A movie about family, a movie about romance, a movie about…oh…oh no…no…nononono…oh…okay?
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This movie can sometimes be difficult to describe scene by scene, mostly because some of the actions are not explained until later on, if at all. But here goes. Hong Jong-Du has just been released from a two-and-a-half year stint in prison for involuntary manslaughter. Winter is approaching and here he is in a T-shirt. His family did not greet him upon his release, and no one was there to provide him with the traditional tofu cake of rehabilitation. He goes to the family apartment, only to find out that they have moved to…who knows where? He does not have the money to call them up, but manages to find a somewhat sympathetic store owner to give him a block of tofu to eat and some milk to wash it down.
A few hours later, Jong-Du goes to a restaurant next to the place where one of his brothers used to work. He uses the phone there to call his family, but to no avail. He also orders something to eat, but the owners believe that he is going to dine and dash. He says that he will not, but he attempts to do exactly that when the police show up. Naturally, they arrest him. The police have little sympathy for this man who has just been released, only to be arrested again. Jong-Du has a bit of a record; not only was he imprisoned for manslaughter, he was also jailed for attempted rape.
Eventually, Jong-Du’s younger brother comes to pick him up from the police station. Jong-Du is happy to see his brother, but the feeling is not mutual. The feeling is even less mutual when his brother takes Jong-Du to the new home to see his mother, older brother, and sister-in-law. His mother half-heartedly feigns happiness to see her middle-child, but the others are pretty open about wishing that he were not here. Jong-Du, however, might not quite pick up on these signals, having some sort of mild mental disorder.
The next day, Jong-Du’s older brother tells him that he is nearing thirty, and must start acting like a responsible adult. He gets Jong-Du a job at a Chinese restaurant as a delivery boy, though Jong-Du almost botches the interview with his thoughtlessness. While the employer says that he can start that day, Jong-Du wants to start the next day, because he has somewhere that he wants to go.
The place where he wants to go is the Han residency. Jong-Du had spent two-and-a-half years in prison for the death of the elder Han, and now he wants to stop by the apartment with a gift basket to say hello to the man’s children. Inside the apartment, a woman watches a bird fly around. Suddenly, Jong-Du enters and the bird just becomes a reflection of the sun that had been reflecting in the hand-held mirror that the woman was holding. It turns out that the door to the apartment was open, so Jong-Du just goes inside. He says hello to the woman, but she does not say hello back. She has cerebral palsy, which has her joints bent in various positions and makes it difficult to say much outside of grunts. It is unclear how much of this situation Jong-Du understands, but he still tries to be friendly towards her even as she shines the mirror’s light in his eyes. Then her brother and his wife come in, and ask who Jong-Du is. Jong-Du reminds the man of the hit-and-run accident that killed his father, and the man tells him to leave with the basket. Actually, Jong-Du notices that the woman’s brother and his wife were also leaving; moving out, in fact, which was why the door was open. Jong-Du asks them whether it is a good idea to leave a woman in that condition alone, but the man does not want to hear advice about family from the man who killed his father.
After everyone leaves, the woman tries to make the bird return. When that does not work, she smashes the mirror, and the lights from the shards become butterflies.
That night, Jong-Du delivers his meals, and perhaps spends a bit too much time hanging out with customers. The restaurant is closed when he returns, so he takes the company motor scooter. He first goes to look outside the woman’s apartment, and then he goes for a joyride. He ends up intruding on what seems to be a filming of a car scene for a movie or TV show and then he falls off the scooter, sending food flying across the highway. When Jong-Du gets home, his older brother scolds him as his sister-in-law tries to patch him up and says to his face (as well as in front of his family) that everyone dislikes him and wishes he were not around.
