Part of MKC's coverage of the 14th Jeonju International Film Festival.
In the world of cinema, things aren’t always as they seem. A film presents itself to us in a certain way, its details on screen carefully selected by its director. The new Korean film Lebanon Emotion takes a risky approach with its narrative. It puts forward two main characters, immediately giving us a few details concerning their recent past. Beyond this, however, their backstories remain clouded and it becomes clear early on that the story may largely be allegorical. Mystery and surprise are among the most potent elements of any narrative, but too much (or too early) and they can have an adverse effect.
The danger with pursuing any allegorical narrative is that spectators run the risk of not catching the inherent meaning lying beneath its symbolic devices. Oftentimes, directors try to engage viewers with a primary narrative while thinly veiling their ulterior motives. Michael Haneke achieved this brilliantly with Hidden (Cache, 2005), which is already an engaging, fascinating and mysterious narrative even before you pick up on its enormous allegorical themes about colonialism, racism and the troubles in the Middle East.
Lebanon Emotion is a bit more aggressive in its use of allegory. It belongs to that group of films where if you can’t understand the film’s hidden message, you may be left out in the cold. Sadly, I may be leaning towards the latter group, as I can’t claim to have understood everything that unfolded on screen. Nevertheless, I was taken in by the film’s odd and elliptical approach to storytelling, which favored atmosphere over story. Though gleaning meaning from the images presented to us on screen is sometimes a frustrating experience, the film’s languid photography and pacing are immersive.
Exploring themes of religion, sin and forgiveness, Lebanon Emotion presents us with characters looking to move on from their past. In the quiet and desolate snow-swept countryside, they seek respite from their despair. Unluckily for them, oppression is never far off as neon crosses hang above them in the sky or a villain approaches from the big city. The two put-upon leads are unable to escape their woes, suffocated by a society that wallows in the past.
Similar to other recent low-budget debuts, such as A Fish (2011) and When Winter Screams (2012), which also dabbled in narrative-length allegory, Lebanon Emotion is an intriguing debut from Jung Young-heon, who returns to Jeonju after picking up the Best Director prize for his short Hard-Boiled Jesus last year. A symbolic and elliptical film dressed in a quiet but strong mise-en-scene, Lebanon Emotion is sure to divide viewers.
Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema. For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update, Korean Cinema News and the Weekly Korean Reviews, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (Korean Standard Time).