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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Kim Yeong-ho climbs atop the rail tracks, ready for death

Peppermint Candy (박하사탕) – ★★★★★

Peppermint Candy (박하사탕)

Peppermint Candy (박하사탕)

Peppermint Candy (박하사탕) is an exceptional piece of cinema. Opening the Busan International Film Festival in 1999, it must have been uncomfortably ironic for the audience that such a prestigious Asian festival would feature such a poetically raw dissemination of Korean culture. Directed by auteur Lee Chang-dong (이창동), the film critically examines a twenty year period of Korean history, revisiting pivotal moments through the main protagonist while also psychoanalytically deconstructing his – and by extension, Korean -masculinity. Peppermint Candy is a simply breathtaking exploration of how a person’s life is forged through culture and trauma and, featuring a staggering performance from Seol Kyeong-gu (설경구), is one of great examples of the vibrant socio-cultural power of Korean filmmaking.

In 1999, a man named Kim Yeong-ho (Seol Kyeong-gu) emerges by a riverside where a group of middle aged people are having a picnic. Interestingly, members of the group recognise Yeong-ho and invite him to join them but his erratic behaviour proves too much to bear. Leaving the picnic, Yeong-ho climbs onto train tracks with the intention of suicide, yet just before the train collides he screams, “I want to go back!” Suddenly Yeong-ho begins to revisit key moments from his life – and Korean history – that forged him into the person he has become, including meeting his estranged wife Yang Hong-ja (Kim Yeo-jin (김여진), his career as a police officer, and his first love Yoon Soon-im (Moon So-ri (문소리).

Kim Yeong-ho climbs atop the rail tracks, ready for death

Kim Yeong-ho climbs atop the rail tracks, ready for death

Director Lee Chang-dong has crafted an incredible journey through exploring the life of Yeong-ho, conveying his personal development as inherently tied to the development of Korea over a twenty year period. Initially, Yeong-ho is supremely dislikable and downright weird as he crashes the riverside picnic, behaving terribly towards people who are simply attempting to welcome him. Yet from the moment Yeon-ho steps onto the train tracks, it becomes clear there is a depth to his madness. Over the course of Peppermint Candy director Lee Chang-dong peels back layer upon layer of Yeong-ho’s psychosis in a highly poetic, subtle and symbolic manner, examining how a person’s innocence is twisted by culture and forces beyond control. The train track, for example, is much more than a place for suicide as it comes to represent his path of destiny. As the train moves back in time to revisit Yeong-ho’s past it becomes his timeline, stopping at pivotal moments until the symbolic sound of the train horn conveys that it is time to move on. As such the train and track are ethereal, spiritual beings within Peppermint Candy and are beautifully poignant narrative devices.

 As the train gently takes the audience deeper into Yeong-ho’s history, a great deal of empathy is aroused as his very character is stripped bare. From the initial quick judgement that Yeong-ho is an odd fool, each turning point in his life delicately alters the rash perception to the point where genuine sympathy is evoked from his personal tragedies. When his business suffers as a result of the Asian financial crisis, when his marriage begins to fall apart, when he loses his first love; all have penetrating emotional and psychological impact on Yeong-ho, and it is utterly enthralling to behold the events that molded him into his suicidal state. Director Lee Chang-dong also masterfully ties Yeong-ho’s increasingly fractured state as inherently Korean. As well as the aforementioned financial crisis, Yeong-ho’s career in the police force during the infamous brutality of the 1980s is portrayed, in addition to his role in the 1981 Gwangju Uprising (or rather, massacre).

Yeong-ho revisits his military past, in which he took part in the Gwangju massacre

Yeong-ho revisits his military past, in which he took part in the Gwangju massacre

In each instance, the director examines not only the manner in which Korean people were brutally oppressed during the era but also how men such as Yeong-ho, who is an analogy of all Korean men during this period, were fundamentally changed into abhorrent examples of humanity. Issues such as violence and patriarchal order are interrogated in compelling fashion and conveyed not as features of masculinity, but as cultural constructs that warp the innocence of young males.

Yeong-ho’s journey into the past is also enthralling due to the phenomenal performance of Seol Kyeong-gu. Throughout the entirety of Peppermint Candy the actor is superb in articulating the emotional and psychological state of Yeong-ho with incredible sincerity. From his unhinged suicidal behaviour through to his bitter and violent 30s, from his attempts to rebuild his life following military service through to his innocence as as student, Seol Kyeong-gu is simply amazing. His performance is keenly heartfelt at every stage of Yeong-ho’s life, so much so that his journey of self-discovery lingers long after the film has come to an end. His victories at the Grand Bell Awards and Blue Dragon Awards in 2000 attest to his prowess, and are completely deserved.

Yeong-ho and his first love Soon-im share a tender moment

Yeong-ho and his first love Soon-im share a tender moment

Verdict:

Peppermint Candy is undoubtedly one of the modern classics of Korean cinema, and is an exceptional entry by director Lee Chang-dong. The story is equal parts poetic and subtle as well as raw and compelling, as the emotional and psychological layers of main protagonist Yeong-ho are gradually peeled away. In doing so the director intricately examines the notions of contemporary Korean masculinity, yet it is made even more enthralling through the link with defining moments in Korean history. As such, Peppermint Candy is a journey both personal and national, and coupled with the phenomenal performance of Seol Kyeong-gu, is an absolute must-see.

★★★★★

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