Film Review: Members of a Funeral
BOTTOM LINE: One of the year's strongest entries from Korea and in its program.Pusan International Film Festival
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The death of a high school student brings the skeletons out of the closet in Baek Seung-bin's circular feature debut, "Members of the Funeral." Describing who the dead boy was and what he meant to several different people from just as many points of view, the director weaves together a complex story about death and isolation and the power of both of those to define us. It's not without flaws, but they're hardly worth quibbling over given the general auspiciousness of this first feature.
"Members of the Funeral" is a sure bet for any major or niche festival, and it deserves the chance to be seen. It could get a limited release at home in Korea and possibly with brave distributors in other parts of the region.
Therapist Jun-gi (Yoo Ha-bok), literature teacher Jung-hee (Park Myung-sin), and their daughter Ami (Kim Byul) are introduced at Hee-jun's (Lee Ju-seung) funeral. Before getting into how the family connects to Hee-jun, a defining incident about each character's first encounter with death is revealed. The film then goes on to detail Jun-gi's latent homosexual relationship with the young man, Jung-hee's domineering writing workshops with him, and his only apparent normal relationship with Ami -- who he's learning embalming skills with after school. Their stories make up the narrative in novel he's writing while his death simultaneously, possibly, becomes a turning point in the lives of the other three.
Death, not surprisingly, permeates every moment of "Members of the Funeral," but the film is far from a morbid rumination on the role mortality plays in our daily lives. Baek explores how the very idea of dying affects us, and does so via a meandering story that never loses sight of its final destination. Taking a page from the "Rashomon" playbook, Hee-jun's shifting personality and role adjusts according to each of the other character's needs at any given moment, though the degree to which everyone remains in the dark stretches credibility. Baek's simple compositions and Lim Kyung-woo's unflashy photography (properly lit HD, a marvel for New Currents) meticulously reveal a complicated big picture. The strong cast deftly handles some nicely pitched moments of dark humor that add just the right amount of grounded absurdity to Hee-jun's mysterious short life.
A Korean Academy of Film Arts production
Sales Agent: Korean Academy of Film Arts (print source)
Credits: Director: Baek Seung-bin; Writer: Baek Seung-bin; Producer: Kim Young-wha; Director of photography: Lim Kyung-woo.
Cast: Roh Hee-jun: Lee Ju-seung; Woo Jun-gi: Yoo Ha-bok; Oh Jung-hee: Park Myung-sin; Kim Byul: Ami
MPAA rating: Not rated, running time 98 minutes.