Sunday, August 13, 2017

Review: THE FIRST LAP, Stellar Cast Warms Up Strong, Low-Key Drama

By Pierce Conran

Director Kim Dae-hwan builds on the strengths of his debut End of Winter with another character-driven drama dominated by family gatherings, long takes and strong performances. One of this year's Jeonju Cinema Projects, The First Lap debuted in Jeonju this past spring and is having its international premiere in the Filmmaker of the Present competition in Locarno.

Ji-young and Su-hyeon are a young unmarried couple who have been together for seven years. While getting ready to move, Ji-young misses her period. As they brace themselves for a possible unplanned pregnancy, the couple visit each other's parents. The families are miles apart from each other, both geographically and economically, but what they do have in common is an intense desire to see their children tie the knot.

Even more restrained than End of Winter, The First Lap keeps its story simple and takes a backseat to its main characters. This is literally visualized by several shots taken from the back of the couple's car. From the backseat, the camera stares ahead at the road, with the backs of the protagonists lining the sides. Used in a series of long takes at different points of the narrative, the shot seems to emphasize the journey that the characters are on. Sometimes the car moves, just as freely as their conversations. At other times, the car stands still and the characters are silent, one sitting in the car, the other outside, cut off by the windshield between them.

Another powerful detail that manages to stay in the background is the candlelight protests that led to the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, which were happening during filming last winter. They are incorporated into the film, sometimes referenced by the characters, none of whom state their political position, and most significantly used as the location for an uncertain finale. The political atmosphere may have been too fresh to be part of Kim's original idea for the project, but its inclusion offers a strong counterpoint to the story, as the micro generational split seen on screen is echoed by the macro one taking place across the country.

Kim Sae-byeok continues a run of strong roles as Ji-young, confirming her as one of the more visible and valuable actresses working in the Korean indie scene today. Earlier this year, she appeared in Hong Sangsoo's Cannes competition title The Day After, where she threatened to steal the spotlight from Kim Min-hee, and a few years earlier she turned many heads for her lead role in Jang Kun-jae's A Midsummer Night's Fantasia. As Ji-young, Kim is naturalistic and effortlessly conveys her outer strength and the fraying nerves that she desperately tries to bottle up.

Playing Su-hyeon is Cho Hyun-chul, who was Oh Dal-su's sidekick in Tunnel last summer, which was also invited to Locarno. Su-hyeon endures his own turmoil, which he tries very hard to hide (it takes him seven years to drive Ji-young to see his parents). Rather than struggle to keep his emotions at bay in a quiet way, Cho is more playful in his characterization, mugging to and teasing his girlfriend as he tries to brush things off.

From a performance point of view, however, the real highlights are the sequences the couple spends with each set of parents. Tensions run high in these fiercely realistic long shots, and when the actors face off over dinner, the emotional fireworks that occur are brutal and linger throughout the rest of the film.

Technically the film is less stylized than End of Winter, which relied on washed out colors in and around its snowed-in location, but Kim knows how and when to focus on the subtle elements that drive the strong emotional arcs of his story. As a sophomore work, The First Lap is another great warmup for Kim, with a particularly strong cast.


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