When thinking about what to post as my first review/critique written specifically for this blog, I had a couple of possibilities in mind. I thought of reviewing an unpublished book I read that is a near masterpiece, or reviewing a movie that is a masterpiece (Tokyo Story). But then I remembered a South Korean film I had seen last year and never written a review for. I even found my original notes on the piece! And so, my first review/critique, written exclusively for this website, is of Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해 Goyangireul Butakhae).
This coming-of-age tale begins with five high school girls in uniform–laughing, dancing, and singing together. One of the girls pulls out a camera and takes a photo of the other four. We find out later that this girl is Tae-hee. The other girls are twin sisters Bi-ryu and Ohn-jo, and best friends Hae-joo and Ji-young.
The film picks up some time after the girls have graduated from high school. Hae-joo works for a brokerage firm in Seoul, Bi-ryu and Ohn-jo sell jewelry on street corners, Tae-hee works for her dad and volunteers in her spare time, and Ji-young has just been let go from her job. On the way home from being laid off, Ji-young finds a cat, which she names “Teetee.” The first gathering we see them at is Hae-joo’s 20th birthday party. We also meet Hae-joo’s boyfriend, Chan-yong (Tae-kyung Oh), there. All the friends live in Inchon, a town on the west coast of Korea, near Seoul.
Hae-joo (Yo-won Lee) is a princess, even having her boyfriend hang a large photo of her on the wall and having laser surgery done on her eyes so that she doesn’t have to wear glasses or worry about tearing her contact lenses with her fingernails. Though she wishes to climb the corporate ladder, she is stymied by her lack of a college degree, which forces her into the role of a low wage earner. Valuing her job more than her friends, she almost cancels her birthday plans with them when her supervisor, Mr. Young, asks her out for her birthday, though she tells her friends it’s because she has a project due that night. When he cancels, she tells them the project got moved to the following day.
Ji-young’s (Ji-young Ok) life is almost the complete opposite. Besides being let go from her job, her parents are dead, so she lives with her grandparents in a house that is slowly crumbling into the ground. With no source of income, and a landlord whose solution to fixing the house is for them to move, she confides in Tae-hee that she worries that she will end up a bag lady. Though she’s thinking of traveling overseas to study textile design, she has no means of doing so.
Tae-hee (Doo-na Bae) has her overbearing father to deal with. When they eat at a restaurant, he overrules her decisions, while giving the younger of her two brothers advice on how to order in a restaurant when one isn’t sure of the food (“Always order the most popular dish.”). While her dream is to live “like flowing water,” on a boat that sails on forever, never stopping anyplace along the way, she ends up working for her father at his hot stone resort, for free. In her spare time, she types poetry on a typewriter for a man with cerebral palsy, who dictates the poems to her verbally.
Bi-ryu and Ohn-jo (real-life twins Eun-shil Lee and Eun-jo Lee) seem the most well-adjusted of the friends, though we see in an early scene that their grandfather doesn’t remember that he had a daughter (their mother) or doesn’t want to remember. They seem the most well-adjusted of the five friends.
While the young women in this movie could have easily remained character types, one of the joys of this film is that it is too smart for that. The three main characters are not one-note characters, and always act true to their natures. For example, when Hae-joo acts mean towards Ji-young, Tae-hee asks her why she acts that way.
“In school, you two were the closest,” she says.
“What’s so important about the past?” Hae-joo asks. ”The present matters.”
When Tae-hee then asks her what is important to her in the present, she holds up a bag and says, “Clothes!”
Yet, in one of the best scenes in the film, we see that she misses the past, as well. Told to run an errand for her boss, Hae-joo instead goes to the arcade and plays a “Dance, Dance Revolution” type game, loosening her hair as she bounces around on the large game pad, lost in the carefree days of her youth. There are also signs that she is capable of changing. Right after the scene where she goes to the arcade, we see her dead drunk with some of her coworkers. After she leaves, she calls Chan-yong. When he comes, she makes a big fuss about him coming, but then is silent when he takes her cigarette from her and begins to take puffs on it. In the past, she has treated him badly, but here, when he has come to “rescue her” again, she responds by laying her head on his shoulder, a gesture that has more meaning for the both of them than any words could express.
While Hae-joo’s facade slowly crumbles as the film progress, so does Ji-young’s world. In one night, she loses her home, her family, and her freedom, the last when she refuses to give a statement to the police and is sent to juvenile detention. If Hae-joo crumbles externally, Ji-young does so internally.
But it is Tae-hee who is at the center of this film. Tae-hee, who was invited over to Hae-joo and Ji-young’s table during high school because she was eating her favorite dish alone, rather than eat with a friend who didn’t care for it. Tae-hee, who shoulders the responsibility for keeping her friends together. Tae-hee, who decides to break away from the family that doesn’t treat her well, and stand by Ji-young, who desperately needs someone to be her friend. Despite Hae-joo’s past relationship with Ji-young, it is Tae-hee who visits her in juvenile detention, and it is Tae-hee who shows what it is to be a true friend.
And what of the cat? Initially, Ji-young gives it to Hae-joo as a birthday present, but Hae-joo gives it back early the next morning, as she is moving soon to Seoul and can’t keep it. It stays with Ji-young until she goes to the police station. The cat then goes to Tae-hee. When Tae-hee decides to leave home and travel with Ji-young, the cat is given to Bi-ryu and Ohn-jo. In this way, it connects all the friends, in a way that high school no longer does. Life has happened to them, and their relationships with each other have changed. Hae-joo has pulled away in favor of her job; Ji-young has pulled away due to her real-life problems. Bi-ryu and Ohn-jo have each other, while Tae-joo, in an effort to keep all of her friends together, discovers which of her friends is truly worth the effort.
This is director Jae-eun Jong’s first film. She is very good about knowing when to use dialogue and when not to use it, as well as when to focus on the quiet moments that give the film its pacing and feel. The music is synthesized urban-style music, which helps create the mood for certain scenes and is unobtrusive. Whenever the characters send each other text messages, or Tae-hee types on the typewriter, the words appear in an inconspicuous part of the screen (in Korean, of course). The cinematography and lighting isn’t stunning, but it’s appropriate, while I was impressed with how well depth of field and framing is used. Blurry and focused images direct our attention to what’s important on the screen, while the camera operators are smart enough to realize that what is occurring out-of-focus in the background can be more important that what is happening in-focus in the foreground, and frame such shots accordingly, so that our eyes are draw to the movement in the background, rather than the static reactions in the foreground.
Great as this film is, I have a few caveats. The twins are not fleshed out as well as Ji-young, Hae-joo, and Tae-hee are, and while Chan-yong serves a purpose, he could have been utilized more. Also, the ending shot, of a plane landing in jerky motion, is unnecessary. The ending of this movie occurs in the scene immediately preceding it. That scene should be the closing shot.
Still, these are minor details in what is truly a gem of a film. Watch it if you can. Jae-eun Jong’s debut film, like a long-term friendship, is worth the effort.