‘Seonghye’ faces the struggles of Hell Joseon

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‘Seonghye’ faces the struggles of Hell Joseon


Seonghye (Song Ji-in) and her boyfriend listlessly grill meat in a scene from “The Land of Seonghye,” which won the Korean Competition’s Grand Prize at the Jeonju International Film Festival in North Jeolla earlier this month. [JEONJU INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL]

The gray, bankrupt hellscape of “The Land of Seonghye” leaves little to the imagination as it catalogs the suffering of young Koreans. Director Jung Hyung-suk’s second film is an airless litany of the miseries, trivial and life-altering, of Seonghye (Song Ji-in), a 29-year-old living in Seoul who aspires to a better life than her parents, who run a restaurant in the countryside.

Seonghye works part-time as a convenience store clerk and a newspaper delivery driver while attending job-prep academies and applying to company after company. She helps support her parents’ medical expenses out of familial obligation, but doesn’t care to visit or talk to them much.

For Seonghye and her boyfriend, who is studying for the civil service exam, life revolves around one thing - getting a decent job, which represents an escape from the netherworld they’re currently stuck in. When her college friends gather joylessly around mugs of beer, they talk of jobs, mostly, and the suicide of their classmate, who was drowning in unpaid debt.

Jung excels in capturing the quiet indignities of the working poor. When studying at the convenience store late at night, Seonghye is interrupted by teenagers who leave the floors and tables covered in ramen noodle soup.

For meals, she eats leftover lunch boxes she’s supposed to throw in the garbage and stocks her fridge with yesterday’s gimbap (seaweed rice rolls). When she runs into a colleague from her old job while manning the register, Seonghye insists that she’s leaving to work abroad soon, and that she’s only working at the convenience store because her family owns it.

Seonghye is unexceptional - she’s a groaning cog in the broken wheel of Korean society, which Jung clearly has a dim view toward.

She’s forced to quit a job after she’s sexually assaulted, struggles to put together money to cover the deposit on her tiny room, smilingly denies the existence of her boyfriend to leering men in interviews and is rejected for positions via chipper text messages.

It’s “Hell Joseon” in a movie. Seonghye’s path in life is blocked, but she never considers anything else but continuing to push forward, head down, into the same barriers that stopped her before.

And why shouldn’t she keep going? There’s money on the other side.

“The Land of Seonghye” premiered at the Jeonju International Film Festival in North Jeolla earlier this month, where it won the Korean Competition’s Grand Prize.

JAMES CONSTANT [jamesconstant1@gmail.com]
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