Steel Flower (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4): Working and living alone by herself

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While it may often frustrate you because of its dry, clinical storytelling, South Korean independent film “Steel Flower” has several things good enough for recommendation. As it never goes that deep into its young desolate heroin, the movie occasionally feels like a merely depressing exercise in realism, but it is worthwhile to watch for its strong lead performance, which functions as the steely emotional base for a few powerful moments in the film.

When we meet Ha-dam (Jeong Ha-dam) during the opening scene, she is in a very agitated state as frantically wandering around with her backpack and suitcase for some unknown reason. All alone by herself on the streets and alleys of Busan, she searches for a job to earn her living, but she does not even get a simple part-time job mainly due to her nearly anonymous social status. She cannot give her cellular phone number because she does not have it, and she cannot even give her social ID number probably because she does not want to reveal anything about herself.

She also looks for any place where she can stay, but she does not have enough money for that, so she eventually settles in an abandoned house located somewhere in the city. Stripped of any conveniences, this decrepit house is not exactly a good sleeping place, but she is fine with this dreary condition as long as she has a place where she can sleep alone.

During one evening, she comes across a suspicious guy, and he gives her a job without asking too much. He owns a seafood restaurant, and all she has to do is washing and scrubbing in the kitchen. It is quite apparent to us that the guy is not a good man at all, but Ha-dam has no problem with that because she is promised to get paid as much as she works.

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But then there comes a problem when a woman suddenly appears while Ha-dam is working in the kitchen. The woman, who has clearly been in a relationship with the restaurant owner, regards Ha-dam as someone to replace her, and it seems she is right despite her alcoholic jealousy. Not long after the clash between her and Ha-dam, the owner follows after Ha-dam without being noticed, but then the movie takes an unexpected turn during this quietly tense, ambiguous scene. The guy does not have any good will from the very beginning, but he comes to change his mind when he learns a little more about his latest employee, though that does not explain his subsequent decision much.

Going through several other plights besides this, Ha-dam remains distant and elusive to us, but she is not a blank cypher at all, and we sometimes gets glimpses of what makes her tick. Both vulnerable and stubborn, she tries to go on with her harsh life full of difficulties and dangers, and there is something simultaneously maddening and compelling about her persistence. She is ready to do any menial job as she flatly says, but she does not bend herself easily, and she certainly does not step back whenever she believes she deserves to be paid.

And we also get to know a bit about tender sides hidden behind her weathered appearance, when she happens to encounter one certain thing to brighten her up. Although it is going to demand a lot from her, she does not mind about that, and this eventually leads to one of a few soft moments in the movie. She finally gets what she has wanted so much, and we can see how much happy she is, even though we only watch her from the distance.

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The director/writer Park Suk-young, who previously received considerable praises for his first feature film “Wild Flowers” (2014), wisely does not make any cheap attempt to explain his heroine. He simply observes her behaviors as stoically maintaining the calm, objective attitude of his movie. Looking more into Ha-dam, the movie effectively builds up more sense of isolation and desperation around her while never asking for pity or sympathy from us, and we come to care more about her situation even though we never fully understand her even in the end.

The lead actress Jeong Ha-dam, who collaborated with Park in “Wild Flowers” and recently played a minor supporting character in South Korean hit film “The Priests” (2015), is fabulous in what may be her career breakthrough performance. Like the movie, Jeong never lets any sentimentality into her understated performance, and her hardened face speaks volume as subtly revealing her character’s battered but determined spirit. The last part of the movie feels forced as predictably and blatantly pushing its heroine into another infuriating moment of anger and heartbreak, but Jeong remains convincing as before, and her performance works a living map of tumultuous emotions as the camera looks closely at her around the end of the final scene.

“Steel Flower” is a competent work on the whole thanks to good direction and performance, but I recommend it with some reservation mainly because it is not particularly new in my opinion. Other South Korean films including “Alive” (2014) and “Madonna” (2014) already gave us slices of harsh life at the fringe of South Korean society, and I do not think the movie is better than these equally gray social dramas. “Steel Flower” is still a good film, and Jeong Ha-dam is indeed a new talent to watch, but now I wonder whether we need more than merely being reminded of harsh reality out there.

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