Winner of the Special Jury Prize in Locarno, "Height of the Wave" is another impressive indie from Korea, in an industry that seems to experience one of its greatest seasons in years. Furthermore, Park Jung-bum establishes his position as one of the most important new Korean directors, as he continues in the footsteps of "The Journals of Musan". The film is actually a theatrical version of the 1-episode "Drama Stage - Waves of Change", which was released in the beginning of the year.
The story takes place in a remote island, where Police Chief Yeon-soo has just been dispatched with her daughter, Sang-i, after her divorce. As the film begins, we witness Yeon-soo having to deal with a case involving wild boars, and we learn that she is suffering from panic attacks that occasionally have her running to various places during the night in order to hide her condition from her daughter, and in essence everyone. The film, however, takes its main turn when she meets the local foreman, a flirty and pushy individual that kind of forces her to a welcome party. During the party, Yeon-soo witnesses a sexual act between Ye-eun, a girl who is soon revealed to be an orphan taken in by a local fish merchant, and a young man, with the act also involving a money exchange. Feeling that the law about prostitution is being broken in its worst fashion, since Ye-eun is underage, she decides to investigate further. This decision, however, brings her into direct clash with the foreman, who feels that his efforts to make the island a tourist attraction would not benefit at all if this case becomes public. Soon, the case is revealed to be something much bigger as a number of the island's inhabitants are involved, while the role of the fish merchant is revealed as much more significant than it seemed in the beginning. Eventually, Ye-eun manages to escape in the woods, while a disappointed with her mother and bullied Sang-i joins her.
Park Jung-bum directs a rather intricate film whose narrative unfolds in three intermingling axes. The first one revolves around the foreman's efforts to include the island in the tourist attraction catalogue, and his will to do anything to succeed in that regard, with the help of the majority of the locals. The second and most central one revolves around the case of prostitution, which eventually becomes connected to the first axis, while revealing the true nature of the majority of the characters, most of which are anything but good. The third involves the dysfunctional relationship between mother and daughter, with the latter not being able to understand Yeon-soo's struggles, thus feeling like an orphan, which is the main reasons she connects with Ye-eun, and the former terrified of revealing the truth about her state, in a desperate effort to protect her daughter that eventually backfires.
The rather captivating unfolding of these three axes is a testament to the directorial effort of Park, who also uses the story to present a number of comments regarding human nature, particularly as it is dictated in the life in the islands. The inherent secretive nature of the people who live in such places in combination with a tendency to gossip is one of the main characteristics explored, along with the distrust towards anyone outside the "inner circle".
Apart from this comment, Park uses his characters to depict various human faults. In that fashion, the foreman represents greed in its most cruel form, with Yeon-soo also getting included in this aspect eventually; the merchant the issues created from inaction; and a number of villagers the blights of ignorance. The way secrets, and in general not being open to both yourself and to the ones close to you, tend to harm human relations is represented through Yeon-soo but also through Ye-eun and Sang-i, with the first two also being "used" to highlight the issues fear creates. Lastly, Yeon-soo's diligent and unwavering ways are used to show that the cycle of violence does not end so easily, along with the issue with not being able to let go.
All these comments result in a number of quite thorough portraits particularly of the female characters, who are analyzed to fullest, despite the fact that Yeon-soo and Ye-eun are the protagonists. This aspect adds depth to the narrative and also allows the spectator to connect with the characters, thus making the film quite engaging. This element also benefits the most from the acting, with Lee Seung-yeon-I as Yeon-soo and Lee Yeon as Ye-eun giving great performances, both captivating and measured, with the same applying to Park Jung-bum himself in the role of the merchant and Shin Yeon-schik in the role of the foreman. The only thing that bothered me in both acting and narrative is the scene in the house near the end, where most of the characters are present, and Lee Yeon's performance, along with the narrative, takes a turn towards the melodramatic, with a hyperbole that does not fit the narrative at all.
Park Jong-chul's cinematography is also quite good, with him presenting the island as a beautiful but also claustrophobic environment, with his work adding much to the narrative. Cho Hyeon-ju's editing lets the film to unfold in a relatively slow, but quite fitting pace, allowing Park to give time to his characters, without making the film tiring in any way.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[Hancinema Film Review] "Height of the Wave""
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