Review: Shades of the Heart

Kim Jong-kwan’s 2020 Korean adaptation of Josee, the Tiger and the Fish, titled simply Josee, was a minor hit in Japan, owing most likely to its source material, Seiko Tanabe’s 1984 short story, which has been adapted in Japan for the screen in both live action and anime versions that were major hits here. A local distributor is now releasing Kim’s earlier film, Shades of the Heart, which is a much different animal, and not just because it’s based on an original script by Kim himself. Shades is one of those exercises in creative self-indulgence that can often try the viewer’s patience, and has little of the overt heart-tugging appeal of Josee. It’s a movie whose storyline charts the interactions of a novelist protagonist with a series of people, and it becomes something of a game to determine if these interactions are real, dreams, or sketches for a literary work in progress. 

The first interaction is the most intriguing. A young woman (Lee Ji-eun, better known as the pop singer IU) dozes in a coffee shop and awakes to see a stranger sitting across the table from her. The stranger is our protagonist, Chang-seok (Yeon Woo-jin), who claims he had a pre-arranged rendezvous with the woman. Their conversation is cryptic and lacking in the kind of small talk that usually arises when two people meet for the first time. Chang-seok explains himself in vague terms, that he recently returned to Seoul from living abroad, that his marriage failed and he’s a writer. The upshot is that the encounter is filtered through the woman’s confusion, and, in fact, she’s Chang-seok’s mother, dizzy from onset dementia, imagining her first meeting with Chang-seok’s father.

The remaining encounters provide diminishing returns in terms of invention, but Kim has adroitly prepared the viewer to expect the unexpected and question the validity of these encounters as events happening in the material world. Chang-seok meets with an old colleague (Yoon Hye-ri) who now works for the company that is publishing his latest book, and the conversation is mostly about her, her failed relationship with a foreign student, and her abortion. In another encounter, Chang-seok happens upon another former acquaintance, a middle aged photographer (Kim Sang-ho), in another coffee shop. He tells Chang-seok that his wife is dying of cancer and that he plans to kill himself after she’s gone. While the photographer takes a phone call, Chang-seok swipes his vial of cyanide. The last encounter takes place in a deserted bar where the bartender (Lee Ju-young) confesses she suffered amnesia after a traffic accident and ever since has picked customers’ brains for their memories, because she has none of her own. 

Due to the episodic, conversation-driven structure, Shades of the Heart often seems in danger of tipping over into Hong Sang-soo territory, but the prosaic banality of Hong’s dialogue was the point, whereas in Kim’s case the words have a scripted quality that make it seem as if we are reading a book rather than seeing a movie. However, the film gains in narrative substance as it gives up more information about Chang-seok’s past and his obvious sense of despair, which he can only express in writing. Kim places too much stock in carefully placed visual and auditory symbols that tend to distract from rather than enrich his themes and story, but Shades of the Heart is nonetheless a noble, often fascinating miscalculation.

In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831), Shibuya White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225).

Shades of the Heart home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Vol Media Co., Ltd.

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