A Distant Place (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): All the woolly sheep

South Korean independent film “A Distant Place” is a quiet but intimate drama which slowly engages us as gradually revealing the emotional undercurrents below its calm surface. Although its slow narrative pacing surely requires some patience from us during the first act, the movie often shines with poetic beauty as shrouded in vivid rural atmosphere, and that and several good performances in the film compensate for its rather thin storytelling.

After the phlegmatic opening scene beginning with a close-up shot of the sheep wool, the movie lets us get to know how its hero Jin-woo (Kang Gil-woo) has led his quiet life in some remote mountainous area in Hwacheon, Gangwon-do. He has worked in a small sheep ranch run by a middle-aged guy named Joong-man (Ki Joo-bong), and we see him working on those sheep in the ranch while his little daughter Seol (Kim Si-ha) is around him. Although Joong-man and Seol have lived in a guest house, they are pretty much like family members to Joong-man and his daughter Moon-kyeong (Ki Do-young), and we later observe these four people casually having a meal along with Joong-man’s fragile old mother Myeong-soon (Choi Geum-soo) in the main house.

It is apparent to us that Moon-kyeong is interested in getting closer to Jin-woo, but Jin-woo is not particularly interested in responding to Moon-kyeong’s affection. When he is not occupied with those ranch works, he mostly focuses on taking care of Seol, and Seol, who always calls him ‘mom’ instead of ‘dad’, is mostly happy as spending her time alone with Jin-woo or those sheep under his care.

And then there come two different changes into their peaceful life on the ranch. Jin-woo’s poet friend Hyeon-min (Hong Kyung) comes to stay in the ranch because he happens to be hired to give lectures by a local church, and we get to know a bit about Jin-woo’s past. He met Hyeon-min at a college where he studied art, and it is clear that Jin-woo and Hyeon-min were quite close to each other, but, for some reason, Jin-woo quit everything and then went to the ranch around the time when he came to take care of Seol alone.

The movie never specifies the reason why Jin-woo chose to abandon his artistic career at that time, but we come to have a pretty good idea when he and Hyeon-min later have a little private time in the guest house. They were actually lovers, and Hyeon-min wants to be close to Jin-woo again, and but Jin-woo does not want to reveal this to his boss or his boss’ daughter. Of course, it does not take much time for Joong-man and Moon-kyeong to notice what is really going between Jin-woo and Hyeon-min, but both of them quietly accept that without saying anything, and Jin-woo becomes a little more relaxed than before as spending more time along with Hyeon-min.

In the meantime, there comes the other change, and that is the unexpected visit of Eun-yeong (Lee Sang-hee), Jin-woo’s estranged twin sister who wants to take Seol away from the ranch for a certain personal cause. Although Jin-woo does not welcome his twin sister much, he lets her stay in the ranch anyway, and we come to sense more of the tension being developed between her and Jin-woo, who adamantly believes that Seoul should continue to live with him as usual.

What eventually occurs among the main characters later in the story will not surprise you much, but the movie still holds our attention via its vivid rural mood to be appreciated. The ranch and its surrounding area provide a number of lovely sceneries to be admired, and I particularly like a gorgeously serene scene which shows a small isle where Jin-woo and Hyeon-min are more comfortable to be with each other.

Like director/writer/editor/co-producer Park Kun-young’s previous film “To My River” (2018), the movie also focuses a lot on poetry, and there is a sublime but ultimately bitter moment when Hyeon-min recites his latest work. To be frank with you, I am a guy who has been sort of dyslexic to poetry, but this moment grows on me after I watched the movie yesterday, and that is one of several reasons why I am willing to revisit the movie someday.

However, the movie is not entirely without flaws. As putting more emphasis on its mood, it sometimes feels thin in case of characterization (Hyeon-min and Eun-yeong are more or less than plot elements, for instance), and, as a queer drama, it is also rather too mild compared to recent queer dramas such as “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) and “God’s Own Country” (2017), both of which are also incidentally associated with handling sheep as live stocks.

Anyway, the main cast members are convincing in their respective roles. While Kang Gil-woo dutifully holds the center, Hong Kyung and Lee Sang-hee are well-cast as two different figures coming into Jin-woo’s life, and Ki Joo-bong, Ki Do-young, Choi Geum-soo, and Kim Si-ha bring some life and personality to their substantial supporting characters.

Overall, “A Distant Place” may lack depth at times in terms of storytelling, but it is still worthwhile to watch mainly for its impressive mood coupled with many beautiful moments. I admire these good moments, but I am not as enthusiastic about it as some other local critics, and I will not deny that my eyes were usually drawn more to those woolly sheep in the film.

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