I struck gold immediately with my first viewing at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, Ounie Lecomte’s beautifully understated debut, A Brand New Life (Yeo-haeng-ja). (See preview here.) I can see audiences responding positively to this (I’m hoping for wider distribution), for its unfussy plainness is easy to like – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Not that the subject matter isn’t challenging: the setting is a Korean girls’ orphanage in 1975, and our protagonist is a nine-year old girl named Jin-hee (played by the remarkable Kim Sae-ron) whose father has suddenly, tragically, put her up for adoption overseas. Her only response for a good part of the film is a stunned, withdrawn silence. It’s not just out of the depths of her grief; her silence mirrors her incomprehension, and it’s crucial that we in the audience don’t understand either. Watch for the scene with a doctor when we realize what Jin-hee does understand; it’ll break your heart.
In an odd sense it’s almost easier to think of the dozen other things – superfluous eccentric minor characters, emotional outbursts, answers – which a less disciplined filmmaker could have gotten terribly wrong. (I’ve always thought that contemporary Hollywood directors, for instance, hardly ever get kids right; they’re almost always these little hyperarticulate monsters.) Simply adding a little too dark or light to the narrative – nuns who are too strict, for instance, or a protagonist that was too adorable – would have irredeemably ruined the film’s delicate emotional palette. A Brand New Life isn’t perfect, of course: there’s a tiny, tiny misstep (involving a song, whose lyrics are too blatant for a film with such restraint), and there’s this nagging feeling that the scenes in the orphanage are a little too well scrubbed, but that’s just me being picky.
There’s an unsentimental spareness in A Brand New Life that throws into greater relief the barely articulated emotional devastation at the heart of the film. I can’t describe my favorite scene, but suffice it to say that it’s wordless, and that it’s unexpected, and that it comes at the absolute perfect moment in the narrative, and that it’ll break your heart again.
It just so happens (though maybe it’s a more common Korean name than I think), there’s also a protagonist named Jin-hee in the next film I saw; she’s a woman who has just abandoned her fellow factory workers on a hunger strike, in Whang Cheol-mean’s Moscow, a well-observed but unfocused psychological portrait of contemporary South Korea. (The other woman – Moscow is essentially a two-hander – is an office secretary named Ye-won.) They reunite, and for a short stretch they’re transformed into the two giggling schoolgirls and amateur theater actors they once were, albeit fueled by rather frightening quantities of beer and soju like characters from a Hong Sang-soo film. They’re momentarily revivified, distracted from their lives of desperation (one quiet, the other loud), delighted to be in each other’s presence, but this sororal bliss goes predictably but slowly (way too slowly) south, as Jin-hee takes over Ye-won’s apartment and life. The two progressively become irritants to each other – and to myself, largely because the film gestures toward greater political relevance, but never quite escapes the suffocating confines of Ye-won’s flat. “You’ve changed,” they say in apparent shock to each other, and their bewildered observations are perhaps meant to represent some sort of drift in political and philosophical priorities within this generation of Korean twenty-somethings. But how could they not have changed, really, since they last saw each other all the way back in junior high? Watch for the scene when Jin-hee delivers her inevitable speech on capitalist hypocrisy – while laughing hysterically, and rolling back and forth on a bed all throughout. House guests have been kicked out for much less.
A Brand New Life is playing at the Clay on May 2 and at the Kabuki on May 4; Moscow has one last screening at the PFA on May 6.