Busan 2020 Review: SNOWBALL Gently Strikes with Familiar but Well-Told Tale
A wide variety of films find their way to the Busan Film Festival every year, but one thing you can always count on is the polished, youth-driven social indie that has become the de-facto Korean indie template, at least on this side of Hong Sang-soo. Joining the likes of Bleak Night, Han Gong-ju, House of Hummingbird and countless others is Snowball, the teen runaway drama debut of director Lee Woo-jung, which is screening in the New Currents competition this year.
Within this group, the teen runaway drama is an especially crowded subgenre, spanning works like Park Suk-young’s Wild Flowers and Steel Flower, Lee Hwan’s Park Hwa-young and Young Adult Matters (screening at BIFF this year), Second Life and Jane, which all debuted in Busan over the past few years. For Snowball, the question has to be, does it add anything to the formula we haven’t seen before?
Kang-yi, So-yeong and A-ram are a tight-knit trio of friends in high school with very different personalities. Gang-yi - the quiet one, So-yeong - the arrogant Jeon-ji-hyun lookalike, A-ram, the dynamic oddball. They decide to run away together, though for different reasons, and after a brief period of euphoria, during which So-yeong seduces Kang-yi one evening while A-ram is off working as an underage hostess in a karaoke bar, reality comes crashing down on them and they return home. Back in school, So-yeong’s behaviour towards Kang-yi becomes cool and ultimately aggressive as she forms a new posse that starts to prey on her. A-ram isn’t suffering from the ostracization to the same degree but she has her own problems to deal with.
So far, so predictable, and the story soon finds ways to inject other familiar tropes. These include a social class gap between the wealthy So-yeong, who pretends to be penniless when they’re on the run, only to whip out a credit card when she gets a stain on her tracksuit pants, and the poorer Kang-yi, who lives with her devout mother and emasculated father, where else, in a hovel high up on a steep hill she has to hike up and down every day.
Narratively, Snowball doesn’t really set itself apart from other Korean teenage runway films, or indeed most Korean indies, but through careful characterization and some clear metaphorical devices (helpless animals, especially the stray cats A-ram is fond of, feature prominently) this story, based on Lim Solah’s novel ‘The Best Life’ (the Korean title of the film), is a familiar one that is well told.
The film also benefits from Lee Woo-jung’s steady directorial hand. Lee, a veteran film editor who has made several shorts prior to this feature debut, injects a vibrant palette as well as a sense of weight and time to the story that steadily unfolds, but her greatest strength may be her handling of the young cast. Bang Min-a, as the diffident Kang-yi, finds ways to add layers to a character that is generally trying to hide her emotions and subtly lays the groundwork for a transformation that happens later on. Han Sung-min is effective as ice queen Su-yeong, but Shim Dal-gi steals the show with her energetic and multi-faceted performance as the charismatic and unpinnable A-ram.
In its final stretch, Snowball comes close to overstaying its welcome as it introduces a few new speed bumps, but these have ultimately been placed there to set the stage for a major climax that the film has actually been building to all along. Viewers will likely be split on the film’s big finish, which adds a much-needed eleventh hour shot in the arm, but will either be seen as a cathartic close or an ill-fitting gimmick.
Personally, I felt it was a fitting endpoint to a story that, despite its many familiar elements, takes us on a journey through the steadily crystallizing perspective of a lead character who comes of age in a society that expects her to know her place. To quote one of the film’s occasional voiceovers (presumably lifted straight from the source novel, which is narrated in the first person by Kang-yi): “To get better we gladly got worse. That was our best.”