Running from one badly paid job to the other, Hae-su (Ahn So-yo) has no time to think about what awaits her back home. When she finally enters the apartment late at night, she decides to postpone the inevitable by sleeping on it. The next day, everything is almost the same except that she finally has to open the Pandora’s box.
In his very slow-burning melodrama that screened in the First Feature competition of the PÖFF | Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, Park Hee-kwon takes a knife-sharp look at the social injustices in his country, showing the hardships of the working class and the tricks the less fortunate have to pull in order to survive. City districts are getting torn down in the process of gentrification, and the main protagonists of “Dust and Ashes” are put in the situation of ordinary people who are about to be mercilessly evicted from their homes. They are also pushed into a complicated scam game, with all the weight of responsibility thrown on the frail shoulders of Hae-su who doesn’t only need to deal with the sudden and painful death of her mother, but also with her brother’s denial and childish rebellion against the ‘oh so cruel’ life. While Hae-jun (Lee Kang-ji) is doing the runner from reality, it’s Hae-su who has to concentrate on carefully planning steps for turning the tragedy into their way out of misery.
The situation the young woman has to deal with is in the apartment bedroom where her mother had taken her own life. The woman’s lifeless body still has a thick rope around the neck, and the battle for making the suicide look like death by natural causes starts.
By slightly turning the narrative into a crime story, Park Hee-kwon makes “Dust and Ashes” a bit less about suffering and more about the battle of social classes. Tricking the insurance company into paying out the money from the life insurance becomes the central plot which slowly mutes out the emotional side of the film. The crime born out of need is built in such a way that it gives a perfectly good insight into the mechanism of corruption. The devil is in the details and the South Korean director knows this way to well. He sends Hae-su to all places of relevance for a well-prepared portfolio of lies that needs to be presented to the insurance company. Right there to help, and certainly not out of amicability, is a mysterious detective (Kim jae-rok) who makes things happen thanks to a number of useful people in the palm of his hand. Certainly not clean, he radiates more danger than any other of the youngsters’ potential enemies.
There is no police and thief element in “Dust and Ashes”, a film whose title can’t be more self-referential. Dust is everywhere around the main the female protagonist, who’s not shy, to take the worst of jobs to make ends meet and secure her award, and ashes is all that’s left of her mother who got cremated. Park Hee-kwon has plastically drawn a straight line from breathing in dust through life to becoming dust.
The film is too focused on the mundane, also in such moments that play the spiritual card. The cremation of the mother lasts forever, with every single step of the procedure shown in the smallest detail. Documentarian by their nature, such scenes feel alien and distant from the emotional suit of the film.