Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
TIFF ’14: Gyeongju
is one of South Korea’s leading tourist destinations, famous for its Silla-era
royal tombs and Buddhist temples. Of course, people live there all year round, going
about their business in the shadow of the past. Carrying on with life poses its
own quiet challenges for a visiting academic and a local teahouse owner in Zhang
Lu’s Gyeongju (trailer here), which screens
during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.
Hyeon has almost become more Chinese than Korean. For many years the socially
awkward expat has taught regional political science at Beijing University. He
is fluent in Chinese and married a Chinese woman. In fact, employees of the
visitors’ center just assume he is Chinese. After a long absence, he returned
for the funeral of an old friend. In the mood for reflection, he subsequently
takes a side-trip to Gyeongju hoping to find a particular teahouse that looms
large in his memory. He duly finds the establishment, now run by Gong Yun-hui,
but she has papered over the obscene folk painting he remembers so well (for
Gong assumes Choi is some sort of pervert, given his unhealthy fascination with
the painting, but she will change her opinion over time. Choi will return to
the one spot in town where he feels somewhat relaxed after a failed attempt to
reconnect with an old flame. As he lingers in Gong’s company, we start to see
they are somewhat kindred spirits. However, her friends will not take to him,
particularly the police detective who has long carried a torch for Gong.
Gyeongju is an exquisitely
sad, deeply felt film that has much to reveal about its characters. Steadily
and almost stealthily Zhang peels back their protective layers, as their conversation
becomes less guarded. Yet, unlike the Linklater “Before” trilogy (which some
have compared it with), you really cannot say Gyeongju is a talky film, because of its eloquent silences.
you will be hard pressed to find anyone who can say more with so few words as
Shin Min-a. As Gong (or the Goddess of Gyeongju as her dedicated friends call
her), she is truly radiant. When she slowly divulges her painful history, it is
absolutely devastating. In contrast, Park Hae-il deliberately looks genuinely
ill at ease with himself and others. Yet, the chemistry he develops with Shin
is subtle, but very real.
from the Tumuli Park Belt tombs, Zhang (the former documentarian) does not
fully exploit Gyeongju’s historic attractions. Nevertheless, the film has a
tactile sense of place. You can practically smell the mustiness after a late
afternoon rain and feel the late night breeze as Gong, Choi, and the detective drunkenly
clamber up one of the tombs.
Throughout the film, Zhang masterfully commands
the mood and tone, but he nearly sabotages himself when we hear of the
potential tragic end of two tangential characters met in passing. Wondering if
they are really the one who met such a fate temporarily distracts from the
bittersweet business at hand. Nevertheless, Shin and Park quickly bail him out
with their smart, mature work. Unusually (and refreshingly) chaste for a
ships-in-the-night film, Gyeongju is
loaded with understated power and resonance. Highly recommended, it screens
again tomorrow morning (9/11) and this coming Sunday (9/14), as part of this
Labels: Korean Cinema, TIFF '14