Ki-hyeong ParkHye-jin ShimHee-tae JeongJin-geun Kim
Medium: film
Year: 2003
Writer/director: Ki-hyeong Park
Language: Korean
Country: South Korea
Keywords: horror, ghost
Actor: Hye-jin Shim, Jin-geun Kim, Oh-bin Mun, Na-yoon Jeong, Hee-tae Jeong, Jong-hwan Son
Format: 103 minutes
Website category: Asian
Review date: 1 November 2012
It's a South Korean horror film from the director of Secret Tears and Whispering Corridors, but it's not very horror-y. If it weren't for occasional giveaway music, you might think it was just a regular (but good) domestic drama with a couple who adopted a six-year-old boy.
Hye-jin Shim plays a lady who doesn't think she and her husband (Jin-geun Kim) can have a baby. She's self-possessed and calm about it, but even she gets prickly when Jin-geun mentions one day that he's been sounding out his father's opinions re. adoption. It's not a bad idea, though. Before long they're going to an orphanage and choosing a child. The lad they choose (Oh-bin Mun) is six years old and Hye-jin likes him because he's artistic. He draws amazing pictures of trees. He loves trees. He has an emotional connection with trees.
Hye-jim and Jin-geun have an acacia.
The rest of the movie I won't spoil. It unfolds believably and you could even choose to read the film as containing no supernatural element at all. You'd have to squint past one scene in particular, but it wouldn't be a ridiculous position. The film's a sort of ghost story, but almost everything that happens is rooted in nothing more unusual than what the characters say, think and do. It rings true. There's Hye-jin's unpleasant mother, who wants a biological grandchild and is either obnoxious or evil on the subject in almost every scene she's in. I wanted her dead. There's Jin-geun, who was born to be a great dad and has a fascinating character arc from "charming" (at the start) to "poisonous" (at the end)... and it's all horribly believable. He has his priorities and these don't necessarily include putting much weight on Hye-jin's desires and opinions. "Drop your ridiculous work."
However he wasn't a bad person, despite one particular plot development. He has good and bad in him, like all of us. I think he might have loved children more than his wife, for instance. Everyone's defined to some extent by their attitude to sprogs.
All this is normal. I was watching as if this weren't a genre film at all, partly because the movie itself is strongly giving that impression. It's only occasional little touches that put me on edge. Unsettling dreams. A bit of music here and there. Oh-bin Mun isn't the cuddliest of kids and I was relieved half an hour into the film when he found a playmate next door. He had a good life with Hye-jin and Jin-geun, but it was a sterile, emotionally detached one that was threatening to push him further into his self-imposed isolation.
I like the style. Ki-hyeong Park tells his story in a cool, intelligent manner that's at once languid and brisk. Individual scenes will be detailed and truthful. Nothing ever feels hurried. It's absorbing. However at the same time, Ki-hyeong will happily skip over chunks of story and jump straight to the next event he thinks is important. Towards the end, this allows revelations within revelations, as you discover that some of those skippings were significant. This perhaps makes the film a bit impressionistic. You might not be sure what you're watching or what's just happened, especially when Ki-hyeong starts doing flashbacks too. At one point I didn't know whether or not a baby had been killed, for instance. The little blighter had dropped out of the film and I was scouring the elegantly and deceptively scant glimpses of narrative for clues as to what might have happened in the gaps.
I liked this a lot, but it distorts the film in what I presume are unintended ways. This film can make you forget the existence of a baby in the household, for instance. This will surprise any new parents whose every waking moment is dominated by their tiny red-faced master. There's also so little about Oh-bin Mun going to school that I'm now wondering whether, at his age, children in South Korea don't.
In summary: impressive. It'll disappoint anyone looking for something more "in your face", but that's okay. Ki-hyeong is painterly and subtle, for instance conveying worlds of meaning in a moment as small as a husband pushing past his wife into the house. A horror film for people who don't like horror films, perhaps.