'Communication & Lies': Busan Review

Courtesy of Busan International Film Festival
A hard-to-watch and challenging portrait of broken people.

Debuting director Lee Seung-won defies thematic and stylistic expectations in his confrontational New Currents entry.

Beginning with a nearly 10-minute lecture on sexual morality and acceptable workplace behavior first time filmmaker Lee Seung-won’s confident and ironically titled Communication & Lies is the kind of buzzy conversation-starter BIFF’s competition section has lacked for several years. Lee’s assured debut about a pair of emotionally damaged people in Seoul not communicating at all is anchored by strong performances, particularly from lead actress Jang Sun, of troubling characters, hard to "like" though they may be. As with most of New Currents’ line-up, this is purely festival fare, and any attention it gets outside the circuit will be based on its frank (but not sensational) depiction of intentional sexual humiliation, but the refreshing look at complex human behaviors should take it a fair way.

Beginning with an awkward and intentionally drawn out dressing down by her boss (Kim Ah-hyeon) Communication & Lies introduces us to a woman, Jang Sun (Jang), without showing us her face. But her unconventional attitude and obvious disinterest in standard morality and expectations for women are clear in her half-hearted responses to the other woman’s queries about whether or not rumors that she’s sleeping around with the married men in the learning center she cleans are true. The boss is baffled by Jang’s lack of shame, and that bafflement shows in her reaction. Shortly thereafter, Jang goes home and it becomes clear that she is suffering some degree of emotional and mental anguish, and the film flashes back and retraces what brought her to this point. Needless to say, there’s a devastating personal tragedy in her past.

Elsewhere, Mr. Kim (Kim Kwon-hoo), a teacher at the same learning center and a perpetual tattler — he spends his spare time calling a complaints hotline demanding they address meaningless issues — strikes up an awkward friendship and eventual romance with Jang when he falls for her nonsense story about needing an investor for a bakery. Jang likes the fact that Mr. Kim is unresponsive and somewhat distant, as it suits her self-flagellating purposes. Kim, too, has a past trauma informing his current life, but where Jang is lashing out at herself, Kim has withdrawn into himself. The two soon start a semi-regular relationship rooted in the opposite of the film’s title: they are never totally truthful with each other, and they certainly don’t talk.

Communication & Lies is a character study in the purest sense of the word. Lee brings Jang and Kim together precisely to explore their dynamic as it applies and influences each, but only for the self. As Jang becomes more creative in ways to punish herself with Mr. Kim’s help, he slowly begins to look outside of himself. Neither character is particularly sympathetic, but it doesn’t make Lee’s exploration of them any less empathetic or compelling. Watching them struggle to relate to each other in their fractured way isn’t pleasant, but it is honest. If there’s a flaw in the characters it’s the relatively cliche source of Jang’s pain, but in laying the building blocks for her character, Lee has created the kind of layered portrait of a woman all to rare in Korean (and many others) cinema. Actress Jang’s emotional fearlessness helps, and her willingness to fully explore the character Jang's warts is the foundation Communication & Lies stands on.

The unfussy black and white photography, constrained, television-sized aspect ratio, long, unflinching takes and hand held camera work by cinematographer Ji Seung-woo bring an immediacy and intimacy to the film that makes its feel as if we are learning more about these people than we should. Combined with Lee’s habit of disembodying his characters from time to time it makes for a jarring and fractured experience that mirrors Jang and Mr. Kim’s headspaces at any given time.

Production company: Surplus Project

Cast: Jang Sun, Kim Kong-hoo, Kim Sun-young, Kang Sun-young, Yoo Seo-jin

Director: Lee Seung-won

Screenwriter: Lee Seung-won

Producer: Kim Sang-su

Director of photography: Ji Seung-woo

Editor: Choi Young-woon

No rating, 103 minutes

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