Country: South Korea
Director: Lee Yoon-ki
Adaptation from: 우애령 (Woo Ae-Ryung)’s novel 정혜 (Jung-Hye)
Screenplay: Lee Yoon-ki
Director of Photography: Choi Jin-Woong (최진웅)
Soundscore: Lee Young-Ho (이영호), Lee So-Yoon (이소윤)
Cast: Kim Ji-soo, Hwang Jung-min
Runtime: 98 min
Trailer: on YouTube
A common word in reviews for Yeoja, Jeonghye, Lee Yoon-ki’s gentle and slow-paced debut feature film, is “character study”. A character study it is indeed, for plot and events are minimal. The cinematic sketch is of a young woman, Jeong-hye1, who lives in a small apartment by herself and works as a clerk in a post office a bus ride away. There is little to her life other than a mundane routine of tasks and some slightly puzzling habits. Every morning the day begins with a number of alarm clocks going off, rather noisily. Jeong-hye is usually awake before they ring and, much to the vexation of her neighbour, lets them sound for a while. She then tends to her plants on the balcony with great care and later goes to work, where she exchanges a few polite words with colleagues every now and then. At night, she returns home and she switches on the TV, staring at the flickering images on the screen for hours without really watching. These are her days, which to an outside observer soon seem empty and meaningless.
Jeong-hye’s existence is a lonesome one as she lives at a distance from people. Her aunt and uncle barely hear from her, her mother is dead, the ex-boyfriend she parted ways with long ago. Only her colleagues from work she sees regularly – inevitably so. Yet there is distance there too. Although they will all eat lunch together and sometimes even jointly head to an eatery for dinner, her co-workers are not really friends. They may beg her to stay with them in the eatery, but it seems more like it is her physical presence that is wanted than her actual company – something for which, however, they cannot entirely be blamed. When one colleague asks if anything is troubling Jeong-hye after noting her downbeat demeanour one day, she mumbles, before Jeong-hye can answer, “Even if there was, you wouldn’t say”. Truer words could not be spoken.
Jeong-hye’s obvious disconnect from people would seem to make it easy to dismiss the character as asocial and disagreeable, but after a little while we come to realise that she is, in fact, very caring. There are the potted plants that are looked after meticulously, a kitten that she finds, hiding, unnoticed by everyone for two days, in the bushes and takes in, a heavy-hearted youngster she watches over in his inebriated state and so forth. In one particularly subtle scene – indeed, the moment is so brief that we can’t even entirely be sure it is there at all – Jeong-hye glances at a sleeping bus passenger in front of her, as if worried that his lolling head might hit something or that he might miss his stop. She notes the small things, she sees what others are blind to.
The cinematography complements the close study of character, the camera often centring on mundane aspects like the wooden apartment floor, eye-lashes that have fallen out or Jeong-hye absent-mindedly gathering loose strands of hair. It also offers details that are clues, like the fact that the plant pots sit on books (one of the few clues that receives some further commentary) or Jeong-hye’s careful locking of the front door. If there is explanation, it is given through film snippets inserted into the current-day scenes as flashbacks – sometimes flickering back and and forth at extremely short intervals -, so as to tell a story of both the present and the past, slowly revealing the circumstances behind the protagonist’s self-isolation.
Lee Yoon-ki also makes use of symbols, foremost in Jeong-hye’s acquisition of the kitten. The little kitty is incredibly shy and disappears under Jeong-hye’s couch, staying completely out of sight for the first few days and not even being tempted by food offerings. Reflected in this is the woman’s own reclusive personality. Yet after some time, the animal crawls out, warming to Jeong-hye’s quiet presence. Simultaneously, the main character’s decision to adopt the kitten is a first sign that she is coming out of her shell and starting to interact with the world around her, something that is further emphasised when she starts noticing a man – a writer, equally timid – that keeps returning to the post office and one day reaches out to him.
What motivates these nascent changes however is not so clear – but there is much in Yeoja, Jeonghye that is never really explained. We never learn the cause of death of Jeong-hye’s mother, what exactly happened with her ex-partner nor the details about the childhood trauma. Indeed, the lack of explanations extends beyond the protagonist as the story behind the constantly absent boss at the post office or the cheery man that comes looking for him every day also remain mysteries, even if these backstories are most probably insignificant. The biggest gap however is in the very open ending, which is, I must say, is the most frustrating part of the film. Although possibilities are at least offered (Lee Yoon-ki could have concluded the film a minute earlier and left us completely flummoxed by such a cut-off), it is up to viewers to decide what happens next – without much of a hint of direction given. I do not normally mind open endings – indeed, I often prefer them – but in this case we have rather little to go on from all that came before: we have still only scratched the surface of Jeong-hye’s character and although we have come to know her a bit, it is difficult to tell what she might do. Her future, and that of those whose lives have recently intersected with hers, might go one way or another. It may be that after rewatching the film a number of times it will become possible to make peace with the unanswered questions, it may be that the movement and shimmer of Jeong-hye’s eyes in the final close-up will come to carry a more definite meaning, but this first time round, Lee Yoon-ki’s debut feature ended a few seconds too soon. Regardless, it is very much worth seeing.
1 “정혜” is the Korean word for “girl” but can also be a Korean name. The English title seems to play on this double meaning. (Special thanks to Refresh Daemon for again being my linguistic advisor.)
Overall Verdict: With slow pacing and little plot Yeoja, Jeonghye will certainly not appeal to everyone, but is a charming study of a gentle character that carries a trauma within. Or as they say, Still waters run deep.
Rating: 8/10 – The ending, as I have noted, was frustrating and I thought of giving the film a 7.5 rating initially. However, the more I think about the Yeoja, Jeonghye – the clues and symbols within -, the more I like it.
- Lee’s first film was well received at film festival around the world and decorated with quite a number of awards and nominations. It won New Currents Award (2004 Pusan International Film Festival), the NEPEC Award (2005 Berlin International Film Festival), both Best Director (Lee Yoon-ki) and Best Actress (Kim Ji-Soo) at the 18th Singapore International Film Festival and the Lotus Jury Prize (Deauville Asian Film Festival). It was also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.
- The DVD, at least any version with English subtitles, seems to have gone out of print. Yesasia.com lists it as “out of stock”, cdjapan.com has a DVD with Japanese subtitles only.