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Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 (2014)

December 3, 2014 Leave a comment

Broken_(Korean_Movie)-p1

Revenge is one of the natural human responses, but it’s a more complex moral issue. The implication is that injuring someone in return for an injury suffered is justified as payback in kind but, if everyone engaged in this form of personalised justice, there would be chaos. Violence would escalate and so, to protect society, we delegate the policing function and the administration of justice to the state. In one sense, it takes revenge for us. There’s a balancing of harms and the honour of the victims is upheld. Theoretically, future wrongdoers are deterred and current criminals can be rehabilitated if everyone accepts the idea that the punishment meted out is fundamentally fair.

 

So let’s say a woman is raped. She’s the immediate victim. If she dies in the attack, her family members are also victimised. In our constitutional systems, the state usurps the right of the individuals to seek personal revenge. By doing so, it denies the experience of the victims and their need to strike back. Indeed ironically, if the victims decide to take action, the state is obligated to protect the rapists. This is not satisfactory to the victims. Further, if the state does not administer a punishment the victims feel is appropriately severe, a further loss of confidence emerges.

Sang-Hyun (Jung Jae-Young) takes his pursuit into the outdoors

Sang-Hyun (Jung Jae-Young) takes his pursuit into the outdoors

 

Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 (2014) is a Korean version of the novel Samayou Yaiba by Keigo Higashino (a Japanese film version of the novel was released in 2009). The primary character is Sang-Hyun (Jung Jae-Young). He nursed his wife for three years while she died of cancer. When she dies, he sinks into depression. He has no time for his young daughter, Soo-Jin (Lee Soo-Bin). All he can do is go to work, earning enough to pay the bills despite the unforgiving nature of the work itself. When his daughter is kidnapped and dies while being raped, his life completely falls apart. He haunts the police station but all Detective Eok-Gwan (Lee Sung-Min) can tell him is that they are working the case. He can do nothing to help. He should go home and wait for news.

Detective Eok-Gwan (Lee Sung-Min) on the right consider his strategy

Detective Eok-Gwan (Lee Sung-Min) on the right consider his strategy

 

After a while, he decides to act and spends his savings on fliers which feature photographs of his daughter and his telephone number. Plagued by his feeling of guilt, one of the three juveniles sends the name and address of one of the other attackers who has video recordings of all their attacks. When the father breaks in and watches the video of his daughter’s death, he’s deeply wounded. Unfortunately, the young man comes home at this point and the father beats him to death with a baseball bat. Before he dies, the youth indicates where the third participant may be found. This sets the father off on the hunt. The detectives quickly realise who must be responsible and, with the evidence from the video recordings in their hands, they begin to contact all the families of those involved. Not all these parents where aware their daughters had been raped and their anguish is plainly on display. The problem for the police is that all these offenders are juveniles and unlikely to spend more than a few months in jail for their crimes. Now they know one parent has already killed one of the rapists and is on the trail of another, the senior officers decide they must not speak too publicly about this situation. If they give out the name and photograph of the young man at risk, the parents of other victims or vigilantes may get to him first. Detective Eok-Gwan is to lead the hunt without alerting the media. The father gets to the man who bought the videos of the rapes and sold them on as porn. They fight and, again, before he dies, the pornographer indicates where the missing young man may be hiding.

 

Conceptually, this is a marvellous film. It shows in detail how so many individuals and the state are broken. Two of the young offenders are callous and feel no guilt as to their behaviour. The third who blows the whistle was weak-willed and participated because he feared what the others would do to him if he did not actively support them. Their families are dysfunctional. The families of some of the victims were also dysfunctional offering little emotional support or practical care to their daughters. The detective is already being investigated because he reacted with some violence when arresting a juvenile offender in an earlier case. He’s deeply frustrated that the state’s justice system is broken and fails to dispense real punishments or positive treatment for offenders to effect their rehabilitation.

 

The pace of the film is terrific during the first two-thirds, but it then overplays its hand and goes through an unnecessary contortion to produce a grand climax. While not disputing the power of the final scenes, it took too long to get there and the impact was slightly diluted. Nevertheless, Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 is a thoughtful and above average thriller that gets to the heart of the problem of how to deal with juveniles who commit serious offences.

 

For other work based on Keigo Higashino’s writing, see:
11 Moji no Satsujin or 11文字の殺人 (2011)
Bunshin or 分身 (2012)
Galileo or Garireo or ガリレオ
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 1 and 2
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 3 and 4
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 5 and 6
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 7, 8 and 9
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 10 and 11
Galileo: The Sacrifice of Suspect X or Yôgisha X no kenshin (2008)
Salvation of a Saint
Midsummer Formula or Manatsu no Houteishiki or 真夏の方程式 (2013)
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 1 to 4
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 5 to 8
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 9 to 12
Platinum Data or プラチナデータ (2013)
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 1 to 5
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 6 to 11
White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 (2009)
The Wings of the Kirin or Kirin no Tsubasa: Gekijoban Shinzanmono or 麒麟の翼 ~劇場版・新参者~ (2012)

 

Beware Beware by Steph Cha

July 13, 2014 1 comment

Beware Beware by Steph Cha

Beware Beware by Steph Cha (Minotaur, 2014) has an immediate point of interest. When it comes to characterisation, I’m completely indifferent as to who the author picks as the point of view. My only requirement is that the individual feels reasonably credible and that I can learn something about what it feels like to be that person. So, as a now semi-fossilised man who first got a clear understanding of the world before the excitement of feminism moved the 1960s forward in the debate about liberation and gender equality, I often find myself depressed by the failure of contemporary writers to show the appalling discrimination still visited on women and the other marginalised sexual communities. With seminal books like The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer becoming best-sellers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I had hoped for better.

