girl, he tells her, it’s that you aren’t good enough, paradoxically insisting that she never could be because of the “limitations” of her female body which make it impossible for her to compete with men who also, as he points out, are extremely unlikely to make it as professional players. She tells him that he’s wrong, vowing to pitch at a speed unheard of, certain that if achieved the leagues would have to take her. Jin-tae has problems of his own, a never was player who wasted his youth trying to turn pro, became an alcoholic, and ruined his marriage. It’s understandable that his experiences have turned him cynical and mean, but something about Jin-soo’s determination, along with her strong skillset, begins to move him. Maybe he thinks it’s hopeless too, but it would be wrong to deny her the right to try. 

The biggest battle Soo-in faces, however, is from other players. Jeong-ho relates how in their little league days she was the only girl on the team and the kids mercilessly bullied her in part because the coach told them having a woman around was bad luck and made them all do intensive training to encourage her to quit. Jin-tae tries to get his scout friend to get her a tryout for a professional team, but he makes no secret of his distaste for the idea, exasperatedly complaining that Soo-in doesn’t look like a ball player (i.e., not a man, small and slight) only to later offer her an insulting token job as a figurehead for a “Woman’s Baseball Project” designed to make his big league team look more progressive than it really is. At her big try out, the guys in the dug out snigger and laugh, making fun of the batter who was struck out by “a girl” while the other coach congratulates her suggesting that she must have “trained with the boys” before giving her some unsolicited advice. 

As she tells the director of the big league team, baseball is for everyone. Her femininity is not a strength or a weakness, it simply is. She might not be as fast or as strong, but she’s smart, and brute force is not the point of the game. Some tell to her give up, that she should just play in the women’s leagues as a “hobby”, and perhaps at times Soo-in doubts herself but as Jin-tae tells her, other girls can dream because she showed them it was possible when she overcame huge prejudice to play on her high school team. Yet for Soo-in with every success it will only get harder. Even so she won’t give in, playing hardball with a relentlessly patriarchal society as she insists on the right to follow her dreams wherever they may take her.


Baseball Girl streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app until Sept.12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Bring Me Home (나를 찾아줘, Kim Seung-woo, 2019) [Fantasia 2020]

“They were all like me” a drowning man exclaims, trying to justify his inhumanity but gaining only poetic retribution as he finds himself shackled, quite literally, to his crimes. Kim Seung-woo’s debut feature Bring Me Home (나를 찾아줘, Nareul Chajajwo) stars Lady Vengeance herself, Lee Young-ae, in her first big screen leading role since Park Chan-wook’s seminal thriller once again cast as a figure of wounded maternity coming for systemic societal corruption and the savagery born of hopeless desperation in her singleminded determination to retrieve her son and take him with her even if with a dark destination in mind. 

Six years previously, Jung-yeon’s (Lee Young-ae) son Yoon-su vanished from a playground at six years old. Since then, her husband (Park Hae-joon), formerly a teacher, has spent every waking moment looking for him while she works as a hospital nurse where her colleagues describe her as a cool, infinitely professional presence. She continually berates herself for a vague memory of wanting a break from her child, exhausted by the act of caring for him as if she somehow brought this on herself or at any rate gave the universe her permission to take him away. Just when the conditions of her life seemed as if they were about to improve with her husband agreeing to return to work, he is killed in a car accident while pursuing a lead which turned out to be useless anyway, a cruel prank played by insensitive children. Left so totally alone, Jung-yeon begins to consider suicide only to receive another promising lead. A boy who looks like Yoon-su and has a burn on his back and a birthmark behind his ear, is working at a fishing pool in a rural town.

The sad truth is Yoon-su or not, the “family” running the fishing pool have “adopted” two displaced children which they use for slave labour, cruelly abusing them both physically and sexually. It’s this essential act of inhumanity which alerts the corrupted community to the danger presented by Jung-yeon. They could give the boy back, claim the reward, and hope she asks no more questions, but the likelihood is all their dirty dealings would be exposed and then they’d have to replace him. Corrupt policeman Sgt. Hong (Yoo Jae-myung) who for some reason seems to be in charge of the fishing pool is confident he can make all of this go away, pretending to be sympathetic to Jung-yeon’s search but insisting that there is no such boy while introducing her to the landlady’s “son” , keeping “Minsu” chained up in the shed. 

Sgt. Hong is fond of reminding people that he works for the government, a symbol of corrupt and oppressive authority obsessed with maintaining his own status as the man in charge apparently insecure in his sense of control. He claims that he was only able to do the things that he has done because no one really cared. Hundreds of people came through and saw Minsu, none of them said anything until another officer noticed that he looked quite like the boy on the news and was struck by the large reward on offer. The same officer accepted a pay off not to say anything, but apparently took the money and talked anyway. Even Jung-yeon’s brother-in-law tries to get money out of her and then comes up with an elaborate ruse to get his hands on the reward after accidentally being given the tip-off. The only one of the gang to treat Minsu with any sort of compassion eventually turns against Jung-yeon out of fear, citing the economic precariousness of the town. He’s worried that their business will be ruined, more shops will close, and as an ex-con he’ll never find another job which is a problem because he wants money to make sure his son goes to university so he doesn’t end up like him. 

