South Korean documentary film “Cats’ Apartment” observes a bunch of cats inhabiting in a big old apartment complex located at the eastern end of Seoul. While it is often amusing to watch how these cute cats live day by day, the documentary also focuses on that fragile relationship between cats and human residence regions, and that is why it is sometimes poignant to see how several activists try to help these cats as much as possible.
That big old apartment complex in question was already the main subject of other recent South Korean documentary film “A Long Farewell” (2017). As told to us in that wistful documentary, the apartment complex area is now gone due to the extensive redevelopment process during 2018-2019, and the neighborhood will look certainly different with new and bigger apartment buildings around the end of this year.
Director Jeong Jae-eun, who has been mainly known for several acclaimed urban documentaries besides that wonderful female coming-of-age drama film “Take Care of My Cat” (2001), spent several years in the apartment complex for the shooting of her documentary, and the result, which was incidentally edited from several hundred hours of raw footage clips, is often vivid and intimate to say the least. Although these apartment buildings no longer exist at present, the buildings and their neighborhood exude a palpable sense of history and life on the screen, and it is rather bittersweet to observe them gradually emptied before the eventual beginning of redevelopment.
While all the residents in the apartment complex came to leave one by one, lots of stray cats remained in the neighborhood without having any idea on how much their habitat would be changed during next several years. According to a rough estimation, there were at least 250 ~ 300 stray cats living here and there throughout the apartment complex, and several people who had often taken care of these stray cats were certainly quite concerned about what would happen to these stray cats during the upcoming redevelopment period.
As many of these people try to help these stray cats in one way or another, the documentary sometimes focuses on some of these stray cats, who have each own personality besides their distinctive appearances. In case of one certain cat, it has been a beloved fixture of a local pharmacy, and we cannot help but smile as observing how calmly and playfully it is sitting outside the pharmacy, but the mood becomes rather melancholic as it still occupies its spot even after the pharmacy is shut down forever as its owner leaves just like many of his customers.
And we are also introduced to several other interesting cats in the neighborhood. I was constantly amused and touched as watching how friendly many of these cats are to people without fearing people at all, but I also observed that they could not possibly understand what was going on in their little world right now. I am now reminded of what W.G. Sebald once said: “Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”
Nevertheless, despite that undeniable mutual incomprehension between them and the stray cats, a number of people who really cared about the stray cats in their disappearing neighborhood tried their best anyway. Besides constantly feeding the stray cats day by day, they also organized their little public association together, and we later see them attending a public meeting for showing many others how important their cause really is.
Of course, they could not possibly save all these stray cats in their neighborhood, but they kept going nonetheless. For controlling the cat population in the neighborhood, they often captured male stray cats for getting them neutered and then releasing them. For making stray cats move to safer habitats, they planned on how to move away their feeding spots bit by bit, and we hear a bit of their sincere and passionate discussion on that.
In addition, they also had some of stray cats adopted after domesticating them a bit during several weeks. While some of them were quite friendly from the beginning, others were not so cordial to say the least, and you will be amused a lot by one particular stray cat, who did not like to be patted on its body at first but then became quite perky and friendly thanks to its temporary owner’s patient efforts.
Meanwhile, the time for redevelopment finally came, and the situation became more difficult for the stray cats. The apartment complex got almost isolated from the surrounding area, and those apartment buildings were demolished one by one, but many stray cats were still not accustomed to how things were drastically changed for them. At one point, we see one of them attempting to return to its old habitat, and then we gasp a bit when it nearly gets itself killed.
On the whole, “Cats’ Apartment” will occasionally melt the hearts of cat lovers for good reasons, but it also works as a thoughtful meditation on our rather problematic relationship with stray cats and other urban animals. In my humble opinion, we should pay more attention to them considering how much their life is affected by our activities, and the documentary will surely make you reflect more on that.