One of the more compelling aspects of the worldwide success of Parasite is that it wasn’t designed to be a worldwide success; or, at least, not in the same way that Bong Joon-ho’s previous movies, Snowpiercer and Okja, were meant to be worldwide successes. Parasite was about the way South Koreans live now, and much of the storyline would, theoretically, only make sense to South Koreans. That global audiences would pick up on these aspects, or, more relevantly, make an effort to understand the background and milieu of the story, proves not only the power of the story itself but also the true meaning of moviegoing. It’s not just about a willingness to read subtitles.
Like my favorite movie from last year, House of Hummingbird, Moving On was made by a first-time female Korean director and centers on an adolescent protagonist. I don’t know if Ok-joo’s experience in the movie is based on that of Yoon Dan-bi the same way that the teenage lead in Hummingbird was autobiographical, according to its director, Kim Bora, but there’s definitely a strong feeling of identification being projected onto the viewer, mainly in the way the script handles those fleeting moments of adolescence where matters seem extremely important for a little while and then seem much less so. But such uncommon sensitivity to universal feelings were less meaningful to me than those areas of mystery that kept me immersed in a story that was barely acknowledged. The film takes place over a brief summer break when Ok-joo (Choi Jung-woon), her younger brother, Dong-joo (Park Seung-joo), and their divorced father (Yang Heung-joo), moves house from Seoul to the suburb of Inchon, where the father grew up in a large house now occupied solely by Ok-joo’s pleasant but frail grandfather. We are meant to understand that Ok-joo’s father’s business has failed in some way, but since no time is given over to such concerns it may simply be that his business was never much to begin with. (One gets the feeling that the business had something to do with the divorce.)
But such prosaic concerns are not the movie’s. That concern is Ok-joo’s feelings as she starts a new life, and while Yoon doesn’t limit her POV to that of her young stand-in, it’s the one she obviously feels closest to. At first, the two kids predictably feel uncomfortable with being uprooted, and Yoon spends an inordinate amount of time following them as they explore their new world. Ok-joo quickly turns an unused room on the second floor, complete with old-fashioned sewing machine, into her own private realm and does her best to keep her pestering younger brother out of it. The movie is as loosely structured as the children’s daily exploits are free of responsibility, and then the father’s hard-drinking older sister (Park Hyun-young) moves in after having left her husband, a development that pleases Ok-joo, who longs for some kind of female presence. A family is thus forged, though Yoon is clear that this is a temporary situation, one that will likely only last the summer, and yet the house itself, a wonderful combination of fortunate location scouting and clever production design, provides enormous weight to the relationships on display, since so much of the family’s past history surrounds everything that happens in the movie. This house truly has character, and acts up in surprising ways; which is why the second half of the film is so subtly distressing. As Ok-joo goes about realizing her own needs by getting into trouble with the police (she tries selling her father’s athletic shoes on the street, perhaps unaware they’re knock-offs), contemplating cosmetic surgery, and trying to fall in love with a boy she meets, her grandfather’s health is quickly deteriorating, forcing her father and aunt to discuss selling the house and sending him off to a facility. Events move faster than they plan, however. Then Ok-joo’s estranged mother comes to visit, and hidden resentments bubble to the surface.
As in Hummingbird, the drama inherent in Moving On springs from a confluence of the universal (teenage angst) and the specific (Ok-joo’s material circumstances), which the director presents organically; and which means that the particulars of South Korean society, like the way the police handle kids or how filial obligations play out financially, are taken for granted. As an international movie fan you are obligated to reach these thematic understandings yourself, thus supplying half the joy you’ll derive from watching it. The rest is just wonder at how well Yoon puts it all together.
In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Euro Space Shibuya (03-3461-0211).
Moving On home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2019 Onu Film