Moscow -- Film Review

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BUSAN, South Korea -- In what appears to be another example of a trend in current Korean cinema, director Whang Cheol-mean taps into the lingering unease surrounding the global financial meltdown. Economic unrest and the widening gap between the middle class and everyone else is clearly on the collective national mind, as "Moscow" is one of several films at PIFF 2009 that uses the never-ending worry over monetary instability and job security as a driving plot point.

The relevancy of the material may stir interest in urban markets and on Asian and indie festival circuits, but otherwise this modest character study is destined for Korean retrospectives and academic libraries.

Former middle school classmates Jin-hee (Sung Su-jung) and Ye-won (Lee Hye-jin) meet up seemingly by chance after Jin-hee-a labor activist on a hunger strike-abandons her calling in a fit of disillusionment. The tightly wound Ye-won is killing herself as an executive assistant in an anonymous corporate job, and when she gets the opportunity to reminisce about the good old days with Jin-hee she jumps at the chance. She invites Jin-hee to stay with her for a stretch even though the two young women now have little in common with the exception of a love for acting and unrealized dreams of stardom. Soon the runaway agitator is wearing out her welcome by stealing Ye-won's modest thunder at work, wearing her clothes and irritating her other friends.

The film's title refers to Chekhov's "Three Sisters" and those characters' desires to head back to that city and its illusory perfection. Chekhov's classic drama is used as the dominant running motif, and that play's themes of the erosion of affluence and the personal malaise and aimlessness the sisters suffer dovetails nicely with the action in "Moscow." Ye-won's upper middle class background is a source of constant aggravation for Jin-hee, whose family was bankrupted and forced leave Seoul. She didn't get the university education that Ye-won did, and the bitterness stemming from that informs their turbulent friendship. In addition, she's experiencing something of an existential crisis vis-a-vis her role in the labor union.

"Moscow" is the kind of film that only works if the performances ring true, and on that front Lee is the standout. She reigns in the histrionics (with the exception of the juvenile reunion sequence) and lets Ye-won's state of mind and fears reveal themselves in the smallest of details -- the way she walks, blank stares that actually mean something. Sung has the flashier role in the more demonstrative character whose "issues" sit on the surface, but the understated finale where Jin-hee finally drops her facade allows her to show off some much needed nuance.

Pusan International Film Festival -- Korean Cinema Today

Sales: Doo Entertainment
Production companies: Cinegut Films
Cast: Sung Su-jung, Lee Hye-jin
Director: Whang Cheol-mean
Screenwriter: Kim Hyun-kyung, Whang Cheol-mean
Producer: Choi Doo-young
Director of Photography: Kim Moo-yu, Park Hong-ryeol
Production Designer: Bae Yoon-ho
Editor: Lee Chan-ho
No rating, 103 minutes
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