Dreams, relationships and attachments are tried and tested in director Jeon Go-woon’s brilliant debut “Microhabitat”, which is having its North American premiere at the 17th New York Asian Film Festival.

Microhabitat is screening at the 17th New York Asian Film Festival

Miso works part-time as housekeeper but can barely make ends meet. She lives in a dingy little room with no heating. Her only solaces in life are her equally out-on-his-luck webtoon-artist boyfriend Han-sol, cigarettes and whisky. In fact, all her expenses are on meals, rent, whisky, cigarettes, tax and medicine for a condition that makes hair turn grey if the medicine is not consumed at regular intervals. When her landlord increases her rent and the government imposes a ₩2,000 increase in cigarette prices, she knows decisions need to be made and some “luxuries” need to be cut. And so she does what any sane person would… and decides to cut out on her rent! From here on, Miso begins a reflective, often hilarious journey asking favours of old band-mates from her university days to spend a few days with them in their homes, while she helps out cleaning their homes and cooking for them when she can. The journey, however, is not so smooth-sailing, as most of her friends have jobs and families of their own and are not quite as how Miso remembers them to be.

Director Jeon Go-woon, who has earlier worked as producer on the sleeper hit “The King of Jokgu”, has a lot to say in her directorial debut, and she manages it without ever coming across as preachy. Attachments, both materialistic and emotional, are dismissed as unnecessary and as tools that weigh you down. All her friends welcome Miso with fond memories of their past and friendly welcomes and are mostly either amused or pitiful of her situation, but ultimately see her as a sort of a leech trying to get favours for as long as she can. The importance of relationships, or indeed the frugality of them too, is wonderfully explored through all the interactions Miso has with her friends, all of who have an arc of their own: The Keyboardist with a good-for-nothing who lives in an apartment that’s too small for her big family, The Drummer who thought he had a sorted life after marrying a beautiful wife but now is on the verge of a divorce, the unmarried Vocalist whose parents want him to get married and consider Miso a suitable candidate and the Guitarist who married into money and is now extremely materialistic. In contrast to all of them is Miso, who hasn’t changed a bit and is still stuck into the same mindset that she was earlier. For her, money is but merely a means to satisfy her wants of cigarettes, whisky and medicine. She is unable to comprehend how money has changed her friends so much, who conversely do not understand how a person in this day and age can be living the way she is. Maybe her friends just don’t like that Miso represents everything they wanted but have given up, making them question their “happy” lives and the decisions they took.

Dreams do not have a place in practical life. All of her friends have given up on their dreams of playing in a band, as life took its course. Even her otherwise happy-go-lucky boyfriend can’t quite live up to his dreams of being a webtoon-artist. Miso is the only one who seems to know exactly what she wants and is willing to do what it takes to achieve it.

The film works as a stark mirror that shows reality of the struggles of life for youths in South Korea in today’s society. However, it is not heavy-handed with its message or grim. On the contrary, there are plenty hilarious scenes throughout the movie, most notably when Miso moves in with her Keyboardist friend and her family, as well as her interactions with the Vocalist and his parents, who go as far as putting chillies out to dry in their spare room in the hopes that Miso sleeps in their son’s room and even put out a traditional matrimonial bedspread for them to sleep on. Both drama and comedy are mixed into the narrative, and the director is capable of expertly dealing with both.

Kim Tae-soo’s cinematography portrays Seoul as the wonderful metropolis it is. The indoor scenes are vibrant a colourful, much like the people living within.

Esom, in what is sure to be a star-making turn, is exceptional as the nomadic, self-assured Miso. She makes her character believable, sympathetic and even enviable at times. Even though she has had lead roles before, this is the first time that she is top-billed, and she doesn’t seem out of place at all. Ahn Jae-hong, who was also in “The King of Jogku”, also deserves praise for his portrayal of Miso’s boyfriend Han-sol. Every single actor cast as Miso’s friend and band-mate is a delight to watch, with Lee Sung-woo leaving the biggest impression as the depressed Drummer Dae-yong.

“Microhabitat” is a wonderful little indie film that demands a view for its subtle message, deft execution that is equal parts entertaining and reflective, and brilliant performances. Certainly a film not to be missed from a director who can hopefully build up on this strong debut and go from strength to strength.