Paju review: Set in the city of Paju, this is a romantic drama which is as confusing as love itself.
Paju review, Luke Ryan Baldock at the London Korean Film Festival.
Love can be a complex thing. There are different levels for different people, and even love for objects and memories. Such confusion is right at the forefront of Park Chan Ok’s Paju, a film that is as confusing as it is intriguing. Paju is a very complex and conflciting city in its own right, making it the perfect setting for this in-depth relationship drama. Paju is a mountainous region that borders China, has US military bases, and English language educational village, and the North Korean city of Kaesong can be seen from Mount Dora. A city with so many characteristics and conflicting ideals may very well be the perfect setting for doomed love.
The film starts with a mystery of its own. Joong Sik (Lee Sun Kyun) is hiding out at his girlfriend Ja Young’s (Kim Bo Kyung) apartment. We learn through dialogue that Joon sik is both married and wanted by the police, but little more information is given. As the two make love, a terrible accident happens, before we follow a complex non-linear narrative. Joong Sik was once a teacher who married his student Eun Mo’s (Seo Woo) older sister Eun Su (Shim Yi Young). After Eun Su’s death, Joong Sik lived with his sister-in-law, before she left for pastures new. Upon her return she finds her old apartment is under threat from demolition, with Joong Sik leading a group of protestors. It may sound simple enough, but each period of time is chopped up and inserted into the story at seemingly random times.
Paju is hard to follow, no doubt about it. Joon Shik’s love affairs, relations, and information we are not privy to, all makes for a film where you are constantly putting the pieces together. Not necessarily a bad thing, and it actually creates a bizarre connection between audience and characters. The confusion of how they feel for one another is strong because we don’t know what has happened and why. Park may overreach at times, but it is a powerful narrative strategy.
The main story, although not at first apparent, is the relationship between Eun Mo and her brother-in-law. It’s a relationship that changes its course many times, and takes on a different captain throughout. A schoolgirl crush turns to disgust, while Joon Sik battles with the death of his wife and the presence of his first love, while also battling with the film’s opening tragedy. Both Seo Woo and Lee Sun Kyun give tremendous performances that span over time, making their roles difficult to pull off, as they have often evolved without any progression on screen. Still, we feel the warmth between the protagonists, but the coldness of their past.
Shot as though the city of Paju was a ghost itself, cinematographer Kim Woo Hyung uses fog, dust, rubble, and smoke, to add an almost unholy filter, adding some form of cohesion between time jumps. Paju is not one to watch on a weak or tired mind, but for those alert enough and willing enough, they will be rewarded with an intellectual and expansive love story. Such complicated narratives are usually reserved for sweeping fantastical epics, but here a tiring journey of emotions is given a lot of attention and substance.
Paju review by Luke Ryan Baldock. The film screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2016.