This article was created in partnership with Korean Film Festival in Australia (KOFFIA). The 2021 edition of the festival will be take place in various Australian cities from September 16 – October 23. Festival dates are subject to change. For more information, visit the festival website.
Director Kim Jong-Kwan is having a bit of a banner year. Known primarily for his short films in the independent film scene, he has released two feature films in the span of a year—the romantic drama Josée, starring Han Ji-Min and Nam Joo-Hyuk, and the not-quite omnibus/anthology film Shades of the Heart. Both can be seen at the 2021 Korean Film Festival in Australia. Kim also directed the music video ‘Bittersweet’ for two members of the K-Pop group Seventeen. With the inclusion of superstar IU (aka Lee Ji-Eun) in his cast for Shades of the Heart (her song ‘Lullaby’ is also featured on the end credits for Josée), as well as the mainstream push for Josée, perhaps the director is moving into a new stage of his career?
In examining his latest works, we will see that he stays very much true to his signature visual style and themes that fascinate him, but his writing and direction has matured.
What is a Kim Jong-Kwan film like?
Director Kim’s works can be characterised as pensive and unhurried. Yet the way he tackles identity, mortality, and the complexity of human relationships has a candor that is almost aggressive and paradoxical to the gentle pace of his films. Consider his entry in the Netflix anthology series, Persona (2019), starring Lee Ji-Eun. Kim’s segment “Walking at Night ” was easily one of the series’ best, and my personal favourite. Shot in black and white using his signature dreamlike style, this story about moving on and letting go centers its drama around a man (Jung Joon-Won) who dreams of his departed girlfriend (Lee Ji-Eun). In his dream, all they do is walk and talk on the empty streets at night (just walking and talking, or sitting and talking is a recurring feature of Kim’s works, even more so at night).
Like a cup of strong black coffee, his work is warm, rich in detail, more bitter than sweet. He is interested in the human condition, but won’t sugarcoat it. “I enjoy books and movies that delve into the human condition, perhaps because their creators tend to have a deep understanding of reality,” said Kim. “But they also show compassion and love for humankind, and I think that romantic aspect is beautiful as well.”1Director Kim Jong-Kwan Shares A Tender Love Story In New Film ‘Josée’, by Joan McDonald, Forbes, retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/joanmacdonald/2020/12/22/director-kim-jong-kwan-shares-a-tender-love-story-in-new-film-jose/?sh=28a96e8114f9 His curiosity to examine the fragility of our interpersonal relationships is very palpable and sincere, a rare quality missing from the ironic and cynical cinema of today. This sincerity allows him to maintain a balance of tenderness for the characters we meet yet avoids cloying sentimentality through the succinct and authentic nature of his writing.
Both Shades of the Heart and Josée show a clear culmination of the recurring themes in his work—the fragile and precious connections between people and our very own mortality. While Shades of the Heart sees him returning to the vignette-like format he is familiar with, Josée presents a unique challenge due to its already existing adaptation and source material.
On human connections
Based on the 1985 Japanese short story Josée, The Tiger and The Fish by Seiko Tanabe, Kim’s film is not the first time the story has been adapted for screens. A Japanese live-action adaptation directed by Isshin Inudo in 2003 was very popular both in Japan and South Korea. More recently, an animated adaptation from Japanese animation studio, Bones, aimed for a more whimsical offering targeted towards a younger audience, a contrast to director Kim’s mature, melancholic take. “I loved its deep insight concerning human beings. I am also fond of the original short story by Seiko Tanabe, so I tried to create something of my own along those lines,”2Director Kim Jong-Kwan Shares A Tender Love Story In New Film ‘Josée’, by Joan McDonald, Forbes, retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/joanmacdonald/2020/12/22/director-kim-jong-kwan-shares-a-tender-love-story-in-new-film-jose/?sh=28a96e8114f9 said Director Kim about the 2003 Japanese film and why he chose to adapt this story once again. The premise of the film is the stuff of classic Asian romantic melodrama: a lonely, wheelchair-bound young woman (Han Ji-Min) who goes by the name Josée meets an ordinary young man (Nam Joo-Hyuk) and they eventually form a romantic relationship. A tearjerker? Not at all.
In Shades of the Heart, writer Chang-Seok (Yeon Woo-Jin) returns to Seoul from the UK after a divorce and encounters four different people who each have their own stories of loss and trauma. As they confide in him and share their stories, we circle back to Chang-Seok as his time with each of these four ‘strangers’ allows him to confront his own loss. Sounds like heavy stuff? Not at all.
Director Kim’s background in short-form filmmaking has allowed him to understand the beauty of restraint and editing. By focusing on precious and fleeting human connections, he confronts weighty themes such as loneliness, mortality, grief, trauma, and loss without milking them. The stories therefore avoid coming across as being emotionally manipulative or melodramatic.
