The Prayer (간호중, Min Kyu-dong, 2020)

“I’m just wondering if they all live with nothing to live for and whether it has any meaning to live like that. And if I am no different.” a beleaguered daughter muses contemplating her own future while caring for her mother (Moon Sook) who has been bedridden in a coma for the last decade. A perhaps controversial advocation for euthanasia, Min Kyu-dong’s expansion of his entry into the SF8 series The Prayer (간호중, Ganhojung) offers a timely exploration of the nature of empathy, the limits of AI technology, the ageing society, and the destructive effects of inequality as mankind’s children find themselves wracked by the existential pain of human suffering. 

Set in the near future in which high schools are bulldozed to build additional care centres, The Prayer revolves around the relationship between the melancholy Jung-in (Lee Yoo-young) worrying if prolonging her mother’s life in this way is really what she’d want, and the robotic care nurse she’s hired to look after her, Ho-joong (also Lee Yoo-young). As we discover, Jung-in has taken advantage of the offer to have herself listed alongside her mother as a target for care leaving Ho-joong with an ironic conflict torn between her duty to look after Jung-in’s mother and witnessing the toll caring for her is taking on Jung-in who frequently expresses depressive thoughts and potentially suicidal ideations. 

In order to provide comfort to patients, the androids are designed with the same face as the primary guardian, meaning Jung-in is in someways in dialogue with herself while Ho-joong becomes increasingly confused in her imperfect, in some ways childish, application of human empathy. Fixated on Jung-in with a devotion which turns towards the romantic, she comes to the logical conclusion that in order to save her secondary patient the obvious choice is to sacrifice the first but has seemingly no understanding of the effect that may have on Jung-in who may be worn out and emotionally drained but would obviously feel responsible should anything happen to her mother at the hands of the robot nurse she hired because she has developed unintended feelings towards her. 

The extent of Ho-joong’s “feelings” are indeed at the heart of the matter as evidenced by her strange conversations with a well-meaning nun, Sister Sabina (Ye Soo-Jung), who is originally dismissive unwilling to recognise that a manmade creation may also desire access to God. As incongruous as it sounds, Ho-joong’s awakening spirituality positions her as uniquely human and as trapped as one of her patients, tormented by the pain of being alive and finally confined to table on which she claims to be experiencing near torture at the hands of those seeking to understand her “malfunction”. Her German manufacturers locate the fault in her advanced language processing unit, as if the problem were that she understands too well when perhaps it’s more that her empathy is based in a different metric and prone to misunderstand the irrationality of human impulses towards guilt and love. 

That’s also the problem with the unit next door owned by Mrs. Choi (Yum Hye-ran) whose husband (Yoon Kyung-ho) seems to be suffering from advanced dementia which often causes him to become violent or unpredictable. Unlike Jung-in, however, Mrs. Choi could only afford a basic model which offers little in the way of empathy nor will it care for her. Consequently, she appears to be overburdened with her husband’s care, doing laundry and tidying up after his frustrations cause him to trash his hospital room. The machine offers her only censure while the duty of care ironically prevents her from attending to her own health. Seeking help she turns to the manufacturer who bluntly tells her she doesn’t understand how to operate the machine and advises she ask her kids to teach her, only it appears that Mrs. Choi may have had a child in the past from whom she has become estranged and is otherwise all alone. Older than Jung-in, she despairs for the quality of her life and has no one to protect or care for her, pushing her towards a dark decision. 

Both women wonder if life is worth living if it means living like this, but have very different options open to them given their economic disparity. Having learned to feel pain, Ho-joong begs to be freed of it, positions now reversed as Sister Sabina becomes her caregiver. She accuses the nun of hypocrisy, that she allows her suffer by refusing to end her pain in order to preserve her own conscience in insisting to do so would be a “sin”. “What do I go through this pain for!” Ho-joong cries as if throwing herself into a fiery pit of existential torment while a cold authority insists she must continue to suffer. Min makes a powerful if perhaps controversial argument for the right to end one’s own suffering at a time of one’s own choosing if also leaning uncomfortably into the burdens of care as Mrs Choi and Jung-in too struggle with themselves while trying to do what’s best for those they love, but ultimately discovers a kind of serenity as his robot nurse encounters the spiritual and with it a release form the pain of living. 


The Prayer streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It will also screen in London on 22nd October as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival.

The Book of Fish (자산어보, Lee Joon-ik, 2021)

An “evil learning sinner” and a young man fixated on Neo-Buddhist thought develop an unlikely friendship while compiling an encyclopaedia about sea life in Lee Joon-ik’s contemplative period drama, The Book of Fish (자산어보, Jasaneobo). Like those of Hur Jin-ho’s Forbidden Dream, the hero of Lee’s historical tale of competing ideologies dreams of a classless future but is exiled from mainstream society not for his revolutionary rejection of a Confucianist hierarchal society but for his embrace of Western learning and religion. 

