Busan 2022 Review: THE DREAM SONGS, Moving and Marvelous Portrait of Teen Friendship
For the past half a dozen years or so, some of the very best debut Korean films have chronicled friendships between young girls. Filled with the fleeting excitement of youth and the complex, mutable feelings that underpin the process of coming of age, these films, such as Yoon Ga-eun's The World of Us and Kim Bora's House of Hummingbird, have moved and delighted viewers around the world.
Now this group counts a new and even bolder member among its ranks thanks to The Dream Songs, the feature directing debut of actor Cho Hyun-chul, a recognizable presence in indie and commercial fare, from the Jeonju Cinema Project The First Lap to the acclaimed Netflix series D.P..
The Dream Songs explores similar themes as the films that have preceded it, but it does so with a far more aggressive mise-en-scène and more ambitious themes. Cho's striking film is clever, surprising and often enormously affecting, but there's also a lack of restraint that occasionally undermines the film's many wonderful attributes.
On a sunny spring day, high schooler Semi (Park Hye-su) dozes off in class. After she wakes up she seeks out her friend Ha-eun (Kim Si-eun), who is recuperating in hospital after an accident, because she wants to tell her about the ominous day dream she's just had.
While explaining her dream, Semi also tries to twist Ha-eun's arm into joining a school field trip to Jeju Island the following day. Ha-eun doesn't have the money for it, so the pair decide to sell Ha-eun's unused camcorder to raise the funds. With a slight limp, Ha-eun is discharged and the pair head into town, as they wait for someone to respond to their sale ad.
Energy and excitement flow between the pair during their perambulations, but eventually some hidden emotions and frustrations bubble up to the surface as well. Semi begins to doubt that Ha-eun really intends to go on the school trip.
The first thing that strikes you about The Dream Songs is its almost blindingly hazy cinematography. Much like staring into the sun, it creates a slightly uncomfortable effect, but we can't look away. This tension, which captures the effervescence of youth, is complemented by other shrewd details, like a glass of water in one scene which is perilously perched on the edge of a cafeteria table between the girls.
Park, previously seen in Swing Kids and Samjin Company English Class, fully expresses the brio and nervous energy of her teenage protagonist. Semi is a spirited young girl with a zest for life, but she also fears that the things she loves could slip away at any moment.
In one wryly amusing scene, she visits a karaoke room with other teenage friends who push her to sing a song. While she mutters the lyrics of a breakup song into the microphone the music video on the machine fantastically imagines Semi and Ha-eun's friendship, and as the ballad reaches its crescendo, Semi is now screaming the lyrics with tears racing down her cheeks.
But while Park is something of a known quantity, Kim Si-eun is a new face and has clearly established herself as one of the breakout actors of 2022. Earlier this year she also acted opposite Bae Doona in July Jung's phenomenal Next Sohee, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and is also in Busan. Kim is exceptionally natural and expressive as Ha-eun, who lights up the screen every time she appears.
Speaking of performances, I would be remiss not to highlight a very funny cameo by Park Jung-min as a doltish and creepy would-be suitor who is harassed by a passel of teenage girls.
Cho employs several motifs to highlight the deterioration of Semi and Ha-eun's friendship, chief among them a stray dog they befriend on their walks. Animals feature a few times in the film, including in some enormously moving, though admittedly rather manipulative scenes later in the story.
After reaching this emotional peak, rather than wind down, The Dream Songs instead doubles down by expanding on the dreams that were mentioned at the beginning of the story. With a full dive into dream logic, it becomes harder to follow what the film is trying to say, but it remains never less than engrossing.
Some of what Cho is trying to say stays slightly out of reach. Regarding the central relationship, for example, to what extent are we supposed to infer a romantic interest between them? But if The Dream Songs occasionally frustrates, it's only because it has so effectively grabbed us. A richly cinematic and emotional journey, it's easily one of the year's most memorable debuts.