As your average chubby overweight guy, I frequently exercise at a local gym for getting healthier, and my eyes sometimes cannot help but notice how fit and muscular some guys at the gym look. Whenever I briefly stare at their brawny bodies from time to time, I always feel envy and fascination in my heart, and that usually gives some motivation for me although it seems their level of fitness is beyond my reach.
That is why I instantly felt close to South Korean independent film “Our Body”, which revolves around the ambiguous emotional state of a young disaffected woman who finds herself obsessed with someone who looks healthier than her in many aspects. The movie initially amuses us as the subtle emotional undercurrents between its two main characters, but then it catches us off guard with more subtlety and elusiveness during its second half, and I came to admire its deft storytelling more as watching how dexterously it arrived at its final scene.
Choi Hee-seo, a wonderful South Korean actress who drew our attention for the first time with her electrifying breakthrough performance in “Anarchist from Colony” (2017), plays Ja-yeong, a young woman who has spent no less than 8 years as trying to pass the Public Administration Examination. Exhausted and frustrated with having failed again and again during last 8 years, she has become rather distant to everything including her life and herself, and she eventually decides to give up preparing for the examination again, though she does not know what to do next for her life.
Mainly because she will have to pay the rent for her one-room residence and she does not want to go back to her family home, Ja-yeong seeks for any good part-time job, and, fortunately, she soon gets employed as a part-time employee at a bank where her old school friend works. It seems she will later be promoted to internship if she works hard there for a while, but she is not particularly interested in that unlike her younger co-workers, and she does not even try to befriend them.
Meanwhile, the movie observes a small but significant change in Ja-yeong’s life. After accidentally encountering a young female jogger around her age during the opening scene, Ja-yeong comes to notice more of this young woman as time goes by, and she subsequently decides to become a new member of the small jogging group to which this young woman belongs. Although she struggles a lot at first as trying to run as hard as other members, Ja-yeong gradually gets improved while running more and more, and, not so surprisingly, everyone around her notice some positive change in her.
In addition, Ja-yeong gets closer to the aforementioned young woman. Although she does not talk that much about herself or her life to the other members of her jogging group, Hyeon-joo (Ahn Ji-hye) is quite friendly to Ja-yeong from the start, and she even lets Ja-yeong come into her neat residence at one point, which surely makes a big contrast with Ja-yeong’s messy residence. As they drink together, they become more relaxed and comfortable, and they soon come to share some personal things with each other.
Around that narrative point, we become more aware of Hyeon-joo’s healthy body as Ja-yeong cannot help but notice more of Hyeon-joo’s physical details, and the movie alternatively baffles and tantalizes us with its interesting female gaze on female body. Yes, it is apparent that Ja-yeong feels envious of how Hyeong-jook looks fit and attractive, but neither she nor the movie gives us a clear answer on what exactly she feels and thinks. Does she simply covet Hyeong-joo’s health and confidence? Or, does she actually desire Hyeon-joo’s sensual body?
And then there comes a sudden plot turn, which takes the movie and its heroine into more weird emotional territories which may tickle you a lot if you are a big fan of the works of Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith. As our heroine wanders from one narrative point to another, we get a number of fascinating moments including an unnerving scene in which she spends a night alone in Hyeon-joo’s empty residence, and the movie also builds up some tension after she happens to do something rather inappropriate at her workplace later in the story.
Looking alternatively forthright and elusive as required, Choi is simply fantastic as running up and down along her character’s tricky emotional journey, and she and Ahn Ji-hye are compelling to watch whenever they interact with each other on the screen. Although we can only guess how Hyeon-joo really feels about Ja-yeong, she still comes to us as a vivid human character thanks to Ahn’s nuanced performance, and Ahn is especially memorable during one brief but effective shot which looks at Hyeon-joo from the distance but implies a lot about whatever is churning behind her seemingly calm, detached façade.
“Our Body” is the first feature film of director/writer/editor Han Ka-ram, and her commendable achievement in this movie reminds me again that the future of South Korean cinema indeed lies on those talented female filmmakers including her, who have given us many of the most interesting South Korean films during last several years. Although it looks rather plain and modest on the surface, it is indubitably one of the best South Korean movies of this year, and I really hope that Han and many other talented South Korean female filmmakers will advance further as the new and refreshing artistic voices of South Korean cinema.