VIFF 2012: A Mere Life

The Vancouver International Film Festival’s annual Dragons & Tigers competition has an impressive pedigree, honoring young filmmakers over the years such as Jia Zhangke, Hong Sangsoo, Koreeda Hirokazu, Lee Changdong, Wisit Sasanatieng and Liu Jiayin.  I think I’m going to make it to about half the competition films this year, and this film by Park Sanghun is the first.  It’s an unrelentingly grim movie that I’m surprised to find I actually liked quite a bit, given that I don’t normally warm to dark or depressing movies.

It starts off with a family visiting a Buddhist shrine.  The mother encourages her son to help her place a stone on top of a rock pile (the act has a religious significance of which I’m wholly ignorant).  When the precariously balanced pile collapses, the mother does a comical double take and runs away, leaving her exasperated husband (named Park Il-rae) to rebuild the pile (or face karmic wrath?, again, I’m ignorant).  That’s about the last bit of light comedy the film has to offer.  From there, it becomes a grunge-realist story of poverty and the husband’s drunken incompetence that comes to a head when he is scammed out of their savings and brings some poison home.

It’s here that the film takes an unexpected turn.  It certainly is a bold choice to have your main character murder his wife and child halfway through your movie, and Park doesn’t shy away from the horror or detestability of that act.  But that’s not the end of the story either.  Instead of making a film about how simply awful it is to be poor and married to a drunk, Park gives us something I haven’t quite seen before, a story about an irredeemable man that asks us not only to understand but to try to forgive him.  It asks the rare question, what do you do after you’ve committed an unforgivable act?  Park Il-rae sentences himself to walking the earth as a destitute wretch, while he keeps trying and failing to kill himself.  His father tracks him down (a striking fire-lit scene as the father burns all of Park’s meager possessions in his troll-like under-the-bridge home) and tries to kill him but dies of a heart attack instead.  He tries to hang himself, but the rope breaks.  We leave him wandering aimlessly alone in a desolate grey mudflat, shot with a nauseatingly unstable shaky cam.  Death would be too good for him, so karma (or whatever) simply won’t let him die.  It’s not simply that life is his punishment, I get the feeling he’ll be left to wander until he finds forgiveness, from the people he’s killed, from himself, and from us.

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