Simplicity is in rare supply in Korean cinema these days, so when a film like Koala comes along, it does so as a breath of fresh air. Nary an overwrought emotion, sad backstory nor superfluous tangent can be seen here. Instead, this refreshing new indie is straightforward and endearing as it leaves us to ponder the all too recognizable fates of its young and affable protagonists.
Two young men, one small and plain, the other tall and handsome, meet in acting class one day and quickly form a strong bond over frequent drinking sessions. Nine years later, we find the first working in a thankless office job and the other struggling through sporadic commercial work without ever getting his big break. One day they decide to wrest destiny back into their own hands. They quit their jobs, move in together and use all of their savings to open up a gourmet burger eatery. However, business is slow, and they can't afford to carry on like this forever.
Made by young people and aimed at them, it'll be hard for any struggling 20- or 30-year old office workers not to see themselves in this film. But lest this be some kind of call to arms for a younger generation, Koala, despite its delectably twee nature, is far from naïve. From the outset, going out and chasing your dreams seems to be the message of the day, but as the narrative wears on, problems and antagonists arise. In other words, the harsh realities of life get in the way. Of course, one expects our heroes to confront trouble, how else could a narrative like this play out? But instead of a traditional villain it's the little things that eat away at their dream: like being squeezed for an extra dollar by produce vendors or losing your gourmet cred by substituting spam for more expensive ingredients when the going gets tough.
In style and form, Koala resembles a number of contemporary American independent films. The start of the film's soundtrack ebbs in with an ethereal post-rock track that brings to mind the famed Austin indie band Explosions in the Sky. Following on from that, though never dispensing with reality, the film's filter is very colorful and its characters actions sometimes 'quirky.' Perhaps this is all to make the film a little more palatable, as the narrative does sober up when it touches on some less appealing points of Korean society. Koala proves that an independent film needn't be dank and dour, a lesson that most Korean filmmakers tend to ignore, for better or for worse.
What makes Koala work so well is that it comes from a real place. The quiet oppressiveness of Korean society is never far away from these youngsters, who are trying to break free from the traditional office-bound slavery that a university degree in the country typically affords. As one of the characters quits his job to become an entrepreneur, his boss tells him that he doesn't think he can make it. It's condescending and arrogant and yet you can see that he is genuinely concerned that he won't succeed. Traditional thinking requires him to stay within the fold to survive.
Debut director Kim Joo-hwan keeps the story simple while offering a very clean low-budget aesthetic that doesn't draw too much attention to itself. This is a clever move as it shifts the responsibility of the film's success onto its cast, which is, forgive my pun, its best ingredient. Park Young-seo, following small roles in films such as Castaway on the Moon (2009) and Sunny (2011), shines as the unofficial leader of the duo. Though meek and short in stature, his kindness and quiet ambition quickly gain our trust, particularly in Park's hands. Song Yu-ha, as the wannabe actor, is also a revelation, here taking on his first lead role. Though buffoonish and a little conceited, it's quite clear that his superficial exterior conceals a big heart.
I was thoroughly taken by this unassuming indie that has been afforded precious little exposure since its debut at the Seoul Independent Film Festival last December. It reminds me a lot of last year's charming comedy Super Virgin, another film that hasn't yet made the rounds. Well-paced, steadfast in its aims and oozing with charm, Koala is a quiet winner.