An early scene in "A Living Being" features nurse Yoon-jeong (played by Lee Il-hwa) doing some cooking in her underwear. She is then mildly sexualized for the rest of the movie, just never to that extent. This is the closest anyone in "A Living Being" comes to a particularly interesting character trait. Well, hm, Moon-ho (played by Hah Yeong-soo) has the kind of dementia where he masturbates in front of other people. That's almost interesting, although the whole senility issue makes Moon-ho a less than dynamic character.
Other characters include Soo-hyeon (played by Lee Hye-jeong), who is apparently Moon-ho's much younger wife. Jong-gyoo (played by Yang Dong-geun) is some random guy she runs into on the road while trying to find her husband on Jeju Island. Na-on (played by Jung Na-on) is some woman Jong-gyoo knows who runs a cafe. I actually know where that cafe is- just a little to the west of Gangjeong village on the south coast. The horse is a dead giveaway.
Of these characters Jong-gyoo and Na-on have the least plot, so of course "A Living Being" ends up spending a disproportionate amount of time on both of them having conversations about nothing with the other characters. "A Living Being" almost feels like product placement for Jeju Island, considering how much the location is in focus. Yet Jeju Island never comes off as a particularly pleasant place to be. Two trips are made to the Jeju Stone Park, both of which make the location out to be very lonely, cold, and boring.
I think that's maybe supposed to be the point. It's hard to tell because the story is so listless it's often hard to tell whether any of the characters are actually trying to accomplish anything or if their stated motivation is just an excuse to wander around at random. At one point Jong-gyoo manages to convince himself that the story is actually a romantic drama. That scene in particular resonated as a good example of how men can misread sadness as lust, somehow.
That this would be writer/director Min Byeong-kook's strongest narrative point is especially ironic, considering what an obvious fan he is of the male gaze. I still can't decide whether we were actually supposed to make a connection between how Jong-gyoo and Moon-ho see women. While their patriarchal attitudes share some similarities in broad strokes, ultimately Jong-gyoo is far more passive than Moon-ho. Which is impressive, considering that Moon-ho is stuck in a hospital.
In a last ditch effort to make sense of "A Living Being" I attempted to translate the Chinese characters that spell out the film's Korean title. Unfortunately, whatever character chun is supposed to represent is hopelessly obscure. It doesn't appear in my dictionary. The only one that even comes close is for movement, specifically through a bag on a person's back. Luckily, the character for hwa easily translates as to become, or to change. So "A Living Being" is a movie about changing, into something, possibly through movement on a person's back. OK, sure, I guess.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "A Living Being""
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