So this is the second book to feature Juniper Song. In theory, this is my chance to learn something of the life of a Korean American woman and about Koreatown in LA. She has completed the transition from Yale graduate into a job learning the ropes as a private investigator. For those of you who missed Follow Her Home (2013), her efforts as an amateur sleuth got her best friend killed. Now, under the supposed guidance of Chaz Lindley, she’s handed-off to Daphne Freamon, a painter who lives in New York. It seems the client’s boyfriend, Jamie Landon, is currently in LA acting as a ghostwriter for film star Joe Tilley. That he may either be snorting coke or dealing it, is offered as a possible explanation for him failing to stay in touch with Daphne. When Joe Tilley is found dead in his hotel bath tub after what seems to have been one of his traditionally debauched parties, Jamie becomes a person of interest. This brings Daphne to town and the show can get on the road. As a subplot, a sinister man is stalking Lori, Song’s roommate. Fortunately, he’s shot before he can do any serious damage. This gives us two deaths to think about.

First as to the plot: this is one of these deceptively simple stories. I suppose it follows in the classic PI novel tradition of having a dogged detective go round the town talking with people. Some our detective manages to extract useful information from. Others clam up when the wrong questions are asked. Such are the highs and lows when you pound the mean streets. The point of the exercise is, of course, to work out who everyone is and, more importantly, what their history is. This all works well as our PI slowly peels away the layers of onion, all the while finding the tears beginning to flow. Indeed, at one point, her questions are the direct cause of another death. This is chastening (i.e. psychologically traumatic). When you look back, this is nicely constructed and elegantly simple both as a mystery and a thriller.

Steph Cha

Steph Cha

But I have a problem with the Korean connection. I recognise the physical places and, in more recent years, I too have sipped my way through some high ABV soju with appropriately pleasing results. To that extent, the book does justice to the transplanted food and alcohol. But apart from one brief mention of racial tension, there’s no effort made to deal with the sometimes difficult relationship between the Korean community and the surrounding cultures, nor between the older and younger generations of Koreans. We do get some indication of both alliances between Koreans and Mexicans in gang culture, and involvement in more general crime by some in the Korean community. The author, however, prefers not to deal with the often quite serious racism afflicting the non-white communities, save that there’s some reference to the difficulty African Americans have in gaining acceptance by Hollywood. But it’s when we come to the sexism the author steps out of the real and into a fantasy PI world.

In the interests of balance, I admit one of the themes of the book is the willful failure of male-dominated organisations including police forces to investigate allegations of rape. Even at the best of times, it’s assumed the women are partly to blame even though it’s the men who force women to wear sexualised clothing. This is also seen in the failure of the courts to give priority to Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” to create real sex discrimination provisions, e.g. to prevent decisions as in the Hobby Holly case which makes the notion of a woman’s autonomy over her own body subject the the religious scruples of others. With the disapproving allowed to picket outside clinics providing abortion services to discourage women from entering, even rape victims find it difficult to terminate the unwanted child.

It may be bad for women in general, but Juniper Song is a Korean American woman who’s trying to navigate her way through the currents of Korean culture, the slightly rarified world of Hollywood stardom and the agents and managers who protect the illusion of magic, and the sceptical world of the police. Let’s start in Korean culture. This is one of the more extreme examples of patriarchal control. Despite the modernity of the country, South Korea has not progressed very far beyond mediaeval times when it comes to the question of gender equality. This male dominance has come under pressure through the move to America. The older Koreans have therefore resorted to ghettoisation in an attempt to retain the old values by holding themselves aloof from the surrounding world. But the young inevitably mix outside the ghetto walls and are infected by Western ideas of equality. This produces sometimes quite violent responses. When it comes to the police, our hero is given a female homicide detective to deal with. How convenient! No-one of any race or gender refuses to speak with her or is less than polite to her (at least, when she’s sober). The only feature that marks her out from the norm is her willingness to drink excessive amounts of alcohol and thereby put herself in danger. Sadly, this recklessness is not limited to Korean American women.

Put all this together and Beware Beware is a good story (the title referring to a painting), but I’m greatly saddened by the failure to be honest about the problems faced by non-white women in a fundamentally racist and sexist society. Just singling out rape and the problems faced by women who try to complain of sexual assault highlights the tip of the iceberg. This is not to say I’m for a more literary style of books that examine social issues at a deeper level. I’m just against the idea books by women, presumably written for a mainly female readership, should conform to patriarchal expectations. Unless, of course, I’m perversely undervaluing the message of this book. Perhaps this book is really a rallying cry for women of the world to rise up in a wave of vigilanteism and, whenever a women is raped, advocating she and her sisters seek out the man responsible and string him up from the nearest tree (or street lamp if in a city). Now that would be radical feminism in action.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 (2009)

White_Night-p3

White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 (2009) is a Korean film based on Keigo Higashino‘s novel Byakuyako. It’s one of these stories where events fourteen years ago have a direct bearing on current events with the same detective being on both cases. The original case involves the death of a moderately successful pawnbroker. His body is found locked inside the compartment of the rusting hulk of a ship. The only way into or out of this compartment is by climbing up a hatchway used to deliver food to the different levels. The body was found by young boys who play in this derelict place. It also appears the victim was paying money to a woman on the other side of town, but it’s not clear what form the relationship took. Before this can be clarified, the woman appears to commit suicide leaving evidence she might have killed the man. The senior police are quick to wrap up the case, taking the suicide as an admission of guilt. Detective Han Dong-Su (Han Suk Kyu) is not convinced that it was a suicide. This is one of these delightful moments in a film where you can watch the detective thinking and having one of those Eureka moments when the fact that doesn’t fit becomes obvious. Each of the departed leaves a teenager behind. The pawnbroker had a son called Yo-han. The suicide had a daughter called Jia. They were in the same class together at school. They both loved Gone With the Wind and the music of Tchaikovsky, particularly Swan Lake. After the deaths, they never seemed to speak to each other. A little while later, Jia moved to Seoul to live with her aunt who taught her how to make beautiful clothes.

