With a Girl of Black Soil

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Edinburgh International Film Festival

EDINBURGH -- There's a long tradition of films dealing with difficult childhoods amid tough economic circumstances, but it's been a while since there's been one quite so powerful as "With a Girl of Black Soil" ("Geomen tangyi sonyeo oi"). The latest quiet wonder from the ever-fertile world of South Korean cinema, its distinction deserves to raise writer/director Jeon Soo-Il -- a 49-year-old making his fourth feature -- to the kind of international profile enjoyed by his countrymen Kim Ki-Duk and Hong Sang-Soo. Winning prizes at Venice, Deauville, Barcelona, Marrakech and Las Palmas was a decent start, but this easily-overlooked film deserves the widest exposure.

Slow-moving and often bleak, it's undeniably a tough commercial sell in the current climate, but is the kind of masterfully-executed, emotionally impactful cinema that all admirers of the medium should discover.

The superb contribution of cinematographer Kim Sung-Tai is only one outstanding aspect of a production that excels in pretty much every area, both behind and in front of the camera. The star of the show is 8-year-old newcomer Yu Yun-Mi. She's simply breathtaking -- and heartbreaking -- as Choi Young-Lim, who lives with her father Hye-Gon (Jo Yung-Jun) and mentally-handicapped brother Tong-Gu (Park Hyun-Woo) in a industrial corner of mountainous Kangwon province. Mr. Choi toils below ground at the coal-mine, long the area's main employer, which is now winding down. Unable to cope with being laid off, lone-parent Hye-Gon declines into alcoholic despair, leaving Young-Lim effectively in charge of a rapidly-worsening situation.

"With a Girl of Black Soil" immediately impresses as a steely, unblinking evocation of a harsh environment. Jeon and his collaborators take an austere, measured approach to establishing the characters' precise geographical and social setting. It takes a while for the slender narrative threads to really start coming together, but audiences will find that any patience invested yields cumulative rewards as the focus shifts from father to daughter. The latter role represents a stern test for any thespian, but Yu responds magnificently with work that emphatically deserves a place in the pantheon of great child performances.

Production Company: Dong Nyuk Film. Cast: Yu Yun-Mi, Jo Yung-Jin, Park Hyun-Woo, Kang Soo-Youn, Yim Jin-Taik. Director: Jeon Soo-Il. Screenwriter: Jeon- Soo-Il. Executive Producer: Park Jin-Weon. Producer: Jo In-Suk. Director of Photography: Kim Sung-Tai. Production Designer: Lee Young-Hun. Music: Gae Soo-Jung. Costume Designer: Nam Hyeok-Suk. Editor: Suk Yong-Duk. Sales Agent: UMEDIA PARIS, Montreuil. No rating, 87 minutes.

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