Tae-hee dreams of exploring the world beyond the trappings of her existence

Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해) – ★★★★☆

Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해)

Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해)

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.

The friends reunite for Hae-joo's 20th birthday

The friends reunite for Hae-joo’s 20th birthday

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.

Tae-hee dreams of exploring the world beyond the trappings of her existence

Tae-hee dreams of exploring the world beyond the trappings of her existence

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.

Ji-young's poverty-stricken life is difficult to endure

Ji-young’s poverty-stricken life is difficult to endure

Verdict:

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.

★★★★☆

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Camaraderie initially proves difficult

As One (코리아) – ★★☆☆☆

As One (코리아)

As One (코리아)

The divide across the Korean peninsula has provided history with some of the most fascinating and horrifying accounts of human endeavour. Both the North and the South have flip-flopped between moments of sheer brutality against each other yet have also achieved poignant moments of recompense. While terrorist attacks and threats grab headlines, the strong underlying sense of nationality and ‘brother/sisterhood’ has spurred other stories of joint enterprise, family reunification and co-op sporting events that are smaller and more intimate in nature, hinting at the potential future for a united people; they are, after all, Korean.

One such tale of triumph over (ideological) adversity was obtained during the 1991 International Table Tennis Championships in Chiba City, Japan, where South Korean and North Korean table tennis players partnered to compete against the rest of the world. Brought to celluloid by director Moon Hyeon-seong (문현성), As One (코리아) flirts dangerously close with being an average TV movie for the majority of its’ running time yet manages to become an engaging and effective sports drama in the final act.

Facing off in the semi-finals during the 1990 Asian games, South Korean table tennis player Hyeon Jeong-hwa (Ha Ji-won 하지원) confronts her Northern rival Lee Boon-hee (Bae Doona 배두나), both determined to win not only for themselves but for the pride of their respective countries. Narrowly defeating her opponent, Jeong-hwa moves on to the finals but is bested by the Chinese champion (Kim Jae-hwa (김재화), nicknamed ‘The Great Wall’. As the teams prepare themselves for the 1991 Championships in Chiba City, the governments of the North and South make a surprising statement – they will combine their athletes to create a ‘Unified Korea’ team. Forced to play alongside each other, Jeong-hwa and Boon-hee must train to overcome the ideological differences between them and defeat their Chinese rivals once and for all.

The champions from the North and South unwillingly join forces

The champions from the North and South unwillingly join forces

Contemporary Korean films have a reputation for being remarkably even-handed in their representation of Northern protagonists, and As One is no exception. In fact, it’s largely thanks to the balanced approach and ideological banter that the film continues to be compelling during the incredibly lackluster first and second acts. For every quip about human rights comes a retort regarding misogyny; for every representation of stoic obedience is a portrayal of thoughtless misbehaviour. Interestingly it is the Northern athletes, led by Boon-hee, who are the most sympathetic and accommodating protagonists, while those from the South are often rude, aggressive and stubborn, as exemplified by Jeong-hwa. Such a concoction of characters offer predictable pleasures, but are entertaining nonetheless.

However the contrivances of the narrative appear all too frequently and reduce the athletes into one-dimensional caricatures often found in Korean TV dramas – yet without the possibility for development – with only Jeong-hwa and Boon-hee narrowly escaping. A true story such as this means the finale is inevitably predictable, yet the decision to include a supporting cast of stereotypes with stereotypical scenarios is perplexing and detracts from the overall enjoyment. Also halting the engagement of the audience is the soundtrack, which rarely naturally enters the film. With the exception of the final act, the music is continually a distraction and is often disjointed from prior scenes.

Luckily As One manages to redeem itself during the last moments as the final matches of the tournament are thrilling. Director Moon Hyeon-seong (문현성) makes wonderful use of editing and slow-motion techniques to deliver exciting and suspense-filled moments that are riveting and adrenaline-inducing. Strangely he constructs the penultimate match as more thrilling than the final itself, with Yoo Sun-bok’s (Han Ye-ri (한예리) underdog tale an incredibly compelling part of the film, yet also employs enough different filmic techniques to make the final a powerfully emotive viewing experience. The trials faced during the final also allows for the introduction of melodrama which is wonderfully capitalized on as the two teams are forced to part ways. It is here that the acting prowess of the two talented lead actresses finally appears as their parting is both poignantly sincere and heart-wrenching, exhibiting a quality that is a testament to how important the event was for all involved.

Camaraderie initially proves difficult

Camaraderie initially proves difficult

Much has been reported regarding Ha Ji-won’s table tennis training by the very champion she portrays, and how her skill level potentially rivals world class athletes. Sadly, due to the rapid editing and stylization, the actress’ skill level does not fully translate into film. That said, Ha Ji-won’s passionate, determined and stubborn performance is articulated well throughout As One with her reluctance to accept her long-term rivals as partners convincing. The characterization often gives her little room to manoeuvre, however during the final act Ha Ji-won is utterly enthralling as she bids farewell to her close friend as her evolving level of grief portrays incredible emotional turmoil.

Bae Doo-na shares a similar fate as Boon-hee, who gives a more stoic-yet-understanding performance and as such is the more endearing protagonist. Her weight loss, in attempting to portray the same physique as the real Boon-hee, is quite a shocking visual as her thin frame conveys a frailty and tenderness not ascribed to others. Bae Doo-na’s physical dedication also adds potency to the trials she endures throughout the narrative, while her level-headed and thoughtful acting style present a mature and contemplative counter to Ha Ji-won. Due to Bae Doo-na’s performance the final parting conveys penetrating sincerity, making it virtually impossible not to be moved emotionally.

Out of all the supporting cast only one actress rises above the stereotypical roles bestowed upon them – Han Ye-ri. Her turn as anxious novice Yoo Sun-bok is entertaining and poignant, particularly during the penultimate game. Unfortunately her tale is somewhat faded into the backgrounded as team dynamics and political tension receive focus, yet Han Ye-ri gives a highly capable performance as the underdog achiever.

Jeong-hwa and Boon-hee achieve the unthinkable on and off the court

Jeong-hwa and Boon-hee achieve the unthinkable on and off the court

Verdict:

Thanks to the true story on which it’s based, As One has plenty of potential for an incredible sports drama yet only manages to partially capitalise on the events that unfolded. While the ideological differences are balanced and entertaining, and the final matches are thrilling and exciting, the choice to fill the narrative with one-dimensional stereotypes and scenarios is detrimental to the film overall. That said, the strength of what transpired is moving and will undoubtedly remind audiences of the power of sports in uniting disparate people, and will certainly hold particular resonance for those of Korean descent.

★★☆☆☆

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