Actor Lee Hwan's directing debut has its merits, but ...
Among the dozens of local indie films that wind up at the Busan International Film Festival every year, a number tend to be dark social dramas that explore the worst aspects of society. Often set in winter (likely due to the festival's spring submission dates), they can make for heavy viewing but can also be extremely rewarding.
Yet every once in a while a film comes around that tries its damnedest to be depressing as it unpleasantly lacerates whatever pour soul happens to be its lead protagonist. Park Hwa-young, the mean-spirited and gratuitously miserable directing debut of actor Lee Hwan (Breathless), is such a film.
Park Hwa-young is the name of a foul-mouthed and overweight high school student who lives alone after being abandoned by her mother. Many youngsters hang out at her home, where they drink, eat instant noodles and have sex, but most aren't exactly her friends, though they have started to refer to her by the nickname 'mom'. The closest thing she has to a real friend is Mi-jeong, the school beauty who occasionally works modeling gigs, but her boyfriend Yeong-jae despises Hwa-young and mercilessly attacks her whenever his anger flares.
Stories about runaways have developed quite a history in Korean film, from Im Sang-soo's Tears to more recent indie fare like Park Suk-young's 'Flower' films (Wild Flowers, Steel Flower, Ash Flower) and last year's tremendous Jane. All show half-formed youths running away from abuse, living in squalid conditions and eventually resorting to abusing each other, but this feels more like an exercise both designed to shock its audience into submission and showcase a group of preening performances.
If the film has any claim to fame, it might be for breaking the record for swearing in a Korean film, as about half the words that shoot out of the young characters' mouths like machine gun fire are Korean equivalents of 'fuck' and its many variants. Yet, the most common word in the film is surely 'ssibalnyeon', which would loosely translate as 'fucking bitch'. Everyone refers to Hwa-young like this at some point or another, and many do so liberally, while Hwa-young herself hurls the word repeatedly at the girls who she thinks have betrayed her in some form or another. Though a very strong word that has the power to shock, it quickly loses its strength through lazy repetition.
Similarly, images of brutal bullying, generally of Yeong-jae and his posse ganging up on Hwa-young, lose their potency as the film recycles the same weary, one-sided confrontations throughout an excessive 110 minute running time. Going through the same tedious motions, the characters fail to change until an even more vile sequence seeks to surprise in act three.
Perhaps I'm being a little harsh on Park Hwa-young, as it does have its merits. such as Kim Ga-hee's spirited performance as Hwa-young and the film's relatively strong production values, but with so many similar works out there the film's sole raison d'être seems to be a desire a startle the audience through putrid despair. As such, Lee's film putters on until it peters out much like it came in, on a grungy wheeze of breathless and brash profanity.