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Hard hitting Korean indie drama “Elbowroom” marks a bold debut for director Ham Kyoung Rok, following the trials and tribulations of a young cerebral palsy suffering woman. With real life cerebral palsy actress Park Ji Won in the lead, the film is a fascinating and challenging affair, uncompromisingly following her struggle to live and love despite the many problems brought about by her condition. The film emerged as one of the most critically acclaimed Korean indies of 2010, playing at the Jeonju International Film Festival and winning the Butterfly Award as the Cinema Digital Seoul Film Festival, as well as playing overseas at Rotterdam and elsewhere.
Park Ji Won plays Su Hee, abandoned as a child and living in a Christian institution for the disabled where she spends her time helping the staff to take care of the other inhabitants. Unbeknownst to the authorities, Su Hee is in a relationship with another man from the institution, keeping their affair secret and meeting him in an old vacant room. Things become complicated when she falls pregnant, and fearing that she may have been raped, the reverend who runs the home arranges to have her moved to a different institution.
“Elbowroom” puts its cards on the table right from the beginning, opening with a graphic sex scene between Su Hee and her boyfriend. At once awkward and intimate, the scene immediately makes it clear that Ham is taking a determinedly naturalistic approach, so much so that the film does frequently resemble a documentary. With very little in the way of traditional narrative devices or concessions to storytelling, the film plays out almost entirely from Su Hee’s point of view, leaving many things only hinted at or half communicated. Although this does make the film a little obtuse and hard to follow at times, it’s a very effective means of putting the viewer in her shoes, and any frustration felt only echoes her own struggles, much being left open to interpretation. This works well, and sets the film apart from its closest point of comparison, Lee Chang Dong’s stunning, award winning 2002 outing “Oasis”, being even more grounded and engaging in a very different manner.
The film also impresses through its powerfully even handed depiction of Su Hee, who is never simply white washed into being either an unrealistically angelic person or lazily defined by her condition, Ham showing her acting cruelly towards other patients and treating them with the same disdain that the staff frequently do. Park Ji Won is pretty amazing in the lead, with an utterly fearless performance that sees her convincing and holding the interest throughout, getting through some particularly difficult material and sexual content with a rare believability. Appearing in virtually every scene, she dominates the film, and this to an extent is the film’s only real fault, in so much as it leaves no room for any other characters or context.
Still, this is clearly by design, and “Elbowroom” is confident, brave debut by Ham Kyoung Rok, and definitely marks the helmer as a talent to watch in the future. Essentially a tough, unflinching story about a young woman struggling to better her situation, it’s one of the most effective and involving films to tackle this kind of subject matter for some time, and would certainly make for a fitting and thought-provoking double bill with “Oasis”.
Kyoung-Rock Ham (director) / Kyoung-Rock Ham (screenplay)
CAST: Seok-yeon Hong