Ko Eun-ki's sixth film Taklamakan, takes its name from a red desert in China which, as legend maintains, won't let you out once you step inside. In this dark and introspective drama, featuring characters that use the word as a metaphor for their everlasting love, we discover on a dusty hill that sets the stage for an irrevocable life choice that Taklamakan is in actuality a point of no return for the three main characters, played by Cho Seong-ha, Ha Yoon-kyung and Song Eun-ji in committed if dour performances.
Tae-sik is a junker who goes around low-rent Seoul neighborhoods picking up appliances to sell for scrap and stripping condemned buildings for materials, while his ex-wife blames him for their son's delinquent behavior and he tries to take care of his own aging mother at home. One night he's invited out by an old friend who's become his boss and they visit a hostess bar, where he meets Soo-eun, a young woman that he spends the night with.
Later the next day Soo-eun dies and the story switches to her perspective before her murder, as she cautiously enters into a relationship with a musician, who disapproves of the way she earns her income.
Opening with some visual panache as Soo-eun's ghost visits the sites of her death and love, Taklamakan gets off to a fine start before encountering some trouble as its first act makes way for some chronological trickery that overestimates the value of some of its narrative elements. As the story wears on, these unfortunately become extended past the point at which there resolution could create any tension.
Undoubtedly the film's strongest assets are its performances, which are able to take at times uneven characteristics and nonetheless forge them into compelling characters. Almost by default the roles are a bit heavy-handed, but indie actress Ha of Socialphobia and Cho, who has a wealth of screen credits under his belt, including The Suspect and The Himalayas, are mostly able to overcome the film's structural weaknesses. Also impressive as Soo-eun's lover is Song, a real-life musician who previously played a small role in A Company Man.
One of the more welcome aspects of the story is that it normalizes a lesbian relationship. It's nice to see queer characters that aren't either constantly abused or somehow ridiculed for their sexual orientation, but coming a year after Lee Hyun-joo's Our Love Story did the same thing more thoroughly and more thoughtfully in its narrative, this is less of a landmark for Korean film.
Balancing poetic realism and grim cinema vérité, Ko exhibits a measured command of a story which features elements that are quite common in the Korean indie scene. Some light imagery peppered throughout the tale also reinforces the themes of abandonment and the loss of hope and innocence, such as a kitten that pops up at different points in the story. Sadly, the sum total of Ko's choices lacks a firm raison d'être, and his latest is unlikely to break out any more than his little known previous work.