Scarred lovers, broken filmmakingThe unhappiness of lost love is an irresistible target for storytellers, but these tales can be trying for filmmakers ― and for viewers. All the elements need to come together just right: actors with more than a spark of chemistry, good camera work and an intriguing and meaningful script.
Though “The Power of Gangwon Province” comes up short of this ideal in a few important ways, it is still a worthy attempt, with a stimulating plot, a beautiful natural setting and good casting.
The structure of the film is unusual and clever. Ji-sook (Oh Yun-hong) travels to Gangneung, Gangwon province, on vacation with her friends Mi-sun (Im Sun-young) and Eun-kyoung (Park Hyun-young), where they meet a policeman (Kim Yoo-suk), who shows them the village and drinks them all under the table. In tantalizing flashes, dialogue reveals that Ji-sook is depressed after the ending of an unhappy love affair with an older, married man. One awkward groping by the policeman later, the friends return to Seoul. Eventually, Ji-sook returns to Gangneung alone, confusedly seeking the policeman's embrace.
Then, without warning or explanation, the film cuts back in time to a simultaneous trip to Gangneung by the other half of Ji-sook's love affair, Sang-kwon (Baek Jong-hak), an out-of-work professor who also seeks a substitute for her in alcohol and a prostitute.
Finally, the two meet again, but the spell has been broken, and all that is left between the self-destructive Ji-sook and the spiritually bankrupt Sang-kwon is emotional wreckage.
The film builds gently to the final meeting with several near-misses between the two ex-lovers. Both meet an ordinary-looking couple, of which the female half later turns up dead at the bottom of a cliff ― whether she jumped or was pushed, both acts require more passion than Ji-sook and Sang-kwon seem capable of. Two neglected, homeless goldfish at Sang-kwon’s office provide a poignant metaphor.
Writer-director Hong Sang-soo is better known for his more recent films, such as “Woman is the Future of Man,” and this is the first time the 1998 “Gangwon Province” has been released on DVD. That this is an earlier effort by a filmmaker still finding his feet is obvious ― boom microphones intrude upon shot after shot after shot. It may seem picky to mention that, but it’s an amateurish mistake that undermines the film’s attempt at hypnotic melancholy.
Casting mostly unknowns as these characters engaged in a futile, entirely undistinguished search for meaning was effective. The anonymity of Oh and Baek aids in the believability of their slow spiral into numb isolation.
“The Power of Gangwon Province” is challenging and potentially frustrating to watch ― if the story doesn’t touch you personally it will almost definitely be quite boring ― and there are several technical problems, but overall this is a good film, setting the starring couple’s gradual implosion against the beautiful backdrop of Mount Seorak, with its mountain trails and stunning waterfalls ― where two damaged human beings discover that nature can’t heal their scars.
by Ben Applegate