Thursday, November 15, 2012

MOMI Korean Cinema Showcase: Choked

With so many folks on the make, somebody ought to be making money, yet everybody in Kwon Youn-ho’s world keeps falling further and further behind.  Life is grim but the performances are first rate in Kim Joong-hyun’s Choked (trailer here), which screens this Sunday as part of the Museum of the Moving Image’s Korean Cinema Showcase.

Kwon has issues with his mother Hee-su.  Calling her nutritional supplement business a pyramid scheme would do a disservice to pyramid schemes.  She simply absconded with her investors’ money, leaving her son to face the music.  Unfortunately, he inherited none of her smooth talker charm.  Still hoping to start a new life with his materialistic fiancée Se-kyung, Kwon must dodge debt collecting thugs after hours, while doing his own thuggery during the day as an employee of a real estate developer determined to clear the tenants from a block they have their sights on.

What can you say about a film whose most sympathetic character is a psycho-stalker.  Her name Seo-hee and she is truly pitiable.  While she entrusted Kwon’s mother with money she could not spare, it is really the emotional betrayal that torments her.  Watching her make new mistakes that compound old ones is an excruciatingly true to life viewing experience.

Indeed, Park Se-jin gives a bravura performance, tapping into all kinds of emotional anguish and vulnerability, while keeping Seo-hee’s manifest shortcomings relentlessly front-and-center.  In contrast, Um Tae-goo’s painfully reserved work as Kwon sneaks up on viewers after the fact.  Coming in somewhere in the middle, Kil Hae-yeon brings a subtle twitchiness to Mother Hee-su that is just right in context.

International critics have fallen all over themselves to praise Choked as a commentary on the financial crisis and the various resulting austerity programs, but there is something deeper afoot here than recessionary woes (though granted, those are not helping anyone).  Even with bulging bank accounts the principle characters would still have trouble maintaining honest and healthy relationships, especially those involving intimacy.

Lee Jin-keun’s HD cinematography is not out to razzle dazzle, but it reflects a sense of the metaphorical twilight in which the characters perpetually operate.  A grim but powerful work of cinematic naturalism, Choked is recommended for the impact of its three very different yet equally effective leads when it screens this Sunday (11/18) at MOMI in Astoria, Queens.