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“Antarctic Journal” apparently took five years to complete, a fact which suggests that debut Korean writer-director Im Pil-sung possesses the same dogged determination and endurance as his characters. The film is difficult to categorise, being equal parts supernatural mystery, psychological tease and survival thriller. The film’s premise is certainly promising, insofar as it represents a departure from the all too common female ghost haunting movies. Unfortunately, the film never quite lives up to its potential, mainly due to the fact that it is simply far too long, with a first half where very little happens. Although ambiguity and restraint can be admirable qualities in a film, when surrounded by little else the result is a distinct lack of excitement.
The plot follows a six-man Korean expedition to reach the ‘Pole of Inaccessibility’ (referred to throughout as the P.O.I.) in a remote region of the Antarctic, a feat only matched by one other team. As well as the elements, time is against the team, with just 60 days until the sun goes down for six months, a fact which puts considerable pressure on their already none too stable captain, Choi Do-hyeong (Song Gang-ho, also in “Memories of Murder”).
Misfortune befalls the men in a variety of forms, from bad weather and communication difficulties to unexplained illness (the script reminds us on multiple occasions that no virus can reportedly survive in Antarctica ). Part way into the trek, Kim Min-jae (Yu Ji-tae, “Old Boy”) the youngest member of the team, finds an old journal which apparently belonged to a British expedition some 80 years ago, and which seems to relate them having experienced the same strange problems as the Korean team. From this point, things only get worse, as the tension between the men turns to paranoia and violence, and with time running out, their chances of surviving, let alone finishing their mission start to look slim.
The main problem with “Antarctic Journal” is that it moves too slowly, with director Im relying far too much upon an ominous atmosphere and minor enigmatic accidents. The first hour or so consists mainly of the men trudging across the unchanging scenery, pausing to argue every once in a while, with hints of unease coming through odd camera angles and scenes of characters staring inexplicably at the ground for long periods of time. Although things certainly pick up in the second half, with snow storms, mental breakdowns and some gruesome amateur surgery, the damage has already been done, and the film as a whole has an unavoidable feeling of listlessness.
The pacing of “Antarctic Journal” resembles the 2004 Korean horror “R-Point”, in that both films sink into a languorous murk. Matters are not helped by the fact that none of the characters are particularly well developed, being burdened with mundane motivations, none of which convincingly explain why they continue with such an obviously doomed quest. Without anyone to sympathise with, and with no central villain save the snow, the viewer feels lost, and the film fails to engage until the latter stages.
“Antarctic Journal” is undeniably handsome, with New Zealand standing in perfectly for the bleak Antarctic wastes, aided by the odd bit of computer enhancement. Im directs with a steely gaze, favouring long, static shots over fast editing, and he gives the film a feeling of real isolation reminiscent at times of early John Carpenter. This does make for occasionally tense viewing, with the landscape becoming a malevolent, threatening character. There are a few good shocks in the film, though mostly of the creeping dread variety, rather than out and out horror.
More than anything, “Antarctic Journal” is a disappointment, as with tighter editing and more in depth character development, it could have been an effective story of bravery and dangerous obsession. Whilst by no means a bad film, it is one which is likely to try the viewer’s patience, taking a long time to get anywhere, and offering only mild chills when it finally arrives.
Pil-Sung Yim (director) / Joon-ho Bong, Pil-Sung Yim (screenplay)
CAST: Duek-mun Choi …. Seo Jae-kyung
Kyeong-ik Kim …. Yang Geun-chan
Hie-sun Park …. Lee Young-min
Kang-ho Song …. Choi Do-hyung
Ji-tae Yu …. Kim Min-jae