Back in 1995, I had the pleasure of living in South Korea for the summer months teaching conversational English to a variety of young adults. It was a wonderful experience being immersed in a culture which had recently modernized but nevertheless retained its roots in a rich historical tradition.
While I was there, I eagerly sought Korean films, but after several weeks, I came to the aggravating realization that the only movies readily being distributed in Korea were Hollywood blockbusters like Pocahontas, Batman Forever, Apollo 13, and, yes, Waterworld. Koreans told me they thought Disney’s Native American heroine actually looked like them, but the same couldn’t be said for Kim Basinger, whose blonde visage was hawking her fashion wares on billboards all over Seoul.
So it has been with some genuine delight that I’ve watched the New Korean Cinema blossom into a bona fide commercial and artistic movement in the last few years. (A few recent landmarks: the action epic Shiri outgrossed Titanic at the Korean box office in ’99; Im Kwon-taek won Best Director for Chihwaeson at Cannes and Lee Chang-dong won Best Director for Oasis at Venice in ’01; several Hong Sang-soo retrospectives have played around the States, and most recently, Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy won the Grand Prix at Cannes.)
Most of the Koreans I met during my visit were fresh out of high school–an intensely competitive arena in a country smaller than the state of California, populated by 48 million people. I was regailed with stories of exhausting study hours and looming career questions, family pressures and decisions requiring serious commitments. Nevertheless, people would drop everything at a moment’s notice to buy me ice cream or scamper up the misty slopes of Pukhansan mountain. I was impressed with all of the young men and women I met and admired their resilience and enthusiasm.
On Tuesday [edit: July 6], Jeong Jae-eun’s debut feature, Take Care of My Cat (2001), is being released on DVD by Kino. It’s a breezy portrait of five young women who recently graduated from high school and now face various individual challenges while hoping to maintain their group bond. “There have been no movies in the past that have depicted well how young Korean women think, how they play and what they worry about,” Jeong said when the movie was released. “I hope that this film can give audiences a sense of what young Korean women are like and how beautiful they are.”
Jeong, who wrote and directed the film, focuses on her characters: Tae-hee is the caretaker of the group, arranging meetings and facilitating reconciliations while working for her father without pay and feeling overshadowed by her brothers; Ji-young lives with her poor grandparents in a shack that threatens to collapse at any moment; Hae-joo moves to Seoul and lands a lucky job at a brokerage firm while trying to constantly improve her impeccable looks and wear the latest fashions; Chinese twins, Bi-ryu and Ohn-jo, live fairly unfettered and playful lives as street vendors.
Set predominantly in the industrialized port town of Inchon, Jeong captures the transient, wandering nature of her characters by emphasizing their promenades through the city streets and their various forms of transportation. Two primary elements underline their nomadic lifestyle and questionable futures–a flexible, independent feline that alternately trades hands from character to character throughout the film, and a novel formal trick which superimposes the numbers and text characters punch into cell phones or typewriters onto various parts of the film screen. Jeong’s women often interact via cell phone messaging, and one of the film’s primary themes arises in the way contemporary relationships exist through wireless communication.
“When beepers were commonly used in the past, I would feel as if a mixture of numbers were floating in the air, going from person to person in the city,” Jeong says. “In recent years, text messages are used a lot . . . I keep picturing words flying here and there and words floating around as they meet and part.”
The film falls into the genre of the young adult coming-of-age movie, and although it (pleasantly) has somewhat modest ambitions, it far surpasses the usual teen drivel both in its seriousness and sensitivity to its characters. These are not restless adventurers seeking fast cars and good times, but thoughtful and unique characters worried about their future while holding onto the past.