As mentioned, the London Korean Film Festival occurred recently and among the many wonderful films on display I only managed to see the one, Gyeongju, but, happily, within this one wonder there were many wonders as so often does happens with wonders. One day I may retire the word wonder, but not today.
In Gyeongju, the film (dir: Zhang Lu, a Korean professor living in Beijing (a man played by Park Hae-il returns to Korea, and in particular, the city of Gyeongju after the death of a friend. He is a man bereft. We don’t need to know why. All we need to know is there in the scene when he lands in Gyeongju and removes a cigarette from his pocket but doesn’t smoke it; he holds it under his nose, inhaling what he’s no longer allowed. His wife, it seems, can’t stand the smell.
The city of Gyeongju contains a great many temples, grotto’s, folk villages, and very large hills in which are buried the bodies of a great many former great people that lived and ruled during the Silla dynasty. It’s a small, quiet place, somewhat overburdened by death and time, and such is the film set here. The professor seeks a cafe and a portrait that once hung there, a portrait that depicted something indecent. He finds the cafe. The owner (a woman played by Shin Min-a) tells him she wallpapered over the portrait. She serves him his tea. They spend the day together, from morning to sunrise the next day, having tea, riding bicycles, eating, singing, visiting the hills that keep warm the dead, and listening to messages left on their phones that will crack open your chest and rip out your heart.
Many reviewers say it reminds them of the Before series, and I see what they mean. Gyeongju like those films, concerns itself with conversation and the magic shared between two people trying to understand one another. Perhaps, more than in Before, though, Gyeongju possesses a greater sense of time and sadness, of ghosts pressing up through the earth and mind, altering the contours of things. It’s a quiet film that made me chuckle, smile, laugh, and hope.
There’s a thing in films I love more than anything, and that’s when a director allows the camera to rest on a scene, allows us to fall inside the moment. No cuts. No extra music. Just people living. Zhang Lu delivers so many moments like this, of such cutting perfection, such careful observance. There’s a scene inside this film, inside of a noraebang, that is a thing of such beauty, longing, and awkwardness, oh, it’s so good. The movie deserves a bit of your time, if nothing else, for that scene.
And that’s not mentioning the thing with the ear touching. Oh! The ear touching.
Happy Wednesday, readers. I’m sure there’s a joke to be made about humps and burial mounds, but I will refrain from such.