Friday, April 6, 2012

Cinema On The Park Review: Paju (Park Chan-Ok)

Paju, a 2009 South Korean film directed by Park Chan-Ok, is a challenging, but richly rewarding drama, chronicling the complex relation between a teenage schoolgirl and the husband of her older sister, over an eight year period. That is detailing the story in the simplest terms possible (and I will go into more detail later) and explaining it in that way feels like it is misleading. The film does not go to the places suggested by this synopsis, but it is full of surprises and effective as both a study of character and of the titular town (a conflict-riddled site of proposed development existing close to the North/South Korean border).

Paju’s story is nuanced, densely layered and never fails to be involving, and is aided by some strong characters and excellent performances. The way the characters are introduced and either feature at the centre of the story or are slightly sidelined, is very carefully considered by Chan-Ok. An example of this is apparent in the film’s first two sequences. We are initially introduced to a beautiful young woman, Choi Eun-mo (Seo Woo), riding in a taxi. It seems to be the foggy early hours of the morning and she is being driven into Paju. Who she is and the reasons she is entering Paju is unknown to us at this time. Before it is explained the film then jumps back eight years, and shifts the focus to a man in his mid 30’s, Joong-shik (Lee Sun-Gyun). While these two will share the screen for most of the film, at this point we aren’t sure whose story we are going to follow.

We soon discover that Joong-shik is Choi Eun-mo’s teacher and married to her older sister, Eun-soo (Shim Lee-Yeong). More is revealed about the complex relationship between these characters; including the strained marriage between Joong-shik and Eun-soo due to Joong-shik’s inability to commit to her sexually, Eun-mo’s displeasure at her teacher’s presence in her home and the sisters' continued struggle to maintain and keep the apartment building left for them by their parents. The film takes many dramatic turns, chronicling the repercussions of Eun-soo’s tragic death from a gas explosion and Joong-shik taking on the role of Euno-mo’s guardian, and his leadership of an anti-demolition group protesting the proposed reconstruction of the town. All of these subplots are effectively tied into the central story - the coming-of-age of a teenager, faced with the loss of her sister and trying to deal with her suppressed feelings for Joong-shik while coming to terms with his own. As her own life takes on tumultuous new turns, Paju’s, and in extension the South, does too.

The radical anti-demolition group are trying to cling to a part of their lives, the homes they have lived in for long periods of time, with Eun-mo, unsure what really happened to her sister – she left town on the same day and Joong-shik told her that she had died from a hit-and-run - clinging to her sister’s memory. But, as it is revealed, no one knows the whole truth. Eun-mo fears it was a gas explosion but has no idea of her involvement (though you sense she feels it). Joong-shik finds the source of the explosion, but because of his affections for Eun-mo, is confused by the evidence. Depending on how one interprets these events; the film has the potential to be profoundly moving. For me, it was.

The film jumps between different chapters over an 8-year eclipsing period, never presenting the events in chronological order, but posing questions to the audience and then filling in the gaps later. It is consistently engrossing, and while the unconventional narrative structure has come under scrutiny from detractors, I think it is decipherable, but a narrative that requires continued attention and perseverance to work with the layers of the film, which leave a lot up to personal interpretation.

Filmmakers should be trying to continuously test the boundaries of cinema, and I applaud Park Chan-Ok for purposefully offering up an intelligently composed and thought-provoking drama. From my minimal understanding (so far) of Korean cinema, this is a bold endeavour, particularly for a female Korean director, who has decided to make an arthouse drama about complex relationships in an era where the blockbuster and the action film are the most popular genres in Korean cinema. Telling this riveting tale in such a way not only keeps a viewer alert, but also allows the screenplay to cover a rich array of themes and layer these interesting characters with compelling subplots without ever feeling pedestrian.

DOP Kim Woo-Hyung beautifully photographs Paju. The night sequences, often solely illuminated by a street lamp or neon sign, are particularly stunning, and it contains one extraordinary long tracking shot. There is also some effective use of the hand-held camera in the interior dialogue sequences. Paju is elegantly scored; not overdone, but extremely effective at capturing the mood when utilized. It requires a viewer’s strict attention, patience and willingness to interpret the images. I intend to give it a re-watch in the future, but I'll admit, there was a brief stretch where I was a little confused. As more information about these characters and their story is revealed, it all begins to make more sense, and I embraced the challenging mode of storytelling. 

Overall, Paju is a very powerful film full of emotional intensity, richly crafted characters, exceptional performances, memorable imagery and a gritty sense of realism both in the depiction of modern femininity and of the politics dividing North and South Korea. This is easily one of the most memorable film experiences of the year so far, and Park Chan-Ok is certainly an exciting discovery.

My Rating: ★★★★1/2 (A-)