The Cave (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): His wife and his first love

I could not help but chuckle a bit at times while watching South Korean film “The Cave”. At first, it comes to us as a calm and intimate story about loss and healing, but it also can be quite amusing and melodramatic as its two main characters try to cope with their complicated emotional circumstance, and you may appreciate how the movie pulls off its warm and tender ending after frequently going up and down along with its main characters.

At the beginning, the movie succinctly establishes how much Min-hee (Yoo Da-in) has been devastated by her husband’s unexpected death during his routine visit to his hometown in Jeju Island. Regardless of whether it was actually a suicide or an accident, her husband’s death makes Min-hee reflect more on how much they were estranged from each other before his death, and that only leads to more sorrow and grief for her. Without him, her daily life becomes empty and barren with no one to lean on, and, above all, she does not know what to do next for her life.

While rummaging the stuffs belonging to her husband later, Min-hee comes to learn about his longtime wish to live at a certain place in his hometown. It is just one of several houses in one neighborhood, but Min-hee becomes curious about why her husband wanted to live there, and her curiosity is increased more after she sees several photographs he never showed her, which are apparently shot by somebody else.

Eventually, Min-hee moves into that house several months later, and that is how she encounters Mok-ha (Jo Eun-ji), who incidentally lives right next to Min-hee’s house. Besides running a little nearby cafe, Mok-ha also teaches yoga to some of her neighbors, and we get a little amusing moment as she gladly provides a bit of yoga practice to Min-hee during their first encounter.

As drawn to Mok-ha’s gentle and vivacious personality, Min-hee gets to know a bit about Mok-ha’s personal life. Whenever she is not paying attention to yoga and cafe, Mok-ha usually spends her time on taking care of many different plants filling her cozy house, and she also has a little private spot where she has a small but nice garden of her own. That spot also has a tiny cave, and it does not take much time for Min-hee to notice that the cave is identical to the one shown in one of her husband’s photographs. Talking more and more with Mok-ha, she comes to realize that Mok-ha was actually the first love in her husband’s life, and she also comes to notice a significant resemblance between her husband and Mok-ha’s young adult son.

Gradually discerning what her husband was hiding from her during all those years, Min-hee become more furious and confused than before, but she does not know what she should do with this fact, and neither does Mok-ha, who instinctively guesses what her new neighbor is hiding from her but does not say anything yet. No, she and Min-hee’s husband were not that close to each other for years after being separated from each other a long time ago, and letting his wife into her life is the last thing she wants now, but she still does not know what to do with Min-hee – especially when Min-hee begins to approach closer to her son later in the story.

Even when the conflict between these two ladies grows step by step, the movie sticks to its usual calm attitude. The circumstance becomes quite tricky as Min-hee looks like being willing to do more than encouraging the artistic aspiration of Mok-ha’s son, and we accordingly get a series of blatantly melodramatic moments including the one where our two ladies attempt a sort of catfight between them, but the movie still shows lots of care and understanding toward them. While Min-hee is basically an annoying intruder coming into Mok-ha and her son’s fairly good life, we understand her grief and confusion, and we come to brace ourselves when she may cross some lines a bit. In case of Mok-ha, we come to sense how much she has endured and prevailed for years as raising her son alone, and we are not so surprised when she shows some bitter feelings toward her first love, who was never there for her or her dear son.

Although the screenplay by director/writer Lee Young-ha stumbles a bit during the last act, her two lead actresses steadily carry the movie to the end, and they surely demonstrate here that they are two of the most interesting South Korean actresses at present. While Yoo Da-in, who has steadily advanced since her unforgettable breakthrough turn in “Re-encounter” (2010), deftly handles her character’s emotional turmoil along the story, Jo Eun-ji, who has been endearing to me since her delightful scene-stealing supporting turn in “My Scary Girl” (2006), ably holds the ground for her co-star, and they are also supported well by a few main cast members including Jung Yong-sub and Ha Kyung, a young promising actor who holds his own small place well as Mok-ha’s son.

Overall, “The Cave”, which is released in South Korean theaters as “Day and Moon” in this week, is an engaging character drama equipped with good mood and thoughtful storytelling in addition to solid performances. Besides its two lead actresses’ stellar acting, I also enjoyed the serene winterly atmosphere of Jeju Island, and I admire how the movie builds and then develops its main characters via small and big details under its palpable local ambience. Although this is only her first feature film, Lee surely shows that she is another talented South Korean filmmaker to watch, and it will be interesting to see what she will give us in the future.

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