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How far would you go to seek justice for your child? This is the question asked by “Azooma”, a hard hitting Korean revenge drama which marks the debut of writer director Lee Ji Seung, who previously worked as producer on a mix of commercial and indie films, from “Sex is Zero” to “Bleak Night”. A grim and gritty, though artistically minded production, the film proved popular with critics and enjoyed a very successful run at a variety of international festivals, picking up awards and nominations at Athens, Beloit, Irvine, Costa Rica and Nevada amongst others.
In the lead role the film stars actress Jang Young Nam (taking centre stage after a series of supporting turns in the likes of “A Werewolf Boy” and “Hello Ghost”) as single mother Yoon Young Nam, who one day after getting caught in a business meeting fails to pick up her 10 year old daughter (Lee Jae Hee) from school. The girl goes missing, only to be found on the streets some hours later, having been snatched and raped by a serial paedophile. The police, in particular Detective Ma (Ma Dong Seok, “Midnight FM”) prove useless in tracking down the rapist, as does her ex-husband, the TV celebrity dentist Dr. Lee (Bae Sung Woo, “The Client”), all of whom simply want the crime to be forgotten. Forced to take matters into her own hands, the increasingly desperate woman sets out to catch him herself, with dangerous consequences.
The film’s English title “Azooma” (the Korean title translates more literally to “A Fair Society”) refers to a condescending form of address for an older woman in Korea, and it’s this that Jang Young Nam’s character is called by others throughout. This is a fitting reflection of the film’s themes, as it sees her being confronted by indifference and absolute incompetence by the police, the legal system and by society in general, receiving a distressing lack of support or sympathy. The way in which the case is caught up in bureaucracy is particularly shocking, the police placing the burden of proof almost entirely on Yoon and her daughter, tormenting the child with repeated questions that she doesn’t understand, despite being in an obviously traumatised state. Dr. Lee’s behaviour is in many ways the most despicable, caring little for his daughter and being far more concerned with his own public image.
“Azooma” is certainly a very angry film, though justifiably so, and it’s all the more powerful for the fact that it’s very well made. Clocking in at an incredibly lean 75 minutes, it fairly rattles through what is essentially a basic, though gripping story, and manages to pack in more character work and substance than other films do with an extra hour. Lee Ji Seung directs with grounded style and employs a fractured narrative, the film jumping around between flashbacks and the present day, breaking up Yoon’s efforts to catch the rapist with her efforts to find help through societal channels, and this works very well to put the viewer in her shoes and to really hammer home the sense of frustration and hopelessness she experiences.
Much of the credit goes also to Jang Young Nam, who deservedly won the Directors’ Guild of Korea’s Best Actress Award for her performance, a brave turn which sees her undergoing an only too believable character transformation and experiencing a wide range of painful emotions. As well as adding some real psychological depth, Jang really anchors the film, giving its message an all-important face and humanity, ensuring that it never becomes a mere rant.
As a result, “Azooma” is challenging and tough viewing throughout, especially since Lee never shies away from either the horror of child abuse or the gory business of revenge, and some very graphic scenes mean that it’s a film that might well prove too much for some. However, it’s arguably the issues it tackles and the struggles of its protagonist against a system supposedly designed to protect her and her child which horrify even more, and as a brutal piece of social commentary, the film’s power is undeniable.
Ji-seung Lee (director) / Hyongkuk Kim, Ji-seung Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Seong-woo Bae … Husband
Taekwang Hwang … Man
Young-nam Jang … Azooma
Dong-seok Ma … Detective Ma