 

In our time, Mi-Ho (Son Ye-Jin) is set to marry Seung-Jo (Lee Jong-Won) the chief executive of a large corporation. He asks her why she wants to marry him and is not offended when she says he’s rich. She wants his money to ensure she’s protected from all future hardship and pain. In much the same way the executive might headhunt an employee, he’s asked Si-Young (Lee Min-Jung), his executive assistant, to do a background check on Mi-Ho. She notices a man apparently following Mi-Ho. When she tackles him, she’s frustrated when it turns out to be Han Dong-Su who bullies her into telling the whole story of the engagement. When he sees her investigative report, he realises Mi-Ho is Jia, the daughter from the earlier case now grown up. This prompts him to wonder what’s happened to Yo-Han (Ko Soo).

Detective Han Dong-Su (Han Suk Kyu)

Detective Han Dong-Su (Han Suk Kyu)

 

Leaving his offices for the drive to their home in the outskirts of the city, the top-of–the range Mercedes carrying Seung-Jo and Mi-Ho crashes. Despite her own injuries, she rescues him just before the car catches fire. Now convinced she’s a special person, he asks her for the truth about her background. After a pause, she tells him that, fourteen years ago, she discovered she was the daughter of a murderer when her mother committed suicide. With this “last barrier” falling, Seung-Jo tells her they should get married immediately. This deeply offends his daughter who says she’ll never accept Mi-Ho as her mother. Si-Young is also deeply unhappy and goes back to Han Dong-Su to ask for help. He shows her the files he’s kept. They agree to work together. It’s when she finds evidence Seung-Jo’s car was tampered with that her life is in danger.

 

Although there’s a lapse into melodrama at the end, this is an almost pure tragedy. It’s easy to say that nothing can ever justify a murder. Most societies have moral and legal codes designed to protect human life. Of course governments hold up punishments of varying shades and degrees as a deterrent. The theory being that individuals planning a murder will see the punishments and decide the benefit they will derive from the death will not outweigh the costs of the punishment. Except this assumes either that murders do not occur spontaneously but are always planned by rational people, or that rational murderers believe they will be caught and so feel threatened by the punishment. Neither is terribly convincing. In this dark story, we’re looking at something close to justifiable homicide. It’s in the spirit of self-defence but tainted by complicated emotions of revenge. The second death is pure premeditated revenge but, once you understand the circumstances, you can understand why the killer should be driven to it. It’s unlikely there will ever be a catharsis or redemption for the killer. As viewers, we can feel pity and understand the fear that underlies the need to kill. Every human knows such feelings. But forgiveness is a different matter. As a society, we can’t exculpate those who kill others. There must always be a price to be paid so that society’s values can be seen to be upheld. As to whether a killer can ever forgive him or herself. . . I suppose some people have a conscience and no matter what happens, they will always feel the guilt. Others may be emotionally damaged and so be unable to understand society’s values. They survive by ignoring the judgement of others and doing only what’s needful to protect themselves. Such people would be incapable of giving love. As to accepting the love of others. . . that would be seen as a weakness to be exploited when needed.

 

White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 is a dark and disturbing story with some sex scenes so it’s not for everyone. I found it completely absorbing despite the failure to explain one plot element and the slightly unsatisfactory melodrama at the end. I forgive Park Shin-Woo, the director and joint screenwriter. In police procedurals, there must aways be a climax with people running around in desperate chases. Without a doubt, it’s worth seeing as yet another impressive piece of fiction from the pen of Keigo Higashino.

 

For other work based on Keigo Higashino’s writing, see:
11 Moji no Satsujin or 11文字の殺人 (2011)
Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 (2014)
Bunshin or 分身 (2012)
Galileo or Garireo or ガリレオ
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 1 and 2
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 3 and 4
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 5 and 6
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 7, 8 and 9
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 10 and 11
Galileo: The Sacrifice of Suspect X or Yôgisha X no kenshin (2008)
Midsummer Formula or Manatsu no Houteishiki or 真夏の方程式 (2013)
The Murder in Kairotei or Kairoutei Satsujin Jiken or 回廊亭殺人事件 (2011)
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 1 to 4
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 5 to 8
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 9 to 12
Platinum Data or プラチナデータ (2013)
Salvation of a Saint
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 1 to 5
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 6 to 11
The Wings of the Kirin or Kirin no Tsubasa: Gekijoban Shinzanmono or 麒麟の翼 ~劇場版・新参者~ (2012)

 

Private Eye or Gongjung Gokyesa or 공중곡예사 / 그림자 살인 (2009)

Private Eye

Private Eye or Gongjung Gokyesa or 공중곡예사 / 그림자 살인 (2009) is set in 1910. Korea was already occupied by the Japanese who proceeded formally to annex the country, appointing a Japanese Governor-General and deposing the Emperor. Japanese nominees also took over all the major authority roles and high status positions. This ranged from the military and police to the professions including medicine, the law, and so on. In practical terms, Korea became a protectorate under the de facto rule of the police. We start off the film with a medical student Kwang-Su (Ryu Deok-Hwan) searching the woods around Seoul for the bodies of dead animals. He’s training to be a surgeon but there are few opportunities to work directly on human bodies, whether alive or dead. It’s therefore quite a wonderful surprise when he finds the naked body of a young man. Without thinking too carefully about the implications, he treats this as his chance to get in some serious practice. Having a small hand-pushed cart with him, he has no problem in returning to the city with his find. The following morning sees him completing the first phase of organ removal.

