“Mai Ratima” marks the feature length debut directorial of acclaimed Korean actor Yoo Ji Tae, known for his turns in the likes of “Oldboy”, “Midnight FM” and more. Having dabbled in short productions earlier in his career, the film sees him taking on a serious subject for his first proper outing behind the camera, charting the many difficulties faced by immigrants and the poor in modern Korea. It’s an interesting choice for the actor, as rather than a commercially friendly proposition, the film is a tough, gritty affair that pulls few punches in its depiction of life on the streets, which premiered at the 2012 Busan Film Festival and played at the London Korean Film Festival in 2013.
The title refers to Mai Ratima, a 22 year old Thai woman (first time actress Park Ji Soo), living in Korea as a mail order bride bought for a mentally challenged husband (Lee Joon Hyuk). Her life is far from pleasant, being emotionally abused by his family, and having to endure the sexual advances of his brother, though she has little choice but to put up with the suffering, being reliant upon them for her visa. One day she is rescued by Soo Young (Bae Soo Bin, “26 Years”) a young man who is living on the streets and struggling to get by, and the two flee the immigration authorities and head for Seoul. Unfortunately, things there are even tougher, and they end up sleeping in abandoned properties and trying a variety of methods to scrape by. Despite this, they manage a happiness of sorts, finding solace in each other. This is shattered when Soo Young is seduced by an older hostess (So Yoo Jin, “Golden Fish”) at the bar where he works, and he ditches Mai to become her kept man, her life spiralling out of control as a result.
Unsurprisingly, “Mai Ratima” isn’t exactly a fun film, and Yoo Ji Tae makes sure that he leaves the viewer in no doubt as to the hardships faced by outsider classes in Korean today. Though the subject matter of immigrants and those on the poverty line has been covered before, the film really goes for an emotional shot to the gut – thankfully without too much in the way of melodrama or cheap tears. There’s a definite ambition to the film, which attempts to focus not only on the relationship between the two main characters, but on cultural clashes, racism and discrimination, and on the socio-economic problems of the country, and the result is a genuine sense of passionate social consciousness. As a result, the film is more than just a simple misery-fest, and it comes across like Yoo really cares about both his subject matter and characters – though viewers expecting happiness and smiles should probably be warned off.
For a relatively inexperienced director, Yoo does a fairly good job, for the most part aiming for a naturalistic, almost documentary-style feel which sits comfortably with the harsh material. The film has a gritty look which does a good job of reflecting the declining fates and experiences of the characters, and it’s one of the few movies which allows the cast to actually end up looking less than glossy. Unfortunately, at the same time, he also shows a tendency to throw in the odd moment of visual flashiness or needlessly stylish editing, with a few scenes really feeling out of place, as does the occasionally manipulative and inappropriate soundtrack. While this isn’t enough to truly undermine the film’s ambitions, it would have benefitted from a bit more focus, as well as some trimming during a rather overlong and meandering middle act.
Distracting from these shortcomings is the amazing performance from Park Ji Soo, who is utterly convincing in the lead role, carrying the film and pulling the viewer into her plight. While some of her dialogue might feel a little awkward, her multi-layered turn and complex character development stands as one of the best shows from an actress in a Korean production this year, and this gives the film a real emotional anchor. Bae Soo Bin is also great, Soo Young emerging as an equally believable figure, shifting from a somewhat heroic figure to a self-aware and self-torturing betrayer. Together they lift the film up several notches, adding considerable substance and sympathy – if at the same time making it rather painful to watch.
Still, “Mai Ratima” is undeniably compelling, and despite a few issues here and there is a very solid feature debut for Yoo Ji Tae. Dealing with a tough subject matter in an uncompromising manner and bolstered by some impressive acting in the lead roles, it’s a worthwhile and thoughtful look at life on the fringe of Korean society.
Ji-tae Yu (director) / Im Sun-ae (screenplay)
CAST: Soo-bin Bae … Soo-young
Park Ji-soo … Mai Ratima
Kyung-Ik Kim … Sang-rim
Se-Won Ko … Joon
Kim Kyung … Sang-rim
Jun-hyuk Lee … Sang-pil