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“Scars” sees indie director Lim Woo Seong following his impressive and much praised debut “Vegetarian” with another dark exploration of the female psyche in modern Korea. The film has the writer director again drawing upon the works of author Han Gang, this time adapting her short story “Baby Buddha”, with actress Park So Yeon (“Winter Butterfly”) taking on the tough lead role of a troubled woman struggling to come to terms with her life. As with “Vegetarian” the film did well for Lim on the festival circuit, screening at San Sebastian in the New Directors category.
Park So Yeon plays Seon Hee, an illustrator of children’s books who spends most of her days sitting at home waiting for the return of her seemingly perfect news anchor husband Sang Hyub (Jung Hee Tae, “Don’t Look Back”). Life with the exacting, perfectionist man is not easy, and Seon Hee is haunted by strange and disturbing dreams of the face of a child Buddha in a muddy cave. After it turns out that Sang Hyub has been having an affair with a young cellist, past wounds return to the surface, secrets are revealed and Seon Hee is forced to confront the truth about herself and the bond which has held them together.
“Scars” is in many ways quite similar to “Vegetarian”, with Lim Woo Seong and Han Gang continuing to delve into many of the same themes of guilt and repression, and the film again has somewhat of an air of Kim Ki Duk. The film is very much an art house affair, with what is essentially a fairly simple tale (in narrative terms at least) boldly deconstructed, the script leaping between Seon Hee’s present day problems, memories from her childhood, her relationship with her mother, scenes from various stages of her marriage to Sang Hyub, and her dreams and visions. All of this is very skilfully done, and the film is immaculately pulled together thanks to some excellent editing and a thoughtful cinematic architecture that gradually half-reveals layers of detail, giving rise to a compelling and powerful depiction of a woman trying to know herself.
Park So Yeon is superb in the lead, taking on a very difficult and ambiguous character who for most of the running time comes across as being cold and emotionally distant. Although by his own admission the film is very much open to interpretation and certainly doesn’t come with answers, Lim does an excellent job of subtly pulling the viewer into Seon Hee’s world and life. Through her he explores the different motivations there can be for love, in this case seeming to be suggesting an almost maternal kind of bond, driven by a psychologically installed need to care, and the film’s central relationship is a fascinating and deep one which plays out in unexpected fashion.
The film also works very well on a more basic level, its story and the question as to why Seon Hee is with Sang Hyub in the first place making for a great deal of tension. Despite its fractured narrative and enigmatic meaningfulness, Lim never pushes things too far, and the film avoids being too obtuse or pretentious. It also helps that the film clocks in at just 65 minutes and moves along at a fast pace, and though it leaves much unsaid, it works well on its own terms. Unsurprisingly, the film does venture into some fairly dark territory and frequently makes for tough viewing. There’s a fair amount of sex along the way, and it’s certainly an adult piece of cinema, though not really one for viewers looking for shock value or anything exploitative, most of its discomfort being emotional and psychological.
“Scars” certainly isn’t the most straightforward of films, though for viewers willing to make the effort, it’s a rich and illuminating, if at times grim experience. Lim Woo Seong is an extremely talented writer and director, and has quickly proved himself one of the most interesting new film makers in Korean cinema.
Lim Woo-seong (director) / Lim Woo-seong (screenplay)
CAST: Park So-yeon