The Last Remaining Hope In A World Without Hope

in Festival International du Film, Cannes 2023

by Youngmee Hwang

Hopeless (Hwaran, 2023) is a noir drama that unravels the story of “Yeon-gyu” (Hong Sabin), a boy who faces domestic violence from his stepfather, looking to escape his personal hell, and his relationship with “Chi-gun” (Song Jung-gi), a mid-level gangster in his criminal organization. The plot revolves around the events that the two characters experience together in their shaky world. The film was invited to be screened at the 76th Festival de Cannes. Sanai Pictures, the producers of cinematic works of intense violence such as the New World, The Shameless, Asura: The City of Madness, and Hunt, decided to go with the scenario of the new director Kim Chang-hoon this time. It is said that the film really geared into action as the actor Song Jung-gi agreed to work under no-guarantee terms.

The protagonist Yeon-gyu, a high school student seeking to run away to the Netherlands (Hwaran), has a part time job at a Chinese restaurant to desperately save enough money for his escape. Yeon-gyu’s world of Hwaran is filled to the brim with domestic violence on the inside and surrounded by murder, corruption, and violence on the outside. The protagonist develops an Oedipus complex-type of urge to kill his stepfather as he is beaten daily, but suppresses this urge and succumbs to his situation. The stepfather’s biological daughter Hayan (Bibi) attempts to stop his violence to no avail. Emotionally drained, Yeon-gyu acts cold to Hayan, but deep down he is fond of his warm-hearted stepsister.

Meanwhile, Chi-gun, a mid-level gangster in his criminal organization, sees himself in Yeon-gyu and is drawn to him, feeling sympathy. The two characters’ relationship begins as Chi-gun, having found out the financial and personal turmoil that Yeon-gyu is in, throws him 3 million KRW, knowing that he won’t be getting it back. Yeon-gyu decides to enter the world of organized crime to escape his stepfather, an alcoholic who uses whatever he gets his hands on to inflict violence on him. Step by step, the protagonist gains recognition from the criminal organization as he approaches the height of violence. While performing his duties as a debt collector, Yeon-gyu one day comes across a little boy playing alone on the street. Seeing his younger self in the boy, the protagonist feels sympathy. Unfortunately, the boy’s father was a person with a physical disability, indebted to the gang he belongs to. Yeon-gyu steals the man’s motorcycle, which is his only means of living, but later regrets his decision as he thinks about the little boy and returns it. This incident sparks a significant conflict between the two main characters. Chi-gun reprimands Yeon-gyu for being too sentimental for their line of work, subjecting him to a punishment unique to gangsters. The scene where Chi-gun volunteers to go through the same pain and punishment speaks a strong message, implying how much he cares for Yeon-gyu. The unique acting style of Hong Sabin, Song Jung-gi, and Kim Hyeong-seo makes the drama more complete.

The story of the film is very well structured. The main plot of Chi-gun sympathizing and going out of his way for Yeon-gyu comes together with the subplot of Yeon-gyu doing the same thing for the little boy to strengthen the message that even in the harshest world, humanity exists. Though there are many excellent Korean noir films, there are not many that deal with the theme of humanity and loyalty between a mid-level gangster and a newbie in the harsh world of organized crime. In director Lee Chang Dong’s Green Fish, we witness tragic beauty as the protagonist Makdoong (Han Seok-gyu), an eager newbie in the world of organized crime, makes a decision that changes his fate. In a similar sense, the decision of fate made by Yeon-gyu and Chi-gun resonates deeply in the hearts of the audience.

This film depicts how each character lives their lives in different ways, to survive in a world without hope. It underscores that humanity and loyalty are our last straw of hope to overcome even the most painful circumstances. It makes us think whether we have such people around us. And if so, realize that our lives indeed have hope.


Youngmee Hwang
Edited by Rita Di Santo