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Red Family ("Bulgin Gajok")

North American Premiere
  • South Korea
  • 2013
  • 99 mins
  • DCP
  • Korean
  • English (subtitles)
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WINNER: Audience Award, Tokyo International Film Festival 2013
Official Selection, Goteborg International Film Festival 2014

To be a North Korean spy, one has to blend into a foreign society and adapt totally to the people around oneself, as alienating as they may be ideologically. In a group, ths challenge becomes exponentially harder. Chief Comrade Baek has her hands full as the head of a family pieced together by her overseers in Pyongyang. She’s firm and even merciless in managing the nostalgic Myung-sik, and old spook who hasn’t seen his wife in 40 years; her fake husband Jae-hong, worried about his real family; and the young, impetuous Min-ji, trained since early childhood. From the outside, they seem to be a perfect family, but in truth, they execute missions of espionage and even assassinations of North Korean defectors. And they have to endure their dysfunctional neighbours, exemplars of the capitalist decadence pervading South Korea — irresponsible, disruptive and obsessed with money. The household’s son, Chang-su, gets close with Min-ju, inevitably bringing the families together. Awkward dinner-table talk ensues! But the spies find themselves in their neighbours’ bonds, and start functioning like a true family themselves — with severe consequences.

How can one live cut off from distant loved ones, knowing that one mistake could cost their lives? How can one spy on others while constantly under surveillance oneself, or reconcile what one has to be with what one has to do? In the false-fronted world of espionage, how can one tell traitor from patriot? These are the themes explored by Kim Ki-duk (BAD GUY, THE ISLE) in RED FAMILY, which he wrote, edited and executive produced. It’s a hard yet empathic drama packed with moral dilemmas and moments of ironic black humour. The film’s farcical sparks fly from the friction between the two families, particularly a strained dinner during which the topic of conversation turns to Great Leader Kim Jong-un. The focus, though, is on the evolution within the spy clan themselves. RED FAMILY cranks up the suspense with the family’s murderous missions and ultimately, their fall from grace with the handlers. Director Lee Ju-hyoung, making his feature-film debut, deftly handles the jarring tonal shifts and captures the oppressive mood weighing on the North Korean “family”. Poignant and uplifting, it’s no surprise that RED FAMILY won the Audience Award at the Tokyo Film Festival in 2013!

— Nicolas Archambault