"With the Girl of Black Soil": A Delicate Balance By Claus Löser

in 22nd Fribourg International Film Festival

by Claus Löser

Among several strong movies in the competition of the 22nd International Filmfestival Fribourg (FIFF) in Uechtland, Switzerland, one film was noticed for its special qualities in form and content: the FIPRESCI winner With the Girl of Black Soil (Geomen tangyi sonyeo oi) by Jeon Soo-il, which tells a sad story in a mining area somewhere in Southern Korea. A nine-year-old girl, Young-lim, lives with her father and her older brother, who is mentally handicapped, in a little cottage in a worker’s settlement. Young-lim loves school, playing the piano and drawing pictures, besides this she cares for her brother and does the housework. The life of this little family without a mother is not heaven on earth but they all try to make the best of the situation.

One day, this delicate balance is disturbed: the father has an accident in the coal mine and gets sick, he loses his job and begins to drink. Now things really start to go wrong. In the beginning of this crisis Young-lim tries to retain control, but at a certain point she decides to find a radical way out of the unfortunate situation. With the Girl of Black Soil develops its tragic energy slowly and powerfully. The characters and their conflicts are precisely drawn, no psychological motivations are needed. It’s an effective kind of story-telling, which gives the film its strength and even a sort of elegance within all the misery.

There are several gaps in the flow of the story, moments of adjournment and surprise. An important function is the way it deals with happenings off screen. Invisible things and acts have the same high-graded precision as the visible actions on screen. For example the way Young-lim’s father falls into self-pity and the dangerous consolation of alcohol: There is no need to show him drinking without break, it’s enough to show his behavior and his empty eyes. In another scene his daughter is sent by him to a supermarket to buy some bottles of wine and some food. As Young-lim realizes that the money is not enough for food and alcohol, she runs away without paying. She hides in a house, which she passes randomly. While she is waiting until her pursuers stop chasing her, she realizes that the building is a music school for children. Hidden behind a wall, she watches children playing pianos, watching her own lost childhood. Scenes like this are very touching, but Jeon Soo-il avoids any kind of sentimentality.

Sometimes the film is reminiscent of the best social realism of Ken Loach, or the sensitive Post-Bressonian-style of the Brothers Dardenne from Belgium. But at the same time, the film gives a very strong impression of an original, authentic film language, which really cannot be compared with European traditions. It would be important to bring With the Girl of Black Soil to the screens of France, Germany and other countries, not only in the frame of festivals.