Not in This World (이 세상에 없는, Park Jung-bum, 2019)

“What is love? Have you seen it?” a dejected young man asks, wondering how if he can’t even afford a ticket to the movies he’s supposed to find the energy to feel love. Love may be the substance the title of Park Jung-bum’s nearly three hour epic of human misery Not in this World (이 세상에 없는, I Sesange Oebsneun) refers to, each of its wandering youngsters deprived of a sense of hope or of emotional fulfilment by the cruelties of contemporary capitalism. Unable to feel their own pain, they inflict it on others, their despair leading to nothing other than violence and cruelty in a mistaken effort to exert control over their lives. 

Despair colours the lyrics that aspiring rapper Ji-su (Moon Ye-ji) performs in a courtyard by day detailing her insecurity and longing for “a warm spring to melt my frozen heart”. Seemingly no one is very interested in listening to her, least of all her father in whose tiny workshop she also toils. With his business strained, Ji-su’s father is an exploitative employer berating his daughter for not working hard enough while otherwise telling her that she is free to do something else with her life but only if it makes money. After smashing her microphone in a mistaken attempt to make her come around, he later burns her sheet music and recklessly tells her to find somewhere else to live while she in turn points out that he unfairly projects his resentment onto her knowing that his dream of owning a family home will never become a reality seeing as the business barely makes enough money to pay the interest on the mortgage he will never be able to pay off. 

This sense of despair born of failure passing from one generation to the next leaves Ji-su and her similarly troubled friends with an even greater sense of futility. She discovers a temporary source of hope after accidentally bonding with a strange middle-aged man, a kind of holy fool living all alone in the forest in a house he calls a “spaceship” seeing as it’s surrounded by complete darkness with only he aboard as if existing in an entirely different dimension. Jeong-cheol (Park Jung-bum) is Ji-su’s only “fan”, encouraging her with her music but also infinitely naive advising her to share it with her friends and family in the conviction that they would then begin to understand her but the result is quite the reverse. Ji-su’s few friends, all of whom have become sex workers, simply laugh at her while apparently offended by what they perceive as “hypocrisy”, an attempt to exploit their pain for her gain. 

Forced at knife point to witness the reality of sex work, Ji-su’s illusions are shattered while her only other source of hope in her relationship with intense childhood friend Won-ho (Park Young-Duk) also begins to crumble. Won-ho too had a dream, working as a delivery driver while saving up to buy a taxi license he hopes will enable him to earn a steady living leading to a traditional middle-class sense of stability with a wife and family home. Yet he too is eventually forced to acknowledge his dream won’t come true, again projecting his sense of resentment onto Ji-su in unfairly blaming her for a bike accident that brought them both into contact with a source of infinite corruption that is a remote sex work campsite hidden in the woods where a gang of obnoxious rich kid students get their kicks humiliating those they perceive as their social inferiors. 

Pushed to breaking point, Ji-su commits a transgression of her own and embarks on a path of self-destruction aiming to become what she hates and burn her world to the ground. Becoming the campsite’s bookkeeper she terrorises the former friends who laughed at her song and left her with lasting trauma while taking an indirect revenge against Won-ho for his indifference towards her. While she decides to become an oppressor in order not to be oppressed, Jeong-cheol wrestles with himself believing that he cannot abandon Ji-su because to do so would mean she had been abandoned by the world, while also realising that the world has many Ji-sus and he can’t help them all. Jeong-cheol believes himself alone, conversing only with the ghost of his late father who seems to represent his inner goodness something which he alternately feels he should bury along with his father’s ashes yet is unwilling to part with. 

Unlike Park’s previous films of similar length and bleakness, Not in This World swaps crushing naturalism for a touch of magical realist imagery as Park’s holy fool tries to repair the world around him armed only with his own inner goodness which simultaneously makes him an exile of contemporary society. Even as Ji-su continues to destroy herself, Jeong-cheol continues to believe she can be saved, his conviction perhaps borne out as the traumatic events of the film’s conclusion appear to break the spell she’s cast over herself though whether she will ever be able to accept everything that led her there is far less easy to discern. Once again an attack on an inhuman, ultra capitalist society defined by class conflict and petty humiliation, Park’s latest epic of human misery is also in its closing minutes at least quietly hopeful in the innocent power of a newborn baby’s cries. 


