Here’s the hope that the South-Korean director Jung-bum Park has finally found his ideal time frame with the standard 90 minutes in his third feature film “The Height of the Wave”, which brought him a Special Jury Prize in Locarno. In his so far most accomplished, slow-burning drama, Park has located the narrative in a small community on an anonymous Korean island, where the only person in charge – an ambitious, morally corrupt foreman Wonjae gets an unexpected obstacle in the form of new appointed Police Chief Yeon-su (Lee Seung-yeon) whose clear understanding of law and order turns his plans upside down.
Right at the beginning, the voice of the village foreman announces the boar hunt and warns the villagers to keep their cattle and goats at one place. His ambition to get the approval for his island as “a desirable destination” is as much of a subplot as well as the core of all problems that villagers will face in the course of the film. There is seemingly nothing going on in this god-forsaken place apart from wild boars running amok, and Yeon-su who’s trying to cope with her recent divorce and the rebelling teenage-daughter Sangyi finds it hard to control her panic disorder with barely anything to do.
As she is running out of medication in a place where even more basic supplies get delivered twice a week, she is trying to lay as low as possible. We meet her right at the beginning of the film, slouched on the floor of the adjoint shed of her new home where she had spent the night to hide her condition from Sangyi. Twenty minutes into the film, obviously deeply scarred by unknown events in the past, she seems to be sleep-walking through the village, until she accidentally overhears an awkward exchange of words between a teenage girl Yae-eun (Lee Yeon-I) and local boys at the foreman’s party. Suspecting something fishy, she becomes alert and her worries get even bigger upon witnessing a sexual act between the four which, according to what she has previously heard was a “business transaction”. The girl is underage, and Yeon-su’s conclusions based on good intentions pave a way to a dramatic chain of consequences that make no one happy in the end.
The first victim of wrong presumptions is the adoptive father of the girl, a hard-working fisherman who’s doing his best to make ends meet. During her investigation, Yeon-su finds out that the man took Yae-eun under his roof after the girl was left orphaned as a toddler. His protectiveness doesn’t seem to convince the police chief who’s suspecting crime, but she will soon enough understand that the family’s love and care for the troubled teenager is genuine.
“The Height of The Wave” takes a very interesting course, leaning on the script penned by the newcomer Kim Min-Gyeong who shows that there are no ultimate truths, nor always clearly defined mechanisms of good- or wrongdoing. Not one plot, but several intertwine in a complex narrative about different perspectives on morality of not just sexual nature, but also regarding general social values, specifically those of an isolated community that fights for its place in a greater geographical context. Despite of some unsettling images involving harassment and hard-boiled masculinity, there is no finger-pointing, no sides taken, and there is only one truly rotten character in the film (Wonjae), although his personal ambition might in fact not be really disadvantageous for the well-being of the island in the long run. Jung-bum Park is good in keeping the plot superior over judgement, and the result is a unique drama of human abysses and suffering, discrete, intimate, empathetic.
The colour palette is drained of jovial nuances, and the cinematographer Park Jong-chul knows how to make people more sinister than the threatening forces of mother nature. Soft red light penetrates the screen in crucial moments of personal confessions, but the rest of the world stays drab and bathed in clay-like layer of gloom.