The Avian Kind (Joryu Ingan): Jeonju Review
Shin Youn-shick's entry to the tri-feature Jeonju Digital Project follows a novelist's search for his wife, who vanished from view 15 years ago.
Why would a young, beautiful woman walk out on his seemingly harmless husband and his cute toddler daughter to transform herself into a bird? And why would a have-it-all teenager abandon her comfortable life as a conglomerate CEO's daughter to do the same? These are the key questions which haunt The Avian Kind, but unfortunately the answers are rarely forthcoming: while high on artistry and ambience, Shin Youn-shick's latest film is low on providing convincing expositions of the logic of its narrative and the motive of its characters' seemingly outlandish strategies in surviving supposedly harsh lives.
Spinning off an idea which first appeared in his 2012 film The Russian Novel-- the thread about an individual's desire to be reborn as a bird is something that film's author protagonist seeks to work on-- The Avian Kind remains a fledgling concept needing more to take flight. Despite employing quite a few genre elements to drive the film-- what begins as a road movie would, in the film's final third, becomes enmeshed in gun-toting thriller territory. Shin's film flutters in vain to anchor a narrative mired in the lead character's ennui and the paranormal premise defining his wife's fate.
Its launch as one of the three entries of Jeonju International Film Festival's annual self-produced Digital Project (with the other two being Hungarian auteur György Pálfi's Free Fall and Park Jung-bum's Alive) would probably serve as the film's high-water mark, as the film struggles to straddle the distinctly arthouse values of the metatextual Russian Novel (or, for that matter, his 2005 directorial debut A Great Actor) and the mainstream concessions of Shin's last film, the Finecut-backed box-office hit Rough Play. Appearances at international festivals are still possible-- maybe a berth in Locarno, where the Jeonju project has nearly always found a home-- but easy prey this surely isn't, with programmers probably seeking to opt for the gritty drama of Alive.
The present and the past unfolds in parallel in The Avian Kind. In the here-and-now, the angst-ridden novelist Jung-suk (Kim Jung-suk) have largely abandoned his literary career and the upbringing of his daughter to search for his long-vanished wife; having spent all those years struggling to locate her, a sophisticated, bilingual management executive called Alice Kim (or later known as Kim So-yung - which happens to be the full name of actress Soy Kim) rings and offers to help. A journey then kicks in, as the pair meet relatives of other disappeared people and then are assigned to search for them and the shaman believed to have inducted them into their avian transformation.
Meanwhile, what happened 15 years ago unfolds in parallel, as Jung-suk's wife (Jung Han-bi) is seen arriving in the countryside to prepare for her operation, where she bonds with a teenager (Lee Yoo-mi) even more desperate to be reborn as the feathered and flying kind. While repeatedly told about the need for them to be considered of having a suitable physical and psychological constitution to undergo the metamorphosis, little is really said about how this could and would progress; the cave-dwelling master of the process would only warn them of the need for patience and a duration against pain. What's more problematic is how nothing much is revealed about the reason the two women would want to ditch everything they had for this: one awaits the revelation of their tribulations as human beings, but they never really arrive.
As Shin's screenplay drags on without unveiling this key part of the riddle, the film becomes grounded in listlessness, something the strangely predictable twists (in Alice/So-yung's real motive in helping Jung-suk) and the awkward digression away from the main thread (when separate teams of hunters compete with and hinder Jung-suk's search) couldn't salvage.
And for all of Choi Yong-jin's camerawork in conveying the melancholy bringing everybody down, there's no answer about why everybody's so miserable: if all they want is to fly away, why be a bird and not escape somewhere on a plane? When asked why she would want to go through this very difficult and tortured rebirth, Jung-suk's wife said: "I want my husband to know who I am." By the end, nobody's more wiser about who she is, and what she's after and why she would side with the avian kind.
Venue: Jeonju International Film Festival (Jeonju Digital Project 2014), May 3, 2014
Production Company: Luz y Sonidos with Content Road
Director: Shin Youn-shick
Cast: Kim Jung-suk, Kim Soy, Jung Han-bi, Lee Yoo-mi
Producer: Kim Jihyoung
Screenwriter: Shin Younshick
Director of Photography: Choi Yong-jin
Art Director: Lee Jae-sung
Editor: Kim Jung-hoon