Quite an assured debut that deservedly attracted plenty of attention for the director and star.
Kim Ji-soo received universal plaudits for her portrayal of a quiet postal worker dealing with the a pair of traumatic events in her past, one revealed early on (the death of her mother) and the other withheld until much later. The revelation of this second trauma is ultimately a letdown – unfortunately predictable given the intensity of the character study and the audacity of the minimalist approach to narrative disclosure. That aside, the picture features some of the most likable naturalistic performances in recent Korean cinema and never becomes tediously dull with its humble and sometimes quite dreary content.
In much the same way as the Dardenne brothers (Rosetta) tend to follow a single character for the duration of a picture, Lee Yoon-ki’s hand-held camera (the director shot the film himself, without hiring a specialist camera operator) brings us intimately close to a woman going through a painful moment of reflection and self-enforced change. It’s a powerful technique designed to look closely at micro-facets of individual behaviour and suggest obscured inner thoughts and feelings without resorting to awkward exposition or more conventional film style (e.g. outwardly expressive conversations shot over the shoulders of performers). It evokes mystery, builds momentum, encourages viewer participation and generates expectations that can be manipulated to gradually unveil more unexpected story elements. Lee is comfortable with this seemingly random but deliberately careful approach. It’s only when the rapidly edited exposition-heavy flashbacks intrude on the evocative detachment of the present action that a sense of directorial conflict between approach and material seems to take hold.
Ultimately the struggle to balance mystery, exposition and revelation is dealt with in a rough fashion that undermines the picture’s early charm. A delicate sensorial style gives way as the mood switches from oddly pleasant to suffocating. Okay, so it probably earns this from the story that it eventually turns out to be, but there’s a feeling of being unnecessarily manipulated that is hard to shake.
Lee Yoon-ki has continued to develop his low-budget signature style in a total of four features to date, following the likes of Kim Ki-duk as a Korean director able to tap resources and get stories told quickly, efficiently and effectively.