'A Fresh Start' ('Sae-chul-bal'): Locarno Review
South Korean first-timer Jang Woo-jin casts a light on those trying to begin again after a stint in the army
A grand-prize winner of the Jeonju International Film Festival's Korean competition this year, Jang Woo-jin's first feature-length effort offers a simple narrative, austere performances and economical mise-en-scene. A Fresh Start is a refreshing piece of indie-scale cinema made by a filmmaker interested in evoking a commonly-felt ennui without resorting to full-blown melodrama.
Far from the (literally and metaphorically) plastic pop-idol histrionics that dominate films (and TV series) geared toward South Korea's 15-25 demographic, A Fresh Start is better suited to a festival run, with its premiere a part of Locarno's emerging-filmmaker section. In a rightful world, though, the film would resonate mightily with the country's young audiences — the angst and alienation experienced by Ji-hyun (Woo Ji-hyun), having just re-entered civilian life after his mandatory military service, are probably universal and very real.
Maybe a bit too real — and authentic to the point of unnerving, as Ji-hyun hardly discovers a fresh start awaiting him. Never resorting to flashbacks or long exposition about his days in the army (little beyond a friend's line about how military life is "easier" because of the strictly regimented life), A Fresh Start is all about a young man's struggle to adapt to his old/new surroundings.
Among the sources of his grief are needy friends, bipolar bosses, loan sharks, detractors of his Korean literature major program and the stress brought about by upcoming exams for civil service jobs.
It's only after a one-night-stand with fellow student and kindred spirit Hye-rin (Lee Hye-rin) — an encounter depicted without much passion or glory, but just truncated, matter-of-fact physical urges — that Ji-hyun is forced to break out of his languor and reconnect with the things around him. That said, A Fresh Start doesn't do dramatic epiphanies and watershed moments; it's more about small-scale reactions to (potentially) life-changing tremors.
Having engineered this technically competent and precise piece, Jang has proven his skill in conjuring gripping moments from the most austere situations. Given how this university backed debut has now been picked up by media conglomerate Lotte Entertainment, Jang's future will be as interesting as this finely calibrated debut.
Venue: Festival del Film Locarno (Cineasti del presente)
Production companies: Tiger Cinema in association with Dankook University
Cast: Woo Ji-hyun, Lee Hye-rin, Heo Je-won, Park Seon-woong
Director: Jang Woo-jin
Screenwriter: Jang Woo-jin, Kim Da-hyun
Producers: Kim Dong-ho
Executive producers: Cha Won-cheon with Lee Sang-moo
Director of photography: Park In-bum
Production designer: Kim Hyun-a
Editor: Jang Woo-jin
Sound designers: Jeong Ming-ju, Kim Pil-su
International Sales: Lotte Entertainment
No rating, 94 minutes