Bandhobi: The Most Interesting Korean Movie You’ll See This Year


Well, it certainly sounds like it will be, although I admit I have some reservations about Bandhobi‘s (반두비) “crude political satire,” and especially of its portrayal of an American English teacher as an “occasional rotten apple.” Given that it otherwise aims to transcend and/or educate viewers about such issues as racism, illegal immigration, and possibly even teenage sexuality, then it would be both ironic and quite a pity if it resorted to gross stereotypes of foreign male English teachers in the process.

(In passing, as I probably won’t get to mention them otherwise then reviews of the book “The East, The West, and Sex” by Richard Bernstein here, here, here, and here may help to put those stereotypes in comparative perspective, and are interesting in their own rights)

Still, Korea Times’s movie critic Lee Hyo-won, whose excellent movie reviews I’ve sung the praises of before, has easily persuaded me to go and watch it this weekend. Here is her(?) full review below:

In “Bandhobi,” director Shin Dong-il translates to screen “uncomfortable” issues of illegal immigration, racism and social toadyism through the universal languages of ticklish humor, teenage angst and priceless friendship.

It’s a story about growing pains and the meeting point of different cultures _ the title “Bandohbi” roughly means “female friend” in Bengali. It’s an indie flick that, while comfortably feigning mainstream superficiality, is inlaid with some gem-like scenes that show why Shim was dubbed “the Korean Woody Allen” (Berlin International Film Festival, “Host & Guest,” 2005).

Teenage actress Bae Jin-hui portrays the cheeky 17-year-old Min-seo with sure-fire articulation. One of the thousands of girls who took part in political candlelit vigils, Min-seo relentlessly speaks her mind at home – “you’re just my mom’s sex partner,” she shouts at her single mother’s incompetent boyfriend (Here, the film could have made the man despicable and turned it into something more noir, but he truly wants to get a job and become part of the family).

But she isn’t entirely the hardball rebel she pretends be. Not wanting to be a burden, she even takes up an illicit part-time job to raise money for English lessons.

Bandhobi First Meeting( Source )

One day, she decides to treat herself to the spoils of a misplaced wallet, but is caught by the owner, a migrant worker from Bangladesh. Mahbub Alam, a migrant worker-turned-documentary filmmaker who played a minor part in Shin’s “My Friend & His Wife,” shows off his fluent Korean to play the 29-year-old intellectual struggling to support his family back home.

Update: It turns out that Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling actually knows Mahbub Alam. See here for a little more on his work with the Migrant Workers’ Union and with Migrant Workers’ Television.

Min-seo tries to dissuade Karim from reporting her to the police by offering to grant him a favor, and reluctantly agrees to help track down his former boss that owes one year’s pay. As the unlikely pair pose as loan sharks, they find themselves transforming each other’s worlds in unexpected ways but Karim’s visa will not last forever.

American English Teacher in Bandhobi( Source )

The sometimes-shaky handheld camera keeps a rather ironic distance from the characters; for Min-seo, the world is a piece of cake while for Karim it is a cruel battlefield. They slowly form a mutual understanding, with the girl asking indiscreet questions and the gentleman preaching about problems in Korean society. Yet the most affecting scenes do not involve words, but rather the simple act of crying, listening and eating.

The blatant mockery of traditionally right-wing institutions including the President Lee Myung-bak administration and the daily Chosun Ilbo are actually funny, but at times are not limited to character portrayal as they ought to, and are rather vulgarly laid into the mise en scene. Another questionable aspect of the film, which aims to highlight the foreign community in Korea, is that the American teacher was not convincing as the occasional rotten apple he was supposed to represent, let alone his “atypical” American English accent.

The crude political satire will throw some into fits of laughter while offending others, and contrived narrative elements are bound to irritate picky viewers. But just as the film’s hero Karim says, “open your mind,” and discover the film’s redeeming – and inspiring – qualities.

Bandhobi Hmmm....( Source )

It is unfortunate that the film, which could nevertheless reach out to teenagers, was rated 19 and over for some candid depictions of a girl’s sexual awakening. In theaters June 25. Distributed by Indiestory.

