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)

Money (돈, Park Noo-ri, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

money poster 1“Could you ask him something for me,” the beleaguered yet victorious protagonist of Park Noo-ri’s Money (돈, Don) eventually asks, “what was he going to use the money for?”. Wealth is, quite literally it seems, a numbers game for the villainous Ticket (Yoo Ji-tae) whose favourite hobby is destabilising the global stock market just for kicks. As for Cho Il-hyun (Ryu Jun-yeol), well, he just wanted to get rich, but where does getting rich get you in the end? There’s only so much money you can spend and being rich can make you lonely in ways you might not expect.

Unlike most of his fellow brokers, Cho Il-hyun is an ordinary lad from the country. His parents own a small raspberry farm and he didn’t graduate from an elite university or benefit from good connections, yet somehow he’s here and determined to make a success of himself. In fact, his only selling point is that he’s committed the registration numbers of all the firms on the company books to memory, and his ongoing nervousness and inferiority complex is making it hard for him to pick up the job. A semi-serious rookie mistake lands the team in a hole and costs everyone their bonuses, which is when veteran broker Yoon (Kim Min-Jae) steps in to offer Il-hyun a way out through connecting him with a shady middle-man named “The Ticket” who can set him up with some killer deals to get him back on the board.

Il-hyun isn’t stupid and he knows this isn’t quite on the level, but he’s desperate to get into the elite financial world and willing to cheat to make it happen. As might be expected his new found “success” quickly goes to his head as he “invests” in swanky apartments and luxury accessories, while his sweet and humble teacher girlfriend eventually dumps him after he starts showering her with expensive gifts and acting like an entitled elitist. It’s not until some of his fellow brokers who also seem to have ties to Ticket start dying in mysterious circumstances that Il-hyun begins to wonder if he might be in over his head.

Unlike other similarly themed financial thrillers, it’s not the effects of stock market manipulation on ordinary people which eventually wake Il-hyun up from his ultra capitalist dream (those are are never even referenced save a brief reflective shot at the end), but cold hard self-interest as he finally realises he is just a patsy Ticket can easily stub out when he’s done with him. Yoon only hooked him up in the first place because he knew he’d be desperate to take the bait in order to avoid repeated workplace humiliation and probably being let go at the end of his probationary period. What he’s chasing isn’t just “money” but esteem and access to the elite high life that a poor boy from a raspberry farm might have assumed entirely out of his reach.

It’s difficult to escape the note of class-based resentment in Il-hyun’s sneering instruction to his mother that she should “stop living in poverty” when she has the audacity to try and offer him some homemade chicken soup from ancient Tupperware, and it’s largely a sense of inferiority which drives him when he eventually decides to take his revenge on the omnipotent Ticket. Yet there’s a strangely co-dependent bond between the two men which becomes increasingly difficult pin down as they wilfully dance around each other.

The world of high finance is, unfortunately, a very male and homosocial one in which business is often conducted in night-clubs and massage parlours surrounded by pretty women. There is only one female broker on Il-hyun’s team. The guys refer to her as “Barbie” and gossip about how exactly she might have got to her position while she also becomes a kind of trophy conquest for Il-hyun as he climbs the corporate ladder. Meanwhile, there is also an inescapably homoerotic component to Il-hyun’s business dealings which sees him flirt and then enjoy a holiday (b)romance with a Korean-American hedge fund manager (Daniel Henney) he meets at a bar in the Bahamas, and wilfully strip off in front of Ticket ostensibly to prove he isn’t wearing a wire while dogged financial crimes investigator Ji-cheol (Jo Woo-jin) stalks him with the fury of a jilted lover.

