Korean cinema has made some impactful inroads into the mainstream moviegoers’ recognition on the courtesy of directors like Park Chan-Wook, Bong Joon-ho or Jeong Byeong-Gil and provided plenty of thrills with quality genre cinema, including horrors (e.g. “Train to Busan” or “Wailing”), period dramas (“Taxi Driver”) and futuristic blockbusters. But it is not always big and loud. The poetic metaphors of Kim Ki Duk have touched plenty of cinephiles. However, in film festivals’ lineups, one may find lovely nook of unpretentious indies. Jeong Seung-o’s “Move The Grave” (“I-Jang”), premiered at New York Asian Film Festival and now screened at 1-2 competition section of the 35. Warsaw Film Festival, falls into that last category.
Described not quite accurately as a “road movie”, it is an ironic family drama, revolving around a kind of uncanny family reunion. Hye-yeong (Jang Li-woo), a single mother of a troublesome little son, is forced to leave her job, as the company is not happy with the time she needs to deal with her maternity duties. On top of everything, her father’s grave must be transferred to another location because of some construction plans. Thus she and her three sisters (and the mentioned brat) are travelling in one car to the remote homeland island, summoned by their uncle, to take part in the second funeral.
As one may expect, jamming four (and a half) different characters in one car, even spacious, is not the way to invoke the atmosphere of warmth and sisterly love, so spats are inevitable. When the sisters finally get to their destination, a conservative uncle doesn’t want to hear a word about continuing any proceedings without the presence of the deceased’s eldest son –(and the women’s brother) Seung-rak. Consequently, the women need to find him, which is not an easy task. Sisters haven’t heard from him for months – as he gets in touch only when he needs money and doesn’t bother to update about his current whereabouts. From then on, the situation gets more and more complicated… and the car gets more and more packed with people.
With time, we understand that tensions between the characters are not the result of some resentments or old conflicts. Instead, the hardships which the siblings experience in their lives fuel those quarrels. Hye-yeong suffers the perils of a single mum. Geum-ok (Lee Seon-hee) undergoes marital problems. Geum-hee (Gong Min-jeung) needs to resolve financial issues troubling her and her husband-to-be, while preparing to tie the knot. For Hye-yeon, the youngest sister, a student with the sharp feminist views, her own rebellious personality is the source of menace. Also Hye-yeong’s little son’s mischief have more complex cause.
The differences between the sisters are also reflected in their varied visual representation. Geum-ok is corpulent (though her weight is not used as a pretext for shabby fat-shaming jokes). Geum-hee is a stylish, modern young lady, while Hye-yeon, with her boyish hairdo and sloppy clothes, resembles a typical tomboy. Hye-yeong dresses adequate to her corpo worker status. Donning suits and short hair, she looks manly, which corresponds with her status: of a breadwinner and a head of a family. She may be the strongest of the kin, but finds combining the roles of a leader and a watchful, emphatic mother tough.
The director shows us family that is not a poster one, whose members hardly meet and don’t seem to like each other. However, they are familiar with each other’s problems and ready to stand by one another, which becomes evident in a touching scene, when they recall their childhood memories, sitting together on a veranda, watching the falling rain.
Nonetheless, a most special bond connects the sisters. These women constantly need to fight their place, redefining their roles in a male-dominated society, and are used to do so since their early childhood, when their brother was getting all the best (food, clothes or room of his own), while they needed to share. Even now, when they arrive to their uncle’s house, they are banished to search for Seung-rak, while he is welcomed with a feast.
In “Move the grave”, women are strong, dominating and decisive, while males are weak and immature, unable to cope with the role of the leader. Like Geum-hee’s fiancée, who suggests that to support their future budget as a married couple, he may bring toothpaste from his parents’ house. The movie reflects sharply on the traditional family ties and is an interesting commentary to changes in gender roles in modern Korean society. It marks forming the new system of values and inevitable conflict between the old ways and the modern practice.
As the director explained in a short interview: “We have been growing since we were born, listening to and learning the roles of men and women who have long lived in the patriarchal system. But now that patriarchy is almost over, I think we should dissolve the existing family structure and think about the new alternative family form. I wanted to ask the question of how to live in this transition period”. As we follow this story, we’ll discover that the clash between the old and the new doesn’t have to end with a catastrophe. Reaching agreement is possible, and even the conservative traditionalist uncle can accept that times has changed.
A steady pace ensures that the viewer won’t get lost in a growing number of individuals. The style is naturalistic, with the cinematography depending on simple frames, and the core of narration are dialogues. It is built around small, intimate scenes, with no emotional blackmails, even when the characters go over the edge. Witty and subtly amusing, this debut feature is a promising work of a director who has an excellent observing eye and sensitivity for gender matters. At times, characters’ portrayals seem a bit too sketchy, and maybe a more bold approach to the subject could have been applied, but still “Move The Grave” is more than a worthy addition to the cinematic portrayals of the modern family and a little gem to watch out for in festival’s lineups.