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Year: 2011
South Korea
Language: Korean
Director: Lee Yoon-ki
Adaptation from:  
Areno Inoue’s 2003 short story「 帰れない猫」 (Kaerenai Neko/The Cat that Can Never Come Back)
Screenplay: Lee Yoon-ki
Cinematography: Jang Young-Ok
Cast: Hyon Bin, Im Soo-jeong
Runtime: 105 min
Trailer: on YouTube

Seen at the Apollo Cinema (Picadilly Circus) as part of the Lee Yoon-ki (이준익) month of the KCCUK’s Korean Film Night programme “2012: Year of the 12 Directors”.

Ever so often when I watch a film, the narrative unfolding on the screen skips a beat: something is hushed over or ignored in a way that doesn’t realistically reflect life. Characters, for example, end up confined in some space for days but somehow the issue that there is no toilet never seems to come up. Or certain moments – like the moment after a couple has sex – are glossed over. Gaps of this sort may be to trim off bits that are not essential and to keep a tight storyline, however, too often it simply feels that directors take the easy way out, omitting what is too awkward or simply too mundane to show, leading, in the worst of cases, to lapses in the film’s narrative logic.

Saranghanda, Saranghaji Anhneunda isn’t that kind of film. It takes everything that other films leave out and leaves it in. Although there are no toilet or after-sex scenes either (but only because they do not occur in the narrative timeframe), all the ordinary details of reality unfold in full glory in the two-part film: the 9 minutes of a 9-minute conversation (recorded in a one-shot take) as the protagonists drive to the airport and a couple of hours one rainy afternoon two days later in the remaining 96 minutes of runtime. You can essentially scribble down the recipe for the pasta dish that Jiseok (Hyun Bin) prepares in a near-final part of the film as just about every step of the cooking process is documented: the pasta, we see, is boiled in water with salt (2 heaped tsp) and a large dash of oil, the thickly sliced garlic is fried first in a tilted pan, with some halfmoon-shaped slices of courgette being added and lightly browned, and then some more, before the tomatoes follow and eventually the cooked spaghetti noodles. If this sounds like a nightmare of a film to you, you would be well advised to stop reading now and find yourself something else to watch. Personally, however, I relish these kind of experiments of extremes (Dhakira li-l nisyan/Memory for ForgetfulnessMahmoud Darwish’s 180 page memoir of a single day in besieged Beirut, with some ten pages craving a cup of coffee he is unable to make for the fear of a bomb hitting the kitchen, was fascinating to me).

Divisive ride to the airport.

The story in Saranghanda, Saranghaji Anhneunda is minimalistic. The already mentioned Jiseok and his wife, Youngshin (Im Soo-yeong), have become distant over the five years of their marriage. As Jiseok takes Youngshin to the airport for a short trip she is making to Japan, she reveals that she will be moving out – and that she has another man. A few days later Youngshin returns to pack her things while Jiseok lingers and loiters around the house, helpfully – and meticulously – wrapping dishes for her and brewing coffee. Outside, torrents of rain come down and the clock ticks away the minutes until the hour of the couple’s separation. With the characters often being in different parts of the house, dialogue is generally sparse as by themselves they only stare, lost in thoughts, into the vacant air or at invisible things. If their paths cross, few words are exchanged, sentences are restrained and, given the situation, hollow (“Can you shut the staircase window?). This is both a reflection of the emotional as well as physical estrangement from one another but also the cause of their estrangement: their inability to talk to each other about things that matter, to express, whether in words or through touch, their true thoughts.

If the uncomfortable opening scene in the car establishes the spousal estrangement, the film’s significantly longer second part reinforces it through the characters’ interactions or lack thereof. The director also relies on symbolism to convey distancing, chiefly through the house – where most of the story is set – and its very particular physicality of space and form: there are stark contrasts of black and white in this place, visual lines are predominantly straight and sharp, like the black staircase railing against the white walls. The building itself feels like a closed-in labyrinth whose full layout is difficult to discern as there are many dark corners and narrow spaces, always leaving the sensation that there are some rooms we have missed. With its uncertain and half-shade layout the house imprisons and isolates its inhabitants (there are separate “his” and “her” rooms) just like the couple’s relationship has been trapping them in bad habits of non-communication and hidden feelings.

Lines of separation and curtains veiling things.

Although the protagonists seem to have lived in the house already for several years, it simply does not feel like a home, like a place inhabited and lived in. It is too neat and in parts rather sparsely decorated, as if a show place rather than the cozy-comfy dwelling of a family. Jiseok and Youngshin tiptoe around the rooms awkwardly and when their neighbours unexpectedly drop in after their kitten has gone missing, these strangers seem more at home than the actual inhabitants of the place: not only do said neighbours invite themselves in, but they walk around rather freely, seating themselves on the living room sofa (next to one another, while Jiseok and Youngshin, of course, sit separately) and turning on the TV. They are so comfortable that the husband starts switching TV channels and the wife requests tuna fish to draw the cat out from hiding. The two even bicker with one another, revealing a homelife and relationship that could not be more different from Jiseok and Youngshin’s.

Much credit for the film’s excellence goes to the actors, Hyun Bin and Im Soo-jeong. Except for a few, brief phone conversations (Youngshin with her mother, and later with her lover; Jiseok with a restaurant where he has reserved a table for the evening) and the scene with the neighbours, Hyun’s and Im’s characters are the only protagonists in the story and essentially carry the entire film on their shoulders. With the limited dialogue, it is through gestures and facial expressions that they must give insight into these individuals, who both however are incredibly subdued and reticent persons. Youngshin twice hitting Jiseok on the chest with her fist is as much of an emotional outburst that we get to see, but it is powerful enough for us to read her frustration and helplessness at the whole situation.

Downstairs: Lost in Thoughts.

This leaves the film’s ending: how is the final scene to be interpreted? What comes next? (Warning: spoilers ahead.) It is not certain, for the final words uttered, the final actions, are inconclusive and ambiguous enough in a manner that keeps all possibilities open. Although the rain and flooding make it impossible for Youngshin to leave the house that night as planned, we know that the weather will eventually change and that she might very well take off for good once it does – or that she might stay. Interestingly, despite the openness provided, the director himself made clear in the post-film Q&A that his own interpretation was a turn for the better, for Jiseok and Youngshin to continue together. Indeed, there are details – often very subtle ones – that support such a ‘happy ending’. The first appears quite early on in the car-drive segment. As Youngshin mentions her wish to divorce Jiseok, the car enters, for the first time, a tunnel, darkness spreading over the screen. Jiseok scarcely shows any reaction, but when he eventually asks whether there is any chance for her to reconsider, the car exits the tunnel and light floods into the scene, as if signalling that there is still hope.

As unforthcoming as Jiseok is with regards to revealing his feelings – he is so non-reactive that it seems he has no emotional investment in his marriage at all and that it does not matter to him either way – it is only tiny moments like these that hint at his desire for Youngshin to stay. Another occurs when he explains to his wife how to close the somewhat tricky staircase window of their house, his words “Next time you are stuck…” seem nonsensical at that particular, still rather early point in the film: obviously it is a window Youngshin will never have to shut again. Retrospectively, however, it is a sign of Jiseok reaching out and trying to hold on to her. More decisive moments follow closer to the film’s finishing line: when the husband hesitantly leans in to kiss his wife as she is tending to his injured hand (a motion that goes unnoticed by Im’s character) and, finally, when chopping onions makes Jiseok’s eyes water. As he retreats into the bathroom upstairs to wash his face, we can, after he has rinsed his eyes, just about notice a tear. Again, Youngshin is not there to witness this, and yet, just like the almost-kiss, this tear matters: for a person as introverted as Jiseok these outward expressions of emotions are highly significant.

Upstairs: Silent contemplation.

But it is not only Jiseok that is holding on, Youngshin is too. She may be moving out, but her packing is aimless as she wanders around the rooms, randomly selects items only to put them back again. She gets lost in thoughts and memories, rather unlike a person having an affair and intent on leaving her partner for someone else (one would presume she would want things done as quickly as possible and preferably when the soon-to-be-ex is not at home). Youngshin however clearly lingers, as if to provoke a reaction from Jiseok, something that is also seen in the car scene when she declares that she has another man and offers to name him. Back at the house, she requests for Jiseok to prepare a pasta dinner – a meal that holds a significance for the couple – and does not permit him to throw out a damaged little figurine because he gave it to her. Most suggestive however is her response to the question of the neighbours, blissfully unaware of the kind of situation they have walked into, whether Youngshin and Jiseok have children. “Not yet” Youngshin answers, “Not yet” when a simple “No” would have sufficed. The final signpost to a happy ever after – or at least a turning point for the couple – is the kitten, who comes out of her hiding place, ready to face the world.

Saranghanda, Saranghaji Anhneunda is a meticulously slow film. It relishes its subtleties and symbolic elements, of which I’ve noted a few but more await perceptive viewers, like the absence of a musical score until the credits roll, the physical touch as Youngshin inspects the scratch on Jiseok’s hand, or the monochrome colour palette. These understated carriers of meaning are sometimes easy to miss, even more so because some (like the clock in Youngshin’s room that quietly reminds us, at a little past six o’clock, that the couple’s parting time is soon approaching) are not explored further. However, if decoding films “subdued and delicately wrought” (source) is your thing, you’ll love Lee Yoon-ki’s most recent offering.

Overall Verdict: Slow but subtle, Saranghanda, Saranghaji Anhneunda will not be equally appreciated by all viewers. It requires the ability to closely read a film and if you have to ask, as one of Korean Film Night audience members did, what significance the blatantly present kitten has, chances are you will have missed much of what makes this film worth watching. I loved it, you might not.

Rating: 9.5/10

Bonus Bits:

  • Saranghanda, Saranghaji Anhneunda was Hyun Bin’s last film before he entered the military to complete his two years of service. So, Hyun Bin fans, if you are one of those fans that would watch their idol do taxes (literally quoting from a K-drama blog here – see comment 1.4! – even that person isn’t referring to Binnie), here’s your chance.
  • UPDATE: Reading the review over at Eastern Kicks reminded me that I forgot to talk about Jiseok’s fringe, which is yet another symbolic element in the film. Other than probably driving the Hyun Bin fans crazy over the fact that they barely get to see their idol’s face, it is actually rather significant and unmissable: behind this fringe hide Jiseok’s concealed feelings, all that isn’t visible but that Youngshin wants to see again. Some other tidbits that I scribbled down right after watching the film: 1) the rainstorm is announced on the radio when the two characters are driving to the airport. 2) When the neighbour switches TV channels from the news/weather report, it is a German film that comes on (not sure which, it’s a too short moment to tell I think – you can just barely catch the language changing).
  • UPDATE: Pre-screening group interview with Lee Yoon-ki from my fellow London K-bloggers.
  • Lee Yoon-ki interview at the Berlinale (from The Hollywood Reporter).
  • Some reviews: Hanguk Yeonghwa, Eastern KicksVariety, What Culture, Screen Daily, The Hollywood Reporter.

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