The entry into the psychedelic classroom is a surrealist nightmare

Hanguk Yeonghwa’s Most Memorable Moments of 2013

Beware – spoilers ahead!

One of the great things about being a fan of Korean cinema is that the industry is continually inventive. Whether in mainstream or independent film, Korean filmmakers constantly generate shocks and thrills aplenty, featuring some truly memorable moments that resonate long after the final credits have rolled.

As the title of this feature implies, 2013 was no exception. Shocking scenes frequently appeared throughout a variety of genres, and here are Hanguk Yeonghwa’s most memorable – disturbing, shocking, or just plain awesome – moments of the year.

Final warning – spoilers ahead!

Azooma (공정사회) – Dental Revenge

Disillusioned with patriarchal institutions, the ajumma prepares for her own brand of justice

Disillusioned with patriarchal institutions, the ajumma prepares for her own brand of justice

There have been a number of films in recent years that have explored the serious crime – and soft punishment – of pedophilia in Korean society. Few however can attest to providing such violent revenge as indie thriller Azooma.  Rejected by police as well as the child’s playboy father, the ‘ajumma’ (azooma) enlists the help of local gangsters to abduct the criminal and tie the pervert into a dentist chair. Employing her skills as a dental nurse, the ajumma exacts her bloody and brutal – and incredibly cathartic – vengeance by drilling the teeth to the bone without anesthetic. Even better however is that the surgery belongs to the child’s absent father, allowing mother and daughter to walk away and learn to heal.

Han Gong-ju (한공주) – The Internet Video

Gong-ju's trauma apears on the internet for all to see

Gong-ju’s trauma apears on the internet for all to see

Heartbreaking and tragic, director Lee Su-jin’s break-out film centers on high school student Gong-ju who conceals an extremely traumatic event in her past. While hints continually suggest that she was sexually assaulted, the truth is even worse – she was gang raped by dozens of her peers. The depiction of the event is truly haunting. However, as the film reaches its climax, Gong-ju’s unaware friends finally learn the truth about her suffering as a video of the assault appears on the internet. Unable to move or speak, Gong-ju’s best friend can do nothing but watch in horror.

How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서) – Dr. Swalski

Colourful Dr. Swalski provides the tips Bo-na needs to move ahead, to great comedic effect

Colourful Dr. Swalski provides the tips Bo-na needs to move ahead, to great comedic effect

One of the most vibrant and enjoyable rom-coms in recent years, How to Use Guys with Secret Tips is brilliantly original largely due to one character – the mysterious Dr. Swalski. In his audacious 1970s apparel, the doctor brilliantly gives advice on how to manipulate men to naive assistant director Choi Bo-na with superb comic timing, even appearing within her life when things don’t quite work out the way they should. With wonderful tongue-in-cheek wit, Dr. Swalski is a fantastic creation from the mind of director Lee Won-seok.

Intruders (조난자들) – The North Korean Spy

Suspicions rise but the culprit comes out of left field

Suspicions rise but the culprit comes out of left field

Director Noh Young-seok’s (노영석) film about a screenwriter seeking solitude in the mountains is a quirky story, with the slow build of suspense brilliantly executed as the murdered bodies begin piling up and suspicions rise. When the survivors find a hidden basement full of victims tensions reach fever-pitch – until a short North Korean spy jumps out of a closet. Simultaneously hilarious and shocking, the spy displays director Noh’s dark-comic sensibilities and adds a surprising element in an otherwise straightforward thriller.

New World (신세계) – Battle Royale

Jeong Cheong viciously battles his way through assassins

Jeong Cheong viciously battles his way through assassins

Through gangster epic New World, Chinese-Korean wiseguy Jeong Cheong – superbly portrayed by actor Hwang Jeong-min – is little more than a loser, a joker more interested in fake goods than in cementing his position within the crime syndicate. That is, until a rival seeks to take him out of the running permanently. Surrounded by assassins, Jeong Cheong displays stunning ferocity as he battles for his life pummeling his adversaries into submission, culminating in a brutal knife fight in an elevator. And in the end, only one man is left standing.

