Monday, September 27, 2010

Hwioribaram (Eighteen): MoMA, September 30, 2010; BAM, October 2, 2010

Jang Kun-jae's debut feature, which took the Dragons and Tigers award at Vancouver 2009, wastes no time announcing its filmmaker's authority: its first image, a city vista that eventually transforms into a vehicular tracking shot, establishes Jang's visual ambition; and the cut that starts the movie proper ("Three months earlier...") is both disorienting and faintly absurdist. As we watch a pair of young lovers, Tae-Hoon (Seo Jun-yeong) and Mi-Jeong (Lee Min-ji), painfully making their way back to Seoul from an ill-considered, unauthorized weekend escapade, Jang lays out his stylistic cards: the passion that motivates the underage couple is concealed behind a convincing behavioral surface of passivity, exhaustion and denial; once established, the dramatic hook of impending confrontation is deferred in favor of a compelling and detailed documentation of each phase of the journey home; when the drama is finally fulfilled, it is filtered through deadpan absurdist humor that highlights the casual ineptitude intrinsic to the childrearing process. In Jang's hands, young love gives us little opportunity for pleasurable identification: the lovers are forced into a continuous stream of lies and petty swindles, and we neither get the emotional cues that would tell us how to interpret their often irresponsible behavior, nor are given reason to regard the couple as anything but normal, red-blooded Korean kids. Jang paints a portrait of late childhood as an extreme and unsustainable condition that nonetheless must be sustained indefinitely: under the pressure of this unbearable contradiction, the film's naturalism gives way at around the two-thirds point, and Jang audaciously allows the narrative to fragment and reconstitute along more abstract, subjective lines. Naturally a difficult object for audiences in search of the bittersweet pleasure that the young-love genre promises, Hwioribaram (Eighteen) is the most exciting debut I've run across in some time. It plays twice more in the New York Korean Film Festival: at MoMA on Thursday, September 30 at 4:30 pm; and at BAM on Saturday, October 2 at 4:30 pm.