Sunday, July 8, 2007

In Between Days

If Aki Kaurismaki's Lights in the Dusk represents the triumph of style over substance, In Between Days, the debut feature from Korean director So Yong Kim (playing alongside Lights at the IFC Center) represents something like the reverse. This is not to say that Kim's unusually perceptive film lacks a distinctive artistic signature, but that its imperfectly executed style often undercuts the observations being made. Shot on handheld DV, the picture focuses on Aimie, a teenage Korean girl living in an anonymous North American city (although shot in Toronto, the film is deliberate in its lack of cultural specificity), specifically her relationship with her best (and only) friend Tran, a relationship ambiguously defined in terms of unrealized romantic fulfillment.

Charting the dual alienations of adolescent life and the immigrant experience, Kim's film is unusually sure in its knowledge of its lead character, played beautifully by first time actress Jiseon Kim, a surety that finds its best expression in her complex relationship with Tran. Although Aimie clearly harbors romantic feelings for him and suffers an acute jealousy when he begins spending time with a fully assimilated young Korean (who speaks only English; Aimie speaks almost exclusively in Korean), she is unwilling to give into his flip requests for sex or to express her feelings in any direct form. Tran, for his part, is perfectly content to spend time with Aimie and even to ask for sexual favors, but is mostly unwilling to acknowledge any sort of deeper feelings on his friend's part, even while feeling an obvious attraction to her. Take, for instance, a scene where Tran attempts to touch Aimie's breast while she sleeps, only to be abruptly rejected. The next day he comes to reconcile with her and tells her that he was only joking. He felt he could joke with her, he explains, because he views her in the same light as a male friend. From a too sexualized approach to an asexualized approach, Tran completely misses the middle ground that takes into account Aimie's confused feelings. In response, Aimie tells Tran that she had kissed a boy at a party in order to elicit a reaction from her friend, and having achieved an appropriately jealous response, she retracts her statement.

The film perfectly captures the loneliness of a young woman in a strange city. Two repeated shots, showing Aimie, wrapped in a heavy jacket, trekking through a deserted, snow-filled urban landscape, and walking through an empty highway overpass skilfully evoke this sense of alienation. Apart from Tran, Aimie communicates with almost no one. She lives with her mother, but she is almost never at home and barely talks to Aimie when she is. In one scene, Aimie attempts to console her as she lies crying on a couch after an unsuccessful date, but the mother quickly dismisses her, telling her to go to bed. In a bid for communication, Aimie narrates a series of short letters to her father, who we are told left the family years before. The letters run throughout the film, providing the normally non-communicative Aimie with a direct voice. Although they reveal nothing profound, they allow her to express her feelings of loneliness and confusion in a way such non-understanding interlocutors as Tran and her mother make impossible.

For all the film's carefully drawn observations about adolescence, however, its visual style too often proves distracting and continually subtracts from the film's achievement. Kim, using a murky, hand-held DV camera, favors tight shots that place the focus on the character's faces. The immediate stylistic comparison that comes to mind may be the Dardenne brothers, but where the Dardennes invest their approach with an absolute deliberateness of purpose and produce a series of clear, precise images, the camerawork of Kim's cinematographer, Sarah Levy, results in an distressingly opaque visual program. The dark, grainy image of the video (recalling at times the look of David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE, a film for which this aesthetic approach is much better suited) may find some justification as a visual corollary to the confusion of the young protagonist, but this murky look, along with a shot selection that seems too often selected at random (the two shots mentioned above, which frame Aimie against a snowy, isolating urban terrain are exceptions, but even their impact is diminished by a lack of visual clarity) and occasional trick shots like filming one or more characters reflected in the window of a bus stop, undercuts the extreme precision of the film's presentation of its characters. Aimie's confusion is clear enough without a disjointed aesthetic program to emphasize the point. What is needed is a visual look corresponding to the absolute sureness with which Kim presents her world. For a film that relies so heavily on the close-up and in which facial expression counts for so much, it would be nice if the faces weren't so frequently obscured by deliberately fuzzy camerawork. This is a film that makes a lot of effort to know its characters (down to such observations as the chipped nail polish on Aimie's fingers). If only it had achieved a corresponding aesthetic conception instead of leaving us with a muddled visual mess, In Between Days could have been among the year's triumphs.

No comments: