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[HanCinema's Film Review] "Obsessed": Smoke and Servitude

2014/11/22 | 3268 views | Permalink

In the spotlight this week: Kim Dae-woo's "Obsessed"...

I prefer the more literal title, "Human Addiction", than the psychotically suggestive: "Obsessed". It allows for the romantic fall of love into tragedy, the latter (while still fitting) is more outwardly aggressive, dangerous and unstable.

Set in 1969, Kim Dae-woo's latest steamy classic (remember, this is the erotic creativity than (re)imagined "The Servant") spies Colonel Kim Jin-pyeong (Song Seung-heon) living in a small a military camp; he's a recognised war hero from Vietnam who will soon to be prompted to general and shipped to Seoul. His wife (Jo Yeo-jang as Lee Sook-jin) is perfectly petite, and the pleasant but firm matriarch of the officers wife's club (which doubles as a volunteer nurse's outfit). Yeo-jang's Electra complex is exposed (along with the underlying nepotism) when we discover that her father is also the current commander, making this a tightly-knit and eminent military family of note: a well-established house of cards that makes for a great coming down.

He first hears of her (the object of his forthcoming addition: Lim Ji-yeon as Jong Ga-heum) through an interview with one of his subordinates. The the picture-perfect private Woo-jin (On Joo-wan), the beauty's husband, points out, without the intended humour, that the colonel and his wife share that same birthday (star-crossed or cosmically cursed?). After escaping his house (and wife) to have a fag on the street (a smokey thread that runs thick throughout; an, indeed, appropriate wartime addiction), our hero stumbles across the street, blows smoke at a caged bird outside someone's house, and is softly scolded (like when your parents say they aren't angry, just disappointed) when Ga-heum catches him in the act. Ashamed, our firm colonel is reduced to chivalrous child (hiding his smoke behind his back to boot). It is here, fittingly, that his addiction (our story) begins.

The film is 'classical' in the sense that "Obsessed" is an conscientious character-driven event, one that centres on a largely linear narrative, forbidden fruit, and the objector's fall. "Obsessed" is diagnosed, obviously, with a deep-seated psychological motivation for its lead (Seung-heon's intoxicating will to possess his taboo object points to PTSD; an affecting scar from his hero days back in Nam), a wartime sensibility towards love, and is otherwise classically composed and lit. American culture is also fetishised throughout. The moon landing lingers in the background in one scene (with Yoo Hae-jin's character humorously highlighting the pointless Cold War pissing contest on the tube), for example; the gossiping group of army wives steer their aesthetic attitude to that of 50s American attire; and then there's Korea's unseen involvement in the Vietnam War itself. Which, again, all seems closer to Hollywood's 'Classical' era: so it's noticeably laggy in comparison, but also fashionably face-saving and rich with other deviling details of the time.

The film is a welcomed pastiche of wartime melodramas, a Casablanca-inspired film infected with modern Han retrospectively realised ("And remember, this gun is pointed right at your heart" - Rick). Although the film managed to top the box office when it was released back in May, it only latest three weeks in the chart and attracted an unimpressive 1.4M filmgoers along the way (the film's marketing, to be fair, was reportedly affected by the MV Sewol tragedy). Critics, however, were much more impressed with Kim's third feature, and the film was subsequently honoured at the 34th Korean Association of Film Critics Awards, with decorations going to Jo Yeo-jung and Lim Ji-yeon for their roles as the foremost femmes. So, the masses or masters?

While the film navigated from its classical coordinates quite well, my first impressions were, admittedly, lukewarm. Whether it were spouts of apathetic acting, or specifically Ga-heun's own empowerment issues, something salted the bigger picture. Cute and alluring, for sure, but her coy and absent-minded stoicism lacked passion, all but atop in the bedroom (and in car, the dance studio…Kim Dae-woo shoots sex well, and these two flawless fish in a barrel were erotically spied and glamourised), and was unconvincing as the victim of both pleasure and pain. Unlike "The Servant" (which Confucius did historically help curate), this arousing relationship seem starved of the power needed for full classical consideration, and this particular hopeless romantic needed a little more substance to connect the two other than secret messages under the table and late-night liaisons. In this way, although Lim Ji-yeon's acting may have been award-worthy, the character she was inspiring was aloof and unrelatable. Perhaps, then, she undoubtably deserved the praise.

That character attack may seem unfair (especially considering the film's title, literal or English, flags the film's thematic intent), but here I felt the movie let itself down (again, not angry, just disappointed). Ga-heun is very much the victim in the film: a Chinese-Korean war wife forced into matrimony with a two-faced fellow who then, apparently, falls deeply in love with a married man (her "universe" and hero). Despite these attempts at adding depth and sympathy, she is ultimately objectified and uncanny; a distance danger, troubled and coyly clad. Colonel Kim Jin-pyeong suffered from a similar ailment, but the patriarchal structure at play favoured his fall. "Obsessed" was not a steamy success story, and while it may not be as timeless as the tale being spun would have us believe, it's still a seductive and complex event worthy in its own right. Watch it for Kim's sexy cine-eye, to see star-crossed lovers lost in lust, and, more importantly, for the fall.


- C.J. Wheeler [@Woolgatherist; KoreaOnTheCouch]

 

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