[MOVIE REVIEW]It’s a love triangle ... or something...Waiting in line at a theater ticket booth on a gloomy Tuesday morning, asking for a seat for one, can be a traumatic experience for a single woman in Korea. If the name of the movie happens to be something like “Desire,” you can just about expect the ticket lady, and the couples behind you, to offer you the rite of holy absolution on the spot for the sin of watching such a sexually ambiguous film without a male companion.
Let me warn you: If you are not ready for this ordeal, leave before you’re overwhelmed by people’s “you’ve got to be pretty desperate” looks.
Yet “Desire” (“Yokmang” in Korean), which is currently screening at Cine Cube with English subtitles, is not a typical date movie.
It’s filled with complex visual cues about the psychological tensions of characters entangled in a love triangle ― eventually a rectangle ― and has no logical narrative basis. Silence runs throughout a significant part of this film, juxtaposed with scenes that are constantly interrupted by the camera’s focus on surrounding details.
The story deals with a young, sexually frustrated couple who maintain a luxurious lifestyle, and a lukewarm marriage, in a beautiful house. Gyu-min (Ahn Nae-sang) is a successful architect who is married to Rosa (Su-a) but involved in a relationship with a male prostitute named Leo (Lee Dong-gyu). Rosa is shocked to find out about her husband’s affair. As revenge, she poisons his favorite rabbit, and tempts Leo to have sex with her in his apartment. Sexual tensions run deep as Gyu-min and Leo find out about Rosa’s relationships to both men.
It’s understandable why this film is so understated. The subject matter is so dramatic that approaching it too literally could easily result in cliches. So the film emphasizes stylistic elements instead. The director, Kim Eung-su, remains a faithful observer throughout, describing the characters’ surroundings in almost disturbing detail while distancing himself from conventional narrative. His approach to depicting the uncertainties of life is subtle yet stylish, not unlike how Wong Kar-wai chose to portray urban isolation in Hong Kong in his “Chungking Express.”
Yet there are times when the style overwhelms the viewer. The dialogue is so open-ended that you could almost extract a phrase from one scene and paste it into another and it would make little difference to the story in the end. The lighting and music are sensual, helping to build the mood, but they also distract from the characters. The ambiguity throughout makes it hard for an audience to guess what this film has to say about any of the subjects it tries to address, whether it’s sexual taboo, desire or marriage in modern Korea.
Even if one accepts that the film is not meant to be linear, it’s clearly trying too hard to cover its holes with aesthetic visual display. Sex, which occurs with dizzying frequency, is about the only explicit form of expression among the characters, but even that feels redundant.
It becomes evident that “Desire” is an auteurist film, heavily indulging the director’s aesthetic tastes. Typically for such a film, “Desire” was invited to several international film festivals last year, including Locarno and Toronto, which have been particularly responsive to Asian arthouse cinema.
Drama / Korean; 85 min.
Now showing with English subtitles at Cine Cube, Jongno district (see map)
by Park Soo-mee