Can Lee Jeong-hong’s a Wild Roomer satisfy the audience?
by Chiyong Ahn
The original title of the film a Wild Roomer is Goein, which in Korean means a ‘strange person’, whilst the English title refers to the character’s feature and emphasizes space.
However, there is no strange person in this movie, but a mediocre character, as is common for novels and films. A common character may be compensated by an uncommon situation, but again, this is not the case in this film either. This does not destroy cinematic grammar, but it is uncommon for commercial cinema and leaves the audience at a loss.
Carpenter Gi Hong, the film’s protagonist, makes a living by doing small interior jobs. The film starts with a scene where Gi Hong falls asleep late at night, drunk at a piano academy under construction. Although he feels like the trace of a person in an empty space, Gi Hong falls asleep, taking it lightly, unlike his friend who works with him.
From this initial atmosphere, a thriller could unfold, but the film brutally tramples on the audience’s expectations. While attempting a minor detour, the film revolves around a detached house that forms the main location. Here, in the detached house with a unique structure that Gi Hong rents out, landlord and roomers seem to be both the same and separate. An ambiguous story unfolds suddenly in the house.
The Busan International Film Festival explained the reason for selecting this film for the New Currents section thus: “There is no difficult scene in a Wild Roomer, but it is difficult to explain […] All characters are slightly out of expectation.” Indeed, the film is neither particularly special, nor does it meet expectations; it is slightly out of line. In fact, it makes a statement about human life that most people with everyday lives can agree with.
However, audiences are unlikely to be satisfied with the film, because the film tries to provide something special within the grammar and context, and the audience still expects a special experience, of leaving the ‘setting in life’ (‘Sitz im Leben’), which the filmmakers leave to enter a ‘setting in film’. Such films have always required a special stimulation and novel composition. New filmmakers try to surpass their seniors’ films, which are characteristic of the art field, but also the fate of the increasingly commercial film industry. As the audience wants a unique ending and a particular twist, the ‘setting in film’ increases the level of integration. In a way, a Wild Roomer can be seen as a continuation of the genealogy of independent films, made in the style of Hong Sang-Soo.
If a Wild Roomer were a river, it flows quietly, without torrent; its turbulences lie below the surface. The cinematic sensibility is mixed with sociality in Lee Jeong-Hong’s film, which incorporates a sense of criticism that it neither direct nor prominently placed. a Wild Roomer looks like fresh water at first, but it is salty seawater.
The early traces of doubt do not rule out the path of a thriller or murder story. Since the protagonist has no fixed residence, ‘phrogging’, or secretly living in other people’s homes, and ‘squatting’, occupying empty houses, become routine; he works part-time, maybe because he does not have a fixed abode, maybe because he does not want a full-time job. As an adult, rather than a runaway youth, this explains both appearance and place of life of ordinary people.
Various factors fill our place of life: how couples live, the relationship between parents and children, social class, division by wealth, and desires naturally conceived in capitalism; they can be seen in films. The characteristic of this film is that it is not clear whether there is an affair involved or not. Nothing is clear, including the event or composition of the film, and the character. That’s pretty much what our lives are like.
The film tracks, and carefully shows, our lives that constantly shift back and forth, without suggesting what is to be done. It is questionable whether the film, which returned from a ‘setting in film’ to a ‘setting in life’ will satisfy the hearts of the audience. The cinema is a completely different space from the rented room, because it was designed and built with a specific intention on the busy streets of the city.
Director Lee Jeong Hong won the Best Picture Award at the Busan International Short Film Festival for his first short, No Cave (2012), and the Grand Prix at the Seoul Independent Film Festival for his second short, The Girl Lives in Haeundae (2012); he also directed a novella for the almanac film Romance in Seoul (2014). a Wild Roomer is the first feature-length production.
Edited by Birgit Beumers
© FIPRESCI 2023