OK! Madam (오케이 마담, Lee Cheol-ha, 2020)

“If I have to die I’ll die in business class” a passenger insists, refusing her hijacker’s instructions to move to the more egalitarian section of the plane. Partly a social comedy in which a cast of disparate individuals respond in their idiosyncratic ways to an airborne hostage crisis, Lee Cheol-ha’s Ok! Madam (오케이 마담) is also an unconventional family drama in which an impoverished family go to great lengths to save their very first family holiday. 

Mum Mi-young (Uhm Jung-hwa) runs a successful twisted doughnut stand at the market, while her husband Seok-hwan (Park Sung-woong) is an in-demand IT expert. Yet financially the family is strained with Mi-young apparently exasperated that Seok-hwan keeps wasting money buying vitamin drinks in the hope of winning giveaway prizes. When they finally get lucky and win a dream trip to Hawaii, the couple are originally over the moon only for the penny pinching Mi-young to reconsider. Perhaps it’s irresponsible to take time off from their businesses and selling the prize online would be the more sensible option. When their daughter, Nari, complains that the other kids make fun of her because of her parents’ professions and the fact she’s never been abroad, however, Mi-young reconsiders. She may later regret that, as their dream family getaway is quite literally hijacked by North Korean spies who believe a fugitive former agent may be aboard their plane. 

Lee keeps up a sense of suspense as to the identity of the former North Korean agent even if the twist is a fairly obvious one. The other passengers on the plane are a minor microcosm of the contemporary society, one of the most vocal a feisty mother-in-law who’s forced her son’s wife on a long haul flight in the final trimester of her pregnancy so she can give birth on American soil and guarantee her child US citizenship. Other passengers meanwhile gossip about a famous actress while an arrogant politician constantly throws his weight about and an old man travelling to meet family bitterly regrets starting a conversation with Seok-hwan. 

Much of the comedy rests, ironically, on class disparity as the penny pinching Mi-young resolves to make the most of her unexpected upgrade to business class on learning everything’s free while the snooty mother-in-law quips about trying to engineer her grandchild’s access to American citizenship only to wonder if they might end up being born North Korean. Seok-hwan even jokingly brands his wife a “communist” for her financial austerity as she contemplates passing up personal pleasure for financial gain, while North Korean agents targeting the plane are eventually torn apart by infighting with some determining to sell off the rogue agent rather than simply capture them alive as instructed. 

Nevertheless, the main draw is the awesome fighting skills of Mi-young who finds herself donning a stewardess outfit and taking out the bad guys aboard the unexpectedly cavernous aircraft. Simultaneously enforcing and undercutting conventional gender norms, Mi-young had forced her daughter to learn ballet against her will even though Nari would rather learn taekwondo and is always watching action movies on TV. In a meta touch, an actress confesses that it’s just her face someone else does the actual fighting while Mi-young effortlessly takes out rows of bad guys who, it is has to be said, are not much of an advert for North Korean special forces. 

The hostage crisis in its own way brings the family closer together as they fight not only to save the plane, and everybody’s lives, but their dream Hawaiian holiday. Discovering mutual secrets and past lives, even encountering an old flame, the couple enter a deeper level of intimacy while remaining true to themselves and solidifying their family bond, little Nari’s taekwondo dreams apparently coming true after witnessing her mum showing off her action star credentials. At heart a slapstick comedy with a touch of ironic farce, OK! Madam rejoices in sending up national stereotypes from the clueless penny pinching housewife to the feckless competition-obsessed husband, celebrity obsessives, and self-absorbed politicians but also insists the most ordinary of people have hidden talents they’ll have no hesitation exposing when their loved ones are in danger. 


OK! Madam screens on July 5/7/9 as part of this year’s Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF)

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Prison (프리즌, Na Hyun, 2017)

prison poster bigPrison can be a paradise if you’re doing it right, at least if you’re a top gangster in the movies. Na Hyun’s The Prison (프리즌) paints an interesting picture of incarceration and the way it links into his nation’s infinitely corrupt power structures. When investigators wonder why a crime spree suddenly came to an end, one of the frequently offered explanations is that the perpetrator was most likely arrested for another crime but what if you could turn this obviously solid alibi to your advantage and get those already behind bars to do your dirty work for you?

Disgraced policeman Song Yoo-gun (Kim Rae-Won) has wound up imprisoned alongside several of the men he himself helped put away. Like many cops who suddenly find themselves on the other side of the bars, Yoo-gun’s life is not easy. Badly beaten, tortured, and threatened with amputation Yoo-gun eventually starts fighting back and seizes the most likely path to prison survival – allying himself with the inside’s big guy, Jung Ik-ho (Han Suk-Kyu). Ik-ho, a notorious gangster famous for eating the eyeballs of his enemies, is the one who’s really in charge around here, not least because he’s the one running the gang of prison based hitmen trotted out to take care of the bad guys’ hit list.

What starts out as an intriguing idea quickly descends into predictability as Yoo-gun and Ik-ho face off against each other, finding common ground and camaraderie but ultimately existing on the plains of good and evil. Yoo-gun has his own reasons for landing himself in prison but his policeman’s heart still loves truth and justice even if he’s forced to become a prisoner whilst in prison. While he goes along with Ik-ho’s crimes, joining in the violence and intimidation he practices, he also wants to take Ik-ho down even if it means becoming him in the process.

While the interplay between the two men forms the central axis of the film as they develop an odd kind of grudging friendship which may still end on the point of a knife at any moment, Na tries his best to recreate the world of the grim ‘80s action thriller. Technically speaking, The Prison is set in the ‘90s (not that viewers outside of Korea would notice aside from the external lack of mobile phones, computers, internet etc) but wants to be the kind of tough, bruisy, fight heavy action movie they don’t make any more in which a righteous hero defeats a large-scale conspiracy by jump kicking hoodlums. He almost succeeds in this aim, but never quite manages to anchor the ongoing background conspiracy elements with the intense pugilism of the prison environment.

Yoo-gun and Ik-ho are obviously a special case but aside from their efforts, prison life in Korea is not too bad – the guards are OK, the warden is ineffectual, and the inmates are running the show. Nevertheless the prison is the centre of the conspiracy as elite bad guys take advantage of put upon poor ones who’ve found themselves thrown inside thanks to ongoing social inequality, trading cushy conditions to guys who’re never getting out in return for committing state sponsored crimes. Needless to say, someone is trying to expose the conspiracy which would be very bad news for everyone but rubbing them out might prove counter productive in the extreme.

Na lets the in-house shenanigans drag on far too long, pitching fight after fight but failing to make any of his punches land with the satisfaction they seem to expect. Flirting with the interplay between Yoo-gun and Ik-ho in wondering how far Yoo-gun is prepared to go or whether he is destined to become his criminal mentor rather than destroy him, Na never fully engages with the central idea preferring to focus on the action at the expense of character, psychology, or the corruption which underlines the rest of the film. Nevertheless The Prison does have the requisite levels of high-octane fights and impressive set pieces including the fiery if predictable prison riot finale. Life behind bars isn’t all it’s cracked up to be after all, the corrupt elites of Korea will have to actually pay people to off their enemies. Predictable and poorly paced, The Prison is best when it sticks to throwing punches but might be more fun if it placed them a little better.


The Prison was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)