[HanCinema's Busan International Film Festival Movie Review] "Han River"
By William Schwartz | Published on
The homeless tramps in "Han River" are not fountains of peerless wisdom, initial appearances to the contrary. After the initial suicide jump dilemma is resolved mostly satisfactorily the movie proceeds to treat us to various scenes of these characters bumming around not doing anything particularly useful. Indeed, for all the feigned joviality on display here the tone is actually a pretty depressing one.
Everything about this film from the basic production level is mostly designed to emphasize this. Note the typically dim lighting, or really just the entire palette. We're dealing with the basic aesthetics of a black-and-white film, but this is less due to the auteur styling of director Lee Moo-yeong as it is the realization of a grim, unforgiving world where the only hope for salvation is, well, literal salvation.
No, seriously. Of the four characters who can reasonably be said to have an arc, two of them find peace through religious experiences. The other two end up sucking up their shame and doing the one thing they absolutely do not want to do under any circumstances, because they've been forced to accept that their antisocial tramp team isn't really a long term solution for anything. Most of the time it isn't even a short term solution.
The oddest part of "Han River" is that in spite of this immensely depressing backdrop, the film is loaded with wry humor. The characters constantly give each other grief over apparently weird life choices- well, they weren't actually choices. That's the problem. For the most part these people have all just been victim to unplanned accidents. By making jokes and conning the system, they're able to make themselves feel better about living in a basically uncaring world.
This works to infuse a surprisingly effective sense of humanity throughout the film. I never really liked the characters that much, but I never really hated them either. Most of us, on a very average day, fall in to that kind of interpersonal dynamic. And while it's nice to think that we could lose everything that matters to us and still have a sense of humor, at the same time, we'd still not have anything that matters to us. That's the essence of the blues- and for the record, I don't know why the title of this movie is "Han River" when the Korean title of "Han River Blues" is a lot more cogent.
In any event "Han River" is a weird enough movie that it's tough to recommend. Maybe you're fine with a film that's trying to be depressing and funny at the same time- the visuals do a lot to help on this front, but I'm honestly not sure "Han River" was that good a film idea in the first place. The very lack of real narrative development is particularly emphasized in a late scene, which replays the attempted suicide from the beginning with surprisingly little awareness of why that early event ended up going the way it did. Such is life- maybe we don't learn because we don't really want to.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via email@example.com. He also has a substack at williamschwartz.substack.com where he discusses the South Korean film industry in broader terms and takes suggestions for future movies to review.