찬실이는 복도 많지 「Chan-sil-i-neun Bok-do-man-ji」
Release Date: October 04th, 2019
Duration: 96 mins.
Director: Kim Cho-hee
Writer: Kim Cho-hee (Script),
Starring: Kang Mal-geum, Youn Yuh-jung, Kim Young-min, Yoon Seung-ah, Bae Yu-ram,
The old writer’s adage that it is better to write what you know is put into perfect effect by director Kim Cho-hee in her sprightly and amusing debut feature film, a somewhat autobiographical movie full of wry comedy and existential angst which won both the KBS Independent Film and CGV Arthouse awards at the 2019 Busan International Film Festival.
Kim Cho-hee adapts elements of her own life, from studying French literature to being the producer on ten Hong Sang-soo films, to create the world of the titular Lee Chan-sil (Kang Mal-geum), a forty-year-old indie movie producer who works with an auteur famous for a particular brand of cinema (clearly a reference to Hong). When Chan-sil’s director dies suddenly during a party and leaves Chan-sil unemployed and seemingly unemployable due to her narrow range of experience. This causes her to enter an existential crisis as she feels she has dedicated her life to movies and has nothing to show for it and is alone.
Her new situation is very stark as she is forced to retreat to living in a cheap room run by a grumpy old woman (Youn Yuh-jung) and working as a cleaning lady for an irrepressibly cheerful actress named Susie (Yoon Seung-ah). Seeming humiliations prove to be good because her landlady’s house hides plenty of movie-related secrets that offers Chan-sil emotional comfort and Susie proves to be a true friend, not least because she ushers Chan-sil into a possible romance with a younger guy who is a part-time French teacher and indie film director. As Chan-sil reorients herself, she works through her angst by looking back on her past while struggling to see into the future by cautiously taking on new opportunities which leads to some gentle comedy.
With movie people making movies about movie people the final product can turn out be an example of intellectual masturbation, creative self-flagellation or a simple reflexive comedy. Lucky Chan-sil avoids the worst narcissism and triteness and makes itself a pleasurable experience by being a female spin on a formula that Hong San-soo has built a career on with added depth from Chan-sil herself.
We get to know and appreciate the main character who is clearly a representation of director Kim Cho-hee. The reference-heavy context is well-established for cineastes, but the story is universal and the relationships in the film enjoyable to see develop and so we care and understand as Chan-sil is forced beyond the idealism of making movies into a period of self-doubt over life choices.
The comedy is very organic by being uniquely personal and appropriate to Chan-sil and her situation which gives depth to the gags and drama. Gentle disappointments litter proceedings with social faux pas, relationship misfires, career miscommunication and general confusion plaguing her as digs deep to discover what she wants from life. There is also a touch of the surreal as the film sprinkles the supernatural over scenes with the ghost of the Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung (in his underwear) acting as a life coach to Chan-sil, very appropriate for a woman her age. The film is funny and kind and eventually satisfying as universal existential questions are asked and answered from the viewpoint of an engaging character and we care so much because of the main performance.
A former office worker who took to acting in her thirties, Kang Mal-geum as Lee Chan-sil is a revelation. Alternately maudlin and waspish, she does dry humour perfectly and has a wonderful put-upon air of someone used to carrying others but opens up emotionally to give a sense of her confusion and sadness and hopes. Her physicality and facial expressions are equally expressive, allowing for comedy to create a complex character and charming who acts as the dynamo for the film, someone we can pity, empathise with and someone we can root for. Likewise, the supporting cast, some of whom are Hong San-soo collaborators, provide sparky and fun foils to watch as they help shape Chan-sil’s journey.
This is a talky picture but still cinematic as tones shift from dramatic to comedic to dreamlike with a change in lighting and camera angles to alter perspectives and vary emotions in scenes. Some deft camera movements and edits defy the typical static camera set-ups of this type of film to set up sight gags or pick out details and character reactions that add textures to a relationship. Not a shot is wasted and the visual language is perfect, things signalling that Kim Cho-hee is a directing talent who has learned a lot from her collaborators but with something different to say.
When Chan-sil comes to her realisation of what she wants in life, it is really a beautiful moment and inspirational, a reminder of why people love films and congregate around them. Her journey is satisfying to go on as she explores lifelong passions and important motivations and finds new hope which should comfort the audience who will be able to understand her intimately and cheer her on.