How does one live when one has nothing? How should one live when one has everything? These are the questions South Korean director Hyung-Suk Jung poses to us in his second narrative feature.

“The Land of Seonghye” is screening at San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF)

The titular character Seonghye is in her late twenties. She lives from hand to mouth. Without a full-time job, she can only survive by working odd jobs here and there. She tries to “invest” herself, like everyone else does, but the effort seems pointless.

The oppressive economic condition constitutes the land Seonghye inhabits. Throughout its running time, the film meticulously shows us how this condition impacts Seonghye and others’ lives. Characters move in and out of the frame relatively freely throughout the film. They are not in a Hitchcock or Fincher’s world where the characters must obey the convoluted webs of significance weaved by the auteur. Yet, Seonghye is decidedly not free. Not long after the film starts, we are aware that her movements are determined by necessity. She has to move to somewhere else because this is the only way that she can survive.

In a way, this film explores different ways to represent structural issues through the cinematic medium. As we know, filmic image in a narrative film is often about a very specific thing. Like Christian Metz has pointed out when a gun is shown on the screen, the meaning is not “gun”, but “THIS gun”. Cinema attracts us because it shows us the specificity and materiality of the world. But how can one see or hear the economic structure? How to show the audience a general idea through a specific human body, object, or landscape?

One obvious way to do this is through dialogue. Writer-director Jung uses several dialogue scenes to give us a sense of the Korean economic and social structure. It is worth noting that in these scenes, the characters are not merely expressing their thoughts or emotions, but also expressing the conflicts between classes, genders, and generations. In a key scene where Seonghye is talking with her boyfriend about their relationship, Seonghye is not using the idiom of romantic love, but the language of rational calculation. In a short monologue, the previously taciturn Seonhye articulates all the structural limitations (their and their families’ economic situations) of their relationship. As if it is not Seonghye doesn’t love her boyfriend anymore, but the society makes their relationship impossible.

Bringing in a group of characters is another way to show how different people respond to similar economic problems. Moreover, it is also a way to introduce conflicts between different groups of people. After the death of Seonghye’s college friend, she reunites with her old friends. After the funeral, they are talking about all the people they know from the old days. We learn that even though they are not necessarily in the same economic situation,  they all share a sense of dread for the future. One man expresses his resentment toward another woman, because the female character is a working actress. The actress retorts his resentment by pointing out the sexual discrimination against women in society. She shows that because of the arrangement of the society, men simply have much more opportunities than women; if acting doesn’t work out, it won’t be easy for her to have a second career.

Visually, we often see Seonghye along in the frame. She lies on bed alone. She eats alone in the convenient store she works in. She moves along through the city with the help of her bicycle, or the scooter from her second part-time job. However the film also wants to remind us that people are interconnected in one way or another under capitalism. Our actions have effects on other people, whether we like it or not. For instance, in a flashback, we learn that the dead friend  called Seonghye for money before she killed herself; however, Seonghye turned her down. The film is not judging her for taking such action, instead, by inserting that flashback, it creates a figure of interconnectedness.

If in this world the characters are burdened by external pressure, what will freedom look like? This is the final question the film addresses. After a quick narrative turn, Seonghye’s financial problem is solved. Now she has enough money, what shall she do? At this point, I think it might be useful to briefly mention another genre in which the characters don’t have to worry about money. This is the screwball comedy, or as Stanly Cavell has called it “the comedy of remarriage”. In his book “The Pursuit of Happiness”, Cavell points out that all the characters in this genre are somehow rich and free from the burdens of ordinary chore. He argues that this design doesn’t mean that this genre is pure escapism for its audiences, on the contrary it is precisely because these characters don’t have to worry about the issue of survival, they can contemplate something more, shall we say philosophical: the pursuit of happiness. I don’t want to spoil the film too much, but simply point out that Seonghye takes a very different path than her U.S. counterparts. She doesn’t get back with her boyfriend. She doesn’t follow her dream since college to become a painter. She simply renounces society. As if the film is saying, if society can only be an oppressive structure, it is impossible to be truly free living within it.

Audiences might be turned off by the film’s often long takes and black and white cinematography. The titular character’s lack of expressiveness might drive people away from the film. Yet, following the spirit of Italian neo-realism, this film gives us a chance to think deeply about the world we live in. Whether you like its conclusion or not, it deserves our attention.