The passage of time affects us all in certain ways, our experiences and our memories all take on different forms after we’ve lived them and they leave behind a trace. This imprint can be faint and slip through our conscious memory just as it can leave an indelible mark, a scar that bears the weight of its genesis. Most things change with the passage of time but some do not and Jeon Soo-il’s new feature Pink is a dirge to the intransigence of the roots of our defining characteristics.
Jeon, who hails from Korea’s vibrant port city Busan, is a fiercely artistic filmmaker who has quietly been making films for the past 15 years. While respected within the filmmaking community, Jeon has never attracted anywhere near the same level of international reputation as his arthouse contemporaries, such as Hong Sang-soo (The Day He Arrives, 2011), Kim Ki-duk (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring, 2003) and Lee Chang-dong (Poetry, 2010). His films are slow, deliberate and difficult and though they are successful on the festival circuit (he has won awards at Fribourg, Busan and Venice), a larger audience may never gravitate towards his oeuvre.
It’s a shame that his work can only reach so many people, as he has so much to say and he articulates himself so gracefully. Truth be told this is only the second of his films I have had the chance to see, the other being My Right to Ravage Myself (2003), a fascinating, surreal and dark exploration of suicide in Korea.
For his eight feature, Jeon focusses on a rundown bar called Pink in a remote and forgotten seaside community. The inn is run by Ok-ryeon who takes care of her autistic son Sang-gook and hires Soo-jin, who has just wandered into town, to help her. She also takes parts in demonstrations to keep the community the way it is, as developers encroach on their land, Pink being the last holdout.
The most striking element of the film is its vivid and earthy photography. The exceptional compositions are in tandem with the film’s languid and almost mournful air. While the proceedings are often slow and the dialogue sparse, much of the film is relayed through the details that are evident on screen. The framing of the characters is crucial, as is their movements through the spaces within the frame. Notably, characters are always moving through different spaces and separating, or hiding themselves, through actions like the frequent closing of sliding doors, almost always within the same shot. While the staging of the film exudes a gritty realism it is also poetic and much of what is depicted on screen acts as metaphor. Soo-jin facing her tormentor in the fog, protagonists hiding behind glass doors in complete view but also the colour grading of the feature.
The title Pink is meant to throw you off as the film is devoid of vivid colours, it is stark and almost monochromatic, the bar’s pink neon sign is never on and the name is a misnomer that further highlights the plight of the forgotten community and its’ inhabitants shared traumatic history.
Pink is a refuge for stragglers and people who want to be forgotten or are looking to forget, the bottles of beer and soju only serve to accomplish this goal. Soo-jin is trying to escape from a past trauma but she is still haunted by the spectral presence of the character that caused her suffering. The film’s protagonists inhabit this limbo and more or less get by, though their demons weigh them down, but with the imminent influx of new contractors and the amenities of modern Korea their lifestyle is threatened. This will no longer be a refuge for them and in turn they will be cast out and willfully forgotten like the buildings that will be torn down.
Ok-ryeon is living in the past, demonstrating long past her youth and breast feeding her teenage son. With everything else crumbling around her she no longer has anything to support, she is long past mothering age but she clings on to this role, her foibles enabled by her progeny’s autism. Sang-gook’s mental affliction also strikes me as a metaphor, as it seems like less a representation of a real mental ailment than a symbol of recalcitrance, a metaphor for willful amnesia in the face of past trauma and current hardship.
Pink will be a difficult film for some but immensely rewarding for those that attempt to break into its core. Jeon has crafted a dark and lyrical feature that resonates in contrast with the current climate of Korea. A splendid auteurist work of art cinema that deserves a large audience that it will likely never find.
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