Pascha (파스카) – The Abortion

Ga-eul must learn to endure the pain of loss

Ga-eul must learn to endure the pain of loss

Busan Film Festival winner Pascha depicts the relationship between 40-something screenwriter Ga-eul and her 17 year old lover. The slow-moving indie drama presents their struggles to stay together, particularly after the news that Ga-eul is pregnant. Forced to have abortion by her family, the deeply depressed screenwriter undergoes the procedure. Yet as she leaves, something compels her to turn back and demand to see the remains. The controversial scene has divided critics, but the haunting image resonates long after the credits.

Snowpiercer (설국열차) – The Classroom

The entry into the psychedelic classroom is a surrealist nightmare

The entry into the psychedelic classroom is a surrealist nightmare

Director Bong Joon-ho’s epic sci-fi has several noteworthy moments, including the shattering of an iced-arm and discussing how babies taste, but the entry into the disturbingly bizarre school is so surreal it tops them all. After battling through dark and grimy carriages in an extremely bloody and violent revolution, the next door opens to reveal a disneyfied classroom on acid full of psychotic fervour. Alison Pill is phenomenal as the fanatical teacher, while the brainwashed students religiously chant the train driver’s name as if he is a deity. With exceptional work by production designer Ondrej Nekvasil, the classroom is a disturbing reminder of the power of bias education on impressionable minds.

The Terror Live (더 테러 라이브) – The General 

The general's hat is all that remains as Yoon becomes frantic

The general’s hat is all that remains as Yoon becomes frantic

Newsroom drama The Terror Live was a big hit in Korea due to the open and frank exploration of corruption within the social elite, and the exploitation of workers. As reporter Yoon Yeong-hwa (expertly performed by Ha Jeong-woo) converses with the terrorist who destroyed a bridge live on air, a military general comes to the studio and joins the debate. The general rapidly makes the situation worse, goading the terrorist with lies and defamation building unbearable tension until a bomb in the general’s earpiece explodes splattering blood everywhere.  A shocking moment, yet also a victory for exploited workers.

Advertisements
Film News
Vulnerability, as well as strength, are portaryed through the ajumma

Azooma (공정사회) screening and Q&A with director Lee Ji-seung (이지승)

Director Lee Ji-seung fields questions at the Q&A

Director Lee Ji-seung fields questions at the Q&A

At Indieplus in Seoul’s affluent Gangnam district, a special screening of revenge thriller Azooma (공정사회) was held, followed by a Q&A with director Lee Ji-seung (이지승) on May the 21st.

(For the review of Azooma, please click on this link.)

As always, producer Hwang Hye-rim (황혜림) kicked off the discussion by introducing director Lee and providing some context for the film.

Producer Hwang: Director Lee has been working in the film industry for years, for more than a decade. And he was actually more specialized in production and production management on big budget films including Haeundae, so blockbusters, too. This film (Azooma) was a relatively low budget film within his career, but it’s his directorial debut and he also wrote the script so the original idea is from him too. You have to say that it’s kind of interesting to see that in recent years we had revenge movies coming out in the Korean film scene, not just revenge but also involving sex crimes. So we could start by asking how he came to his idea for this film, to give a brief idea before we start the questions.

Director Lee: This film is actually based on a real incident that happened in 2003. (Spoilers) Of course it wasn’t like a dentist killer or anything like that (end spoilers), but there was a mother who had a daughter who was sexually molested and raped, and in real life she searched for the offender for about 40 days throughout Seoul and Gyeonggi Province. So she tried very hard to find this sex offender, and she caught him, and led him to the police.  That was the real incident, and it became the inspiration for this film. It happened in 2003 but it wasn’t until about a year or two ago that I read about this in a news article, so after reading that article I thought it would be good to make a film about this issue, because as you can see in the film the sentences for sex crimes are really really light and it’s happening over and over again in Korea. And it’s a really heinous kind of crime but it’s really frustrating to think that even in 2013 we could live with these sex offenders. For example even if he had done it 10 years ago he wouldn’t be in jail for long and he would live with us in this society, and that was a really frustrating reality for me. I thought that even though it’s a low budget film it would be worthy to make it and to remind everyone, including those writing the law system, that we need to work more on this issue to make a fair society. So that’s how I started this film.

