For fifteen years, celebrated author Kim Jeong-seok (Kim Jeong-seok (김정석) has been searching for his missing wife (Jung Han-bi (정한비) following her sudden disappearance. Refusing to admit defeat, the mean-spirited and poor father-figure continues to travel throughout the Korean countryside looking for his long lost spouse, until novel-fan and executive Kim Soy (Kim Soy (김소이) offers help to track her down. As the duo embark on the case, a cabal of wealthy individuals demand Jeong-seok’s help, for they too have missing relatives who vanished in a similar manner. As Jeong-seok and Soy follow the clues across the wilderness, the mystery begins to unravel in a way none could have imagined.
The Avian Kind (조류 인간) is one of those films where audiences will quickly find themselves polarized. For some, the breathtaking cinematography and existential narrative will prove to be a captivating experience; others, meanwhile, will likely find the art-house sensibilities to be too opaque and the story impenetrable. As such, director Shin Youn-shik’s (신연식) fifth film is likely to have limited exposure which is a great shame, as The Avian Kind is a rare breed in the Korean industry.
From the outset, The Avian Kind constructs an enchanting world in which Jeong-seok’s quest occurs. Cinematographer Choi Yong-jin displays incredible prowess throughout, capturing the natural beauty of the Korean countryside in a manner that greatly strengthens the mysterious, supernatural-esque, nature of the story. In conjunction with Mowg’s melodically unnerving musical score, the film exudes a potently eerie sensibility that is both captivating and haunting.
The enigmatic nature of the film is further heightened by director Shin’s use of editing between time periods. While Jeong-seok’s investigation transpires in the present, the tale leading up to his wife’s disappearance fifteen years prior is explored via flashback. In employing the narrative structure in this way the story becomes as compelling as it is cryptic, posing possible answers while generating more questions. Yet rather than being stagnant there is always a sense of momentum to each journey that will ultimately provide answers the mysterious disappearances.
However as The Avian Kind embodies mostly art-house aesthetics, the abstract nature of the story may well be a source of frustration for many. The existential philosophies underpinning the narrative are alluded to yet offer no concrete answers, and audiences expecting otherwise will be in for a disappointment. That is not to say the issues with the film lay solely with the audience; characterisation is a problematic area within the story, as are the generic devices used to propel the story into a finale. Typically in an adventure or road film the protagonists develop and grow on the journey, yet none of the central cast do so. The later attempts to inject tension into the film through incorporating chase sequences akin to the thriller genre is also a misstep, dispelling the impressive atmosphere in what seems to be a bid to satisfy mainstream audiences.
The Avian Kind is a beautifully realised existentialist road film, and due to the art-house aesthetics within the film is likely to polarize audiences. Director Shin Youn-shik has crafted a compelling tale of a man searching for his long lost wife, featuring stunning cinematography of Korea’s natural countryside alongside a melodically unnerving score that serve to generate an enchanting experience. While not for everyone, The Avian Kind is a rare breed of film in the Korean cinema industry and an absorbing exploration on the nature of contemporary identity.