Ambition, artistry and Korea’s painful recent past combine to fascinating results in The Old Garden (2006), an impressive yet flawed work from director Im Sang-soo which frames the trauma of a nation through a brief, yet passionate romance.
Though direct in its depiction of a harrowing episode of Korean history and the long and dark shadow it has cast over the nation ever since, The Old Garden is also steeped in sweeping metaphors. A passionate love erupts in the heat of political oppression, resulting in a child that is robbed of its father but also deprived of its mother, who is unable to bring herself to care for it, perhaps because it serves as too painful and constant a reminder of what she has lost. The father eventually meets his daughter, as a young adult blithely unaware of the trauma that set the stage for her conception. Tellingly, in her only scene, her ears are shielded with headphones.
Im’s work is a problematic one, meandering, self-serious and too literary to succeed as a commercial film, yet there are two areas where The Old Garden shines: in its flawless casting and rich technical execution.
Unlike the other protagonists in the film, Ji Jin-hee’s lead is less a fully-formed character than a literary (or filmic) encapsulation of the youthful idealism and subsequent despondency of a generation. He’s too handsome as both a youth and a released long term prisoner to come across as realistic, yet Ji imbues a suitably idyllic gumption into his character’s pre-internment years and quiet melancholy into the man that is released from jail, which are in lockstep with the film’s morbid yet lyrical nostalgia.
Yum Jung-ah is terrific as a character that seems very cold but which she assuredly makes compelling and empathetic by dint of the nuances she quietly threads into the role. In fact, this performance, which came shortly after her overlooked turn in A Boy Who Went to Heaven (2005), may very well stand as her best.
Beyond the leads, Im’s cast is uniformly strong, as each character vividly comes to life through the respective performers’ variegated physiognomies and calibrated timbres and dialects. From Youn Yeo-jeong’s delicate matriarch and Kim Sang-ho’s frazzled former activist all the way down to a gruffly voiced and gravely faced prison guard who hints the slightest flicker of empathy for the political prisoner.
Recalling a dark past, the film’s cinematography is evocative and combines with rustic production and skilful editing to sweep us into what is clearly designed to be an epic Korean story. Never less than beautiful and adorned with smart and subtle techniques that suck us into the story, time period and characters, it almost succeeds in that aim. The only thing stopping it is the heavy tone that sets the bar too high. Korea’s cinema, even in the mainstream, often veers into social and political commentary. However, whereas contemporaneous works by directors like Bong Joon-ho (The Host) and Kim Tae-yong (Family Ties) were hiding their ideas in plain sight, Im’s direct approach has the adverse effect of distancing us from the material.
Even if it falls just short, The Old Garden still holds up as a fascinating film that strives for something more profound, not to mention more overtly political than what is typically found in commercial Korean film. Despite its issues, the film easily remains Im’s best work since The President’s Last Bang (2005), his last universally praised film. Weighty yet pertinent, omniscient yet intimate, The Old Garden is riddled with contradictions, yet this constant paradox also makes it a unique and engrossing watch.
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