Like his two brothers, Chung Yak-jeon (Sol Kyung-gu) reluctantly joins the imperial court but later falls foul of intrigue when the progressive king falls only to be replaced by his underage son controlled by the more conservative dowager empress. Having converted to Christianity, Yak-jeon and his brothers are faced with execution but unexpectedly reprieved when the oldest agrees to renounce Catholicism and root out other secret Christians. Yak-jeon is then exiled to a remote island while his better known brother, the poet Yak-yong (Ryu Seung-ryong), is sent to the mountains. On his arrival, the local governor introduces Yak-jeon as a “traitor” and instructs the islanders not to be too friendly with him but island people do not have it in them to be unjustly unkind and so Yak-jeon is, if warily, welcomed into their community. “He maybe be a traitor, but he’s still a guest” his new landlady (Lee Jung-eun) explains as she prepares him some of the local seafood. 

Yet Yak-jeon encounters resistance from an unexpected source, intellectual fisherman Chang-dae (Byun Yo-han) who goes to great lengths to acquire scholarly books despite his otherwise low level of education. Somewhat patronisingly, Yak-jeong offers to tutor him, but Chang-dae is a rigid thinker who believes the world is going to hell because people have forgotten their Confucian ideals so he’s no desire to be taught by a treacherous “evil learner” or be sucked in to his dangerous Catholicism. Surprisingly, however, for a man who risked death rather than renounce his religion, Yak-jeong is no fanatic and in fact does not appear to practice Christianity at any point while living on the island. What he professes is that Eastern and Western thought need not be enemies but can go hand in hand while a rigid adherence to any particular doctrine is what constitutes danger. 

Chang-dae had insisted that he studied “to become a better human” but he also has a large class chip on his shoulder as the illegitimate son of a nobleman who refuses to acknowledge him, fully aware that as a “lowborn” man he is not allowed to take the civil service exam and in any case would not have the money to buy his way in to the court. Despite later professing egalitarianism, Yak-jeong treats the islanders, and particular Chang-dae, with a degree of superiority extremely irritated by Chang-dae’s refusal to become his pupil in the slight of his elite status often making reference to his “low birth”. Confessing his desire for a classless society with no emperor, however, Yak-jeong encounters unexpected resistance as the young man finds it impossible to envisage a world free of social hierarchy based on rights of birth and swings back towards desiring the approval of his elite father in the determination to climb the ladder rather than pull it down. 

Chang-dae finds himself caught between two fathers who embody two differing ways of being, Yak-jeong advising him to think for himself rather than blindly follow Confucianist thought, while his father encourages him to towards the court and the infinite corruptions of the feudal order. Chang-dae does begin to interrogate some of the more persistently problematic elements of Confucian teaching including its views on women and entrenched social hierarchy but also feels insecure and desperately desires conventional success and entrance into a world he thinks unfairly denied to him. Once there, however, he discovers he cannot submit himself to duplicities of feudalism. The islanders are being taxed to into oblivion, not only is there a random counter-intuitive tax on pine trees but the government is also extracting taxes from the family members of the deceased as well as newborn babies while cutting sand into the rice rations it promises in return. His father and superiors laugh at him for his squeamishness, seeing nothing at all wrong in the right of the elite to exploit the poor. Trying to blow a whistle, Chang-dae is reminded that the courtly system is an extension of the monarchy, and so criticising a lord is the same as criticising the king which is to say an act of treason. 

Having been accused of treason himself, Yak-jeong declines to enact his revolutionary ideas penning only a couple of books during his time in exile in contrast to his brother who published many treatises on effective government. Yak-jeong explains he dare not risk writing his real views which is why he’s immersed himself in the beauty of the natural world, exercising his curiosity writing about fish while making use of Chang-dae’s vast knowledge of the sea. The two men develop a loose paternal bond but are later separated by conflicting desires, Chang-dae eventually choosing conventional success over personal integrity only to regret his decision on being confronted with the duplicities of the feudal order. Shot in a crisp black and white save for two brief flashes of colour and inspired by traditional ink painting, Lee’s contemplative drama finds itself at a fracture point of enlightenment as two men debate the relative limits of knowledge along with the most effective way to resist a cruel and oppressive social order but eventually discover only wilful self exile as Chang-dae learns to re-embrace his roots as an islander along with the openminded simplicity of Yak-jeong’s doctrine of catholicity in learning. 


The Book of Fish screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

Escape from Mogadishu (모가디슈, Ryoo Seung-wan, 2021)

“You think we can accomplish more together?” the North Korean ambassador incredulously asks of the South, realising that if they’re to escape their desperate situation they will temporarily have to put ideology aside. Ryoo Seung-wan’s latest big budget action drama Escape from Mogadishu (모가디슈, Mogadishu) finds the diplomatic staff of a newly democratic South Korea ironically caught up in another nation’s much less peaceful revolution while perhaps confronted by the duplicities of their globalising ambitions even as they realise the North may already have the upper hand when it comes to cultivating relationships with authoritarian regimes. 

As the opening title cards explain, having successfully transitioned into democracy and fresh from its Olympic success the South Korea of 1991 was keen to claim its place on the global stage by joining the UN. Knowing that African votes are important in the process, the ambassador to Somalia, Han (Kim Yoon-seok), is determined to ensure he has that of President Barre in the bag before he finishes out his term. Unfortunately, his attempts are frustrated firstly by a lack of cultural knowledge in his home nation as witnessed by the inappropriate gifts they’ve prepared for the president which include expensive alcohol despite the fact Somalia is a muslim nation, and secondly by the North Koreans who seem to have cultivated a closer relationship with the ruling regime and are keen to ensure South Korea does not get its seat at the UN. 

