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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Age of Shadows (밀정, Kim Jee-woon, 2016)

age-of-shadowsWhen the country of your birth has been occupied by another nation, what do you do? Do you fight back, insist on your independence and expel the tyrants, or quickly bow to your new overlords and resign yourself to no longer being what you once were? Kim Jee-woon becomes the latest director to take a look at Korea’s colonial past with the Resistance based thriller Age of Shadows (밀정, Miljung) which owes more than a little to Melville’s similarly titled Army of Shadows, as well as classic cold war spy dramas The Third Man and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

The film opens with an impressive set piece in which two Resistance members, Jang-ok (Park Hee-soon), and Joo (Seo Young-joo) are betrayed whilst trying to sell a Buddhist statue. Joo is captured but Jang-ok makes a run for it as what looks like the entire Japanese garrison of Seoul chases him, running gallantly over the picturesque Korean rooftops. Cornered, Jang-ok is confronted by Korean born Japanese policeman Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho), once a Resistance member himself and a former comrade in arms of Jang-ok. This is the point Jung-chool’s carefully crafted collaboration beings to fracture – his friend, rather than allow himelf to be captured, shouts “Long Live Korea” and blows his own brains out.

His mission a failure, Jung-chool is then moved onto the next investigation which aims to dig out the Resistance top brass in the city. Jung-chool’s Japanese boss Higashi (Shingo Tsurumi) wants him to infiltrate the cell headed by antique dealer and photographer Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) in the hope that it will lead them to head honcho, Jung (Lee Byung-hun). However, Higashi also saddles him with a very young but high ranking Japanese official, Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo), to “help” him bring in Woo-jin.

In Jung-chool’s final conversation with Jang-ok, his friend berates him for the decision to turn traitor and work for the Japanese rather than against them. Jung-chool asks him if he thinks independence is a credible aim, implying he’s long since given up believing in the idea of the Japanese ever being overthrown. Jang-ok evidently believed in it enough to sacrifice his own life, but other comrades have also abanoned the cause and actively betrayed the movement in much more serious ways than Jung-chool’s pragmatic side swapping.

Even if Jung-chool has decided that if you can’t beat the Japanese you may as well join them, he’s coming to the realisation that his superiors, even if they’ve previously treated him warmly, will never regard him as equal to the Japanese personnel. Hashimoto’s sudden arrival undercuts Jung-Chool’s career progress and reminds him that he serves a very distinct purpose which may soon run out of currency. Higashi, having seduced Jung-chool with promises of a comfortable life and praise for his skills, does not trust his Korean underling enough to send him out on his own. This personal wound may do more to send him reeling back to the other side than anything else, especially as his “replacement” Hashimoto is a crazy eyed psychopath who has half a mind to burn the entire city just to be sure of getting his man.

A man who’s been turned once can be turned again and so mastermind Jung decides to prod Jung-chool in the hope that he’ll become an asset rather than a threat. As he puts it, what’s more frightening than feeling your heart move and Jung-chool’s certainty has already been shaken. Song Kang-ho perfectly inhabits Jung-chool’s conflicted soul as his old patriotic feelings start to surface just as he begins to truly see his masters for what they are. Always keeping his intentions unclear, Jung-chool is the ideal double agent, playing both sides or maybe neither with no clear affiliation.

Like Army of Shadows, the final nail in the coffin is delivered by a sentimental photograph. In this chaotic world of betrayals and counter betrayals, there can be no room for love or compassion other than loyalty to one’s comrades and to the movement. Yet against the odds Woo-jin comes to trust Jung-chool implicitly, certain that he will finally choose the side of freedom rather than that of the oppressor. The relationship between the two men provides the only real moments of comic relief, though others members of the group are less well defined including an underwritten part for Woo-jin’s Chinese love interest (Han Ji-min) who isn’t permitted to do very much other than model some elegant twenties outfits.

Maintaining tension throughout, Kim intersperses psychological drama as betrayal piles on betrayal, with intense action sequences including a particularly claustrophobic train based game of hide and seek. Inspired by real historical events, Kim does not claim any level of authenticity but sets out to tell the story of the double dealing inside a man’s heart as he weighs up duty and self interest and asks himself how far he’s willing to go for the sake of either. The age of “shadows” indeed, these are hollow men whose identities have been eroded, living only for today but in certainty of the bright tomorrow. Kim’s examination of this turbulent period is both a big budget prestige picture with striking production values, and a tense, noir-inflected thriller in the mould of Melville, but also a nuanced human drama unafraid to ask the difficult questions which lie at the heart of every spy story.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)