The issue of the Korean sex workers that "serviced" American soldiers in towns built around US military bases has been presented repeatedly in the country's cinema, in films like Kim Ki-duk's "Address Unknown" and Kim Dong-ryung and Park Kyoung-tae's own "Tour of Duty". Their approach in "The Pregnant Tree and the Goblin" is quite different, since the narrative takes a path between the documentary and the fiction, while implementing much surrealism and even fantasy.
The film starts with a director trying to find real testimonies from "comfort" women for her film, with her research bringing her close to a university teacher who helps her find one of these former workers, Park In-soon. The elderly woman lives by herself in a small village located next to the US military base in Uijungbu City. The base is about to be demolished and In-soon feels uneasy about what will happen to the town, which, in essence, was built due to the base. At that point, the film starts moving into two different directions, as the director continues her research while the story of In-soon is reenacted, through much surrealism. In that fashion, one night she discovers that a former colleague has died and she attends her funeral, along with three Death Messengers, who are in search of wandering spirits who cannot or will not go to the realm of the dead. The Death Messengers start narrating some of their stories about these women while In-soon narrates her own, through the sequences dramatized.
This dramatization of Park's story takes the largest part of the narrative, with the directors additionally highlighting the rage she feels through narration of her thoughts. The film highlights her loneliness and the fact that no one seems to care about these women anymore, most of which will or have already died completely forgotten. The presence of the Death Messengers also intensifies this comment in a spiritual approach that seems to imply that without some sort of vindication, the spirits of the many women who died in the area will remain there and not cross to the death realm. This aspect is intensified by a true incident that took place on 1992, near a military camp in Bosan-dong where a sex worker was found dead with a number of a bottles and an umbrella sticking out of her genitalia, with the film actually showing photographs of the body. Apart from this part however, the directors' intention does not seem to want to communicate their message through shock.
This is, though, where the issue with the film lies, since at no point does it become clear how the directors wanted to communicate their message, and to a point, what their actual message is. Furthermore, these elements of fantasy and surrealism may refer to the Korean "attraction" towards shamanism and the occult in general, but in essence, they confuse more instead of adding to the narrative, actually making the spectator question whether the events mentioned in the film are true or fantasy. One could suggest that it was the directors' purpose to retain this atmosphere of disorientation and ambiguity, but the result does not justify this effort.
Technically, I would say that the film is quite good, with the two directors highlighting their abilities in the framing, the sound design, the lighting, and the overall presentation of a setting that lingers between nightmare and claustrophobia.
"The Pregnant Tree and the Goblin" is pleasing to the eye, but the overall approach to the narrative makes it very difficult to follow, and in essence, to watch.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "The Pregnant Tree and the Goblin""
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