Obsessed with “winning” in one sense or another, Il-hyun does not so much redeem himself as simply emerge victorious (though possibly at great cost). Even his late in the game make up with Chaebol best friend Woo-sung (Kim Jae-young), who actually turns out to be thoroughly decent and principled (perhaps because unlike Il-hyun he was born with wealth, status, and a good name and so does not need to care about acquiring them), is mostly self-interest rather than born of genuine feeling. In answer to some of Il-hyun’s early qualms, Ticket tells him that in finance the border between legal and illegal is murky at best and it may in fact be “immoral” not to exploit it. What Il-hyun wanted wasn’t so much “money” but what it represents – freedom, the freedom from “labour” and from from the anxiety of poverty. Life is long and there are plenty of things to enjoy, he exclaims at the height of his superficial success, but the party can only last so long. What was the money for? Who knows. Really, it’s beside the point.


Money was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (악인전, Lee Won-tae, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

81745_1000“Two bad guys will catch the worst man” according to irritated gangster Jang Dong-su (Ma Dong-seok) in Lee Won-tae’s The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (악인전, Akinjeon). He doesn’t quite know how right he is, even as he forms an unlikely alliance with a maverick cop himself highly irritated because his lazy colleagues won’t listen to his theory that a spate of unsolved murders are the work of a serial killer. More alike than they’d care to admit, the two “bad guys” team up to do what they have to do in order to make the killing stop but at what price?

A vicious killer (Kim Sung-kyu) has developed a habit of rear-ending solo drivers on lonely roads, stabbing them repeatedly and then leaving them for dead. Maverick cop Tae-seok (Kim Mu-yeol) has become convinced that the killings were carried out by the same perpetrator and that they have not yet been identified as a “serial killer” partly because the crimes took place in different districts and there is insufficient co-operation between precincts, and partly because his colleagues think serial killers are something you see in American movies. His superiors just want to close cases, they aren’t particularly concerned with upholding justice or protecting the innocent and so Tae-seok starts thinking outside of the box when he hears that the killer’s latest target was none other than top mob boss Jang Dong-su.

Dong-su got rear-ended after running an errand to have a word with a wayward underling, Hur (Yoo Jae-myung), who has forgotten his place. The killer made a serious mistake going after Dong-su who is a big, handy kind of guy and therefore manages to fend him off, even wounding him in the shoulder despite being badly injured himself. Though the obvious conclusion is that Hur sent someone after him, Dong-su is unconvinced seeing as he had never seen his assailant before and is pretty sure he’s not a member of the gangster underworld. Still, he’s very annoying because a gangster only has power in being respected and right now Dong-su looks a fool. If he wants to get his “professional” life back on track, he needs to get his revenge but to do that he’ll have to cross the floor and work with law enforcement, temporarily teaming up with rogue cop Tae-seok whose heart is in the right place even if he’s not averse to bending the rules.

One of the things which most bothers Tae-seok about amoral killer “K” is that, unlike most serial killers, he kills indiscriminately and purely for pleasure. He has no “type” and generally goes up against those most likely to fight back, unlike your average pattern killer who targets the vulnerable. Like Tae-seok and Dong-su, he is however quite annoyed – this time because someone has “framed” him for a murder he didn’t commit in order to further their own ends. Hugely overconfident and cooly psychopathic, he sits in the dock and asks what makes his crimes different than the state’s if the state is fixing to execute him without proper evidence. Pointedly looking at law enforcement, he affirms that the real villains are those who commit crime with kind faces (say what you like, but at least K looks the part).

When it comes to Tae-seok he might have a point. Conspiring with Dong-su to “kill him with law”, Tae-seok gleefully manipulates the system while giving Dong-su tacit permission to take his revenge as long as “justice” has been properly served. K doesn’t believe in anything, Tae-seok believes in a particular kind of “justice” if not quite in the law, while Dong-su mourns the sense of self-belief that allows you to rule the roost as an all powerful gangster. The three men are a perfect storm, each angry, each resentful, each vowing a particular kind of revenge against the forces which constrain them be they corrupt and lazy superiors, gangsterland disrespect, or the “injustice” of being accused of a crime you did not commit but not being properly credited for the ones you did. Bathed in a garish neon, Lee’s anti-buddy-cop drama embraces its noirish sense of fractured morality with barely suppressed glee as its similarly conflicted heroes pursue their violent destinies, true to their own but dragged to hell all the same.