Josée, for instance, is marketed as a classic Asian romantic melodrama. However, it is surprisingly unromantic and non-melodramatic. Instead, the film focuses on the two main characters and their individual journeys and growth as a result of meeting each other. The connection they form is unique in that moment, yet untenable going forward. Audiences and critics lamented the ending, as Young-Seok and Josée go their separate ways, saying Josée deserved to feel love. But saying that precisely puts focus on her disability, detracting from her humanity. “I did not want people to see the movie as a love story with a disabled character but as a love story between Josee and Young-seok,” said actress Han Ji-Min on her portrayal of Josée3Han Ji-min, Nam Joo-hyuk team up again in romance remake ‘Josee’, Song Seung-Hyun, The Korea Herald, retrieved from: http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20201117000820. The film also makes it clear that Young-Seok is a blank canvas of a character. When we meet him, he doesn’t have a clear direction in his life, passing in and out of people’s lives and attaching himself to them to feel less lonely. His kindness and support to Josée does not mean he is the right partner for her. On Josée’s part, Young-Seok’s love and care gives her the courage to grow out of her shell (including literally leaving her house after being a hermit for a long time), embrace hope and discover a new sense of self-worth. On the now famous line “don’t regret, remember” in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, director Céline Sciamma said, “it’s also about what’s left of a love story. What’s the memory of a love story. I wanted to make a consoling film. You should reconcile yourself with love stories.”4‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ Filmmaker Céline Sciamma Is Trying to Break Your Heart, Kate Erbland, IndieWire, retrieved from: https://www.indiewire.com/2019/12/portrait-of-a-lady-on-fire-filmmaker-celine-sciamma-interview-1202193537/ Josée and Young-Seok’s love story was meeting each other at the right moment in time and helping each other to grow. The relationship they shared should be treasured, and not to be regretted just because they did not have a future together.
Instead of focusing on a single relationship, Shades of the Heart touches on the random connections we form with others as we pass through life that could have a huge impact on ourselves. Writer Chang-Seok moves through the film in a state of seeming ennui as he meets strangers and acquaintances who confide in him. In the second vignette, he meets Yoo Jin (Yoon Hye-Ri), the editor for his latest book. She is practical and frank, and Chang Seok even jokes that she’s ‘cold’. As they share a smoke over cigarettes that remind her of a past relationship, she opens up about an abortion and break-up she had. Because of her professional and closed-off personality, we cannot tell if she has grieved or healed sufficiently from the loss of both her relationship and the abortion, but her confiding in Chang-Seok is a vulnerability that we can tell is rare for her. These questions on the passage of time with regards to healing after a loss will inform the revelations that come at the end of the film mirroring Chang-Seok’s need to confront his own personal grief and loss.
On mortality & identity
As a director interested in the human condition, Director Kim’s work often explores identity and mortality. The theme of identity is most prominent in his 2017 film Worst Woman, starring Han Ye-Ri (also featured in KOFFIA’s special screening of Academy Award-nominated feature Minari), where a struggling actress encounters three different men in the course of her day. With each encounter, we see how she is the same, but also different with each of them. This exploration of identity therefore tends to be subtle, using the ways in which we interact with people to frame the ever-shifting nature of human identity. In both Josée and Shades of the Heart, the themes of mortality and identity are similarly interwoven with human relationships. It is because life is so short and unpredictable, and our bodies so limited and fragile, that we must treasure the connections we make.
The Korean adaptation of Josée drops “the tiger and the fish” from the original short story title, centering the film around Josée’s journey. Director Kim said, “In this story, Josée finally starts to love herself after meeting someone new, while Young-Seok starts to learn more about himself. I wanted to express humanity through the course of their relationship.”5Director Kim Jong-Kwan Shares A Tender Love Story In New Film ‘Josée’, by Joan McDonald, Forbes, retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/joanmacdonald/2020/12/22/director-kim-jong-kwan-shares-a-tender-love-story-in-new-film-jose/?sh=28a96e8114f9 Young-Seok is presented as a twenty-something still learning about himself. Before his relationship with Josée, we learn Young-Seok is involved in a potential affair with an authoritative older woman, trying to get a job and form a relationship with another university student his age. His identity is very much liminal and influenced by the people around him. Josée, on the other hand, has a more fixed personality, having been abandoned and disconnected from the outside world for a long time because of her disability. “Josee experiences the world through reading books and imagination. And expresses everything differently. She talks in written Korean rather than spoken Korean,”6Han Ji-min, Nam Joo-hyuk team up again in romance remake ‘Josee’, Song Seung-Hyun, The Korea Herald, retrieved from: http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20201117000820 actress Han Ji-Min said about her character. And of course, as the film hints, but never reveals, many of the stories that Josée tells may or may not be true, a part of the constructed identity Josée (right down to her name) creates from her storybooks to escape from reality. Although her disability is never emphasised, this need to escape from reality is rooted in her limited mobility. She may have been that way forever, if not for Young-Seok’s curiosity and kindness opening a door into her world. Josée letting her guard down to let Young-Seok in also brings out something buried within her. She becomes stronger and confident through Young-Seok’s love and care and stops escaping from reality. Her willingness to accept help from others in the later part of the film, instead of confining herself to her home, shows a true acceptance of her disability. Real strength is the ability to know when to ask for help, and it is not a sign of weakness. Both characters’ willingness to be vulnerable allows their identities to grow and evolve. Josée’s decision to let go of Young-Seok in the end is the final step in her character growth. She no longer needs to rely on him to connect herself to the world. She learns to let go of her fears, face reality, and go forth in the world independently as herself.
