Steel Flower (스틸 플라워) – ★★★☆☆

Steel Flower (스틸 플라워)

Steel Flower (스틸 플라워)

Unceremoniously dumped on a highway with only a suitcase of essential items, Ha-dam (Jeong Ha-dam (정하담) is forced to quickly adapt to life on the streets of Busan City. Scared, alone, and vulnerable, the homeless young woman flirts with suicide yet is determined to forge a path out of poverty, taking random service jobs to secure money and food. The locals, however, grow wise to Ha-dam’s situation and treat her abusively, though despite her trials she retains a passion for dance.

The follow-up to last year’s Wild Flowers, director Park Suk-yong’s Steel Flower displays a marked improvement by the socially-conscious writer/helmer. Raw, provocative and featuring a potent feminist message, the indie drama explores the plight of homeless young women with an intensity and verve that often makes for challenging, as well as uncomfortable, viewing.

One of the main issues with director Park’s previous effort Wild Flowers – which also premiered at the Busan Film Festival – was that after beginning in incredibly strong fashion the narrative deviated away from its fascinating trio of homeless girls towards their less interesting male counterparts. The filmmaker has clearly listened to such criticism as Steel Flower is much more focused and concise, centralised entirely on Ha-dam’s plight which allows the story to fiercely examine the abject desperation of her situation. From the moment the drama begins director Park employs kinetic handheld camerawork that infuses the film with a raw organic energy and brisk pacing, invigorated further with some incredible long takes that add palpable realism, the fact of which is often a mixture of fascination and distress as the harsh realities of life on the streets are exposed.

Despite fraught circumstances Ha-dam retains her love of dance

Despite fraught circumstances Ha-dam retains her love of dance

Steel Flower is also boasts some impressive cinematography, particularly in the underdeveloped and poverty stricken regions of Busan City. Disparity in wealth is acutely visualised through the landscapes and structures, as Ha-dam is forced to move away from the affluence of those at ground level, hiking ever higher up mountainous paths to locate a place of security amongst the economically challenged. The urban locations are also captured well as they feature an oppressive sensibility that seems to confine Ha-dam to the shadows, refusing to allow her to progress out of her homelessness and desperation.

The decision to withhold the origins of Ha-dam’s abandonment is a smart move as she symbolises the vulnerability of all young women in Korea, yet the story falters somewhat as she continues to be a mystery for the entirety of the running time. Little is revealed about her personality, or her psychological and emotional torment, save that she is trying to survive in harsh conditions, which makes it problematic when attempting to forge an emotional connection with the character.

Ha-dam’s erratic behaviour, meanwhile, is intriguing as she flits from quiet tenderness to hysterically deranged, conveying a form of mental illness which is unfortunately never really explored nor capitalised on. Her passion for dance is a key example; she is enamoured by tap dancing classes yet displays little talent for it, and as no other hints for her adoration are conveyed – save for the their symbolic purpose that she does, indeed, exist – it feels like a missed opportunity to explore her character in more depth.

While little about Ha-dam is revealed, she ultimately serves as a cipher through which the story can expose a variety of hardships endured by homeless young women and, combined with its strong feminist message, serves to generate important social debates that are sorely needed.

Pushed to breaking point, Ha-dam flirts with death

Pushed to breaking point, Ha-dam flirts with death

Verdict:

Steel Flower is director Park Suk-yong’s second film exploring the hardships of homeless young females, and is a big improvement for the socially-conscious filmmaker. Raw and provocative, the drama boasts effective kinetic camerawork infused with realism. While the mysterious nature of the central protagonist is somewhat problematic, Steel Flower is effective in raising potent social debate.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (20회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Film Festivals 2015 Reviews

Wild Flowers (들꽃) – ★★☆☆☆

Wild Flowers (들꽃)

Wild Flowers (들꽃)

Running away from danger, homeless teenagers Soo-hyang (조수향) and Eun-soo (관은수) encounter a man beating a screaming girl in an abandoned underpass. Furious, the duo rush to the rescue and attack the man, knocking him unconscious and saving youngster Ha-dam (정하담) from harm. The three teens band together and decide to look out for each other as they attempt to survive on the streets of Seoul. However, on their first night together the friends are tricked by a woman’s charity and are abducted by pimps.

Soo-hyang and Ha-dam meet in troubled circumstances

Soo-hyang and Ha-dam meet in troubled circumstances

Wild Flowers (들꽃) begins in exemplary, captivating fashion as director Park Seok-young (박석영) brilliantly captures the dangers of living on the streets with powerful, raw intensity. From the moment the film opens the audience are thrust into the perilous excitement of Soo-hyang and Eun-soo’s lives, as the duo seemingly run for their very lives only to find themselves confronted with further danger. Typically Korean independent films begin slowly and build towards a central theme, yet in adopting an alternative strategy Wild Flowers begins dynamically and is all the stronger for it. The handheld camera adds a potently raw quality that heightens the sense of danger and unpleasantness of young vulnerable girls living homeless in Seoul, particularly when violence and intimidation enter their lives. Yet even in the quiet moments the filming style conveys a tense realism, as when the trio are driven to a motel to begin working as prostitutes, making the waiting in itself an unbearable ordeal.

Eun-soo, as well as her friends, are beaten and forced to dye their hair

Eun-soo, as well as her friends, are beaten and forced to dye their hair

Yet following such an impressive opening Wild Flowers quickly begins to lose momentum. Thankfully the narrative isn’t concerned with depicting scenes of teenage sexual exploitation as the girls are able to escape before the ordeal begins, due to thug Tae-sung’s affections for Soo-hyang. Instead, the film simply follows the trio as they forge a home for themselves in a dilapidated part of Seoul, foraging and stealing. While initially interesting, the story just flounders aimlessly as little of note actually occurs, and is somewhat of a wasted opportunity to explore not only key issues that afflict young female runaways but also as a character study of young women, making the running time of 110 minutes quite unjustifiable.

A further key issue with Wild Flowers is that director Park doesn’t seem to appreciate how compelling and poignant his central protagonists are, as he constantly strives to include tertiary male antagonists into the narrative to the detriment of all involved. By forcefully interjecting tangents involving pimp ‘Uncle’ and his morally conflicted junior Tae-sung – as well as a kindly deaf mute who helps the girls with cash – into the film, the main impetus of the girls attempting to survive and break out of poverty becomes further diluted, with the distraction also resulting in a lack of character and relationship development involving Soo-hyang, Eun-soo and Ha-dam.

Tertiary male characters, such as Tae-sung, add little to the narrative

Tertiary male characters, such as Tae-sung, add little to the narrative

Verdict:

Wild Flowers begins in intense fashion as director Park Seok-young effectively conveys the dangerous ordeals faced by homeless teenage girls in Seoul. Yet after such a grand opening the film rapidly loses momentum as the narrative simply flounders, further enhanced by the unnecessary inclusion of male antagonists that serve as a distraction from the far more compelling central female characters.

★★☆☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews