Dear Dolphin (환상속의 그대) was one of the big winners at the 14th Jeonju International Film Festival, scoring the CGV Movie COLLAGE Prize which includes 2 weeks of commercial release, a great boon for any independent film. The reasons for the victory are quite clear, as director Kang Jina (강진아) employs some truly lovely visual aesthetics in her exploration life, love and grief while utilising more traditional melodramatic conventions. Interestingly director Kang never lets the film become too ‘dark’ despite such weighty material, and as such it’s popularity with Korean audiences is entirely understandable. Yet Dear Dolphin is not perfect, featuring a haphazard narrative structure that creates distance between the audience and the central protagonists, while the creation of subplots that are later dropped is a source of frustration. However the story does well in examining the illogical sense of grief following the death of a loved one, and is a thought-provoking, attractive film.
Unable to come to terms with the death of his girlfriend Cha-kyeong (Han Ye-ri (한예리), physiotherapist Hyeok-geun (Lee Hee-joon (이희준) develops insomnia. Unable to work or function properly his life begins to fall apart, while his mental stability becomes strained due to hallucinations. His grief and sense of guilt are also shared by Gi-ok (Lee Yeong-jin (이영진), Cha-kyeong’s best friend, who simultaneously hates herself for her involvement in the accident and also for secretly coveting Hyeok-geun. As their grief becomes ever greater, and reality and fantasy become difficult to separate, Gi-ok and Hyeok-geun must learn to overcome their emotional trauma lest it consumes them.
Dear Dolphin excels when dealing with the subject matter of grief, and the variety of forms which it takes. The emotion is a problematic one to portray, yet director Kang succeeds in capturing the different complexity of each protagonist. Hyeok-geun’s internal strife is articulated through his continual self admonishment and his self-imposed alienation, while the insomnia inspired hallucinations of Cha-kyeong reveal his inability to accept her death. Gi-ok meanwhile cannot cope with the loneliness of her best friend’s passing, heightened by her guilt over desiring Hyeok-geun. Both characters blame themselves for not doing something – anything – to change the past, while Cha-kyeong’s family resent them for much the same reason. The emotional complexity of everyone involved is compelling throughout, as each person commits irrational acts without fully understanding why.
To stop the film from sinking beneath the increasingly fraught emotional tension, director Kang employs a non-linear structure that harks back to when the threesome were happy. The technique certainly brings levity to the story, as well as further conveying the sense of loss through the contrast between the past and present. Indeed, the director utilises her wonderful sense of colour and composition during the flashback sequences that feature vibrant warm reds and yellows, in complete opposition to the washed-out palette following Cha-kyeong’s death. Yet it also serves to usurp the character development in the here and now, as plot threads that took time to establish are often dumped only to later reappear, or to never return at all. The confusion that arises as a result of narrative jumping through time frames results in a distancing between the characters and the audience as it becomes difficult to fully engage and empathise with their respective situations. This is ultimately Dear Dolphin‘s downfall, as in a bid to keep the film ‘light’ with traditional melodramatic conventions, the powerful emotional resonance of each character becomes lost.
As empathy becomes increasingly diluted, it therefore falls to the actors to keep the emotional intensity sharp in the present. In this respect it is Lee Yeong-jin who gives the standout performance as Gi-ok, as the actress appears evermore fraught with guilt, stress and grief. The anguish on Gi-ok’s face as she reaches out to Hyeok-geun for emotional and physical support is sincere, while the continual rejection of her advances become heartbreaking as she sinks lower and lower. Lee Hee-joon and Han Ye-ri give competent performances as Hyeok-geun and Cha-kyeong, but they are lacking the chemistry and passion that are sorely required when exploring the death of a loved one. As such the film quickly becomes Gi-ok’s story as it is her emotional distress that is the most fully developed, and is her resolution rather than Hyeok-geun’s fragile mental state that takes precedence.
Luckily director Kang also injects the film with some stunning cinematography in relation to scenes involving Cha-kyeong and Hyeok-geun, particularly when employing the water symbolism that is so inherent to the narrative. The scenes are absolutely gorgeous and appear more like a painting than a film. Ironically the surreal and otherworldly sequences further complicate the narrative, but when scenes are this beautiful it’s hard to complain. Often accompanied by an ethereal soundtrack, the conveyance of water as a source of life, death, and even purgatory are lovely to behold, and it is these scenes that resonate long after the film and provide thought-provoking moments on the nature of loss.
One of the big winners at JIFF 2013, Dear Dolphin is a very attractive film that deals with the issues of love, loss, and grief. Director Kang Jina explores such weighty topics well by constructing the fragility of each protagonist as unique according to their psychology, but the decision to employ non-linear techniques dilutes the emotional intensity of the story. Yet with a great performance by Lee Yeong-jin, as well as some truly beautiful sequences involving potent water symbolism, Dear Dolphin is a thought-provoking film on the nature of life, death, and spirituality.