Meanwhile, it becomes increasingly clear that there is unrest in the country with rebel forces intent on deposing the despotic regime of a military dictator and installing full democracy. The circumstances are in a sense ironic, the rebels and the ordinary citizens who later stage an uprising are only doing the same thing South Korea itself has recently done only they are of course doing it in a much less defensible way with widespread violence culminating in an entrenched civil war. The staff at the embassy therefore find themselves in a difficult position. “At home they turn innocent students into communist spies, think they can’t do that here?” a conflicted staff member advises uncertain as to what to do on realising they may unwittingly be harbouring a rebel soldier while diplomatically unable to declare a clear side. All they can think to do is play a tape from their welcome event describing themselves as friends of the Somalian people in the hope of deflecting rebels’ the anger. 

Nevertheless, the rebels have declared all foreign presences as their enemies for their tacit support of Barre’s regime. Han is certainly guilty of that in cosying up to the government in the hope of winning their vote, while the North Koreans fare little better despite being accused of secretly trafficking weapons to the rebel army while the rebels complain that foreign aid has only been used to facilitate Barre’s ongoing oppression. When the North Korean Embassy is destroyed and the Chinese have already left, the North Koreans are left with no choice other than the unthinkable, asking the South for help. The South, however, is conflicted. If they let them in they’re in danger of breaking the National Security Law and in any case they aren’t sure they can trust the North. “I hear they’re trained to kill with their bare hands” one of the ladies exclaims even doubting the children. But if they refuse to open the gate it means certain death for those who are, if not their fellow countrymen, then in a sense fellow Koreans. 

Based in historical fact, Ryoo’s high tension drama is in essence a division film which makes a strong case for the united Korean family even as the two sides remain somewhat distanced despite making the practical decision to trust each other in order to survive and escape. To do so they each have to make unpalatable political decisions, the South Koreans allowing others to believe the Northerners intend to defect in the hope of additional help from their own side and the wider diplomatic community. Given the opportunity to leave alone, Han nevertheless insists on making space for the North Koreans too unwilling to simply leave them behind. The North Koreans, meanwhile, reveal the reasons they could not defect even if they wanted to in that many of them have been forced to leave children behind in Pyongyang as hostages to ensure their continued obedience to the regime. Han may have gained a degree of enlightenment in realising there are sometimes “two truths” but there’s also an undeniable poignancy on realising that however much they’ve shared, the two men will never again be able to acknowledge each other in public, escaping Mogadishu but forever divided. Shooting in Morocco, Ryoo fully recreates the terror and desperation of being trapped in an unpredictable, rapidly devolving situation while allowing his divided Koreans to find a sense of commonality as they band together in order to escape someone else’s civil war.


Escape from Mogadishu opens this year’s New York Asian Film Festival on Aug. 6 and will thereafter screen at cinemas across the US courtesy of Well Go USA

International trailer (English subtitles)

Start-Up (시동, Choi Jung-yol, 2019)

Two young men experience a failure to launch in Choi Jung-yol’s Start-Up (시동, Sidong), a much gentler coming of age tale than his 2016 feature debut One Way Trip. Like the earlier film, however, Start-Up finds its two heroes pulled in different directions while experiencing the same dilemmas, these being in the main a kind of toxic masculinity that sees them in part reject their respective maternal figures in internalised shame as sons who feel they should be but are fundamentally incapable of taking of care of them and perhaps concluding that their only familial connection must be disappointed and resentful.

We can see the boys’ sense of futility in the opening sequence in which they literally fail to kickstart a scooter that 18-year-old Taek-il (Park Jung-min), the hero, has somehow managed to buy on the internet but seems to be a dud. Eventually they wind up having an accident and being taken to the police station where Taek-il’s mother Jeong-hye (Yum Jung-ah) has to bail them out leaving even the desk officers looking quite embarrassed as she takes Taek-il to task for his irresponsibility, disappointed to learn he spent money intended for lessons to help him (belatedly) get his high school diploma on the useless scooter. He tells her he’s dropped out of school and has no interest uni, fiercely resenting her refusal to accept his decision while unwisely cutting in that she doesn’t have the money to send him anyway which earns him one of her trademark volleyball slaps. 

Taek-il’s unwise words perhaps hint at part of the reason he’s rejecting the life his mother wants for him in that he knows how much she’s suffered and sacrificed on his behalf and doesn’t want to add to her burden by encouraging her to overwork herself to pay for college when he doesn’t think he’s worth it anyway. Of course, he can’t say any of this to her, and she can’t tell him she only wants the best for him, so they alternate between silence and blazing rows with Taek-il retreating into peaceful visions of life on a desert island when everything gets too hard. Wanting to prove himself independent, he ends up running away but doesn’t have money to get very far so ends up working in a Chinese noodle restaurant in provincial Gun-san. 

His friend Sang-pil (Jung Hae-in), meanwhile, is an orphan living with his elderly grandmother (Go Doo-shim) who appears to be suffering from dementia and has been supporting the pair of them by peeling chestnuts. Like Taek-il, Sang-Pil desperately wants to be able to take care of his grandmother and make her life as easy as possible but is largely out of options which might be why he lets a shady friend, Dong-hwa (Yoon Kyung-ho), introduce him to his “company” which turns out to be a local loansharking gang for which Dong-hwa is an enforcer and debt collector. Sang-pil tells Taek-il that he’s got a job “in finance”, and though he’s conflicted enjoys the sense of self worth he gains as a working man earning money to look after grandma. He is too naive to realise that the first family they visit is aggressively nice to Dong-hwa because he’s probably been less than nice to them in the past, coming away with the mistaken idea that the job’s not so bad and people are grateful for the “service” they’re providing. 