Azooma (공정사회)

Azooma (공정사회)

Question: My question is about the title. The English title is ‘Azooma’, but actually the Korean title means, if you translate it literally, ‘fair society.’ So why did you use the title ‘Azooma’ instead?

Director Lee: Before answering the question, I’d like to suggest if you can think of female characters in Korean films. How have you seen them? How have you received them? Back in the 1990s when I was studying films in the U.S., at the time I thought – and I heard this a lot from my friends – “why are Korean women so weak?” “They are always getting beaten, why are they so passive?” I heard those kinds of questions a lot. Also, I’m not sure if it’s an unfortunate coincidence or not, but famous Korean directors who are famous abroad like Park Chan-wook, Hong Sang-soo or Kim Ki-duk, if you think of their films their female characters can also get those kinds of questions.  Not all of them, but their famous films are like that. So I thought, ‘yes it’s quite easy to misunderstand the characteristics of Korean women after watching these films.’ So it’s not because of that that I choose the title as Azooma, but the word exists only in Korea so I’d like to choose that title to show the power of women in Korea. The word ‘azooma’ also has a kind of image of a very strong middle aged woman who would run in the subway when she spots an empty seat, that’s a kind of joke that explains the character, in a negative way. But it wasn’t my point to depict that kind of azooma because I see many women around me who are called azooma even if they are married or not. They are just women, sometimes mothers, sometimes naïve, just around me and in our society. I’d like to show the reality, that they have a lot of disadvantages because they are treated as an azooma. They are often mistreated, but people kind of ignore them. I’m not an azooma, but I’ve seen it too much.

Question: You said that it (sexual assault and rape) is happening over and over again but it’s not just Korea, it’s happening all over the world. If they (the victims) need help from the government, from the police, who have to catch them (the criminals), do they have to do it by themselves? Is it really happening in Korea?

Director Lee: Actually it’s a really tricky question. I don’t know about the law very well, but when I made this film I thought of the differences between here in Korea and other parts of the world, because from what I hear through the news – in the U.S. at least – it seems like the sentence for this crime is much heaver than here in Korea. These offenders can get 200 years, or 2000 years, for their crime. So it seemed to me at least that there is a system that prevents them from doing it again by giving them heavy sentences. But here in Korea we don’t really have that kind of regulation or law system. I think if you have a heavier punishment, then maybe it will help a little bit to reduce that kind of crime. So that’s why I made this film. I wanted to show that we have a society where there is no, or very light, regulation and punishment on these kinds of crimes, that was the point. It’s happening over and over again, but I don’t think I can tell you that it’s ok to kill them. I just hope that if we care a bit more about each other, if society is a bit more caring, I just hope things will get better.

Yeon-joo is abducted by a stranger after school

Yeon-joo is abducted by a stranger after school

Question: As we’ve mentioned this has been an ongoing problem for centuries but in the past two years in Korean cinema there’s been an explosion in this kind of subject matter with The Crucible, Don’t Cry Mommy, Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry and Azooma. Why do you think it’s now, the past two years there’s suddenly been such interest in sexual crimes and punishment?

Director Lee: I think Korea is quite unique in terms of film sociology, but before answering your question I should explain a little bit about my premise first. I don’t think it’s a trend in making these films, about sex crimes, but I think maybe a lot of films that featured social issues were not so well known abroad (previously). There have been films about these issues but maybe they were not big or well known enough. Films that were made about these issues like the ones you mentioned have become successful during recent years. Although to answer your question, there is a certain kind of trend where people are more interested in social issues kinds of movies these days. I think because film has a certain kind of power to change the world and to society, especially in Korea, there are a lot of people and artists who would like to try to make a better world through films. Or to solve certain problems or issues that are not solved by the law system that we have now. There are more efforts by film artists about these issues.

