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Monday, February 2, 2015

Review: The Past is Present in Lee Yoon-ki's THIS CHARMING GIRL

By Rex Baylon

We love to watch. It’s impossible to deny that fact as advances in technology has made people-watching a popular guilty pleasure. As more and more of our gadgets and software are built to not only connect everyone but also document every banal detail of our lives, it’s become quite easy to learn everything about someone without every meeting them face-to-face. In the realm of cinema, the concept of voyeurism has always been a popular topic for filmmakers. Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, the Maysles brothers, Michelangelo Antonioni, Michael Powell and many others have devoted entire films or, in rare cases, entire careers to utilizing voyeuristic techniques to arrive at some sort of truth.

However, aside from documentary, a genre that purports to being an objective witness to the truth but is anything but, the word voyeur is often used in conjunction with the feminist concept of the “male gaze.” In short, for those who might be unfamiliar, the idea of the “male gaze” was first coined by the British film critic Laura Mulvey and used as the go-to word when addressing the conscious and unconscious ways that the audience as well as the male characters in a movie were objectifying women, especially when you have a male director behind the camera.

For Korean director Lee Yoon-ki, a man who seems from his film output just as obsessed with women as Francois Truffaut, Jane Campion or Zhang Yimou, any accusations of the “male gaze” in the pictures he’s made are completely unmerited. The five films he’s directed so far each place a woman in protagonist roles but none of the female leads in these pictures follow typical representations of the eroticized or idealized female. Of course that’s not to say that Lee’s portrayal of women are a hundred percent realistic. The man is an auteur and like all auteurs he’s got a specific perspective.

The archetypical Lee Yoon-ki female is the antithesis of the talky expressive manic pixie dream girl found in recent Hollywood rom-coms. These women have trouble communicating to the world exactly how they feel and suffer some sort of emotional trauma. In film after film Lee’s women are paired with male characters and though snippets of emotional closeness do happen ultimately by film’s end nothing is resolved. For Lee’s female characters there is no such thing as concrete resolution and victory is merely measured by how long one can endure one’s pain.

In Lee’s debut, This Charming Girl (2004), his style and concerns are already fully formed. Starring Kim Ji-su as the quiet postal clerk Jeong-hae, This Charming Girl is a contemplative study of loneliness. Yet whereas many bigger budget films on that topic would utilize music and a distinct visual style Lee opts for an almost everyday look, not quite documentary realism but something close to it. Devoting much of the screen-time to Jeong-hae’s day to day life, the banality of many of the scenes might make the film seem boring, but this is far from the case.

Though the camera is concerned with Jeong-hae’s mundane life, the repetitious actions on screen are broken up by flashbacks. Avoiding standard editing techniques, Lee blends the past and the present not just in a single scene but in a single frame. Visually, as well as mentally, time and space are compressed for Jeong-hae. An example of this is a scene in Jeong-hae’s apartment where she is placed in the foreground as she lays in bed seemingly asleep with eyes closed but actually very much awake. In the background, Jeong-hae’s mother and aunt are talking about her running away during her honeymoon. We believe this scene to be a memory but then Jeong-hae gets up and walks to the kitchen. The camera follows her as the two women continue speaking. As Jeong-hae walks horizontally across the frame the two women become obscured by her body and then vanish. Her past, her memories have bled into her present day life illustrating her emotional scars which have yet to heal.

Due to the fact that the film veers more towards realism we are seldom privy to Jeong-hae’s inner thoughts. Though the flashbacks reveal snippets of her past these don’t really tell us much about her. It is only through her present actions that we get some understanding of who she is. Her aloofness, dislike of male physical contact, and her quiet demeanor tell us much more than if she were to prattle on about her problems to a best friend on camera. Kim’s almost dialogue-less performance ranks up there with Lillian Gish and other silent greats.

Though the main focus is Jeong-hae, as she appears in practically every frame of the film, there are three key relationships that are charted within the picture. The first is her mother, the only close female relationship that Jeong-hae has and whose death leaves a void in her life, depicted by the way she sweeps up and almost fetishizes the strands of hair her mother left in her brush. As a counterpoint to her mother, the other important familial relationship she has is with her uncle, her abuser and the source of her trauma. It’s interesting to note that when Lee showcases these relationships they are practically wordless, her anxiety shown by the way her body reacts and almost expressionless face twinges in discomfort.

The third important, and most ambiguous, relationship is between Jeong-hae and a writer (Hwang Jung-min) introduced first as a customer at the post office she works at. Lee drops him in scenes usually in the background, an apparently tangential character until Jeong-hae runs after him and invites him to dinner at her house. The film never reveals why she all of a sudden opens up to this random man yet watching her fumble with her words and mention her cat alongside inviting him to dinner is both painful to watch and exciting. You think she is finally breaking out of her shell but for anyone whose seen Lee’s other films you already know that this isn’t a love story.

Watching This Charming Girl for the umpteenth time I’m convinced that it is a masterpiece. Focusing his camera on a single female character and never wavering under the pressure to build a conventional plotline or have a likeable character, its open-ended finale doesn’t really promise Jeong-hae a happy ending. Instead the scene merely fades out. Though her story has ended it would be just the beginning for Lee as he built a career on telling stories about urban ennui at the center of which stand women; often tall, skinny, quiet and unbearably lonely. In short, the cinematic offspring of Jeong-hae.


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