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PostPosted: Thu Aug 19, 2021 10:49 pm 
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LEE SEUNG-WON: THREE SISTERS 세 자매 (2020) - 2021 New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 6-22)

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KIM SUN-YOUNG, MOON SO-RI, AND JANG YOON-JU IN THREE SISTERS

Old complaints revisited

Director Lee Seun-won says in an interview (by ​Joan MacDonald, in Forbes) that he hopes his movies will offer escape and satisfaction, which he said he got when he "ran away from home" and went to the cinema as a youth. How does he think this depiction of three dysfunctional women, the victims of childhood trauma, provides that kind of satisfaction? Perhaps through the terror and pity, catharsis and purgation of Aristotelian tragedy, for Lee Seung-won is primarily a dramatist.

The title notwithstanding, this material is closer to Bergman than Chekhov. Each sister is also a wife and mother, uneasy in both roles, and living in a different kind of trap. The eldest sister, Hee-sook (Kim Sun-young), is an impoverished divorcee who has become ultra-pathetic, always apologizing, sometimes abjectly. She is a not very successful florist, married to a loser husband, who till now hasn't been able to tell anyone, not even her rebellious punkish daughter Bo-mi (Kim Ga-mi), that she has been diagnosed with cancer.

Most polished, successful, and well-off is the middle sister, Mi-yeon (Moon So-ri) a born-again style Catholic choirmaster who can’t get her children to follow the faith as well as she’d want them to and terrifies her little daughter for not being able to say grace. Her barely repressed anger comes out when she learns that her university-professor husband, who turns out to have come to find her insufferable, is now cheating on her with one of her choir members. We spend the most time with Mi-yeon, and it is not an easy time.

The youngest sister, Mi-ok (Jang Yoon-ju), meanwhile, eccentric, colorfully dressed, bleach-haired, wildly outspoken, is an alcoholic playwright, unproductive, troubled with memories she can't access she bugs Mi-yeon about, with little control of her impulses and appetites, yelling even at strangers. She's trying ineffectually to deal with a stepson contemptuous of her and her alcoholic ways, while her well-off greengrocer husband is surprisingly indulgent and still seems to find her attractive. While the two younger sisters talk and meet up at times when Mi-eon feeds Mi-ok, who lives mostly on junk food, a decent meal, neither of them has seen Hee-sook for a while.

We can tell as the film cuts back and forth among the three women's lives that they are all badly damaged, even the precise, well-ordered Mi-yeon, whose superficially pious, religion-based life reflects its own kind of desperation. But each of the three is too vividly, too independently, imagined: it's hard to make out what they all have in common, given that their personalities, occupations, and economic levels are so different. They don't seem related. But these are three wonderful performances, and each role is an actor's feast that they separately devour, and it's for the acting that we watch the film rather than for the film that doesn't quite hold together.

The filmmaker, with his theater background, having made the film cinematic with cross-cutting and flashbacks, brings things to a dramatic climax at film's end by intercutting black and white images of the siblings' grimly miserable, impoverished childhood with an alcoholic, physically abusive father who alternately beats them - intercutting some shocking tastes of this miserabilism with the present-time staging of a reunion party at a restaurant private dining room in the sisters' hometown for their father's birthday. Here, their younger brother, whom we have not seen hitherto, behaves in an aberrant manner that brings things to a crazy, shouting, self-damaging finale and makes the lunch party impossible to complete. Everything comes out, and the now elderly dad seems, when pushed, extremely contrite. A coda in which the three sisters gather later for a smiling selfie on the beach seems tacked on and unnecessary, and adds to the feeling that the all-stops-out birthday finale is overbearing and doesn't build sufficiently on what has come before. You have to put it all together in your head; but it's so intense, maybe you can.

Three Sisters 세 자매, 114 mins., premiered at Jeonju Sept. 18, 2020, opening in Korean theaters Jan. 27, 2021, showing at Osaka Mar. 5, 2021. At the Baeksang Arts Awards Kim Sun-Young won Best Actress; her two costars were also nominated; all three were also nominated at the Chunsa awards. Screened for this review as part of the (Aug. 6-22) 2021 NY Asian Film Festival (internet), where it showed Aug. 18, 2021.

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