'Glass Garden': Film Review | Busan 2017

Courtesy of Busan International Film Festival
Moon Geunyoung in 'Glass Garden'.
Engagingly odd yet oddly inscrutable.

'A Tale of Two Sisters' star Moon Geunyoung makes a welcome return to the big screen in the opening film for this year's BIFF.

The imbalance of power between the 1 percent and society's most marginalized — and the lengths both will go to in order to maintain or gain that power — once again informs writer-director Shin Suwon's storytelling, this time in Glass Garden, making its world premiere at this year's BIFF. Shin focused on an average student from an average school desperately trying to make inroads with his new school's elite in Pluto, and explored the unethical, money-driven pact between a struggling nurse's aide and a billionaire's son keeping his comatose father alive to hold on to his fortune in Madonna; here she wraps those notions of inequity and injustice within a vaguely magical realist romance, to curious but ultimately middling effect.

In the years since her 2007 debut, Passerby #3, Shin has become a vibrant and vital woman's voice in Korean cinema, and Glass Garden is arguably her most "feminine" film to date; its narrative is rooted in the emotions of a young woman with an enigmatic connection to nature and shot with warm, soft light and natural photography. Shin's name above the title is likely to carry the film a fair way in its native South Korea, and A Tale of Two Sisters star Moon Geunyoung, making a rare film appearance, could easily help the film win audiences across Asia. A long life on the festival circuit is guaranteed.

Biotech scientist Jaeyeon (Moon) leads a life of self-imposed solitude, mostly stemming from the insecurity born of a disability to her left leg. For reasons unknown — though her father claimed a curse — her growth stunted at age 12, resulting in limp and one noticeably underdeveloped limb. Jaeyeon has no trouble with her brain, however, and she's currently researching a green blood cell technology, a process that would allow photosynthesis in human and thus eliminate the need for external oxygen (oh, the magic of the movies). She's also deep in a romance with the head of her private lab, Professor Jung (Suh Taiwha), and in a rivalry with beautiful fellow scientist Soohee (Park Jisoo), though she doesn't know it. When Jung and Soohee pilfer her research to save the lab and parlay it into a buzzy, gimmicky cosmetics line, Jaeyeon retreats to the forest where she keeps a ramshackle cabin, a kind of ancestral home where she continues her research clandestinely and also re-establishes her strange communion with nature.

While all this is going on, budding novelist Jihun (Kim Taehun) is hard at work trying to win back professional favor and get off the blacklist he landed on after publicly insulting a prominent and powerful author. Jihun lived across the road from Jaeyeon and, puzzled about her sudden disappearance, tracks her down in the woods, in her so-called glass garden. He begins watching from afar (dude, weird) and turns her life into a web novel that becomes a smash hit, but one that had dire consequences for Jaeyeon.

There's a fair amount to unpack in Glass Garden, which, for its often forced lyricism and muddy storytelling, makes for a compelling view. Lurking beneath the surface is a worthy examination of the clash between public science for the public good and science for profit. And Shin revisits the friction between the marginalized and voiceless and those who keep them that way, and the wish to exert the self. That's all very intellectual, but Garden is also thick with romance, between Jaeyeon and Jung, and Jihun and Jaeyeon. The scientist and the writer share an outsider's status, hers bestowed and his self-imposed, and their growing interactions anchor the second half of the film, up until Jaeyeon's bond with nature takes on its final fantastical — and literal — spin.

Glass Garden should be commended for its originality and shameless romanticism, but Shin has so much crammed into the story that no one thematic element takes a commanding position. There's a full film in the lab story, not just in the debate over the use of science, but how in an industry defined by meritocracy, the more conventionally attractive Soohee still comes out ahead. Jihun is also punished for speaking truth to power in publishing, a timely notion given the state of media. Both threads are dropped by the midpoint, rendering them afterthoughts. By the same token, Jaeyeon's spiral into depression, or madness, or rage (it's unclear) is opaque, as are her motivations for allowing Jihun to use her life for his book. Glass Garden almost comes off the rails in last act, as Jaeyeon's actions catch up to her and police descend on her glass garden. Nonetheless, this is unmistakably Shin's most empathetic work, as well as her most accessible.

Wobbly as the film is in moments, none of its flaws can be laid at Moon's feet, who's perfectly mannered as a retiring woman who slowly finds her legs. Morphing from a girlishly round-faced nerd to a more assured, shaggy-haired innovator who is confident she's right, Moon keeps Jaeyeon on the right side of vulnerable, passive and wounded. She makes you feel for Jaeyeon, and the final moments, where it's clear she's found her place and learned to breathe on her own, are equal parts bittersweet and triumphant. Tech specs are excellent across the board, with Yun Jiwoon's diaphanous photography a highlight.

Production company: June Film

Cast: Moon Geunyoung, Kim Taehun, Suh Taiwha, Lim Jeongwoon, Park Jisoo

Director: Shin Suwon

Screenwriter: Shin Suwon

Producer: Francis Lim

Executive producer: Kwon Jiwon

Director of photography: Yun Jiwoon

Production designer: Yoon Sangyoon

Costume designer: Lee Sujung

Editor: Lee Younglim

Music: Ryu Jae-ah

World sales: Finecut


In Korean

No rating, 117 minutes