With Shades of the Heart, Chang-Seok becomes a mirror for the strangers who confide in him, and they become one for him with the heavy secrets that he is unwilling to face. Identity is also explored through memory in the film, most obviously, through the third vignette, with bartender Joo-Eun, who lost many of her memories and half her sight through an accident. She buys memories from her patrons and uses them to write poetry as she attempts to heal and find herself again.
However, it is in the first vignette where Chang-Seok meets Mi-Young (Lee Ji-Eun) in a busy subway station’s café that we see the strength of director Kim’s direction in highlighting these themes. As they are seated in a café, he uses standard medium shots to frame their conversation, occasionally cutting to a wide shot to highlight the café setting. We become lulled into the pace of the scene through their conversation and the reassuring medium over the shoulder shots. So when Director Kim cuts to another angle of the set, using the mirrors in the café to show a wide shot of Chang-Seok and Mi-Young reflected in the mirrors, he achieves three things: 1) a reveal of who Mi-Young is, and who she is to Chang-Seok, 2) setting up the themes of both identity and mortality and 3) flagging to an audience unfamiliar to Kim Jong-Kwan about the play of illusion, dreams and reality in his work. While his films are grounded and realistic, visually, he makes use of the cinematic medium of unreality to create dream-like atmospheres that reveal hidden truths about his characters. Mi-Young is Chang-Seok’s mother, whose memory is failing. She doesn’t remember him initially, as evidenced in their early conversation, but eventually she does. Even in the short conversation upon meeting Chang-Seok, a “stranger” to her, we learn quirks and facets of her personality. But is she still who she is without her memories? The camera lingers on the other aging patrons in the café. Death is the only thing we can be sure of in our lives. As our bodies fail us and we move closer and closer to the end, do we lose who we are in the process? This very first vignette sets up the final reveal of the film in the fourth vignette, aka Chang-Seok’s story. There is a heaviness that follows Chang-Seok through the film as he wanders around Seoul. He comes across an abandoned payphone at night. This initially seems like an image to highlight urban ennui and loneliness, but the payphone comes back again at the end, where Chang-Seok finally picks up the phone. While the call initially seems to be with his estranged wife back in the UK, we learn that he had a child that passed away. Is the call real? Is his wife alive? These questions are never answered. What we do now know and understand is that this has been what Chang-Seok has needed to confront all this time. The shared trauma and confidences of others forced Chang-Seok to confront his own grief and loss that he had numbed himself to.
A new maturity
“I give the spectator the possibility of participating,” director Michael Haneke once said in an interview about his film Amour. “The audience completes the film by thinking about it; those who watch must not be just consumers ingesting spoon-fed images.”7Michael Haneke: There’s no easy way to say this…, Peter Conrad, Guardian, retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2012/nov/04/michael-haneke-amour-director-interview Josée and Shades of the Heart is decidedly less brutal than Amour (director Kim has more tenderness and affection for his characters), but he similarly explores our body’s limitations, mortality, aging, decay, grief, loss, and trauma in both films. His work has also evolved from the soft-focus and alternative music aesthetics typical of indie films to something far more substantial, authentic, confrontational, and uniquely his own. The Table (2016) and Worst Woman (2017) were both intriguing films but still felt like a filmmaker in the middle of finding his style and voice as they could be classified as Hong Sang-Soo-esque. In his new works post-Walking at Night, he seems to have nailed down his style and voice.
Even the music video ‘Bittersweet’, he directed this year for Seventeen’s Mingyu and Wonwoo is pure Kim Jong-Kwan. The use of places and spaces to create mood, the focus on human relationships, the dream-like atmosphere, the multiple interpretations to the narrative; it’s basically the short film of all short films for the director. Meanwhile, Shades of the Heart feels like a culmination of his preferred themes, style, and structure of non-anthology vignettes in a feature film. Josée was a surprise for me. Because of its marketing, use of popular actors and source material, I was prepared for Director Kim’s writing to skew more commercial, so it was nice to be proven otherwise. Indeed, I enjoyed how frustrated and upset people were by the ending, and all the questions they had—it reinforced that director Kim offered something different from what was expected of a traditional Korean romantic melodrama. Personally, just like Haneke, I dislike explanations, and love open endings and different interpretations, so director Kim’s preference to obfuscate what would typically be important plot points and blur the lines between “dream” and “reality” makes perfect sense to me. What is cinema if not unreality? Directors that display such sensitivity to what makes us human are rare enough, but to also understand how less is more shows a sharp understanding of cinema as a medium, so I am thankful for director Kim’s background in short film. There is a definite place for Director Kim in cinema and it will be interesting to see what he does next.