The Old Garden
Yum Jung-Ah, Ji Jin-Hee
From the director of The President's Last Bang, a graceful blend of the personal and the political.
Im Sang-soo is a regular at EIFF, with The Good Lawyer’s Wife and The President’s Last Bang both screening in recent years. This year, he returns with a new exploration of the human cost behind the resistance to South Korea’s Chun dictatorship in the 1980s. The story, told largely in flashback, follows Hyun-woo, a one-time socialist revolutionary recently released from jail. He returns to the remote house (the “old garden”) where many years before, as a political fugitive, he lived with the alluring Yoon-hee. The defining choice in Hyun-woo’s life was between politics and love. His commitment to radical political change made it impossible for him to live with Yoon-hee, who died while he was in jail, but not before bearing his daughter. Hyun-woo chose politics over love, and the film develops a poignant assessment of the personal costs of this choice. “I’m such a shit,” he mutters, when he finally understands how much he sacrificed – and roars into the night sky.
Im has lensed the story with his characteristically vibrant palette. This is far from verité: his style involves intricate composition, often including careful manipulation of the distant background, as well as complex and intense lighting effects. One example is in a scene of parting, as the young Hyun-woo leaves Yoon-hee near the end of their curtailed romance. It’s pouring with rain, and the two lovers shelter under a yellow umbrella – this splash of bright colour anchoring the shot, which is otherwise a perspective view of the approaching bus. In that dank grey-green scene, Im constructs a wonderful play of light beneath the yellow umbrella. It positively glows with dappled reflections, as if the two lovers emanate fluttering light from the warmth they feel in one anothers’ company. Boldly colourful and anti-naturalistic lighting choices such as this take Im’s film into richly metaphorical territory.
The most striking moment, perhaps, is the single shot of Hyun-woo when he speaks to his daughter for the first time – the daughter he never knew he had while he was in prison. We see only a close-up of Hyun-woo’s face, as he speaks through the phone. Im uses narrow depth of field here – there’s not much background, and it’s not entirely in focus, because the centrepiece of the shot (and the scene) is of course Hyun-woo. But as his rapture builds, he gradually starts spinning around, and floating upwards. After a while, he’s among the rooftops, and there’s nothing behind him at all: he’s up in the air. Since it’s all shot as a single close-up, though, you can only tell this is happening from gradual changes in the limited and indistinct background area.
This sleight-of-hand is far from obvious, but the sense of elevation it creates gives the scene a haunting emotional impact. Along with his masterful control of an elaborate, novelistic narrative, his deeply empathetic characterisation and his astute political sensibility, Im’s assured use of this veiled surreality yields a tremendously subtle piece of cinema.
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