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Animation Features Movies

Climbing (Keul-la-i-ming, 클라이밍)

Director – Kim Hye-mi – 2021 – South Korea – Cert. 15 – 77m

*****

Discovering she is pregnant, a professional sports climber finds herself moving between alternate realitiesplaying tonight, Thursday, November 18th 9pm at Genesis Cinema, Mile End (book here) as part of LKFF, the London Korean Film Festival which runs in cinemas from Thursday, November 4th to Friday, November 19th

A baby in a womb. In her dream, Sy-hyeon (voice: Kim Min-ji) tells her partner Woo-in (Gu Ji-won) on waking, she was pregnant and had an injured foot and arm in casts. Worried about her weight, she skips breakfast and heads to the climbing wall at the gym. She is one of the coach’s (Bak Jugwang) two stars along with Ah-in (Park Song-yi), and he expects the two women between them to achieve first and second prize in this year’s climbing competition. Sy-hyeon has been first in the past, but she starts to worry whether Ah-in could take her crown.

After discovering in a drawer her old, mobile phone with the shattered screen from before she had the accident, Sy-hyeon starts to receive messages from her other self. One self is in good physical shape and training at the gym every day, the other is the pregnant one with the injured foot and arm sustained in a car accident, cloistered in an upstairs room in her partner’s mother’s house. The mother (Park Song-yi again) is incredibly creepy, like something out of archetypal Hitchcock. She seems far more concerned with the safe delivery and care of her son’s baby than she does for Sy-hyeon. And, anyway, where IS her partner? He’s never around, and mother swiftly ends any phone conversations with her son before Sy-hyeon has a chance to talk to him.

As the narrative proceeds, it becomes increasingly hard to tell Sy-hyeon’s two realities apart (or perhaps there are more – on a first viewing, it’s hard to tell). Employing a deft cinematic sleight-of-hand, director Kim Hye-mi constantly switches from one reality to another. To an extent, elements like Sy-hyeon’s pregnant belly and whether or not her leg and arm are in casts and if she’s taking a pregnancy test tell you where you are, however some shifts back and forth are so quick and subtle that it can be hard to keep up and is often disorienting. And in one reality she’s clearly pregnant, while in the other she worries that she might well be.

With its theme of the double or doppelgänger, this recalls nothing so much as Perfect Blue (Satoshi Kon, 1997) and, to a lesser extent, the live action film it inspired ten years later Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010). However, the constant reality shifts link it far more to the earlier film, which used 2D drawn cel animation similarly to the manner in which Climbing uses CGI. As the character’s perception(s) become increasingly confused, other elements creep in – an absent partner, a growing mistrust of coach and his ascendant protégé Ah-in, stress caused by the approach of competitive climbing events, falls from climbing walls or down stairs, a knife, blood, assorted accidents, phantom pregnancy, and so forth.

The use of animation is impressive despite the imitations of the software used. Sometimes elements such as the sports bag often over her shoulder doesn’t quite move right or feel real, but on other occasions – the first one being a few minutes in when she drops to the floor from the climbing wall with a thump and the weight feels convincingly real, like the impact of a passenger coming off a motorcycle in Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988) – it proves highly effective.

There hasn’t been much animation in this year’s London Korean Film Festival – one incredible minute-long title sequence in the otherwise wildly uneven Collectors (Park Jung Bae, 2020) – but Climbing packs a considerable punch which more than compensates. Like Perfect Blue, one viewing is nowhere near enough to take it in and the film cries out to be picked up for proper UK theatrical distribution. A magnificent piece of work.

Climbingplays playing tonight, Thursday, November 18th 9pm at Genesis Cinema, Mile End (book here) as part of LKFF, The London Korean Film Festival which runs in cinemas from Thursday, November 4th to Friday, November 19th.

Trailer:

LKFF 2021 Trailer:

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