Dance Town (댄스 타운), the third installment in a trilogy preceded by Mozart Town (모차르트 타운, 2008) and Animal Town (애니멀 타운, 2009), is an exploration of life in a big city. Screenwriter/director Jeon Kyu-hwan (전규환) is indeed intrigued by the lives of ordinary folk and their daily lives, employing social-realist and humanist stylings akin to directors such as Mike Leigh. However, in his latest take on living in a metropolis, Jeon Kyu-hwan incorporates more political and ideological sensibilities as his central protagonist is a North Korean defector.
Lee Jung-rim (Ra Mi-ran 라미란) and her husband live in Pyongyang, North Korea. As a businessman, her husband regularly visits China and obtains ‘illegal’ items such as face creams and adult films from the south, which they enjoy together. That is, until a neighbour decides to report them to the authorities and the couple’s lives are plunged into danger. It has been arranged for Jung-rim to take a boat that will go to South Korea with her husband to follow shortly after, where they can live their lives afresh. Yet while Jung-rim arrives at the docks, her husband does not. Left with no other choice, she boards the vessel with hopes that her spouse will follow soon, waiting for word when they can be reunited.
Jung-rim’s loneliness and isolation is expertly emphasised by the director, as he continually frames his central protagonist in doorways and large empty rooms that cannot help but draw audience empathy. Additionally, her clothes are incredibly well thought out as the colour often matches the walls which serves to convey her shyness and her chameleonic immigrant status as she blends into the backgrounds. When in the streets, Jung-rim wears a heavily padded ski jacket, her protection from the new environment in which she now resides. The mise-en-scene is vital in conveying and understanding Jung-rim’s character as her gentle nature and shyness is almost crippling, revealing little through dialogue. The one time that Jung-rim relaxes and sheds her (protective) clothing is the time that she is taken horrendous advantage of, and conveys Seoul as a relentless and unforgiving city.
The representation of the metropolis, and the people within it, is bleak and damning. Jung-rim’s caretaker may seem nice and friendly, but she is secretly spying on her charge with CCTV cameras fitted throughout her apartment. At the community centre, Christians are intent on converting Jung-rim despite her clear reservations. As well as their attempts at manipulation, the Christian missionaries also coerce Jung-rim into charity work. This line of work serves to highlight the social injustices in Korean society, as the elderly and handicapped are unable to find accommodation, are divorced due to disability and forgotten. Worse still, police officer Oh Seong-tae (Oh Seong-tae 오성태) may initially seem to be a ‘comrade’, but hides a much darker, brutal side of his personality. While everyone is watching everyone else, the one true innocent of the film is left alone and vulnerable.
Dance Town is a bleak and disturbing character study, one that reveals city life as cruel and barbaric. Furthermore, the film is politically charged as Jung-rim’s life in Pyongyang is represented far better than the supposedly ‘great’ life offered by the capitalist South. However, the problem with Dance Town is that director Jeon Kyu-hwan tries to incorporate too much social commentary within and as such, certain themes that could have been probed further are given marginal fragments of screen time which ultimately detracts from the impact of the film. And yet, Dance Town is so raw, and Jung-rim’s journey so poignant, that the film will stay with audiences long after the finale and encourage those living in cities to ponder their own existence.