As a film enthusiast, I have watched many thriller movies that utilize its genre to address and confront societal issues, classical examples of this include Parasite and Get Out. Yet, Hopeless(Hwaran) directed by Kim Chang-hoon, which was screened during this year’s Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, still manages to leave me enthralled once again.
In the film, we follow the protagonist, Yeon-gyu, who takes us on a journey toward freedom, which ultimately turns him into a different person by the end of the film — for better or for worse.
What stands out to me the most, however, is that this isn’t any typical “overcoming the monster” story. It’s a story about dealing with childhood trauma, complex relationships, morality, social oppression, despair, and more. In this way, it creates a narrative that is not only relatable to many but also reflective of the ongoing issues that are overlooked in a lot of films.
Delving into the specifics, the realism when Yeon-gyu faces abuse absolutely blows me away. The fear that he has when facing his father, regardless of how he’s treating him, very strongly depicts the way trauma scars people. It leads to distrust in others and forces him to constantly close others off even when they are treating him nicely. This detail was especially memorable to me because it resembles some experiences that I’ve had in my life; it was really heartfelt being able to see your own struggles portrayed in another medium, something to find yourself in. In addition, there is also an exploration of how trauma changes one’s character and future in the film. In the case of Yeon-gyu, he is constantly faced with the dilemma of going down the path his non-biological father is on: to resort to violence or to preserve the little humanity that he has left and not repeat history — in which he chose the latter. But, the struggle before he made that decision caused the narrative to become entertaining, it left the audience guessing and repeatedly influenced our perception of his persona as a whole.
Subsequently, the theme of morality is an integral part of Hopeless itself. First of all, it serves as a ‘call for action’. For example, for Yeon-gyu it is his morality that leads him to feel empathy and sympathy toward the father who is in debt towards the gang. Moreover, morality is also used to depict Yeon-gyu’s innocent and caring nature, like his hesitancy when killing the presidential candidate who ‘betrayed’ the head of the gangsters. On the other hand, for Chi-geon, who is Yeon-gyu’s boss and non-biological brother, the theme of morality conveys his loss of identity. Chi-geon had to disregard and destroy his ethical principles in order to be the person that is presented in the movie: cold-blooded, cruel, and violent. It is his way of surviving the environment that he was forced into, to meet the expectations as a boss of the gang, and to allow himself to not be seen as vulnerable anymore. Though these aspects of Chi-geon are only revealed through minor actions and little scenes of dialogue within the film, it sufficiently creates a juxtaposition between Yeon-gyu and Chi-geon- the one who is fighting to maintain his morality and the one who has given up on the fight. This contrast highlights the fact that Chi-geon is the future version of Yeon-gyu if he chooses to give up as well, therefore raising the tension and concern in the audience for the character. Consequently, it encourages compassion in Chi-geon despite his wrongdoings.
On the topic of Chi-geon and Yeon-gyu, it would be unreasonable of me to not mention the relationship between these two characters, whereas their brotherhood is basically the main reason for my relentless sobbing during the playing of this film. Simply put, their dynamic is painstakingly beautiful. And what I particularly love about it, is the fact that most of the time their care and trust are shown through the smallest interactions. Take the opening sequence as an example, their initial contact already shows the concern Chi-geon has for Yeon-gyu, specifically due to Chi-geon’s warning of telling Yeon-gyu to not find him for help in the future. I do not know if this was the original intention of the director but from my interpretation, this is not a sign of annoyance and hierarchy, but a warning for him to not go down the path that he has chosen. To not get his hands dirty in the same way that Chi-geon has because once they are stained, there is no way to wash off the blood and guilt. This reoccurs during the climax when the pair get into a fight, in which Chi-geon willingly decides that Yeon-gyu is the one to end his life. With the identity of the boss of a gang, this isn’t just a moment of losing dignity for Chi-geon, it is a moment of showing his true self to Yeon-gyu, not as the boss of a gang, not as an adult, but as a kid who has lost his will to keep up with this meaningless life of his, lost his hope for a better future. This is something that Chi-geon doesn’t reveal to anyone but Yeon-gyu and I think that’s the importance of their relationship, the exclusive, concrete understanding that lies in between. Hence, it's these reasons that lead me to appreciate the two characters and the director’s decision to develop their bond in such a way. In a similar manner, I believe it addresses what some audiences, victims of abuse, might be looking for as well- a person to see them the way they are, traumatized, hurt, and tired of fighting the game of life persistently, once again highlighting the relatability of this film.
Furthermore, the experiences and characteristics of Chi-geon challenge the traditional stereotypes of the representation of gangsters, making this film notable. Typically speaking, gangsters are seen as ruthless and malicious. Although this is clearly presented within Hopeless, such as the way they steal bikes and hurt those who are just trying to survive, the director also makes sure to manifest the truth that most gangsters are forced to be in that position, not by choice. This makes the film enticing because the director doesn’t outright justify or glorify their actions, just that they, at the end of the day, are also human like everyone else. Each carries the burden of their own past, their own troubles, and particularly in this film, their own mental health issues. An illustration of this is the way a lot of times when Chi-geon hurts another person, it also indicates that he is hurting himself as well. For example, Chi-geon’s hand bleeds from nail spikes when he attacks Seung-mu; his palm gets sliced when he attempts to stop Yeon-gyu from chopping his hand. Though this may not be the intended interpretation, I personally view this as a form of self-punishment, aligning with his self-depreciating nature in the film. These elements within the film really urge audiences to be more considerate of different perspectives in their daily lives to other people, whether that is someone that they hate or someone that scares them. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover is what they say.
