Shades of the Heart (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A series of ambiguous episodes around one writer

It is a bit difficult for me to describe to you on South Korean independent film “Shades of the Heart”. When I saw this little modest film for the first time a few days ago, I was not so sure about what it exactly is about due to its many ambiguous aspects, and then I decided to give it another chance mainly because my physical condition was not so good at that time (Full disclosure: I somehow got quite drowsy more than once throughout my first viewing). After I saw it again yesterday, I am still scratching my head on its deliberately opaque narrative, but I appreciate its subtle handling of mood and emotion at least.

First, let met describe the prologue part of the film, which mainly revolves around two different young people who look like happening to encounter each other at a small cafe for no apparent reason. Probably because she was asleep for a while and still feels befuddled a bit, Mi-yeong (IU, who is also known as Lee Ji-eun) does not seem to remember why the hell she is there or why a lad is sitting across her table right now, and the lad, who turns out to be a writer, generously reminds her that they were supposed to be introduced to each other via a mutual acquaintance of theirs.

As these two characters talk more with each other, the movie makes us wonder more about what is exactly going on between them. Is the lad really who he is supposed to be? Is there any hidden reason for Mi-yeong’s inexplicably black state of mind? When he engages Mi-yeong (and us) via an impromptu tale of his, this merely looks like a small attempt to amuse her a little, but then it is followed by a revelation on who they are in fact – and what exactly he is doing with her at present.

After that, the movie gives us a little more information on the lad as he walks outside alone. His name is Chang-seok (Yeon Woo-jin), and we come to gather that he has been going through an emotionally difficult time since he came back from abroad, though the movie does not explain much on the reason behind his current emotional struggle except suggesting that it also caused the separation between him and his wife.

At least, things are not entirely bad for Chang-seok as reflected by his subsequent meeting with Yoo-jin (Yoon Hye-ri), a young female employee of his publishing company who gladly notifies him that she and her co-workers decided to publish his latest novel. While their meeting is supposed to be strictly for business, Chang-seok and Yoo-jin come to spend more time with each other as walking in a nearby park, and then, for no apparent reason, Yoo-jin confides to him on some bitter facts of her current life. As dusk falls upon them, whatever is churning beneath their phlegmatic conversation becomes more ambiguous to us, and this moment still captivates us nonetheless as the camera keeps focusing on their darkening appearance.

During the next part which is unfolded at another small cafe, Chang-seok is approached by a middle-aged photographer named Seong-ha (Kim Sang-ho), who turns out to be struggling with his own difficult personal problem behind his seemingly jovial appearance. After showing Chang-seok a small vial of lethal chemical material he has been carrying these days, Seong-ha rambles on how sad and desperate he was about that issue of his before getting a small glimpse of hope for him, but then that is subsequently revealed to be a cruel joke of fate, and Chang-seok does not know what to tell him, while taking away that small vial in question.

It is more apparent to us that Chang-seok has been suicidal due to whatever has been tormenting him for a while, but he remains introverted while not signifying much to us, and he does not tell much even when he spends some time at a local bar being tended by a young woman named Joo-eun (Lee Ju-young). As they talk a bit with each other, she says that she usually collects the memories of others because she does not have many memories of herself due to an unfortunate accident which resulted in several serious injuries of hers, and he gladly offers a piece of memory of his, though we can never be sure about whether he is really serious in his offering.

Anyway, their conversation eventually leads to Joo-eun’s impromptu moment of poetry, and the mood becomes a little soothing around them, though that does not lift Chang-seok much from his gloomy state of mind. We see him walking alone again, and then he decides to make a phone call, though it is quite possible that this little private moment of his happens only within his deeply depressed mind.

Even during the following last act, the screenplay by director Kim Jong-kwan, who previously drew my attention with his two good films “Worst Woman” (2016) and “The Table” (2016), does not clarify much what is really going on around and inside its taciturn hero, but it somehow finds an appropriate finale for what has been presented during the rest of the film. To be frank with you, I have no idea on its exact meaning, but I can tell you that it somehow feels touching nonetheless.

As your typical arthouse flick, “Shades of the Heart” will certainly require some patience from you due to its slow narrative pacing, but it is an interesting work to be admired for its deft storytelling and solid performances at least. Although I felt distant to what it is about, I observed how it is about with some curiosity and amusement, and that is enough for me for now.

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