This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
I love watching Korean films. Mainly because it gives me another chance to look at their whacky alphabet. And of course, the hit rate of Korean films that have made it through customs to Britain has been pretty high of late. Park Chan Wook remains one of the most imaginative and intense film-makers working, and Ki-duk Kim continues to put out masterful works of bleakness. Even the poorer K-horrors and mainstream stuff like The Host and A Bittersweet Life never quite hit the lows we’re used to seeing from Hollywood.
With A Girl Of Black Soil certainly eschews the hyperkinetic intensity of Park’s stuff, but perhaps you could argue it’s similar in tone to Kim’s The Isle or last year’s festival outing Breath. Director Soo-il Jeon’s fourth feature outing has certainly paid up its membership fees to the increasingly popular South Korean Films With Nearly No Dialogue Club, but crucially it also features the same mesmerising hold over an audience despite its minimalist storyline.
Set in a snowbound mining village, which is perhaps best described as a one horse town where someone has shot the horse, the changing economic climate of the country means that the mines are in the process of shutting down. Bad news for the town, but there’s an additional layer of unpleasantness for a father of two, played by Yung-jin Jo. He’s taken in and diagnosed with pneumoconiosis, or Black Lung to give it it’s more ominous, Dungeons & Dragons villain pseudonym.
He can’t work down’t pit any more, and struggles to find alternative employment to provide for his family. Increasingly he turns to drink for solace. This leaves the almost impossibly cute young daughter Young-lim (Yun-mi Yu) to look after her mentally handicapped older brother, who has a physical age of twelve and a mental age a quarter of that. This, for a while at least doesn’t work out quite as badly as you’d expect, with the nine year old daughter proving to be the most mature of the lot of them, at least until she takes some necessary and some extreme actions towards the end of the film.
Now, and I seem to have said this an awful lot during this year’s EIFF 2008 coverage, there’s not an awful lot going on here in any quantifiable sense. Indeed, the supplied press synopsis runs to about four sentences and does pretty much describe every event of note that happens in the film. This isn’t a film that I can sell to you on its actions, instead it places more faith, rather bravely, in the performance of a nine year old (or thereabouts) actress Yun-mi Yu. It pays off, and regardless of how realistic such a character might be the combination of mature responsibility and childish innocence is a compelling one, especially contrasted with her father’s self-destruction.
With a focus on the bleak environs of the town and community it’s a visually effective film, albeit one that couldn’t be described as pretty. The ‘slow build of events’ card is perhaps somewhat overplayed, as there’s very few events over a very long time, or so it seems. The middle third does drag a little, and while at only 90 minutes it seems odd to be calling for a shorter film a good ten minutes lopped off the running time may have promoted this to being an excellent film rather than a very good one.
As you might gather, I did rather enjoy this film, although giving you a concrete list of reasons as to why I did proves to be a little difficult. But then, it always does for this sort of thing. This film is recommended particularly if you enjoyed the bleak, minimalist recent films of Ki-duk Kim, and if he sound interesting to you and you’d like to know more check out the reviews of The Isle, Breath and Bad Guy. I’m aware at this point that I’m trying to recommend you see an obscure film based on it’s likeness to barely less obscure films, so perhaps I should quit while I’m ahead.
This will, by its very nature, be a film that’s not going to be accepted by a mass market, but there’s no chance a mass market is ever going to stumble across it. You’re going to have to make an effort to seek this out and unless you have a fairy high tolerance for this sort of near eventless thing you’re not going to like it. However, in this case your patience will be rewarded and it’s certainly one of the better films this year’s festival has exposed me to.