“The living must go on living” another of the gang agrees, indifferent to the costs or the consequences of their actions through it’s difficult to see how their desire to save the town could ever justify their treatment of these displaced children, dehumanising Minsu because of his learning difficulties. Jung-yeon finds one of her fliers pasted on a pillar partially covered by another one for missing dog while the gang’s most deranged member keeps his own wanted poster listing rape and murder on the wall of his shack as if it were some kind of commendation. Hinting at a dark history of missing children as evidenced in one young man’s (Lee Won-geun) recollections of being adopted abroad mistakenly believing that his parents had abandoned him, Bring Me Home eventually descends into archetypal pulp for its misty finale, returning to the mythic vistas of desolation in which it began with the dishevelled Jung-yeon walking the shore of life and death consumed by futility in the depths of her maternal guilt, but does perhaps offer a glimmer of hope in the crushing irony of its final revelations. 


Bring Me Home streamed as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Way Back Home (비밀의 정원, Park Sun-joo, 2019)

Can you ever really “move on” from trauma, or do you simply have to learn to live with it? The heroine of Park Sun-joo’s Way Back Home (비밀의 정원, Bimil-eui Jeong-won) thought she’d made peace with the past by trying her best to forget it, but an unwelcome intrusion reminds her that it’s not only the echoes of something terrible that happened to her when she was very young that shaped her life, but everything that happened afterwards. Now preparing to move into a new phase, she realises that in order to start a new family she’ll have to repair her fractured relations with the old. 

As a high school student, Jeong-won (Han Woo-yun) was abducted and raped by a stranger who was never caught. 10 years later, she’s in her mid-20s and is preparing to move into a family home with her husband, Sang-u (Jun Suk-ho), a carpenter who works with her uncle (Yoo Jae-myung) and aunt (Yum Hye-ran) in their studio while she also has a job as a swimming instructor. The couple are currently trying for a baby, but Jeong-won recently had a miscarriage and fears that the assault may have affected her ability to bear a child despite the doctor’s assurances that there is nothing medically wrong. Then, she gets an unexpected phone call from a detective in her hometown informing her that they’ve had a hit on the DNA from her case and think they’ve caught the man who raped her but need her to come in and verify a few details. 

Not really wanting to revisit the past she’d convinced herself she’d moved on from, Jeong-won ignores the policeman’s calls but after he contacts her mother (Oh Min-ae) and turns up at her door, alerting Sang-u, she has no choice but to face the matter head on. Sang-u is understandably blindsided, not quite sure how to deal with this very sensitive new information, wanting to be there for his wife but frustrated that she doesn’t seem to want him involved. He tries to talk to her about it, but she flatly explains that it’s not something she’s prepared to discuss with him. 

Intellectually understanding that his wife needs space, Sang-u can’t help but feel shut out, hurt that Jeong-won doesn’t feel comfortable allowing him into this extremely vulnerable space. Jeong-won begins to pull away, pretending that everything’s fine, getting on with packing for their move as if nothing had happened. Meanwhile, he begins to piece things together, realising that her past trauma must have something to do with her strained relationships with her mother and So-hui (Jung Da-eun), the younger sister she always seems to be reluctant to see. 

The traumatic event in itself is not the central source of Jeong-won’s suffering but the sense of rejection she felt from her family along with an internalised shame. Jeong-won’s mother sent her to live with her uncle and aunt because she thought it might be easier to move on in a different environment, but all Jeong-won felt was that her family no longer wanted her around. Jeong-won’s aunt thinks the reason she doesn’t want to see So-hui, who is around 10 years younger and therefore around the age she was at the time of the attack, is resentment in feeling that her mother sent her away to protect her younger sister from the social stigma of being involved with a case of sexual assault, but as might be expected the situation is far more emotionally complex than anyone is able to intuitively understand. 

So-hui, meanwhile, is also hurt, travelling to the city on her own to make sure her sister is alright because she isn’t answering her calls. Fearing rejection, Jeong-won distances herself from Sang-u, mourning the relationship she had with him which was founded partly on the fact he didn’t know and therefore existed in world in which the assault had never happened. She resents being worried over because other people’s concern only reminds her of her victimhood. During his summing up at the trial, the prosecution lawyer argues that Jeong-won’s life stopped in 2008 while her attacker went on living guilt free, leaving her to suffer alone. Jeong-won might not quite agree with that assessment, she thought she’d moved on and lived an otherwise happy, normal life despite the terrible thing which happened to her, but if she wants to move forward she will indeed have to face not only the source of her trauma but the familial fracturing which followed it, finding the way back home through emotional openness and understanding along with a willingness to be vulnerable in a place of safety.


