“Duck Town” rubbed me in a wrong way, and I did not like that. Although I was amused by its several whimsical moments to some degrees, I was annoyed and offended by a number of broad, superficial moments associated with its dark, uncomfortable main subject, and that is quite a disappointment considering a few good elements in the film which deserve better than this.
At first, the movie is mainly about the daily life of a young woman named Hee-jeong (Lee Se-young) and her small struggle toward a life outside her hometown Deagu. She wants to be transferred to some big university in Seoul, so she has been diligently preparing for the upcoming transfer examination, and she is very determined to pass the examination although her family does not care much about her aspiration. While her mother is usually blunt and unfriendly to her, her father is nearly non-existent (he only appears briefly in a couple of short scenes), and her older brother is a sullen, depressed loser who has been going nowhere since his college graduation.
Because her family cannot afford to provide her tuition, Hee-jeong has to save up the money for herself, so she works at a ticket office for duck-shaped paddle boats, which is located on the rim of a big pond in Deagu. Watching the pond in the film, I could not help but be reminded of a similar pond in my hometown Jeonju; that place also has many duck-shaped paddle boats, and I accordingly became a little nostalgic as remembering those jolly moments I had at that pond during my innocent childhood years.
While Hee-jeong goes through another monotonous afternoon at the ticket office as usual, something unexpected happens. When she happens to be asleep in the middle of her working hour, a man comes to the ticket office. After finding that Hee-jeong is sleeping, he gets on one of the paddle boats and then paddles it away to a small island in the middle of the pond. He immediately jumps into the water, and his suicidal attempt is subsequently reported by a local evening TV news program.
Certainly surprised by what happened due to her small negligence, Hee-jeong tries to cover up her mistake during that night because she may lose her job, but, alas, she comes to have another moment of bad luck. She is spotted by a weird guy named Yeong-mok (Kim Hyun-joon), and Yeong-mok virtually blackmails her into doing something for him, though it is apparent to us that he comes to the pond for some naughty reason.
All Yeong-mok wants from Hee-jeong is spending some time with him while also doing a job for him. It turns out that he is working at a public counseling center for suicidal people, and Hee-jeong is requested to transcribe the individual interviews from those suicidal people, most of whom surely have many things to talk about in front of the camera.
Now you may expect the movie to take a more serious narrative turn, but, no, the movie instead takes a broader storytelling approach coupled with its whimsical sense of humor, and the result often feels like an obnoxious Sundance comedy. Not only Yeong-mok but also a group of suicidal characters around him are more or less than superficial caricatures we do not care much about, and the movie does not even try to delve into their personal darkness. We never get to know or understand these suicidal characters enough, and we are just reminded again and again of how silly and ridiculous they are in their pathetic behaviors. Sure, suicide is bad indeed, but isn’t it important to have some compassion and understanding on how some people get themselves driven to it?
And there is a sequence which is probably the most insulting moment in the film in my inconsequential opinion. At one particularly narrative point, Hee-jeong and Yeong-mok happen to encounter a certain suicidal character, and, after listening to that character’s story, they decide to ‘assist’ that character. In a hotel room, they have that character go through a mock ritual of suicide in front of a digital camera, and, what do you know, that character comes to see how silly the ritual looks, but then there comes what is supposed to be a comic moment of irony. Maybe I seriously lack a sense of humor, but, folks, that moment is not funny to me at all while also being very insensitive to people who managed to avoid committing suicide – including me.
As depressed further by all of these bad things during my viewing, I was sort of consoled by the undeniable charming presence of Lee Se-young, who is not daunted at all by numerous contrived moments in the film as giving a performance which promises us more interesting things to come from her. Thanks to her good acting, I came to root for her plucky character although I did not believe her character’s relationship with Yeong-mok (Kim Hyun-joon frequently seems to try too hard to look quirky at times, by the way), and that is the main reason why I was so exasperated by a totally unnecessary moment of violence before the ending part of the movie.
“Duck Town” is the first feature film by director/writer Yu Ji-young. I guess her movie intends to be an odd, funny comedy about the hard reality for young people in South Korean society, but the result is half-baked at best and offensive at worst, and I only hope that she will soon move onto better things, while also wanting to tell her a few personal things about suicide. I surely see how absurd my several suicidal attempts in the past were, and I do laugh about them at times while also being quite frank about them, but those laughs of mine are always accompanied with the painful understanding of despair and desperation. Seriously, am I demanding too much as wishing that the movie showed some empathy and understanding before making laughs from its gloomy main subject?