The voices of young women are often ignored in mainstream cinema. Those that do appear tend to focus on frivolity, particularly consumerism where the characters purchase the latest fashions often in the attempt to catch the attention of a love interest. Such latent sexism is wonderfully rejected in director Jeong Jae-eun’s (정재은) indie drama Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해), a refreshing drama about five friends who increasingly grow apart after high school. The film had a very successful festival run following its debut at the 2001 Busan International Film Festival, appearing at Berlin and Rotterdam amongst others, and launched the careers of the principal cast, notably Bae Doo-na who went on to star in several high profile productions such as Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Hollywood movie Cloud Atlas.
Following graduation from high school, five friends from the port city of Incheon who were previously extremely close begin to drift apart. Shin Hae-joo (Lee Yo-won (이요원) lives in Seoul working hard to achieve a career, becoming driven by appearance and success. Yoo Tae-hee (Bae Doo-na (배두나) works for her father’s business for free, struggling to find her own identity and ambitions. Seo Ji-young (Ok Ji-yeong (옥지영) is an aspiring textile artist, yet her poverty-stricken lifestyle has left her with little prospects. Finally, twins On-jo (Lee Eun-Ju (이은주) and Bi-ryu (Lee Eun-Sil (이은실) simply attempt to get by, making cheap jewelry to be sold at market. As Tae-hee works hard to keep the bonds of friendship strong, events occur that profoundly change the young women and take them all in different directions resulting in the passing of a pet cat between them.
Take Care of My Cat is an intelligent character-driven film, one that eschews the trappings of melodramatic story-lines so often ascribed to women’s roles in cinema. Director Jeong, who also takes writing duties, instead opts for more realism, conveying the struggles of young women fresh from high school, struggling to succeed in the highly competitive society. With each protagonist director Jeong highlights and interrogates particular features of Korean culture, balancing the social critique between them while simultaneously conveying how such forces shape them into different women. Hae-joo – wonderfully brought to life by actress Lee Yo-won – must contend with the extreme diligence of the employment sector in Seoul, constantly striving to be ‘better’ and prompting an arrogance and selfishness her friends are unaccustomed to. Meanwhile Tae-hee is forced to endure the misogyny within Korean culture as exemplified by her father who passes tips on how to be a ‘real man’ to his son. With Ji-young, her poverty forces limitations on her creativity and forces her outside the margins of society. In each case, director Jeong explores the notions of female identity and its construction with skill and insight, organically debating them within the narrative as the quintet of friends observe the change the personalities and the distance generated amongst them.
In this regard it is Tae-hee who, as the central figure who arranges meetings, becomes the heart of the film and the window through whom the audience identifies most. As Tae-hee attempts to bring the group closer it becomes clear she’s fighting an uphill battle, and her observances reflect the audience’s own. Bae Doona brings a wonderful and nature grace to the role, both endearing and sincere, conveying a young woman yearning for identity and ambition that always seem just out of reach. She is the person with whom young people can relate the most, someone who wants independence and individuality yet is trapped by the culture that surrounds her.
The titular cat also functions as pertinent and insightful metaphor for female identity. As director Jeong has often stated in interviews, cats are fussy and independent, don’t listen, and leave home whenever they wish. As the cat is passed between the friends it becomes symbolic in inspiring the owner to yearn for more, to become increasingly frustrated with her existence as it stands. As Koreans are traditionally uneasy with cats, the director seems to be suggesting that Korean culture struggles with the notion of female identity and independence. Director Jeong emphasises such traits through each of the protagonists, especially Tae-hee and Ji-young by exploring their unhappiness and desire for change. The narrative is quite unbalanced in regards to twins On-jo and Bi-ryu however, and their inclusion is underdeveloped and arguably unnecessary. They serve little function throughout, except to sell cheap home-made accessories to other women, again tying into the debate of physical attractiveness women are expected to partake in.
Yet Take Care of My Cat is not all deep metaphor and social debate, as the film makes effective use of lighting techniques, an otherworldly electronic soundtrack, and text messaging/typing graphics to give the film a distinctly ‘cool’ edge. These features combine incredibly well and lend the film something of a ‘cult’ vibe, and has clearly served as an inspiration to later films who have employed such techniques.
Take Care of My Cat is a wonderfully charismatic film that provides young women with a voice that’s sorely lacking in contemporary cinema. By eschewing notions of consumerism and melodrama, writer/director Jeong Jae-eun instead focuses on female identity and its construction with skill and insight. Furthermore the electronic soundtrack, amongst other techniques, make it something of a cult film, as well as an intelligent, profound offering in the debate of womanhood in modern Korean society.