Jamsil (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): An elusive relationship between two women

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To be frank with you, South Korean film “Jamsil” was elusive and confusing for me at first. During its first half, I felt impatient as often baffled about what is exactly going on between its two heroines, and it was also rather hard for me to hold onto its slow, free-flowing narrative which frequently slips into dream and flashback scenes. However, once I accepted how it is about what it is about, the movie became sort of interesting; I came to enjoy its ambiguous mood and solid performance, and I could sense the sadness and melancholy surrounding two women who somehow get closer under their unlikely circumstance.

In the beginning, we get to know a bit about one of these two women. After she fails to pass the state law examination again, Mi-hee (Lee Sang-hee) feels unhappy and depressed, and even her nice boyfriend Doo-min (Lee Sun-ho) cannot console her much when she comes back to their small residence. While feeling uncertain and nervous about her future, she decides to end her relationship with Doo-min, and she soon moves into a smaller place where she is going to live alone for a while.

Giving up trying to pass the state examination again, Mi-hee feels a bit relieved, but she does not know what to do next. There was a time when she dreamt of studying literature, but she had to give up her dream because of her parents, and there is a painful moment later in the story when she visits her parents’ apartment. She cannot help but feel angry about how her parents pushed her into her current unhappiness, and that is why she cannot possibly stay in their home.

While she is on a subway train on one day, Mi-hee notices a high school girl who previously drew the attention of her and other passengers during the opening scene. She immediately follows the girl when that girl gets off from the train at a station in Jamsil-dong, and the girl leads her to an apartment complex. After seeing that girl at the entrance of one apartment, Mi-hee goes to that apartment in question, and that is how she meets a woman named Seong-sook (Hong Seung-yi).

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For some unknown reason, Mi-hee introduces herself to Seong-sook as an old friend in their high school years, and, though she is apparently a bit older than Mi-hee, Seong-sook does not question Mi-hee’s claim at all. After allowing Mi-hee to enter her apartment where she has lived with her roommate/friend Ik-joo (Im Hyeong-gook), she begins to spend lots of time with Mi-hee, and they soon come to look like real close friends.

What exactly do these two women want from each other? As shown from a number of warm flashback scenes, Seong-sook did have a close friend during her high school years, and we observe how close they were to each other until they became distant to each other after some point. Although Mi-hee is not that friend in question, Seong-sook comes to think more about her old friend, and she seems to get some consolation from Mi-hee while being with her.

In case of Mi-hee, she is glad to have someone to listen to her, and her daily life looks a little more stable than before after meeting Seong-sook, but she is still struggling with her unstable emotional state. It later turns out that she has been obsessed with her old high school friend, and her fixation on that old friend eventually leads to a rather disturbing scene where she has herself locked in a storage room.

Meanwhile, the movie also focuses on how two other main characters in the story revolve around Mi-hee and Seong-sook. As a guy who was also Seong-sook’s schoolmate and has been a bit more than a mere roommate for her, Ik-joo does not welcome Mi-hee’s appearance much, but then he finds himself getting involved with her more than expected when he confronts her at her residence. When Seong-sook happens to meet Doo-min, something is mutually felt between them, and they come to have a personal meeting when they encounter each other again.

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So far, I have only described the plot and characters of the movie while not delving deep into what is sensitively and thoughtfully presented by director/writer Lee Wan-min. Her screenplay’s implicit storytelling approach is frustrating at times, but it gradually builds up its emotional momentum along with its two heroines at least, and we are served with several intimate scenes between them even as we keep wondering about their odd friendship. While these scenes and many other scenes in the movie are shrouded in gray melancholy, the flashback scenes in movie are imbued with a bright sense of nostalgia, and this visual contrast makes us understand more of why Seong-sook remains haunted by the memories of her old friend – and why she chose to stick to Mi-hee from the very beginning.

Under Lee’s competent direction, the main performers of the movie are engaging to watch in their understated performance. While Lee Sang-hee, who previously drew our attention via her wonderful performance in “Our Love Story” (2016), and Hong Seung-yi effectively complement each other, Lee Sun-ho and Im Hyeong-gook are also fine in their earnest supporting performance, and Kim Sae-byuk, who has been more notable since her charming performance in “A Midsummer’s Fantasia” (2014), deserves to be praised for effortlessly going back and forth between her two roles.

On the whole, “Jamsil”, which is belatedly released in South Korea this week although it had its premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in 2016 October, requires considerable patience from you, but it is still an interesting work to be appreciated for its good elements, so I recommend you with some reservation. Although I am not entirely sure about the movie, it has grown on me after I watched it yesterday, and I am willing to revisit it for getting more from it.

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