If Korean cinema will be remembered for anything in 2018, it may well be for a batch of films that have found surprising ways to shine a spotlight on the country's youth. Specifically, the enduring image of the year may be that of youths running on screen, panting and glistening as they rush towards unknown destinations. Yoo Ah-in burned out his lungs in search of elusive answers in Lee Chang-dong's Burning, and now its Moon Choi's turn to wear out her running shoes in Han Ga-ram's limpid and powerful debut Our Body, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival ahead of its selection in Busan.
Ja-young has been preparing for the civil service exam for eight years, but after a quarrel with her mother she suddenly abandons her plans and begins to fend for herself. Through a friend, she takes on an entry-level position in an office, but her life really begins to change when she becomes transfixed by Hyun-joo, a striking young woman in her neighborhood who goes jogging each evening. Over time she grows close to her and begins to find a sense of self through running, even if the rest of her life isn't going anywhere.
A feature presentation from the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA), responsible for works such as Bleak Night and Alice in Earnestland, Our Body starts off like many other Korean independent films, as we are introduced to a directionless character who is being suffocated by society. Yet when Ja-young meets Hyun-woo, as she confidently dashes through the trails, alleys and stairways of a hilly Seoul neighborhood, something awakens within her. As she allows her feelings to grow and take shape, Ja-young undergoes a compelling transformation while struggling to survive in a rigid society that doesn't give her room to breathe.
One of last year's breakout stars following her praised turn in Lee Joon-ik's Anarchist from Colony, Moon Choi (also known as Choi Hee-so) is a marvel as the reticent Ja-young. Her character may not know what she wants at first, but she is quietly determined not to fall in line with expectations, whether those of her mother or society at large. She appears diffident in certain contexts, but rather than timid, Choi plays her as someone who seems she would rather not waste her time with people who are following a trajectory that she hesitates to embark on herself. As Ja-young morphs from a reserved book worm into a strong-minded runner, Choi makes a great physical transformation as her posture and movements gradually become more assured, which evolve in tandem with her strengthening temperament.
Our Body benefits from pellucid photography from Wild Flowers and Ash Flower cinematographer Lee Seong-eun, which offers an unobstructed look at Ja-young and Hyun-woo. From unusual and highly suggestive points-of-view, his camera affords snatches of Ja-young's inner thoughts and desires as the narrative progresses.
Director Han heightens the film's themes about searching for meaning and identity by incorporating subtle homosexual overtones, which emerge from the intensity of the exercise the main characters share, becoming more erotic as their routines fall into sync with each other.
While it tows a similar line to other Korean indies about uncertainty in a stressful society and the suppression of individuality, Our Body plots its own unique course, guided by the firm hand of Han's impressive first time direction.