Sunday, September 16, 2018

Korean Cinema ’18: Microhabitat

Politicians like to pretend so-called “sin taxes” on booze and cigarettes are progressive, but they are really some of the most regressive taxes on the books. Just ask Miso, a free-spirit, who is not as young as she once was. She has three important budget items: rent, cigarettes, and a glass of good whiskey every few days. However, when the government doubles the cigarette tax, she decides she will have to sacrifice rent in director-screenwriter Jeon Go-woon’s Microhabitat (trailer here), which screens during the Honolulu Museum of Art’s annual Korean Cinema series.

Miso only makes forty dollars a week as a freelance house cleaner, but it is enough to cover her essentials. The most of her entertainment is provided by her beloved boyfriend Han-sol (and the blood they sometimes sell together). He dreams of becoming a webtoon artist, but for now, he lives in a company dormitory that does not allow women. So, when the price of smokes skyrockets, Miso gives up her tiny flat and starts reaching out to the members of her fondly remembered college band.

She accepts a few days hospitality from them, one by one, but she finds they have either hardened and sold out or they are so profoundly disappointed in life, they are much less happy than she is—but they are safer and have a more stable environment.

As Miso starts to run out of band members, we really start to worry for her. Yes, she is responsible for her own choices, but are cigarettes and the occasional good whiskey really too much to ask? Frankly, this is one of the supposed benefits of sin taxes: forcing people to quit unhealthy behavior, but what are the repercussions for those who can’t or won’t?

Of course, the warm, absolutely luminous presence of Esom (a.k.a. Lee Som) heightens and intensifies everything. As pretty and sweet as she is, we can see only too clearly how her shy reserve could cause to her to be overlooked and forgotten by society. Yet, there is also something heroic and even life-affirming about her dedication to her two vices. It is a quiet performance, but it suits the film pitch-perfectly.

Microhabitat is one of the most powerful and challenging films about homelessness you will see for quite some time, precisely because of the subtlety of Jeon’s approach. Arguably, Miso often seems like the healthiest person in each scene, but she is also the most at risk. As a result, Jeon and her star, Esom turn indie slacker dramedies on their ear and find a good deal of humor in adversity, while always keeping things really real. Very highly recommended, Microhabitat screens this Thursday (9/20) and Friday (9/21), as part of this year’s Korean Cinema at the Honolulu Museum of Art. It also screens next Sunday (9/23) during the 2018 LA Film Festival.