"Sa-kwa": What You See Is What You Get By Howard Feinstein

in 30th Toronto International Film Festival

by Howard Feinstein

It is perhaps a truism that the male of our species, thinking first and foremost of himself, frequently impedes the social, emotional, and psychological growth of his female love interest. Poor Hyun-jung (Moon So-ri): She is trapped between two such men: her vain fiance, Min-suk (Lee Sun-kyun), who dumps her after seven years but insists on reappearing at inopportune moments; and Sang-hoon (Kim Taw-woo), a professionally ambitious shell of a person whom she marries on the rebound. Sa-kwa, the debut South Korean film that charts Hyun-jung’s path, is, surprisingly, directed by a young man, Kang Yi-kwan, who displays an uncanny ability to plumb the depths of a woman’s psyche. Our Toronto FIPRESCI jury awarded Sa-kwa our prize. Ironically, according to what one American distributor recounted to me after a conversation with Kang during the festival, the suits in Seoul were reediting without his input as we were viewing the movie.

Now that Korean cinema is certifiably hot, most of the attention goes to the visceral filmmakers, or to someone of the stature of Kim Ki-duk, who shifts easily between the worlds of sleaze and spirit. But what about the controlled, organic, nuanced melodramas that have come out in recent years? Hur Jin-Ho’s One Fine Spring Day (2001) pops into mind. Sa-kwa is an even better example of the genre. Certainly there is excellent “melos”: Kang nicely integrates the striking piano compositions with the mise-en-scene and the drama itself. Like classic melodrama, there is little attempt to gloss over the obvious: What you see is what you get. That most of the characters are easily recognizable types allows the emphasis to remain chiefly on the more chameleon-like Hyun-jung. The beautiful, placid scenes of sea, cliffs, and hills that punctuate the first part of the film, when handsome Min-suk and the sparkling, innocent Hyun-jung are immersed in their love affair, are clear indicators of the state of their relationship. As it deteriorates, and she becomes somewhat reluctantly involved with the boring Sang-hoon, the backdrops turn gray, bleak, occasionally industrial. A postmodern pathetic fallacy is at work here, land- and cityscape offering a visual commentary on their inner and outer lives. The miscalculations and frailties of human beings do not hold a candle to the absolute sublimity of nature.

Kang wisely adds comic relief. This is a society where family is primary, so he injects perfectly timed humorous scenes into the relationships among Hyun-jung, her crabby mother, and her odd younger sister. Not only does the wit leaven the melancholy mood, but it also reveals something about the family dynamics that influence Hyun-jung and her personal trajectory. Her mom constantly complains about the men in her elder daughter’s life, and the younger sister’s laughable rebelliousness highlights the essential conservatism of Hyun-jung’s worldview. She needs a man, she needs a high-powered job, she wants to please her parents. At her most self-deprecating, she declares, “I feel useless.”

Sa-kwa is gorgeously framed, and Kang uses occasional soft jump cuts to formally reinforce particular plot points. He is not, however, an intrusive filmmaker. He recognizes the gift of restraint, allowing the story time to unfold. He also gives his performers plenty of space. Anyone who has seen Moon So-ri in Oasis or A Good Lawyer’s Wife knows that she is a great, highly versatile actress, and her collaboration with Kang is exceptionally fruitful. Even though Min-suk begs to return, and Sang-hoon is ambivalent about their impending divorce, Hyun-jung – even now with a baby – wrests control of her destiny away from these undependable fellows. Hell, too, has escape hatches.