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Year: 2008
Director: Kim So-yong (김소영)
Screenplay: Kim So-yong (김소영)
Cinematography: Misawa Anne
Cast: Kim Hee Yeon (김희연), Kim Song Hee (김성희), Lee Soo Ah (이수아), Kim Mi Hyang (김미향), Park Boon Tak (박분택)
Runtime: 89 min
Trailer: on YouTube (subtitled)

This post is part of the Korean Cinema Blogathon 2012, which runs from March 5-11. Featuring the best of posts on Korean film from blogs around the web, the blogathon is hosted by CineAwesome this year and mirrored by New Korean CinemaVCinemaKOFFIAHangul Celluloid and Modern Korean Cinema.

In Namooeobsneun San a mother abandons her two children and leaves them fending for themselves – so read most synopses for the film. This plot-in-a-nutshell generates a biased view of a heartless mother, but the story isn’t quite so simple. Namooeobsneun San opens with one of the children, seven-year-old Jin (Kim Hee Yeon), at school and attentively listening to her teacher, engrossed in learning. She seems, at this point, no different from her classmates. Once lessons are over she heads home through the busy streets of Seoul and knocks on a door. As it opens and an irritated woman reprimands her for being late rather than offering words of welcome, we realise that it isn’t home that she has reached, but the neighbour’s, where she is picking up younger sister Bin (Kim Song Hee). The scene is a first indicator that the girls’ life is perhaps no quite so normal, Jin having responsibilities that go a bit beyond her tender age.

It is a one-parent household that the two children live in, with a mother (Lee Soo Ah) that works full-time and simply too overwhelmed with all that she must manage by herself. Mom struggles to keep things together, financially as well as emotionally, unable to give her daughters what they need, even if that is rather little: Jin only hopes for praise for her schoolwork, her mother, however, is too distracted by her worries to look at it – distracted, overwhelmed, but not heart- and loveless, as a touching scene set later that night reveals.

Hungry Bin.

The family is soon forced to leave their home and Seoul, the mother taking Jin and Bin to their aunt’s, whose feelings towards the girls are summed up when she gorges on food in a restaurant in front of them, grumbling “Why should I waste my money. The children will eat at home.” The rejection from their grandfather, somewhere in an even more rural Korea, is equally harsh and cruelly voiced within earshot of the sisters, who at this point are feeling increasingly displaced. Only the old, wrinkled grandmother has love to share, pushing the children in front of a warm fire and peeling sweet potatoes for them.

Namooebsneun San is both narrated as well as filmed from the perspective of a child. Using shots of close-up to medium range, it rarely provides a ‘bigger picture’, the restrictive image frames symbolically reflecting the situation that unfolds before the viewers’ eyes. The camera stays close to the children’s faces, focusing on hands and feet, on grasshoppers and piggy bank coins, and interiors of certain rooms. The small world that the children live in is depicted, the camera never venturing beyond certain boundaries, and, indeed, zooming in even closer once the children leave the metropolitan Seoul behind for increasingly more rural parts. What we see is as much as what the children know – very little: after depositing them with their aunt, the mother searches for the absentee father that the girls have never met, questions like where?, why now? and for how long? remaining unanswered as Jin and Bin are still too young to be given all the details.

Jin and Bin’s Piggy Bank.

Divided into three segments of somewhat uneven length, the film’s pacing is slow. Little happens, time barely and imperceptibly inches along, making it impossible to tell how many days or weeks have passed and mirroring the experience of Jin and Bin as they wait. For them, every day without their mother feels like an eternity, although the younger Bin finds diversion by making friends with a neighbourhood boy and nibbling on grilled grasshoppers (a local favourite). Jin struggles more, acutely feeling a sense of abandonment and, as a result of her inability to do anything about the situation, frustration and anger. With her greater awareness of what is happening Jin is not as receptive to the new environment, except when it offers an opportunity for her to bring back her old life. She becomes interested in the grasshoppers only when realising that she can earn money by selling them and fill up the piggy bank given to the girls’ by the Mom with the promise that she will be back by the time that it is full.

The film’s most touching moment comes with the final scenes. The children, being children despite all that they have experienced, request for the grandmother to buy them shoes for the winter. In her ever-kind manner the woman agrees, but as Jin looks at her she notices that the grandmother’s own shoes have holes, the reality of situation dawning on her. It is proof to how much the older girl – who provides much of the narrative lens of the film – has matured during her search for a home and her decision to use the carefully guarded piggy-bank money to buy the old woman shoes instead signals that the children’s journey has – at least symbolically – come to an end.

Overall Verdict: Without any big ambitions – no grander message or clear answers - Namooeobsneun San provides a glimpse into the world of two children longing for their mother and a loving home, offering viewers a small, unpretentious film that will gently tug at the heartstrings.

Rating: 7.5/10

Bonus Bits:

  • Director Kim So-yong’s For Ellen (2012) is set to screen at the first Sundance London in April. Stars Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood, Meek’s Cutoff) and Margarieta Levieva (The Invisible, Adventureland).

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