Shin Su-won's fourth feature opens this year's Busan International Film Festival.
One of Korea's foremost indie voices returns with a fable couched in verdant imagery but marred by a sense of deja vu. Shin Su-won's fourth feature Glass Garden, the opening film of this year's Busan International Film Festival, feels like a metaphorical anecdote winged with familiar side plots and stretched out to feature length.
Biochemist Jae-yeon is working on a way to apply photosynthesis to human blood cells, in a project she calls 'green blood'. Yet when her research lab chief (and lover) beds another co-worker and together they steal her work, she retreats to the countryside, where she tries to continue her research in solitude in a lonely greenhouse. Meanwhile, failed writer Ji-hoon, who lived next door in town, takes an interest in her and winds up searching for her in the countryside, following which he begins to write a hit serial.
Shin's story frame is a popular one in Korea, in which a protagonist tries to escape the cutthroat competitiveness of Seoul by withdrawing to the countryside, only to be confronted with their personal issues in a more intimate fashion. Her story, which relies heavily on reaching a wistful endgame (which I won't spoil here, though it will be obvious to some early on) may lack originality, but the journey is frequently an engrossing one, with a bounty of lyrical images, intriguing visual barriers and vivid colors.
Through the film's production design, Shin is constantly placing characters on opposites sides of barriers. The glass walls of her greenhouse, with their honey comb wire mesh inlays, trees in the forest or a wall being built brick by brick, are but some of visual clues that emphasize or foreshadow the biochemist's relationships with the people that visit her in her reclusive enclave.
The forest in particular provides Glass Garden with several memorable and contrasting images such as the neon green of the lush forestry, which make way for the undulating moon beams that wrap around the trees at night. The power of the forest is such that it seems to creep into the human world, such as when the mushrooming brain nerves of the ill Ji-hoon during a doctor's visit fade into the ominous branches of the forest.
While the various aspects of the technical department uniformly excel, Glass Garden, compared to Shin's previous works, falters somewhat in its casting. The winsome star Moon Geun-young, who viewers will remember as one of the sisters in Kim Jee-woon's A Tale of Two Sisters, plays a farouche protagonist who eventually takes matters into her own hands, yet her glassy-eyed performance glues her character to a permanently passive mode. Then there's the serviceable but bland Kim Tae-hoon as the novelist, though admittedly he isn't given a great deal to work with.
Shin proves once more that she's a deft stylist, but without the personal touch of Passerby #3, the dynamism of Pluto or the aching power of Madonna, Glass Garden proves a ravishing but disappointing new offering from a talent capable of much more.