Kim Se-in’s debut feature won the New Currents and Audience awards at the 2021 Busan International Film Festival, as well as the festival’s Actress of the Year prize for Im Jee-ho’s performance. The Apartment With Two Women also won the NETPAC Award, given by representatives of foreign film festivals, and the Watcha Award, a Korean prize for new filmmakers, which will give you a fairly good idea of what kind of movie it is. Im’s citation seems appropriate because the movie is, if anything, an actors’ showcase, though, personally, I felt Yang Mal-bok, who played the other woman of the title, made more of an impression. Kim’s script and direction convey a strong sense of autobiography spiked with hyperbolic scenes plucked from her imagination, and yet it’s difficult to see the protagonist, Yi-jung (Im), as a proxy for the director, who, after all, possessed the wherewithal to get into film school and make this ambitious 140-minute portrayal of a fraught mother-daughter relationship that often descends into comic albeit bloodletting arguments. In contrast, Yi-jung is the ultimate depressive offspring who just can’t leave home.
The film’s Korean and Japanese title translates as “two women who wear the same underwear,” which may have been too gross for Western distributors but I tend to think the prosaic English title was chosen because the original was easy to misunderstand. Mother Soo-kyung (Yang) and daughter Yi-jung don’t share the same panties because they’re the same size or have similar tastes, but rather because the household is so chaotic that no one really cares whose underwear they’re wearing, as long as it’s in tact and relatively clean. What’s clear from the opening scene is that Soo-kyung, beyond wishing that her daughter, who is in her mid-20s, would just move out, has never wanted her around in the first place, because Soo-kyung has always done just what she wants to do and doesn’t care what Yi-jung thinks. Having always known this since she was a little girl, Yi-jung has developed a resentment toward her carelessly carefree mother that has curdled into pure hatred when circumstances align in the worst way, as when Soo-kyung, infuriated by something that happened off-screen, drives their little Kia straight into Yi-jung in the parking lot of a supermarket, not only sending her to the hospital but also to a lawyer’s office, where she files a lawsuit accusing her mother of reckless endangerment. Such a scenario would be enough for a rip-roaring comedy, but it’s only one episode among many that show how the only end to this relationship is either one woman killing the other or Yi-jung finally getting it together and moving out.
Though the theme is hardly original, Kim earns points for avoiding much of the sentimental undertow that usually pulls this sort of movie down. She doesn’t bother with a back story, so we never know who Yi-jung’s father is or why he isn’t in the picture. Though Soo-kyung has excellent reasons for demanding her daughter move out, her abject intolerance of Yi-jung’s presence will itself be intolerable to most viewers, and while Yi-jung may evince sympathy for having to put up with her mother’s emotional and physical violence, her glum attitude is just as off-putting. Kim doesn’t want us to like either woman; or, for that matter, anyone else in the movie, including Soo-kyung’s patronizing and conniving fiancee, Yi-jung’s slightly more ambitious but no less sourpuss work colleague with whom she attempts to strike up a friendship, and the unhappy married couple who regularly patronize Soo-kyung’s shabby cross between a tea room and herbal health supplement dispensary. And yet the length never becomes a slog because of Kim’s skill in making these stereotypes fresh and often funny—especially Soo-kyung’s penchant for fashions that are not only out of her age league, but look at least 20 years out of date, not to mention her hilarious attempts at self-improvement. Sometimes off-putting characters make for a very enlightening film experience.
In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114).
The Apartment With Two Women home page in Japanese