“301 302” is a rather odd little Korean film, though one which has won a great deal of critical praise, including the 1995 Grand Bell award in its native country, as well as being South Korea’s entry for the ‘Best Foreign Film’ Oscar in the same year. It was directed by Cheol-su Park, responsible for the equally strange “Push, Push”, a gender comedy which shocked through its inclusion of actual birth and vasectomy operations. Although with “301 302” he takes a less graphic route, Park’s approach is no less visceral and the film is one which is quite likely to provoke a feeling of queasiness in viewers.
The film is decidedly art house, similar in many ways to the early ‘body horror’ of Cronenberg, and would sit quite comfortably on a double bill with the recent auto-cannibalism shocker “In My Skin”. In fact, the two films are alike in many ways, being complex psychological studies of their female characters which clinically tackle potentially gruesome themes, though without slipping into the realm of exploitation. “301 302” in particular, despite its premise, is not a film recommended to casual viewers of extreme cinema, as although it is shocking in its own way, it is so in a quiet, cold manner that seeks to explore and suggest rather than simply revolt. It does succeed in this to some extent, though it is let down by a slow pace and an uncaring eye which seems intent on deflecting viewer involvement.
The film’s title refers to the numbers of two apartments in a modern building in Seoul, which for the purposes of the narrative are assigned to the two young women who live in them (the two are never referred to by name). The plot begins as a detective calls at 302 to investigate the disappearance of 301 (Eun-jin Bang, also in Ki-duk Kim’s “Address Unknown”). The rest of the film consists of a series of flashbacks which explore the strange relationship between the two women, framed by the detective’s conversation with 302 (Sin-Hye Hwang, also in the comedy “Love Bakery”).
We quickly learn that both 301 and 302 suffered from eating disorders, and that both were, in quite different ways, mentally unstable. This instability takes a variety of forms, which are brought out into the open after the two meet, and which seem to accentuate and boil over into mania as they bring out the worst in each other. The film delves into the past of each of the women, attempting to explain their behaviour, and to set the scene for a grotesque climax.
Director Park seems to be mainly concerned with exploring the relationship between human beings and food, and the explicit emotional and physical links that people develop with the act of consumption. He does this in great detail, and the film contains a huge number of loving close ups of food, which is either presented as being delicious and almost artful, or as decaying garbage, depending on whether it is being seen from the point of view of 301 or 302. He certainly succeeds in his latter depiction, as some of the scenes of rotten food, and occasionally its consumption, are quite nauseating.
Park does focus a lot of the film on the very human feeling of disgust, especially in the direct links he draws between food and sex, whether this refers to 301’s childhood abuse and subsequent inability to eat, or 302’s voracious appetites, and her eventual use of cooking as a sex substitute. Bodily functions play a very important role here, both in terms of showing 302’s gluttony, or 301’s constant vomiting. Although this does enable the film to provide a fascinating psychological portrayal of two obsessed, damaged women, it fills the narrative to the point where we learn little else about the characters, and as such they are relative blanks, defined only by their neuroses.
The problem with this is that the film ends up spending the vast majority of its running time exploring the lives of two women we are never really invited to care about, and which are treated more like case studies rather than actual people. Whilst this does aid Park’s efforts by giving the film the detached air of a clinical study, it also slows down the pace quite seriously, at times to the point of boredom. This is made worse by the fact that the film’s climax is not surprising in the least, even if viewers have managed to avoid reading details of the supposed twist (which in itself is quite difficult, given that it is generally used as the film’s selling point).
Similarly, the ending itself is a real let down, with no sign of the gruesome catharsis that the film seemed to be building towards. Since we have a very good idea of where the narrative is leading, the relative lack of any other event, save for the cooking of a pet dog and 301’s penchant for regurgitation, the overall feeling is that a good thirty minutes could have been trimmed, and that the film may perhaps have worked far better as a short.
As things stand, “301 302” is not without its merits, and makes for a fairly interesting watch. However, the viewer is unlikely to become engrossed in the events or indeed care much for the two central characters, and as such the film comes across more as a rather dry, at times dull and overly earnest study rather than a story or actual film.
Cheol-su Park (director) / Suh-Goon Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Eun-jin Bang …. 301
Sin-Hye Hwang …. 302