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[HanCinema's Film Review] "An American Friend"


This movie is the brooding intellectual story of international art intrigue and danger. You might be wondering, aren't such stories, by design, not really brooding and intellectual since art in this context is just a plot device designed to get the characters to do stuff? Well, "An American Friend" is no different. We in fact learn very little about what any of these people actually want. Except to brood about, stewing in their own wide-shot mysteries.

I can give the movie some credit for its use of space. That's actually the most American part of this movie by a wide margin. All of these people live or hang around in giant houses filled sparsely with stuff, and there's very little for these characters to do except wander around wondering why they don't have more stuff or people in their houses to justify the ridiculous amount of space they have at their disposal. This aspect of the filmmaking actually commands more attention than the actual story, so it's disappointing not more is done with it.

"An American Friend" is so obsessed with its own lack of actual action that even chase scenes are absurdly subdued, and rarely ever result in characters moving at a pace any faster than a power walk. The story wants to be about complicated relationships and exposure of the way everybody really thinks about one another, yet stubbornly insists on trying to be more directly interesting. The fact that no one in the story really gets how to make meaningful contact here is the main point, although this point is so belabored that the proceedings get to be a bit annoying.

It's a relief when characters finally get emotionally charged enough to take serious action, if only because something starts happening. There's a couple of sex scenes here, which have an odd middle ground of being decently erotic yet not especially, well, escapist. I suppose to some extent they do help us escape from the monotony of the film itself. That's admittedly not much of an endorsement.

In terms of other weak endorsements, I also liked the use of classical and the use of actual drawn art to tell a story. All of this is very sparse, you have to understand, because director Seong Ji-hye is really determined to show us as much brooding as is physically possible. These are characters who want to be interesting, who are trying to become interesting, who are trying to help others become interesting, and not really succeeding.

"An American Friend" comes from a very intellectual introspective school of filmmaking whose main target demographic is other intellectual, introspective people who might get and identify with the drudgery shown in lives that are dull and uninteresting when in theory what's happening is supposed to be exciting. If none of this makes you want to watch the movie, I can't say I blame you. Even at a runtime of ninety minutes "An American Friend" often feels like it's never actually going to end, mainly because the story keeps interrupting itself for reasons which are, well, not all that great. Still, for light intellectual exercise, it's as good as any.

Review by William Schwartz

"An American Friend" is directed by Seong Ji-hye and features Nam Sung-jin, Ji Sung-won and Bae Jung-hwa.

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