South Korean independent film “Vestige” alternatively intrigued and baffled me for good reasons. While this is actually two different short films packaged together as a feature film, these two short films are connected with each other in more than one aspect besides their common rural background, and I admire both of them in terms of mood and storytelling. To be frank with you, I am still struggling on how to describe what exactly they are about, so I will instead focus more on how they are about, and I hope that will help you decide on whether you will take a chance with it or not.
The first short film begins with the introduction of a middle-aged woman played by Kim Geum-soon. At first, we see her going to somewhere in a rural region called Muju on one cold winter day, and we gradually come to gather that she is returning to a little village where she once lived some time ago. After arriving in that village, she goes to a nearby mountain where she buried some personal stuffs, and, after retrieving these personal stuffs of hers, she goes to a shabby abandoned house where she resided during that time.
It turns out that the woman was a local shaman, and we soon watch her doing some ritualistic invocations inside her former residence. Regardless of whether it is imagined by her or not, we are chilled as some ghostly figure slowly appears, and then we get some glimpse of her past involved with her daughter. It becomes apparent to us that she was not that close to her daughter for understandable reasons, and then the film slowly shifts its focus from her to what is assumed to be her daughter’s ghost. The film never specifies what actually happened to her daughter, but we begin to sense that the woman has grieved a lot about her daughter’s premature death, and everything in the film eventually culminates to the haunting final scene where the woman comes to find some solace and comfort in the end.
In contrast to the cold and elusive qualities of the first short film, the second short film is more straightforward under its vibrant summer atmosphere. Its main center is a young woman named Min-jae (Kang Jin-ah), and we come to learn about her current status of life bit by bit via a series of episodic moments between her and several other characters in the story. Although she left her family in Muju for studying in Seoul several years ago, she eventually came back to her hometown, and she is currently working as a public servant while living with her widow mother in their cozy family house.
Her first scene in the film shows her having a drinking night at a local bar along with an old female friend of hers who comes to Muju for visiting her. The mood between them is casual and pleasant, but things begin to feel rather odd when they later go outside. Min-jae somehow gets separated from her friend, and the mood becomes rather spooky as she is looking for her friend who is gone for no apparent reason.
Without explaining anything about this baffling happening, the film comes to focus more on its heroine’s personal relationships with two other main characters in the story. Although she is quite disappointed that her daughter chose to be back in Muju, Min-jae’s mother respects her daughter’s choice nonetheless, and we sense how much she and Min-jae care about each other even when they happen to bicker a bit with each other at one point. In case of Min-jae’s boyfriend, he is a pleasant lad glad to spend more time with her, and we later see them spending some free time together in a house belonging to his grandmother, who has recently been in a local hospital due to her illness.
When they are sleeping together in that house, Min-jae’s boyfriend tells her about what his grandmother experienced not long before she became ill. According to him, his grandmother came to sense the ghostly presence of her dead husband at one night, and Min-jae cannot help but feel some creepiness as reflecting more on what her boyfriend told her. Not so surprisingly, she also comes to experience something strange later in the story, and that is followed by a somber but undeniably sublime moment you must see for yourself. As the camera quietly pulls back, we come to see more of what is going on the screen, and the resulting final shot will linger on your mind for a while just like the final shot of the first short film.
It goes without saying that both of two short films will demand some patience from you, but they are worthwhile to watch for atmosphere and details to be appreciated, and their respective writers/directors, Jang Kun-jae and Kim Jong-kwan, deserve to be commended for their competent direction. They also draw good actings from their performers, and Kim Geum-soon and Kang Jin-ah are convincing in each own way while supported well by several other performers including Lee Tae-gyoo and Ahn So-hee.
On the whole, “Vestige” is rather challenging as your average arthouse film, and I still do not think I understand everything in its two stories, but I was often impressed by a number of hauntingly poetic moments in the film. Like several other recent South Korean independent films such as “Chorokbam” (2021), this is surely something different from what we usually encounter at movie theaters, and I am already willing to revisit the film for appreciating more of its interesting aspects.