Paju: A Review

I’m so thrilled to say that I managed to watch a film DURING Tribeca Film Festival. First time in nine years – whee!

That said, of course I ended up watching Paju, the film directed by Park Chan Ok and starring Seo Woo and Lee Seon Kyun.

The director was present to introduce her film and for a Q&A session. I could not stay for the session, but did manage to hear her say a few words in the beginning. What surprised me most was the director was female; I had made the incredibly biased assumption that she was male (her name didn’t really help either, it really sounded…manly…). But it was a pleasant surprise, and it definitely affected the way I viewed the film.

By the way – mad fun that I got to see Aaron Eckhart (Thank You For Not Smoking, The Dark Knight) and Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) sitting in front of me.

Warning: Some Spoilers Below.

Synopsis

The film moves back and forth in a period of 8 years centered around the small town of Paju. Lee’s character Joong Shik is a former criminal who wanders into the town after an unfortunate accident with his lover and her son. He ends up marrying Eun Mo’s (Seo Woo) sister. Eun Mo has always been leery of Joong Shik because she can tell that they did not marry out of true love.

Tragedy strikes the sister, and Eun Mo runs away during that time. It should be said that Eun Mo is quite the serial runaway. Joong Shik searches desperately for her, as she is the only family he has left. She eventually returns and completes her high school studies while staying with him. To support her, Joong Shik sells coffee and tea by the roadside, and is involved in several town projects, including one about North Korean refugees and an anti-demolition group. (It is something to note that Paju is near the border between North and South Korea. I did not know this while watching the film but now that I do, it once again spins it on a different light.)

One of Joong Shik’s activities gets him into trouble, and Eun Mo takes the opportunity to run away once again. This time she disappears for three years. When we reach the present time, she has returned to Paju to uncover the truth about her sister’s death.

Acting

This is my first ‘Seo Woo Anything’ – and I have to say I’m uber-impressed with her acting. Lee Seon Kyun – yeah, I knew he’d be good =P. But I didn’t know what to expect from Seo Woo. Lee portrays his pain far better than Seo Woo though. His loneliness and his heartbreak over Eun Mo is far more palpable. He has plenty of nude scenes though, which were at first quite unsettling (I’m not used to seeing my Han Sung naked!), but in the end just kind of sad. It’s all about the need of the characters – that need for an emotional connection through sleeping together.

Seo Woo is very complex, and her expressions say so. It’s hard to figure out just what exactly it was that she was feeling sometimes, but in general one gets the gist that she doesn’t really like Joong Shik, but must rely on him and trusts him. Eventually when she’s older she understands that her relationship with him is not as innocent as it once was, but it doesn’t come with an exaggerated response on her end. It’s all internalized and she acts on it by running away.

Tone and Script/Pacing

This film…is…so…slow. Honestly, that’s one of it’s biggest, weakest points. The draggy pace completely throws me off the story track at times, and the fact that it’s not in chronological order does not help. I don’t mind jumping time lines in films, as long as I can tell what period I am in. With Seo Woo, it’s relatively easy – her hairstyle changes. But there are two other women in the film (Joong Shik’s first lover and Eun Mo’s sister) that look much too alike, which makes it more confusing as to when and where we are in the story. I don’t think it being in chronological order would have been good because then it spoils the conflict in the story. However – fade ins and fade outs were done one time too many by the latter half, and by then, I just wanted the film to be over.

The tone of the film is very melancholy. Paju is a city undergoing change and all the houses would be demolished in favor of more nightclubs and shady businesses. There is a sense of alienation in all the characters as they stand alone against richer businessmen and construction workers. I think the tone worked well for this film, especially when it had to reflect the two main actors’ needs. The director had said in the beginning that her film was about people trying to find what they want. The characters didn’t seem like they knew what they wanted, and so that added to the melancholy feeling of being lost and alone. And when they realized what it is they wanted, they also realized they could not have it.

When I say that finding out the director was a woman affected what I thought about the film, I simply meant that the softer touches of a female director could be picked up. I’m not saying male directors don’t have that “sensitive” touch – but with female directors there’s certainly a bit more of it.

Overall Comments:

This film could have been over in an hour and a half; instead it had a nearly two-hour running time. The pacing really killed it. I enjoyed the discovery Eun Mo makes in regards to her sister’s death, and honestly, even though I and the audience knew what was going to happen, I still jumped at all the shocking moments. I could hear the audience members suck in their breaths together and murmur “nooo…” at the same time. Being able to collectively engage in the movie is what makes it fun for me.

What’s interesting is that Eun Mo is constantly running away. It’s her way of dealing with her problems and her attempt for change in her life. However, since she keeps going back to Paju, it indicates that change doesn’t come easy for her. It’s the same for those in the anti-demolition team; they can’t accept the change happening to their city and would rather hold on to their rundown houses. Eun Mo and her sister initially do not want to sell their parents’ house because it was given to them. It only gets sold once Joong Shik joins the family. In a way, he’s an instigator for change; his actions eventually lead to Eun Mo striving for that change.

The film is tragic especially for Joong Shik, and by the end I feel less sympathetic towards Eun Mo. I don’t know if I’m supposed to feel more sympathetic for her or not, but one redeeming thing about her is that she is very much aware of her actions, even if it took years later for her to figure it out. There was always a moment for me of wanting to know more – and that’s when slow pacing worked. In other moments where I couldn’t have cared less – I would have preferred it to go faster.

Favorite scene was when Eun Mo, after discovering the truth about her sister’s death, walks towards the protest site to meet Joong Shik. It’s filmed in one take, and slowed down – giving it a sense of continually dazed feeling and shock. It completely reflected Eun Mo’s thinking at that moment.

Rating: 5/10

photo source: hancinema

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