In a country with so many hardships out in the open and an unspoken swell of pain swirling just beneath the surface, there needs to be a release valve for the frustrations of ordinary citizens. In Korea, that role is often taken on by cinema.
Not so long ago, narratives that poked holes in the thin fabric of modern Korean society were legion in the commercial arena, but of late this role has passed on to the independent scene. Whether silenced or pushed towards the edge of their society, a great many protagonists in contemporary Korean indies serve as metaphors for a repressed society at large.
Fitting directly into this mode is the lead in Pohang Harbor, one of the Korean Competition titles at this year's Jeonju International Film Festival. The man, who barely speaks a word, has returned to his dreary hometown to look for his father, a fisherman who is presumed lost at sea. Working on the harbor for a mismanaged shipbuilder, he deals with his wastrel brother, who is trying to sell their father's boat, and uses his free time to make straw dummies in the image of his father, which he proceeds to cast out to sea.
Pohang Harbor is a film marked by silence and introspection. Though supporting characters chatter around him, repeating their pleas and grievances, the recently arrived vagabond generally ignores the questions that are thrown his way. In one scene, a mysterious woman in a fancy chauffeured sedan arrives in town, trying to convince him to return to Seoul, where his 'skills' could be put to good use. The man rejects her offer, as well as the iced Americano she extends to him. We don't know much about his past, just that whatever drove him away, it pushed him as far away as he could go, the seaside. Perhaps greater freedom exists beyond the watery expanse, but for characters like him, desolate seaside towns or forgotten islands are as far as they can go, as though an invisible link inextricably binds them to Korean soil.
This mysterious drifter is played by Ko Kwan-jae, who was also the lead in Lee Hyunjung's Echo of Dragon, which took part in last year's Korean Competition in Jeonju. With his diminutive frame and solemn air, Ko has the perfect look for the part. However, while his physical reticence and lack of speech are deliberate symbols of his position within (or detachment from) society, one can't help but feel that the actor is not given the proper opportunity to demonstrate his character's anxiety.
This tendency to internalize the film's themes also applies to the detached cinematography, which eschews closeups and avoids any kind of symmetry in its framing. Coupled with the washed out winter colors and forlorn surroundings, this style generates a desolate air, but the film's bleak visual palette doesn't quite achieve its aim, as the resulting detachment only serves to distance us from the characters and the thin storyline.
Mo Hyun-shin, who marks her debut with Pohang Harbor, starts things off on the right foot with a melancholic scene that sees a small whale butchered on the harbor as passersby look on. By the next scene, the mood has grown more detached as the camera pushes further away, remaining static; the music disappears, and the mysterious sentiment that pervades the film's opening never quite returns. Livening up the show somewhat is the charismatic presence of Hong Young-geun, who plays the drifter's scruffy brother.
Throughout, the director invites us to interpret the symbols presented in the film, whether they be whales, boats or straw dummies, but Pohang Harbor lacks the artistry to present its symbolic narrative successfully. Though intriguing, the film's hooks don't quite manage to sink in, which may cause viewers to drift off by the halfway point.