FANTASIA22 REVIEW: Chorokbam [2022]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 89 minutes
    Release Date: 2022 (South Korea)
    Director(s): Seo-jin Yoon
    Writer(s): Seo-jin Yoon

Why do I have to do all your dirty work?

This is not a happy family. Dad (Tae-hoon Lee) works a night security guard shift that makes it so he arrives home as Mom (Min-Kyung Kim) leaves to dry peppers in the sun the next morning. He wants quiet. She wants support. They ultimately sit in silence while eating. Their son (Kang Gil-woo) works as an aide for the disabled, driving around and taking care of patients on the way to their appointments. He doesn’t make much—at least not enough for a permanent place to stay with his fiancée (Kim Guk-Hee). They spend their nights in cheap hotels instead, paying more than they’d like yet not enough to pivot towards a mortgage. It’s take-out dinners and quiet evenings, every day a repetitive reminder of the unavoidable monotony.

Rather than set this quartet up for better days, writer/director Seo-jin Yoon decides to capture their depressive malaise and push it further to see whether they’ll break. Chorokbam therefore begins with a bad omen by way of a dead cat hanging from its neck on Lee’s patrol. He takes it down and buries it, the incident scarring him to the point of seeming shell-shocked only for Kim to reveal he’s always only half present anyway. From one death to another, the news of Lee’s father passing makes its way around the family so that Kang must take time off to help with the arrangements. That means dealing with catty aunts only interested in their inheritance, a stranger sleeping in the deceased’s house, and a growing sense of dread.

The latter is the prevalent mood throughout the film—its gorgeously staid camera set-ups often providing us access to the tiresome movements of exhausted souls. The men’s only reprieve is a brief sauna and shave before final prayers. Kim gets no respite by comparison, her always-moving housewife picking up the slack when Kang stands in silence and Lee leaves unannounced for a cigarette. It’s funny because we want to believe that the apple may have fallen far enough away from the tree that the son doesn’t make similar mistakes as the father, but early signs of compassion opposite his fiancée ultimately make way towards Kang going off at events for his own smoke. It’s an escape, albeit brief, from responsibility. Yet their arduous lives remain upon their return.

That’s all there is to know plot-wise. Most of the film is mom, dad, and son fulfilling their duties as the eldest-child-of-the-dead’s family. Lee must collect the cash and separate it into envelopes for those getting a cut of the will. He must get his father’s house ready to sell and keep the peace between those impatiently waiting like vultures—two jobs he believes he’s completing by letting his wife take the reins on top of everything else she must do like clean-up, cook, and pay bills while he sits on the couch with a newspaper. Events move at a glacial pace as a result, but it never feels boring due to a palpable sense of emotional repression ready to explode. Kim vocalizes her anger. The men retreat.

Its melancholic tone juxtaposes against its beautiful cinematography. Each locale is presented for us to gaze upon every corner and recognize the myriad walls that can be used to hide. I recall a diner scene where Lee must let the woman that we assume is his late father’s girlfriend know she can’t stay in the house. The camera is far enough away that we can only see her side of their booth, a partition blocks the rest to reveal a walkway through which Lee ultimately travels for a smoke before their conversation has ended. Kim finishes instead, explaining the delicate bits that ultimately leave this stranger with nothing while Kang pays the bill. They exit, walking in front of us as the woman and Lee remain in the background.

Active movement and passive avoidance are forever in concert, every action ultimately foisted upon the actor because someone else refuses it first. That sort of existence would weigh on anyone, their lives dictated by the necessity to pick up the slack for others. They’re just as tired and defeated as those who look the other way, they simply know it must be done. Everyone walks around in a circle from one checkpoint to the next, each forced to endure additional tragic events proving that when it rains it most certainly does pour. And what do they learn as a result? Will Kang shake himself out of the doldrums to not suffer his parent’s fatigue-heavy fate? Will Lee wonder if the cat and his father were the lucky ones?

You need to hand it to Seo-jin Yoon, their debut feature never wavers from its pitch-black macabre sense of existential futility. When you can end your film with someone deciding at the last second not to kill themselves, the character’s face holding an expression of defeat rather than relief, and somehow let it still feel hopeful, you’re doing something unique. Chorokbam is neither promising a happy ending nor declaring tragedy, it’s simply stating a truth that we all know first-hand: life is often impossible. It is still life, though. Maybe you won’t want to get up in the morning. Maybe you want to ignore the world. And maybe you find you’ll go out and do what you must anyway because it’s just what you do. Rinse and repeat.

courtesy of the Fantasia International Film Festival

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