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NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS 2017 - JANG WOO-JIN: AUTUMN, AUTUMN/CHUNCHEON, CHUNCHEON (2017)

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WOO JI-HYUN, YANG HYUNG-JU, AND LEE SE-RANG IN AUTUMN, AUTUMN

Disappointment and awkwardness in a provincial town

Not unlike Hong Sang-soo, who surely must be something of an influence, Jang Woo-jin's film is about a trip to a new place, with a lot of conversations. It's divided up into two story lines, which don't connect except that the three characters involved, a couple on a travel date who met on the Internet, and a young guy returning home after failing to get a job he sought in Seoul - and hey go to some of the same places without running into each other. The three are sitting next to each other in a train compartment heading from Seoul to the provincial town of Chuncheon, a shit hole, the disappointed young guy Ji-hyun (We Ji-hyun) says, but a spot notable for its pretty landscapes to Hyung-ju (Yang Hyung-ju) and Se-rang (Lee Se-rang); she used to live here and has pleasant memories of the place. The Korean title of the film, "Cuncheon, Chuncheon," signals its bipartite structure: it's two Chuncheons, that of the would-be couple, a liaison that ultimately doesn't work; and that of the sad and frustrated Ji-hyun, whose high school dreams are crushed.

We hear Hyung-ju and Se-rang talk on the noisy train, but don't gather what's going on with them till later. We follow Ji-hyun as he stands that night on a bridge, then next day ferries to a temple to pray and then works in a friend's restaurant. From them he gets the phone number of a friend, Min-jung (Kim Min-jung), whom he's run into earlier, whose mother's funeral he was to attend, but couldn't because he missed the ferry back to Chuncheon. In what seems the most arresting scene in the film, Ji-hyun talks to his friend with the cell phone sitting on the ground. He remembers old times and weeps. His friend tells him he's given up singing as a career; he didn't have what it takes. But Ji-hyun begs him to sing a song for him, which he does, despite saying he doesn't usually sing for guys. It's a surprisingly emotional moment, despite there being nothing but Ji-hyun and a cell phone in the scene. The actor playing Ji-hyun, charming and sad, impresses.

Hyung-ju and Se-rang are harder to watch. They go to some of the same places as Ji-hyun, the temple and a couple of restaurants, and a hotel, very awkward, like Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair in the 1955 Marty. When they go to a hotel, Hyung-ju has to go outside while Se-rang takes a bath, because the bathtub is right out in the room. As time goes on, the somewhat older Hyung-ju declares himself well leased with Se-rang, but it emerges that she doesn't return the feelings, even though, by the time they admit the food at an outdoor restaurant she remembers isn't very good, and wasn't in the past either.

Michael Sicinski, in his review on Letterboxd, suggests that Jang's aim is "humanizing embarrassment," a process by which we "become invested in gradually [accruing] disappointment." (This fits with the comparison to Marty.) In his Berlinale review, D.Kat Griggs focuses on the way the landscapes and locations work in relation to mood and action and holds that the film's message lies in its "visual representations, the sounds, the expressions, and the feeling of the interaction." Both these interpretations may be valid, and clearly Autumn, Autumn is sophisticated and conceptually ambitious. But this is a low-budget film, and its cheap, grainy look I found off-putting, the filming of most of its scenes (except perhaps Ji-hyun's phone call) unattractive and plodding. Jang Woo-jin was only around 30 when he made this film though, and he could move on to more successful and polished work.

Autumn, Autumn/Chuncheon, Chuncheon/ 춘천, 춘천, 78 mins., debuted at the Berlinale Forum. Screened for this review as part of New Directors/New Films (FSLC/MoMA) 2017.

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