Screening in both Sydney and Melbourne at this year’s KOFFIA festival, Shim’s Family is a character drama with bits of ensemble comedy sticking out. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. South Korean director Jeong Yoon-Chul presents us with a darkly funny look at the chaotic life of a small family (the film’s other English title is Skeletons in the Closet), shot through with the occasional rapid shifts in mood that I’ve come to love from Korean cinema.
Yong-sun (played by Hwang Bo-ra) is Shim’s teenage daughter; a reflective girl who’s interested in the mysteries of existence. She has a brother, Yong-tae (Yu Ah-in), who’s troubled in love and rather obsessed with the secrets of his early (and previous!) life. Their mother, Hee-kyung (Moon Hee-kyeong) is frustrated with her husband and the monotony of running the household, and Mr. Shim himself (Cheon Ho-jin) is a rather straitlaced and tired schoolteacher who keeps his cards close to his chest. Living with them is Hee-kyung’s sister, Mi-kyung (Kim Hye-su), who’s an out-of-work comic book writer, wandering around the house in trackies and complaining about her deadbeat ex.
Each of them is faced with challenges of their own, some more surprising than others. Just when you think you have a handle on the tone of the film, or a feel for the personality of one of the characters, writer/director Jeong throws us a curveball. This is particularly true for Mr and Mrs Shim, who I’d assumed in the first ten minutes would be background for the zany hijinks of the two kids and Aunt Mi-kyung. Not so: all of the Shims get their own share of the film’s running time, and Mr and Mrs Shim’s dramatic arcs are just as (or more!) compelling, even occasionally shocking. It’s only Mi-kyung who feels a little underwritten, although she does get one of the funniest scenes in the film.
Despite the cast of odd characters and improbable situations, though, you can see director Jeong’s interest in ordinary people living ordinary lives. The camera glides through the empty rooms of the house more than once, showing us the small space all five inhabit; we see people sleeping, cooking and washing clothes, and any sense of wonder or glamour is reserved for when the film slips into the more melodramatic perspective of one of the characters: remembering the majesty of past lives, or daydreaming about the handsome lad who runs the Karaoke bar.
The performances are uniformly good, especially Hwang Bo-ra as awkward, dreamy Yong-sun. There’s a good supporting performance from superstar Park Hae-il (The Host, End of Animal) as well, as the film teacher who’s even more concerned with the mysterious questions of existence than Yong-sun is.
Shim’s Family is a fun piece of cinema to watch, sliding easily from quirky black comedy to serious drama and back again, with more than enough twists and turns to keep the audience interested. An excellent antidote for those who’ve seen one too many films with rooftop shootouts lately and want something a bit more close to home.