Song Joong-ki, the actor of Chi-geon, mentioned this in an interview on Hopeless, “I thought that adults are supposed to pass on a good world to the children. That’s why when I first read the script, I thought that because the adults didn’t give a good world to Chi-geon, we need to help difficult friends like him.” (translation may be off as the interview was conducted in Korean)
It’s good to think about what has caused a person to become the person they are today, the gain of knowledge through experiences. I think that is one of the core reasons that the director wanted to make this film, to uncover the impact of one’s surroundings.
Moving onto the mise-en-scene of Hopeless, the most notable factor that I want to give props to is the use of lighting and color scheme to convey a certain mood to the audience. When we are in Yeon-gyu’s home, most of the time it’s of blue, low-key lighting. This puts emphasis on the fretful and depressing emotion in all of the family members because the home has never been safe ever since Yeon-gyu’s non-biological father started abusing him; the same goes for when Yeon-gyu and Chi-geon have their fight, where the room is filled with a yellow-ish green light that causes the place to look dull, unsettling, and filthy. The mirroring of lighting color to the character’s emotion really immerses the audience into the film and creates a profound connection between the characters and the setting.
Likewise, the cinematography of the film is absolutely fantastic and there is a lot of attention to detail. Framing of cramped and narrow spaces is used to underline the theme of being trapped and hindered by trauma. Handheld shots provide authenticity and raise the urgency of the scene, beckoning for intimacy from the audience. Wide shots are incorporated to express isolation and defenselessness in characters, for instance when Yeon-gyu hurriedly attempts to pick up the money notes that are being drawn away by the river current. The most unforgettable one among them all has to be when Yeon-gyu is stuck in the middle of a highway division because of his dead motorcycle. The frame takes advantage of white lines to transmit his mental state of desperation and despondency; wide, deserted, endless roads signify his confusion and lack of direction in life. It struck me, how this film masters composition. Sometimes it speaks louder than words.
Of course, sound design cannot be excluded from the discussion of this film, especially when this belongs to the thriller genre. The choice of using motorcycles as the main method of transportation in the film not only conforms to the codes and conventions of gangsters but also introduces rising anxiety and stress. This is because the rumbling, mechanical sound that comes from motorcycles naturally increases the pacing of the film. Additionally, this rising sound appears in a lot of sequences in Hopeless where Yeon-gyu is bounded by a tight time limit. This once again indirectly communicates the frustration in his character and builds up the intensity of the situation. Another significant sound effect is the footstep of Yeon-gyu’s non-biological father. From the first time that it played onwards, it becomes an instant recognition of his presence within the audience, making them sit at the edge of their seats without even seeing his face. Coincidentally, from my knowledge, many real-life victims of abuse have shared that they are able to recognize the mood of their abuser simply by their footsteps. The fact that Yeon-gyu appears to be able to do the same, again, heightens the overall realism of the film.
Last but not least, let’s talk about my favorite aspect of the film: the screenplay. Namely, the devices used in dialogue. One of the only times we come to understand Chi-geon outside of his identity as a gang boss is through his conversations with Yeon-gyu, in which none of them are direct either. Take the scene with Chi-geon revealing his past with Yeon-gyu for example, he never refers to the “boy” as himself. Utilizing a third-person perspective, this highlights the dissociation between the past and present Chi-geon; how he has entirely lost his sense of self. Besides that, it could also be perceived as a device that Chi-geon takes to protect himself from his own past, by making it seem like the history of another person that is not him, he is able to reject and ignore all the burden that he has been holding onto all this time. Next, the metaphor of “Just because I’m breathing doesn’t mean that I’m alive” that is mentioned during the middle and climax is a key factor for my favoritism for this film. This line specifically dives into the forfeited personhood in Chi-geon and adds a philosophical aspect to this film. It’s also quite an impactful way to depict his corrupted mindset due to the aforementioned traumatic experience, standing out from the rest of the dialogue and leaves a big impression on the memory of the audience, especially for those who are trying to find the meaning of life or struggling with mental health issues themselves.
All in all, after reading my exaggeratedly long film review, I believe you can come to understand why this film is worth watching. Captivating, moving, yet ultimately informative, Hopeless is a tear-jerking neo-noir thriller must-watch that exploits its brilliant plot to unfold a relationship born out of disparity. In such a way, the film explores the impact that an environment and experience can have on people. At the same time, it raises awareness of domestic abuse and mental health in society. As a debut film, every aspect of this film simply exceeds my expectations and very much deserves appreciation from audiences. My earnest gratitude to the director, Kim Chang-hoon, for making this film, as well as all the actors involved which made Hopeless come to life.
For those who end up watching the film, I hope you are able to find a place for yourself in the film like I did.
Text by: Chan Wing Hei Sytric