Way Back Home screens on March 11/15 as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Introduction to the film by director Park Sun-joo from the Busan International Film Festival (activate English subtitles from the subtitle button)

Moonlit Winter (윤희에게, Lim Dae-hyung, 2019)

It goes without saying that the world is very different now than it was 20 years ago, but change happens slowly and primarily benefits those who come later rather than those trying to live as it’s happening. The two women at the centre of Lim Dae-hyung’s Moonlit Winter (윤희에게, Yoon-hee-ege) are a case in point, painfully separated and forced into self-isolation born of internalised shame while perhaps filled with unspeakable longing. In a sense, they each live within that moonlit winter, a cold and lonely place yet not without its beauty. 

In Japan, an older woman, Masako (Hana Kino), mails a letter she finds lying around in her niece’s room, unsure if she’s doing the right thing but perhaps hoping for a kind of shift. Presumably, Masako cannot read the contents of the letter as they’re written in Korean (though later read to us in Japanese), and addressed to a “Yoon-hee”. It’s Yoon-hee’s daughter Sae-bom (Kim So-hye), however, who first picks it up and begins to realise, perhaps for the first time, that her rather distant, lonely mother is a woman too with a painful past she knows nothing of. Written with a kind of melancholy finality and the sincerity of a letter never quite intended to be sent, the heartfelt words hint at a past heartbreak in which the author, Jun (Yuko Nakamura), hopes that she won’t make the recipient uncomfortable but felt that she had to write to let her know that she still thinks and dreams of her after all this time. 

Finally receiving the letter, Yoon-hee (Kim Hee-ae) is not “uncomfortable” or at least in the way that Jun had feared she might be. Recently divorced after years of unhappy marriage to a drunken policeman (Yoo Jae-myung), Yoon-hee has a job in a canteen at a factory and lives alone with her teenage daughter who is in the last year of high school and preparing to head off to university in Seoul. Intrigued by the letter, Sae-bom begins to become curious about why her mother is the way she is. She tries asking her uncle, but he’s fantastically unhelpful, and then questioning her father but he only tells her that her mother is the kind of woman who makes others feel lonely. That strikes Sae-bom as ironic because she chose to stay with her mother after her parents’ divorce precisely because she thought she seemed the lonelier.

Jun, meanwhile, is a lonely figure too but perhaps wilfully so. She tells her aunt Masako with whom she’s been living all this time that she chose to come to Japan with her father after her parents split up because he didn’t care about her (hence why she’s always lived with the unmarried aunt), while she was all her mother ever cared about. In retrospect, it sounds as if, as she said in the letter, she ran away, afraid that her mother would notice something in her she did not want to be noticed. Perhaps Masako has noticed something too which is why she sent the letter, though she’d never bring it up directly. A well-meaning though tone deaf and entirely insensitive relative (Sho Yakumaru) tries to use the occasion of her father’s funeral to talk Jun into a blind date with his Korean friend, an offer she flatly refuses but he keeps badgering her anyway. Eventually she stops the car and insists on walking home at which point he realises you probably shouldn’t be matchmaking at a funeral but she cuts him off again, telling him that’s not the reason for her intense annoyance but stopping short of explaining what is. 

Jun has one of those faces, slightly mysterious, pensive as if she’s about to say something important but never actually does. Another woman (Kumi Takiuchi) thinks she recognises that quality in her and edges towards a kind of confession but Jun shuts her down, brutally telling her that the only secret she’s keeping is being half-Korean, advising that if she too has a “secret” she’d best keep it to herself. Even more than Yoon-hee, Jun has lived a life of isolation, too afraid to be her real self and terrified of being seen. 

But for the younger generation things are perhaps different. Sae-bom is at a romantic crossroads of her own, acknowledging that her high school romance may be about to end seeing as nice but bland boyfriend Kyung-soo (Sung Yoo-bin) is not exactly her intellectual equal and cannot accompany her to a university in Seoul. After realising that the sender of the letter is female, Sae-bom seems unfazed, still curious about this hidden part of her mother’s life and rooting for her to find a kind of happiness. In the habit of taking photos (using a camera which turns out to have been a present given to Yoon-hee as an apology from her mother for the family’s belief that there was no point in sending a girl to university) Sae-bom declares that she only photographs beautiful things rather than people, but takes photos of her mother all the time, capturing her at her most mysterious but rarely smiling. Railroaded into a life of conventional success that eventually failed, Yoon-hee has become an empty, directionless shell unable to live her own life while filled with an internalised sense of shame that leaves her feeling guarded and worthless.

