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Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Ma'am's Copy Shop (2009)

Director: ZiZak
Stars: Kim Ho-yeon, Owhoo and Zea Yu-bin
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon IV in Tempe in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
Ma'am's Copy Shop, a 25 minute Korean horror drama from 2009, is surprisingly obscure, but its director, ZiZak, best known as a scriptwriter, doesn't appear to be very well represented online, at least on English language websites. He co-wrote the feature films Soo: Revenge for a Twisted Fate and Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait a few years before this short, in 2006 and 2007 respectively, and may have directed another a couple of years afterwards, 2011's Executioner's Daughter, but it's hard to find information on him. It's unfortunate because this is an intriguing piece, too long and consistently overacted but with a neat sting to it that resonates as it moves forward through its five chapters and renders it far more memorable than other, better short films. The good news is that the film itself is watchable for free at IMDb but, bizarrely, it doesn't even have a page there to tell you who made it. I had to search elsewhere to find that Ma'am is played by Kim Ho-yeon, while Owhoo plays Chang-soo, the unnamed leading man.

It starts relatively simply, with Chang-soo taping up missing posters wherever he can because he wants to find his wife. He does seem a little strange, not merely because he's overly careful with the green duct tape he uses instead of the usual glue. Then again, the lady who's printed 10,000 copies of the poster for him for free, is a little strange too. Her excuse is that she's clearly head over heels for this man, but both of them are painfully nervous. Owhoo is so nervous that I wondered if he isn't even an actor at all, given that searching for his name only brings up Scrabble sites and, from what I can gather from Korean pages, this is his only credit. Perhaps he was an amateur cast for his demeanour, as we'll soon come to realise a lot of why he's the way he is and it's rather appropriate. For a while we wonder how this odd lady, surely the Ma'am of the title, is going to connect with Chang-soo, given that he's married and driven to find his wife, but then we see a photo of her inside that's been torn in half so only she's visible. We have a story.
We never know for sure what happened to Chang-soo's wife and Ma'am's husband, but we're given hints that do ring true, given what we'll see as the film runs on. The only English language site I could find that talks about the film suggests that ZiZak tried to 'express indescribable sadness through repeated despair and emptiness', which is an odd goal for a film that frames itself in longing. Chang-soo longs for his wife, which seems pretty straightforward until we get far enough into the story to realise what delicious irony underpins his search. Similarly, Ma'am longs for someone to share her life with, even though her missing husband apparently treated her like a queen and cooked the very best noodles. Her story arc is a weirder one than Chang-soo's but there's irony there too. ZiZak may have achieved some of the sadness, despair and emptiness he aimed for, but he nails irony much better than any of those. If anything, the ending is the most ironic part of all, because it's not just another example, it's another layer.

I wish I knew more about the background to Ma'am's Copy Shop, because it feels like there's something of note behind it, both as far as the development of the story and the film itself. ZiZak's involvement in a few features suggests that he ought to have had access to highly professional actors, but he clearly went for an awkward amateur feel instead, perhaps to capture the nervousness of his characters before letting us in on their background. Certainly the crew seems to be more than capable, especially the editing from Um Yun-joo and the deceptively natural cinematography of Kim Joo-young. Yet the cast don't match that, from the almost but not quite endearing nature of Chang-soo to the overdone selfishness of a couple of Ma'am's prominent customers. It's possible that this plays better through subtitles to an English audience than it would to Koreans, but it was the oddity of the piece as much as the gradually growing irony of its script that has stayed with me.

Ma'am's Copy Shop can be watched for free at IMDb.

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