Not in This World streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Shades of the Heart (아무도 없는 곳, Kim Jong-kwan, 2021)

“I see hope! Let’s change direction” a distressed woman shouts in a park, “We should follow the wind, let’s hold hands that way you won’t get lost.” Her interjection is perhaps unexpected, in its own way sad, but also a sign offered to the melancholy protagonist of Kim Jong-kwan’s Shades of the Heart (아무도 없는 곳, Amoodo Eobneun Got), a man who has become without quite realising it “someone who waits” yet through encounters serendipitous and otherwise begins to see new paths in front of him, turning a corner into another story.

Novelist Chang-seok (Yeon Woo-Jin) has just returned to Seoul after seven years abroad following the breakdown of his marriage in the UK. He has begun to have strange dreams, seeing an older version of himself and presumably his wife walk away from him and eventually disappear. Yet each of the people he meets is also in someway burdened by a sense of loss or despair, his first meeting with his mother who appears to have some kind of dementia and does not initially recognise him thinking once again she’s on her first date with his father. Her sadness is the loss of past and present but also of future, telling her son on finally recognising him not to smoke so much so he won’t die young like his dad. 

Chang-seok had apparently given up smoking, but is motivated to start again perhaps seeing little point in extending his life, accepting some unusual Indonesian cigarettes from a former colleague now his editor who eventually tells him of her failed love affair with a young exchange student which apparently ended partly because he could not acclimatise himself to the harsh winters of Seoul. The other reason perhaps echoes something in Chang-seok’s own life though also tinged with a different sense of sadness. A serendipitous meeting with a former acquaintance meanwhile takes a turn for the strange, photographer Sung-ha (Kim Sang-Ho) somewhat manic in his ecstasy in having run into Chang-seok explaining that his wife is terminally ill yet a Buddhist monk had told him he’d run into someone he knew who would bring him luck. On the other hand, Sung-ha also shows him a vial of cyanide he’s managed to procure apparently planning to use it to take his own life after his wife dies but now filled with an almost certainly false hope in the strange power of religious mysticism. “I don’t believe in all that, but people.. they need to hang their hope on something” he explains.

Chang-seok may not have much of a sense of hope, but what little he has he’s hung on people or on art. He is forever “waiting” for someone who may or may not arrive or even exist, making notes in his notebook or wandering around the surprisingly lonely streets of Seoul after dark pausing by the now obsolete phone booths filled with the detritus of city life unsure whether or not to make a call. His final conversation is with a woman who tells him that she has no memories of her own, having been robbed of her past, and more, in an accident and now “buys” them off her customers swapping free drinks for personal stories while writing poems about their lives. “No one is coming, but he became someone who waits” she writes of Chang-seok, their meeting oddly mirroring his first in its mixture of fiction and reality along with relationships forged through the exchange of stories true or otherwise. As he’d said, sometimes a made up story can be the more truthful. 

“But they come in the depth of despair, miracles” Sung-ha had added hopefully seconds after saying he didn’t believe in them, each of Chang-seok’s encounters a tiny miracle in itself. Imbued with a deep sense of melancholy and loneliness, Kim’s delicately scripted ethereal drama is an exercise in grief and despair Chang-seok’s sense of fiction and reality beginning to blur even as he begins to find the urge to write again and with it perhaps to live again too. “I see hope!” the woman shouts once more, restored something as she takes her place in a new story, Chang-seok turning the corner and beginning once again to dream. 


