This lovely little film is one of two recent South Korean titles to turn up on MUBI. It’s an interesting mix of romance, fantasy and gentle humour with an underlying dramatic edge. Writer-director Kim Cho-hee is making her feature début as a director after working for several years as producer for the celebrated auteur director Hong Sang-soo. I’ve only seen one of Hong’s films and I found it slightly irritating so I was at first apprehensive about Lucky Chan-sil, but I needn’t have worried.
The film opens with a celebratory drinking session for a film crew at which the director suddenly collapses with a fatal heart attack. The future for the crew looks uncertain. The title credits are offered as simple text against a hessian background, familiar from classical Japanese films from the 1950s and especially the later colour films of Ozu Yasujiro. We realise then that we’ve been watching an opening sequence in Academy ratio. With the last title the ratio widens to 1.85:1. (I was reminded of the sequence at the start of Frank Tashlin’s 1956 film The Girl Can’t Help It when Academy becomes CinemaScope and B&W becomes Technicolor.) We might guess that this Korean film is going to offer film references and we won’t be wrong
The film’s protagonist emerges as ‘Producer Lee’ or Lee Chan-sil (Kang Mal-Geum). This 40 year-old finds herself without a job and few prospects after working with the same arthouse director for some time. She realises that her job as producer was one that most people she meets don’t really see as important. “But what do you actually do?” She is forced to move to a room in a house on top of the hill overlooking the city. It’s such a steep climb that she must recruit three of her younger ex-colleagues to carry her belongings. When she gets to the house with its views out over the city, we meet her landlady played by Youn Yuh-Jung, the beloved grandma in Minari (US 2020). As Chan-sil gradually begins to understand her situation she realises she needs to earn some money and ends up cleaning house for her friend, a successful but empty-headed young actress named Sophie. Her relationships with Sophie and with her landlady (who is struggling to overcome her own illiteracy because of her poor education in the 1950s) help us to understand the changes in women’s lives in Korea but also the still powerful restrictions of traditions. Chan-sil has not had a relationship for a decade. Does she need one now? She could test one out with Sophie’s French teacher perhaps. But Chan-sil is not sure. Trying to push her into looking inside herself is a surprising extra character, the ghost of ‘Hong Kong Cinema Legend’ Leslie Cheung, played by a young Korean look-alike. Cheung was a beautiful young man who took his own life aged only 46 and depressed by the celebrity gossip about his sexual identity. He has been sorely missed by everyone who admired his great range of work in Hong Kong and later mainland Chinese cinemas. Cheung’s ghost is inappropriately dressed in the singlet and boxers he wore in one of his iconic roles in Wong Kar-Wai’s Days of Being Wild (HK 1991). He shivers in Korea with the coming of winter – he’s a very corporeal ghost.
I don’t want to say much more about the plot and, to be honest, there isn’t that much plot to discuss. If you are looking for a conventional romance, comedy or even psychological drama with a clear resolution, you won’t find it. But spending 95 minutes with Chan-sil was a real pleasure for me. Some reviewers seem concerned that the film might be too autobiographical and self-reflexive about cinema. I didn’t get that feeling. There is an entertaining comparison of Ozu and Christopher Nolan at one point and we learn later that Chan-sil’s love affair with cinema began with Emir Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies (Yugoslavia-Italy-UK 1988). The final short sequence of the narrative is also a filmmaking reference, but in a more abstract sense, unless I’ve simply misread it.
All of the performances are very good and the presentation of naturalistic photography and well-chosen settings work well. Music is used sparingly but effectively. I was intrigued to read that the the lead actor had come to professional acting quite late. Overall this does seem to me a serious and sensitive portrayal of the possibilities for women in South Korean society presented as a moving personal story. I look forward to seeing more films by Kim Cho-hee.