Producer Hwang: Just to give you a little background, in recent years sex crimes became more open to the public, so now women have become braver in talking about it openly. It has a lot to do with having a patriarchal society, such as being a virgin before marriage, but now it has changed.

Director Lee and producer Hwang explore the concepts in Azooma

Director Lee and producer Hwang explore the concepts in Azooma

Question: I have 2 questions. When the mother gets to know about the place where the sex offender lives, it was different from the usual thriller, such as the process in which she found the place. It seemed more metaphoric. So I’d like to know why you chose this way to show it. The second question is, the mother reads the daughter the Little Red Riding Hood story at the park. I’d like to know why you put that scene in the film.

Director Lee: I’d like to answer the second question first about Little Red Riding Hood. This is a really famous fairytale that almost everybody knows, so it kind of came to me while I was preparing this film and the story. Little Red Riding Hood was told to go home early, (N.B. there appears to be a misunderstanding about the story on Little Red Riding in what follows) not to stay out late but she was caught by the wolf, and eaten by the wolf and the hunter had to save her, so the process was good for this film to show the story metaphorically. The sex offender is the wolf and of course the daughter is little red riding hood. Also there’s another reason. This book is the kid’s favorite (story) too. I don’t know if you saw it, but in the hospital scene when the mother was taking a book it was the little red riding hood. I also had to put little things that the child can actually recognize and remember, so when you see in the film when she was questioned by the detective over and over again I needed to put little things that a child could remember. For example the crown, or the lamp of the hairdresser shop, or the little red riding hood picture in the offenders house. I thought it would be a good metaphor for the whole story of the film. And also good for making hints for the child. I think to a certain extent that the scene that you mentioned is a certain kind of fantasy of mine too, so it’s not really realistic but from my point of view it’s kind of a fantasy too. Personally I don’t really like realistic films so I think movies should be more expressionistic. I’m a Hollywood kid too, so I’ve seen a lot of Hollywood films. Personally I like films that absorb you into a new world. When I felt, ‘if I make a film of this issue in a very realistic way what would the mother do?’ maybe she could do a demonstration in front of a government building having a picket saying, ‘please help me to catch the offender’.

Due to ineffective police work, the ajumma tracks the criminal herself

Due to ineffective police work, the ajumma tracks the criminal herself

But otherwise there’s nothing much else she can do in real life. I didn’t want to make a movie like that, that’s why I chose this way. It was probably possible because the production was relatively low scale and low budget. Also I felt that if someone who had a similar kind of experience saw this film I would really love to give them a little bit of comfort. That’s why I chose this way to show the whole process of finding the place of the sex offender. Actually there are a lot of fantasies throughout the film, in my point of view. That scene that you mentioned was one that I put a lot of effort into, and I’m happy that you picked it out. There are other choices to make this in a more conventional way like a crime-thriller, but I wanted to combine the mindscape of the mother – her emotions and mind – and to give information in a different way. I didn’t want to have it all in the kid’s words, such as, “It was room 303,” or something like that. I just chose to show information bit by bit through the eyes of the kid and through the imagination of the mother. It was a combination of two points of view.

Question: Do you think nowadays Korean society is still strongly male orientated? For example, in the film the azooma she took power into her own hands. Is this a kind of female empowerment these days?

Vulnerability, as well as strength, are portaryed through the ajumma

Vulnerability, as well as strength, are portaryed through the ajumma

Director Lee: I think things are a little bit better than before, women are stronger. But still there is a long way to go in Korea, in terms of social status, and the perception of women and men, there is still a lot of discrimination and difference. It’s traditionally a patriarchal society for a long time and it still is, so it’s not a society that women would want. There are still things that need to be improved. In the film with the police department scenes, when the mother goes there and tells them about her kid, I think if it was me – an older man – if I was there, would they do the same thing to me? Probably not. If I say that I lost my kid, he couldn’t do that to me. It was probably because she’s an azooma, because she’s a woman. I think we need a lot of improvement. Sorry I’m not a woman so I don’t know exactly, but that’s what I think.

