Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 04, 2012 3:17 pm 
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Money money money

Somehow young Korean director Kim Joong-hyun's promising first feature Choked (Kashi) reminds me of early Visconti, though his Asian Alain Delon, Gwon Yun-ho (Eom Tae-gu), with his far-away look and cheekbones for days, isn't a dirt-poor immigrant in Milan but someone trapped at the bottom of his country's economic boom, stuck with his mother's bad debts, an evil job, and a condescending, status-conscious fiancee. Yun-ho (Eom) lives with his ditsy mother Park Hui-su (Gil Hae-yeon), whose diet supplement pyramid scheme involves something she claims made Nancy Reagon start menstruating again. After the delivery of many cartons of this stuff, mom mysteriously disappears in the night, and Youn-hoo is stuck with her debts. The chief investor is another foolish woman, Lee Seo-hui (Park Se-jin), to whom she owes 30 million won ($25,000), and we spend a lot of time following her around, while Yun-ho works for Dobang Construction, his job to help persuade the occupants of a housing block to move out.

Yun-ho's fiancee Se-gyeong (Yun Chae-yeong) keeps bugging Yun-ho to introduce her to his mother. Needless to say, he can't explain why he can't do this. She also wants them to take a nice apartment. The one he lives in, owned by his aunt's husband, is a dump. Seo-hui is bugging him to pay her what his mom owes. He's also pursued by a loan shark who wants him to sign his life or his body away. Seo-hui is struggling and illegal herself, selling designer knockoffs out of her minivan. She threatens to sue, and presses charges against Hui-su, who gets put in jail for a while when she's found. Yun-ho tries to get a big loan through a bank officer friend. Eventually his efforts to pressure housing block residents for the construction company lead to violent retaliation, just after his mother is released and returns home.

Wherever you turn in this story, it's all about money. Money brings status (which Yun-ho's aunt is obsessed with like his fiancee) and his supervisor brags that now people can be removed from their housing by payoffs rather than physical force. Seo-hui is divorced, and has to appeal to her ex-husband to put up money to bail her out when she gets picked up by the cops for a violation. He has remarried and her little daughter has switched allegiance to her step-mom, but Seo-hui tries to buy her affection by offering her an expensive video game. Yun-ho tries to hold onto the materialistic Se-gyeong by dressing nicely and showing her nice Seoul apartments. When he shows her, more realistically, a small one, she dumps him.

The film has limited tech credits but, shot by dp Lee Jin-Keun with a red camera, the images are clear and sharp, and the action is mobile, constantly shifting from Yun-ho to Seo-hui and from one of their scenes to another. As Yun-ho, Eom Tae-gu is both neutral and complex. At first his opacity seems a sign of strength, and he can lash out on occasion, and stands up to the loan shark, but the three demanding, crazy women wear him down, and when his mother returns and he's sitting at the kitchen table with her, he momentarily seems her little boy again. But the film is as much about Seo-hui, as emerges clearly when we begin to feel Yun-ho's passivity. A particularly strong and well placed moment comes late in the film when Seo-hui and Yun-ho encounter each other on some steps and he sits smoking and staring into space after she has been cruelly rejected by her ex-husband and sits munching on some of the pastries from his bakery. Choked (whose Korean title actually means "Thorns") is a character-driven drama, and all the main actors are good. The important thing is that Park Se-jin and Gil Hae-jeon as the impoverished divorcee and the mother, never seem pathetic, though the rejected, compromised, and bilked divorcee Seo-hui is certainly struggling. Director Kim avoids that by conceiving them as kooky and trying to reshape the world to fit their own fantasies. Hui-su, once out of confinement, plans to become a truck driver and even gets Seo-hui to give her a lesson on the way home. But she doesn't even know how to shift gears.

Kim doesn't quite know how to end either, but that works because there's not meant to be any escape from Yun-ho's personal trap of the bullying, snobbism, and materialism of modern Korea that Kim delineates here. One can argue, as Derek Elley does in his Film Business Asia Pusan review, that Yun-ho is too passive and the three women show too little development, making the second half repetitious, but Kim still seems to have an original point of view and his script plays out with determination and restraint, if not with the warmth of the Italians.

Choked debuted at Pusan in January 2012 and was shown in March at Miami. It was reviewed here as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it will be shown as follows:

Sat Apr. 21, 1:30 pm
Sat. Apr. 28, 6:00 pm
Tue. May 1, 9:00 pm.

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