At times deeply uncomfortable viewing and yet also capable of being exceptionally tender and moving, this is a provocative, challenging piece of Korean cinema from writer/director Lee Chang-dong, which takes the romance between two disabled individuals as a means of exploring both the ways in which their disabilities lead them to be marginalised and ostracised by their families and the ways in which these disabilities bring them together.

Jong-du (Sol Kyung-gu) is a young man with a mental illness which renders him a complete social misfit. Recently released from prison, having served a sentence for the crime of manslaughter for a drunken hit-and-run accident, he goes in search of the victim’s family and becomes fascinated by the daughter, Gong-ju (Moon So-ri), herself a victim of severe cerebral palsy. Isolated by society and alienated from their respective families, this is the starting point for a difficult, but deeply touching and beautifully observed romance.

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Nevertheless, there were times when I found the film’s uncompromisingly brutal honesty to be somewhat alienating and there’s no denying that it takes considerable time to build towards the romance which forms its raison-d’être. What really makes the film are the fantastic, stand-out performances from the two leads, especially Moon So-ri, as the severely physically handicapped Gong-ju. Not only are their performances incredibly naturalistic, they are also extremely touching and beautifully rendered, never more so than in the seamless transitions between reality and fantasy, in which Gong-ju is able to get up from her wheelchair and dance around the room, temporarily free from the prison of her body.

This is a film which explores ‘otherness’ and what it truly means to be ‘abnormal’, with one protagonist suffering from a mental illness which leaves him incapable of behaving within the limits of social norms, and the other suffering with severe physical incapacity through the debilitating effects of cerebral palsy. Yet for all their physical and mental handicaps, the film asserts their humanity and compassion over and above that of the ‘normal’ human beings who surround them. By holding up a mirror to those aspects of society who would consider themselves ‘normal’: the family unit, the forces of law and order, everyday passers-by going about their daily business and routines, the film paints a very unpleasant picture of their treatment of and behaviour towards the ‘other’, represented by the lovers.

At times their prejudice manifests itself overtly, as in Jong-du’s confrontations with several members of his family, all of whom treat him with blatant contempt and look upon him as a disagreeable burden. Similarly, Gong-ju is abandoned by her family in the early part of the film, as they leave her in the care of the next door neighbours, believing that their obligations towards her are completely fulfilled by the monthly sum they send for her upkeep. At the same time, they have no qualms about using her disability to acquire their own impressive new flat at a generous rate, by moving into a building intended exclusively for disabled tenants.

Sometimes the prejudice is more subtle, hidden beneath the guise of virtue. This is especially evident in the film’s dramatic finale, a tragic misunderstanding which, however plausible in the circumstances, provides a very potent demonstration of the preconceptions and prejudices which society seems incapable of overcoming. Believing their indignation to be righteous, the families and the police both jump to completely the wrong conclusion and, in so doing, are guilty of a terrible injustice.

Part love story, part social commentary, part magic-realist fantasy fable, this is a very ambitious and highly commendable work from Chang-dong, with stunning performances from the two romantic leads. While it’s certainly not a film or the faint-hearted and is something of a slow-burner to boot, this is a film well-worth persevering with, offering a cathartic examination of otherness and a deeply thought-provoking insight into living with disability.

Reviewed on: 09 Sep 2009
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An ex-con suffering from mental illness falls for a woman with cerebral palsy.
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Director: Lee Chang-dong

Writer: Lee Chang-dong

Starring: Moon So-ri, Seol Kyeong-gu, Ahn Nae-sung

Year: 2002

Runtime: 132 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: South Korea

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