The next day, Jong-Du returns to the Han apartment with a bouquet of flowers. The woman does not answer when he rings the doorbell, but her next-door neighbor arrives. Intentionally or not, Jong-Du gives her the impression that he is a flower deliveryman, and the neighbor is surprised that anyone would give flowers to the woman, whom she calls Gong-Ju. The neighbor finds the key to the apartment and goes in with the flowers. Jong-Du goes away for a while, but then returns a few minutes later. He rings the doorbell and, when no one answers, he finds the key and opens the door. Jong-Du find Gong-Ju and is all friendly, saying that she interests him, that he thinks that she is pretty, and that he wants to get to know her better. He gives her a business card for his brother’s car repair shop, which is where he sleeps. He then gets…very interested in her feet. Gong-Ju visibly struggles, almost looking like she is trying to punch him, but he does not notice until she twists around. He starts to hug her and…his free spiritedness starts turning aggressive.
So…remember when it was revealed that he was charged with attempted rape? Yeah…I am just going to skip over the next few minutes to the part where Gong-Ju passes out before Jong-Du can do anything truly damaging. He snaps out of his…moment, wakes her up with some water, fixes her clothes, and then storms out of the apartment extremely upset at himself. Of course, in his tantrum, he knocks over some stuff at a nearby construction site.
I am not going to lie; I stopped the DVD right here and considered watching the rest of the movie. What could possibly happen in the next ninety minutes that could redeem the main character after this? Obviously, though, I eventually decided to watch the rest of it.
That night, Gong-Ju is in her room alone. The couple next door, supposedly there to look after her, are in the next room just playing rock-paper-scissors, so all she has is the tree tapping on the window and obscuring painting of an oasis on the wall to keep her company. The next day, they are back, taking a break from work and the kids to have sex, with little regard to whether Gong-Ju can see them from her room. Gong-Ju closes the door and struggles to put on some lipstick. Not long after the neighbors are…finished, Gong-Ju’s brother arrives and is surprised to see that the husband is also there to…help look after his sister. He drives Gong-Ju to the new apartment where he and his wife are staying.
It turns out that this is an apartment for disabled tenants and Gong-Ju’s brother has been using her name as the one living here. He brought her there because a couple of inspectors had come to make sure that there was no fraud being committed. That night, he takes her back to the old apartment, carrying her up the stairs and complaining that she weighs a ton. He tells her that he has to go, but that she should call him if anything is wrong, particularly if the neighbors are not feeding her well. He is paying them $185 a month to look after her and claims that that is not a small amount. Gong-Ju tells him to go, and he says that he will stop by when he can.
After her brother leaves, Gong-Ju finds the business card that Jong-Du had left and calls him up. Her cerebral palsy makes it difficult for her to speak and Jong-Du does not know what she is saying at first. She eventually gets out that she wants to ask him something. It is still night when Jong-Du arrives at Gong-Ju’s apartment. She opens the door for him. She tells him to relax, but he says that he cannot until she forgives him for what he had done to her. She does not quite give it to him, but she does not refuse. Instead, she asks why he brought her the flowers, and he says that he doesn’t know. He says that her name means “Princess” and that he was descended from General Hong Kyung-rae. She argues that Kyung-rae was a traitor. They decide to call each other Princess and General and engage in more small talk through the night and into the next day.
At this point, I considered stopping the DVD again, but I kept going.
After trying to apprentice at the auto repair store (since that is what he told Gong-Ju he does) he returns to her apartment and helps with her laundry as they engage in more small talk. At one point, the neighbor walks in and Jong-Du hides. That night, amidst more small talk and singing, Gong-Ju admits that she is scared of the shadow that the tree casts upon the picture of the oasis. Jong-Du says that he will make it disappear by magic. He later leaves just in time to hide before the neighbors return with leftovers.
This is one of the most challenging movie experiences that I have ever had. Sure, I may have seen movies (including many Korean movies) with harsher storylines and more despicable characters, but I can usually make some sort of judgment about them by the end. I can learn to love movies with somewhat questionable material and outright reject movies that have been beloved by critics and audiences. Yet this one eluded me for a bit. And I think that that challenge is what made me come around to it. It does not ask for our sympathy. It does not ask us to accept the bad with the good. It does not ask us to forgive. It does not even ask us to understand. It merely asks that we pay attention to two individuals whom most people might pity, stare at, or actively avoid.
