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[HanCinema's Film Review] "Scenery"

2014/02/15

This film is a documentary about those foreigners from across Asia who have ended up working as common laborers in South Korea. Director Zhang Lu doesn't dwell too much on the particulars of their situation, or interview exactly how they came to live in South Korea in the first place. Rather, he ends up going into more universal and peculiar territory by asking them about the content of their dreams as they sleep at night, images which evoke a sense of being far away from home that seems kind of bad but not seriously so.

The laborers have almost nothing in common. They're all working in low-class environments yes, but these people hail from entirely different countries and prefer speaking in separate languages. Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese and more all make appearances here. As does Korean- which in the voices of these migrants is itself rather fractured. None of them speak the language perfectly- the Korean subtitles differ slightly from their actual speech, cleaning up the grammatical irregularities. But there's no common factor even in the mistakes.

"Scenery" as a whole takes a pretty strong tone along these lines. There's lots of stuff I can write about this film, but very little of it actually seems to make sense or seem relevant in any way. Take the long static shots. Here, Zhang Lu just shows what daily life is like for these migrant laborers. Separated from the context of the dreams these lives seem dreary, in some sense infinitely dull.

But then almost the exact same feeling is created by the scenes with no people in them at all. Just random snapshots of everyday neighborhoods with no people at all feel incredibly strange here. There's one with a tricycle that just moves by itself for awhile and then it stops. Then there's another one about an elephant, and somehow I never noticed just how disturbingly nimble elephants are with their trunks. It all feels so ominous even though basically nothing of interest is happening at all.

So, as a documentary, we don't exactly learn anything about these people, save for the specific content of their dreams. And yet strangely "Scenery" presents a surprisingly in-depth portrayal of what their lives are actually like. Living in a neighborhood means seeing the stuff in that neighborhood on a constant basis. The film is only around ninety minutes along and covers several different locations in Korea- but the camera forces us to really experience these moments, simply by being so static and so focused on such incredibly arbitrary stuff.

"Scenery" is very much an auteur film. And I don't necessarily mean that as a compliment. On a whole the product is just kind of incredibly weird. It challenges the patience of the viewer, and ignoring the greater subtext of the scenes, really it's pretty boring actually. This is a movie for those who want to do all the thinking and reflection personally, and don't want any bit of it clearly explained. I think there is a good potential audience for that- it's just not a mainstream audience, so don't go in expecting something with clear narrative coherence.

Review by William Schwartz

"Scenery" is directed by Zhang Lu

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