Shades of the Heart screens 14th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Snowball (최선의 삶, Lee Woo-jung, 2020)

Three teenage girls seeking escape from an unsatisfying adolescence find only betrayal and disappointment in Lee Woo-jung’s sensitive adaptation of the novel by Lim Solah, Snowball (최선의 삶, Choisunui Sarm). Each oppressed by a resolutely patriarchal society, the three women nevertheless differ in the their respective traumas and resentments finding solidarity in the strength of their friendship only to witness it crumble when its barriers must necessarily be confronted. “Why did you do this to me?” Kang-yi (Bang Min-ah) eventually asks, only to receive no answer and realise that in the end they did to and for themselves. 

Though perhaps feeling a sense of familial rejection in the otherwise peaceful home she shares with her overly religious Buddhist mother, emotionally reserved father, and a little dog also yearning for love, Kang-yi is ostensibly the least burdened of her friends if facing a similar sense of detachment. Aloof golden child So-young (Han Sung-min) is clever and pretty, everything seems to go right for her as Kang-yi enviously explains, except for her dream to become a model and actress which her family apparently don’t support. Ah-ram (Shim Dal-gi), by contrast, is quirky and rebellious with a tendency to collect stray animals and other items from the street little caring who they may or may not belong to but is also trapped in abusive home with an authoritarian father. When So-young one day suggests running away together the other girls agree, but after the novelty wears off and they begin to run out of money the realities of a forced adulthood are suddenly brought home to them. 

The depths of their naivety are perhaps signalled in an early and misguided attempt to misuse a potentially predatory middle-aged man who offers them money for food, allows them to stay in his apartment, and suggests an improbably low stress job they might be able to do for him. As she’s want to do, Ah-ram runs off with his wallet only to begin feeling sorry him seeing as there’s so little in it and he is so clearly lonely even if So-young proclaims him a creep. Picking up a mattress in the street the girls end up sleeping in a stairwell, only for Kang-yi and So-young to return and find Ah-ram apparently beaten and raped by a man she later willingly returns to, talking as if such brutal treatment is a normal part of any relationship. “Children, when you’re in love you sometimes get into fights” she depressingly explains, later implying that her violent boyfriend has become her pimp as she slides into sex work in an effort to provide economic support to all three of them. 

So brutalised is she, that Ah-ram thinks nothing of the abuse she continues to suffer while So-young solipsistically wallows in a sense of defeat and despair. It’s at this point she whips out a credit card she’s apparently been carrying all along, her choice not to use it seemingly less about the possibility of its being traced than a stubborn desire to insist she is as underprivileged as her two friends. As we later discover, Kang-yi lied about her address to get into the school and in fact lives in a run-down semi-rural area some distance away, secretly regarded as even more of a hick provincial by the upwardly mobile So-young. Nevertheless, it’s not class differences which eventually shatter their friendship but repressed sexuality. One extremely hot evening, So-young and Kang-yi share a moment of physical intimacy but while it only seems to bind Kang-yi more closely to her friend, So-young is unable to cope with the taboo realisation of her desires and becomes increasingly irritable, distancing herself from both of the other girls before abruptly deciding to call the experiment in independence short and return to her parental home. 

All Kang-yi wants is a return to their former friendship, but So-young’s repression eventually turns violent. Rejecting Kang-yi and Ah-ram she becomes a part of the popular set and embarks on a campaign of bullying that leaves Kang-yi both physically bruised and emotionally wounded. Yet she is also in her own way repressed, unable to accept her parents’ love for her and often ignoring the plaintive cries of the family dog longing to be picked up and held. Neither she nor Ah-ram are able to conceive of a future for themselves, Kang-yi’s sense of rejection eventually pushing her towards a self-destructive act of violence that will further rob her of possibility and the potential for happiness. Captured with a restless, roving energy imbued with with the colours of twilight, Lee’s melancholy indie drama suggests that not even friendship can provide a refuge from the pressures of the modern society and its relentlessly oppressive social codes in which internalised shame can quickly snowball into an avalanche of violence.


