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Monday, 25 June 2007

This Charming Girl


Jeong-hye (Kim Ji-soo) is a twenty-something single woman working at a post office. She lives alone in a cheap-looking apartment building, politely answering her aunt's irritating phone calls, purchasing meals, even packets of kimchi, through mail-order service, and taking care of plants. Jeong-hye is neither autistic nor misanthropic: she enjoys drinking beer and chatting with her co-workers, for one. It is only that she is perfectly happy with remaining in the background of the hustle-bustle of Korean city life. Nonetheless, Jeong-hye's life is beginning to show signs of change. She adopts a lovely kitten. She invites an equally shy and very absent-minded writer (Hwang Jeong-min, A Bittersweet Life, A Good Lawyer's Wife) to a dinner at her place. Finally, a chance encounter with a troubled young man (Seo Dong-won) leads her toward an attempt to address a long-repressed trauma.

Winner of the Best Film Prize at the 2004 Pusan Film Festival's New Currents Section, This Charming Girl is a quietly effective character study, made in cinema verite style but nearly completely devoid of the kind of pretensions and self-importance that plague many first-time features. Director Lee Yoon-ki shows a commendable discipline in keeping his hands largely invisible. It is no mean feat to capture the characters in intimate, unguarded moments with handheld camera but to keep the stance non-intrusive, which is what Lee accomplishes here. When the film slides from objective reality into Jeong-hye's subjective vision (limited to the daydream visitations of her mother, played by veteran actress Kim Hye-ok [Green Chair, Our Twisted Hero]), the transition is so natural that we do not even question whether she is experiencing a flashback, visualizing a wish, or seeing a ghost.

Much of the film's strength must be attributed to the brilliant casting of Kim Ji-soo in the role of Jeong-hye. When I first saw the film, I pegged Kim to be a newcomer with only a theatrical background: in other words, I assumed that her utter lack of affectation in front of the lens was due to her (fortuitous) lack of familiarity with the moviemaking process. I was therefore stunned to find out later that Kim was a well-known figure in TV drama, most recently featured in MBC's The Age of Heroes (2004), with more than ten years of experience in front of the camera. Not only does she not break the rhythm of her performance against extreme long takes and close ups, that reveal minute abrasions and scars in her face, she also makes Jeong-hye absolutely believable in her hesitation and withdrawal, without making her neurotic or eccentric. It is an eye-opening performance the likes of which has seldom been seen in Korean cinema, especially melodramas that often push the actor's emotive capacity to maximum overdrive.

Part of the film's attraction comes from the thrill of anticipating when Jeong-hye will break from her routine and reveal her inner turmoil. When it does happen, the "revelation" is inevitably disappointing in its predictability. The plot development leading to Jeong-hye's confrontation with the source of her trauma is one of the film's few obvious weaknesses, even though the sequence in question features another terrific performance by Lee Dae-yeon (Camel(s), the psychiatrist in A Tale of Two Sisters) and a breathtaking long take inside a lady's restroom, showcasing Kim's tour de force performance.

We live in a world where cinema verite takes of sweaty, gymnastic sex or of characters languorously inhaling cigarettes with vacant eyes automatically cue us that they are meant to be serious "art" films. This Charming Girl, on the other hand, is like an entire film devoted to one of the "extra" figures appearing for a minute or so in these movies, say, a post-office clerk who processes the protagonist's Sturm und Drang letter to her divorced husband, and immediately exits the movie. Director Lee Yoon-ki and the filmmakers, adapting Woo Ae-ryung's novel, deliberately focus on such a seemingly boring and inconsequential character, and restore her integrity as a personage: she is revealed to have an inner world just as mysterious and absorbing as those of the conventional "art" film characters. In the end, it is the film's unwavering gaze, close and proximate, yet deeply compassionate and respectful, that renders This Charming Girl so powerful, and, in collaboration with Kim Ji-soo's superb portrayal, makes Jeong-hye one of the most fascinating characters in recent Korean cinema

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