Chorokbam (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): An atmospheric slice of life

To be frank with you, I felt growing frustration while watching the first 30 minutes of South Korean independent film “Chorokbam”. In terms of story and characters, the movie is adamantly dry and minimalistic to the core, and it was really difficult for me to gather what it is actually about. Nonetheless, I also could not help but admire how it is about, and my eyes kept paying attention to its commendable technical aspects even though my mind still felt rather detached at times.

First, let’s talk a bit about the three main characters of the story. The opening scene shows a middle-aged man who works as a night guard in some apartment complex, and then we are introduced to his wife and their adult son, who have lived along with him in their little old apartment. Although everything looks mostly fine on the surface, we come to learn that they will soon have to move to somewhere else because their landlord recently decides to put the apartment back on the market, and this results in some strain on their domestic daily life although they keep going on as usual. For example, the son accepts that he may have to live separately, but the future is not so bright for him as he remains stuck in his menial job, and he only gets some consolation from his girlfriend from time to time.

And then something happens. We soon see the family solemnly holding the funeral for a close family member of the father along with two family members of his, but the quiet mood is suddenly disrupted by a sudden physical conflict between the mother and one of these family members of his. As the camera phlegmatically observes this conflict from the distance, we naturally come to wonder more about the personal reason behind this physical conflict, but the movie does not delve into this situation at all, and it simply moves on along with its characters, who somehow come to have some reconciliation as mourning for that dead family member.

The mood becomes a little more tense later in the story, but the movie still sticks to its austere storytelling approach while just having us filling the gaps and blanks in the story for ourselves. As a matter of fact, director/writer Yoon Seo-jin deliberately whittled out many details from the first draft of his screenplay before shooting the film, and this can be quite frustrating for you at times as you struggle to grasp its rather subtle narrative flow.

Nevertheless, the movie will be a considerably rewarding experience once, like I did, you accept what Yoon and his cast and crew members intend to achieve here. The camera of cinematographer Choo Kyeong-yeob is mostly static throughout the film, but, coupled with unadorned but precise scene composition, its calm and serene gaze gradually immerses us into the mundane daily life inhabited by the main characters. During one particularly impressive scene, the camera just observes one action from the distance for a while, but then we are caught off guard by the unexpected appearance of a certain figure right in front of us, and I will let you appreciate its somber but striking dramatic effect for yourself.

What follows after that is another quiet highlight in the movie. As the camera calmly watches the aforementioned figure from the distance, we come to listen more to what is being said to this silent figure, and we slowly gather a certain irony behind the circumstance. What eventually happens not long after that may not be so surprising, but an emerging sense of devastation is palpable to us nonetheless.

Meanwhile, the movie also throws a bit of style and poetry into the mix. As reflected by its very title (It means “Green Night” in Korean, by the way), the movie often decorates the screen with green light, and its rather creepy utilization of green light brings extra nervous tension among its main three characters, each of whom has each own fear and discontent behind their weary façades. While the father does not know what to do with the rest of his life, the mother is reminded again and again of how she has been sick of her married life, and the son feels lost and confused with no bright promise in his life. During one brief moment ominously suffused by green light, the movie shows them sleeping together but clearly being distant to each other in more than one way, and that conveys to us more of their hopeless family life.

Although these three main characters are more or less than mere archetypes, they come to us as real people with human issues thanks to the humble and unaffected acting of its three main cast members. While Lee Tae-hoon holds the ground as required, Kim Min-kyung, who sadly died not long before the shooting of the film, ably complements Lee, and Kang Gil-woo, who recently played a supporting character in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Broker” (2022), holds his own place well between Lee and Kim. Several supporting performers in the film are equally convincing, and Oh Min-ae and Kim Guk-Hee deserve to be praised for bringing some life and personality to their respective roles.

In conclusion, “Chorokbam”, which is incidentally Yoon’s first feature film, can be pretty challenging as your average arthouse movie, but you will not easily forget its stunning technical qualities at least. This is not something which can be described as ‘entertaining’, but I assure you that it will haunt your mind for a long time after it is over, and you may have some expectation on what may come next from Yoon.

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