Ryu Deok-Hwan and Hwang Jung-Min look at where the body was found

Ryu Deok-Hwan and Hwang Jung-Min look at where the body was found

 

It’s only at this point he comes to understand the seriousness of his situation. The body he’s been working on is the missing son of the newly appointed Interior Minister. Not unnaturally he fears to report his find to the authorities who might consider him a convenient scapegoat for the killing. Instead he focuses on the reward posted for finding him alive or finding his killer. By chance, he sees a flier advertising the services of Hong Jin-Ho (Hwang Jung-Min). He used to be a guard in the Royal Court but now earns crusts by tracking down unfaithful wives. Thinking they stand a good chance of identifying the murderer because they have the body and know where it was dumped, they team up to investigate. Because our detective is slightly more into thinking than action, he relies on Park Soon-deok (Uhm Ji-Won) as his science advisor. She’s a royal relative more interested in science than is good for her in these difficult social and political times. She dreams of escaping to America where she believes life will be more free.

Yoon Je-Moon emerges from the shadows

Yoon Je-Moon emerges from the shadows

 

As is always required, this is a film of two halves. The first part is relatively light-hearted as our new partnership of detective and sidekick doctor set out to solve the case. There are meetings with a number of key officials who will feature as the case develops and a great chase through Seoul as our heroes find themselves followed and try to catch the man responsible. At the end of the first half, we reach the point where, after tracking down the dealer who was selling morphine to the deceased, they are pointed to the circus which has set up its tents just outside the city. This leads to a meeting with Uk-kwan (Yoon Je-Moon), the circus master who, amongst other things, has a set of knives exactly like the one used to kill our victim. The second half of the film is altogether darker as a second murder and eavesdropping by Park Soon-deok suggests what may be going on. The problem, as always, is not only finding convincing evidence but also deciding how best to act with the Japanese now formally in charge of policing. The first signs are not good as the police move to frame a Korean farmer for the murders. They even go so far as to fake the body of the first victim, hiding the features by using lye. When our dynamic duo produce a photograph of the actual body (yes, our body snatcher has retained the body for part-time study purposes), the Commissioner agrees to give them two days to resolve the case. If they fail, he will execute the farmer (and find a reason to jail the duo for actually having the body).

 

As a story, Private Eye or Gongjung Gokyesa or 공중곡예사 / 그림자 살인 is dark and powerful but, as happens quite often with Asian films, there’s a less than perfect structuring of the narrative. Consequently, one key element is not clearly developed and we’re left to fill in other gaps to make complete sense of what we see. This is a shame, showing the inexperience of director and screenwriter Park Dae-Min. With just a little more care and some explanations at key points, this could have been a great film.

 

The Secret Reunion or Uihyeongjae or 의형제 (2010)

The Secret Reunion

It’s not, of course, that South Korea is obsessed with the North. Although the on/off diplomacy is destabilising and the North’s sabre-rattling sets nerves on edge, it’s just a coincidence that Korean cinema picks up on themes involving the relationship with the North. In The Secret Reunion or Uihyeongjae or 의형제 (2010) we have a somewhat “optimistic” espionage drama in which two young spies from the North infiltrate the South and establish new identities as sleepers. They are Song Ji-Won (Gang Dong-Won) and Son Tae-Soon (Yoon Hee-Seok). The National Intelligence Service is tracking their movements. In fact, Son Tae-Soon has already taken the decision to defect and is feeding information to Lee Han-Kyu (Song Kang-Ho), the officer in charge of one of the counterespionage units. The South hopes to trap their handler, codenamed Shadow (Jeon Kuk-Hwan), who’s coming south to assassinate Kim Jong-il’s second cousin and family.

 

The first third of the film deals with the build-up and the assassination itself. For Song Ji-Won, it can’t come quickly enough. He desperately misses his wife and daughter and wants to return to them. However, for all his training, he can’t bring himself to kill anyone. Shadow carries out all the executions save the defector’s young son. Song Ji-Won intervenes to save the boy. Thinking that Song Ji-Won is the traitor, Shadow escapes back to the north and has the man condemned in his absence. Unable to go home, he therefore hides in the south. Because Lee Han-Kyu failed to follow protocol, he’s scapegoated for the failure to protect the defector and the deaths of several officers who were killed by Shadow. Six years now pass.

Song Kang-Ho as a conscientious officer and loyal friend

Song Kang-Ho as a conscientious officer and loyal friend

 

Let’s pause at this point to think about the mythologising that must lay the ground for practical reunification with the North. Despite the rest of the world believing the North is the largest concentration camp ever constructed to specialise in “reeducation”, i.e. the brainwashing of the inhabitants, the South must believe the people in the North will be happy to rejoin them in a single country. Quite what the political system wold be in a unified Korea is left unclear. The fact the two countries have been at war with each other for more than fifty years cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the dream. After all, it proved possible in Germany. Why not on the Korean peninsula? So the film industry must show the new generation of North Koreans as sympathetic to the South. In his film, Son Tae-Soon has already been seduced by living in South and is only too pleased to sell out the other two. Song Ji-Won is shown as a loving husband and father, and as a deeply empathetic man. For all the training, he cannot bring himself to kill innocent women and children. He also proves more of a humanitarian than the capitalist Lee Han-Kyu. In other words, Song Ji-Won is the paragon, the hope for the future. Without a new generation like him, reintegration of the two populations will be extremely difficult. If there had only been a twenty year gap, families separated by the war could have come back together. Now everything will depend on the attitudes on the young on both sides of the border.

Gang Dong-Won an inspirational figure from the North

Gang Dong-Won an inspirational figure from the North

 

So back to the plot. Lee Han-Kyu is running a bounty business specialising in the recovery of runaway wives. A large number of women enter Korea from Viet Nam to marry farmers. When they arrive, they often find the life hard and the husbands unforgiving. During an attempt to capture a small-time gangster supporting this trade, he spots Song Ji-Won working on a building site. After some excitement, he recruits Song Ji-Won to work in his business. So begins the growth of trust and friendship between the two. Song Ji-Won wants the money to pay for his wife and child to be smuggled into the South. Lee Han-Kyu sees a chance to capture Shadow and so clear his name at the National Intelligence Service. Neither admits to recognising the other.

