Choked: Busan Film Review

A powerful and devastating dramatization of lower-middle class life in crisis.

Director-writer Kim Joong-hyun tackles rampant materialism and obsession with status in a Korean society going through recession.

Choked details an ordinary white-collar worker's descent into hell when his mother disappears, leaving behind a trail of debts. Director-writer Kim Joong-hyun takes up the provocative topics of insolvency, usury and corporate thuggery. Through their deadly ramifications, he exposes the feral and rapacious side of Korean society. Sharp, sheer and deliberately paced, it details harrowing experiences with a cold, steely gaze that gives the film a simmering intensity. While the film mirrors social behavior that is quintessentially Korea, its depiction of hardships in a recession is pertinent to countries everywhere.

The Spartan production and no-name cast (uniformly superb) may stifle commercial opportunities abroad, but critical support beginning in Busan where it premiered will breathe vigorous life into its festival career.

Kwon Youn-ho (Um Tae-goo) lives with his mother Hee-su (Kil Hae-yeon) in a shabby flat owned by his aunt. He has high hopes of building his own love nest with fiancée Se-kyung (Yoon Che-yong). He is indifferent to his mother, and doesn’t notice her absence until divorcee Seo-hee (Park Se-jin) knocks on the door. Ostensibly making a friendly call, she finally admits that Hee-su has borrowed money from her to fund a health supplement sales venture.

Although Seo-hee has no legal proof, she still decides to press charges. Youn-ho finds himself beleaguered not only by the increasingly desperate and therefore hysterical Seo-hee, but by loan sharks for other sums Hee-su apparently owes. Terrified that his sister, her family and Se-kyung would be harassed, Youn-ho is coerced into signing dodgy contracts and becoming handcuffed to a hellish cycle of bank and company loans.

The Korean title of Choked means either “thorn” or “fish bone,” vividly crystallizing the agony and suffocating sensation the film conveys as problems close in on the protagonists. It reflects the precariousness of petit bourgeois existence beneath its placid veneer. In this pressure-cooker society, work is grinding and bullying is endemic in the culture. It is blackly ironic that Youn-ho is in the reconstruction business --- a euphemism for unlawful or at least unscrupulous eviction of whole neighborhoods. So even as he is pestered by loan sharks into giving up “his bodily rights” (a chilling moment in the film), he intimidates tenants to sign equally exploitive deals. Not surprisingly, what goes round comes back.

The filmmaker gets to the roots of the problem, namely rampant materialism and obsession with status. “We Koreans care too much about what others think,” says Hee-su to a colleague while in hiding. Se-kyung matter-of-factly declares she has “expensive tastes” and expects Youn-ho to furnish her with a posh apartment and imported car. Her mother presses the point at her first meeting with Youn-ho that earnestness and kindness do not guarantee marital harmony.

Amidst all these caustic observations, the description of Seo-hee’s plight as she lands in one scrape after another is sensitive and heartbreaking. Through her conversations, we feel that what she misses more is not the money she’s owed but her only friend – she still calls Hee-su “Oni” (elder sister) till the bitter end. This contrasts to the chillingly intractable personality of Hee-su, whose self-centeredness is almost childlike as she remains unperturbed about the grief she’s caused everyone.

Kil is pitch-perfect with her downward gazes and jittery body movements, revealing something disturbing behind her blustering joviality.

Perhaps the film’s biggest merit is not sliding into a senseless bloodbath which many Korean directors would be tempted to do given the aggression that is building up. Instead, both the plot and aesthetics sustain an austere style with long, static close-ups, stark but mundane compositions and sparse music that evoke loneliness and despair.

Venue: Busan International Film Festival, New Currents

Production companies: KAFA Films (Korean Academy of Film Arts)

Cast: Um Taegoo, Kil Hae-yeon, Yoon Chae-young, Park Se-jin.

Director-writer: Kim Joong-hyun.

Producer: Park Eun-ji.

Executive producer: Kim Sung June

Director of photography: Lee Jin-Keun.

Production designer: Seo Hyung.

Music: Kim Mok-in.

Editor: Park Young-sam.

Sales: CJ E&M Pictures.

No rating,110 minutes.