A repeated gag sees both boys getting repeatedly beaten up, literally struck down every time they attempt to move forward. Taek-il finds himself punched in the stomach by an amateur boxer with problems of her own and thereafter knocked around by the eccentric chef at the Chinese restaurant (Ma Dong-seok), while Sang-pil is finally awakened to the dark side of his new job when he’s thrown through a glass doorway by a drunken client very clearly at the end of his tether. The answer is less fighting back than it is standing together and up for oneself as the boys begin to make mutual decisions about the future directions of their lives and the kind of men they’d like to be even if they still don’t quite know where they’re going. 

Start-Up’s genesis as an online webmanga might help to explain its myriad unresolved plot strands including the backstory of the mysterious boxing high school girl (Choi Sung-eun) who appears to have lost or become estranged from her family but ends up becoming the surrogate daughter of the kindly man who owns the Chinese restaurant (Kim Jong-Soo) which seems to be a haven for lost people of all ages looking for a place to call home, while Jeong-hye’s past success as a volleyball star is resolved as little more than an awkward punchline and her desire to start her own business which she is then swindled out of presented as something done solely for her son rather than for herself. The difficult economic circumstances of contemporary South Korea are certainly a factor in the boys’ malaise and general sense of hopelessness but it’s less Hell Joseon that’s trapping them than a complex web of familial love and resentment coupled with their desire as a young men to feel in control of their own lives rather than being constrained by parental expectation. “You should decide where to go first” Taek-il is repeatedly told, but when it comes right down to it the most important thing is figuring out how to start the engine, everything else you can figure out later.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Crazy Romance (가장 보통의 연애, Kim Han-gyeol, 2019)

Can you find love in a crazy world? According to Crazy Romance (가장 보통의 연애, Gajang Botong-ui Yeonae), yes and then again no. The Korean title translates as something like the most ordinary of romances, which, considering what we’re about to see, is in someways quite depressing. Achingly contemporary in its Ephron-esque air of sophistication, Crazy Romance nevertheless lays bare the costs to both men and women of living in a rabidly patriarchal, misogynistic society.

Our heroine, Sun-young (Gong Hyo-jin), has just joined a small advertising company in what many seem to feel is an unexpected step down in her career. At the awkward welcome drinks she’s asked a series of inappropriate, sexist questions, but her claims of not currently having a boyfriend are quickly disproved when a young man barges into the restaurant with flowers and abruptly proposes to her. It seems, Sun-young had attempted to break up with him that very morning, but he refused to listen and has now caused embarrassment at her job (which he expects her to quit anyway because they’ll be getting married). Meanwhile, Jae-hoon (Kim Rae-won) wasn’t really paying attention because he’s had too much to drink and is obsessively texting his ex who hasn’t replied in months. 

Jae-hoon’s alcoholism doesn’t seem to have affected his work, but has become a talking point around the office. The day after the party we see him wake up on the floor of his apartment surrounded by the detritus of drinking including, for some reason, several bags of corn on the cob, not to mention a cat which is apparently not his but might as well be now. Ever since his engagement ended, he’s been unable to move on, getting blackout drunk nearly every night and texting his ex who resolutely ignores him (not that you can blame her).

We can immediately see that there is not much difference in practical terms between Sun-young’s abusive ex Dong-hwa (Ji Il-joo) and Jae-hoon who is being positioned as the unfairly maligned nice guy, derided for his maudlin romanticism in being unable to forget his past love even though, as we alter discover, he broke off the engagement because she cheated on him while he was busy working hard for their future, neglecting their relationship as he fulfilled what he saw as his male responsibility to provide financial stability. Jae-hoon does, however, leave it at drunk texting and while privately resenting the fact she never replies, does not become dangerously obsessive, belligerent, or threatening as Dong-hwa later does in refusing to accept that Sun-young has ended their relationship. Nevertheless, witnessing their intense encounter in the car park and perhaps projecting, Jae-hoon tells Sun-young that he feels she’s been unfair to Dong-hwa who is after all “trying very hard” while implying that it’s romantic disappointment that has led to the apparent downgrade in her career prospects in the wake of derailed marriage plans. 

Jae-hoon’s embittered tone might suggest he’s mildly intimidated by Sun-young’s previously successful track record, but it is in a manner of speaking romantic disappointment which has done for her career in that Sun-young is now incredibly sick of having to deal with misogynistic workplace practices and persistent sexual harassment. Finding out the truth, Jae-hoon is outraged on her behalf but contributes to an ironic kind of victim blaming in berating her for not defending herself, as if she had the same right of recourse as he would have in her situation which of course she does not. As they bond in a shared sense of romantic disillusionment, the other team members start to turn against Sun-young, branding her a workplace hussy, while she in turn points out the hypocrisy of their interoffice gossip where everyone has a secret nickname from an employee everyone assumes is gay but is afraid to come out (he might have good reason, judging by his colleagues’ snide comments), to a female office worker’s decades-long unrequited love for their now married boss who is frequently derided for being thoroughly henpecked which is why he forces them into unnecessary company bonding sessions so he won’t have to go home and spend time with his family. 

