South Korean film “A Quiet Dream” freely flows with its odd, ambiguous atmosphere. This small arthouse movie will surely demand some degrees of patience from you, but you can enjoy its offbeat mood and enjoyable performances once you accept its glacial pace and austere narrative, and it is actually amusing at times even while adhering to its restrained attitude.
Han Ye-ri, who previously gave a delightful comic performance in another recent South Korean film “Worst Woman” (2016), looks more subdued here as a young Korean Chinese woman named Ye-ri, and the movie mainly revolves around her small bar located right in front of the house where she and her South Korean father live. Some years ago, she came to Seoul to see her father although he left her and her mother when she was very young, and he has been taken care of by her since he became paralyzed and nearly mute due to his illness.
Her bar does not have many customers, but there are three frequent customers who have been a part of her daily life just like her ill father. Jong-bin (Yoon Jong-bin) is a halfwit with epilepsy problem who has been the current landlord of the house since he inherited it from his dead father. Ik-joon (Yang Ik-joon) is a small-time bum who has been like a big brother to Jong-bin since their early years. Jeong-beom (Park Jeong-beom) is a depressed, downtrodden North Korean defector who is a friend of Jong-bin and Ik-joon, and the opening scene shows Jeong-beom’s desperate attempt for getting his delayed wage from his impertinent boss who does not give a damn about him at all.
All of these three pathetic losers are interested in Ye-ri, and she lets them hang around her probably because, well, they can be a good help at times while keeping each other revolving around her without much progress as usual. They can be her unofficial bouncers, they can be her temporary sitters for her father, and they can be her dependable companions to hang around with. During one scene, she and the guys go to the rooftop of a building for their afternoon drinking party, and then there comes a baffling moment to be interpreted in one way or another when she tries to dance in front of them.
As their daily life slowly continues day by day, the movie throws more odd moments to us, and some of them are funny for their deadpan absurdities. There is a weird lad who surprises our loser trio more than once, and then there is an old lady who uses an abandoned closet for an unlikely purpose. At one point, Ye-ri and her boys go to an arthouse movie theater just for spending some time together, and the director/writer Zhang Lu, a notable Korean Chinese filmmaker who has mainly worked in South Korea during recent years, shows a wry sense of self-deprecating humor through showing one of his early works during that scene.
In the meantime, we get occasional glimpses into the elusive state of Ye-ri’s mind. Although it is apparent that she has been exhausted as taking care of her father, it seems she is also concerned about something she would rather keep to herself. During her incidental encounter with a fortuneteller, the fortuneteller gives her a definite answer on her father’s fate while being evasive about hers, and then we come to gather a certain fact through a few little things to notice.
If you have watched any of Zhang’s recent works, you might already expect this subtle, implicit storytelling approach. “Gyeongju” (2014), which was one of my best South Korean movies in 2014, sometimes tested my patience as meandering along with its hero around the various locations in Gyeongju during its long running time, but it was engaging to observe small nuances from its quiet character drama. In case of documentary film “Scenery” (2013), Zhang simply observed and listened without telling anything to us, but the result was a haunting human portrayal of Seoul and foreign workers inside the city.
“A Quiet Dream” is no exception. Again, I felt impatient from time to time during my viewing, but I admired its serene melancholic mood shrouding its few characters and their plain, mundane neighborhood. Shot in black and white film by the cinematographer Cho Yeong-jik, the movie imbues its urban locations in Seoul with familiar but somehow dreamy ambience on the screen, and we come to accept less realistic moments in the movie such as an unexpected appearance of one minor character.
While Han’s performance is the center of the movie, her three co-actors have a fun with their respective roles, and their performances will look all the more amusing to you especially if you are familiar with their acting/directing careers. While Yoon Jong-bin, who directed “The Unforgiven” (2005) and “Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time” (2012), is quite believable in his goofy appearance, Yang Ik-joon is basically channeling that thuggish hero of his brutal debut work “Breathless” (2008), and Park Jong-beom’s understated acting surely reminds me of the wretched heroes of his two films “The Journals of Musan” (2010) and “Alive” (2014). Shin Min-ah, Kim Ee-seong, Kim Tae-hoon, and Yoo Yeon-seok briefly appear as minor characters, and Lee Joo-yeong is fine as another substantial character around Ye-ri.
I am still not that sure about whether I really understand what “A Quiet Dream” is about, but I was at least involved in how it is about, while entertained by its small quirky moments. We saunter along with it for a while, and we feel no less baffled than before even when we are eventually pulled out of it in the end, but, on the whole, this is an interesting experience.