A Girl at My Door (도희야) – ★★★★☆

A Girl at My Door (도희야)

A Girl at My Door (도희야)

Forced to relocate in the countryside due to an undisclosed issue in the city, police officer Yeong-nam (Bae Doo-na (배두나) prepares herself for a year of exile. Despite being one of the youngest adults in the city Yeong-nam is appointed chief of police, and in getting to know her new surroundings she is quickly exposed to the middle-aged, laid back way of life, as well as the migrant workers who help keep the town alive through manual labour. Yet no sooner as she attempts to settle, Yeong-nam is confronted with horrific child abuse against her young neighbour Do-hee (Kim Sae-ron (김새론) by her father Yong-ha (Song Sae-byeok (송새벽) and grandmother (Kim Jin-goo (김진구). To protect Do-hee from further domestic abuse Yeong-nam takes the child under her care, just as her past begins to catch up with her.

Do-hee is a victim of terrible domestic abuse in the country town

A victim of terrible abuse, Do-hee is a social outcast in need of protection

A Girl at My Door (도희야) is a simply phenomenal debut by writer/director July Jung (Jeong Joo-ri (정주리). Director Jung’s film is a powerful and intelligent exploration of discrimination and violence in Korean culture with a uniquely feminist spin that is all too rare in the industry. The approach taken in exploring such social issues is reminiscent of cinema legend Lee Chang-dong‘s work, particularly Poetry, which more than likely explains his decision to take a producer credit on the film. A Girl at My Door differentiates itself from director Lee’s work however in that director Jung’s layered script not only employs a multitude of perspectives in interrogating discrimination, but also in that she keenly conveys the ironies of Korean culture, particularly in regard to pretense. Central protagonist Yeong-nam projects a strong and stoic image as the chief of police, concealing her fraught complexity in regards to her history, emotional state, and very identity. Her dependancy on soju, which she conceals in water bottles, adds potent irony to an already paradoxical situation as she hides her addiction from those around her in a bid to remain a socially acceptable image. Director Jung captures moments such as these with incredible prowess conveying them in ways both subtle and obvious, balancing her character study with a skill belying her experience.

Yet where director Jung truly excels is through the relationship that develops between Yeong-nam and abuse victim Doo-hee. This is in no small part due to the astounding performances of both Bae Doo-na and, particularly, Kim Sae-ron. Bae Doo-na is constantly captivating as the police chief as she wrestles her internal conflicts, conveying a cold stoicism when in the presence of others yet a subtle fragility when alone. Yet it is youngster Kim Sae-ron who steals the limelight with her astonishing turn as social outcast Do-hee. Her range throughout A Girl at My Door is staggeringly impressive as an abuse victim desperate for love, with her unpredictability compelling to the utmost degree. Despite having two radically different characters director Jung crafts their relationship with a natural sincerity that never fails to be engaging. From small moments at meal times to more intimate scenes as they become closer, director Jung captures Do-hee’s reverence and Yeong-nam’s responsibility-turned-devotion with palpable affection.

Yeong-nam invites Doo-hee to stay with her for a summer, where their relationship considerably develops

Yeong-nam invites Do-hee to stay with her for a summer, where their relationship considerably develops

Through the central relationship as well as Yeong-nam’s position as law enforcement, A Girl at My Door explores discrimination within Korean society through the microcosm of a small countryside town. Director Jung interrogates the issue from a variety of perspectives, chiefly the sexism, homophobia and ageism that is so openly expressed by those in society. Despite her position as chief of police Yeong-nam is still subjected to gender and age discrimination by those she protects and works with, while her status as someone from the city also adds to the prejudice received. Do-hee is subjected to abuse which is justified due to her social status as a young orphan of sorts. The narrative impressively examines how such discrimination has become normalised within culture at both societal and governmental levels, with the frustration of innocents attempting to fight against it a source of inspiration and empowerment. Racism also arises through the incorporation of migrant workers within the story, adding a further perspective on the issue as they are forced to endure manual labour. Through her sense of irony director Jung astutely conveys how contemporary society is willing to accept such prejudice as long as their quality of life is assured, and their terrible reaction when it is challenged even in the name of the law.

The stakes are raised when Do-hee's father Yong-ha is arrested for assaulting his workers

The stakes are raised when Do-hee’s father Yong-ha is arrested for assaulting his workers

Verdict:

A Girl at My Door is a phenomenal debut by director July Jung, who examines issues of discrimination in contemporary Korea through the microcosm of  small countryside town. Featuring beautiful cinematography and an intelligent, irony-laced script, A Girl at My Door also boasts two exceptional performances from Bae Doo-na and in particular from rising star Kim Sae-ron. Not to be missed.

★★★★☆

Advertisements
Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews
Hyeon-seo is taken to the monster's lair

The Host (괴물) – ★★★★★

The Host (괴물)

The Host (괴물)

The introduction of Godzilla in 1954 was a masterstroke. The monster directly tapped into the fears and anxieties of the Japanese populace following the American atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the potential ramifications of the nuclear fallout. The popularity of the iconic character was instant, while the enduring legacy of Godzilla has remained due to the still underlying apprehension surrounding nuclear technology.

