'A Matter of Interpretation' ('Kkum-bo-da Hae-mong'): Film Review

A Matter of Interpretation Still - H 2015
M-Line Distribution

A Matter of Interpretation Still - H 2015

An intellectual exercise for the mind concealing an affecting tale for the heart

Long-time Hong Sang-soo collaborators Lee Kwang-kuk and Yu Jun-sang team up on a quirky comedy about an estranged couple and a dream-reading cop.

With his second directorial effort, filmmaker Lee Kwang-kuk has finally emerged from the shadow of Hong Sang-soo, for whom he served as assistant director from 2005 to 2010.

A Matter of Interpretation has proved to be not just an improvement on Lee's own debut Romance Joe (2011), but is actually more structurally intriguing and emotionally affecting than his long-time mentor's recent work. By making sense of its puzzle-like narrative - visualized as a relentless stream of its characters' dreams - the viewer could arrive at an empathetic picture of the alienation and angst of men, women and boy who, at first, might seem to be simply servants of Lee's formalist experiment.

The title, maybe, is Lee's defiant proclamation of independence, that an analysis of his film in the light of others might just be, well, a take among many. It's certainly easy to see A Matter of Interpretation through the prism of Hong's style, as the film features failed artists galore, and actually stars the auteur's long-running star Yu Jun-sang (who plays the singing lifeguard wooing Isabelle Huppert in In Another Country).

As the film wallows deeper into the dreams and thus the headspace of its protagonists, a more rounded and reality-grounded array of individuals appear, their obnoxious behavior giving way to back stories built on anxiety about their vocations, families and future in general. The film deserves its long festival run, which has taken it from its bow in Busan last year to Shanghai last week — via Rotterdam and Seattle — with its next European stops being Munich (on June 27) and Karlovy Vary (July 3).

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Like Romance Joe - which kicks off with a creatively-blocked director teasing inspiration out of the stories offered by a waitress  - A Matter of Interpretation also begins with a character's creative impasse. Dismayed by the empty auditorium at a matinee outing of her play ("The Influence of Dreams") and the ineptness of the cast and crew, actress Yeon-shin (Shin Dong-mi, the "muse" in Romance Joe) storms out of the theater mid-show and ends up feeding her fury while downing liquor on a park bench. Her mid-career crisis is brought further into focus when she reflects on how she's dropped from a film production, replaced by a presumably younger pop idol; her anxiety about her age soon leads her to break up with her director-boyfriend Woo-yeon (Kim Kang-hyun), whom she blames for having frustrated and stifled her aspirations for years.

The film then cuts to another point in time, when Yeon-shin - again at the same bench, but wearing different clothes - is approached by a plain-clothes cop Seo (Yu) who, after briefly chastising her dishevelled behavior, offers to interpret her reveries. At this cue, A Matter of Interpretation begins sailing down its river of dreams, sucking everyone in the story into its run.

There's of course Yeon-shin and the policeman, whose death-fuelled dreams stems from his struggle to care for his amnesiac sister. But Woo-yeon also comes into play, his dreams possibly offering a view of an artist's anguish: he spars (and then gives way) to social norms in the shape of the filmmaker who ditched Yeon-shin, while he sees promising artistic aspirations vanquished in the form of a schoolboy neighbor reprimanded constantly by his mother for "wasting time" on painting.

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Despite the actors playing different characters in different episodes, A Matter of Interpretation rolls on with Lee maintaining more poise and control this time round compared to the sprawling Romance Joe. Moments of hilarity and absurdity are also laced with meaning and gravitas: are Yeon-shin and Seo's comical gyrating in front of each other less a nod to Pulp Fiction, but more a visual allegory of intimacy awaiting "interpretation"? What can one make of the objects found in or floating out of the trunk in a car repeatedly appearing in the dreams?

All this is conveyed in an ethereal melancholy, as DP Kang Dae-hui and production designer Jo Sang-gyeong sets the story running by conjuring winter-time Seoul as drained of color even in sunlight. In the final analysis, A Matter of Interpretation is a sign of a filmmaker making yet another leap towards stylistic maturity.

Production company: Byeokdol Films
Cast: Shin Dong-mi, Kim Kang-hyun, Yu Jun-sang
Director: Lee Kwang-kuk
Screenwriter: Lee Kwang-kuk
Producers: Lee Kwang-kuk, James Do
Director of photography: Kang Dae-hui
Production and costume designer: Jo Sang-gyeong
Editor: Son Yeon-ji
Music: Jeong Yong-jin
International Sales: M-Line Distribution
No rating; 99 minutes