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Year: 2001
Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Director: Song Il-gon
Screenplay: Song Il-gon
Cinematography: Kim Myung-jun
Cast: Seo Joo-hee, Im Yoo-jin, Kim Hye-Na
Music: Roh Young-sim, Lee Jae-jun, Jeong Jae-il
Runtime: 115 min
Trailer: on YouTube

Seen at the Korean Cultural Centre (KCCUK) during the Song Il-gon (송일곤) month of KCCUK’s Korean Film Night programme “2012: Year of the 12 Directors”.

In the southern sea of Korea there lies an island by the name of 꽃섬 (Ggotseom, or Flower Island) where all misery and sorrow is forgotten. Ggotseom is where Ok-nam (Seo Joo-hee), Hye-na (Kim Hye-Na) and Ju-jin (Im Yoo-jin) are headed, although their journey does not start together. At the beginning of Song Il-gon’s feature film the three women are strangers to one another – solitary beings wrangling with their own pain under the same grey sky of Seoul.

Separate segments introduce each character: There is Ok-nam, a married, 30-something woman with a daughter, who decides to buy a piano for her child by prostituting herself and ends up with an old geezer who just so has to die on her when they have sex; then there is Hye-na, a 17-year old high school student, who has been raped and gives birth in a public toilet, all alone, writhing in pain and eventually flushing the fetus down the toilet; and, finally, Ju-jin, a beautiful opera singer with an angelic voice, who has recently been diagnosed with cancer that can only be cured through the removal of her tongue – a death sentence for her in every aspect.

Setting out on their journey to the mythical Flower Island.

Ok-nam and Hye-na cross paths first. Ok-nam, told by her husband “not to come home for a while” after he leaves her at the police station, is bound for Flower Island from the start, in the hope that she might find peace there. Hye-na, in search of the mother she never met, boards the same bus as Ok-nam, but they find themselves – thanks to a driver who hijacks the vehicle for his own purposes and throws them off the bus – in a snowy landscape rather than at their intended destination. It is there that they encounter Ju-jin, who has opted out of the potentially life-saving operation and gassed herself up in her car, intent on ending things her way rather than suffering a meaningless existence without a voice. Ok-nam and Hye-na manage to save Ju-jin’s life and, with nowhere else to go, the three eventually set off to finding their way to the mythical Flower Island – and their own healing.

Ggotseom has many high points, but where it succeeds the most is in the characterisation of its three protagonists. While we hardly learn any facts or details about them and they themselves seem to share little of their background with one another, each woman is portrayed in such a way that their suffering as well as the essence of their personality are conveyed eloquently. Rather than through dialogue, which is surprisingly limited in the film, this is achieved through the characters’ actions as well as each actress’s physical performance – their facial expressions and bodily gestures. Ju-jin, for example, has no more than a handful of lines for the entirety of Ggotseom but her empty eyes say everything we need to know about her inner torment.

Ju-jin, suffering in silence.

Ok-nam is more talkative, at least when needed. She seems quiet and meek as we initially witness her disgusted by the old man who pays her for sex and cowering from her husband in dejection, unable to face people and speak her true thoughts and feelings. She is also plain looking – the actress appears make-upless, her character strongly contrasted with the effortlessly gorgeous Ju-jin and the visually much more striking Hye-na – and comes across as insignificant and easily dismissed by her surroundings. However, Ok-nam takes on the role of the mother and caretaker within the trio, soon revealing herself to be as fiercely protective of her companions as a lioness of her cubs. She pulls Hye-na away to shield her from further pain when questions about the teen’s mother are met with a stubborn silence and unflinchingly wipes off the blood as Ju-jin’s illness takes a turn for the worse. The persistence and strength that Ok-nam displays come unexpectedly and make her not only an extremely admirable but also, for me, the most interesting character of the three.

The motherly Ok-nam.

Hye-na, meanwhile, projects the tough image of the teen rebel with her short-cropped, dyed hair and smoky-eye make-up. Hidden beneath this exterior is a broken individual who has been abandoned by her mother and impregnated by her rapist, but also a sensitive and creative one. Hye-na records everything around her with a film camera and carries two angel wings with her, silently dancing with them in the half-dusk, as if wishing to fly away somewhere.

Teen rebel with clipped wings: Hye-na.

The characters are perceptively sketched by the director and impressively performed by the three actresses, and further complemented by the film’s overall cinematographic approach and the soundscore. But Ggotseom does not do everything well. A number of minor characters (the gay musicians in an extended love quarrel, the friend of Hye-na’s long-lost mother who doesn’t really reveal anything to the daughter that craves even the tiniest bit of knowledge about the complete stranger who gave birth to her) are somewhat distracting and add little to the storyline. There are also explanatory gaps in the narrative, for example, it is unclear where the old man that helps Ok-nam and Hye-na save Ju-jin’s life suddenly appears from as we skip from Ju-jin’s car to the man’s dwelling without ever so much as even the briefest introduction. Similarly, Ok-nam’s ‘angel friend’ simply knows when the three women are due to arrive at the shore of Flower Island despite the fact that no boats go there on a regular basis. Song Il-gon also uses some cut-in shots, seemingly to create a particular artistic style, but it is not always clear what the shots are of (the ceiling of the old man’s house? a glimpse through the window?), thus rendering them ineffective.

It is not that everything needs to be explicitly stated or revealed in a film – indeed, Ggotseom has moments of its own when little to no clarification is provided yet ideas are clear (e.g. in the final scenes, seen through Hye-na’s camera, images become grainy and the silhouette of a woman appears, hinting briefly at her dead mother and the world beyond; or the implied moment Ju-jin finally reveals her illness to her companions). But subtlety and nuance are not easily achieved as they take experience and skill. Given that none of Ggotseom’s unexplained moments and narrative gaps are problematic for the film as a whole as well as the fact that this was Song’s first full-length feature, we can let the director get away with it and instead simply appreciate what is done well and promises more wonderful films in the future.

Overall Verdict: Ggotseom is a hauntingly lonesome tale of three women in pain, which offers just a glimpse of a silver lining.

Rating: 8/10 – this seems a little high, 7 or 7.5/10 might be more accurate given the film’s weaknesses. And yet: I sway towards a higher rating, because Ggotseom moves me (I’ll confess: I cried at the end).

Bonus Bits:

There is little available on this film, which doesn’t even have an entry on hancinema.net‘s database. I found few reviews and only a handful of mostly low-quality images.

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