(by Rex Baylon)
Although it’s often seen as two different conditions, a fear of loneliness and an awareness of one’s mortality, in retrospect, are two sides of the same coin. In between birth and death we all struggle with defining ourselves and giving meaning to our lives. In Kim Hee-Jeong’s sophomore feature, Grape Candy (2012), that inner conflict is played out as a drama between three women, two adults and the third a girl perpetually frozen by death as a junior high student.
The first woman we meet, Sun-Joo, played by Park Jin-Hee, is the perennial girl who seems to have everything but actually has a secret that keeps her at arms length from everyone around her. Her nice job at the bank, charming fiancée, and comfortable life keep her distracted enough to not have to deal with her emotionally desiccated heart until an old classmate So-ra (Park Ji-Yoon) reappears in her life. Working alongside Sun-Joo’s fiancée Ji-Hoon (Choi Won-Young) to complete a new book, the film at first seems to be about a love triangle with So-ra and Sun-Joo competing for Ji-Hoon’s attention. But as quickly as that plot thread is introduced it is soon dropped and we get a series of mysterious scenes of Sun-Joo looking forlorn, So-ra rocking out to music, a woman in a bookstore who refuses to take the phone whenever So-ra calls, and most mysterious of all a flashback to three junior high girls outside, each with an expression of terror on their faces.
As the film progresses the story is slowly filled in for us as Sun-Joo and So-ra make their way from Seoul to Busan and Grape Candy morphs into a road movie. The third girl in the flashback was a friend of both women and her death hangs heavily over both of them. To reveal their role in her death though would undercut that final cathartic moment when they finally let go of their shared trauma. And in fact, the final revelation isn’t some major dramatic scene but rather a quiet introspective moment with only a few tears shed.
Kim’s film eschews melodrama and embraces the tenets of contemplative cinema. The slow and languid story is interrupted at times with visceral and eerie shots of nature; i.e. dark forests, wild animals, and a raging ocean. It’s almost as if the emotions that Sun-joo is bottling up are being transferred to her surroundings. For many coming to Grape Candy from a more hyperkinetic place, the film might be jarring and possibly boring but if you allow it to wash over you it is as powerful as any melodrama, Korean or otherwise.