Korean indie “Written”, the second outing from writer director Kim Byung Woo is a brain teaser of a film which doesn’t blur the line between fiction and reality, so much as it jumps all over it, before proceeding to erase it completely. Needless to say, the film is one which requires a fair amount of work and commitment from the viewer – not that this should be seen as a bad thing by any means, and Kim thankfully offers plenty of intellectual and philosophical rewards for those prepared to make the effort. Having originally been released back in 2007, premiering at the Pusan Film Festival, it now arrives on DVD, giving a wider audience the chance to scratch their heads and try and figure out exactly what may or may not be going on.
The film opens sensibly enough in generic thriller fashion, with an unfortunate man (played by actor Lee Jin Suk, recently in “Gangster High”) waking up in a filthy room, slumped in a bathtub with a kidney missing. On the wall is scribbled the helpful advice ‘Go to a Hospital’. Wandering the murky corridors of what appears to be some kind of warehouse labyrinth, he meets a woman (actress Kim Bo Young, “The Naked Kitchen”) who claims to be the writer of a film script which he is a character in, with his fate as yet undecided. Confusingly, for both the man and the viewer, this turns out to be true, with the director of the film (Park Jin Soo) and the actor playing him (Lee Sang Hyuk) both appearing, searching for the missing final pages of the script.
“Written” really throws the viewer in at the deep end, and continues to bewilder without many concessions to narrative traditions, and indeed without much mercy. Although the premise of having a fictional protagonist whose life is controlled and threatened by omnipotent figures in the real world is not itself particularly original, Kim uses it for far more than a simple gimmick or plot device. Through it, he provides a fascinating exploration, or perhaps more accurately a reflection, of the artistic process and its chaos, jumping around between different perspectives and creative spaces, all the while progressing through a kind of weird, “Groundhog Day” style repeated sequence of events.
Although this may sound somewhat pretentious, it actually works surprisingly well, and all lofty concerns aside, the film functions admirably as a straight, if bewildering, mystery thriller. By slowly feeding the viewer answers along with his nominal protagonist, Kim manages to generate an effectively oppressive air of Kafkaesque paranoia and fear throughout, piling on the existential angst. While the film is wilfully obtuse, and may well prove too frustrating for many, it does revolve around a set of basically believable and sympathetic characters, and as a result is somewhat grounded rather than being a mere exercise in empty art house pontificating. Challenging the viewer in this manner is a bold move, though Kim just about pulls it off, despite an ending which rather predictably doesn’t really provide any satisfactory answers.
It certainly helps that the film is a visually impressive affair, engaging the eyes right from the very first frame. Kim makes brave use of bold, over saturated colours to create a surreal yet gritty environment that fits well with the film’s themes and artistic aspirations. Filled with fast cuts, shaky camera work and technical flourishes, it is markedly stylised, though at times a little too much so, almost to the point of being rather dizzying. Although the budget was quite obviously low, the limited locations are put to great use, and their theatrical, forced feel adds to the overall sense of claustrophobia.
As should be obvious, “Written” is not a film for everyone, and those seeking a comfortable, standard viewing experience might be better looking elsewhere. However, for those willing to go with the flow and attempt to get their heads around Kim’s oddball journey through an increasingly surreal scenario, it does offer many rewards, and though it doesn’t always make a great deal of sense, it manages to impress and hold the interest.
Kim Byeong-woo (director) / Kim Byeong-woo (screenplay)
CAST: Lee Jin-seok-I, Kim Bo-yeong, Lee Sang-hyeok, Park Jin-soo