2010 and 2011 were particularly great years for Korean indie cinema, with lots of very worthwhile productions making it to the screen and showcasing a wealth of upcoming talent. One such outing was “Re-encounter”, from writer director Min Yong Keun, who worked on the gay themed shorts “Boy Meets Boy” and “Just Friends?”, and who provided one of the segments of the sexually charged “One Night Stand” anthology. The film first screened at the Pusan Film Festival, winning notice for its skilful and powerful tackling of an emotionally difficult subject.
The film stars actress Hye Hwa (Yoo Da In, recently in “The Client”) as a young woman called Hye Hwa, who works as a vet’s assistant and spends her spare time rescuing and caring for abandoned dogs. Although seemingly cheerful, Hye Hwa is emotionally scarred from the stillbirth of the baby she fell pregnant with in high school, and the subsequent fleeing of her then boyfriend Han Soo (Yoo Yeon Seok, “Pure Pumpkin Flower”) to Canada. Her life is thrown into turmoil when Han Soo reappears unexpectedly, claiming that their baby did not die, and was given up for adoption by their mothers. Unable to help herself, Hye Hwa goes along with him in trying to track the baby down, leading to tragic consequences.
There’s little doubt that a more mainstream commercial production would have taken a different, far more melodramatic to approach to such material than “Re-encounter”. Indeed, Min Yong Keun goes out of his way to avoid anything too hysterical, and although the film is grim and frequently teary, it’s a deeply restrained and subtle piece of work which keeps much of its emotional content bubbling away beneath the surface. This is especially seen in the character of Hye Hwa, who as a protagonist is remarkably hard to figure out, though purposefully so, part of the films point being to gradually break through the many walls she has erected around herself. Exploring her past and present and charting her relationship with Han Soo, the film works very well as a complex and rewarding character piece, and is both moving and engaging throughout, with Yoo Da In excellent in the role, proving herself a very talented actress. Although it does venture into some fairly grim territory, especially during the last act when the viewer learns more about Han Soo, the film is pleasingly free of wallowing, and is neither depressing simply for the sake of it, nor forcedly bittersweet.
Crucially, Min attains a high level of realism, much of the film taking place in the dirty back alleys and around the ramshackle huts where Hye Hwa looks for stray dogs, representing the societal fringe where she exists. As is often the case with indie productions, the film is filled with symbolism, most of it relating to the abandonment theme or to Hye Hwa being trapped and powerless to move on from her past – markedly seen in the scene where she meets Han Soo again for the first time, her being trapped in a dog cage while trying to set bait. Thankfully, the script and Min’s direction in general are strong enough for the film never to get too mired in meaningfulness, and the film also works very well in purely narrative terms. Without giving too much away, things do get surprisingly tense, with several unexpected turns, and it’s very much to Min’s credit that he manages to balance such a substantial and gripping plot with more lo-fi intellectual concerns.
““Re-encounter” is definitely one of the best Korean indie films of the last year or so, and an impressively human drama in its own right. Bolstered by a strong central performance from Yoo Da In and with Min Yong Keun on great form as both writer and director, it’s another example of the kind of excellent cinema being produced by the country away from more high profile commercial outings.
Min Yong-geun (director) / Min Yong-geun (screenplay)
CAST: Yoo Da-in