 

Although there are a two small elements in the story I can’t quite understand, it all works out as you would expect. In other words, it’s standard espionage fare. But the performances of Song Kang-Ho and Gang Dong-Won as a kind of odd couple approaching Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau status is completely engaging. There’s a great sense of fun about how they approach the business of tracking down and returning the women. The fact both have “lost” their own wives adds a certain irony to proceedings. They also spy on each other and what they learn builds the trust that’s going to be required when Shadow returns. Put this together and you’ll find The Secret Reunion or Uihyeongjae or 의형제 packages the political message pleasingly, making it well worth watching.

 

Le Grand Chef or Sikgaek or 식객 (2007)

February 7, 2013 Leave a comment

Le grand chef

Every time we read or watch something, there’s an inevitable filtering process involved as we decide whether this material is interesting enough to continue reading or watching. In part, this judgement is a reflection of the extent to which the content matches our own prejudices and expectations. We’re more likely to be interested and so continue to consume the material if the content seems credible to us, i.e. reflects how we believe the world works. Indeed, the more familiar the content, the less likely we are consciously to notice the way in which it’s presented. But when we look at content sourced from outside our culture, a slightly different process takes place. In this case, we have a Korean film and we’re playing a kind of comparative game, inferring their beliefs and cultural shibboleths. We do this by noting all the ways in which the people behave differently to our expectations and then guessing why that might happen.

 

At a superficial level Le Grand Chef or Sikgaek or 식객 (2007) is a film about a cooking competition. Naturally our good-looking hero, Sung-Chan (Kim Kang-Woo) with natural flair is destined to win. Bong-Joo (Lim Won-Hee), the dark, surly one who cheats, will lose. More importantly, the hero has sex appeal and so will likely end up in a relationship with Jin-Soo (Lee Ha-Na) — she’s the equally good-looking and, by Korean standards, the feisty young journalist covering the competition. Except, unless I’m completely misjudging the plot, the film is really an intensely nationalistic paen about what it means to be Korean and how that fits into a modern world in which Japan is to be considered an ally, if not a friendly state.

 

To understand this, we need to go back in time. Japan declared Korea a protectorate in 1905 and formally annexed it in 1910, displacing Emperor Gojong and appointing a Japanese Governor General. This film acknowledges many Koreans were deeply resentful and refused all co-operation with the Japanese. This included the Royal Chef who refused to cook for the Japanese. At this time, he had two apprentices, one of whom became a collaborator, routinely cooking for the Governor General. The Royal Chef only cooked once more. He made some soup for the deposed Emperor. When the Emperor drank it, he cried. When the Governor General heard of this, he asked for the same soup. Rather than make it, the Royal Chef cut off his hand. Later, with the help of his loyal apprentice, the Royal Chef committed suicide. This left the collaborator apprentice as the top chef in the palace, now serving the Japanese. As a mark of respect, the Governor General took the knife the Royal Chef had used and preserved it. We now move into modern times.

Sung-Chan (Kim Kang-Woo) and Bong Joo (Lim Won-Hee) square off

Sung-Chan (Kim Kang-Woo) and Bong Joo (Lim Won-Hee) square off

 

The grandson of the Governor General comes to Korea with the knife and proposes a national competition to find the chef best representing the traditions of the Royal Kitchens in a modern Korea. The knife shall be the prize. Sung-Chan is the grandson of the apprentice loyal to the Royal Chef and Bong-Joo is the grandson of the collaborator. Both are highly talented but Sung-Chan is better. The detail of the competition is irrelevant as are the emotionally quite powerful subplots involving the charcoal and the fate of the two bulls. The point of the film is not the cooking, although that’s reasonably interesting to watch, it’s the how and the why our hero wins despite the flagrant cheating and attempted bribery of the judges. As an aside, Bong-Joo’s treatment of his bull also weighs against him.

 

This is the most ironic Korean film I’ve seen. It alleges that, for all Korea was abused during the occupation, it adopted Japanese/Korean fusion cooking as the height of chic. Bong-Joo carries on the traditions established by his grandfather and has superstar status in “high-end” restaurant circles. When he puts dishes together for judging, he’s actually pandering to the taste buds of the Korean expert judges and the Japanese visitor. He expects to win because he believes contemporary Korean food culture is partly Japanese. Of course, the competition boils down to a head-to-head and then to a single dish. The Japanese visitor asks for a bowl of soup, thereby replicating history. Bong-Joo uses the secret recipe his grandfather handed down. Sung-Chan produces something simple, something the peasants might have eaten in 1910. The Korean experts refuse to even taste Sung-Chan’s down-market fare, believing this to be an insult to their sensibilities as the guardians of what it means to be Korean. It takes the outsider to tell the truth.

 

He dismisses the soup made by Bong-Joo as being what his mother used to make at home. He did not come to Korea in search of Japanese food. For him, the natural ingredients selected by Sung-Chan directly capture the taste and spirit of Korea. If a country is to be true to itself, it must go back to its roots and find cultural sustenance in its history and traditions. At a grass-root level of popular taste, ordinary people know what they like and vote with their feet. The pretentiousness in more elitist surroundings is actually dangerous because it creates an us and them. We’re better than them because of what we like to eat. That may be acceptable when the food is inherently Korean at all levels. But it’s nationally divisive if the elite choose to differentiate themselves by preferring to be Japanese in their tastes.

 

I found Le Grand Chef or Sikgaek or 식객 a fascinating film, offering a less common insight into core Korean values and how this influences nationalism as applied to Japan. There are interesting subplots and some gentle humour as well. It’s worth tracking down as a thoughtful contribution to the debate about what it means to be Korean. Screenwriter and director Jeon Yun-Su is to be congratulated.

