Thursday, September 27, 2012

Yeonghwa ’12: From Seoul to Varanasi

Lee Yeong-woo is a book publisher, so he must be immediately suspect.  He is indeed engaged in an illicit affair with one of his writers.  Yet, his unassuming wife may just be mixed up in something more nefarious in Jeon Kyu-hwan’s From Seoul to Varanasi (nsfw trailer here), which screens today as part of the 2012 edition of Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today, now underway at MoMA.

Though his characters are mostly late middle-aged, Jeon sees no reason why they cannot have sexually charged love affairs, showing viewers Lee and his mistress Su-yeon full-frontally nude and entwined in just about every position in the book.  In contrast, his wife Ji-yeong seems naturally more demur.  Perhaps that is one reason why feels a kinship with Kerim, a devout Lebanese Muslim immigrant she befriends through an unlikely chain of events.  Though Kerim finds himself increasingly attracted to the sensitive Ji-yeong, his radicalized associate is always there to keep him on the straight and narrow.

Nonetheless, something is clearly about to go very wrong.  Jeon’s fractured narrative makes it deliberately difficult to establish a clear timeline, but it is clear a major terrorist bombing will take place in the holy Indian city of Varanasi that will in some way affect Ji-yeong.  Just who was manipulated into doing what are the questions Jeon will teasingly reveal, but a judicious application of Occam’s razor will not lead the audience far astray.

A festival darling for his Town trilogy, Jeon is definitely pitching his material for an exclusive international audience.  His temporal shifts are likely to madden casual viewers.  However, there is some substance to the film beyond its narrative exhibitionism.  Ideology clears plays a subtly corrosive role in the events at hand.  However, Varanasi is really more of a character study—quite a frank one, in fact.

Despite his myriad of faults, it is hard to condemn Lee.  After all, at one point he takes his mistress to a blues club.  Self aware of his insecurities and hypocrisy, he is a complicated figure, who tries to do the right thing when he realizes how deep his estranged wife is in over his head.  It is a breakout performance for the very tall Yoon Dong-hwan.  Choi Won-jung is also quite compelling in a quiet way as Ji-yeong.  Frustratingly though, Jeon is often working at cross-purposes with his cast, distracting viewers from their often meaty performances with his constant shifting back and forth.

Aside from some picturesque shots of the teeming Varanasi streets, Jeon largely focuses on the acutely personal throughout the film, embracing its low budget aesthetic.  It is a thoughtful work featuring some truly significant screen performances. If anything, Jeon just tries too hard to put his auteurist stamp on the proceedings.  Recommended for very select audiences for it insights into infidelity, a rather chilling depiction of Islamist extremism by art-house standards, and the performances of its primaries, From Seoul to Varanasi (a.k.a. just plain Varanasi) screens tonight (9/27) and Sunday (9/30), as Yeonghwa continues at MoMA.