Life in a metropolis can be unforgiving and cruel. The buildings are imposing and the diversity of being is impressive, if not uncomfortably humbling; and it becomes all too easy, perhaps even necessary, to go about one's business bearing blinders and minding your own matters. But collisions are inevitable, uncomfortable and random, and sometimes--if the conditions are just right--multiple lives merge and travel together for a time, only to eventually fork off out into the cityscape.
Enter "Mozart Town", a discerning debut that poetically peels back the concrete curtains of big city life to reveal, for better or worse, life under the log. These 'Humans of Seoul' that are found wriggling, are put under Jeon's lens and followed, their dreary existence exposed, and their flaws magnified under the leering light of cinematic attention and focus. And while these seeming banal characters are burning before us, the music of Mozart can be heard; classic relief from the soot and sounds of human concentrate at its most consistent and undiluted.
With this petri dish of human splendour, director Jeon Kyu-hwan imagines various individuals crashing in and around one another, cheerless characters whose fate Jeon appears to have caught on camera for dissection and display. The man behind the camera claims to have been influenced by an array of contemporary Korean filmmakers, and "Mozart Town" does indeed exhibit a fantastic fusion of contemporary influences; most notably containing tips of the hat to Hong Sang-soo, sexual confessions directed Kim Ki-duk's way, and even poetically bookends itself à la Lee Chang-dong.
The film begins with a foreign professor's narration of her thoughts on the next year of her life in Seoul; a year this young woman will spend lecturing and, more to the point, as a pianist promoting the life and work of one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. She's slender and sophisticated, a lonely spokesperson for the fine arts looking for wonder in a strange new land. But just before we commit to her tale, Jeon pushes her into the background and shows us an African man making a call at a public phone booth. He's sweating, and seems stress (and we'll understand why in time), but once again this too is not the star of the show. The camera stammers and shifts to the man's right, and frames a small kiosk standing quietly and alone amidst the city of strangers. Strung across the corrugation shutters are a series of photographs, pictures of strangers whom the owner took between sales. The viewer immediately recognises the black and white foreigners we where just following, but there are others frozen in time there too, other souls that will soon thawed out and followed for a spell.
Far from the awkwardness found in Sang-soo's cringing realism, the character interactions here are rather passive. They drift move, like bubbles on a pond their lives find another, dance for a time, and then diverge back into the seething city froth. The film dreamily jumps from bubble to the next, and over the course of the film the currents of each are known and nihilistic thread is followed and singed at both ends. The editing is minimal, the mise-en-scene and composition telling, and the camera gets as close as it dares to the subjects and their condition. Mirrors, in particular, can be seen in various scenes, well-positioned prisons that capture these curious characters in choice moments and musings. The suturing between each of the characters' lives is raised and treacherous, and like a crooked stitch they make for interesting scars across the first of Jeon's 'Town' trilogy.
"Mozart Town" was surprise delight from a storytelling talent worth exploring. Jeon has quickly established himself as an auteur director on the rise, one whose vision and personal philosophy dictates his direction for our filmgoing pleasure. Since "Mozart Town" Jeon has produced the other two enters in the same vein ("Animal Town" and "Dance Town"), as the From Seoul to Varanasi", "The Weight", and, more recently, "My Boy". I cannot yet say whether the rest of Jeon's filmography is as insightful or inspired, but after this 'practice run' I'm sure going to make a note to find out.
[HanCinema's Image Gallery] Jeon Kyu-hwan's "Mozart Town"
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