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.

★★★☆☆

Advertisements
16th Jeonju International Film Festival (제16회 전주국제영화제) Festival News Korean Film Festivals 2015 Reviews

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말) – ★★★★☆

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말)

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말)

Life is good for single mother Hyeon-sook (Kim Hee-ae (김희애) and her two teenage daughters Man-ji (Ko Ah-seong (고아성) and Cheon-ji (Kim Hyang-ki (김향기). Despite the financial hardships of living in a single parent household, the three are like any other typical family. That is, until the day Cheon-ji commits suicide. Devastated by the loss, Hyeon-sook and Man-ji move to a new home and attempt to start afresh. Yet as Man-ji begins to think more and more about her younger sister’s death, as well as the lack of a suicide note, she becomes driven to find the cause behind Cheon-ji’s suffering. As she  questions those close to Cheon-ji, including best friends Hwa-yeon (Kim Yoo-jeong (김유정) and Mi-ran (Yoo Yeon-mi (유연미), Man-ji starts to unravel the elegant lies involved and begins to understand that she may not have known her younger sister as well as she previously thought.

The family are devastated from Cheon-ji (center) commits suicide

The family are devastated from Cheon-ji (center) commits suicide

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말) – or directly translated as ‘Elegant Lies’ – is a powerfully compelling and tender family drama by director Lee Han (이한) and screenwriter Lee Sook-yeon (이숙연). It is a well-documented fact that the suicide rate in Korea is the highest amongst the countries in the OECD – and in particular it’s the leading cause of death amid the younger generations – yet while several films have explored the issue from the perspective of those suffering from depression, Thread of Lies approaches the topic quite differently. By exploring the situation from the view of a family struggling to come to terms with loss, the film effectively captures not only the trauma and guilt generated by losing a loved one to suicide but notably how it’s possible to live with someone and not truly know who they are. Director Lee beautifully conveys the complexity of emotions and relationships in the aftermath of loss with acute sincerity, while also subtly intertwining a critique on the notion of pretense in Korean society. Falsity is presented through a heartbreaking scene in which Cheon-ji arrives late to a birthday party and is bullied on kakao messenger service, within her view and by people claiming to be her friends, and is superbly contrasted with a scene depicting her mother being forced to practice customer service and etiquette at a supermarket. Thread of Lies examines the various ways in which people in contemporary Korea are forced to subsume their true emotions for socially acceptable ones, yet director Lee also superbly manages to balance such weighty material with tasteful light-hearted comedy, infusing the story with positivity and hope as well as tender poignancy .

Cheon-ji is bullied by her entire class, yet keeps her suffering to herself

Outcast Cheon-ji is bullied by her entire class, yet keeps her suffering to herself

Thread of Lies is in many ways an examination of guilt, and the lies told in order to assuage it. Older sister Man-ji is cool to the point of arrogant, yet in her quest to discover Cheon-ji’s motivations she uncovers a web of depression, pain, and half-truths that fundamentally change her, and as such her development into a more mature and aware young woman is a deeply affecting journey. The conversations Man-ji has with Cheon-ji’s classmates Hwa-yeon and Mi-ran are incredibly illuminating, as the young girls reveal a history of bullying and psychological abuse yet desperately remove any notion of their role in the lead up to the suicide. Their interactions are brilliantly contrasted with the truth via flashback scenes depicting the events as they occurred, revealing the full impact of wrongdoing on the young and sensitive Cheon-ji. Director Lee effectively employs such moments to reveal that blame lies not with one singular person, but with a large number of people who are all culpable in the build-up to suicide as they thoughtlessly mistreat those around them. As such, Thread of Lies is a socially-conscious, poignant and sincere examination of a timely issue, and is an exemplary piece of filmmaking.

Man-ji and her mother learn to cope with the loss after discovering the truth

Man-ji and her mother learn to cope with the loss after discovering the truth

Verdict:

Thread of Lies is a powerful and compelling family drama that deals with the aftermath of suicide. Director Lee Han captures the complex emotional and relationship issues within Lee Sook-yeon’s script with sincerity and tenderness, as Man-ji attempts to understand her younger sister’s death. Featuring an exemplary examination of the guilt and lies associated with suicide, and cultural existence of pretense within contemporary Korean society, Thread of Lies is a fascinating and empowering exploration of a timely issue.

★★★★☆

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