Part of Rex Baylon's ongoing feature on director Lee Yoon-ki.
The expectations placed upon us by our family can be emotionally and mentally crippling. Parents have no way to predict how there actions, no matter how well intentioned they are, will scar their kids, and children are ultimately at the mercy of circumstances outside their control or understanding. Because of this the relationship between parents and children seem to always suffer from some form of dysfunction. Be it from things said in anger or things left unsaid one doesn’t leave childhood without some scarring.
Opening on a bright summer day in Seoul, Lee Yoon-ki’s third feature Ad–lib Night (Aju Teukbyeolhan Sonnim, 2006) begins with two men arguing over the facial features of a woman standing innocently across from them. Watching them stare at her one can’t help thinking of the innumerable scenes in film of men and boys spying on women. Are they playboys, predators, or harmless peeping Toms? We soon get our answer as the two men corner the woman and begin having a conversation with her media res. They call her Myung-eun and we discover that they knew each other since grade school. She rebuffs their attempts to get close though and corrects their assumption that she is Myung-eun.
Though crestfallen and embarrassed one of the men confronts the young woman again and explains their situation to her. They’ve come to Seoul looking for an old classmate, the aforementioned Myeung-eun, who the woman resembles. The reason for tracking her down is that Myeung-eun’s father is dying and before he expires they want to reunite the two. With no time left they change their plans and want the woman to pretend to be Myeung-eun and offer the dying father some closure. Neither the woman, whose name we learn is Bo-kyung (Han Hyo-joo), or the men are comfortable with the deceit, but it can’t be helped.
The men have every reason to get this look-alike into their car and parade her as the prodigal Myeung-eun, but Bo-kyung has every reason to refuse and walk away. Thus, it is a surprise that with only a bit of hesitation she willing agrees to the deception. Getting into their car we wonder what her reasons are and for that matter can they pull off this little deceit. Of course, this is a Lee Yoon-ki film and any suspense as to whether they can fool the friends and family that knew the real Myeung-eun are quickly diffused. They spill the beans to the entire family even before they get there. As per usual in a picture by Lee, Ad-lib Night is a slow-burn character study on not just the nature of identity but also continues the themes explored in previous Lee Yoon-ki features, the inner personal conflict between social interaction and emotional isolation.
Playing surrogate daughter to a complete stranger, Bo-kyung has her own demons that she is running from. When she finally arrives to meet Myeung-eun’s family one begins to realize that there are multiple deceptions going on in the story. The obvious one between Bo-kyung and Myeung-eun’s father is really not as important to the overall arc of the narrative but it is the impetus for the story. Thus, the question of whether Bo-kyung is a convincing enough doppelganger hangs heavy throughout the scenes with Myeung-eun's comatose father.
But after rewatching the film the other major deception happening on screen is the internal drama within Bo-kyung concerning the temporary identity she has adopted. Arriving at Myeung-eun’s home she is viewed by most as nothing more than a tool, a device to be used and discarded. She is shuffled around from one place to the next, told where to go, what to do, and talked down to. Yet even after all these insults Bo-kyung seems almost envious of the life Myeung-eun abandoned. A telling scene of this is when she is left alone in Myeung-eun’s old room.
Alone in that room and unable to sleep she begins to look over the various possessions that defined a teenaged Myeung-eun and could have very well defined Bo-kyung when she was that age. Perusing the shelves and running her hands through those artifacts Bo-kyung begins to rearrange a few books and knick-knacks. At that moment it’s not so hard to believe that Bo-kyung is having a “Don Draper” moment and planning in her mind an escape route out of the current life she is living. As we later come to discover in a emotionally dense scene towards the end of the film, Bo-kyung was not out at that street corner at the start of the film because she was out running some errands, but rather waiting for a client who she had to “entertain.” Though we never come to any complete understanding of how Bo-kyung ended up in the situation she is in, Lee draws enough parallels between Myeung-eun and her to illustrate the fact that both women ostensibly shared not just similar facial features but probably the same fate.
Now of course, although there is a lot of heavy emotional subtext with every pause and word spoken by the ensemble cast there is a little bit of levity in the way Lee treats death. Just as Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006) lampoons the laughably histrionic ways that Korean families grieve over their deceased loved ones Lee films the father’s death as a tragicomic series of scenes. Outside of the area around the man’s deathbed we are privy to a family of sniping cunning vultures but the moment they think he is dying they all race to his bedside and become like master thespians as they wail and shriek hoping to be loud enough that even the dead could hear them. But of course as we snicker and laugh at these gross emotional deliveries the father finally does breath his last breath and a contrite Bo-kyung, kneeling right beside him, whispers something that we never get to really hear but assume is an apology. It is such a cathartic moment. Not merely for the audience or for those around that deathbed but to Bo-kyung and by proxy her doppelganger Myeung-eun.
Though we never meet the real Myeung-eun it soon hits you that both women, and ostensibly every person on this planet, are or will be orphans. Not merely in the literal sense, though in Myeung-eun’s case this is true, but in a metaphoric way since there comes a time in every child’s life when they come to the realization that parents die, friends move away, and even first loves eventually fade away from our memories. We are left stranded on this planet struggling to survive and although some do make it, a large majority just disappears into the ether. The pain of loss is so powerful that communication can break down between those who we consider loved ones. By the last scene Lee offers us up some hope. A new day has dawned and Bo-kyung is taking the first steps to repairing those frayed lines of communication. Though not ending on a false note with Bo-kyung’s problems magically disappearing and her living happily ever after, Lee offers up a far more bittersweet final note to the story: life moves on and we must try not to sink into despair.
Lee Yoon-ki Feature:
Love in the Time of Debt: My Dear Enemy (멋진 하루, Meotjin Haru) 2008
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