Snowy Road (눈길) – ★★★☆☆

Snowy Road (눈길)

Snowy Road (눈길)

During the Japanese occupation of Korea, Yeong-ae (Kim Sae-ron (김새론), the arrogant daughter of a rich man in the village, studies hard to learn the language of the hostile force and be accepted within the ranks. Poverty-stricken Jong-boon (Kim Hyang-ki (김향기), meanwhile, must contend herself with menial chores until the possibility of marrying out of hardship arises. Yet when the Japanese forces come looking for girls to be ‘comfort women’ – or rather, sexual slaves – financial status does not enter consideration and both youngsters are abducted into a life of horrific servitude.

In the present day Jong-boon (Kim Yeong-ok (김영옥), now an elderly woman, lives alone in a dilapidated part of town. Noticing that her teenage neighbour Eun-soo (Cho Soo-hyang (조수향) is in trouble, she takes it alone herself to help the girl and in doing so is forced to confront the traumatic experiences of her past.

Yeong-ae and Jong-boon are abducted and forced to provide sexual services to Japanese troops

Yeong-ae and Jong-boon are abducted and forced to provide sexual services to Japanese troops

Snowy Road originally aired as a two-part television drama, yet for the purpose of a cinematic release the episodes have been edited together to create a powerful testament to the horrific abuses Korean women suffered during the Japanese occupation. Despite a large number of films and documentaries exploring the subject matter over the years, upon receiving its world premiere at Jeonju Film Festival 2015, Snowy Road left audiences sobbing at the depiction of two of Korea’s youngest and most celebrated actresses reenacting the torture so many women suffered at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army. While the film does not always escape the production shortcomings and melodramatic trappings of K-drama, Snowy Road is a particularly emotional piece that strongly resonates.

Director Lee Na-jeong and writer Yoo Bo-ra have crafted an impressive tribute to women’s suffering in both the past and present through the non-linear story, cutting between the two periods to reinforce how women’s rights have changed and how far they have yet to go. For scenes in the past, director Lee conveys the atrocities committed to Korean women through the abduction, imprisonment and abuses Yeong-ae and Jong-boon endure at the hands of the Japanese. Yet in the present a rather different set of injustices are dealt with, as elderly Jong-boon is routinely treated with disrespect while her young charge Eun-soo, alone and in need of money, becomes easy prey for wealthy middle-aged men. It is difficult to state how brave director Lee and writer Yoo are for examining the abuses of the past (Japanese men) and present (Korean men) and depicting them parallel to each other through the narrative, especially given the current highly conservative and patriarchal political climate, as well as with anti-Japanese sentiment so high following Prime Minister Abe’s denial that the incidents ever occurred. That is not to say that the crimes are in any way equal – rather, that Lee and Yoo’s bravery comes from not over-simplifying the debates put forth as purely the result of an external ‘other’, but also critically looking within contemporary Korean culture to explore the plights that effect modern Korean women. Snowy Road presents the issues well, impressively articulating that women need to stand united against injustices past and present to draw attention to their plight, rather than internalise guilt and shame.

Elderly Jong-boon and Eun-soo form a unique bond through their experiences

Elderly Jong-boon and Eun-soo form a unique bond due to their experiences

While Snowy Road ambitiously tackles such sensitive issues competently, the film consistently struggles to escape its origins, existing somewhere between a TV drama and film but not quite fitting into either category. Cinematography of landscapes are generally composed with skill and appear cinematic, yet when faced with more intimate moments or generating tension the budget limitations become increasingly clear. As such crucial scenes, most explicitly apparent at the internment camp where Yeong-ae and Jong-boon are abused, lack the potency and sense of urgency that a film of this nature should contain.

The film also falls into cliche TV drama territory as the narrative attempts to come to a close. Melodrama has long been a feature of Korean TV and film output so it comes as little surprise that such generic devices arise in Snowy Road, however a film dealing with the subject matter of comfort women hardly requires such heavy-handed efforts to evoke tears from the audience. The story is tragic enough without additional manipulative melodramatic tropes, and their inclusion does a disservice to those who experienced such horrific trauma.

However that said, director Lee has chosen a particularly solid cast to express the issues being put forth. Kim Sae-ron is really developing into a wonderfully talented actress, and following her stellar performance in A Girl at My Door she exudes the icy arrogance of her character in Snowy Road delightfully. Playing off Kim’s cold demeanour is no small effort yet Kim Hyang-ki (Thread of Lies) is especially likeable as the young and warm-hearted Jong-boon. The actresses have established their careers with monikers such as ‘the nation’s daughters’ which undoubtedly serves to generate even more emotional resonance. The actresses in the present are somewhat shortchanged by the script yet Cho Soo-hyang, who scored Best Actress at Busan Film Festival 2014 for Wild Flowers, and Kim Yeong-ok acquit themselves admirably.

Jong-boon and Yeong-ae attempt to flee the internment camp

Jong-boon and Yeong-ae attempt to flee the internment camp

Verdict:

Snowy Road is a highly emotional charged film about ‘comfort women’ and the horrific abuses they suffered during the Japanese occupation. Yet director Lee Na-jeong and writer Yoo Bo-ra impressively combine the sensitive subject matter with the issues faced by contemporary women, and deserve credit for it. While the film often struggles to escape its TV drama origins, Snowy Road is a powerful and resonating story on a vital topic.

★★★☆☆

16th Jeonju International Film Festival (제16회 전주국제영화제) 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