The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Fengshui (명당, Park Hee-gon, 2018)

FengShui poster 1A would-be-dynast gets overly involved with a weird spiritualist and almost (?) ruins the nation. Does that sound a little familiar? As metaphors go, it might be a stretch but then so much of Park Hee-gon’s Fengshui (명당, Myeong-dang) is just that. Set in the late 19th century, Park’s film is the third in a loose trilogy themed around Korean fortune telling traditions (following The Face Reader, and The Princess and the Matchmaker), but rather than questioning the efficacy of its art asks a series of questions about its application and the internecine lengths those who lust for power or otherwise feel themselves unfairly oppressed will go to to reclaim their rightful position.

Our hero, unwisely honest fengshui master Jae-sang (Cho Seung-woo), is the only one brave enough to point out that the site chosen for the burial of the late king is cursed, but inevitably he is ignored. He is of course right, which means he must be eliminated which is why a troop of soldiers working for the nefarious Kim clan show up and burn his house down, executing his wife and child by the sword when they manage to escape. 13 years later, he finds his expertise called on again when the weak and inexperienced king begins to suspect the Kim clan is plotting against him and that their shenanigans over his father’s grave may have something to do with it.

Like any typical Korean period drama, Fengshui is chiefly concerned with palace intrigue, only this intrigue is stranger than most in its bizarre obsession with the possibilities of manipulating spiritual power through acquiring “auspicious” land for whichever purpose one might wish from conceiving an heir to making sure your line holds power. The Kims are convinced they can win the throne (if by proxy) through digging up their ancestors and replanting them in more advantageous places only to discover that the grass is (literally) always greener. Still, they will stop at nothing from outright murder to psychological game playing in order to manipulate the teenage king into acting as their puppet.

One might ask themselves what the point is, what’s so great about being king anyway? The actual king might say not much, as he discovers himself a humiliated, hollow figure who wields no real power seeing as his soldiers seem set to side with Kim. Heungseon (Ji Sung), however, his “cheerful” uncle might feel differently after experiencing a lifetime of just the same. Forced to prance about doing party tricks for the Kims, barking and eating scraps from the floor like a mangy dog, he might say that being king is the only way to reclaim your self-respect and ensure you will never be at the mercy of ruthless men ever again.

The real key, however, is presented at the end when Jae-sang and his money loving friend Yong-shik (Yoo Jae-myung) are visited some years later by two men in suits who want to know the best place to start a military school to train Independence fighters. Jae-sang, having vowed to stop looking for places to bury people so he can find one to save them, is only too happy to oblige and even comes up with the name “Shinheung Military Academy” (a real school which is also, quite bizarrely, the subject of a smash hit musical). The point is further brought home with Kim’s descendent standing next to a family grave and lamenting that it can’t have been auspicious enough because they’ve lost all their power since the Japanese arrived. The subtext seems to be that feudal corruption and a subversion of traditional values such as ancestor worship and filial piety contributed to the gradual weakening of the Korean state which was plagued by insecure kings and political finagling until finally “sold” to foreign powers in the early 20th century.

Indeed, the ambitious usurpers eventually burn the soul of Korea in order to ensure their own, or rather their children’s, futures even at the expense of their nation’s. Literally fighting over a grave, the elites waste their time on pointless, internecine dynastic squabbling while ordinary people continue to suffer. Jae-sang, having given up on his own petty quest for revenge, comes to the conclusion that all this looking back is a waste of time when what they should be thinking about is the future – not burying things, but planting them. It is a good lesson, but, Park seems to suggest, perhaps one that has not yet been fully learned.


Screened as the latest teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival. The next teaser screening, Zhang Lu’s Ode to the Goose, takes place on 19th August at Picturehouse Central.

International trailer (English subtitles)

After My Death (죄 많은 소녀, Kim Ui-seok, 2017)

After my death posterKorea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world as the pressure cooker society conspires to railroad those who find themselves in someway excluded from its rigourously conformist demands toward inescapable despair. With the phenomenon so common, has it become true that society itself has become inured to its effects, seeking not to ease suffering but to control damage? For the clutch of schoolgirls at the centre of Kim Ui-seok’s After My Death (죄 많은 소녀, Choe Manheun Sonyeo), suicide has taken on its own allure as an escape from the demands they feel themselves unable to meet but there are few looking to guide them away from the abyss rather than to negate their own responsibility for failing to do so.

A high school student, Kyung-min, is missing. Her backpack and shoes have been found near a local bridge and it is feared that she may have committed suicide though there is no note or additional evidence to suggest that she has taken her own life nor have they found a body. With speculation rife, all eyes are on another student, Young-hee (Jeon Yeo-Bin), apparently one of the last people to have seen Kyung-min alive. Though Young-hee and Kyung-min had been good friends in the past, they were no longer close and had apparently run into each other by chance along with another friend of Young-hee’s, Han-sol. Han-sol’s testimony differs from Young-hee’s in that she says Kyung-min seemed “gloomy” and that the evening had taken an intense turn after she suddenly declared her love for Young-hee only for Young-hee to tell her to prove her devotion by dying.

Things get worse for Young-hee when the police track Kyung-min’s movements via CCTV and find footage from a nearby tunnel which appears to show a gentle kiss between the two girls. Hounded, Young-hee finds herself a target of persistent harassment by her school mates who insist that she is in someway cursed and “infects” people with “bad thoughts” while Kyung-min’s mother (Seo Young-hwa) has also started semi-stalking her hoping to find out “the truth” about what happened to Kyung-min.

The other girls, testifying to Kyung-min’s character, reinforce the view that she was “gloomy”, a loner who didn’t fit in. She didn’t like K-pop, didn’t socialise much, and was into depressing things. When suspicions rise regarding her possible suicide, the school is quick to leap to conclusions – that like many in South Korea she had become over anxious about college applications, but as her grades were good and Kyung-min was a diligent student this explanation seems unlikely which works out well for the school. Kyung-min’s teacher quickly goes into damage limitation mode, confirming that she had been withdrawn, struggled to communicate with her classmates, and was probably very lonely though he lays most of the blame on melancholy ‘90s shoegaze which he assumes must have somehow tipped her over the edge. What all of this means is that it’s not his fault, and he feels he has justification for “failing” in his duties of pastoral care towards a student whom by his own admission he suspected of being in distress.

During Young-hee’s questioning, she repeatedly tells the police officer in charge that she too is suicidal and that she told Kyung-min about her own plan to jump off a bridge because she thought it might help. Young-hee is quite clearly depressed even before all of these very difficult events but finds no one willing to listen to her distress, only making herself a magnet for further hostility from just about everyone with even her teacher berating her for stealing Kyung-min’s thunder in insisting that she stole her idea of jumping off the bridge rather than trying to commit suicide through an overdose of sleeping pills which, Young-hee claims, was her intention before she discouraged her lest she end up still alive but brain damaged.

The lingering doubt is to which “me” is the owner of “death” in the title, or to whom the Korean title of “unrighteous girl” might apply. The motives for Kyung-min’s (presumed) death may be beside the point as a policeman investigating the case suggests – perhaps she didn’t want “understanding” so much as oblivion. What we’re left with is a rather poignant love triangle and the suggestion that Young-hee’s intense depression is a result of repressed same sex attraction which opens another series of questions about which acts are “unrighteous” – suicide or love, with the unfortunate implication that perhaps one cannot but lead to the other. In any case, the problem is that all these kids want to die and the adults no longer want to stop them, only to avoid any potential responsibility for what the children in their care may or may not try to do. Melancholy and drenched in despair, After My Death has nothing but sympathy for its lonely teens but finds no possible escape from the crushing vice of a blame fuelled conformist society.


