I’ve been meaning to report back for a while now on the Korean Film Festival in Australia, which recently took place in Melbourne and Sydney (and to thank the organisers for the media pass – thanks).
The two films I managed to catch in the Melbourne program where LEE Joeng-beom’s The Man From Nowhere and Jang Hun’s Secret Reunion, the number one and two box office hits in South Korea respectively in 2010.
I would have made it three films, but for some reason Ryoo Seung-wan’s The Unjust only played in the Sydney part of the program.
That a film like The Man From Nowhere did so well with South Korean audiences fascinates me. It’s a standard revenge flick, but it also contains a pretty staggering body count and a sub plot in which children are kidnapped to work in an illegal drug laboratory and then harvested for their organs when they can’t perform their duties any longer (that said what would a South Korean audience make of the popularity of Animal Kingdom, one of the highest grossing Australian made films in 2010?).
A solitary pawnshop owner, Won Bin (played by Cha Tae-sik) gets sucked into bloody feud between two rival gangs of drug traffickers, when the junkie mother of a little girl he has befriended in his apartment building leaves stolen heroin in a camera she pawns to him.
Before we know it, the little girl and her mother have been kidnapped by one of the gangs who also go after Bin because they think he was in on the plan to steal the drugs.
They set Won up to kill the boss of their rival gang, then feed him to the cops. The little girl is imprisoned with a group of other children, mainly unwanted street kids, and her mother turns up dead in the boot of a car, all her organs harvested.
The police, meanwhile, can’t find any official record of their captive. It turns out Won is some sort of South Korean special forces super spy who went into hiding after his wife was killed by North Korean agents in retaliation for a mission he undertook.
He manages to escape from the clutches of the authorities without much difficulty and is soon inflicting dreadful carnage on the criminals in an effort to track down the little girl.
I enjoyed the The Man From Nowhere but it did not blow me away like The Yellow Sea (another South Korean film I recently on this site) did. It has some very repellant bad guys, lots of well choreographed fight scenes and a very good looking lead character. In fact far too good looking to pull off the part of an existentially torn ex-assassin, but whatever, sometimes you just have to let art flow over you.
Secret Reunion is a buddy move with an edge
Agent Lee Han Kyu (Song Kang-Lo) was once a senior cop in the National Intelligence Agency, until a tip off led him to stage a botched attempt to prevent a mysterious North Korean assassin, known only as “Shadow”, from killing a defector. The incident saw Lee kicked out of the Agency by senior management and branded a liability.
The same incident saw North Korean spy, Song Jiwon (KANG Dong Won), branded as a traitor, when he prevented Shadow from finishing off the killing the defector’s child.
Six years on, Lee and Song stumble across each other.
Lee is now working as a private investigator tracking down run away mail order brides, when he wanders onto a building site and nearly gets beaten to death by a pack of Vietnamese migrant labourers. Only Song’s intervention – he has been on the run all this time and is working on the site – saves him.
Recognising Song as a communist agent, Lee hopes that he can use the North Korean to track down others spies and earn his rehabilitation with the Agency, and employs him.
Song, whose fervour for the North Korean cause is starting to waver, starts spying on Lee in the hope that he can get back into Pyongyang’s good graces and return to his wife and child.
Neither is aware the other is secretly plotting against them.
Hence the scene is set for unlikely partnership.Lee is fast-talking hustler living a messy, shambolic life, in contrast to the largely silent and aesthete Song. While Jang works the film for laughs, this is leavened by a couple of bloody shoot-outs, the second of which occurs when Song is reactivated by a much older Shadow to assist him to kill another defector.
It’s easy to see why Secret Reunion was so popular with audiences. At its core, the story illustrates that despite their very different political systems the people of the two Korea’s are not all that different.
The Man from Nowhere and Secret Reunion were part of the Korean Film Festival in Australia. More details are available here.