South Korean independent film “To My River” grows on me more as I reflect on it more. As a dry but sensitive character drama about life and poetry, it requires some patience from time to time, but it gradually comes to hold our attention with its small but haunting episodic moments, and the result is another notable South Korean film of this year.
Kang Jin-ah, who previously drew our attention via her small but crucial supporting turn in “Microhabitat” (2017), plays Jin-ah, a young female poet who is about to publish her first poetry collection but has quietly struggled with the sudden absence of her lover Gil-woo (Kang Gil-woo). He has been unconscious for a while due to a serious accident, and it looks like there is not much hope for him as shown from a brief scene showing her visiting him and his concerned mother at a local hospital.
Anyway, Jin-ah tries to keep on with her ongoing life. We see her teaching poetry at colleges, we watch her meeting some of her friends including Gi-yoon (Han Gi-yoon), and we observe her having a discussion with her publishing editor, who shows her some generosity but also reminds her of the approaching deadline for her poetry collection.
However, Jin-ah’s work process seems to be going nowhere although there are already a number of new poems written by her. As she confides to her publishing editor, she does not feel like writing sincerely from her heart these days, and her mind often drifts to her memories of Gil-woo as reflected by a series of flashback scenes between them. Usually happy together, they frequently spent time around the Han River along with Gi-yoon and some other friends of theirs, and everything looked all right for them during that time.
As she is haunted more by her happy memories of Gil-woo, people around Jin-ah often ask whether she is all right, and she does not like that much while feeling more of her lover’s absence. At one point, she is so drunken during her evening meeting with Gi-yoon that Gi-yoon has to take her to her residence, and then there comes a moment when they happen to be swept by a momentary emotional mood between them.
Leisurely moving from one episodic moment to another, the movie slowly establishes the rhythm of the daily life surrounding its heroine, and it occasionally gives us wonderfully realistic moments to be savored. I like those brief poetry class scenes where Jin-ah diligently explains the concepts of poetry to her students, and it is a bit shame that the movie does not delve much into them. In case of a scene showing a small meeting attended by Jin-ah and other poets, the rapport among them is palpable to say the least, and there is also a short but nice music performance around the end of this scene.
And we later get a nice long-take scene which is mainly driven by the private conversation between Jin-ah and her two close friends who have been a married couple for some time. As these three characters drink and talk together more or more, the mood becomes more uninhibited, and the couple come to talk quite a lot about how they came to live together, but we cannot help but smile as observing how much they are in love with each other.
This sequence is later contrasted with a couple of bitter flashback scenes showing a small personal conflict between Jin-ah and Gil-woo in the past. They happened to quarrel with each other over a rather inconsequential matter, and the resulting sour feeling between them remained same even when they later spent another evening time along with their friends near the Han River. As watching their conflict, I was reminded again that being a couple sometimes requires a lot more than love.
The movie is the first feature film directed by Park Kun-young, who also did editing and cinematography for his movie besides writing the screenplay. I later came to learn that he frequently shot his performers alone without any other crew member for generating considerable private intimacy on the screen, and, as far as I could sense during my viewing, she mostly succeeds as much as he intended. While the movie feels rather rough from time to time, many of its key scenes are presented well with admirable restraint and sensitivity, and the overall result demonstrates here that Park is a talented filmmaker who really knows how to handle mood, story, and characters.
In addition, Park draws an engaging performance from Kang. While steadily maintaining the low-key tone of her acting, Kang ably conveys her character’s quiet emotional turmoil, and it surely helps that she is surrounded by a number of good performers to watch. While Kang Gil-woo clicks well with Kang during their several scenes, Han Gi-yoon is also solid as a caring friend of Jin-ah and Gi-yoon, and Jeon Go-woon, who is the director/writer of “Microhabitat”, and Yee Yo-sup, who is the director/writer of “The Queen of Crime” (2016) and is also incidentally Jeon’s husband, are enjoyable as the couple appearing in the aforementioned long-take scene.
On the whole, “To My River” may be a little too dry and slow for some of you, but it is still worthwhile to watch for its mood, storytelling, and performance, so I recommend you to give it a chance if you happen to come across it. To be frank with you, I am mostly illiterate in case of poetry, but the movie makes me more interested in poetry at least, and I hope I will appreciate it more someday.