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“Paju” marks the second effort from Korean writer director Park Chan Ok, following on from her much praised 2002 debut “Jealousy is my Middle Name”. Although this sophomore outing was a good five years in the making, it was certainly worth the wait, having been chosen as the first ever Korean film to open the Rotterdam International Film Festival, and having won the NETPAC Award at Pusan, cementing Park’s growing reputation as one of the country’s most promising helmers.
The film takes place in the titular suburb of Seoul, where homes are being knocked down to make way for new development projects and inhabitants are locked in battles with the police and relocation gangsters. Seo Woo (recently in the amazing “Crush and Blush”) stars as Eun Mo, a young woman who returns home after having been away for some time in an attempt to face up to her feelings for her brother in law Jong Shik (Lee Seon Gyun, “Romantic Island”). Her longings are complicated by the mystery surrounding her sister Eun Soo’s death some years back, which Jong Shik has never been able to fully explain, and which she suspects he might have caused himself.
“Paju” is a film which primes viewers for sadness and tragedy right from its opening scenes of blue, misty and rain swept urban landscapes. Thankfully, this also signals director Park’s artistic intents, and the film is by no means a traditional melodrama or tearjerker. The film’s script and narrative are vaguely ambitious, eschewing the usual flashbacks and actually jumping back and forth through time, often without much warning or indication, and not necessarily in the expected chronological order. This actually works very well, and although the film is quite slow to start, and is at times rather bewildering as to when events are happening, it slowly pulls the viewer in, and by the half way mark is markedly gripping. The central mystery as to the truth behind Eun Soo’s death is well handled, though Park balances it with the more human aspects of the story, and it never really drives the film as such. Things do come together in the final act, though with quiet dignity instead of the usual hysteria and shock revelations, and the tragic, depressing ending certainly fits. The film as a whole is reasonably ambiguous, though not obscure, and is arguably all the better for leaving much left hinted at and unsaid, with many sub plots and minor characters drifting in and out of the story without much explanation.
Unsurprisingly, the film mainly deals with theme of guilt and regrets, though Park neither simply wallows in misery nor chases hackneyed hopes of redemption. The film is first and foremost a humanistic character drama, with multi layered and pleasingly complex relationships between its protagonists. The bond between Eun Mo and Jong Shik takes some time to come to light, progressing through cryptic conversations referring to past events, and this frequently makes the film tense rather than obviously romantic. Despite this, and the fact that it is pretty grim in places, the film is emotional and moving, in a grounded and believable way, far more so than the vast majority of its melodramatic peers. Seo Woo is superb in the lead role as the conflicted and confused Eun Mo, and while Lee Seon Gyun turns in a creditable performance as the tortured Jong Shik, she effectively carries the film and wins the most sympathy.
Visually, the film is quite gorgeous, with Park employing a mixture of rich and washed out colours that nicely compliment its understated emotional highs and lows. Although the film is fairly glossy, it still has a grounded look, and the ruined buildings help to underline its melancholic air. Helped by an unobtrusive soundtrack, it has a determinedly naturalistic, though cinematic feel, with some impressive camera work during the protest scenes. The film’s political dimension also gives it a boost, with its social conscience being worked subtly into the proceedings, mainly through the always controversial issue of people being forced out of their homes by redevelopment projects. This adds yet another layer of depth and gritty authenticity, and further sets the film apart from other character and relationship dramas. There is also a fair amount of sex and nudity, which fits well with the overall adult feel, and is vitally important in depicting the connections between the characters, as well as their flaws and inner torments.
Although “Paju” does not always make for particularly cheerful viewing, it represents a considerable achievement for Park, and finds her maturing into an accomplished and highly talented film maker. Visually impressive and emotionally affecting, it stands head and shoulders above most similarly themed efforts, and is a deeply humanistic and thoughtful piece of cinema.
Chan-ok Park (director) / Chan-ok Park (screenplay)
CAST: Bo Kyung Kim, Han-joon Kim, Ja-yeong Kim, Min-su Kim, Ye-ri Kim, Sun Kyun Lee, Eung-soo No, Jin-su Park, Se-jong Park, Woo Seo, Yi Young Shim