Life of Hae-Oak (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): Will she ever make it through?

Watching South Korean film “Life of Hae-Oak” is not a comfortable experience at all. Closely observing its young heroine’s seemingly endless predicament, the movie palpably conveys us her growing conflict and frustration, and that will probably make you wince more than once. Sadly, what is depicted in the film is not so different from what countless young people in the South Korean society have to endure day by day, and you may come to reflect on that a lot after the movie is over.

Lee Tae-kyoung, who previously drew my attention more for her solid lead performance in “Unboxing Girl” (2020), plays Lee Ra-el, a young woman who has studied for a civil service exam during several years since her college graduation. Not long after failing to pass the primary test, Ra-el moves to a rather shabby one-room residence for more focusing on her study, and her mother is delighted when the real estate agent tells her that all the previous residents were lucky enough to pass their exams. It is clear to us from the beginning that Ra-el’s mother expects a lot from Ra-el, and Ra-el has followed her mother’s expectation as a good daughter, but we come to sense that she is not so sure about whether she really wants to pass the exam and then become a civil servant.

Anyway, Ra-el subsequently embarks on preparing for the upcoming primary test, but then she gets frustrated again due to another failure. While her mother is ready to support and cheer her up as usual, Ra-el feels more pressured and conflicted than before, and that is probably the main reason why she later comes to show an inexplicable allergic symptom.

Fortunately, Ra-el succeeds in the next attempt to pass the primary test, but there are still two next tests she must also pass before becoming a civil servant. She naturally tries to focus as much as possible, but, alas, she fails to pass the 2nd test more than once. To her embarrassment, that seems to make that allergic symptom of hers much worse than before, and there is a cringe-inducing moment when she inadvertently causes inconvenience in a study room full of young people who are also trying to prepare for their exams as much as they can.

Meanwhile, Ra-el’s mother keeps pressuring her daughter with her cheery expectation as usual, and she even suggests that Ra-el should change her name for bringing more luck to her another attempt to pass the test. Now Ra-el becomes “Hae-oak”, and we get a little amusement when she is reminded that she will have to do some extra paperwork for making her new name official on the record.

Around the narrative point where our heroine gives another shot at the test, you will probably expect something to happen sooner or later, and the movie certainly shows more of how fragile she really is. Yes, she is ready to give all the efforts she can muster this time, but, alas, she eventually finds herself quite more agitated than expected, and we are not so surprised when she subsequently reaches to a sort of breaking point.

This ongoing predicament of hers is often alternated with a series of moments involved with an all-you-can-eat pork restaurant where she works part-time. At one point, Ra-el has to handle a very rude male customer who seems to be enjoying bullying her just for the quality of the meat served to him, and Ra-el remains passive and helpless as usual. To make matters worse, her boss does not help her much, and she later finds out something bad about her boss while trying to do her job in the restaurant kitchen as demanded.

It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that these two narrative lines eventually converge around the end of the film, and the screenplay by director Park Jung-hwan, who incidentally makes a feature debut here after making several acclaimed short film, and his co-writer Jung Ji-in, sticks to its detached attitude even at that point. You may be a bit disappointed with how the story simply stops right before the epilogue scene, but you will be a bit chilled as the epilogue scene indirectly points out how many young people are letting their spirit and youth ground out there in the South Korean society even at this point.

The movie is definitely not something pleasant to watch at all, but it still holds our attention as vividly capturing its heroine’s trembling emotional status along the story. Quite different from her more active appearance in “Unboxing Girl” here in this film, Lee demonstrates again that she is indeed another interesting new South Korean actress to watch, and her good lead performance ably carries the film to the end while also supported by a few substantial supporting performers including Jeon Guk-hyang. Jeon is convincing as a mother who expects too much from her daughter without really asking what her daughter really wants to do for her own life, and her rather aggressive cheeriness in the film tells us a lot about why Ra-el cannot easily say no to her mother.

On the whole, “Life of Hae-oak” is one of those gloomy South Korean films presenting the harsh and unpleasant sides of the South Korean society, and I admire its dry but empathetic storytelling and Lee’s commendable efforts. Although I am a bit dissatisfied with its lack of resolution, I guess that is the point of the movie, so I will put aside my reservation to some degree as mildly recommending it to you.

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