Rotterdam 2019 Review: MAGGIE, a Wacky and Idiosyncratic Trip Down the Sinkhole
Yi Okseop’s debut film, Maggie, opens with the discovery of a salacious X-ray photograph at the Love of Maria hospital depicting an unknown couple having sex. This opening gag sets the stage for a series of randomly occurring bizarre events in this wacky and idiosyncratic flick, buoyed by absurdist elements and quirky editing.
Nurse Yoo-young (Lee Joo-young) thinks she and her boyfriend are the ones captured on the X-ray; mortified, she decides to quit her job. When she goes in to work the next day, however, she finds the entire hospital empty except for head doctor Dr Lee (Moon So-ri). Apparently, everyone has called in sick. Dr Lee is convinced that all of them are lying, but Yoo-young implores her to trust in her employees. This sets the two women off on a journey-cum-trust-exercise where they resolve to believe everything that everyone says, but they find their faith and confidence in humanity’s words – from strangers, to acquaintances, to the ones they love most – tested in unexpected ways.
Maggie’s narrative is loosely stringed together by a series of episodes separated by cryptic intertitles (some examples: “Attempted Murder”, “The Stairs of Death”) which hint at prospective incidents to come. There’s a bleeding patient who arrives at the hospital with a bullet in his stomach, claiming that the wound was the result of an accident while peeling an apple. Later, massive sinkholes mysteriously appear overnight in Seoul on the roads, providing jobs to unemployed youths who are sent to fix them, while a missing couple ring causes Yoo-young to doubt her boyfriend’s loyalty to her.
And the biggest catch? The narrator of Maggie takes the form of a talking catfish (translated to “mae-gi” in Korean, hence the title) lying in a fish tank in one of the hospital rooms. An omniscient presence, she possesses the ability to predict when an earthquake will occur by jumping out of her tank. The end product of this mishmash of ideas, cobbled together from the depths of director Yi Okseop’s wild imagination, is a highly distinctive freewheeling visual collage. While the film is conceptually inventive, operating with a restless visual energy brought about by quick cuts and bright colours, it’s a case where the whole ends up being less than the sum of its parts.
Vaguely, Maggie as a whole seeks to explore our belief and trust in the people around us, as well as how that trust is ultimately shaped, broken and put back together. Through the peculiar affairs that transpire in the film, Yi also appears to be making statements about a gamut of unconnected social issues in modern-day South Korea – for one, the nation's dire youth unemployment rate (Yoo-young’s lazy boyfriend finally gets a job when he is deployed to fill up the sinkholes) and the abysmal prospects for educated millennials, who have little option but to be relegated to menial work.
There’s also something being said about the lack of communication in today’s relationships, and the misunderstandings that can arise when one withholds the truth, such as when Yoo-young is made aware of a damning accusation against her boyfriend by his ex-girlfriend. Instead of directly clearing the air with him, she chooses to keep mum.
Yi puts across some simple questions to the audience, such as how we would react to certain truths that are undesirable, and how we determine the amount of confidence to entrust to our closest ones – is there a numerical formula to this? Or is it just by sheer instinct? There’s perhaps a lesson to be learnt from a piece of advice spoken by Dr Lee: “When we fall into a pit, what we need to do is to not fall into it any further, but to quietly climb out.”
Still, one can never be quite sure of what Yi is alluding to in her metaphor-ridden landscape, where sinkholes suddenly erupt from the sky and a clairvoyant catfish holds the answers to the universe’s geological mysteries. But for a film that examines our very own understanding of belief and truth, at least one thing’s consistent: Maggie unfailingly believes in the unique logic of the world it has created – and sticks to it without question. And to enjoy the ride, maybe we need to suspend our doubts for a moment, too.