Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jun 20, 2018 10:46 pm 
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A winter's tale

Microhabitat is a Korean debut feature by a woman director who's part of an independent collective called Gwanghwamun Cinema. It's a unique, meditative character study as well as a series of vignettes that serve as a small panorama of a variety of Seoul lifestyles and economic situations. But it doesn't come off as quite so cold and formal as that sounds. It's governed by the unpredictability of Miso (Esom, Lee So-young), an independent, freewheeling woman of 31. When we first meet her she's working as the housekeeper of a well-off young woman, who treats her as a friend.

Then, Miso discovers the price of a pack of cigarettes has just gone up 80%. It turns out her other essential indulgence is single malt scotch. She considers her carefully allocated finances, and makes the radical decision of moving out of her tiny flat, whose rent has also just gone up $100. She parts on friendly terms with her landlord, who's none too well off himself; the rent on his apartment has just gone up $150.

Miso is now homeless, but she can afford to smoke and order a glass of good whisky in a bar. She's a spartan kind of sybarite. An IMDb plot outline says she suffers from a deep depression that she assuages with chain smoking and heavy drinking. That is not in the least true, and just shows how Miso's nonconformity can be misread. She is a bohemian. Later, when people whom we've seen her serially visit in the film gather several years later for a funeral and talk about her, they speak with admiration of her good cooking, her skill as a housekeeper, the two dozen eggs she arrived with, and the way she "dressed in layers," which seemed "chic then."

Miso is a mystery. But she has a boyfriend (Ahn Jae-hong, a regular of the Gwanghwamun Cinema productions), who's a cartoonist. They are very much in love, though rough digs and a cold Seoul winter cause them to put off having sex till spring. Then, he springs a disappointing but practical surprise: he is giving up cartooning, to "live like a normal person," and has volunteered for a job in Saudi Arabia that will last for two years, so he can save up a lot of money, $50,000, he calculates.

Living with less as she does already, being without her boyfriend for two years is really tough. But Miso is never daunted, never saddened. She smiles, she copes. Each stay with someone - a brother and a sister, neither of whom is as happy as she is by a long shot, a lonely man who lives with his parents, a former classmate who was once needy, but now married to a rich guy. She has a healthy baby boy, and a Freudian slip suggests he may be a torture as much as a joy. When Miso joins her husband for a smoke after dinner, she reveals her insecurity.

Each visit shows us a different "habitat," a different house or interior and lifestyle. And one of the film's triumphs is a scene where an agent shows Miso a series of increasingly disastrous possible rentals, each one with a worse window with a worse view, higher up in one of the poorest and cheapest parts of Seoul. Each of the vignettes makes a perfectly turned little short story that is at once a sly, often droll psychological study and a look at current Korean manners and economics. And all the while this is a flowing portrait of the free spirit, living on the edge, that is Miso. This is a wise, comical, meditative debut that makes for enjoyable watching. There are little flaws. Some of the transitions are abrupt, the editing is a bit rough. And the English subtitles need some polishing. An interesting film, though, and a budget production that looks great.

Microhabitat/소공녀 /So-gong-nyeo ("A Little Princess"), 106 mins., debuted at Busan Oct. 2017, opening in Korea 22 Mar. 2018. It was screened for this review as part of the New York Asian Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where it shows 10 Jul. 2018 at 6:30 p.m.

The film was reviewed at Busan by Pierce Conran for Screen Anarchy.

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