South Korean film “Steel Cold Winter”, which is released as “A Girl” at South Korean theaters in this weekend, is dripping with the moody atmosphere which will draw you to its dark secret hidden behind one mysterious girl and the plain wintry countryside. Although the ending is a little too anti-climactic mainly due to its predictability, I liked its chilly feeling in the progress, and I found myself more conscious of the cold weather outside than before when I walked out of the screening room.
The girl in question is viewed through a high school student named Yoon-soo(Kim Si-hoo), who has recently been transferred to a high school located in some remote country village. Although his affluent parents do not explain much about his transfer from Seoul, we come to have some pretty good idea about how they came to make such a decision. He looks quiet and normal at first, and he gets along well with his new classmates, but he sometimes suffers from the piercing noises inside his head – especially when he is under stressful condition.
Hae-won(Kim Yoon-hye), one of the students in his class, seems to know the reason, although she never explains to him how she knows. When she says about something he has never told to anyone in the school, he is naturally alarmed and disturbed by her remark, and his classmates tell him later that Hae-won has been regarded as a creepy girl in their village. She sometimes blurts out many things she cannot possibly know, but it looks like she is a sort of truth teller; at one point, she whispers something to a certain character, and we later learn that she did not lie to that character at all.
Some of the village peoples, including the avuncular head of the village, pity Hae-won rather than ostracize her. She lives in a poor household, and her only family is her mentally unstable father. According to a bad rumor which has been spread around the village, he has probably committed something unspeakable to his daughter, and many neighbors think they must do something about that, but Hae-won remains weirdly quiet regardless of whatever they talk about her and her father, about whom she seems to care a lot.
Even after he comes to learn about that rumor, Yoon-soo finds himself still attracted to this detached but pretty girl who approaches to him closer than anyone. When he saw her during his first day in the village, she was freely skating figures on the frozen lake alone, and he could not help but just watch her beauty in cold solitude. As they become a little friendlier to each other, they spend some time together at the lake during late evenings, and he gives her a new pair of figure skates as a sincere gift for her.
As I watched this tentative romantic relationship growing in the cold landscape, a cold but sad Swedish vampire film “Let the Right One In”(2008) and its American remake version “Let Me In”(2010) instantly came to my mind. Although “Steel Cold Winter” is not a vampire film, much of its strength resides in its desolate and disturbing wintry ambience not so far from that of those two darkly romantic movies, and it also has its own desperate lovers holding onto each other amid the bleakness surrounding and oppressing them.
Based on the screenplay by Choi Yoon-jin, the director Choi Jin-seong did a splendid job of creating a vivid wintry atmosphere; it really feels cold and freezing to everyone on the screen even when we do not see snow or ice. There is also a considerable amount of gloominess on the screen even during midday, and we are constantly reminded of something unwholesome hidden behind the surface while Kim Yoon-hye gives an effectively restrained performance which imbues her character with the sufficient aura of dark mystery. It is quite possible that there is a lot more behind her pretty icy face than she tells, and we keep wondering about her along with Yoon-soo: is she just an odd girl? Is she merely a lonely pariah in the village? Or…
The movie becomes more noirish when a terrible incident shocks the whole village, and, as a flawed and troubled hero tormented by his fatal error in the past, Yoon-soo becomes confused and conflicted because of what he happened to witness around the time when the incident happened; though he cannot be entirely sure about what he saw at that time, it can surely implicate Hae-won in the serious crime, and he may lose her forever because of that.
As implied in its bloody opening scene, things will not be resolved nicely in the end, and the sudden epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease among pigs casts another shadow on the village, which will certainly receive an economic blow due to this disaster. There is a horrible scene showing how those poor pigs carrying the disease are buried alive in the pit, and, though this is undeniably a striking moment, it is one of several missteps in the movie. The movie attempts to make a symbolic connection between this scene and how an individual can be inadvertently ‘buried’ by others, but it does not fit into the story as well as intended, and the same thing can be said about the oncoming moon eclipse, which is emphasized several times throughout the movie. This might have looked like a wonderful dramatic background on paper, and it really could have been, but it distracts our attention to the story rather than heightening the dramatic effect of the scene it accompanies.
What will eventually be revealed in the end will not surprise you much, but “Steel Cold Winter” is a good film which works at its best when it sets and then develops its mood and characters. Kim Si-hoo and Kim Yoon-hye has a nicely understated chemistry between them as engaging(and pretty) couple, and other actors also look convincing as their respective rural characters. The movie could have been better through more polishing, but it is still good as a dark, bloody piece of winter romance which finds a small consolation even at its bleakest moment: “It is so warm over here.”