Tuesday 14 October 2008

In Between Days (2006)

Anyone reading my reviews here can't fail to notice that I've become enamoured of Korean cinema. Some of it's truly great but somehow I love it even when it isn't. I mentioned that to Ric Meyers, noted kung fu film scholar, at a recent appearance he gave at Chandler Cinemas, and he told me that Korean film is dying. I'm not going to argue with someone who knows a lot more about this stuff than I do, but I'm a few years away from seeing the dying edge, so can happily enjoy the good stuff while it lasts.

This is another award-winning Korean movie (it won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance 'for independent vision'), but it's a little different from the norm, being a Canadian Korean film. It was made by a So Yong Kim, a Korean lady who grew up in California, with a presumably amateur Korean cast. She co-wrote it with Bradley Rust Gray who looks decidedly not Korean, and shot it in Toronto with American, Korean and Canadian money. The Canadian connection bodes well given that another winner at Sundance in 2006 was the Canadian Chinese film Eve and the Fire Horse, and that film was a subtle gem.

This one's subtle too, but less focused. It has virtually no plot to speak of, we really don't care about the details and the story mostly happens in the spaces between where you'd normally expect to find a story. I don't think we're ever told that we're in Toronto: it's just a north American city. Similarly I don't think we're actually told that our central character Aimie is a recent immigrant from Korea, but it's pretty obvious that she speaks Korean fluently and is failing English. If we are told these details, then I blinked and missed them: certainly they're not dwelled on.

What matters is that Aimie spends the film wanting her best friend Tran to be more than her best friend, but he gradually drifts away into the company of other ethnic characters a little more overtly western than she is. And that's it. That's not a lot to go on and depending what you're actually looking for in a movie that may well not be anywhere near enough. It's a love story of sorts and I'm sure Aimie's name isn't accidental, but it's a really one sided love story. Aimie loves Tran, in that teenager sort of way that at once is everything and nothing, but all she gets back is someone to hang with, plus odd requests for money or somewhere to stay.

What's most surprising and most indicative of that 'independent vision' that Sundance rewarded is that Tran isn't cheating on her with anyone; there are no fistfights with cops being called; and certainly no overt scenes of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. There are nods to American culture in the direction that Tran moves towards, but they're subtle ones because we don't really get any details there either. We just see that his other female friends like Michelle speak English, follow American fashions and wear makeup. We see that she can let people sleepover without worrying about what her parents might think. There's nothing specific but the overall tone is unmistakable and it leaves us with what is effectively a ninety minute heartbreak scene.

On that front it's amazingly constructed, subtle to an almost unparalleled level. All the dialogue that matters is what isn't spoken rather than what is. The most telling scenes are the ones where precisely nothing happens, except for the anguish or regret or longing in the eyes of the characters, especially Aimie's through an excellent performance by Jiseon Kim in what appears to be her only film. There aren't a lot of films like that and there aren't a lot of lead characters like that. It's about as anti-Hollywood as you can get. At the end of the day, if this is likely to be something you'll enjoy, you may well find it to be truly awesome and worthy of regular revisits. If it isn't, it could easily feel like the worst film you ever saw.

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