After My Death was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Interview with director Kim Ui-seok from the 2017 Busan International Film Festival (English subtitles)

The Chase (반드시 잡는다, Kim Hong-sun, 2017)

The Chase posterKorea may not quite be facing such an ageing population crisis as neighbouring nations, but old age has become a persistent cinematic preoccupation. We’ve seen old women still engaging in acts of prostitution to support themselves in the absence of family (and indeed the state), serial killers becoming dangerously confused, and ageing grandmother’s attempt to see the beauty in a world that seems to be descending into chaos. What The Chase (반드시 잡는다 Bandeusi Jabneunda) shows us is that the elderly do at least have time on their hands that could well be used for fighting crime and protecting the vulnerable.

If you were appointing elderly street guardians, you probably wouldn’t pick Deok-soo (Baek Yoon-sik). A curmudgeonly landlord with a conviction that everyone is out to diddle him on their rent, Deok-soo complains loudly when a body is found in a nearby area because it’s going to damage property prices. People who are supposed to die should just die, he exclaims, that’s patriotism! You can bet your bottom dollar Deok-soo voted for Park Geun-hye, but despite his grumpy exterior he has a soft heart as one of his young charges reveals when she reminds him that he’s never thrown anyone out just because they didn’t pay up. Deok-soo has taken quite a (paternal) liking to Ji-eun (Kim Hye-in), a young woman living alone away from family in one of his horrible little apartments. Aside from her rent arrears and tendency to let her mixed up friend stay over so often that she virtually lives there, Ji-eun is one of Deok-soo’s favourite tenants.

Which is perhaps why he gets himself so involved when she suddenly goes missing after a shock discovery is made in her flat. Other than the first body which got Deok-soo so worked up, a few other elderly people have been passing away in lonely deaths which, sadly, isn’t particularly suspicious save that the pattern matches that from an unsolved serial murder case from 30 years ago which began with the killing of old people and then progressed to sexually aggravated murder of young women with long dark hair – just like Ji-eun.

Aside from the ongoing serial killer plot, director Kim Hong-sun makes space for depicting the various problems faced by the elderly in contemporary Korea. The first problems are loneliness and dislocation caused by separation from family members – many of the older people Deok-soo is familiar with have children overseas whom they have all but lost touch with. The second problem is economic – Deok-soo’s flats are dirt cheap for a reason and mostly inhabited by the very young and the very old, i.e. people without a lot of “disposable” income. Being elderly, they often can’t find jobs and don’t have access to a proper pension leading many to take to the streets protesting for rights for the aged including that to work or to be given state support. Deok-soo is lucky with income from renting the apartments, but he also works as a locksmith which brings in a few extra pennies. Being Deok-soo he isn’t particularly worried about other people less lucky than himself, so he rolls his eyes at the protests but is worried enough by the lonely deaths to ask one of his tenants to look in on him every now and then to avoid becoming one.

Meanwhile, Deok-soo has become “friends” with a retired police detective who’s convinced the serial killer he failed to catch 30 years ago is back. Worried that Ji-eun may end up among his victims, Deok-soo begins investigating, unwittingly getting himself mixed up in a dark and confusing world of old school hardboiled only Pyeong-dal (Sung Dong-il) is not quite as worthy a guide as he seemed. Walking around like a maverick cop from a violent ‘70s action movie, Pyeong-dal is convinced he knows who the killer is but he is old and unsteady and his mind is not perhaps reliable.

Then again a persistent subplot seems to argue that the young have no respect for age, are selfish and corrupt, thinking only of short term pleasures and forgetting that they too will one day be old with no one around to look after them. No one takes Deok-soo and Pyeong-dal seriously, they are after all just grumpy old men that everyone wants to get rid of as quickly as possible. They do, however, (paradoxically) have time to indulge in “silly” ideas that the young do not have and are, therefore, perfectly positioned to take down a serial killer who preys on the weak and vulnerable including old men like them and pretty young girls like Ji-eun. Old guys have still got it, at least according to The Chase, though they might have got there faster if only they’d cut the young whippersnappers some slack.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Also available to stream on Netflix.

