Idol (Woosang) (2019)

This is (more or less) the text from my onstage introduction to a screening of Idol (Woosang) at the London Korean Film Festival 2019

When it comes to spoilers, there’s an unwritten code that anything which happens in a film’s first third is fair game for advance disclosure and discussion – but that anything which takes place after that first third, especially in a narrative full of thrilling surprises and unexpected reversals, should be avoided except in the vaguest of generalised thematic terms. However, Lee Su-jin’s tale of two fathers Idol (Woosang) represents something of an exception to this principle, and makes my job this evening rather difficult. For I don’t want to spoil even the film’s jaw-dropping opening line – one of my favourite in cinema – let alone any of the many twists and turns in the film’s subsequent plot. One of the ways I’m planning to avoid spoiling it for you now is to change the subject and talk about something else – but I will get back to Idol in the end, hopefully without in any way ruining your view.

It is now a good six years since the feature debut of writer/director Lee Su-jin. Named after its heroine, Han Gong-ju was a difficult, confronting film which traced different attempts by the victim of a high-school gang rape to move on, and the blame, guilt and shame that she had been made to carry both by her attackers and by society at large for a horrific crime perpetrated upon her very much against her will. In 2010, Lee Chang-dong‘s Poetry had already drawn on the real-life Miryang gang rape case of 2004, and Han Gong-ju approached similar materials, while restricting itself to the traumatised perspective of a female victim to expose the venality and injustice of Korea’s male-oriented social structures. Lee Su-jin’s film must have struck a chord and touched a nerve with domestic audiences, for it gained, largely through word of mouth, 100,000 admissions within just the first nine days of its release, and just shy of 225,00 admissions by the end of its theatrical run – an extraordinary feat for a small independently produced title from a first-time filmmaker. Han Gong-ju also won a slew of awards at international film festivals. Lee Su-jin had arrived.

It has been quite a hiatus since then until Lee Su-jin’s follow-up feature, but the wait has been well worth it. Idol is a sprawling, rain-drenched urban noir in which, after a hit-and-run accident, the respective fathers (Han Suk-kyu and Sol Kyung-gu) of the perpetrator and the victim slowly circle each other, one attempting to cover up the truth of what happened, the other attempting to uncover it. What follows is a bruising collision of class and values, with the two men from very different walks of life never quite interacting in the expected manner. It is broodingly paced and elliptically plotted, demanding the viewer’s full attention to find a way through its intricate narrative. And while it may sound, with its male focus, a million miles from Han Gong-ju, it similarly explores the ills of patriarchal power structures, and there is a slight but significant callback to Han Gong-ju, as that film’s lead actress Chun Woo-hee reappears as a woman once again used, abused and objectified by many men around her, except that this time she will emerge as someone who, in spite or perhaps because of her extremely downtrodden, marginalised status, comes into her own, introducing to the film a different perspective, a different trajectory, even a different genre. 

Triangulating between these characters, Idol shows desperate people all trying to do the right thing, and either repeatedly being compromised, or point-blank refusing to be compromised, by their circumstances. That one of the characters is a rising politician allows Lee Su-jin to dramatise how power and the patriarchal establishment eat away at the integrity of even the most high-minded and socially integrated of Korean citizens. Idol offers a tense, combustible scenario – that is also a heavily ideological portrait of Korea today – from which nobody can emerge unscathed, and everyone gets burned. It’s beautifully shot, but also bleak and brutal, unleashing an iconoclastic onslaught of grief, corruption and revenge. It is also one of the very best of this year’s films from Korea. I hope you enjoy it.

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And here’s my programme note:

Following his harrowing drama Han Gong-ju (2013), director Lee Su-jin turns to noir, established by opening shots of a rainy nocturnal cityscape. In an instantly arresting voiceover, Yoo Joong-sik (Lee Chang-dong regular Sul Kyung-gu) intimately describes masturbating his mentally challenged son Bu-nam, introducing the central theme of errant fatherhood. 

Bu-nam has been killed in a hit-and-run accident. “Hiding details now could have consequences later,” insists rising politician Koo Myung-hui (Han Seok-kyu), making his guilty son confess to the police – but with the full extent of the crime becoming clearer, decent Myung-hui sinks ever lower in covering up a situation that threatens his political ambitions. As he and Joong-sik circle each other in search of Bu-nam’s missing bride Ryun-hwa (Chun Woo-hee), everyone’s buried secrets lead to a violent collision of class and politics from which nobody emerges looking pretty. Broodingly paced and elliptically plotted, Lee’s film unleashes an iconoclastic onslaught of grief, corruption and revenge.

© Anton Bitel