Wednesday, January 06, 2016

PSIFF ’16: A Korean in Paris

A mystery in Paris sounds romantic, but this one is anything but. Sang-ho could desperately use the help of an Inspector Maigret, but he is very much on his own in the cold, foreign city. He will guide us through the gutters and prostitutes’ working corners in Jeon Soo-il’s A Korean in Paris (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Sang-ho originally came to Paris on his honeymoon with Yeon-hwa, but we he stepped away to buy cigarettes, she was abducted, presumably by some sort of sex trafficking racket. Just how the affluent Sang-ho was reduced to sleeping in the street is never explained in blow-by-blow terms, but here he is nonetheless. Sang-ho regularly haunts areas where Asian prostitutes congregate, solely in the hopes someone will recognize a laminated picture of Yeon-hwa.

Apparently, it has “just” been a few year’s since Yeon-hwa’s disappearance, but today’s Sang-ho looks like a completely different person than the man seen in flashbacks with her. The time on the street and his extreme alienation from French society have caused his social skills to deteriorate along with his body. As a result, he is rather confused when Chang, a French Korean prostitute, reaches out with an offer of platonic friendship. Despite his lingering doubts, Sang-ho keeps plugging away, falling deeper into the abyss.

Actually, it is even more depressing than that. A Korean in Paris is no An American in Paris. It makes The Lower Depths look like The Sound of Music. However, it is quite a fine film. There is something quite remarkable about Cho Jae-hyeon’s minimalist performance as Sang-ho. He is almost completely closed-off and soul-dead, yet something about him feels primed to explode. At times, Mi-kwan Lock’s Chang is even more frightfully vulnerable and exposed, but the frustrated humanity she conveys is just devastating. Based on her turn, the French-born, Madagascar-raised Lock should be a rising international star to contend with.

Jeon and cinematographer Kim Sung-tai capture some fantastic images, proving that the back alleys of Paris are nearly as cinematic as its landmarks. The film can be painfully deliberate and revealing, but the work of Cho and Lock is absolutely riveting. While not exactly optimistic by any stretch, Jeon incorporates enough Good Samaritan characters to leave the audience some remaining shreds of faith in human nature. Recommended for those who appreciate a bit of mystery and a truckload of uncompromising naturalism, A Korean in Paris screens this Saturday (1/9) and Sunday (1/10), as part of this year’s PSIFF.