Question: Because of the subject matter, how difficult was it to get funding for this film? In the structure of the film we go forwards and backwards. Did you think about a different structure before deciding upon this one?

Director Lee: In terms of funding, no I had no difficulties at all because this film is only 50,000,000 won/$50,000. It was quite low budget, and one of the producers behind this project came to me to make a contract with me as the producer of the film. And that money was to hire me. He prepared that as a guarantee. But when I got to know this film I said we should make the film with this budget. Let’s just make it. I didn’t need any guarantees as a director. We could do everything in a very minimalist way in terms of staff and actors and actresses, and that’s how it all started. We only shot nine times, that was all. The whole structure was like this even from the script. This was the way I wanted to do it, but I do have an alternate version, which I made in the editing process, which is in chronological order. I could see that in this way it gives more possibility to understand the mother’s feelings more, it’s more emotional, but this was the way that I wanted to do it. If you can remember, this whole process was to give you a puzzle, and to have the whole picture later. That was the basic method for me. If you remember the first scene, the azooma was more like the popular misconception of an azooma. Through this kind of structure you can see the misconception of a strong and powerful azooma change into the azooma I wanted to show you, a mother who is vulnerable sometimes but who tries very hard. That kind of transition happens within this structure.

Disillusioned with patriarchal institutions, the ajumma prepares for her own brand of justice

Disillusioned with patriarchal institutions, the ajumma prepares for her own brand of justice

Question: I know the title is ‘Azooma’, but if you go on wikipedia and look at the correct Romanization it’s ajumma. Is there a reason why you changed the spelling?

Director Lee: When I was thinking of an English title, and I was thinking about using ‘ajumma’, of course I knew that people have different spellings of the word. But I kind of wanted to make my own word of ajumma. There are many different spellings on wikipedia, but the rules are not set yet, so I wanted to make my own version of the word. I also thought a ‘z’ would be easier to pronounce for a foreign audience. After finishing the film and having the final spellings, I found out there was someone else before me who had thought of it and used it. My ambition was bigger, but someone did it already.

Thank you to Indieplus, producer Hwang Hye-rim and director Lee Ji-seung for taking the time for the Q&A.

Directors Interviews/Q&As
Vulnerability, as well as strength, are portaryed through the ajumma

Azooma (공정사회) – ★★★☆☆

Azooma (공정사회)

Azooma (공정사회)

The revenge thriller is often synonymous with Korean cinema, thanks largely to the successes of director Park Chan-wook and his contemporaries. Yet with the exception of Lady Vengeance, this realm of darkness and violence is very much dominated by men. Despite their stake in the evils perpetuated on the characters, women are marginalized into supporting roles while righteous torture and murder are masculine concerns.

Azooma (공정사회) changes that by having the central female protagonist directly involved in the action, in conjunction with tapping into socio-cultural concerns of child rape and a corrupt and overly-lenient legal system. Due to such content it’s perhaps unsurprising that Azooma – a variation on the spelling of ‘ajumma’, meaning middle-aged woman – is an independent production, giving director Lee Ji-seung (이지승) the freedom to pursue such cathartic female-lead violence. However this freedom is also the films undoing particularly in regard to the editing, which detracts from an otherwise thrilling revenge tale.

A single mother (Jang Young-nam (장영남) is late picking up her daughter Yeon-joo (Lee Jae-hee (이재희) from school, and as the 10 year old walks home alone she is abducted and raped by a man (Hwang Tae-gwang (황태광). Luckily finding Yeon-joo after the incident, the ajumma immediately takes her daughter to hospital for surgery and contacts her estranged husband (Bae Seong-woo, 배성우) for help. Yet he is more concerned with his own reputation, while the detective in charge of the case (Ma Dong-seok (마동석) seemingly couldn’t care less about apprehending the criminal. Devastated by the impotency of law enforcement, the ajumma decides to take the law into her own hands and find the paedophile herself.

