Postby CAP » Mon Dec 03, 2012 12:39 pm

At last, a Korean film I liked. Not that it’s a barrel of laughs or a straightforward rollicking yarn or anything – far from it. But at least it wasn’t macabre and sadistic, or formulaic and gimmicky, previously my abiding impression of Korean cinema. With the exception of Japan, I have a bit of a blind spot for Asian cinema. Well no-one’s perfect. Anyway this one is noted as an exception on its Wiki page, even amongst Korean cinema - the first ever Korean film to open the Rotterdam Film Festival (2010) and be included in the Tribeca F.F. It was also a long awaited follow-up feature to writer/director Park Chan-Ok’s first feature Jealousy Is My Middle-Name, also very well received on the art house circuit. Paju took her seven years to complete, partly because of the global economic downturn, partly because it’s not the sort of story likely to attract backers.

I’m only getting around to this one now on smaller screens because of my biases, I suppose.

Paju is the name of a small depressed city north of Seoul, close to the border with North Korea. Predictably, it has a large military presence. More recently it has been slated for drastic redevelopment as Seoul’s population and industry spreads and this brings with it land grabs and swindles against its poorest citizens. Yeah, some themes are pretty much universal. The fact that the film is called Paju automatically makes the characters a metaphor for the place in some way. But it’s hardly straightforward. The story revolves around the relationship between a guy, Joong-shik, a teacher and later local activist and a young girl, Eun-mo, his student, who suspects he is responsible for the mysterious death of her sister and cheating her out of the insurance. He acts as a de facto guardian and cares for her and although she is wary of him, she has no one else. The story is complicated by flashbacks which establish quite a history between the two. She passes through secondary school and goes to university, comes back but still looks tiny and about 13 and still wants to be part of it, but Joong doesn’t want to involve her in his activism. She’s beautiful and it’s puzzling why he should be her main option, but clearly she’s damaged goods. Those drop-dead looks, guys – don’t be fooled!

The actress Seo Woo is really good – as is the guy – Lee Sun-gyun. But there is a pathos about her predicament, whereas Joong remains opaque, committed to his ideals (including, significantly, reunification) but with a fatal weakness for sex, possibly. Early in the story there is a scandal about a mother who tragically neglects her baby for an affair with Joong, and later, crucially, when Eun-mo tries to elicit some emotional commitment from him, he tries to seduce her. That only drives her from him and more or less signals the climax of the film. Later she takes a scooter ride back to Seoul, now with a young female friend but the film’s real union remains a stand-off. She’s got no-one else; he’s only got the hots when not in demo mode. How is that Korea, or Paju? You know that Yan and Yin symbol on their flag? I’m thinking that’s the way these two shape their nation. On the other hand, this is an intensely feminist take on Über-Kapitalism, so that Joong is much more of a cipher for Korean identity or nationalism while Eun-mo seems much more rounded and individual. And there is some terrific quivering vulnerability on show there. Sigh. Park’s sharp eye for composition and art direction are the other giant plus for this one. She is a killer movie maker. Even when settings are squalid, this lady knows how to use something as simple as a pink plastic bowl in the background to throw things just that little bit off-kilter, set a scene on edge.

I’m giving this one a belated eight and a half.

Watch for it on your DVD shelves….
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