Sang-ho (played by Cho Jae-hyun) is a South Korean man trawling around Paris meekly asking random prostitutes if they've seen the woman in a photo he carries around. When Sang-ho's motivations are explained in flashback, we get to see a more well-shaven yet still socially maladjusted man not really enjoy Paris's more touristy attractions so much as reluctantly acquiesce to his wife's desire to give him blow jobs. Which I consider to be an accurate description of "A Korean in Paris" overall- it makes blow jobs look awkward and unpleasant.
And that's only the beginning. While "A Korean in Paris" is another one of those "depressing for the sake of depressing" art films, where it distinguishes itself is in the exact form Sang-ho's mental degradation takes. The process is quite gradual. All Sang-ho ever really does is talk to prostitutes and occasionally a homeless person. It takes quite awhile for Sang-ho to try to solicit paid sex personally. Yet by the end his spirit has been noticeably broken.
That much, I think, is the contrast between the Paris that exists in people's imaginations with the one where people actually live. That is, the Paris where people eat baguettes not for the sake of local charm but because it's the main staple food that's available for cheap. Ditto with the wine. Sure, wine might seem all regal at a nice restaurant, but the homeless guys in this movie chug it like soju.
This contrast is both fascinating and ironic. Writer/director Jeon Soo-il has a decent appreciation for that much to be sure. At one point his prior movie "Pink" is invoked as being the kind of Korean culture the typical Parisian has access to. Sang-ho never reacts to the film in a film directly, although given the man's general unfortunate experiences in movie theaters, it's probably reasonable to assume that he did not walk out of the theater surging with homesickness for how great South Korea is.
There's just something morbidly expressively non-expressive about how Sang-ho reacts less and less to his setbacks the longer "A Korean in Paris" goes on. Consider another scene where Sang-ho has to leave a bus upon realizing that the people on the bus are too exuberantly happy. Joy makes Sang-ho uncomfortable, having become accustomed to a world where the closest thing to accumulated glee is listening to the woman in the dark dreary subway, singing for change like there's no tomorrow.
And really, maybe there is no tomorrow. By the end of "A Korean in Paris", Sang-ho is so satisfied with his miserable place in the gutter that he's willing to violently throw another person out of it. For a man as meek as Sang-ho, homelessness is just a form of slow-acting suicide. In a strange way, Jeon Soo-il does manage to make this seem like a somewhat reasonable opinion. What has the better payoff, conducting a probably hopeless missing-person search for someone who may well not want to be found, or the sweet, sweet embrace of liquor?
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "A Korean in Paris""
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