The problem is that romance, or at least being vulnerable, is still embarrassing even in your 30s which is why everyone has to at least pretend to be drunk to pursue it. Both Jae-hoon and Sun-young are offered extremely problematic dating advice which effectively normalises abusive behaviour, childishly incapable of any kind of emotional honestly as they awkwardly spar with each other while their exes hover in the background. Sun-young tries to take Jae-hoon to task for his hypocrisy, pointing out that he thinks of himself as “better” than all the other useless men, but ultimately the film more or less agrees with him even if clear that he’s still a product of a misogynistic society and extremely self-centred while also genuinely nice as proved when we realise how he ended up with all that random corn. While he is maudlin and romantic, Sun-young is (understandably) cynical, but her spiky aggressiveness finds far less favour even if she is perhaps the one finally in charge of the direction of their relationship. Nevertheless, Crazy Romance cannot help but reinforce contemporary conservative social codes even as it critiques them, insisting that ordinary love is in itself crazy because the world is mad.


Crazy Romance is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Svaha: The Sixth Finger (사바하, Jang Jae-hyun, 2019)

The thing about prophesies and the prophets who proclaim them, is that they only have power if people choose to believe in them. “Faith” can become a convenient cover for those who’d rather not explain themselves, a mechanism for manipulating sometimes vulnerable people looking for a greater truth or a purpose in their lives. Svaha: The Sixth Finger’s (사바하) dogged pastor is intent on investigating religious crimes and exploiting spiritual charlatans but he of course has his own agenda, that mostly being that he’s keen to get money off his clients who are in turn hoping to bolster their authority by rooting out “heresies”.

Leader of the Far Eastern Religious Research Institute, a kind of religious detective agency employing only himself, an undercover assistant, and a “deaconess” secretary, Pastor Park (Lee Jung-jae) makes his money flagging up dodgy and/or exploitative practices connected with organised religion. According to him, freedom of religion is “overly” protected, and he is alone on the frontlines of a spiritual war against unscrupulous cultists. Though some kind of protestant, he often works for/against the Catholic Church and is good friends with a Buddhist monk who gives him a tip off about a weird sect he can’t get a handle on, Deer Hill. 

Meanwhile, a young girl, Geum-hwa (Lee Jae-in), explains to us that she was born with an “evil” twin clamped to her leg. The twin wasn’t expected to survive, but is still living with Geum-hwa and her family who keep her locked up in a shed like a beast. Rightly or wrongly, Geum-hwa connects her sister with the deaths of her parents which occurred fairly soon after the children were born. Her grandfather, with whom Geum-hwa now lives, never even registered the birth of a second child out of fear and shame, never expecting her to survive this long. When a truck hits a bridge and exposes the hidden body of a murdered teenager, the police start investigating too, eventually leading them to two young men loosely connected with the shady Buddhist cult. 

“This world is one big muddy mess”, according to the cultists at Deer Hill. It’s not difficult to see why people might be looking for spiritual reassurance in such a chaotic world, but it’s exactly that need that places like Deer Hill may be seeking to exploit. Nevertheless, the only thing that Park’s undercover agent turns up is that there doesn’t appear to be anything untoward. Deer Hill doesn’t accept offerings from its members and even gives money away to the needy. Tellingly, the real nitty gritty to Park’s clients is in doctrinal deviation, they only really want to know what kind of Buddhism it is that they do and if it’s in line with broader teachings of the faith. 

A further tip off leads them to the mysterious Je-seok (Jung Dong-hwan), a legendary Buddhist priest who studied in Japan but apparently devoted himself to the Independence movement and is said to have achieved enlightenment. Je-seok’s teachings are dark in the extreme, “Pain is the fruit of faith” goes his mantra, “pain purifies your blood”. He believes that he is the “light” that will conquer the “darkness” by snuffing out “snakes”. One of his disciples, brainwashed as a vulnerable young man and encouraged to do terrible things in the name of good, begins to doubt his teachings when confronted with a possible hole in his logic and the very real human cost of his strategy. 

Not quite as cynical as he seems, Park retains his faith. It’s ironic that all this is taking place at Christmas and centres on the prophesied birth of a child that threatens someone’s sense of personal power. Unlike most, Park has always regarded Christmas as a “sad” holiday, unable to forget that Jesus’ birth was accompanied by the mass murder of innocent baby boys. He wonders where God is now and why he permits these things to happen. Park has faith that God sent Jesus into the world for the greater good, but Je-seok has convinced his followers that the same is true of him, that he has come to banish the darkness and that all their pain and suffering is fuel in a holy war. Their faith has been redirected and misused for the benefit of a false prophet, while his opposite number has been made to live a life of bestial misery solely because of superstitious prejudice. The police is a fairly irrelevant presence in this series of spiritual transgressions, but there is much less clarity to be had in “truth” than one might hope with “faith” the only solution in an increasingly uncertain world.


Svaha: The Sixth Finger is currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories).

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Dude in Me (내안의 그놈, Kang Hyo-jin, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Dude in Me poster 3“What’s more important than being with your family?” – A cynical crime boss is forced to reconsider his life choices following a series of crises which see him inadvertently swap bodies with a dimwitted high school boy in Kang Hyo-jin’s take on the classic genre, The Dude in Me (내안의 그놈, Naean-ui Geunom). Less a story of two men from different generations learning from each other, Kang’s film leans heavily into patriarchal myths as its jaded hero is given a second chance at youth and discovers he may have made a grave error in choosing to reject love in favour of advancement.

