Busan 2020 Review: SELF-PORTRAIT 2020, Long yet Riveting Odyssey of a Drunk Savant
I'll admit I went into Self-Portrait 2020 with a fair amount of trepidation. Here is a nearly three-hour documentary that follows a man who has given up on life, turned to the bottle and now roams the streets of Central Seoul, drunkenly rambling about whatever strikes his fancy. Little did I know what a fascinating journey I was about to embark upon. This sophomore feature effort from young non-fiction filmmaker Lee Dong-woo is overlong to be sure, but it's also a rich portrait of a confounding individual and the surprising and alarming path his life has taken.
One day, a homeless man approaches Director Lee, asking for money (it's definitely for booze). Lee is intrigued by this lively character and his highfalutin talk of life and the arts, which he seems very well versed in. Lee gradually befriends this man, named Lee Sang-yeol, and is shocked to learn that he used to be a filmmaker, who made a short film named Self-Portrait 2000, which was invited to compete at both the prestigious Venice International Film Festival and the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival.
Following that success, Lee Sang-yeol's life gradually went off the rails, though he never explains exactly how, though we do know that at some point he was a taxi driver. Over the course of countless meetings over three years, Director Lee meets his new friend and subject and documents his drunken rants around the streets of Seoul, which range from discussions of Bresson, Ozu, Ha Gil-jong and "the guy who made Taxi Driver", to colourful anecdotes of his many misadventures. His gift of the gab is fuelled by endless bottles of cheap makgeolli rice wine which he often shares with fellow drunkards in Tapgeol Park in Central Seoul. They even hatch plans to work on a film together, but the elder Lee's spiralling alcoholism and brushes with the law make this an impossible prospect.
Though four sheets to the wind every time we meet him, no matter what time of day, Lee Sang-yeol is always eloquent and entertaining. He's grandiloquent when he gets fired up about cinema and talks about his own genesis and desires as a filmmaker. Then his mood switches to melancholy as he briefly comes clean about his failings, and is inability to face his own demons. His spirit is plain to see, but somewhere along the line he lost his will.
Luckily we get a glimpse of Lee Sang-yeol as the budding filmmaker, as Lee Dong-woo shows us the entirety of his short Self-Portrait 2000 bit by bit throughout the film. The main character of this film is a degenerate gambler who is spiralling out of control, edging into crime to feed the habit and in danger of becoming estranged from his wife and daughter. The brutal truth is that Lee Sang-yeol's life turned out to mirror that of his protagonist, as we later learn that his own wife and daughter cut ties with him.
We are also treated to a behind-the-scenes video of the making of his short and footage of his time at Clermont-Ferrand in 2001, where he rubs shoulders with none of other than Park Chan-wook, who would have been there with his own short Judgement at the time.
There's no doubt that Lee Sang-yeol is a terrific subject and Director Lee is clearly quite fond of him, even if he occasionally chastizes him for his day drinking and the hypocrisies that slip into his endless chatter. As a non-fiction filmmaker Lee may feel that he has a responsibility not to interfere in his subject's life and only to observe but at several points it becomes clear that his very presence may actually encourage his protagonist's self-destructive behavior. The older one-time filmmaker loves the attention, and the younger director sometimes treats Lee Sang-yeol and his friends to food and drinks at small eateries around the park. Later in the film he even receives a call from Lee Sang-yeol's mother, who implores him to try and make him quit the bottle.
Self-Portrait 2020 is the story of an effervescent raconteur, a portal into an intriguing community that has been brushed to the very fringes of Korean society, and a sad cautionary tale of what could happen if you fell short of your dreams and lost the will to keep moving forward. Yet it also celebrates life even in its failures while doses of humor and warmth can be found throughout the film's lengthy running time. Much like his engrossing protagonist, Lee's film may be the most complex and unexpected surprise in Busan this year.