The Slug 태어나길 잘했어 (2020) Dir: Choi Jin-young (South Korea) [Osaka Asian Film Festival 2021]

The Slug 

태어나길 잘했어 Taeeonagil Jalhaesseo

Release Date: N/A

Duration: 99 mins.

Director: Choi Jin-young

Writer: Choi Jin-young (Script), 

Starring: Kang Jin-a, Park Hye-jin, Hong Sang-pyo, Byeon Jung-hi, Kim Geum-soon, Lim Ho-jun, Hwang Mi-young, Yoo Kyung-sang,

OAFF Korean Movie Database Website

The Slug is the English-language title for South Korean filmmaker Choi Jin-young’s debut feature. While it may be a reference to the main character who suffers from excessive sweat or the slugs she finds, it pales in comparison to the Korean title which loosely translates as “it was good that you were born,” or “thank you for being born.” This positive affirmation is thematically important and something that the film’s protagonist needs to hear as shown in a story that mixes a tragic background, coming-of-age tropes, and first love as brought together by a fantastical time-slip twist to create a life-affirming story that finds hope in an indifferent world.

The film follows the emotional awakening of Chun-hee (Kang Jin-a), a 30-something woman who lives in her mother’s childhood home. Through flashbacks we see her move into this place in 1998 as a teenager after her parents’ funeral. This period was the start of profound existential loneliness for Chun-hee, a sense compounded by the reluctant adoption performed by her uncle’s family, all of whom treated her like an outcast rather than a relative, and exacerbated by her being in those awkward teen years and regularly embarrassed by others over the excessive sweat caused by Hyperhidrosis. Despite this, Chun-hee persisted in living positively and doing what she could. Eventually, she was tasked by her cousins to become caretaker of the house. 

As an adult Chun-hee may smile more but her whole existence is shaped by her background. She makes a modest income selling cloves of garlic and saves the money in the hope of getting treatment for her Hyperhidrosis, all while living alone in a house which has remained mostly unchanged and packed full of miserable memories. These are brought to the present one day when, whilst out walking, she is struck by a bolt of lightning. She initially seems to come away dazed but mostly unscathed, however, she finds that she can now see her teenage self (Park Hye-jin) who appears at random moments around the house. Teen Chun-hee immediately becomes an energetic and positive presence who allows the older Chun-hee to face her adolescent traumas and sense of loneliness, all of which resurface after she discovers her cousins plan on selling the house.

And so begins a surreal cohabitation that leads to an exploration of the human condition. With the house sale acting as both a catalyst and deadline for her character arc, we watch as Chun-hee begins to question her existence.

Director Choi Jin-young keeps a light tone throughout the film even while consistently displaying scenes of Chun-hee’s ostracization and alienation. This lightness is achieved through the film’s non-linear narrative. Most of the heavy family drama is remembered in flashbacks which take place in 1998, a date significant across Asia as this was the time of the IMF crisis and a wave of suicides that followed. Director Choi has stated that she has long wanted to explore its effects on the fraying of social bonds between people after brushing up against it as a teen. We can infer that Chun-hee’s parents were victims and she was left behind, hence the reason for her becoming unmoored from others. Other scenes of everyday bullying and fractious family arguments follow and are done realistically rather than with melodrama.

The more positive aspects of Chun-hee’s growth, from facing her difficult past to a possible romance, are placed in the present-tense timeline. The film can cleanly segue between present and past through little everyday details such as a change in props like the use of cigarettes and e-cigarettes smoked by an ill-tempered aunt and, more crucially, the house itself which director Choi impressively uses to act as central location to physically and temporally traverse Chun-hee’s history as the adult and teenage versions of Chun-hee playfully interact and hand off sequences to each other. As their world’s slowly intermingle a love match arrives.

In order to better understand her development, we see a romantic foil who offers a parallel. he comes in the form of Juh-wang (Hong Sang-pyo), a genuinely sweet man with a stutter whom she meets at a self-help group for people with unresolved trauma. While his insistence might be a mixture of ardour and neediness, their tentative romance is founded on mutual affection and in heart-warming sequences, we see an exchange of love after so many flashbacks where people talk about the emotion but barely show it. Indeed, the visual motif of hearts is quite common as patterns on clothes or drawings on walls while being noticeably absent from Chun-hee’s life. While he may offer inspiration, any romantic cop-out from meaningful character development is avoided as Chun-hee becomes a much more active agent in dealing with her present and learns to break free from both the house and her past. It is a bittersweet moment that launches her into the world with appropriate imagery of hearts appearing again.

Anchoring the film are two sympathetic performances from Kang Jin-a and Park Hye-jin as the adult and teen Chun-hee. Kang displays a veneers of a gentle but worn kindness. When it breaks at her moments of despair over her isolation, the emotion that Kang conveys is convincing and moving. Meanwhile Park Hye-jin is perfect as a teen still too dense to understand she needn’t take every negative criticism to heart, the uncertainty of her place in life and the naive optimism she displays is equally affecting. Knowing who she grows into makes us care more and seeing the two learn to embrace their shared existence is a beautiful moment that made me cry as, finally, someone thanks her for being born.

The Slug is showing at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 9 and 11.

My review was originally published on V-Cinema.

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