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BUSAN, South Korea — Based on a story by Kwon Jeong-saeng, “Mongsil” is a harrowing period drama about a young girl bounced back and forth between her mother, step-mother, father, and a kindly stranger as she struggles to care for her younger sister in the years at the end of World War II and the beginning of the Korean War. Abjectly miserable and unapologetically gut-wrenching, “Mongsil” loses its way for being simply too much misfortune to have any real impact. It is the cinematic equivalent of donor fatigue.
The same festivals and distributors that showed an interest in Kim So-yong’s superior “Treeless Mountain” may take an interest in “Mongsil.” The subject matter is similar — both are about young sisters trying to get by after their mother dumps them with a reluctant relative — but “Mongsil’s” lack of hope and unrelenting suffering will make it a hard sell almost everywhere, including at home in Korea.
Mongsil (Hwang Solwhy) and her mother flee a brutal, alcoholic man in 1947 and run smack into much of the same with the mother’s new husband. Almost immediately, Mongsil becomes an indentured slave, particularly after a son is born to her mom. Eventually, she’s shuffled back to her biological father, whose new wife (there’s no mention of any official divorces) actually shows her some affection. She dies shortly after her daughter Nannam (Park Minjung) is born, and it’s just the two of them for the rest of the story. There’s a quasi-happy ending when Nannam is adopted into a wealthy, stable home.
Though structured in a delicately literary way (there are intertitles that serve as chapter breaks) “Mongsil” boils down to an inordinate amount of crying, runny noses, and crawling through dirt and/or snow-all in painfully overexposed HD and, very often, oddly framed shots that carry on too long. That might be acceptable if there was a stronger sense of reason behind Mongsil’s blind devotion to her negligent parents and a more gradual strengthening of her resiliency. But there’s not. Director Lee Jisang’s modern eye leans toward condemning the rules of propriety of mid-century Korean society that force the behavior that affects everyone so intensely, but the film’s historical tone creates a disconnect with contemporary reality. Not much has changed, making “Mongsil” something of a missed opportunity.
Venue: Pusan International Film Festival — Korean Cinema Today
Sales: Cinema Dal
Production company: Jisang Film
Cast: Hwang Solwhy, Seo Kyeonghwa, Park Minjung, Kim Joongki
Director: Lee Jisang
Screenwriter: Lee Jisang
Producer: Kim Ilkwon
Director of Photography: Lee Jisang
Music: Sim Hyungjung
Editor: Kang Mija
No rating, 91 minutes
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