When highly-conservative philosophy professor Yoon (Jo Han-cheol (조한철) suffers a stroke due to overwork and stress, his wife does the best she can to nurse him back to health. Yet when she cannot cope any longer, she enlists the help of quirky caregiver Sookhee (Chae Min-seo (채민서), whose patients all seem to remarkably recover. Sookhee, however, is more than she seems and her techniques vary from kind and sweet to threatening and sexual.
Imagine Mary Poppins as a sexually charged sociopath who take care of conservative, misogynistic stroke sufferers. That is quite possibly the most apt description of Sookhee (숙희), a bizarre film with a huge identity crisis and a large undercurrent of meanness. The mish-mash of an array of generic conventions, as well as Sookhee’s constantly schizophrenic characterisation, make the story an incredibly surreal experience. Writer/director Yang Ji-eun (양지은) doesn’t appear to be sure what kind of film she wants to helm, as the narrative – and characters – veer in all directions without really exploring any. Ironically this is both compelling as well as frustrating, as the odd machinations consistently surprise. Yet beneath all the bizarre goings-on is an ordinate amount of unwarranted, appalling misogyny. Masculine fantasies frequently arise and typically instigate violence. Throughout the film Sookhee is routinely beaten and sexually assaulted by the men in her life adding an acutely nasty dimension to an otherwise jovial film, which is all the more surprising given that director Yang is one of the few female filmmakers presenting her work at JIFF 2014. Sookhee perpetuates the archaic ideology that free-spirited women need to be tamed and dominated by violence and sex.
What director Yang does well lies in her use of colour. Scenes featuring Sookhee are beautifully vibrant and sumptuous, often featured in the countryside far from the realm of men, conveying her liberation from patriarchy alongside pagan, or wiccan, sensibilities. Professor Yoon, in contrast, is located within an absence of colour. The washed-out palette wonderfully conveys his conservatism and strict adherence to the rules of men, bolstered by the repetition of academic and religious iconography. As Sookhee enters Yoon’s world and ‘educates’ him through her odd mix of fear and sexual liberation, his world gradually becomes more colourful as he heals. Yet therein also lies problems, as Yoon’s trajectory is more of a vapid devolution than one of enlightenment. Director Yang is attempting to explore Oedipal issues and gender roles through Sookhee’s maternal and Yoon’s infantile roles, and by reversing old-fashioned patriarchal positions of power and sex. However the message is lost beneath the deluge of oddities and mean-spirited misogyny, alongside the unintentionally humourous overacting.
Sookhee is a peculiar film about a free-spirited caregiver who helps stroke sufferers through a bizarre mix of fear and sex. The tone and themes within the surreal film spiral wildly throughout, creating a huge identity crisis from beginning to end while the undercurrent of needless misogyny casts a dark shadow over proceedings. Writer/director Yang Ji-eun does well in employing colour to convey the sensibilities of the two central protagonists, yet the messages regarding reversal of patriarchal relationship and sexual roles are subsumed beneath utter oddity and meanness.