Deputy Culture Editor - Film & Writer
Manon Haag reviews Microhabitat and Anna Rieser reviews The Poet and the Boy at London Korean Film Festival in Glasgow
The London Korean Film Festival brought two rare films to Scottish screens this November in an effort to spread national film works beyond their established London base. This commendable effort was met with interest from Glaswegian audiences at the GFT and with different takes from our two reviewers. While Film and TV editor Manon Haag was highly impressed by festival headliner Microhabitat, Anna Rieser remains unconvinced by The Poet and the Boy. Yet, both films showed great promise and exciting new talents, being both directed by first-timers. Yang-Hee Kim’s The Poet and the Boy explores complicated relationships with sexuality, art and oneself with the same tenderness and humanity as Jeon Go-Woon’s delightful Microhabitat.
Jeon Go-Woon’s Microhabitat is a "micromovie" made of "micro-moments" for maximum delight! Protagonist Miso’s life is full of incredible instances of grace. This is not because her life is extraordinary in itself but because director Jeon transforms the mundane domestic tasks of her daily life into a visual spectacle. Never have I been so delighted by scraping the bathtub and cleaning the dishes, on or off screen. Carefully lit and meticulously choreographed close-ups of Miso’s actions celebrate the simplest aspects of life wrapped up in bittersweet melancholy. Miso is a strong female lead, not because she leads an extraordinary life, but precisely because there is skill and grace in how mundane her decisions and actions are. This, ultimately, makes her portrayal extremely powerful and highly relatable.
Microhabitat follows Miso (the magnetic Lee Som) after she decides to leave her flat and reconnect with her former bandmates in the hope to stay with one of them. Her exploration reveals the strain of time on close relationships and the destructive power of social expectations over idealism. While Miso has held on to a life of small pleasures away from responsibilities, she finds dissatisfaction and pent-up frustration behind every door she knocks on. Each visit provides fleeting moments of tenderness accompanied in equal measure by petty comments, scolding, and all types of crazy. The mild despair of Miso’s former bandmates is elegantly wrapped up in humour and irony which magically turns the tragic of the plot into a soft enveloping embrace. As I sit watching a highly relatable retelling of what visiting estranged friends often feels like, Microhabitat becomes a (micro)bubble of comfort for me to inhabit. There is strength in Miso’s choice for cigarettes and whisky over the security of a flat. There is strength too in the films’ laughing-off the outrageous living conditions and social conventions in modern day Seoul. But this strength is not expressed through aggression and stubbornness in the face of adversity: rather, it shines through Miso’s kindness towards often ungrateful relations. Jeon’s film is a masterfully executed work of grace and powerful minimalism which criticise without ever antagonising, which comments without condemning. Both in its plot and in its form, Microhabitat is a remarkable first feature and an undeniable success.
The Poet and the Boy follows Hyeon Taek Ji (Ik-joon Yang), a listless poet living on Jeju island. The Island is a popular holiday destination and provides the backdrop of an out of season seaside town: dully lit and quiet with the memory of its vibrant summer self. Protagonist Hyeon suffers from a lack of drama; at his poetry reading, he is told his life is "too comfortable" for that of a poet whose job is to "cry in the place of others". He and his wife seemingly got together out of social necessity and are now sweetly comfortable, but far from passionate - a problem, since she is desperate for a baby. Hyeon is distant in general, living in a dream world where poems are his children. Yang plays this wonderfully, striking a balance between impassive and absent-minded. He is even detached from his body, unaware of his physical form until he is mocked by the children he teaches. Food runs throughout the film and Hyeon is plied with skate balls by his brother to increase his fertility, and force-fed doughnuts by his wife because "sweet foods cheer you up". These doughnuts lead him to a sweet-faced boy, Seyun, who works in the shop and whose background is far from sugary. A chance glimpse of Seyun in a tryst with a young girl awakens Hyeon’s sexuality and establishes Seyun as his muse. The sadness in his life as much as his beautiful face seem to attract Hyeon: Seyun’s father is slowly dying in their makeshift home, and Seyun’s reaction is to drop out of school and get drunk, providing the drama Hyeon has been seeking for his art.
The relationship that develops between the two is complex; there are dimensions of paternalism that Hyeon thought he was incapable of as well as a strong sexual desire that was missing in his marriage. It also brings out the ugliness in everyone involved: Seyun is callous and extorts money from the poet’s devotion, his wife denounces him, Hyeon becomes more reclusive and the population of the island intensely homophobic.
In her quiet film, Yang- Hee Kim has captured humour, sadness and the way we use and abuse each other in art and relationships. However, by taking on so many subplots and raking over much of the same ground, it reads as a sestina rather than a sonnet; still beautiful but slow, confused and without a clear takeaway.