July 32nd (2010) Movie Review

“July 32nd” is a grim Korean indie drama directed by Jin Seung Hyun and based upon the short story “Full Moon” by acclaimed writer Ko Un. The film really isn’t a very happy affair, dealing with themes of abandonment, revenge, loneliness and prostitution in an even handed and down to earth manner. Having enjoyed a successful run at festivals, screening at Fukuoka and Shanghai back in 2008, the film now arrives on DVD.

The film kicks off in 1987 with a killer called Man Su (Park Eun Soo) taking his 5 year old daughter Rosie out on a job with him, who he is forced to leave with a prostitute in the red light district after being surprised by the police. During the ensuing struggle, he stabs a detective called Jang in the leg, disabling him. His own life ruined, the bitter Jang decides to take revenge, waiting until Man Su is behind bars and then kidnapping Rosie and selling her to a brothel on a remote island. The drama skips forward some years to find Rosie (Seung Hye Rim), now grown up and still working as a prostitute on the island to pay off Jang’s ever increasing debts, hating her father and swearing that she will kill him if they ever meet. A young man (Kim Jung Kyun) helps her to escape to Busan, though they find life there even more difficult, with her health slowly getting worse. Meanwhile, her father is released from prison and sets about trying to find her, with Jang, now a homeless cripple, on his trail and determined to wreck his life further.

It’s pretty clear from early on that “July 32nd” (the title comes from Man Su telling the young Rosie that he will return for her the day after July 31st) is not going to be a barrel of laughs, with director Jin wasting little time in setting up the characters like doomed chess pieces. Thankfully, although unremittingly bleak, the film does not simply heap misery upon misery for the sheer bloody minded sake of it, and has shades of early Kim Ki Duk, in particular “Birdcage Inn” and “Bad Guy”, though without the surrealist touches of his later works. Although the film has a sense of ominous inevitability about it and never seems in danger of going anywhere even remotely happy, it doesn’t play out as expected. Indeed, it never blossoms into the kind of straight revenge drama suggested by the premise, with Rosie and Man Su crossing paths a number of times without recognising her, and the films benefits from eschewing explosive confrontations or artificial emotional catharsis.

The plot does meander a little during the first half, before picking up in the second, with a surprising amount of tension as to what will happen when the two finally come to realise that they are father and daughter, and with gangsters from the island slowly and violently closing in on Rosie. Again, Jin plays against genre type by never pointing any of his broken characters towards redemption or any kind of chance to make up for their many mistakes. Although this makes the film even more harsh and hopeless, it does make for believably grim viewing, with the naturalistic approach giving it an uncomfortably honest air.

Although an indie production, the film looks fairly professional, though thanks to its constant fading to black does at times feel rather like a made for television drama, albeit with added nudity and violence, with Seung Hye Rim and Kim Jung Kyun frequently appearing naked. The film does have a grounded look and some nicely offbeat shot angles, though is a little static, and might have benefitted from a touch of handheld camerawork or dirt on the lens.

On the other hand, a further level of realism would likely have made “July 32nd” even gloomier, and tipped it over into truly depressing viewing. As things stand, the film is a fine slice of indie miserablist cinema, which though harrowing and pessimistic almost to a fault is nevertheless one of the more gripping and painfully human dramas of late.

Jin Seung Hyun (director)
CAST: Park Eun Soo
Kim Jung Kyun
Seong Hye-Rim
Kim Min-Gi

Buy July 32nd on DVD