Director Jeong Jae-eun returns to the big screen with a melodrama about an impossible love.
It's been a full 12 years since director Jeong Jae-eun helmed a narrative feature and the Japan-set Butterfly Sleep is a welcome return, if not a patch on her 2001 debut Take Care of My Cat, still her best work.
Her latest may not break any new ground, but this thoughtful melodrama glides with poise through a simple story of an impossible love and Jeong weans a graceful performance out of Love Letter star Miho Nakayama in the lead. In fact, Jeong has two projects in Busan this year, along with her documentary Ecology in Concrete.
Royko is a popular novelist who takes on a new job as a university lecturer in Tokyo. One night at dinner with students and colleagues, she meets Chan-hae, a young Korean student part-timing to finance his studies. She asks him to help her and before long the two fall in love despite their big age difference, but their relationship is quickly challenged when Royko begins to show signs of Alzheimer's. As she focuses her inspiration into a new novel, she must also ask herself if it will be better to break things off with Chan-hae before her condition becomes too serious.
Fitting right into the mould of terminal illness melodramas that used to be popular in Korean cinema, while employing a distinctly Japanese, slightly detached and modest air, Butterfly Sleep draws the viewer in with a beautifully ethereal scene that brings the words on a page to life as the protagonist writes them down. Once we're back in the real world, we meet the dignified Royko and discover a quiet Tokyo and its interiors through rigid framing. Silence emanates throughout the film, which often gives the impression that its characters are holding things inside, unable or perhaps unwilling to let them out.
In a rare film role, popular singer Nakayama radiates elegance as the self-assured Royko. She allows her collected exterior to occasionally crack, as her feelings inside manifest through faintly tremulous expressions.
Korean TV actor Kim Jae-wook, who grew up in Japan and is known for indies such as Two Rooms, Two Nights and Another Way, fits in well alongside Nakayama, while never threatening to take the spotlight away from her.
Though she took a break from fiction work for over a decade, Jeong has been busy with non-fiction work in the last few years, with her pair of Talking Architect films preceding this year's Ecology in Concrete. Her strong interest in architecture seems on display in Butterfly Sleep as well, as she revels in the angular spaces of the city, creating harmony or tension in natural frames built out of the criss-crossing lines of the walls, halls, desks and windows of the film's interiors.
Butterfly Sleep may not offer any great surprises, but through Jeong's tight yet balanced control, it becomes a soothing journey through a familiar tale, punctuated by sober pockets of emotional intensity.