Yeon-joo is abducted by a stranger after school

Yeon-joo is abducted by a stranger after school

The original Korean title ‘공정사회’ means ‘fair society’, and the irony is certainly not lost in translation. One of the great strengths of Azooma is the manner in which patriarchy as a whole is conveyed as responsible for what happens to Yeon-joo. Director Lee portrays an array of misogynistic issues that combine to place both mother and daughter as victims within contemporary society, and not just from a crime. Indeed, the reason the ajumma is late to meet Yeon-joo after school is due to a business meeting with a creepy older man, featuring some potent close-ups of her pulling down her skirt and covering herself to avert his gaze. Yet by far the most villainous character in the film is Yeon-joo’s father, who encapsulates the hypocrisy and selfishness of contemporary masculinity acutely well. He is of the ideology that sex is something ‘shameful’ for a female, and his fury that Yeon-joo is taken to a hospital where he knows people is as shockingly offensive as it is sickeningly real. Merely concerned for his own reputation rather than his daughter’s well being, the father brilliantly articulates the survival of traditional misogyny in modern society and serves to build frustration and pressure – for both the ajumma and the audience – incredibly well.

While it may come as a shock to some, Azooma is actually based on a true story. Director Lee does a great job in targeting the overly lenient law system for sex offenders as lacking any credibility, and ultimately forcing the ajumma to locate the criminal alone. Building on issues raised by prior films such as Silenced (also based on a true story) and Poetry, Azooma deftly conveys that even if Detective Ma were concerned with apprehending the paedophile, the criminal would most probably receive a light sentence – perhaps even as little as six months. The scenes in which the paedophile covers any trace of his DNA are simultaneously frightening and repulsive, as it is quite clear that this is not the first time he has committed such an act, and with the indifferent attitude of the police force it will not be the last. The unbelievable obstructions of justice caused by men prompt the ajumma to search for the criminal herself using clues provided by her daughter, and amazingly she finds him. It is here however that the true story ends as the ajumma confronts her daughter’s attacker, leading to suspense-filled sequences.

Due to ineffective police work, the ajumma tracks the criminal herself

Due to ineffective police work, the ajumma tracks the criminal herself

While director Lee builds tension well and continually provides acute criticism of contemporary Korean masculinity and their institutions, he is also given too much free reign in the post-production department. The editing within Azooma is the downfall of the film, as there is simply far too much non-linear editing over the course of the film. There are so many jumps to different times and events that often the suspense and desire for revenge, which took time and effort to generate, dissipates. This is a genuine shame as had the editing been a little more linear, the film would be arguably much more poignant and powerful.

Despite such criticisms the film manages to right itself in a quite thrilling final act in which the ajumma, completely dejected by the maltreatment she and Yeon-joo have suffered, seeks retribution. Simultaneously difficult yet enthralling to watch, the scenes of torture last long in the memory as the ajumma dishes out her own unique brand of justice. It is a testament to the issues within the film that such violence is not only desirable, but actually feels too short; even with the torture, it still seems as if the criminal didn’t suffer enough. It is wonderfully impressive to finally see a Korean woman at the helm of such violence. Even in Lady Vengeance, Geum-ja exists to provide vengeance for other grieving parents. With Azooma, the audience can witness a woman directly affected by a crime take control of the situation and emerge reborn. While all the loose ends are tied up a little too neatly, the violence is highly cathartic while the narrative itself contains numerous areas of debate, and as such Azooma is an impressive revenge thriller.

Disillusioned with patriarchal institutions, the ajumma prepares for her own brand of justice

Disillusioned with patriarchal institutions, the ajumma prepares for her own brand of justice

Verdict:

Azooma is a potent revenge thriller concerned with a mother who seeks retribution after her daughter is raped. Director Lee Ji-seung wonderfully conveys the temperament of the ajumma as she is pushed to breaking point by patriarchal society, and it is enthralling to see a Korean woman at the helm of such violence as it is such a rarity. While the non-linear editing is overly used to the point of dissipating the tension, the narrative is consistently compelling as misogyny is explored, corruption and leniency in law enforcement is exposed, and a female protagonist enacts arguably justifiable vigilante torture.

★★★☆☆

Reviews