Moonlit Winter (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A letter from her first love

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South Korean film “Moonlit Winter” reminds me that it is always more compelling to observe star-crossed lovers in agony and restraint. Here are two very unhappy women who have quietly yearned for each other since they were separated from each other a long time ago, and the movie calmly observes their respective inner struggles as giving us a number of sensitive moments to be appreciated. Although they do not reveal themselves much on the surface, we come to emphasize more with their repressed romantic feelings, and that is why it is poignant to watch how they eventually take a tentative forward step to each other despite many years of fear and hesitation.

The story begins with a letter sent from a small town in Hokkaido, Japan. The letter is written by a middle-aged Japanese woman named June (Yuko Hokkaido), but she hesitates to send it, and then her aunt Masako (Kino Hara), who has lived with June for a long time since her parents’ divorce, sends it for herself without telling her niece.

The recipient of the letter is Yoon-hee (Kim Hee-ae), a middle-aged South Korean woman who was a high school friend of June during the time when June lived with her Japanese father and South Korean mother in South Korea. After her recent divorce, she has lived alone with her high schooler daughter Sae-bom (Kim Sohye) in their small apartment, and we also see how she earns her meager living via a laborious job without much reward or future.

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When the letter arrives at Yoon-hee’s apartment building, it happens to be taken by Sae-bom, and she cannot help but curious about her mother’s past after reading it. Because she is soon going to a college in Seoul, she suggests to her mother that they should travel together to somewhere, and, what do you know, she and her mother subsequently arrive in the town where June and Masako reside, which happens to reach to the peak of its winter season with lots of snow here and there in the town.

Meanwhile, the movie also shows what is going on around June. Her father recently died, and she cannot help but feel sad even though she and her father have been estranged to each other for years. When a cousin of hers later suggests that she should meet some guy to date, she flatly rejects, and then we get an awkward moment between her and her cousin after her cousin tries to persuade her more.

Now you may clearly see where the story is going, but the movie takes its time as slowly building up its mood and emotions through small but intimate moments generated around its main characters. Although they do not talk that much with each other, Yoon-hee and Sae-bom know and understand each other well, and the same thing can be said about June and Masako. I was touched by a heartfelt moment when June and Masako warmly remind each other of how much they care about each other, and I was amused by a little humorous moment between Yoon-hee and Sae-bom, who resemble each other more than they admit as reflected by a certain common vice shared between them.

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And the movie looks lovely with a number of gorgeous visual moments. Those snowy landscapes of Hokkaido are beautifully presented on the screen with a palpable sense of places and people, and the cinematography by Moon Myung-hwan, who previously collaborated with director/writer Lim Dae-hyeong in “Merry Christmas Mr. Mo” (2016), is superlative for simple but elegant shots to be savored for its precise camera work and scene composition. While some of notable details in the film such as the occasional appearance of train throughout the movie may feel a bit too symbolic at first, they still work as the dramatic elements of the story without never disrupting the overall low-key tone of the film, and we later get a wonderful moment of restrained feelings accentuated by the bright moon in the winter sky and a certain familiar piece of jazz music composed by Glenn Miller.

In the end, the movie culminates to a moment expected from the very beginning, but Lim wisely sticks to his restrained storytelling approach, and this moment feels all the more moving as we get to know more about what has been repressed for many years inside Yoon-hee and June. Steadily maintaining their respective positions, Kim Hee-ae, who previously drew my attention for her solid performances in “Thread of Lies” (2013) and “Herstory” (2017), and Yuko Nakamura effectively convey to us the unspoken feelings around their characters, and they are also supported well by Kim Sohye and Kino Hana, who respectively hold each own place well around Kim and Nakamura as bringing some extra humor and warmth to the film.

Overall, “Moonlit Winter” is another fabulous work from Lim after “Merry Christmas Mr. Mo”, which I initially underrated a bit but then came to choose as one of the best South Korean films of 2017. Yes, the movie may be a little too dry and restrained compared to many queer romance films during recent years, but this is an exquisite one packed with classical touches and genuine emotions nonetheless, and its many beautiful moments have been lingering on my mind since I watched it at last night. In addition to being another notable South Korean female drama film of this year, the movie confirms again to us that Lim is a new talented South Korean filmmaker to watch, and I will be eager to watch whatever will come next from him.

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