A great many gems have emerged from the Korean independent scene of late, but some worry that the milieu lacks the unique voices that it used to cultivate 10 to 15 years ago. Director Shin Yeon-shick may already be on his fifth film, but with his latest work The Avian Kind, the filmmaker has positioned himself as a fresh and distinct voice, challenging the realist aesthetic that defines the contemporary indie field.
In The Avian Kind, a novelist searches for his wife, who has been missing for 15 years. She left voluntarily to undergo a very special procedure, but to say anymore would spoil the many surprises of this immersive and mellifluous mystery. What's more, the bizarre events that take place only make sense within the film's languid but fully realized world.
Employing a similar realist mode of filmmaking, marked by handheld midshots and high contrast photography, often in colorless locations, most of contemporary Korean low-budget cinema pursues the same themes. While many cineastes utilize this aesthetic to great effect, even more rely on it due to a lack of original ideas. Breaking away from his contemporaries, director Shin delivers a piece of cinema that is handsome, entrancing and challenging at the same time. As one of the three productions selected for this year's expanded feature-length Jeonju Digital Project (a yearly commissioned project from the Jeonju International Film Festival), The Avian Kind marks a big success for a festival which has increasingly positioned itself as not only a haven for but also a creator and distributor of art and experimental cinema.
Following an idea presented in his underseen 2012 effort The Russian Novel, Shin concocts a gorgeous meditation on remembrance and the anxiety of displacement in modern society. Just like The Russian Novel, this new film takes place in an idealized intellectual milieu populated by writers and other artists, and which boasts a literary aura, a result of the film's lush language and descriptive cinematography.
The supernatural conceit that drives The Avian Kind, which deals with the theme of transformation, is presented as an allegory but rather than push us towards any obvious conclusions, the engaging and mysterious framework is less a statement than a question. Yet, frustrating as that may sound, the brilliance in Shin's direction is that this undergirding thread is augmented by many elements, including the odd foray into genre territory, that each feel part of a well thought out whole.
Shin's achievements are evident but The Avian Kind's unique and otherwordly atmosphere is only possible due to the film's great performers and its artful behind the scenes technicians. Leading the cast is Kim Jeong-seok, as the conceited novelist who is placed in unfamiliar forests and supernatural situations. As these new surroundings quickly prompt insecurity and then contemplation, Kim ably tracks the protagonist's changing outlook through a gradual evolution in his gait, expression and delivery. The rest of the cast, populated by venerable thespians and elegant women who seem miles apart from the usual actresses of Korean cinema, mesh together to vividly realize the film's ethereal tapestry. Concerning production credits, cinematographer Choi Yong-jin, with his redolent lensing, and music supervisor Mowg, with his knack for expertly matching morsels of music to mood, are just some of the names from the team that so marvelously realizes Shin's vision.
The Avian Kind is a grand literary mystery refracted through the brown tint of nostalgia and taking place amidst the green hues of the unknowable outdoors. In this narrative, the countryside is home to secrets and truths long since forgotten by civilization's leaders, as each grapples with their own foibles and neuroses in modern, cramped urban spaces. Doted with tension and existentialism in equal measure, the characters in Shin's film amble forward as if in a dream. As the lights came on following its world premiere in Jeonju, this is one reverie that I would have liked nothing more than to fall back into.