August 27, 2007
In Between Days and "Let's Not Cry!" share striking similarities: Korean directors, exotic (at least in the eyes of Korean audiences) locations, and refined experimental spirits which earned the filmmakers awards at international film festivals.
In Between Days, a debut feature by Kim So-yong, a Korean American multimedia artist, delves into the life of a Korean immigrant who has to deal with not only the strangeness of adapting to a new culture but also a sense of loneliness that deepens along with her faltering relationship with a boy she has a crush on.
This Sundance and Berlin prize-winner, to be released nationwide on Sept. 6, literally zooms in on Aimie (Jiseon Kim), a teenage girl who recently arrived in a North American city. But she finds it hard to find a comfortable place. She's already bored with her school, thanks largely to her poor English, and even the small apartment where she lives with her divorced mother looks dreary as the depressing winter cityscape the film features intermittently.
Aimie tries to secure some emotional relief from her handsome but gangly friend Tran ( Taegu Andy Kang), but their relationships never go forward as she wishes. She wants genuinely romantic gestures from Tran, given that they spend much time loafing around together, but Tran does not seem to have any intention to turn their "best friend" relationships into something else.
Director Kim's tenacious camera relies on extreme close-up framing to capture the subtle change in Aimie's emotions -- from expectations to frustration to disappointment -- in a style that brings more authentic realism than any other Korean initiation film.
The film's virtue lies in its self-restraint in portraying Aimie's adolescent travails that get complicated with her immigration experience. Aimie is utterly unable to handle the difficulty of establishing new relations, even with other Koreans living in the same quarters, but director Kim does not fall into a melodrama rut; instead, she keeps her camera closer to Aimie, tracking her subtle facial expressions that tell volumes about her emotions, angst and uncertainty.
All of this is thankfully cliche-free. Director Kim's unique hyper-realistic cinematography also helps evoke plenty of sympathy with Aimie's confused state that is delicately accentuated by the wintry background, leaving a glimmer of hope for the lonely girl when the spring comes.
In "Let's Not Cry!", second feature by Min Byeong-hoon, the protagonist Muhamad is similarly in a lonely state, but unlike Aimie he has only himself to blame for his hopeless predicament.
The film, which has won awards at Karlovy Vary and Thessaloniki film festivals, is set in the ex-Soviet satellite state of Uzbekistan, depicting Muhamad's struggle to survive through an endless stream of lies. This talkative man never stops shaking hands with people and dispensing friendly gestures.
The trouble is that Muhamad is actually on the run after running up a huge amount of debt at a casino, though the unsuspecting villagers in his hometown initially assume he's a successful violinist in Moscow.
When confronted about his true conditions, Muhamad never flinches. Instead, he keeps his voice up and talks fast in an apparent bid to steer the conversation in his favor.
But his usual trick does not work on his hard-working mother who leads a painful life in a shabby house with her teenage son. Noticing something fishy about Muhamad's sudden return, she secretly checks his son's violin case and finds out that he is not what he claims to be.
Muhamad, however, keeps bragging about his celebrated life in Moscow as a leading musician who frequently goes abroad for staging performances. His mother asks Muhamad to stay in the hometown and live with the family, a kind offer that is flatly rejected by Muhamad who is broke and yet adamantly unwilling to live in the thrall of poverty in a remote, scarcely populated village.
Muhamad seeks a breakthrough in cheating a fortune out of his grandfather who digs up rocks and breaks them into smaller pieces, and build rock formations, a toil that seems to bring no financial reward at all.
Well versed in worldly pursuits, Muhamad cannot understand why his grandfather is wasting his time and energy away, working his way through debris of rocks at a deserted gold mine in the mountains. Nor can he understand why all of his friends flatly reject his distress calls for money.
In the meantime, a wealthy and bossy man in the town is preparing a big wedding party for his son, and asks Muhamad to play some music at the party. Unfortunately, he has no time to join the festivity because he has to leave soon, with police tracking down on him in connection with the debt-and-run.
For all the personal weaknesses, Muhamad is hardly a wicked character. He is rather a figure who can easily draw some sympathy. He, after all, asks his younger brother to refrain from telling a lie in a preachy tone. He also knows how to reciprocate a gesture of kindness (or affection) properly, even if things exchanged involve just cheap accessories and eggs.
Made in 2001, "Let's Not Cry!" is finally set to be screened at a local theater in Seoul from Aug. 30 and yet its cinematic audacity is more striking and powerful than ever.
By Yang Sung-jin