Monday, 21 April 2014

To Sir, With Love (Im Dae-woong, South Korea: 2006)

Retired teacher Ms Park is suffering from a debilitating illness. She is cared for by one of her former students who decides that as a gift for her old teacher she will arrange a reunion of some of her now adult students. As the guests arrive it appears to be a fun occasion, however as the evening moves on the students start to reveal that Ms Park may not have been the perfect teacher that she appears to be and their anger threatens to become more than just a minor upset...


A decidedly old school horror slasher which managed to stand out on it's release not only because of the exclusion of even one long-haired ghost, but also in it's unflinching brutality, To Sir, With Love (released as Bloody Reunion in the U.S. and also known as Teacher's Mercy) is a horror film with a capital 'H' as it follows through with the blood and guts that its story promises.

With a fairly typical plot – a group of people are reunited only to reveal that they have some secrets between them, largely resulting in a lot of repressed anger and then blood – To Sir, With Love is more thoughtful than your average slasher film as it takes the time to establish just who its main characters are and the reasons why everything goes a bit messy for them. While it's typical to create your characterisation with broad strokes with these types of films, To Sir, With Love develops just enough depth so that each of the ex-students are recognisable in their own right as well as giving them each more than enough of their own motives to possibly be the person behind the dead bodies that start dropping. It's a standard hack-and-slash with regards to finding reasons to separate individuals away from the rest of the group so that they can be killed, but with a few little hooks to keep it more interesting. The first of these is that the story is told in one large flashback – we know from the outset just who has survived these terrible events because the film opens with the police interviewing a survivor in the hospital. Secondly, there's the multitude of reasons that the students have to be pissed off with both their teacher and each other. As their stories come to light it becomes obvious that anyone here could be the killer, and the inevitable 'reveal' of their frustration works in both setting each of them up as a possible killer but also in creating a sense that they're a victim regardless, that they're not just a victim if they fall under a crazed killers knife. So they've not just lightweight slasher-fodder. Just.

As much as To Sir, With Love is a slasher flick it is also an examination of victimisation – each and every person is revealed to in some way to perceive themselves as a victim,and their reasons for doing so are vary from physical illness to physical or mental bullying. Or maybe a lack of love. There's lots of reasons. By the time the killings begin To Sir, With Love suggests that identifying yourself as a victim can be as damaging as the literal taking of the lives themselves. It's certainly an interesting way to approach the material, but the approach is kept within the boundaries of the genre and doesn't become high-concept - which means that everything is kept moving fairly swiftly and the whole thing can be viewed as a straightforward horror flick if those ideas don't grab you.

There's a decent little cast who inhabit To Sir, With Love. Schoolteacher Ms. Park is played by Oh Mi-hee who manges to give a fairly subtle performance as the schoolteacher who may not have been the fine example that she thought she was. It's an interesting performance and to the credit of the filmmakers they rely on the actress to flesh out the performance with a few looks pauses rather than spell out what is going on in her head. It works well. The rest of the cast – the students – also manage for the most part to pull a little more out of their roles than would usually be expected, recognisable as they each meet their demise rather than largely characterless ideas. Seo Yeong-hee (seen recently in The Chaser), Lee Ji-hyeon (Holiday), Park Hyo-joon (A Dirty Carnival), Lee Dong-gyoo, Jang Seong-woon  and Yoo Seol-ah (Ssunday Seoul) make up the students and there's not a duff performance between, them although for a few of them it's a lightweight role. As some of the characters reveal themselves to be thoroughly unlikeable you get the sense that director Im Dae-woong is actively tempting you to dislike them, that as a viewer if we're encouraged to be excited at the prospect of their grisly demise then we're victimising them as much as anyone else on screen. Which is quite an interesting idea, although ultimately this still conforms to the slasher norm.

Themes aside, To Sir, With Love is a pretty efficient little film. There's few of those horribly redundant 'fake' scares that often plague slashers, and the killings are nasty enough to make you sit up and take notice. There's some very effective special effects too – including one particularly memorable set up showing you exactly how not to use razor blades. The conclusion of the film is also fairly ballsy and will probably divide viewers between those who like their films to end with it all spelt out to them and those who prefer things to be a little greyer. If there's criticism to level at the film it's in some of the obvious plot holes which are there if you stop to think about them too long - one sub-plot seems to just be used for a red herring but results in a character going missing from proceedings without explanation, which is just messy. And not in a 'blood splattering up the wall' kind of messy, but in a 'oh, we should have thought that one through better' kind of messy.

All things considered To Sir, With Love is worth picking up. With a few flaws that prevent it from having as much impact as it could have (those plot points) it has it's fair share of memorable death scenes, and the image of Oh Mi-hee as Ms. Park wondering where she went wrong makes it all the more worthwhile.

