Proving there’s a fine line between deliberate and dull by stepping over it, and employing every textbook trick known to film schools, Lee Wanmin makes her feature debut in the Vision section at this year’s Busan International Film Festival. Ostensibly a portrait of a modern woman’s near collapse and rebirth, Jamsil jumps through space and time (yes, it teases time travel just for the hell of it) en route to nowhere in particular very, very, very slowly. If ever anyone needed proof that there was such a thing as a strictly “festival” movie, Jamsil is it. Writer-director Lee has a real feel for women, and she clearly has something to say, but she’d be well served by a ruthless editor at the script stage. Once Jamsil completes the fest route — and it will find a place there — additional platforms are probably few and far between, even in Asia-Pacific.
The convoluted, frequently opaque Jamsil, the name of a district of Seoul known for its historic silkworm cultivation and being down the road from Olympic Park, begins conventionally enough. Out of the blue one evening, the aimless and untethered thirtysomething Mihee (Lee Sanghee) is told by her boyfriend that it’s time to end their long-term relationship. She quickly moves into a tiny, miserable flat and proceeds to be a spectator to the disintegration of her own life. Landing at fortysomething Sungsook’s (Hong Seungyi) door one evening, Mihee convinces the stranger she is her best friend, Yooyoung, from high school — age gap be damned — before finally breaking down in tears. For whatever reason, it is the beginning of a deep and transformative friendship.
Aims high but doesn’t know when to quit.
As the disparate women slowly grow closer, the film’s peripheral characters float in and out of the story. Ikju (Lim Hyongkook), Sungsook’s live-in boyfriend (Lee makes sure to note they are not married), enters into an affair with Mihee, despite knowing she’s a fraud. Suspecting adultery, the activist-minded Sungsook’s eye starts to wander, too, eventually landing on a younger journalist, Oh Doomin (Lee Sunho). For some reason that’s never quite clear, Mihee becomes determined to locate her own high school BFF, Keunkyoung, regardless of the ignored phone messages she keeps leaving. Through it all, flashbacks to the women’s younger days do little to bring their characters into focus, though the gold-tinted, sunny, warm images of the past bring the misery of the present — all washed-out gray tones and muted color — into sharper relief.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown this is not; however, somewhere buried beneath the dross that makes up the bulk of Jamsil is a thoughtful, resonant and all-too-rare exploration of female friendship. The bond between the two unconventional women in a country the regularly devalues them is the beating heart of the narrative, but writer-director Lee puffs up the “plot” to make space for high school nostalgia (Mihee could easily have fibbed about her past without the flashbacks) and Sungsook’s romance with a younger man (which, blessedly, is devoid of cougar jokes). The vast majority of the film passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, and in Sungsook’s case creates a fully formed, complex character worthy of the unknown Hong’s performance. She brings grace and empathy to Sungsook, finding layer after layer to reveal. Lee isn’t as fortunate, saddled as she is with the more one-note Mihee, whose defining traits appear to be the inability to look anyone in the eye and stalking. By the time Jamsil wheezes to its time-transcending finale (including a major “Ya think?” moment with Keunkyoung), it’s more than worn out its welcome. Here’s hoping Lee’s next film is just as ambitious and less superfluous.
Venue: Busan International Film Festival (Vision)
Production company: Windwellers Films
Cast: Lee Sanghee, Hong Seungyi, Kim Saebyuk, Lee Sunho, Lim Hyongkook, Jung Won, Kim Seunghyun, Lee Juyoung, Lee Juyoung, Choi Jinhyuk, Jeong Kyungim
Director-screenwriter: Lee Wanmin
Producer: Yoon Nakyong
Executive producer: Jang Ilseon
Director of photography: Lee Juhwan
Editor: Lee Dohyun
Not rated, 140 minutes