Awoke – London Korean Film Festival – Film Review
by Hugh Maguire
Director – Jung Jae-ik, Seo Tae-soo
Cast – Jo Min-sang, Han Tae-gyeong
Part of London Korean Film Festival
In 2016, the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival was awarded to Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake” a moving and hard-hitting insight into the challenges of the everyday struggles with the ‘system’. Unemployed Daniel Blake falls between the cracks in a heartless and failing support system. What seemed funny – ‘the computer says no’ – in Little Britain, was portrayed for what it is, a shockingly heartless, impersonal and frustrating system. As the victim/ hero articulates: ‘I am not a blip on a computer…I am a man.’ The same frustrations are the core of AWOKE, an even more sobering account of one man’s struggles with a system that is inefficient and lacking in empathy.
Forming part of the forthcoming London Korean Film Festival, it will prove to be one of the great movies of the fortnight. In it, we are taken a step beyond Loach’s everyman hero. Here, added to the frustrations felt by Daniel Blake, is the cruel fact that the subject in this case is severely disabled. Following a car accident, Jaegi is paralysed but still needs to live, to eat, to work and to have a life. Incorrectly classified as unsuitable to receive support benefits, he spends his time challenging the system to be classified appropriately and to therefore receive the support to which he should be entitled. We follow his hopes and his frustrations.
With great insight and understanding, we are brought into the world of those unable to meet the demands of the physical environment. Co-directed by Jung Jae-ik, himself challenged physically, the added empathy he brings to bear on the narrative is telling – the step that is just too awkward, the tests by hospital staff that are too callous and impersonal. The bleakness of the tale is considerable and this is underpinned by a colour palette that has a twilight sobriety, there are no bursts of sunshine! But before the depression of it all sinks us completely we are inspired by his will to keep going – a victim technically Jaegi is nonetheless not a coward and keeps moving onwards, he has feelings for others such as his cousin and her son, he enjoys a drink – perhaps too much, and has a strong will to fight the good fight. We can see that he is in shark-infested waters – the system itself and those wise to the ways of the world who can bend and twist it to their own ends. We fully share his struggle and frustrations without the film ever becoming maudlin or sentimental.