Ki-hyeong ParkJapaneseSeung-woo Kim
Secret Tears
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Writer/director: Ki-hyeong Park
Keywords: SF
Language: Korean, Japanese [briefly on TV]
Country: South Korea
Actor: Seung-woo Kim, Mi-jo Yun, Hyeon-woo Jeong, Eun-suk Park, Ye-jin Son, Ha Park
Format: 105 minutes
Website category: Asian
Review date: 22 February 2012
I liked it quite a lot. It's a surreptitiously disturbing Korean film that refuses to tell you what to think, from a writer/director with an excellent reputation.
The main character is Seung-woo Kim, who recently lost his wife. For a while we don't know if she died or merely left him, but the important point is that he's emotionally vulnerable right now. He's been out drinking with two colleagues, all insurance investigators, when on driving home at midnight they see a girl in the middle of the road, in the rain. She's about fourteen or fifteen. She makes no attempt to avoid the car.
They hit her.
A hard-headed discussion now takes place. Seung-woo's friend (Hyeon-woo Jeong) wants them to drive away and pretend it never happened, despite the fact that the girl (Mi-jo Yun) isn't dead yet. Fortunately the "who cares if she dies" option gets voted down and Mi-jo gets taken back to Seung-woo's place, for lack of anywhere better. It turns out that Mi-jo has amnesia. She's also near-mute and has huge eyes. She seems nice and eager to be no trouble. You'll like her and want the best for her, although that said her unearthly beauty is occasionally capable of making her look like a vampire. Seung-woo and Mi-jo become strongly attached to each other, which is worrying for both his friends and for the audience, given that Mi-jo is prone to doing things like wandering around without a skirt and spontaneous hugs.
It later transpires that she has psychic powers and that there was death by fire in her family on the night she went for a walk. All this in a Korean film that's threatening to turn into Lolita.
Personally I think it's about people's relationships with young teenagers. The psychic powers represent the way that people often find it difficult to talk to young people, with Mi-jo never saying anything aloud throughout the film and Seung-woo instead having to read her mind. I was fascinated watching them learn to communicate with each other, plus the fact that the key to doing so is acceptance of love. (Did I mention the "threatening to turn into Lolita" thing? Good.) Mi-jo is a sweet, inoffensive little thing who doesn't deserve anything that happens to her... but because of her powers, she's also unpredictable and dangerous. Seung-woo's friends think she's a time bomb. They want to get him away from her. At no point does anyone other than Seung-woo ever consider what might be best for Mi-jo herself, with Hyeon-woo in particular regarding her as more or less vermin.
"If she has that power and is nervous about it, you can't keep her next to you." Discussions on Mi-jo's future will take place with no reference to Mi-jo, except in seeing her as a physical threat.
This could have been excruciating. Ki-hyeong Park could have had our skin crawling right off our bodies to hide under the bed. Fortunately though, he doesn't. Seung-woo and Mi-jo themselves are lovely together, although for obvious reasons occasionally unnerving. Mi-jo is an innocent, while Seung-woo appears to have been blessed with all the altruism and compassion that's lacking in his friends, in this film specifically towards young people. Admittedly at one point he gives a violent kicking to a man he's never seen before in his life and has never done anything to him, but this too would appear to be an over-enthusiastic extension of the same protective instinct. If I were a tiny, fragile teenager with amnesia, I'd want to be taken in by Seung-woo too.
It doesn't end well, needless to say. However the film seemed to me to be deliberately avoiding a dramatic crescendo, instead having a low-key investigation of the past that stays ambiguous right to the end. The finale manages to find altruism and a sort of sweetness in a scene that would appear to be doing the opposite.
The writer/director, Ki-hyeong Park, sounds interesting and it's a shame that he's made so few movies. His 1998 debut was Whispering Corridors, a slow, intelligent ghost story that won him a lot of fans. Secret Tears was his second film. His third in 2003 was Acacia, which I've seen called his masterpiece, but since then his only film to date has been Gangster High in 2006, which sounds dark and intense but only used him as a director for hire instead of getting him scriptwriting too. He does very well here, making a beautiful film that on reflection must have cost much less than he makes it look. Almost none of his cast had ever acted before, for instance, but you'd never guess from their work. The weakest, perhaps, is his one established actor, Seung-woo, who could perhaps be called a bit doughy and lacking in clarity... but much of that will be deliberate characterisation. I bought him in the role. I'm disappointed to see that Mi-jo Yun never acted again, but imdb thinks almost none of them did. The exception is Ye-jin Son, who went on to build a respectable acting career on the start she got here.
Hyeon-woo Jeong looks like Hugh Dennis, incidentally, if you're familiar with British comedians. Except Korean, of course.
Overall, I'd definitely recommend this. It's quite slow, but I found a lot in there and this is definitely a director I'll be following. Theoretically you could classify it as horror or SF, but I think it's a much more delicate, ambiguous movie than either of those labels would imply. The most disturbing thing in it is the potential paedophilia between Seung-woo and Mi-jo... and yet you also want the two of them to stay together. Ki-hyeong Park never lets you settle, e.g. an early scene with the washing machine and Seung-woo checking Mi-jo's panties, which as with so much of the film is both clear in what it's hinting and yet also innocent. Sad, hopeful and sweet. A film to admire.