Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"This is animation used for a purpose, and likewise the film’s genre elements, which enable it to get right to the core of what it means to find oneself sharing one’s flesh, one’s emotions, one’s life chances with somebody else."

In almost every area of sport, those who hope to reach the top know that they have a limited time in which to do so. Solo climbers usually peak in their mid-twenties. Until recently, that was the same age at which women in Korea generally became pregnant for the first time. Choi Se-hyeon (voiced by Kim Min-ji) has already had one pregnancy, which resulted in miscarriage after she was injured in a car crash. Though her partner longs for it to happen again, that’s not what she wants. It would ruin her career, and she wants to win the championship whilst she still can.

Having to recuperate after the crash has already set her back badly. She’s determined to get back in control, eat right and exercise hard and impress her trainer who, worryingly, seems distracted by a flirtatious young rival. Then, just to add to her stress, a mobile phone which hasn’t worked since the accident starts functioning again, and before she knows it she’s getting messages and calls – from another version of herself. Living in a parallel universe where she sustained her pregnancy but suffered serious damage to her legs, this version has serious problems of her own. As the two communicate over the next few weeks, their bodies begin to synchronise, with the climber experiencing some of the symptoms of phantom pregnancy.

Is one of these women dreaming the other? If so, which is real? There is talk of a coma, suggesting a long period in an unconscious world. The tension between the two women’s bodies suggests the way that a foetus can chemically influence its gestational host, but also the way that sufficient investment in imaginary scenarios can alter the body’s hormonal activity. The complex interaction of internal and external influences is reflected in one Se-hyeon’s reaction to spicy fish soup and the other’s need to rush to the bathroom when in unexpectedly close contact with a stranger’s child. For the climber, for whom everything depends on control, this is real body horror territory. It’s a bold exploration of what pregnancy really means to many of those who have to contend with it, far away from the romanticised or cheerily humorous approaches we see in many films.

The use of animation gives director Kim Hye-mi greater flexibility to explore these ideas. The visual art is all about the body, with a focus on the delineation of muscle in bodies and faces alike. The hardness of Se-hyeon’s body, contrasted in an early scene with a soft diffusion of chalk into the air, stems from and reflects her day to day discipline and hard work. Seeing her swing upwards to reach a difficult grip is the closest thing the film shows us to joy. Seeing the effort it takes to pull her body upwards again and again helps us to understand what is at stake, to perceive the years of effort it has taken her to reach this point. The softer face and body of her rival suggest someone who has come to the fore partly through luck, someone who has not had to work for it in the same way.

This is animation used for a purpose, and likewise the film’s genre elements, which enable it to get right to the core of what it means to find oneself sharing one’s flesh, one’s emotions, one’s life chances with somebody else. Kim Hye-mi also demonstrates an acute understanding of the addictive potential of serious training and its relationship, where women are concerned, to the desire to be recognised as something more than just a springboard for other people’s ambitions and potential. Ultimately, however, the two Se-hyeons may not be all that different, as the film suggests that the strength, endurance and fierce determination needed to succeed as a climber are the same qualities needed to get through pregnancy and birth – and, indeed, to recover from a serious accident.

A smart, powerful piece of cinema, Climbing, which is part of the 2021 London Korean Film Festival line-up, is well worth looking out for.

Reviewed on: 07 Nov 2021
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Climbing packshot
A climber who has recently miscarried after a car accident is determined not to miss out on the world championships, but she begins to receive text messages from what is apparently another, still pregnant version of herself.

Director: Kim Hye-mi

Starring: Kim Min-ji, Park Song-i, Gu Ji-won, Park Ju-gwang

Year: 2021

Runtime: 77 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: South Korea

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