Vertigo (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A woman on the edge

South Korean film “Vertigo” is a quietly harrowing melodrama about one woman on the edge. While this is not a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece, it is worthwhile to watch as a painful reflection on what many South Korean female office workers out there have to endure everyday due to the toxic male-dominant environment surrounding them, and it is also firmly anchored by the strong performance from one of the best actresses working in South Korea at present.

Chun Woo-hee, who has steadily advanced during last several years since we came to notice her via “Sunny” (2011) and “Han Gong-ju” (2013), plays Seo-yeong, a young graphic desinger who has worked in a company whose office is located on one of the upper floors of an urban skyscraper. Because the company will soon decide whether it will renew the employment contract of her and her colleagues, everyone including her has been quite nervous, and that is probably the reason why she suddenly comes to suffer an auditory problem, which sometimes puts her into dizziness as told by her doctor.

During the first act of the movie, we see how lonely and barren Seo-yeong’s life has been. At the office, there is no one to talk with except one younger colleague who usually cheers her up a bit, and she is not particularly close to her parents. Unless she asks for money from her daughter, Seo-yeong’s mother, who lives far from the city where Seo-yeong currently resides, usually complains about her miserable life with her second husband who is probably no better than her first one, and Seo-yeong’s father, who was quite abusive to both Seo-yeong and her mother, has been cut off from them for many years.

As shown from the opening scene of the film, Seo-yeong has been in a close relationship with Jin-soo (Teo Yoo), one of the office managers at her workplace. While Seo-yeong understandably wants to get closer to Jin-soo, he remains cool and distant to her even when they have a little private time together, and he keeps hiding their relationship from others at their workplace. Many female employees accordingly often gossip about him being a newly eligible bachelor, and Seo-yeong has no choice but to keep herself quiet in front of them.

Meanwhile, Seo-yeong auditory problem gets worse day by day. Besides suffering more hearing loss, she often feels numb and dizzy, and her doctor later recommends a hearing aid, but that may make her look not so go in front of her office manager, an unpleasant prick who, not so surprisingly, has a record of causing troubles with female employees but has gotten away it because, well, he is a male who can wield power over his underlings.

During its middle part, the movie shifts its focus a bit to the viewpoint of Gwan-woo (Jung Jae-gwang), a lad who has recently been hired as one of the window cleaners of the building where Seo-yeong works. As he is working on many windows of the building, he comes to pay attention to Seo-yeong, and then he spots her again when she comes to a bookstore in the building, where he does another part-time job.

And we also get to know more about Gwan-woo’s personal life outside the building. He has been living with a senile grandfather and a pet dog which actually belonged to his old sister, who died early some time ago. Although the movie never delves into the cause of her death, it seems to be connected with her certain online activity, and Gwan-woo often looks at her video clips as still missing her a lot.

While Gwan-woo tentatively approaches closer to Seo-yeong’s life bit by bit, she finds herself in more agony and confusion via a series of happenings. It turns out that Jin-soo has not been totally honest about himself to her, and then the aforementioned younger colleague of hers turns out to be more insecure and fragile than she seems. As becoming more isolated and alienated, Seo-yeong feels far more miserable than before, and she is utterly helpless when something quite terrible happens to her later in the story.

Around that narrative point, the screenplay by Jeon Gye-soo pushes its heroine a little too hard for drawing emotional responses from us, but Chun keeps holding the movie together with her seemingly blank but undeniably expressive face. Even Seo-yeong does not say anything at all, we can clearly feel what has been churning behind her passive appearance, and we are not so surprised when she takes an alarming act of despair during the finale.

Although the movie is essentially Chun’s show, the other main cast members in the film did a good job of enabling her performance to shine more. While Teo Yoo is suitably aloof as required by his supporting role, Jung Jae-gwang brings some sincerity to his character although I must point out that the movie overlooks the rather creepy side of his character’s approach to Seo-yeong, and Hong Ji-suk, Park Ye-young, and Na Mi-hee are also well-cast in their respective parts.

On the whole, “Vertigo” is not entirely without weak points including its heroine’s frustrating passivity throughout the film, but I recommend it mainly for Chun’s acting. Yes, this is another gloomy South Korean movie presenting the dark and harsh aspects of the South Korean society, but Chun makes the movie a little more distinctive, and I appreciate that a lot.

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