 

Moby Dick or 모비딕 (2011)

February 5, 2013 2 comments

Moby Dick

Moby Dick or 모비딕 (2011) is a rather curious film out of Korea that, under the general genre heading of a thriller, actually turns out to be a film about the South Korean political machinations against the North. For a moment, let’s travel back in time to 1984 when paranoia about the North/South relationship was a more real electoral issue. Before 1998, the general stance was confrontation. There was to be no rapprochement with the North and, in the event there was provocation, the South would make an armed response. The intention was to signal the South wanted to maintain the status quo, fearing the North’s hostility if it believed the South wished to absorb the North into a united Korea. In 1998, Kim Dae-jung was elected and, under the so-called Sunshine Policy, separated the politics and the economics. Business co-operation was encouraged and tourism allowed. The Policy was finally abandoned as a failure in 2010.

 

This made the question of the relationship with the North a major issue in the elections throughout the 1980s and up to 1998 when the policy changed. This film assumes there was a conspiracy to incite the government into maintaining a hardline stance. We begin with what’s reported as a terrorist bombing in the South on the Balam Bridge approaching a major entertainment area and theme park just outside Seoul. The authorities are on the scene surprisingly quickly and, with equal speed, begin suggesting that three undercover operatives from the North were attempting to drive a car bomb into the theme park when it went off prematurely.

Kim Sang-Ho , Hwang Jung-Min, Kim Min-Hee and a photographer

Kim Sang-Ho , Hwang Jung-Min, Kim Min-Hee and a photographer

 

The reason for the title of the film is that, like Captain Ahab in the original novel by Herman Melville, the primary newspaper reporters are obsessed with finding out the truth behind every story they investigate. We start with Lee Bang-Woo (Hwang Jung-Min) who thinks he has a scoop on the Bridge story but finds he’s been beaten to filing it with the editor by a newly recruited reporter, Son Jin-Ki (Kim Sang-Ho). The reason for the newbie’s success is that he has a highly placed source who feeds him “reliable” information. When Lee Bang-Woo is approached by an old school friend, Yoon-Hyuk (Jin Goo), he realises he’s been handed a cache of potentially vital information by a whistleblower. To make sense of it, he overcomes his jealousy of Son Jin-Ki and pulls in Sung Hyo-Kwan (Kim Min-Hee). The information is both printed and in the form of floppy disks. Unfortunately, they don’t have the four character password for the disks. To complicate the investigation, Yoon-Hyuk refuses to say who he was working for. They check the military register and he’s not still a member of the army nor is he listed as a deserter. Yet he seems to have been acting as some kind of spy on South Korean territory. Not convinced of his reliability, the three reporters decide to investigate on their own. Except it rapidly becomes apparent that they are under surveillance. The original disks are stolen and they are threatened.

Jin Goo looking inconspicuous

Jin Goo looking inconspicuous

 

In the meantime, we’re allowed glimpses of secret meetings and an undercover squad that works out of the back rooms of a club. In parallel, Lee Bang-Woo dreams of being underwater but aware of a vast whale swimming close by him. He’s too close to see anything other than immediate details. Without perspective, there’s no way he can estimate its size nor what it might be capable of. Although the metaphor is somewhat heavy-handed, the direction and script from Park In-Je maintains reasonable intelligence and a good pace. It succeeds because unlike Hollywood efforts like the rather pathetic Enemy of the State (1998), there’s no attempt to embellish a simple story with science fictional surveillance technology nor engage in loud and interminable car chases. This has moments of stress and tension but, overall, it retains a great sense of realism. Allowing for one escape to be fortuitous, you feel it could all have happened. Except I’m in two minds about the ending. The response of the airline to the report of a terrorist threat is to allow the plane to fly. There’s no suggestion the aircraft was searched. Apart from that, the plot seems to play fair with the audience and holds attention.

 

So putting all this together, we have a shadowy group of businessmen and selected government officials determined to force confrontation with the North. The plot is both to fake espionage and engage in terrorist outrages in the South to implicate the North. Naturally, the group is somewhat upset when the reporters begin to investigate. Apart from the ending, everyone acts with reasonable integrity. The conspirators do not wish to kill indiscriminately. It’s the sacrifice of the few for the greater good. It’s credible they would hesitate to kill the three journalists. This makes Moby Dick or 모비딕 a reasonably enjoyable if somewhat low-key film.

 

The Man From Nowhere or Ahjeosshi or 아저씨 (2010)

January 22, 2013 1 comment

the_man_from_nowhere_poster01_small

Back in the 1980s and 90s, there were a run of films featuring “action stars” like Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal. Let’s take Nowhere to Run (1993) as an example. Van Damme is a convict newly released. He wanders into a situation on a farm and defends the widowed mother and two kids from certain death at the hands of a rapacious property developer. The essence of such stories is always a man possessed of amazing fighting skills, often with a military background, who defends others from harm (this can include the environment and animals as in On Deadly Ground (1994)). Being Hollywood, there’s always a strong theme of righteousness about the hero. In most films, he’s not a vigilante and is always seen to have a higher moral code than those he fights. Even when the hero is a “criminal”, i.e. has been convicted of a serious offence, there’s usually a backstory to show he’s not so bad. This is not exactly to excuse his past or what he does. Simply there’s a lot of whitewash used to cover up the fact such heroes usually leave a significant number of victims in their wake either dead or with what would be permanent disabilities. Why? There’s a fundamental paradox in operation. Hollywood crafts myths based on the idea of the hero. By definition, the majority of heroes are expected to be “good” people or they are bad people who redeem themselves through their actions. This makes it inconvenient to show heroes with feet of clay. Hollywood therefore squared the circle by sanitising the violence on screen. We would see all manner of mayhem and death, whether by major exchanges of bullets leaving rooms and/or entire building shredded or destroyed, but it was rare for us to be shown raw brutality. If such images did appear on-screen, the “bad” guys were the ones responsible thereby making our hero look better (if not good) by comparison.