Alternative Reviews: Korean Film

Chaw (Shin Jung-won, South Korea: 2009)

A peaceful rural village becomes terrorised when the remains of several missing people are found. The local investigators - who are joined by two city policemen in the investigation - think that there is a wild animal on the lose and try to work out how to stop it, something which proves to be more difficult than they could have imagined...


Chaw is a monster movie with a bloody great boar at the centre of it. While comparisons with the relatively recent blockbuster The Host are inevitable, Chaw plays itself almost completely for laughs with an oddball sense of humour and approach that brings the likes of the Kevin Bacon film Tremors to mind. It's a tone that may well grate with viewers expecting the full on horror experience that the early Korean trailer for the film suggested, but its one that succeeds in charming you over and overlook just how predictable and straightforward the whole thing is.

With a clunky opening tone that takes a few minutes to settle, Chaw soon gets into its swing as it introduces an unlikely bunch of characters and sub-plots. Central to this is Officer Kim (played by Eom Tae-wong) the city policeman who has been transferred to the country, taking with him his pregnant wife and his slightly mad mother. Welcoming him with not-exactly-open-arms is the villages police force and officials, as well as pilfering City Detective Shin (Park Hyeok-gweon) and Cheon Il-man (Jang Hang-seon) - Grandfather to one of the victims and a retired hunter who suspects that the beast is a bigger problem than anyone realises. Then there's Baek (Yoon Je-moon) – the big game hunter brought in to take care of the beast. This motley crew argue at every opportunity until they inevitably need to find it in themselves to work together to deal with the monster.

The first half of Chaw is concerned with the inhabitants of Sameri – a village that prides itself on its lack of crime - and there's only ever the briefest of sightings of the creature that is terrorising the village, however from the halfway mark there's an animal attack that gives us the mad monster in all of its impressive CGI glory - and some of its poorer CGI glory too. The special effects of Chaw range from pretty good to the down-right poor, but given the tongue-in-cheek nature of the film some of the more rawer effects are more than forgiveable. In fact – as is often the case – when the CGI is half decent it still feels a little flat, and so it is the occasional use of practical effects that, although laughable, have their own cheesy charm.

The second half of the film is more concerned with actively hunting the creature – as well as providing unnecessary explanations for the origins of the creature. This largely mumbled waffle about mixing breeds of pigs and experimentation - it's totally unnecessary and adds nothing to Chaw . All we need to know is that there's a big hairy pig eating humans and that someone needs to stop it. Luckily the reasoning is left behind fairly swiftly and we're given a speedy second half that resembles a chase film. It's less fun than the first half as much of the humour is left behind, and ultimately the CGI effects start to come into play more but the pace is quick and - a couple of gaping plot-holes aside - Chaw races to its conclusion with gusto and a sense of fun.

While Chaw takes a familiar monster movie formula and utilises it predictably (think of Jaws and you've got all of the plot beats), there's also a few decidedly oddball moments that liven things up. For starters there's a mad cackling woman (Go Seo-heui) whose sole inclusion seems to be to scare the crap out of everyone who is on the search for the giant boar, as well as some brief quirky storytelling visuals (such as images of the teams descendants cheekily reflecting on their own character) and one or two other fun moments, including hunter Baek having a conversation with his dog. Director Shin Jung-won is also well aware that he's on well-trodden territory and gleefully references Jaws and Jurassic Park as well as what could well be nods to the likes of The Host.

Chaw is a whole lot of fun that doesn't ask to be taken seriously. While The Host cleverly played itself out as a family drama with a monster in it, Chaw is primarily a monster film with very little else. If the prospect of a man-eating giant boar terrorising a village gets you excited (and who wouldn't like that idea?) then it's worth a look. With only the occasional flag in pace working against it, it's pure popcorn nonsense and ultimately forgettable - but it's hard not to be swept up in its playful tone.

Alternative Reviews: Init_Scenes | Korean Film

Article: 'That's not my name...' - From Korean to English

I think it's safe to say that one of the problems that newcomers to Korean cinema face is dealing with Korean names. For most of us average westerners, Korean names at first appear very complicated - difficult to read, difficult to say and difficult to spell. Different spellings of the same name  are also common – and this can mean that searches for people on the internet or in libraries can prove difficult. If you're relying on the exact spelling of a name then it doesn't really help if you find that a DVD company, reviewer or writer has spelt it in a different way. With the article below I've attempted to explain some of the basic difficulties in dealing with the romanisation of Korean names and while it won't answer every question – and won't necessarily resolve some of these spelling issues either – hopefully it will give a bit of an insight into the reasons for the confusion in the first place.