International trailer (English subtitles)

V.I.P. (브이아이피, Park Hoon-jung, 2017)

V.I.P. posterIn New World, Park Hoon-jung provided a bleak overview of creeping corruption with the absolute certainty that the forces of darkness will always win over those of the light, but with V.I.P. (브이아이피) he turns his attentions away from South Korea’s hellish gangland society to examine the effect of geopolitical concerns on the lives of ordinary citizens. He does this by positioning South Korea’s two biggest international concerns – America and The North, as twin manipulators with his home nation caught in the middle, trapped between the need to preserve allies and defend against enemies. The “enemy” here is a sociopathic serial killer allowed to get away with his crimes at home because of his elite status and then again abroad as a key informant of the American intelligence services.

Beginning at the end with a weary man accepting a gun and striding into a rundown building in Hong Kong, Park jumps back a few years to North Korea where an innocent schoolgirl is grabbed by a gang of three boys on a peaceful country road. Not only do they brutally rape and kill the girl, but they even go so far as to massacre her entire family. Police Chief Lee (Park Hee-Soon) identifies the killer as Kim Gwang-il (Lee Jong-Suk), son of a high ranking official. His boss closes the case; Gwang-il is untouchable. Lee is demoted and sent to a fertiliser plant.

A couple of years later similar crimes begin occurring in the South and maverick policeman Chae (Kim Myung-min), temporarily reinstated after being suspended for his violent ways, is handed the case after his superior apparently “commits suicide”. Like Lee, who eventually makes contact with Chae having followed his quarry to the South, Chae identifies Gwang-il and is prevented from arresting him but this time by South Korean intelligence services who were partly responsible for Gwang-il’s defection working closely with America’s CIA and the very greasy Agent Gray (Peter Stormare).

Like many Korean films of recent times the central point of concern is in the ability of the rich and powerful to do whatever they please and get away with it because their special status makes them untouchable. Park scores a double a whammy when he casts his villain both as an elitist and as a North Korean though he draws no connection between life in a brutalising regime and the desire to inflict violence.

This is a violent tale and the violence on show is sickening, often needlessly so. After showing us the aftermath of what happened to the innocent teenage girl in the prologue and then to her entire family including a five year old brother, there was really no need to go into detail but Park eventually includes a horrifying scene of Gwang-il garrotting his victim in an elegant drawing room right underneath the portraits of the Kims hanging proudly on the wall. The scene is problematic for several reasons but the biggest of them is in the depiction of the naked female body covered in blood and bruises while Park’s minions stand naked around her, pale and unstained by her blood, each of the actors carefully hiding their genitals from the camera. The victim, who has no lines other than a final plea not to kill her, is the only real female presence in the film save for one female police officer who is seen briefly and only appears to become another potential victim for Gwang-il.

The real ire is saved not for Gwang-il but for the intelligence services who lack the backbone to stop him. The Americans, or more precisely a need to placate them, are the major motivator – a fact which takes on additional irony considering Gwang-il is the North Korean threat the US is supposed to be helping to mitigate. It remains unclear why the CIA would be allowing Gwang-il free reign to live as a regular citizen given that he supposedly has important information regarding North Korean finances which is the reason the Americans are helping him defect, rather than keeping him safely contained and preventing him from committing heinous crimes all over the world which, apart from anything else, threaten to cause huge embarrassment to everyone involved. Still, Agent Gray lives up to his name in his general sleaziness and the intense implication that he is playing his own long game which may have nothing to do with country or protocol.

Park’s decision to structure the film in several chapters each with a different title card often works against him, taking the momentum of his procedural and occasionally proving confusing. Loosely, Park ties the stories of three men together – the idealistic North Korean officer who wants to see justice done, the grizzled cop with a noble heart, and the conflicted NIS officer realising the unforeseen consequences of his attempts to play politics for career advancement, but he fails to weave their fates into anything more than an extremely pessimistic exploration of hidden geopolitical oppression. Final shootout aside, V.I.P. is a grimy, politically questionable thriller which irritates in its narrative sluggishness and leaves a sour taste in the mouth in its own indifference to its villains’ crimes in favour of his V.I.P. status as the representative of an entirely different existential threat.


Screened at the London East Asia Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)