Yet through the arrival of the letter she begins to reconnect with her younger self, her repressed desires, and impossible longing for Jun. With the gentle support of a daughter and aunt respectively, the two women begin to rediscover the courage to live, not necessarily in embracing romance, but accepting themselves for who they are and rejecting the sense of shame that has defined each of their lives. The winter may at last be ending and they may not yet have it in them to ask for the stars, but they’ll always have the moon. 


Moonlit Winter screens in Amsterdam on March 6/8 as part of this year’s CinemAsia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Drug King (麻藥王 / 마약왕, Woo Min-ho, 2018)

Drug King posterKorean cinema has been in a reflective mood of late, keen to re-examine the turbulent post-war era in the wake of a second wave of democratic protest and political turmoil. Even so, dealing with the difficult Park Chung-hee era has remained sensitive with the legacy of life under a repressive regime apparently very much still felt. Woo Min-ho’s Drug King (麻藥王 / 마약왕, Mayakwang) is first and foremost a crime doesn’t pay story, but it’s also a subtle condemnation of authoritarianism and the corruption and cronyism that goes along with it. Painting its hero’s rise as a consequence of the society in which he lives, it perhaps implies the new wind of egalitarian democracy made such amoral venality a thing of the past but then again is at pains to show that nothing really changes when it comes to greed and resentment.

Our hero, Lee Doo-sam (Song Kang-ho), starts out as a jeweller dabbling in smuggling in Busan in 1972. Just as the smuggling business starts to take off, Doo-sam’s boss falls out with his friends in high places and decides to throw him to the wolves while he escapes abroad to safety. Doo-sam, not one to be beaten, starts coming up with ideas. Mobilising his wife (Kim So-jin) to get him out of jail through a combination of bribery and blackmail, he teams up with the area’s smuggling king to act on a tip-off he got from a Korean-Japanese yakuza and begins producing popular drug Crank for export to Japan.

As the opening voice over explains, Crank is a dangerous stimulant developed by the Japanese during the war and given to factory workers and kamikaze pilots because of its ability to eliminate both fear and fatigue. It is also highly addictive and provides an extreme high which have made it a popular recreational drug but, crucially, the real value is economic. The rising Japan is keen to make use of foreign labour, and Korea is keen to up its export capability. This, coupled with poor regulation of the workforce, has led to extreme exploitation in which factory workers are encouraged to hop themselves up on stimulants to keep working overtime for the sake of economic expansion. Thus, the influx of Crank is, in many ways, simply another facet of ongoing Japanese imperialism.

Not that Lee Doo-Sam cares very much about that. An honest prosecutor later puts it to him that he’s contributing to the exploitation of ordinary workers who might earn a few pennies extra for working a few more hours but at the cost of their health and wellbeing, while he gets filthy rich off the back of their misery. Doo-sam is, however, unrepentant. In the beginning he just wanted to provide for his wife, children, and unmarried sisters, but perhaps he also wanted to kick back against his reduced circumstances and he certainly did enjoy playing the big man. In any case, it has paid off. Doo-sam too has friends in high places and they won’t want to let him sit in a police cell for long in case he starts feeling chatty.

Times change, however, and whatever standing and influence Doo-sam thought he’d accrued his life is built on sand. When Park is assassinated by a member of his own security team, all those contacts are pretty much useless because the cronies are now out in the cold. There are protests in the streets and the wind of a new era is already blowing through even if it is still a fair few years away. That bold new era will, it hopes, do away with men like Doo-sam and their way of thinking, eradicating corruption and backhanders in favour of honest meritocracy. Naive, perhaps, and idealistic but it is true enough that Doo-sam is a man whose era has passed him by while he, arrogantly, burned all his bridges and gleefully sacrificed love and friendship on the altar of greed and empty ambition.

Hubris is Doo-sam’s fatal flaw, but he remains a weasel to the end only too keen to sell out his associates in order to save his own skin. He may claim he was only trying to live a “decent” life, but his definition of “decent” may differ wildly from the norm. Nevertheless, perhaps he was just like many scrappy young men of post-war years, desperate, hungry, and left with few honest options to feed his family if one who later found himself corrupted by backstreet “success” and the dubious morals of the world in which he lived which encouraged him to disregard conventional morality in favour of personal gain. Much more about life in Korea in the authoritarian ‘70s than it is about crime, The Drug King is nevertheless an ironic tragedy in which its drug peddling hero eventually enables the birth of a dedicated narcotics squad and helps to dismantle system which allowed him to prosper all while grinning wildly and, presumably, planning his next move.


Currently available to stream online via Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Key tracks from the (fantastic) soundtrack:

Jung Hoon-Hee – Flower Road

Kim Jung Mi – Wind

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)