It would be easy to simply label Jong-Du as a violent rapist and murderer. Indeed, the movie does not shy away from the fact that he can be creepy at times and dangerous when desperate. Yet, he is also a man who clearly needs mental or psychological help. He has issues with self-control and impulse control, he does not pick up on social cues, and he has little sense of decorum. If he received any help in prison, that would probably be the only time that he got any. There is a line in the movie about him having performed military service. I know that a certain amount of time is mandatory for all Korean men, but he seems unlikely to have been one to be able to deal with regimentation or responsibility regarding weapons or anyone with weapons. Military service, like prison, seemed more like a way for his family to be rid of him. They speak to him about responsibility as if they expect him to reach the same standards as normal people, yet there are certain secrets about the family later in the movie that show that they are more concerned about the optics than reality. Without saying exactly what the secrets are, I will say that it most likely colors Jong-Du’s perception of behavior and responsibility. He already has problems understanding rules about etiquette and ethics; if normal people can violate those rules to fit their needs, why should he be expected to keep himself in check? The movie does not soften him after the attempted rape scene; it simply shows that there is more to him, maybe more than even he knew.
If Jong-Du acts out like a free-spirit taken to the extreme, Gong-Ju’s spirit is trapped inside her body. Worse still, it is also trapped inside her apartment by her own family. Pretty much all that she has is her radio, the picture of the oasis, the various other items in her room, the sounds of the outside, and her imagination. She might not know the details of her brother’s exploitation of her condition for his new illegal living conditions, but she must know that she is being used and neglected. Her brother and her sister-in-law do slightly more than the absolute minimum to keep her alive, as do her neighbors. They all treat her as if she were a stupid child, and keep her that way by showing her little of the outside world. She longs to be normal, but has little understanding of what that means. Jong-Du is the only person to show any interest in her, to call her pretty, to actually try to talk to her like she is a person. Does she know what he did to her? Does she know that it was wrong and simply decides to not look back in anger? Does she forgive him? Does she accept the cold reality that a dangerous person like him is the only one who cares about her outside of financial matters? Does she see beyond the initial violation and into the troubled soul within? Does she see something in him that no one else does? Does she see that he sees something in her that no one else does? Does her acceptance of him make the attempted rape okay? The movie deliberately answers none of these questions.
No one in the movie talks about the conditions of the two main characters. Most of the characters would rather ignore them, and acknowledging that they have issues would lead to greater responsibility to get them help. At the same time, neither Jong-Du nor Gong-Ju talk about their conditions when they are together. Despite Jong-Du having to carry Gong-Ju or push her in a wheelchair, they seem to try to treat themselves as a normal couple. This is particularly clear when Gong-Ju imagines that she can get up and speak clearly. It is not certain whether Jong-Du imagines this as well, but maybe it does not matter. What really matters is that Jong-Du is much less awkward (or dangerous) when he is with her and she is much more relaxed and able to talk when she is with him.
Perhaps it is fate that brought them together. After all, Hong Jong-Du and Han Gong-Ju are remarkably similar names. It was a tragedy that brought them into each others’ lives, even though Gong-Ju was probably not involved in the court proceedings much. It was coincidence that allowed them to see each other, with Jong-Du being released just before Gong-Ju’s family was about to essentially abandon her. Their initial interactions would be traumatic and bring the police under normal circumstances, but the circumstances were not normal. Nothing about it was normal. But they don’t judge each other or scold each other for not being normal. They don’t talk about how normal people judge them or how the world is unfair. Their focus is on each other. Together and individually, they come alive. They don’t necessarily change or have an arc, but they become the real people that they always were and see the potential within themselves that they may never realized that they had. They see beyond each others’ condition and can forget their own. They have dignity. And they have love. Why be normal, when you can feel extraordinary? Like a general and a princess.
This movie is extremely difficult to watch, not just because of the subject matter, but due to its rather hands-off approach, bar a few fantasy sequences. It is up to the viewer to forgive or condemn. Or maybe it is not up to the viewer to judge at all, just to watch.
Next Time: Insaf Ka Tarazu (India: 1980, approx. 135 minutes)
Time After Next:Â Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? (Japan: 1932, approx. 85 minutes)
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