The six characters in the "Misaeng" omnibus live lives of quiet desperation. They all want something out of life. What they don't know is how to get it. Or, more accurately, they have difficulty motivating themselves to believe that they want something enough that they'll do whatever it takes to achieve their dreams. Circumstances and the so-called reality of the modern world have worn down their resistance to little more than a general ennui-based entropy.
This is all pretty existentially gloomy stuff. And none of the problems identified in this film ever actually get solved. What does happen is that the characters are all able to latch onto a small twinkle of hope- a realization that there is a difference between survival and living. Not everyone is able to take this information to heart and make an immediate turn-around in thei life philosophy. But there's still just that little spark, and that might be enough.
These short films, as these brief bursts of characterization, are extremely effective. I felt like I very clearly understood who these characters were and where they were coming from. "Misaeng" benefits a great deal from its scenario, based on the webtoon of the same name by Yoon Tae-ho. Scriptwriter Min Ye-ji effectively uses this established characterization to build compelling stories. There's an earnesty behind character motivation here that I rarely see in short films- it's obvious that the actors are working from much more information than we directly see on-screen.
By necessity, this also leads to "Misaeng"'s greatest weakness. There is so much gravity behind the characters' action, and so much impetus, that it almost feels like a cheat that we get right to the moment where they figure something out and then the short film is over. Thematically, it still works. The stories aren't about characters so much as they are about finding the glimmer of hope. It just feels a little wasteful to have all this build-up and relatively little follow-through. None of these people ever meet each other, even though their world feels so heavily interconnected.
A lot of this unity comes from the visual style. The way shots are framed and context is provided, surprisingly little dialogue is necessary to understand the stories on a basic level. There's certainly a richness that the words add, though, and some of the more introspective pieces are quite incomprehensible without a few clearly stated facts. For the most part, though, the basic stories and twists are sweet and charming enough without having to rely on film trickery. "Misaeng" knows how to ease its audience in to the right feeling, even when the genre twists to an unusual (though still sensible) direction.
Originally, these short films were distributed via mobile phone downloads and watched separately, not in an omnibus. And I have to admit this is probably a better place for them. Take ten minutes out of the day, in the silent, crowded halls of the subway. Does anyone ever do anything important during that time? Probably not- it is the height of our daily ennui. So open the phone, and watch a story about a character, quite different and distinct from us, who struggles against that same uncertainty. It's a valuable reminder that we are not alone. Designated status as a prequel to a "real" story notwithstanding, "Misaeng" is excellently constructed for that moment of daily life.
This review was written by William Schwartz as a part of HanCinema's PiFan (Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival) coverage.
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 email@example.com.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Misaeng""
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