Ironically, a similar fate was to occur with neighbouring South Korea. In 2000, the American military dumped 20 gallons of formaldehyde into drains which flowed directly into the Han River, the source of drinking water for the entire population of Seoul. The enormity of the public outcry was such that the U.S. military gave it’s first public apology since the Korean War, yet it did little to assuage public opinion. Enter The Host (괴물), a film that – similar to Godzilla – uses the true story as a basis for a narrative which introduces a monster into the midst of Seoul, amalgamating the fears, angers and anxieties of the society into the monstrous beast. ‘괴물’ is translated as ‘monster’, the source of the horror. However, far more interesting (and multi-layered) is the English title ‘The Host’. ‘The Host’ refers to the Han River which harbours the monster, but is also symbolic of Korea for ‘hosting’ the U.S. military (arguably another source of ‘horror’ due to creating the monster and perceived imperialism). The multi-layered title is reflected within the narrative, and it is such complexity that makes The Host one of the best science-fiction films of all time.

The 'average' Seoulite family

The ‘average’ Seoulite family

The Host depicts the dysfunctional Park family, who are more a collection of individuals due to their differing personalities and interests. The slacker of the family, Gang-du (Song Kang-ho (송강호) works at a convenience store with his diligent father Hee-bong (Byeon Hee-bong (변희봉) on the banks of the Han River. Living with them is Gang-du’s daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-seong (고아성) a middle school student who dislikes her father’s laid-back attitude. One day whilst serving customers, a mutated amphibious fish monster emerges from the river wreaking havoc. Gang-du and an American soldier bravely try to stop the monster from eating people, but during the struggle the soldier is gravely injured as the monster tries to consume him. Wounded by Gang-du, the monster runs back to the safety of the Han River and snatches the unaware Hyun-seo on the way. With Hyun-seo believed dead, the Gang-du is joined by his salaryman brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il (박해일) and archer sister Nam-joo (Bae Doona (배두나) in mourning. However, the American soldier is reported in the media as having a new strain of disease due to contact with the monster, and the military immediately incarcerate and quarantine the entire Park family against their will. That night, Gang-du receives a phone call from Hyeon-seo who is trapped in the monster’s sewer lair, and as the military refuse to help, the Park family resolve to escape their imprisonment and find Hyeon-seo before it’s too late.

Gang-du and Hyeon-seo run from the monster

Gang-du and Hyeon-seo run from the monster

Director Bong Joon-ho (봉준호),  who also co-wrote the film with Ha Joon-won (하준원), Joo-byeol (주별) and Baek Cheol-hyeon (백철현), has crafted a magnificent and multi-layered film that examines an incredible array of socio-cultural anxieties within Korean society. The Park family are a microcosm for the disparate identities and labour forces within Korea. Grandfather Hee-bong represents the hard-working older generation; Gang-du exemplifies the manual labour force; Nam-il constitutes the university-students-turned-office workers; Nam-ju represents women in Korea, hesitant to display their power and talent; and Hyeon-seo embodies the innocence of the younger generations. As such the family unit is allegorical of Korea itself, emphasising that for the family/Korea to succeed in killing the monster and saving their daughter/youth, they must forgo their differences, come together and work as one. The ‘monster’ the family must defeat is somewhat ambiguous. The mutated animal is the most obvious example, yet the media is equally as monstrous in inspiring panic throughout the citizens of Seoul, reports which are ultimately lies. Behind those lies are the American government and military who use the panic to their advantage, expanding American influence/imperialism and releasing ‘Agent Yellow’ (a not-so-subtle reference to toxic Agent Orange) into the atmosphere, which does little except to add further poison to the atmosphere. Korean society is also interrogated by depicting bribery and the traitorous actions of office workers due to their escalating debt. Director Bong Joon-ho (봉준호) continually references the multitudinous ‘monsters’ the family confront through a variety of representational devices, serving to add astonishing political and socio-cultural depth within the narrative.

Hyeon-seo is taken to the monster's lair

Hyeon-seo is taken to the monster’s lair

The blending, and subversion, of genres is seamless. Most science-fiction films tend to refrain from fully revealing their antagonist until the final acts, surrounded by darkness to both convey suspense and hide the limitations of CGI. Not so in The Host, which has one of the most staggering introduction sequences ever constructed for a monster, all during the bright daylight hours. The rampage is truly astounding, and Bong Joon-ho employs a variety of techniques in capturing the the monster’s behaviour and the panic of the crowd. The actors are, as one would expect from such highly talented individuals, perfect in capturing the essence of their respective protagonists, conveying powerful performances that virtually command attention and empathy. With so many narrative devices included, it’s astonishing how each protagonist also manages to evolve throughout the film, leading to a socialist-esque finale in which they all overcome their flaws to fight as one with the proletariat landing the final blow.

