Yoo Ah-in, Jun Jong-seo, Steven Yeun
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…an exercise in empathy that leads to many a cerebral treasure.
Narratives about those in the lower economic class are nothing new in the world of cinema, but in recent years, few have the bragging rights of being as bleak and downtrodden as this adaptation of a Haruki Murakami story by South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong. It’s ostensibly a mystery drama, where the story details include a missing person, a suspicious suspect and an everyman trying to get to the bottom of it.
However, that is only what’s on the surface. The real mystery isn’t concerned with genre trappings, but rather with the existence of the characters in and of themselves. The hows and whys of their surroundings form the mystery, in particular where they fit in and, if possible, how they can get out.
The depiction of Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo) and Ben’s (Steven Yeun) circumstances make for a healthy reprieve from the usual over-romanticising of poverty that far too many arthouse directors dabble in. From sharing a spit cup during a smoke break to awkwardly-staged sex scenes to the odd instance of ugly crying, this carries the same grimy tone as a Larry Clark or Harmony Korine production. Except this isn’t here just to create a voyeuristic window into suffering; instead, this plays out as a character study of Jong-su, a man struggling to find work, love and reprieve from his own jealousy.
With character details drip-fed to the audience, from his complicated relationship with his parents to his even more complicated relationship with Hae-mi, his position in life is made both pitiable and tragic once the more global picture comes into focus. Alongside juxtaposing the unemployment heights of the South Korean suburbs with the unattainable prestige of Gangnam (you know, that place that gave Psy inspiration for one of the most viral music videos ever made?), it also details Chinese opulence, African terrorism and even everyone’s favourite walking Jaffa and his effects on United States immigration.
By linking the South Korean social climate with that of the rest of the world, the film emphasises the tragic hopelessness of the characters’ situation. Whether they stay at home or go abroad, that bleakness persists. Or, as Ben puts it, their “simultaneous existence”.
Through a Villeneuve-esque methodical pace, clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half-hours, it’s understandable if the audience finds themselves in a fit of Great Hunger trying to figure out the meaning of all this. But for those with the willingness and patience to see it through, they will find an incredibly and fittingly melancholic look at the state of the world and how it affects those within it. Some want to make an escape, some want to see it all burn to the ground, and some just want to disappear from it entirely.
It’s not easy to sympathise with the people on screen, who each have their own varying levels of personal baggage and impulsive behaviour, but it’s even less easy to ignore the circumstances that put them in that position in the first place. It’s an exercise in empathy that leads to many a cerebral treasure.