Morality is messy.
Kwon Man-ki’s debut feature Clean Up understands this, taking a nuanced approach to an act typically cast as irredeemably despicable. While the film’s minimalism makes it difficult to discern a stylistic identity for Kwon, his authorial voice can be heard loud and clear through Clean Up’s musings on repentance and vindication.
Motivated by the financial needs of their sick son, Jeong-ju (Yoon Ji-hye) and her husband (Kim Su-hyun) kidnap and safely return child Min-gu (Kim Dae-gun) in exchange for ransom. Rather than focusing on the dramatics of the kidnapping itself, writer-director Kwon dwells on the fallout by setting the story 12 years after the event. Now childless and divorced from her former partner-in-crime, Jeong-ju works as a cleaner (a rather apt metaphor). Min-gu, fresh from a stint in jail and homeless, unexpectedly joins her company and sends Jeong-ju into a panic. Although she fears the unaware Min-gu may recognise her as his kidnapper, Jeong-ju, propelled by guilt, inserts herself into the troubled boy’s life in her quest for atonement.
Given the film’s simple cinematography, morose tone, and restrained acting, it is up to the narrative to keep viewers’ attention. For the most part writer-director Kwon succeeds thanks to well-paced reveals of the motivations and consequences to the kidnapping. Following an efficient set-up, Clean Up settles into a comfortable rhythm, steadily uncovering Jeong-ju’s justification for her actions and how they drastically impacted Min-gu’s life. The interplay between these aspects and their philosophical implications fit together nicely like a jigsaw – although there are the occasional odd pieces which don’t quite fit, such as Min-gu’s brief friendship with a street dog.
Evolving alongside audiences’ understanding of Clean Up’s characters is Jeong-ju’s response to Min-gu’s return and how it shapes her identity. Initially terrified Min-gu will find out her past, she clams up in fear around him. In these early moments, Kwon’s direction to Yoon to “limit and suppress” her emotions comes off as bland and frustrating as opposed to stoic. Thankfully, once Jeong-ju discovers how greatly her actions have affected Min-gu, Yoon is given more of an opportunity to impress. Scenes in which Jeong-ju must confront her shame while maintaining her facade as a stranger to Min-gu are particularly strong, like when Min-gu reveals that the ransom from the kidnapping led to his mother’s death, leaving Jeong-ju in a pile of tears.
As Jeong-ju discovers more and becomes emotionally-invested in Min-gu’s hardships, she takes on a motherly role to Min-gu. While the concept of a kidnapper forcing her (now adult) victim into playing her son is certainly uncomfortable, it works nicely into the film’s broader questions. Who are apologies really for? Are they to ease the hurt of the victim, or are they really just a way to ease our own guilt? Is Jeong-ju earnestly caring for Min-gu, or is she just trying to absolve her own shame and grief by replacing her deceased son?
The troubling nature of their relationship is further complicated by Hang-min’s romantic attraction to Jeong-ju. The conflict between Jeong-ju and Min-gu’s respective interpretations of their relationship makes for some uneasy viewing, with Ming-gu testing audience sympathies by interrupting his fragile demeanour with sudden outbursts of anger and thoughts of committing sexual assault.
As Clean Up enters its final moments, the film suddenly drops these challenging character and narrative threads, checking them off as ‘resolved’ and quickly moving onto the more expected and traditionally exciting prospect of Min-gu discovering Jeong-ju’s involvement in his kidnapping. The switch feels sudden and rushed, and a brief dip into more traditional thriller territory during the climax is undercut by Kwon’s subdued arthouse atmosphere. At this point, it becomes difficult to ignore the heavy-handedness of Kwon’s dialogue and personal standpoint. Kwon’s thoughtful contemplations on the pain of guilt (“Do you know how hard it is for me to live with sin?”) and selfish intentions behind forgiveness (“You did it not because you are sorry, [but to] find peace of mind”) are certainly reasonable. But the bluntness of it all turns these characters into a direct mouthpiece for Kwon to hammer down his message (a point the director himself has acknowledged when we interviewed him), which may pull some out of the story.
Though perhaps a little too forward in execution, Kwon’s courage to dig into the complex and morally-grey justifications we as humans use to clean our conscience is admirable. Furthermore, the way in which Kwon skillfully arranges these lines of enquiry within Clean Up’s narrative demonstrates a surprising level of maturity and assertiveness for a rookie 23-year-old director. It’s surprising then that Kwon says he wants to move out of the arthouse space and move into commercial filmmaking for the foreseeable future. This prospect is certainly intriguing, if not difficult to imagine – after all, Clean Up’s tepid style and overt musings on challenging subject matter seem antithetical to the spectacle and crowd-pleasing characteristics of mainstream cinema. It will be interesting to see how Kwon adapts to commercial filmmaking, and if any semblance of Clean Up’s impressive contemplative aspects carry over to his future works.