in 67th Locarno International Film Festival

by Alison Frank

An obscene folk painting hangs at the centre of Gyeongju (dir. Zhang Lu), mentioned as a memory. We are immediately curious to see it, as it is never described in detail and the film teasingly makes us wait so long that we wonder if we’ll ever see it.

Choi, the film’s central character, recalls the painting when a friend dies unexpectedly. He makes a visit home to Korea from Beijing, where he now works as a young professor. After he and another mate from college pay their respects to their deceased friend, Choi happens to remember the painting, an unlikely decoration in a respectable teahouse in the city of Gyeongju where the three of them spent a happy afternoon several years ago. Choi decides to make an impromptu visit to Gyeongju, and calls up an ex-girlfriend to meet him there, but her old grievances and new circumstances make their lunch a bit of a disaster.

He makes a bad impression at the teahouse, too, as the pretty young owner, Yun-hui, is uncomfortable with his questions about the painting, which she papered over after one too many rude remarks from the teahouse patrons. Eventually, she is reassured by Choi’s otherwise inoffensive and civilized manner, and Choi ends up spending the rest of his 24-hour visit with Yun-hui and her friends, most of whom also misunderstand him.

The films in this year’s Locarno competition took themselves very seriously, most treating sober social themes, and some so obsessed with aesthetics that narrative was more or less overlooked. Gyeongju was one of very few genuinely enjoyable films in the competition because it managed to weave meaningful ideas and aesthetic accomplishments into an engaging storyline filled with subtle humour.

In particular, the dynamic between social expectations of politeness in formal situations versus brutal honesty among friends leads to delightfully awkward or ironic moments. After Choi first asks Yun-hui about the painting, she idly texts a friend to tell her about this ‘pervert’. When Choi is later invited along to dinner, and one of the academics in the party finds out that he is the leading expert in his field, he sings Choi’s praises to the rest of the group and tells them to treat him with absolute respect. Meanwhile, the friend who received the text starts telling the rest of the group about the pervert who came to the teahouse, not realising that pervert and professor are one and the same.

Comfortably complementing this down-to-earth humour, the film unobtrusively frames the beauty of both Gyeongju and its teahouse. Outdoor shots tend to be long shots that set the smallness of Choi as one individual against both modern and ancient monuments, from the pristine train station to the old temple and its grassy mounds.

A particularly pleasing nighttime shot has a magical Miyazaki feel, capturing Choi and Yun-hui, each atop their separate mound. Shots of the teahouse interior, meanwhile, are reminiscent of Ozu in their use of the perpendicular lines of wall, window and screen panels to create harmonious composition, and low camera height to develop intimacy with the characters who are seated on the floor.

These interior shots are also characterised by a gentle warmth, from the golden colour of the wooden walls and floorsto the sunlight filtering through leaves and paper panels. This aesthetic beauty has a particular opportunity to engage the audience’s attention in those moments where the film’s excellent script falls quiet.

The film’s aesthetics are largely unassuming, typically taking a back seat to narrative. Its themes are similarly interesting, but even more subtle — perhaps excessively so, and this constitutes the film’s main flaw. Gyeongju touches on many different ideas, but none of them is developed strongly enough to be driven home. The result is that the film leaves a dangerously light impression overall, even if it is very strong in its parts.

The first theme that the film touches on is mortality: in particular, the death of young people through suicide, the suspected cause of death for Choi’s friend, but also, by uncanny coincidence, the implied fate of more than one other person in the film.

Another theme is the challenges of married life: just one example is Choi himself who, it is suggested through a phone message from his wife, late in the film, is going through a rough patch in his marriage, which in retrospect casts his opportunities for romance in Gyeongju in a new light.

The fact that Choi now lives in China and is married to a Chinese woman introduces the theme of international relations, which are portrayed as relatively unimportant in the day-to-day life of the individual: the idea that thunder could be the sound of North Korean missiles is considered a joke, and when a Japanese tourist apologises to Choi on behalf of her country for past wrongs, all he can think of to say is that he really likes natto (a Japanese delicacy of fermented soybeans).

Although it seems an uninspired title, it is significant that Gyeongju is named after the city where most of the film takes place. For Choi, the power of Gyeongju does not only reside in one particular teahouse, and the obscene painting is ultimately just a cipher for the many feelings, ideas and memories that he takes with him wherever he goes, and which emerge through his relationships with people from his past and every new person that he meets. While the film is arguably too subtle, one could argue that it has to be in order to articulate the very elusiveness and delicacy of the connections that link friends and strangers, space and time, past and present.

Alison Frank