Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue May 11, 2021 1:41 pm 
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A tough debut film about a Korean rape

This is a youthful South Korean film about a Seoul fish market vender who becomes the victim of rape. In various ways this is not your usual rape movie. O-bok (a powerful Jeong Aehwa) is 61 and petite and feisty, which may make her not seem a likely victim. though her energy may make her youthful and attractive. The audience never sees the rape, only events leading up to it and away from it. You might feel this way is more from the victim's point of view, since O-bok cannot "observe" what is happening to her when she's assaulted. But this might be considered the public's point of view, because no one wants to think about rape.

There is the freshness and boldness of the newcomer about this film made as a graduation feature for the film school of Danking University. The school is also the producer. A relentless little movie, it's made up of many small naturalistic scenes made so the action and shifts of locale never let up. Kim decided on few closeup shots and an avoidance of camera movement: a calm, placid lens, an ironic contrast to the protagonist's turbulent state. There's a relentlessly unfun, style-less quality, but one might have said that about Italian neorealist films that are now classics. Director Kim is taking on society - which, despite #MeToo and changing attitudes, is a tough decision to make. The title she has said is an homage to Chekhov's The Seagull but doesn't relate specifically to the play; she thinks of her protagonist as a bird who can't fly away, and also was reminded of the sound, to her, of the English word "girl."

The director planned to focus on a mother-daughter relationship in a sexual assault but later chose to make the mother the victim, which surely adds to the resonance, or lack of it, in the society beyond, since this woman is the breadwinner of the family whose lack of education makes her daughters tempted to distance themselves. This is a film about class as well as male power, and a film about the dangerous role of alcohol in Korean culture. O-bok's three daughters have gotten college educations thanks to her hard work and she is left seeming to them rude and uneducated. A fishmonger, she can talk like one. In a rather overly explicit one-way phone conversation O-bok remonstrates with her own mother, who now has dementia, for not assuring her an education with the many benefits it would have brought her in life.

The market is waiting for government-aided improvements. Getting all the venders on board for this requires bonding which, in Korean culture, requires getting drunk together. O-bok is assaulted by Gi-taek, a fellow vender and the powerful chairman of the redevelopment committee. We don't glimpse him till later. He can't be made vulnerable.

It's after a stiff dressup restaurant dinner where O-tek, her husband and the betrothed eldest daughter sit down with the groom and his parents, that O-tek goes and hangs out with coworkers to unwind by getting drunk herself. When she's drunk the others leave her, thinking her "safe," and the assault - which we don't see - occurs. She is bleeding as she comes out of the subway on the way home. The moment of shock and realization this causes for the reader is a potent one.

Things are never the same. Though O-tek never wilts, she can't focus on her shop, on anything but what has happened, which she can't talk about at first. She tries medical help, then complaining to the police, seeking supporting witnesses from the market, and first her eldest daughter and then the youngest one come along to help her. O-bok ultimately has to absorb, without imploding, the rage she must experience at her assault and at living in a culture dominated by males and tolerant of violence. When her husband finds out he drunkenly recites the saying that when a woman is raped, she has wanted it.

For her next project, Kim is planning a mother and daughter revenge story. "I’m expecting to make a Korean-style film, a mixture of action, thriller and comedy," she said in a Variety interview. Let's hope that will be more fun.

Gull, 74 mins., won the Grand Prize for the Korean Competition at the 2021 Jeonju Film Festival and showed in San Sebastian’s New Directors sidebar, also released in Switzerland, French-speaking region, and shown at the London Korean Film Festival and Filmfest Hamburg. It was screened at home for this review as part of the MoMA/Film at Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films (Apr. 28-May 8, 2021).

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