17 years after breaking up with high school sweetheart Mi-sun (Ra Mi-ran), Pan-su is a high flying “businessman” in the newly corporatised world of suited gangster thuggery. Old habits die hard, however, as his current problem is his minion’s failure to put sufficient pressure on the last holdout in an area they’ve earmarked for redevelopment – Jong-gi (Kim Kwang-kyu), the earnest owner of a carpentry firm intent on holding on to the family business. It’s during a visit to Jong-gi’s that Pan-su stops off at a ramen joint he used to go to in his youth, only to discover that the young woman who owned the restaurant all those years ago has moved on which is why his favourite dish doesn’t taste like it used to.

Inside, he gets into a heated debate with the new owner while a portly high school boy, Dong-hyun (Jung Jin-young), who needs to leave in a hurry, discovers he’s lost his wallet. The old lady bamboozles Pan-su into paying for the kid’s (unusually large) meal, assuring him that she has “something in store” for him. That “something” turns out to be Dong-hyun falling from a nearby roof and landing on Pan-su’s head. When Pan-su wakes up, he realises he’s in Dong-hyun’s body while Dong-hyun is presumably still inside his which remains in a coma.

Such is the force of Pan-su’s personality that he’s able to convince his chief underling of his real identity pretty quickly, but it remains a serious problem for him that a once serious gangster is humiliatingly trapped in the body of a misfit high schooler ostracised by all but the equally bullied Hyun-jung (Lee Soo-min) for his pudgy physique and dimwitted cowardice. Pan-su makes little attempt to blend into Dong-hyun’s life, behaving much as he has before and seemingly oblivious to the commotion his newfound boldness provokes in those around him. Though Dong-hyun’s new crazy backbone could be written off as a bizarre side effect of his head injury, the contrasts between the diffident teenager and unpredictable gangster do not end there. Where everything about Pan-su screams control from his obsession with straightening other people’s ties to habitually wiping down surfaces, Dong-hyun is the sort of boy who doesn’t think too far beyond his belly. Indeed, Dong-hyun’s vast appetite does not sit well with Pan-su’s uptight concern for his health even as his new body finds it almost impossible to resist the lure of tasty junk food in truly staggering proportions.

Nevertheless, Pan-su gradually begins to take ownership of Dong-hyun’s body, doing him the “favour” of “improving” it by shedding all that weight and revealing the hot guy trapped inside. Part of the reason he decides to do that is realising that the mother of Dong-hyun’s childhood friend Hyun-jung is none other than love of his life Mi-sun, who seems to have remained single since they broke up around the time in which Hyun-jung must have been conceived. Wielding his newfound hotness as a weapon, he vows to protect Hyun-jung in the most fatherly of ways – by teaching her to protect herself through shared self-defence classes. He will, however, need to sort out a few other problems on his his own, going up up against an entrenched system of delinquency and a dangerously predatory high school prince who likes to invite vulnerable girls to his parties as a form of entertainment.

Meanwhile, he’s still dealing with the ongoing gang war and a series of personal problems relating to his treacherous wife and austere father-in-law who praises “family values” above all else. Living as a high school boy again and realising that he’s got a daughter whose life he has entirely missed out on because of a choice he has always on some level regretted forces Pan-su to wonder if his ill-gotten gains were really worth the lonely, loveless years. Strangely, perhaps only Dong-hyun is brave enough to admit for him that perhaps they weren’t and what he really wants is a warmer kind of “family” than the cold obligation of gangster brotherhood. A quirky tale of softening bad guys and toughening soft ones, The Dude in Me eventually locates a happy medium in the merger of the professional and personal as a new family rises up in Mi-sun’s homely new restaurant filled with warmth and possibility in having rediscovered the simple joys of true human connection.


The Dude in Me was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Intimate Strangers (완벽한 타인, Lee Jae-kyoo, 2018)

Intimate Strangers poster 1Middle-aged malaise and technophobia collide with potentially catastrophic consequences in brutal comedy of manners Intimate Strangers (완벽한 타인, Wanbyeokhan Tain). The hugely popular Italian film Perfetti Sconosciuti has already been remade in several territories, proving the universality of its conceit. The Korean edition, cleaving closely to the original, demonstrates once again that nowhere is safe in the modern wired world where public and private personas are beginning to blur as lives lived online become realer than real.

The action takes place (almost) entirely within a swanky Seoul apartment owned by plastic surgeon Seok-ho (Cho Jin-woong) and his psychiatrist wife Ye-jin (Kim Ji-soo). The couple, along with their teenage daughter (Ji Woo), have been living in the apartment for some time but haven’t gotten around to inviting their dearest friends so this evening’s celebration will be something like a belated housewarming. The other guests will be friends of Seok-ho’s from all the way back in elementary school – elite lawyer Tae-soo (Yoo Hae-jin) and his wife Soo-hyun (Yum Jung-ah), “entrepreneur” Joon-mo (Lee Seo-jin) and his much younger wife Se-kyung (Song Ha-yoon), and recently divorced Young-bae (Yoon Kyung-ho) who is supposed to be bringing his new girlfriend, but disappoints everyone by turning up alone. Part way through the evening, Ye-jin suggests a kind of party game in which they’ll all put their phones face up on the table and agree to share any messages or calls that come in. Of course, this is a game you can’t afford to refuse to play lest everyone think you’ve something to hide, but total honesty is not always advisable even amongst friends.