Snowball screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Festival trailer (no subtitles)

Beyond You (그대 너머에, Park Hong-min, 2020)

Ever feel like there’s something you just can’t remember, a strange prickling like an ant crawling across the back of your mind? The frustrated director at the centre of Park Hong-min’s Beyond You (그대 너머에, Geudae Neomeoe) is beginning to experience something similar though perhaps it isn’t quite his memory at all. Returning five years after the experimental thriller Alone, Park’s existential melodrama begins in Hong Sang-soo territory with its caddish director and constant repetition but quickly veers off into the realms of the metaphysical as he contemplates memory and legacy through the prism of dementia. 

After a brief prologue in which an ant ventures off from its colony and is later swept into a local bin, Park opens with a strange sequence in which film director Kyung-ho (Kim Kwon-hoo) sobs on a bench next to a shrine while another man who is either sitting on his lap or somehow occupying the same space seems entirely oblivious of his existence. In any case, Kyung-ho has been waiting for Ji-yeon (Yoon Hey-ri), a young woman who is the daughter of his first love In-sook (Oh Mine) and has recently begun corresponding with him over some writing that her mother had done concerning their past relationship. It comes as something of a surprise, however, when Ji-yeon boldly suggests he might be her father, reacting with horror when she asks him to take paternity test. Taking the hint, Ji-yeon soon leaves apologising for her sudden intrusion after explaining that her mother has early onset Alzheimer’s and has spoken of him often aside from the episode contained in the writing. 

Thereafter Kyung-ho chases after her, thinking perhaps he’s been rude or over hasty shocked to think that he might have had a daughter he never knew about though later confessing he had in a sense “forgotten” In-sook not having really thought about her in the intervening 20 years since they last saw each other. He finds himself wandering around the dreamlike backstreets of the city chasing the image of Ji-yeon only for her to finally track him down and haunt him directly by emerging from a cupboard in his room when he refuses to open his door. This scenario directly mirrors his later incursion into the subconscious of In-sook, invited by Ji-yeon who is currently unable to enter because her mother does not remember her, complaining about a “strange woman” hanging round outside. 

Ji-yeon’s preoccupation is with the nature of her existence if she is not remembered by her mother and therefore not a part of her conscious world. Kyung-ho goes inside, in a sense, to rescue her only to find In-sook suddenly struck by a moment of existential attack pulling piles of papers out of her cupboards as she searches for the memory of her daughter she is unable to retrieve. Yet as she hinted in the dream narrative she’d explained to the “real” Ji-yeon, In-sook looks for her daughter every day, eventually finding her even if she fails to recognise and associate Ji-yeon with the fragmentary image in her mind. 

Kyung-ho, perhaps selfishly not wanting the bother of a secret daughter, is forever telling In-sook that it’s OK to forget him, as if his space could be freed up for Ji-yeon to enter yet through his dream odyssey he begins to lose himself. Or at least, perhaps this is all part of the screenplay Kyung-ho is attempting to write which is dismissed as dull and self-obsessed by his producer who advises him write something that other people will find “fun”. He tries teaming up with a screenwriter, explaining that “nobody wants to hear my story so I really want to tell it” but she too tells him that he might be better off just filming himself. The meetings repeat with small differences, but never go in his favour until he finds himself a ghost witnessing them from the outside. Just as Ji-yeon wasn’t sure she really existed outside of her mother’s writings, Kyung-ho begins to doubt his own reality while trapped inside the meta-dimensions of his unfinished screenplay.  

Park’s rather convoluted machinations may prove frustratingly incoherent, lacking internal consistency while insisting on the logic of dreams as the hero effectively haunts himself, but are perhaps explained in that early ant metaphor in a small creature’s attempt to venture away from the crowd only to end up feeling lonely, falling into despair and then attempting to crawl its way out. “Wherever you go no one will recognise you” Kyung-ho is told, yet his tragedy may be that he fails to recognise himself even as he chases fleeting visions in the minds of others searching for existential validation in shared memory. 


