Director – Kim Cho-hee – 2019 – South Korea – 95m
Director Ji (Seo Sang-won), his fortysomething producer Lee Chan-sil (Kang Mal-geum) and three or four others are drinking Soju round a table after a hard day’s work on the set. Suddenly, Ji slumps forward. Everyone thinks he’s kidding. He’s not. He’s dead. Unexpectedly dead. Ji makes little independent films in his own highly idiosyncratic style. If he’s no longer there, then the film, too, is dead. And Chan-sil, who has only worked with him, is suddenly out of a job.
With her regular income gone, she downsizes and moves into a cheap flat owned by an ageing live-in landlady (Youn Yuh-jung). It’s near the top of a hill, so other members of the abandoned film production help her carry stuff up there. She sees a lot of her flighty actress friend Sophie (Yeung Soon-ah) for whom she now goes to work as a cleaner. These changes of circumstance give her the both the space and the opportunity to reassess her life.
Then she strikes up a friendship with Sophie’s thirtysomething French teacher Kim Young (Bae Yoo-ram) which may or may not flower into romance. This element is nicely handled. He and she get on well as friends up to a point – it turns out he’s a massive film fan, although he doesn’t get her favourite director Yasujiro Ozu at all, describing Tokyo Story (1953), which he saw once, as a film in which nothing happens, and claims to prefer Christopher Nolan movies. (Certain shots in this film resemble Ozu compositions.) He clearly enjoys spending time with her as a friend, although it’s less clear that there’s anything more than that going on. Probably, there isn’t. Also, like many of her friends and acquaintances, he turns out to be a movie person: his French teacher job is really only to earn him a living so that he can concentrate on his true passion – making short films.
Her landlady, by way of contrast and in true, down-to-earth Youn Yuh-jung manner, is not at all a movie type. In fact, she doesn’t even really understand what it is that a movie producer does. Chan-sil meanwhile finds herself having conversations with the ghost of Hong Kong acting icon Leslie Cheung (Kim Young-min) who haunts the building.
Chan-sil might easily be seen as a stand-in for the director, since in real life Kim Cho-hee – here directing her first feature after a couple of shorts including the delightfully whimsical Ladies Of The Forest (2016) – began making movies after seven years of collaborating with celebrated and iconic indie director Hong Sang-soo so has had personally to deal with the shift from working as a producer to a particular star director for a number of years then having to make one’s own way in the world.
There’s a basic pride in human dignity about the way Chan-sil applies herself to cleaning Sophie’s home and earning a living. The likeable but forgetful Sophie has a habit of suddenly remembering she was supposed to be somewhere else ten minutes ago and racing there to arrive all late and apologetic. This is how Chan-sil first meets Kim Young – he turns up at Sophie’s house for a lesson she’s forgotten was happening at that date and time, so he chats with Chan-sil instead after she explains about Sophie and talks him into waiting for his pupil.
This could very easily have turned into an exercise in navel-gazing, however its cast of mostly film industry characters feel convincing, covering as they do a wide variety of personality types. Like Hong Sang-soo’s films, it’s very much about quirky people photographed in very specific locations, yet writer-director Kim is less about setting up a shot before camera and watching what happens and more about a traditional method of writing a script to tell a story then shooting it for the screen. The distinctive feel to this gentle and enjoyable piece suggests she’s very much her own woman.
Youn Yuh-jung films currently or recently available…
Korean Film Archive YouTube Channel (free): Insect Woman (Kim Ki-young, 1972)
BFI Player: The Housemaid (Im Sang-soo, 2010)
Curzon Home Cinema: Beasts Clawing At Straws (Kim Yong-hoon, 2020)