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“The Weight” is that rare thing, a truly unique and challenging piece of cinema that blurs the line between film and art. The fifth feature from Jeon Kyu Hwan, known for his Berlinale-featured works “Varanasi” and “Dance Town”, the provocative film marries extreme and graphic content with melancholic philosophising, following Kim Ki Duk regular Cho Jae Hyun (“Moebius”, “Bad Guy”) as a hunchbacked mortician as he goes about his dreary life. The film has enjoyed great success at international festivals, most notably winning the Queer Lion Award at the 69th Venice International Film Festival (the first Korean film to do so), as well as picking up various prizes at Fantasporto, Tallinn and the International Film Festival of India.
Cho Jae Hyun plays Jung, a hunchback who works in a morgue taking care of the corpses before they make their final journey. Despite being afflicted with advanced tuberculosis and arthritis, he takes great pride in his work, and treats the bodies with loving care, imagining them as friends and models for his painting. His life having been full of suffering since childhood, Jung keeps largely to himself, though is tormented by his younger transgender brother (actress Park Ji Ah, another Kim Ki Duk collaborator, having featured in “Breath”, “Dream” and others), who desperately wants to become a woman.
There really isn’t anything quite like “The Weight”, a fact which immediately means that it’ll be embraced by some audiences and rejected by others. This is understandable, as it’s certainly not a film for everyone, either in terms of its content, themes or artistic leanings. This is true outsider cinema, taking the fairy tale loners of Tim Burton to an extreme degree, every character in the film being a reject for one reason or another, living dark and tortured lives on the fringes of society and existing in their own, oddly-constructed worlds. Though the film is utterly morbid and death-obsessed, it’s at the same time incredibly, often beautifully poetic, Jeon Kyu Hwan finding grace, tenderness and wonder in the shadows. For those in tune with its ponderings, the film is moving and elegantly sad, Cho Jae Hyun superb in the lead and turning in a magically subtle and emotional performance.
Though it deals with a variety of issues and topics, it’s essentially a film about love, loneliness and acceptance, albeit one which eschews traditional narrative techniques. There is a plot of sorts, though for the most part Jeon sticks to quietly following Jung as he goes about his daily business, occasionally drifting off to capture anecdotal and seemingly random subplots involving the other people whose paths he crosses. Despite flashbacks to his painful childhood, having been adopted by a wicked stepmother type and forced to work for her making dresses in a grimy attic room, very little is spelled out or explained, and it’s not likely to be a film which sits too easily with those expecting catharsis or easy answers, requiring patience and imagination on the part of the viewer throughout. Jeon’s direction is fantastically artistic, and he complements the off-kilter narrative with some gorgeously surreal visuals, often turning the sombre and sorrowful morgue into something bleakly magical.
It’s also a very graphic film, and this might similarly prove a problem for some, as it includes graphic gore, nudity and sex of many different varieties, most notably necrophilia. However, though hard going at times, it’s far from being a piece of taboo baiting shock cinema, Jeon depicting even the harshest scenes with a sense of weird delicateness and even sadness. The film never loses sight of the humanity of even its most grotesque characters as a result, and though it does at times display a coffin-black streak of humour, it treats all of them with a matter of fact air of respect and without judgement, much like Jung himself.
There’s a great deal here to be relished and enjoyed by fans of the bizarre, and “The Weight” stands as one of the most memorable and exquisitely strange Korean indies of recent years. Jeon Kyu Hwan deserves nothing but praise for such a bold, confident piece of decidedly non-commercial cinema, and hopefully it’s a film which will find the appreciative audience that it clearly deserves.
Jeon Kyu-hwan (director) / Jeon Kyu-hwan (screenplay)
CAST: Jo Jae-hyeon … Mr. Jeong
Park Ji-ah … Peer