What's in a name?
Okay, to state the obvious – I don't speak Korean and therefore I'm reliant on a 'western' version of a Korean name – in other words a romanised version which uses letters that I can read and understand. If I see the following -  '' – I have no idea what this means, yet alone the fact that it is someones name or who may be referring to. If, however, you tell me that this says 'Park Chan-wook', then being an Oldboy fan I will know who you mean. The Korean spelling ( is written in 'Hangul', which is the Korean alphabet.
For more on Hangul check out

Somewhere along the line someone has to translate '' into 'Park Chan-wook'. Simple? Well, not really. Although the basis for the translation is the phonetic spelling (how it sounds when you say it), this phonetic translation may also be written quite correctly as 'Pak Chan-uk' or 'Bak Chan-wuk', depending on the decision of person making the translation - they're all the same name. This is the first – and probably biggest – problem when dealing with the romanisation of Korean names: no standardised system of translation means there's an inconsistency in the spelling of names.

Some quick examples of different spellings for the same names – all of which are 'correct' - are:

Lee = I = Yee = Rhee = Rhie
Kim = Gim
Park = Pak = Bak
Chung = Jung = Jeong

Moving on to the next issue (lets assume that we've translated the name '' into 'Park Chan-wook' and we're happy with the way that we've chosen to spell it) which is name order. Western names are always written with the given name first, surname second. Korean names (as with most Asian names) are written surname first, given name(s) second. Therefore 'Park' is the directors surname (or family name) and 'Chan-wook' is his given name. Here lies the second problem. While 'Park Chan-wook' is the name order that will be used by Koreans, very often westerners will change the name around in order to standardise it to the western format – given name first, surname last. This means that while Wikipedia refers to the Oldboy director in the Korean format - as 'Park Chan-wook'.

Okay, that's two issues – spelling and name order. So if we decide that we're happy with our spelling and that we will keep the format of surname first (and this is all a matter of choice remember), then that's it, right?

You'll find that when writing Korean names some people choose to use the system of CAPITALISING surnames. This is to highlight the importance of the name (and to remind, for those who don't know, that this is a surname) – which would make the name appear as  'PARK Chan-wook'. So, to capitalise or not to capitalise, that is the question. It's a fairly straightforward one, you either do, or you don't.

Right then, so if you've decided whether you're going to capitalise a surname and whether you're placing it at the front or the end of the name, you're just left with the persons 'given' name (usually called your 'first name' in Western culture). This must be easy, right? Well, not really...

You'll notice that many Koreans appear to have two 'given' names, however these are not the same as a western 'first' and 'middle' name. Although they are technically two different names, only one of these is actually a 'given' name (the second one), while the other is a 'generational' name (the first one). This 'generational' name is different to the 'family' name – the family name is shared by blood relatives historically, while the family name is used by one generation of a family. On top of this confusion (well, only confusion for you and me if you're not used to it!) the two names (generational and given) are used in conjunction with each other - so you'll see that the two names are often joined together with a hyphen.
The linking of the two names makes a lot more sense if you understand Hangul and can see how they are used together when written, otherwise a simple rule is to treat them like like one name in two parts – they should never be separated yet there should be a distinction between them. Make sense? To do this the two names are often hyphenated (with a '-'), but some people choose not to use this between the two names – which gives you the three options of either 'Chan-wook', 'Chan Wook' or 'ChanWook'. summarise?!...
The issue of translating Korean names is not an easy one. There are several different systems in place for romanisation of names, but each will give you a different outcome! If you understand the basic details behind Korean names then you can start to recognise where different formats have been used. Unfortunately until a standardised format is established then names will be written in formats which are generally just a matter of personal preference.

Just to highlight the differences, here are just some of the different ways that '' can be romanised in the ways discussed above:

Park Chan-wook
Pak Chan-uk
Bak Chan-wuk
PARK ChanWook
PAK ChanUk
BAK ChanWuk
Chan-Wook PARK
Chan-uk PAK
Chan-wuk BAK
PARK Chan Wook
PAK Chan Uk
BAK Chan Wuk
... I think you get the idea.

How I roll...
My personal preference is to keep the order of names the same as within Asian culture – surname first – although not to capitalise these, simply because I believe this allows names to be read more easily within text. I also prefer the hyphen to be placed between given names because although they appear to be two names they should in fact be treated as one. Each of these decisions are my personal choice – don't forget that you will find different people using different layouts! If there is ever a standardised format I will of course adopt it.

Confused? Yep, it's a tough subject. Will hopefully be one that becomes more straightforward if a system is put in place to standardise translations. For example, the Korean Film Council are working on rolling out their own system of standardization in order to help promote the names of filmmakers and actors names internationally.

Hopefully this explanation of the ways that Korean names are romanised has helped to explain some of the reasons why it's a confusing issue...

NOTE: Of course, having had some box-office success internationally 'Park Chan-wook' is a name that is fairly well established with regards to spelling and name order. I used this example as I guessed it would be a Korean name that many people may be familiar with in order to explain some of the rules and ideas behind translating names.
I would like to thank Mr Park Chan-wook's name for its assistance in this matter.

ANOTHER NOTE: For some bizarre reason Word Press is not currently displaying the hangul charcters in this article. For this reason I have used a jpeg image to display the characters, so my apologies for the slightly uneven appearance this gives.