'End of Winter': Busan Review

Lotte Entertainment
An astute if somewhat cold, family drama that takes the understated approach to lingering discontent.

First time filmmaker Kim Dae-hwan makes an impression with a well acted and recognizable snapshot of family strife

Bringing new meaning to “awkward family photos,” Kim Dae-hwan’s debut is an assured, if occasionally labored exercise in uncomfortable family dynamics rooted in the simmering resentment and repressed rage that only families can engender. Unfolding over two snowy nights in a small Korean town, End of Winter suffers the malady of too much wasted space and misunderstanding of when long is too long, but ultimately overcomes those minor flaws to deliver a keenly observed portrait of a family living in a communication vacuum and how that leads directly to an irreversible tipping point. Premiering in Busan’s New Currents, Winter is prime material for the section but doesn’t overextend itself with showy artistry. Festivals should show strong interest and art house distribution in Asia is a possibility.

Following his retirement ceremony from teaching school in provincial Cheorwon, Kim Seong-geun (Moon Chang-kil) announces he plans on getting a divorce. Why, what he plans to do and where this sentiment came from is a mystery to his family, particularly his nagging, controlling, oblivious wife (Lee Young-ran). With the snow pounding down and the roads back to Seoul closed, the perplexed clan is compelled to spend the night at Seong-geun’s apartment, leading to an uncomfortable two nights for all.

Nothing really happens in End of Winter; there’s no shocking revelation or long held grudge that emerges to drive the story forward. But the simple observations and little details of Korean social and familial protocols make up for a lack of action and play a significant part in telling the story. Kim’s eldest son Dong-wook (Kim Min-hyeuk) is in pharmaceutical sales, and without ever stating it explicitly, things may not be going that well. His wife Hye-jeong (Lee Sang-hee) has her own modest ambitions, but spends most of her time going overboard trying to please her hypercritical mother-in-law. Su-hyeong (Hur Jae-won), the youngest, is distanced both by years and mentality from his family and can’t quite grasp the so-called shame of the situation. And Seong-geun’s wife lords over them all, alternating between spitting snob put-upon matriarch.

Through it all Seong-geun himself says next to nothing, and his motivations are never fully explored. It’s just as well. His baffling decision inspires confusion but never discussion, leaving room for guesswork and interpretation. As time ticks by, the initial branding of mom as a typically demanding ajumma, Hye-jeong as a spineless pushover and Su-hyeong as the entitled baby are swept aside. Time also brings deeply buried frustrations, anger and blame to the surface in everyone, leaving us to wonder if Seong-geun hasn’t committed a selfless act whose consequences will be better in the long run.

The absence of a score to signal emotional cues and beats serves to increase the awkward tension during the meals they continue to share, but also creates a distancing tone that hovers over the film. The expected emotional explosion never comes, partly because the Kim family is so disconnected from each other and partly because Kim the director hasn’t generated any real emotional traction. End of Winter is astute, but it’s also dispassionate in its observations. The cast is uniformly strong and the film is technically polished, with Kim and cinematographer Kim Bo-ran’s suffocating steel grey palette standing out and adding to the overall reflective tone without every overwhelming it.

Production company: Tiger Cinema

Cast: Moon Chang-kil, Lee Young-ran, Kim Min-hyeuk, Lee Sang-hee, Hur Jae-won

Director: Kim Dae-hwan

Screenwriter: Park Jin-soo

Producer: Lee Im-gul

Executive producer: Cha Won-chun

Director of photography: Kim Bo-ran

Production designer: Ahn So-hyun

Editor: Kim Dae-hwan           

Music: Kang Min-huk           

World sales: Lotte Entertainment

No rating, 102 minutes