Gang-du squares off against the monster

Gang-du squares off against the monster

Verdict:

The Host is an incredible film, and highlights the sheer talent and innovation of all involved. While it is unashamedly mainstream, the film never falls into cliche or parody as is often the case in the genre. Instead, The Host employs layers upon layers of political and socio-cultural subtext that adds phenomenal depth to an already highly entertaining premise, and cannot be recommended highly enough.

★★★★★

Reviews
Ryu (류) wakes up to find his money, and his kidney, have been stolen

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것) – ★★★★☆

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것)

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것)

Anyone even remotely aware of Korean cinema understands that the theme of revenge is commonplace. There are, of course, a great number of socio-cultural reasons as to why vengeance is prevalent. Historically, Japan has brutally colonised Korea several times over the past few centuries. Following the Second World War, the then-military government oppressed the people until an uprising forced change. Then, after a democratic capitalist government took power, the race to catch up with ‘Western’ countries divided the rich and poor to an even greater degree, with traditional values altered and livelihoods destroyed in order to create infrastructure. The theme of revenge is dominant as it undoubtedly provides catharsis for a nation of people whose identity has been in a constant state of instability due to external factors beyond their control.

Director Park Chan-wook (박찬욱) explores such notions of revenge in his infamous ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ beginning with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것), and followed by Old Boy (올드보이) and  Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨) respectively.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is concerned not only with revenge but the very basis and cyclical nature which it evolves into. Ryu (Sin Ha-gyoon (신하균) is deaf and mute, and lives a meager existence working in a factory. His sister (Lim Ji-eun 임지은) suffers from kidney disease and is in urgent need of a transplant. Fired from his job and distressed that his sister may die, Ryu turns to the black market and strikes a deal – he will give all his money and donate his own kidney, and in exchange he will receive a healthy kidney for his sister. Yet, when Ryu wakes up after the operation, he finds his kidney, and his money, have been stolen. Worse still, thanks to a miraculous donation a kidney is now available at the hospital, but without his savings the operation cannot commence.

Ryu (류) wakes up to find his money, and his kidney, have been stolen

Ryu wakes up to find his money, and his kidney, have been stolen

Desperate, Ryu and his anarchist girlfriend Cha Yeong-mi (Bae Doona (배두나) scheme to kidnap the daughter of his former boss Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho (송강호) for ransom. With the transplant money secure, the duo plan to release the girl and restore the equilibrium; yet when Ryu’s sister discovers the plot she cannot take the shame and burden, and commits suicide. Ryu and the boss’s daughter bury her body by a riverbank, but the youngster falls into the water and drowns. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance then evolves into two separate narratives of revenge; Ryu’s quest to hunt down the black market organ dealers, and Dong-jin’s desire for vengeance over his dead daughter. Each man has lost someone special, someone who helped to define their identity and give them purpose and subsequently, as each man follows his agenda, their humanity becomes lost amid their barbarous acts of vengeance. Both Ryu and Dong-jin are good men, but are transformed into murderers due to external economic and medical forces, adding sympathy and poignancy as they lose their identity with each act of violence. The evolution of the protagonists are superbly conveyed by Sin Ha-gyoon and Song Kang-ho (송강호), the latter in particular giving a towering performance transforming from emotional businessman to hardened killer. Neither man understands the futility of their vengeance nor that the escalation of violence produces more victims that demand justice.

Dong-jin (박덩진) transforms from father to murderer

Dong-jin transforms from father to murderer

The evolution of the protagonists is masterfully constructed by director Park Chan-wook, who expertly composes each shot to reinforce the sympathy, and the insanity, of their actions. The cinematography is incredible in places, particularly in the recurrence of aerial shots that emphasize the loneliness of the men and the fragility of their humanity. Additionally, the utilisation of space and depth of field highlights their terrible position, both literally and figuratively, in horrific environments and circumstances. Ryu’s world is conveyed effectively and dramatically due to his inability to hear, as alternating POV shots establish how silent and disadvantaged his world is compared to those around him adding yet another layer of compassion to his predicament. Park Chan-wook’s presentation of violence is thoughtful and initially restrained, gradually building tension in order for graphic scenes to have the utmost impact.

Director Park Chan-wook's recurrent use of aerial shots emphasize loneliness and futility

Director Park Chan-wook’s recurrent use of aerial shots emphasize loneliness and futility

Verdict:

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a fascinating exploration into the nature of revenge and violence, highlighting how two seemingly ‘good’ men can evolve into psychotic killers when they are bereaved. However, further exploration of the socio-economic problems that created the black market organ trade and the lay-offs at the factory, could have enhanced the poignancy of their predicaments further, as would have additional characterization before the crises developed. Yet despite this, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a riveting and emotionally charged debate on the escalation and futility of vengeance, and how the loss of a loved one can become poison when the path of revenge is taken.

★★★★☆

Reviews