A regular staple at the Busan Film Festival, Jeon Soo-il is a local filmmaker whose body of work has steadily brought him acclaim and accolades from around the world. He is not as famous as some of the more prominent arthouse Korean filmmakers but nonetheless he is an important figure from Korea's independent film scene.
Now on his seventh feature, Jeon Soo-il's style, which has always been unique but malleable, has of late, become more concrete. Last year's Pink (also a Busan Film Festival selection) was a small breakthrough for him, earning him more recognition than his previous works. Though not an easy film (none of his works are), Pink was much more accessible, due in large part to the careful and gorgeous visual aesthetic through which he carved his narrative. With its muted, earthy color palette, and deliberate compositions, which emphasized the distance between the story's various protagonists, his film, despite its frequent silences and stillness, teemed with life.
His new feature El Condor Pasa, a gala presentation at this year's BIFF, features the same style of mise-en-scene, though he is perhaps a little less finicky with his tableaus this time around. Given the weighty subject matter and the very small cast this seems a logical choice. A Catholic priest takes a young girl under his wing but is devastated when she is suddenly raped and killed. Even more affected by the incident is her much older sister who, in the absence of their parents, had been acting as the girl's maternal guardian. The priest wants to console the woman though he is nowhere closer to getting over his own grief. A bizarre journey between the two ensues which includes a pilgrimage to Peru.
Themes of pain and loss loom large over the film and religion, particularly its role in the process of mourning, is examined carefully. The suffering of the story's characters becomes existential and while Jeon ultimately undermines the power vested in the priest's cloth, this is really a story about two people coming to terms with a horrific sense of loss and displacement. His representation of the church, though coming very close to slander, carefully steers clear of criticism. As prevalent as it is in the narrative, its representation remains neutral and balanced.
At the heart of the film are the subdued but tense performances from Jo Jae-hyeon and Bae Jeong-hwa. They are not afforded much opportunity to talk, common for characters in Jeon's body of work, and largely express their protagonists' inner anguish through their eyes and subtle body movements.
The laconic and contemplative pace of the film, though logical, does offer some obstacles to the viewer. Not enough happened in the film to keep me fully engaged and while this may seem like a strange criticism to level at this type of arthouse film, coupled with the lack of any real emotional highs or revelatory moments, the film does feel a bit one note. Though not his best work El Condor Pasa is a worthwhile entry in Jeon Soo-il's filmography, anchored by some strong performances and confident (if a little lethargic) pacing.