Won Bin closes in on his prey

Won Bin closes in on his prey

 

The Man From Nowhere or Ahjeosshi or 아저씨 (2010) is a magnificent film from Korea playing in the same sandpit, but it embraces realism to a greater degree. All the action revolves around the tension between a major gang which deals both in drugs and organs for transplants, and the police. As part the drug distribution network, there are clubs used as post offices where content changes hand to move down for sale on the streets. One such club is staked out by the police led by Detective Kim Chi-Gon (Kim Tae-Hun) but, before they can make the arrests, Jung Hyo-Jeong (Kim Hyo-Seo), a dancer at the nightclub, tasers the intermediary and runs off with the heroin. Sadly, this dancer is a serious addict and, although she has a boyfriend who helped her, the heroin is mostly intended as her stash. Not surprisingly, the leaders of the gang are outraged their drugs have been stolen. The police are upset their plans to follow the drugs through the distribution chain have been frustrated. The dancer has a young daughter named Jung So-Mi (Kim Sae-Ron). She’s already on the verge of becoming a criminal, acting violently to her peers in and out of school, stealing from shops, and so on. The only one who even vaguely takes any notice of her is Cha Tae-Sik (Won Bin) who runs a low-life pawnshop.

Kim Sae-Ron pawning one of her acquisitions

Kim Sae-Ron pawning one of her acquisitions

 

One day, he takes a bag containing a camera and other items from So-Mi. He does not care that she probably stole it from her useless mother. He keeps it and “lends” her a few dollars. Unfortunately this bag has the stolen heroin sewn into the lining. In due course, the heavies led by Ramrowan (Thanayong Wongtrakul) turn up, take away mother and daughter, and prevail on Cha Tae-Sik to hand over the bag. Ramrowan immediately identifies Cha Tae-Sik as “different” and the gang bosses decide to frame him to distract attention from themselves. They separate mother and daughter, killing the mother and harvesting all her organs. They plant her body in the trunk of a car which is given to Cha Tae-Sik with instructions to go to the headquarters of a rival gang. The police are called and Cha Tae-Sik is arrested along with all the other gang members. Particular attention focuses on him when the body is found. There’s a nice joke about using the Americans to get around Korean security systems for classifying sensitive information. This enables the police to make an identification but it’s only later we see the backstory in flashbacks to understand how Cha Tae-Sik came to be in this rundown place. The film now falls into the traditional mould of our self-motivated hunter escaping police custody and tracking down the gang to rescue the girl. On the way, there are some delightful sequences, one of the most interesting explaining how the Chinese gangs use disposable children to work for them. There are also some terrific fights, with two against Ramrowan who proves a formidable opponent.

 

So with the caveat that there’s quite a lot of blood spilled and some creepy moments involving human organs and their extraction, The Man From Nowhere or Ahjeosshi or 아저씨 is sensationally good. Won Bin is genuinely malevolent and particularly dangerous because he no longer cares whether he survives. Kim Sae-Ron does a good job as So-Mi. Her role is a lot more than as a perky kid who has to look scared a lot of the time. Thanayong Wongtrakul is a thoughtful “villain” while all the gang leaders are the usual arrogant and not very bright thugs. At every level, The Man From Nowhere or Ahjeosshi or 아저씨 is worth seeing.

 

Dreams Come True or Ggumeun Yirueojinda or 꿈은 이루어진다 (2010)

January 18, 2013 5 comments

Dreams Come True

It’s always tempting to believe that when any large group of people lives with a problem for a long time, some will grow bored and ignore it — after all, what can relatively powerless individuals do to change the big picture — while the majority will be quietly obsessed with it. As an example, take the situation in Taiwan as it carefully navigates cross-Strait relations with mainland China. According to the latest survey, about three-quarters of the population support an improvement in the relationship with China. Since the problem is not going to go away, most agree that opening lines of discussion is better than beefing up military preparedness and being confrontational. Coming to the Korean peninsula, we have two sovereign states and an Armistice Agreement signed in July 1953, i.e. they are technically still at war. The DMZ is a continual reminder to both sides of the artificial nature of the current situation as the North tests nuclear weapons, fires long-range rockets, sinks the Cheonam, and shells Yeonpyeong Island. The smaller scale attacks are intended to reinforce the credibility of the North’s deterrent power, i.e. the North shows itself willing to risk a resumption of war while the South and its US allies have not retaliated. The exception was that the South did return fire in the Yeonpyeong Island incident. Perhaps they forgot to ask the American’s for permission.

 

How then does the entertainment industry deal with the issue? In Soar into the Sun or R2B: Return to Base or R2B: Riteontu Beyiseu (2012), the South does not fire on the plane from the North that causes moderately extensive damage in Seoul. This matches the passivity over the sinking of the Cheonam and parallels the earlier Joint Security Area (2000) where neither side bends in their antagonism but, apart from exchanging small arms fire across the DMZ, does not escalate into a military engagement. Which brings us to Dreams Come True or Ggumeun Yirueojinda or 꿈은 이루어진다 (2010). The major part of this film is set in a small encampment on the North side of the DMZ. The first squad leader (Lee Sung-Jae) has contrived to pass his obsessional interest in football to the rest of the squad who routinely kick a deflated ball around their muddy compound to fill in the idle hours of their tour of duty. When the South drops a container of goodies, it includes a football. The film is set in 2002 when South Korea jointly hosted the World Cup with Japan. The South is trying a propaganda exercise by building on the known interest in the North. The South wonders whether soldiers in the DMZ could be seduced to cross the line.

