On the Sand House (2023) ☆☆☆(3/4): Now she is stuck with her family business…

South Korean independent film “On the Sand House” is a modest but sensitive character drama about one deeply frustrated young woman. It is clear that she has yearned to get out of her world for restarting her life as soon as possible, but, alas, she only finds herself stuck with a messy family situation instead, and the movie gradually conveys to us her deepening exasperation and frustration along the story.

The early part of the movie succinctly establishes the loveless domestic environment surrounding Jin-yeong (Lee Seol). She is currently living with her parents, but there is not much interaction or communication between her and her parents because they are mostly occupied with each own business. While Jin-yeong is mostly devoted to the preparation for getting employed in Canada someday, her father, who has run a factory for many years, does not do anything at his home except eating and watching TV, and her mother is usually busy with handling various business matters involved with the factory instead of her husband.

And then there comes an unexpected incident not long after another domestic quarrel between Jin-yeong’s parents. Becoming more exasperated and frustrated than before, Jin-yeong’s mother decides to go somewhere for getting some peace of mind, and Jin-yeong does not pay much attention to that when her mother is leaving, but she is subsequently notified of her mother’s sudden death (The movie does not specify much on how she died, by the way).

Quite devastated by her mother’s death, Jin-yeong soon comes to face an important issue involved with the family business. Due to her mother’s death, somebody else should fill her mother’s spot, and, mainly because her older sister is busy with taking care of her own family, Jin-yeong has no choice but to fill the spot for a while as a dutiful daughter. Although she does not know that much about how to handle all those suppliers and buyers associated with the factory, she gets some help from her mother’s assistant at least, though the assistant will leave a few weeks later.

Anyway, Jin-yeong manages to handle her tasks fairly well, but it does not take much for her to realize that the factory has not been doing that well in its business for years. In addition, she also comes to see that her father is the main problem of this difficult situation. Without his wife’s sensible management, Jin-yeong’s father often gets himself driven by his greed and stubbornness, and we can see a big trouble coming from the distance when he later attempts some big and ambitious business plan along with a newly hired employee of his.

Because she knows too well that her father will not listen to her opinion or thought at all, Jin-yeong just keeps concentrating on whatever she is expected to do, while also continuing to prepare for her oversea employment plan. For going to Canada several weeks later, she certainly needs some cash for that, but her father is not so willing to help her, and Jin-yeong naturally becomes all the more frustrated as her time for going to Canada is approaching.

What happens later in the story will not surprise you much, but the screenplay by director/writer Kim Hyun-jung keeps us engaged as carefully developing its main characters bit by bit via small details. We come to know more about what makes Jin-yeong’s father tick, and then we also come to learn more about Jin-yeong’s rather estranged relationship with her older sister, who turns out to be more generous and caring than she seemed at first. When they visit their mother’s grave at one point later in the story, Jin-yeong and her older sister become a bit softer to each other, but there remains some distance between them nonetheless – even when Jin-yeong’s sister shows a little sincere concern to Jin-yeong.

As the emotional center of the story, Lee Seol, a promising South Korean actress who previously drew my attention via her substantial supporting performances in “Herstory” (2017) and “My Punch-drunk Boxer” (2018), diligently carries the film to the end while seldom showing off her character’s conflicted emotional state. Thanks to Lee’s solid performance, we are always aware of what has been churning behind Jin-yeong’s detached façade, and that is the main reason why a certain two key scenes in the last act are emotionally effective.

In case of several crucial main cast members in the film, they dutifully fill their respective spots around Lee. As Jin-yeong’s deeply flawed father, Park Ji-il never makes any excuse on his character, but we come to understand his character to some degree while also recognizing how pathetic his character really is. Although she only appears briefly in the early part of the movie, Ahn Min-young leaves some lasting impression as Jin-yeong’s long-suffering mother, and Kang Jin-ah and Lee Han-ju are also well-cast in their substantial supporting roles.

Overall, “On the Sand House” distinguishes itself fairly well thanks to its good storytelling and characterization, and Kim Hyun-jung, who previously made several short films before making a feature film debut here, shows that she is another promising South Korean female filmmaker to watch. Considering how the future of South Korean Cinema has been rather grim and uncertain as it is going down from the historic success of Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” (2019), we need to support more new talented female filmmakers like Kim, and I sincerely hope that she will impress us more during next several years.

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