Dir: Lee Yoon-ki. 2004. 99mins
Any film that deals with subjects such as loneliness, boredom andself-loathing must run the risk of inflicting similar feelings on its audience.This Charming Girl flirts with these dangers as it slowly, slowlyscratches beneath the isolationist facade put up by a largely unremarkableyoung woman. Often minimalist in feel, its attention to detail and attentivecraftsmanship are presumably what won it the top prize New Currents Award inPusan,along with Kim Ji-Soo’s compellingly controlled central performance.
Thefilm now has places in Sundance’s World Cinema Competition and the forthcomingBerlin festival’s Forum section. Asking a lot of audiences, its paid-for marketbeyond home - where it opens in early March - is likely to be thinner, albeitgeographically widely spread.
Thestory is banal and typical of 21st-century city dwellers throughoutthe developed world, as families become fragmented, women more independent andsingle-person family units ever more numerous.
Prettyish,Jeong-hae (Kim) is neat, punctual and conservative. She takes lunches with hercolleagues (Kim Mi-seong, Lee Mi-mi), but goes home alone, while they back tohusbands or out on dates. Jeong-hae is a rock, an island. She has her life verymuch under control, whether it is working methodically at a potentiallystressful Seoul post office or living quietly in a well-equipped apartment andordering home deliveries of food and books.
Takingminute steps, director Lee punctures this almost obsessive orderliness and withhints and flashbacks fleshes out a partial sketch of her background andanxieties.
WhenJeong-hae takes in a stray cat she has to adapt to something under less thanperfect control. When her aunt phones with an errand, Jeong-hae appears to see herdead mother (Kim Hye-ok) sitting on her bed picking at her toenails.
Eventuallya man appears in the picture. Jeong-hae accidentally meets up with, of allthings, her ex-husband (Park). At lunch he compliments her, then says she hurthim and tells her he is to be remarried. But after barely a flicker of responsethey part with a cold “have a nice life” and an insult about her worn-outshoes.
Shebecomes increasingly rattled. At a factory outlet store she deals badly with anover-enthusiastic shoe salesman. A hospital visit reminds her more of her mumand the trauma of the funeral.
Althoughanother brief flash has suggested a fear of sexual intimacy, she makes adesperate attempt to reach out to another buy, an author (Hwang) she has seenat the post office. She stops him in the street and invites him home to dinner,but out of touch with how other people work she has picked the wrong moment andinevitably he fails to show.
Latershe helps out a drunk man (Seo) who turns out to be intelligent and suicidal.But her comfort is neither active nor particularly effective. Having stolen hisknife, she wonders desperately whether to use the it on herself, while sittinginvisible to those around her in a public park.
Despitethe roasting summer heat, Lee gives the film a bright, but cool look, inharmony with Jeong-hae’s buttoned down mode de vivre. He employs plenty ofhand-held camerawork getting in close to Kim’s lovely face as it graduallycracks, but manages not to make it feel intrusive. Flashbacks range fromminutes to mere seconds and once literally flash through in a burst.
Deservingequal credit is Kim. She appears in every scene and despite her character’sdescent, manages to seduce camera and probably most audiences who are preparedto go the distance.
Afterthis exercise in visual style and atmosphere, it is not obvious that Lee hasfinished with experimentation or his tough-love themes. California-educated, heis preparing Love Talk, about the lonely lives of Korean immigrants to the USand will follow that with Club Champagne, a 1930s period piece about glamour,romance - and despair.
Prod co:LJ Film
Exec prod:Lee Seung-jae
Scr:Lee, adapted from shortstory by Wu Ae-ryung
Eds:Ham Seong-weon, KimHyeong-ju
Prod des/art dir:Seo Myeong-hye
Main cast:Kim Ji-soo, HwangJung-min, Kim Hye-ok, Seo Dong-weon, Kim Mi-seong,Lee Mi-mi, Park Seong-ung