Esom stars in an impressive calling card for director Jeon Go-woon.
Perhaps the most impressive Korean debut at Busan this year, the thoughtful and entertaining Microhabitat is a convincing showcase for star Esom and and an even more impressive calling card for director Jeon Go-woon, who becomes the first woman in the Gwanghwamun Cinema group to helm a feature, and her debut may well be the collective's best yet.
Miso is a 31-year-old housekeeper who lives strategically on a small budget but leaves enough aside for her daily vices, which includes a pack of cigarettes and a glass of whiskey. When New Year's Day in 2014 brings about a 2,000 won ($2) across-the-board price hike on cigarettes, rather than cut back on the habit, she gives up having a roof over her head and begins to surf through the couches of her old college friends, each of whom has their particular circumstances that don't allow her to stick around for long.
What makes Miso such a fascinating character is her cool-headedness and determination not be in anyone's debt. She knows what she wants and barters her trade for necessities, such as when she quietly cleans up the apartments she's invited to stay in. Beyond her practicality, she's also refreshing in her lack of pretension and ambition. She works hard to keep her life in order and stick to her code, but her needs are small. Of course, small though they may be, the cutthroat reality of youth in Korea, especially without family support, means that the most basic roof over her head, even with a daily job, is a hardship and that's before the prices of everything on her daily list begin to increase.
After gaining some notice as Jung Woo-sung's co-star in Im Pil-sung's steamy noir Scarlet Innocence, Esom finally gets an opportunity to shine again as the unique Miso. Her easy-going nature and resolve are convincingly bound in a loose-limbed physicality and curious, always searching expression. An array of strong actors dot the many other roles in the film, who turn each stay at a new friend's home into memorable vignettes.
Gwanghwamun Cinema, a production company formed by a group of young filmmakers who pooled their resources rather than slave away at the mercy of established companies, has been churning out some of the most colorful indie films of the past five years, including the conscription comedy-drama The Sunshine Boys (whose director Kim Tae-gon went on to make the hit comedy commercial Familyhood), the sports comedy The King of Jogku and last summer's bigger crime film The Queen of Crime. They're also responsible for introducing the industry to star Ahn Jae-hong, who appears in most of their works, including this latest one, in which he plays Miso's boyfriend.
Despite a low budget Jeon turns in a polished film filled with creative mise-en-scene and resourceful production flourishes. Part of the film's unique visual appeal is the way it moves from one personal interior to the next, which each apartment decorated in its own style, and each evoking starkly different social positions. It's a treat to see such expressive interiors in a Korean film.
Microhabitat pulls off the rare feat of straddling the stark social realities of Korea's indie cinema and the entertaining sheen of its commercial films. Jeon's debut is vibrant and fun, yet always thoughtful and often poignant. A jump to the mainstream is clearly the next logical step and here's hoping a studio gives her that chance soon.