Friday, August 23, 2013

MWFF’13: Mai Ratima

They live by night, but it is far from romantic.  They are the marginalized human debris that washes up on Seoul’s mean streets. A runaway Thai mail order bride and a would-be street criminal will find temporary solace in each others’ arms, but the brief moments of respite never last in Yoo Ji-tae’s Mai Ratima (trailer here), which screens tonight during the 2013 Montreal World Film Festival.

Mai Ratima Tanawat has not enjoyed her time in Korea.  Sponsored by her brother-in-law to marry his mentally challenged brother and to work in his factory, she has not received wages for the last six months.  Of course, his sexual harassment continues unabated.  Unable to send money home to her sister and Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, Tanawat finally confronts her brutish brother-in-law, who quickly turns violent.

Happening by their altercation, aspiring thug Soo-young intercedes on her behalf.  Assuming her bridges are burned, Tanawat agrees to accompany him to Seoul, where he thinks he has an illicit deal in the works.  Unfortunately, Soo-young’s prospects quickly turn sour.  For a while, they share some comparative domestic bliss squatting together, but it is clearly not sustainable.  There is never the illusion a happily-ever-after might be possible for these two.  The real question is how bad will it get?

Right, so good times for everyone.  Old Boy actor Yoo (who started cutting his director’s teeth with shorts like Out of My Intention) really pulls out the stops guilt-tripping his country for its exploitative immigration policies and intolerant attitudes.  He blends street level grit with periodic flights of stylized fantasy, which do not always mesh well.

However, Park Ji-soo makes good on Yoo’s heart-and-mind changing program, almost single-handedly.  The Korean actress is completely convincing as the Thai guest worker, from her tentative, soft-spoken command of the language, to her heartrending fear and guilt.  This ought to be a career-making star turn.  Bae Soo-bin does not quite pull off Soo-young big, climatic emotional payoff, but he develops some touching chemistry with Park in their quiet scenes together.  While her subplot often feels like it was lifted from another film, television star So Yoo-jin still scorches up the screen as Young-jin, the manipulative party girl who recruits Soo-young for a sordid boy-toy club gig.

Essentially, Yoo’s mistake comes when he divides his two leads midway through the film.  As good as So Yoo-jin might be in a colorful supporting role, the time spent away from Park Ji-soo’s title character just cannot compete with her poignancy and sense of urgency.  It is worth seeing Mai Ratima solely for her work.  Recommended for those who with a taste for naturalistic cinema with a blistering point of view, Mai Ratima screens tonight (8/23), tomorrow (8/24), and Sunday (8/25) as part of the 2013 World Film Festival in Montreal.