The Apartment with Two Women (2021) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A mother and daughter stuck with each other

South Korean independent film “The Apartment with Two Women” is one hell of family drama to say the least. Mainly revolving around the toxic mother and daughter relationship between its two very different main characters, the movie often strikes us quite hard with numerous painful moments of searing emotional intensity, and it is undeniably one of the most impressive South Korean films during this year. To be frank with you, I happened to be quite exhausted when I watched the film during last evening, but my eyes and mind were soon galvanized by what was so powerfully presented on the screen, and I must confess that I often braced myself throughout its rather long running time.

At the beginning, we get to know how things are miserable for a young woman named I-jeong (Lym Ji-ho) as she lives with her mother Soo-kyeong (Yang Mal-bok) day by day in their cheap apartment. As a frequently self-absorbed woman of abrasive personality and attitude, Soo-kyeong does not care that much about her sullen daughter, and I-jeong has been accustomed to how insensitive and abusive her mother can be, but they cannot help but clash with each other over trivial matters, and there eventually comes a point where Soo-kyeong commits something quite serious shortly after her latest fight with I-jeong.

After this serious incident, I-jeong finally decides that enough is enough, but, despite some defiance, she still finds herself stuck with her mother as before just because, well, she does not have enough money to live independently. She does have a job, but her job is not that promising, and she is not even good at her job due to her apparent lack of social skills, though she manages to get better after receiving some advices from her boss.

The movie also pays attention to how Soo-kyeong reaches for a nice chance for better life. There is some widower guy who may marry her someday, and it seems that all she has to do is being nice to not only him but also his adolescent daughter, though that turns out to be not so easy at all. At one point, Soo-kyeong attempts to ingratiate herself with them via her special cooking, but she only finds herself quite embarrassed in front of them to our little amusement.

In the meantime, Soo-kyeong and I-jeong continue to clash with each other as usual, and that eventually prompts I-jeong to leave their apartment at last. Not knowing what to do next, I-jeong comes to depend on one of her co-workers, who generously lets I-jeong stay at her little residence for a while but then quickly becomes wary of I-jeong for understandable reasons. Still being an emotionally stunted kid craving for any kind of care or consolation, I-jeong cannot help but lean and stick more and more on her co-worker as time goes by, and that is certainly the last thing her co-worker wants.

As Soo-kyeong and I-jong struggle to deal with their respective personal issues besides their very problematic relationship, the screenplay by director/writer Kim Se-in does not make any excuse or compromise at all as clearly examining their persistent human flaws. Yes, there eventually comes a point where Soo-kyeong and I-jong confront their longtime emotional issues between them in private, but that does not lead to any kind of reconciliation or ventilation at all. As a stubborn woman who has been adamantly going her way for years, Soo-kyeong refuses to apologize for all those years of emotional and physical abuses inflicted on her daughter, and that makes I-jeong all the more despaired and frustrated than before. Yes, she does know that she should really get away from her terrible mother and her virulent influence as soon as possible, but their emotional bond still feels so strong that she may not be completely free from her mother during the rest of her life.

Under Kim’s unadorned but strong direction, the movie steadily carries the story and characters to the end without never losing its grip on audiences, and its two lead actresses give two of the best South Korean movie performances of this year. While Yang Mal-bok, whom you may recognize her for her small supporting turn in the first season of South Korean Netflix TV Series “Squid Game”, is simply astonishing in her utterly uncompromising performance, Lym Ji-ho is also superlative as her equal acting match, and it is constantly electrifying to watch how their characters dynamically pull and push each other throughout the story. Although the movie does not show much the past between their characters except one moment, Yang and Lym ably let us sense a long history of anger and resentment between them, and we come to understand their complex emotional issues more even though we often observe them from the distance.

Around Yang and Lym, Kim places several good main cast members, who are believable as real human characters to observe. While Kwon Jung-eun has a couple of nice scenes as Soo-kyeong’s best friend, Yang Heung-joo brings some humor to the story as Soo-kyeong’s hapless potential suitor, and Jung Bo-ram is also very effective as I-jeong’s co-worker, who may be not so different from I-jeong despite their personality difference.

In conclusion, “The Apartment with Two Women”, which is incidentally Kim’s first feature film, is a brutal but undeniably compelling piece of work relentlessly fueled by its two unforgettable main characters, and it deserves to be compared with Yang Ik-Joon’s “Breathless” (2008), a great South Korean film which is about another kind of virulent family relationship. This is indeed a very tough and challenging stuff, but it is surely a powerful film you should not miss, and I assure you that you will not regret in the end.

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