Gi-jeong (played by Choi Yoo-ri) is a little girl with barely any perception of her rather discouraging birthright. Gi-jeong's father Ji-cheol (played by Im Hyung-joon) is an ex-con who is not doing a very good job of rehabilitating into society. The situation slowly and methodically gets messier until finally, one timeskip away Gi-jeong has turned into Jeong-hyeon (played by Kim Yoo-jung), a teenage girl with thankfully little memory of how she came to have a completely different name and family. For awhile anyway.
Described in a single word, "Circle of Atonement" is inevitability. It is inevitable that Jeong-hyeon will discover who she really is. It is inevitable that Ji-cheol will be made to answer for his crimes. It is inevitable that we find out the event which resulted in Jeong-hyeon's new life was, well, nothing especially pleasant. All of this information comes back to haunt the film's characters. Trapped in this circle, they all just want to escape- by whatever means necessary.
Cheol-woong (played by Son Ho-jun) actually has the most meaningful role to play in terms of catharsis because he doesn't really have much to live for in the present day. He's consumed with guilt over the past because his girlfriend Yoo-sin (played by Seo Ye-ji) impulsively started a stupid fight and Cheol-woong failed to properly interpret the correct response to the situation. The further revelations in the situational aftermath completely fail to make Cheol-woong feel any better.
The main problem with "Circle of Atonement" is that it never really becomes anything more than the sum of its parts. It's easy enough to grasp every character arc individually- each person is moving slowly to oblivion. This culminates in their either dying or playing at death, because however much everyone wants to act like they want revenge, what they're really after is the sweet embrace of death. Revenge won't make anyone feel better. But in death, at least they won't have to feel anything anymore.
It's pretty gloomy stuff but the characters are so thinly drawn that the proceedings are never soul-wrenching- just sad. These aren't people in a stage play overacting for our amusement. They're just generally miserable people. Even though Jeong-hyeon is literally at the center of the story, she's actually much more important as the only one with a real serious shot at happiness. Jeong-hyeon is just a kid still, and whoever her real father is, she can still smile. For better or worse.
That's some mild hope to be sure but for "Circle of Atonement", it's only barely enough There's really not much raw power in the film in terms of acting depth or writing. We just get the occasional dreamlike sequence, where one character wonders what might have been. "Circle of Atonement" is also an immensely frustrating movie in that try as I might I can't seem to wring any kind of greater meaning or interpretation aside from what is literally seen on screen. This is a simple, unpretentious story, and it's unsettling to think that in the depths of grief, I might be little better than Cheol-woong- limp-fisted in despair rather than proper vengeance.
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] "Circle of Atonement""
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