Busan 2019 Review: KYUNGMI'S WORLD, Bleak and Unsparing Portrait of the Ties that Bind
In Kyungmi’s World, we never get to see the face of the titular Kyungmi. Instead, the main characters in the film are Soo-yeon (Kim Misu) – Kyungmi’s daughter – and her estranged grandmother Young-soon (Lee Young-ran), who reconnect for the first time in seven years.
Slow-paced, utterly cheerless and a tad drawn-out, this debut feature by South Korean director Koo Jihyun, premiering in the Busan International Film Festival's Korean Cinema Today–Vision section, is mysteriously compelling in its portrait of a troubled girl and the two women who have irrevocably shaped her outlook on life. Kyungmi’s World is a bitter, unforgiving look at the toxic power dynamics and complexities of female familial relationships, where festering wounds are carried across generations and picked at over and over again without relent.
Soo-yeon is barely making ends meet by playing minor roles in a small performing arts troupe. It’s a far cry from her original aspiring actress dreams, as she and her other co-workers put up shadow puppetry shows every night with voiceovers for noisy children and their parents. Soo-yeon keeps to herself and lives on her own. One day, she receives a phone call from her grandmother’s landlord in Tongyeong concerning an expired lease, and travels down to meet with Young-soon to retrieve the contract.
It is through this unscheduled reunion that the audience finds out about Soo-yeon’s tumultuous family history and her absent mother. Soo-yeon’s grandmother Young-soon is a well-known writer who previously published a best-selling memoir containing anecdotes about her daughter, Kyungmi, who left home a decade ago. Soo-yeon learns that Young-soon has been diagnosed with dementia and is staying in a Tongyeong nursing home.
The confrontation between both women is brutal to watch, as deep-seated grudges from the past are dug up and laid bare. The acerbic Young-soon does not hold back in verbally attacking her granddaughter the minute she arrives; the biggest unresolved trigger for the duo is still the missing Kyungmi, whose whereabouts in present-day remain unknown. She could be either dead or alive, and both Young-soon and Soo-yeon believe that the other was entirely responsible for driving Kyungmi to run away from home.
Director Koo fixates upon the knee-jerk reactions of each woman towards the other’s increasingly cruel provocations during their time together. The dialogue in Kyungmi’s World is intense and sharp, with both characters trading personal, vitriolic rebuttals at one another that hit right where it hurts. Emotional manipulation, self-harm and gaslighting are used as techniques of control and possession, culminating in a shifting interplay of power between two women who are unable to reach a middle ground.
Actress Kim Misu puts in a remarkably layered performance as the withdrawn Soo-yeon, whose desire for the truth about her mother and her motivations eventually becomes all-consuming. And though Young-soon is portrayed as the key antagonist in her interactions with Soo-yeon, an interesting play-within-a-play structure in the film suggests that the apple may not fall far from the same tree. There’s also a late plot revelation that attempts to show the carry-over effects of growing up in a broken home devoid of maternal affection, but this ends up feeling unnecessary and underdeveloped.
In Kyungmi’s World, reconciliation and closure appear to be as mythical as the performing troupe’s nightly production, a parable about a boy who eats monsters for dinner. Koo digs deep into the human capacity for tolerance and acceptance, forcing us to ask ourselves how far we can – and will – go to tear down the ones closest to us, and whether we can get by without ever getting the answers to questions that have plagued us all our lives.
The film’s nihilistic outlook is complemented by drab visuals of Tongyeong’s coast and pier, a port city taking a hit to its economy. This desolate ghost town offers little salvation for Soo-yeon, who frequently trespasses the disused shipyards to stare at the towering dormant cranes scattered across the skyline, perhaps in search of something to believe in.