Despite their supposed intimacy built up over a couple of decades of similar evenings and get togethers, everyone is very much in public mode and maintaining appropriate levels of decorum. Which is why Tae-soo and Soo-hyun are at great pains to hide the fact their relationship is at breaking point thanks to the recent arrival of Tae-soo’s mother while Ye-jin and Seok-ho also have obvious problems, especially when it comes to the upbringing of their teenage daughter. Despite being a psychiatrist with full knowledge of boundaries and the harm that can be done crossing them, Ye-jin has been going through her daughter’s things and not liking what she finds. Nevertheless, everyone wants to have a pleasant evening, so the fights are on hold and politeness very much in the ascendent.

And then the phones start ringing. It might be a matter of debate exactly how much privacy one should want or expect in a marriage, with friends, or from the world in general, but everyone has something or other they’d rather wasn’t brought up at a dinner party and so showcasing one’s phone is likely to be quite a bad idea. That might be the attraction of the game, but no one seriously wants marital breakdown across the dinner table, nor do they want to hear about medical procedures, outings they weren’t invited to, workplace drama, or familial strife.

The messages, as pregnant with melodrama as they might be, begin to expose the simmering conflicts between this now disparate group of “friends”. The petty class resentments and awkward political differences that politeness sees fit to gloss over become harder to ignore when flashed up by an inconvenient notification or a call the other party is not aware is being broadcast (breaching their privacy too in the process). Realising secrets have been kept from you can be hurtful, but it’s even worse realising that you disappoint yourself in proving exactly why the secret was kept in the first place.

It’s tempting to blame everything on technology, that if no one had a phone no one would be hurt but the truth is that married or not everyone has a right to their secrets and a separate, individual life to which no one but themselves is privy. Perhaps it isn’t so much lies which are the enemy, but the expectation of intimacy and that sharing your life with someone necessarily means the entirety of it. In any case, the film (like the other incarnations) opts for an ironic ending which undoes everything which had gone before, erasing the awkwardness of exposed secrets with a return to a more comfortable reality in which everyone is superficially happier pretending to be happy in blissful ignorance. Perhaps sometimes it really is better not to ask too many questions.


Intimate Strangers was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Battleship Island (군함도, Ryoo Seung-Wan, 2017)

battleship island posterKorean cinema has been in a reflective mood of late. The ongoing series of colonial era dramas have sometimes leaned towards uncomfortable and uncompromising nationalism but among the more recent, there has also been an attempt to ask more serious questions about collaboration and capitulation of ordinary people living under a brutal and often cruel regime. While Age of Shadows dramatised this particular problem through the conflicted figure of a former resistance fighter turned Japanese military police offer, The Battleship Island (군함도, Goonhamdo) goes further in its depiction of those who dedicated themselves entirely to the Japanese Empire and were willing to oppress their fellow Koreans to do so. That is not to ignore the hellish conditions which define the very idea of Hashima as an off shore labour camp where depravity rules, exploitation is hidden, and the camp commander is free to run his ship however he sees fit.

In early 1945 Korea is still under Japanese colonial rule and ordinary Koreans are liable for conscription into the Imperial Japanese army whether they like it or not. Gang-ok (Hwang Jung-min) and his daughter Sohee (Kim Soo-ahn) are members of a popular jazz band but Gang-ok has a habit of getting himself into trouble and so they are tricked into getting on a boat to Japan hoping for a safer, more lucrative life. Where they end up is Hashima – otherwise known as “Battleship Island”. Gang-ok and Sohee are separated with Gang-ok stripped of his musical instruments and Sohee, who is only a child, carted off with the other women destined for the “comfort station”.

Ryoo wastes little time demonstrating the immense evil buried in places like Hashima. A deep seam coal mine in the middle of the sea, the island is a fortress prison from which escape is impossible. Early on, three small boys decide to flee after their friend is killed in a cave-in only for one to be shot and the other two drowned by the lazy soldiers of a Japanese patrol boat who couldn’t be bothered to fish them out of the water. The miners are beaten, starved, tortured and manipulated into submission knowing that capitulation is their best route to survival. Not only are these men the subjects of forced labour, they are also made liable for the “costs” involved in their own enslavement with the bill for their transportation, food, clothes, and tools deducted from their “wages” which are supposed to be paid into their bank accounts for access on release. Those killed whilst working are supposed to receive compensation for their families but as will later be revealed, systematic corruption means their families may not even know their loved ones are dead let alone that they are being denied the money rightfully owed to them.

Things get even worse for little Sohee who is forced into a kimono and smothered with makeup to “entertain” some of the Japanese officers on the island. She manages to buy herself some time when she realises the Korean record the camp commander puts on to “comfort” the “comfort women” is one she is actually singing on. This new discovery earns her and her father a slightly improved status in the camp though she may not be safe for long. Gang-ok has already reverted to his tried and tested methods for getting out of sticky situations, making himself a kind of camp fixer aided by his ability to speak Japanese.