Moviegoers can also look forward to the Migrant Worker Film Festival, of which Allum is festival director. It will be held in July in Seoul and through September in other parts of the country. Visit

I’m assuming that that “sexual awakening” involves Min-seo becoming attracted to Karim, and if so it would be quite radical for a Korean movie, as I’m at a loss to think of any portrayals of romantic relationships between Korean women and Western men in Korean cinema, let alone with men from an ‘undesirable’ country like Bangladesh (can anyone fill me in please?). Given everything that I’ve written about teenage sexuality in Korea though – in short, that Korean teenagers are having sex, but the Korean public’s unwillingness to acknowledge this is severely restricting teenagers’ access to contraception and reliable information – then that rating is indeed a pity. But on the plus side, presumably Korean teenagers will be able to find a way to watch it nevertheless, and the restrictions will make them even more inclined to do so!


35 thoughts on “Bandhobi: The Most Interesting Korean Movie You’ll See This Year

  1. If Brian Deutsch hasn’t already identified it as one of the most-hated expressions of 2009, then I nominate “I’m your energy” to top that list. It has metastasized from those awful TV commercials to the movie poster above.

    Somebody kill it!


  2. What about Kim Ki-duk’s Address Unknown, in which a teenager has a “special” relationship with her dog, as she deals with the other male characters?

    Thanks for the link to my…err, rant.


  3. ‘Please Take Care of My Cat’ has a non-sexual relationship between one of the female characters and several south asian, or south east asian sailors. It was portrayed as a sign of said character being ‘a bit out there’. I believe the girls were post high-school, maybe post middle school, can’t remember.

    (James, 5:30pm–Not that that movie isn’t still interesting {see below}, but I really meant romantic relationships by the way. I’ve updated the text)


    1. Andrew–I understand. Fortunately though, that’s the first time I’ve come across that expression myself.

      Nicholas, Left Flank–Thanks for those, and in my defense, I was only on my first cup of coffee as I wrote that! But I wonder if I’m imagining a continuum of platonic and sexual relationships with non-Korean men that may not be all that clear or even exist at all in reality? Like I said, it’s Western men in particular that are negatively portrayed in the Korean media these days.

      For everyone’s reference, here and here are reviews of Please Take Care of My Cat and Address Unknown respectively. I haven’t see the latter, but I liked the former and have it on my computer (it’s about four women after graduating from high school by the way).


  4. I’m ignorant. Are comments on Naver at all reliable? In other news, I’m glad you’re starting up the film reviews right away. I’ve been thinking that I need to get into Korean pop culture if I’m going to learn anything of the language.


    1. Well, truth be told I’ll probably have to wait until the DVD comes out too PJB: my Korean is good enough to follow conversations if I can see their Korean subtitles on the screen (and English ones too obviously), but not if I just have to listen…I gained a LOT more respect for many Koreans’ English ability when I started learning Korean that way!

      With that in mind, my original intention with a promised “weekly film review” was to look only at old ones that I had seen personally on DVD the following weekend Sarah, as I too want to watch them primarily for studying Korean with. And I figured readers might be more interested in my choices if they could also readily watch them too, as I imagine that the majority don’t have the Korean skills to fully enjoy new releases (hell, neither do I really). But still, sometimes a blogger’s got to do what a blogger’s got to do…

      By the way, if you’ve been told that watching dramas is the best method to learn Korean, but have been put off by the cheesiness of the mainstream ones, then you might find readers’ suggestions in this post helpful. I’ll be finally following a few of those up myself this weekend.

      PJB, could you link to some of those comments on Naver please? I’m curious, and 9/10s of the time I only visit Korean sites to find pictures, so I don’t know where all the rapid netizens’ comments are really! And yeah, Sarah, I seriously doubt that they’re very representative too, but as I’m sure you’re aware, unfortunately Korean netizens have a disproportionate influence on the media and political life. True, not that the latter exactly reflects the will of the people these days…


  5. Thank you for the recommendation. I decided to go to Seoul International Youth Festival to watch it after reading this post and it was great, I really enjoyed the movie and after it the director and the main actor replied some questions. I’d like to see more movies like this in the future here.


  6. ah yes, Korean racism. wicked. i wept for humanity when the 6 thugs grabbed the ‘brown guy’ cuz he kissed a Korean girl.

    Dear Korea. Wake the fuck up.

    I realize that is, effectively, the message of the whole movie (ironically the innocent girl was a whore and the dirty brown guy was deeply religious and kind) but the fact that this movie has any relevance in Korean society is… baffling.

