February (2017) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): As she struggles during cold winter days

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South Korean independent film “February” is a melancholic drama about one young woman’s Sisyphean struggle with her cold, harsh reality. While calmly observing her plight without any judgment or excuse, the movie works as a haunting character study accompanied with several quiet but powerful moments which make us understand and emphasize a lot with her, and that is why it is quite touching to see a small, tentative glimpse of hope at the end of the film.

The early part of the movie shows how things have been desperate for Min-kyeong (Jo Min-kyung). While she has barely made ends meet, she does not have enough money to pay her rent or the settlement money for her father who is currently in jail, and, to make matters worse, she loses her part-time job when her employer finds that she has stolen money from him bit by bit. When she cannot go to her current residence due to her continuing delay in paying the rent, she goes to an abandoned trailer instead, and we subsequently see her getting payed by a trucker named Jin-gyoo (Lee Ju-won) for being his occasional sex partner.

After she hears from a friend of hers that her former roommate Yeo-jin (Kim Sung-ryung), who attempted suicide due to depression some time ago, is recovering alone at a house belonging to her family, Min-kyeong goes there to see her friend, and Yeo-jin kindly lets Min-kyeong stay at her house. As they leisurely spend a few days together, it looks like Min-kyeong stays longer as Yeo-jin’s companion, and Yeo-jin’s boyfriend Yeong-bin (Park Youngb-in), who visits Yeo-jin from time to time, does not mind this at all.

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However, it is eventually revealed that Min-kyeong committed something bad around the time of Yeo-jin’s suicide attempt, and there is a hurtful scene where both Min-kyeong and Yeo-jin are suddenly confronted by that inconvenient truth. After running away from Yeo-jin’s house without anything, Min-kyeong goes back to that trailer, but then she becomes cold and sick, and that is how Jin-gyoo comes to help her. He subsequently takes her to a small apartment where he has lived with his young son Seong-hoon (Park Si-wan), and he even suggests that she should stay in his residence as someone who can take care of his son instead while he is busy and absent due to his work.

Min-kyeong is not particularly interested in Jin-gyoo’s suggestion at first, but then she soon finds herself settling in his apartment step by step. While her first encounter with Seong-hoon is awkward to say the least, they gradually get accustomed to each other, and it looks like Min-kyeong can be an alternative mother figure to Seong-hoon, who has a poignant moment when he frankly tells Min-kyeong how he feels about their relationship.

However, Min-kyeong is not so sure about whether she can completely settle with Jin-gyoo and his son. She surely comes to care a lot about Seong-hoon as watching how lonely and unhappy he is, but she also wants better things for her life. Although there is still not much money and time for her, she keeps preparing for the upcoming civil service examination nonetheless, and it goes without saying that she will not be able to take care of Seong-hoon anymore if she passes the examination and then gets employed as a civil servant. At one point, she attempts to walk away from Seong-hoon, but then she does not feel right about that, and she only finds herself getting closer to him after that attempt.

Jin-gyoo is certainly glad to see the growing relationship between Min-kyeong and his son, but then we see a serious flaw of his, which, not so surprisingly, leads to a devastating incident later. Discerning that she cannot just stay in Jin-gyoo’s apartment anymore, Min-kyeong does what she thinks she should do, and that leads to a couple of restrained but undeniably painful moments.

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As patiently following the ups and downs in its heroine’s unstable circumstance, the movie establishes well the moody wintry atmosphere on the screen as required, and director/writer Kim Joong-hyeon, who previously debuted with “Chocked” (2011), did a good job of bringing a considerable amount of verisimilitude and sensitivity to his film. While never overlooking the hard facts of life surrounding its heroine and other characters in the film, the movie provides a few small poetic moments to be cherished, and I particularly appreciate the lyrically hopeful tone of the last shot of the movie.

The movie is also supported well by its main cast members. Jo Min-kyung, a newcomer who made her debut here in this film, is remarkable in her unadorned nuanced performance, and she is fabulous as ably balancing her complex character well among many different human aspects. While she is capable of compassion and kindness, Min-kyeong sometimes shows her rather unlikable sides, and Jo effortlessly embodies her character’s contradicting human qualities without asking for any pity or sympathy from us. In case of the other main performers in the film, Lee Ju-won, Kim Sung-Ryung, and Park Young-bin are solid in their respective supporting roles, and the special mention must go to young actor Park Si-wan, who holds his own place well during his several scenes with Jo.

“February”, which had a premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in 2017 but had to wait for more than one year before it eventually got released in South Korean theaters early in this year, may be a little too dry and slow for you, but it is worthwhile to watch thanks to its thoughtful storytelling and superlative lead performance. In short, this is the first best South Korean film of this year, and you should not miss this small gem if you happen to come across it.

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