Beyond You screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Between the Seasons (계절과 계절 사이, Kim Jun-sik, 2018)

“To live the way I am” replies the reserved heroine of Kim Jun-sik’s Between the Seasons (계절과 계절 사이, Kyejeolkwa Kyejeol Sai Kaebongyejeong) when questioned about her dream, not quite able to answer when asked if she isn’t living that way now. An anti-romance and gentle meditation on the costs of authenticity, Between the Seasons finds two women at different stages of life unknowingly fighting a similar battle, perhaps identifying something in each other but unable to voice themselves fully though in fear and insecurity rather than shame even if they each internalise something of that too as they struggle to push past the barriers that prevent them from fully becoming themselves. 

In her mid-30s, Hae-soo (Rie Young-zin) has just moved from Seoul to a small town to open a bare bones coffee shop. She spends her spare time alone, and we quickly get the impression that she’s making an attempt to move on from something, eventually visiting a mobile phone shop to buy a new handset and instructing the salesman to delete all of her previous contacts and photos. Despite her attempts to discourage her, however, Hae-soo ends up forming an awkward friendship with bubbly high schooler Ye-jin (Yoon Hye-ri) who came into the coffee shop with an unusual order and then became a regular customer. Further bonding on a rainy night after the movies where Ye-jin was stood up by her boyfriend, the young woman starts randomly helping out just because she can see Hae-soo is overstretched eventually becoming an official part-timer spending most of her spare time with Hae-soo much to the consternation of her overbearing, grades-obsessed mother. 

Ye-jin quite literally begins to bring spring into Hae-soo’s life decorating the cafe with pretty cherry blossoms and floral motifs, lending it a cosier, more domestic atmosphere than the rather frosty, utilitarian vibe of Hae-soo’s original non-design. Questioned by Hae-soo about her dream she says she’d like to make things by hand, a dream that is perhaps in direct contrast with her mother’s obvious ambition for her. There’s not much money in paper cherry blossoms after all. That’s two reasons she might prefer being in the cafe rather than at home or studying somewhere else, Hae-soo both mysterious older sister and quasi-maternal figure, only the relationship is further complicated by Ye-jin’s growing romantic attraction to the older woman, becoming jealous as Hae-soo begins a tentative relationship with the sweet and goofy guy from the phone shop (Kim Young-min). 

For her part, Hae-soo remains either wilfully oblivious or simply unwilling to acknowledge Ye-jin’s obvious crush, awkwardly failing her as a friend and as a quasi-parental figure in refusing to engage with her complicated feelings in fear of having to reveal her true self. Instead she pushes the younger woman away without explanation, rejects her, and leaves her with only more shame and awkwardness despite having insisted that that there is nothing wrong in being different and that only by embracing your difference can you improve your life. Ye-jin continues to struggle with her feelings, observing her homophobic friends making fun of the supposed lesbian only to find herself semi-stalking the young woman confessing that if the rumours are true she too is the same. Despite eventually approving of her, the other girl tells her to keep her distance at school, lest they each fall victim to guilt by association. Eventually she gets all dolled up and heads to a gay bar where she furiously makes out with the bartender, mostly one assumes because she reminds her of Hae-soo doubly confirming her feelings. 

Hae-soo, however, is still conflicted, afraid to reveal her true self to anyone. The realisation she eventually comes to, symbolically removing the scarf from around her neck, is that she wanted to shine by herself, finding the confidence in authenticity rather than reflecting the light cast by the approval of others. Ironically that’s something she tried to encourage Ye-jin to do too but accidentally crushed in her brutal rejection of her feelings, costing her perhaps more than she realised in the process. Ye-jin had coyly asked her if she wasn’t making a rash decision, that so far she’d only shown her spring in her cheerful coffeeshop interior design, perhaps she’d like to take in the summer, even see her in winter too, truly thinking long term but the two women remain caught between the seasons, trapped by a sense of internalised anxiety that prevents forward motion. A gentle meditation on connection, authenticity, and self-acceptance Between the Seasons offers no easy answers for its conflicted heroines but motions towards a season of openness in which all are free to be who they are.


Between the Seasons streams in the UK until Oct. 11 as part of the Iris Prize Film Festival in collaboration with Queer East.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)