    PS. I live in China, and get this kind of resentment, fear, racism everyday. Slight difference though, China is a developing country. Somewhere I heard South Korea was not.


    1. Wut u think, U caucasian men bombarding streotypes on asian men when they go to ur country. And u think they will kiss ur ass when u visit there??


      1. Well said Xian. These whiteys think racism against everyone else okay…except when it happens to them. Yeah, racism is bad in Korea. Like how they terrorize and segregate the minorities and even brutally and enslaved/tortured them for centuries. Oh wait. That’s white America. Oops. Sorry. Got the countries mixed up.


  7. This film is on asiatorrents.

    The sexual awakening is the 17 year old working at a massage parlor, and giving a hj to the the bengali friend.


  8. i dont really like this movie. I’m a muslim, and I saw so many things that Karim did but muslims didnt do that. I like the story but I dont like the way of this movie show how was muslims do their activitis. to be together often with a girl that not ‘muhrim’ isnt allowed, come to a house that only alone girl in, isnt allowed too. and also kissing was the very sensitive thing that i cant accepted to do for a muslim in a dark place without anyone around.


    1. 100% AGREE WITH YOU, ARA! A teenage girl doing handjob 2 times in a movie?? Wth you’re thinking?! p/s Muhbab Alam isn’t a good example of what the real Muslims are, seriously. He should know what is halal & haram things exactly is.


  9. This is Rashed from Bangladesh.
    This is one of the great movie I have ever seen.
    I would like to thank Dong-il Shin & Lee Chang-won for such a masterpiece.
    Moreover, both Jin-hee Baek & my desi Mahbub Alam are admirable for their splendid performance.


  10. Hi, i’m Hamlet from Brisbane Australia, i would like to congratulate Dong-il Shin & Lee Chang-won for such an epic masterpiece and my korean friend julee who give me this movie as a gift. I was reading all the comments,in my opinion, i couldn’t find any significant fault in this movie. The producers try to depict the reality in the korean society. Look, no nation in the world can claim that they don’t have racism in their country. But still there are some good friend, you will eventually find them on top of racism, who will dedicate their life in the name of friendship, in the ends,all that it matters. The conclusion of the movie where the actress Bae Jin-hui order Bangladeshi food in the restaurant and use her hand just like Bengali people,this is the best korean film i’ve ever seen, i would like to ask Dong-il Shin & Lee Chang-won to make more movie so that we can learn from different culture.


  11. Splendid work by the director. BTW, to the writer of this article… I liked your review (which, in fact, prompted me to watch this movie), but if it matters… please don’t consider Bangladesh to be an ‘undesirable’ country. It isn’t. No country is , in fact. The movie, IMO, was about about how, as humans, should we take the time to understand each other.. differences like skin colour, culture, religion etc should PALE in comparison to the very many similarities we share. In fact.. appreciation of such bonds would have us do things for each other, we would never do otherwise (case in point… Minh-Suh thrashing the house of Karim’s former employer or Karim repeatedly refusing marriage, even though it would have been the easy way out for him, but yet choosing not to take advantage of her.). All in all, a great movie! :-)


    1. I think you’re “preaching to the choir” on this one, my friend. That is, the author of this blog is usually very careful to treat all people groups with respect. Bangladesh is not to him “an undesirable country.” When he used that phrase, he was referring to the mindset of the average South Korean citizen, a perspective he has noticed but does not share. At least, that’s how I understood it!


  12. Nice movie, Looking forward to watch more movies like this.
    BTW, i agree Mohd Anisul Karim; don’t consider any country as an ‘undesirable’ country.


  13. Thanks for informing me of this video; I wouldn’t normally have thought to look at a movie with a South Asian title to learn about South Korea. I think the message of the movie was pretty simple: everyone and everywhere has got its share of problems. It’s the people who can sympathize with you, and vice versa, that make it all bearable.

    It will, nonetheless, be interesting to see how quickly some of the negative attitudes expressed in this movie change. Although Korea’s history of being ethnically homogeneous and perhaps as static culturally as a society can be is far, far longer than South Korea’s reputation as being a bustling, ever-changing nation, that latter reputation is well-earned. Much though I can attest personally to the foreign-ness of foreigners there, having been one myself and finding myself staring when I saw other foreigners (!), that there are evermore of us is a fact I don’t see changing too soon. The situation is bound to change sometime.


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