The North Koreans support the South

The North Koreans support the South

 

The North’s political officers use the new football as a training exercise in critique with all the soldiers standing up bravely and nicely exposing the weaknesses of the South through metaphors based on the shape, colour and design of the ball. This is a nice moment of satire in what is otherwise a slightly toothless film. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s boring but it comes close, largely because it can’t make up its mind what it wants to be. Director Kye Yun-Sik could have made a straight comedy without political overtones, or he could have made a satirical commentary on the way individuals organise their lives to defend against the oppressive nature of the North, or it could have been a straight action drama as political officers try to root out corruption and potential treason in the ranks. But all we get is a nice squad leader who leads his men into a fraternisation with the South, sharing in a wild boar BBQ, and playing football against southern troops in the DMZ. When the North detects an exchange of radio messages and an illegal receiver in operation in the camp, an investigation begins but, somehow, it lacks any sense of menace. Although our squad leader is beaten and the squad members threatened, there’s no intention to show anyone in positive danger. Indeed, the chief investigator, Choi Ji-Hyeon is not unsympathetic to the plight of the squad and covers up the conspiracy. I can’t quite decide what the film-maker’s motives were.

 

Taking a societal overview, there’s a culturally significant unwillingness to criticise others. For one state to interfere in the affairs of another is unacceptable. This trickles down in a general behaviour of deference to elders and those of higher status. So, perhaps, a sustained satire could not have been made. But equally suggesting Northern soldiers might be easily contaminated by decadent southern interests is hardly flattering. Although North Korea now plays in the World Cup tournament, the people are not really engaged internationally. This film would have us believe football is a universal language that transcends culture, politics and geography, but North Korea’s isolationism means few within the North know much about football outside their borders. Perhaps if Dreams Come True or Ggumeun Yirueojinda or 꿈은 이루어진다 had been about half-an-hour shorter, watching it would have felt less of a duty. As it is, I can’t say that I recommend it.

 

Joint Security Area or Gongdonggyeongbiguyeok JSA or 공동경비구역 JSA (2000)

January 16, 2013 Leave a comment

424px-JSA Joint Security Area

Based on the novel DMZ by Park Sang-Yeon, Joint Security Area or Gongdonggyeongbiguyeok JSA or 공동경비구역 JSA (2000) takes us into a rather strange version of contemporary reality in which the mutual antagonism between North and South Korea mutually reinforces group standards of behaviour. The norm is a set of rules for engagement in Panmunjom. The armed forces of the two sides may literally face each other across a line drawn on the ground at the Joint Security Area, but may never interact directly. That’s left to senior officers and government officials, often working through the agency of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC). At the so-called Bridge of No Return, the Military Demarcation Line has a blockhouse on each side where two members of the North and South Korean forces stand guard twenty-four hours a day. At other points along the border, troops patrol but are not allowed contact. In bad weather and through lack of care, some patrols do accidentally cross over. From North to South is not a problem. The North has mined parts of the border and this can lead to fatal consequences. In such a hothouse, national values are taken for granted and the status of a continuing war is drilled into the troops who practice shooting at each other so that, should there be a real emergency, hostilities can resume without delay. However, the greater the rigidity in any social system, the more individuals may chafe at the lack of any opportunity for self-expression or the exercise of discretion. If the wrong person is in the wrong place, this can lead to what the sociologists call anomie: a kind of mismatch between the prevailing social norms and the behaviour of one or more people. In extreme cases, the widening gulf between the prevailing systems and the individual can lead to suicide.

Lee Byung-Hun and Song Kang-Ho facing off

Lee Byung-Hun and Song Kang-Ho facing off

 

As a contrast, it’s interesting to note the behaviour of some of the troops along the Western Front during World War I on Christmas Day 1914. Unofficially, the troops fraternised, giving each other presents, singing carols and playing football matches. Sadly this moment of peace was quickly snuffed out by the officers and war resumed almost immediately with later attempts at truces largely unsuccessful. The book and this film detail the slow building of friendship first between three and then of the four soldiers guarding the Bridge of No Return. When the two South Koreans are caught drinking with their opposite numbers in the north blockhouse by a North Korean officer, the outcome is rather unfortunate. However, both sides are quickly to impose their interpretation on what happened. According to the South, a commando attack from the North abducted one of their soldiers and, only by great heroism did he manage to shoot himself free and return wounded to the South. According to the North, a rogue South Korean soldier crossed into the North, assassinated two soldiers and wounded a third. The NNSC is tasked with establishing the truth and the investigation is handed over to Maj. Sophie E. Jean (Lee Yeong-Ae) a Swiss national whose parents left the North in 1953.

Lee Yeong-Ae with the magic bullet

Lee Yeong-Ae with the magic bullet

 

The two soldiers from the South are Sgt. Lee Soo-Hyuk (Lee Byung-Hun) and Nam Sung-Shik (Kim Tae-Woo); from the North we have Sgt. Oh Kyeong-Pil (Song Kang-Ho) and Jung Woo-Jin (Shin Ha-Kyun). Suffice it to say, none of the survivors have any interest in telling the truth. If disclosed, their fraternisation would be so profoundly shocking, life imprisonment or simple execution would follow. Unfortunately, our intrepid investigator notices a discrepancy in the physical evidence. It seems one more bullet was fired than has been accounted for. This would suggest the “official” statements given by the survivors are untrue. We then have a careful retelling of what actually happened and watch the political and practical outcomes.

 

In every way, Joint Security Area or Gongdonggyeongbiguyeok JSA or 공동경비구역 JSA is a tragedy in the sense the characters suffer losses and some die. But instead of dealing with the larger picture of the state of war between North and South, we have it scaled down to the relationship between the four men who metaphorically and literally cross the line, and pay the price for being discovered. The two sergeants, Lee Byung-Hun and Song Kang-Ho, are outstanding while Lee Yeong-Ae is somewhat underused. Director Park Chan-Wook is to be congratulated on constructing so elegant a film for exploring how the anomie first established itself and then grew. That the two countries nominally remain at war and continue to reinforce the hostility is one of the sadder scenarios currently playing out on the world stage. This is a thoughtful contribution to the wider debate wondering just how long the war would continue if it could be left to the people to decide. It’s well worth watching.

 

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