The Korean prisoners are represented by a former resistance leader, Yoon Hak-chul (Lee Kyoung-young), who offers rousing speeches in public but privately is not quite all he seems. Gang-ok gets himself mixed up in a Resistance operation run by an OSS (Song Joong-ki) plant on site to rescue Yoon who eventually uncovers several inconvenient truths which make his mission something of a non-starter. Yoon’s empty rhetoric and self serving grandeur represent the worst of the spiritual crimes discovered on Hashima but there is equal ire for the turncoat Koreans who act as enforcers for the Japanese, issuing beatings and siding with their oppressors in the desperation to escape their oppression. Tragically believing themselves to have switched sides, the turncoats never realise that the Japanese hold them in even lower regard than those they have betrayed.

It is hard to avoid the obvious nationalistic overtones as the Japanese remain a one dimensional evil, smirking away as they run roughshod over human rights, prepare to barter little girls and send boys into dangerous potholes all in the name of industry. At one point Gang-ok cuts an Imperial Japanese flag in half to make the all important ramp which will help the captive Koreans escape the island before being summarily murdered to destroy evidence of Japanese war crimes which is a neat kind of visual symbolism, but also very on the nose. Once again, the message is that Koreans can do impossible things when they work together, as the impressively staged, horrifically bloody finale demonstrates, but as Ryoo also reminds us there no “heroes”, only ordinary people doing the best they can in trying times. 


Currently on limited UK cinema release!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tazza: The Hidden Card (타짜-신의 손, Kang Hyung-Chul, 2014)

tazza posterYou gotta know how to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run. Apparently these rules of the table are just as important in the cutthroat world of the Korean card game Hwatu as they are in the rootinest tootinest saloon bar. Like most card games, having the winning hand is less important than the ability to play your opponent and so it’s more a question of who can cheat the best (without actually breaking the rules, or at least being caught doing so) than it is of skill or luck. A second generation sequel to 2006’s Tazza: The High Rollers, The Hidden Card (타짜-신의 손, Tajja: Shinui Son) is a slick, if overlong, journey into the dark, underground world of gambling addicted card players which turns out to be much more shady than the shiny suits and cheesy grins would suggest.

Wisecracking kid Dae-gil (T.O.P) comes into contact with the first film’s fast talking hustler Go (Yu Hae-Jin) and realises he has a talent for trickery. As a young man he gets himself into trouble trying to save a family member from a gangster whom he winds up stabbing meaning he has to go on the run and leave the girl he’s fallen head over heels for, Mina (Shin Se-Kyung), far behind him with only the promise to come back for her when he’s made something of himself. With nothing to fall back on Dae-gil ends up working for cardsharping gangsters in what is really a series of high level con operations. His first problem occurs when he temporarily forsakes the memory of Mina for the attentions of the alluring Mrs. Woo (Lee Honey) who becomes both his secret girlfriend and the gang’s latest mark.

Things do not go to plan and Dae-gil is left carrying the can for the gang’s heavy losses. Getting into trouble with another mark who turns out to be a high level gangster himself, Dae-gil finds out Mina has been sold into prostitution as payment for a family debt but also winds up losing a kidney as recompense for his mounting gambling debts. Now Dae-gil is out for revenge against pretty much everyone, hoping to rescue Mina and win her heart in the process but his adversaries are old hands at this sort of thing and it’s going to take more than a rigged deck to beat them at their own game.

Taking over from the first film’s Choi Dong-hoon, Kang Hyung-chul opts for a slick and charming Oceans 11 inspired aesthetic full of quirky humour and tricky slight of hand photography. With retro musical choices from a smooth cover of Spooky to the ‘80s synth pop kicking in for an exciting car chase, Kang piles on the nostalgia as Dae-gil rides high as a wisecracking conflicted member of this underhanded outfit. Taking inspiration from its manwha roots, The Hidden Card maintains its breezy tone even whilst the atmosphere darkens as Dae-gil taps out with this gangster credit, beaten up, drugged and waking up in a filthy room with a bandaged hand and a crude scar across his abdomen where his kidney used to be. Apparently making a quick recovery from serious surgery, Dae-gil’s discovery of Mina’s fate is likewise another addition to his quest narrative rather than more evidence of the savagery of this trick or be tricked world.

The Hidden Card’s biggest problem is an unavoidable one given its genre – the sheer structural repetitiveness of moving from one card game to another. Lack of familiarity with Hwatu itself is not exactly a problem even if mildly frustrating, but the nature of the way the game is played means that a great deal of screen time is occupied with watching people watching each other, moodily, only to be left unsure of what’s going on or who’s won at the end of it. This is all the more true of the film’s final showdown which brings back a major player from the first instalment in which the stakes have been raised supposedly to “prevent” cheating, but only really aim to make it more “challenging”. Still, away from the gaming table there are enough high octane fist fights and a lengthy car chase to break up the more cerebral thrills.

Undeniably slick and filled with a host of likeable characters offering snappy dialogue and silly humour, Tazza: The Hidden Card is far too long at two and a half hours. Uneven pacing does not help the feeling of scale and a similarly unbalanced plot structure produces a misleading sense of progression. Still, keeping one step ahead of the card sharks is fun in itself and even if the action drags here and there, there is enough character driven drama and ironic comedy to keep things moving right up until the consciously cool finale.


International trailer (English subtitles)