This blog started precisely two years and one week ago with an "is anyone out there?" review of an obscure Asian film I'd seen that week at the San Francisco International Film Festival. (The film was "NYMPH" and it was outstanding). Two years and one week later, I'm still congratulating myself on the ability in this crazy-mixed-up life to escape with my wife and immerse ourselves in another completely obscure Asian film at the annual fest, chosen virtually at random from the festival's many dozens of offerings. Getting out to a picture show is a victory; flying blind and still picking a cinematic winner is a unparalleled triumph.
This year we saw 2011's "CHOKED", a South Korean entry directed by Kim Jyoon-Hyun. It's a dark, leisurely-paced tale about a convergence of individuals affected by a woman's disappearance from their lives. We meet her, a middle-aged mother, at the beginning of the film as she babbles into a telephone about some miracle amino foodstuff that prolongs life and extends the menstruation cycle or some such, and as she accepts delivery of crates' worth of the goods at her home "to be filmed by the Home Shopping Channel". Her sullen early-twenties son sits idly by, staring at her. Next the film shifts focus to him, where it stays for the majority of the movie, along with a side story about a semi-crazy woman who is owed great sums of money by his mother and who bothers him incessantly after her disappearance to collect it.
Turns out that the mom was running a Ponzi scheme of sorts, and some break-your-legs Korean mafia guys quickly turn up, threatening the son unless he finds a way to cough up the money. Sounds like a fast-paced action film, right? Not quite. "Choked" is slow, meditative and centered on human emotion and an inability to communicate above all else. There were several points in the film in which the son could have changed his and his family's fortune by simply being either less deferential or more direct in his interactions with others. One of the great cliched things about foreign film is its ability to put a window on a culture very different from one's own, and I kept asking myself if this stifling deference was more a Korean thing or merely a character thing. I'm going with the latter, particularly given the "surprise" ending, which helps tie together why things happened the way they did.
Kim Jyoon-Hyun, we were told at the screening, is a first-time filmmaker who made this one as a grad school project. After we rolled our eyes, we were treated to a very good feature that was sharply filmed and that was a dark and semi-mysterious drama with some pretty offbeat characters. It's a good 'un, and I hope it gets some distribution off of the festival circuit so everyone can give it a gander.