'Jane': Film Review | Busan 2016

Busan International Film Festival - Jane -Still 1- H 2016
Courtesy of Busan International Film Festival
A muddled, missed opportunity.

Gu Gyohwan stands out in Cho Hyunhoon's ambitious debut, pivoting on teenage runaways in the care of a transgender woman.

A disjointed experiment in narrative form that takes the unreliable narrator trope to untenable ends, writer-director Cho Hyunhoon’s Jane is a melodrama about runaways in Seoul and the makeshift families they create in order to survive. Hinging on a hot-button topic in its titular transgender character, the film isn’t about Jane at all, but is really focused on its lying (maybe?) teen runaway and her overactive imagination. A compelling turn by Gu Gyohwan as the title character should stoke interest among LGBT festivals, but after that, Jane is destined for oblivion.

The circular, repetitive story starts with Sohyun (Lee Minji) writing a letter to us (to herself? It’s unclear) about her missing boyfriend Jungho, whom she had been waiting for in a motel. When it becomes clear he’s abandoned her, Sohyun slits her wrist and tries to bleed out in the bathtub. Enter Jane, a guardian angel of sorts (yes, a magical/wise LGBT character), who patches Sohyun up and takes her under her wing in her home. There, Jane serves as den mother to other misfit runaways: Jisu (Lee Juyoung), Dae-po (Park Kangseob) and Jjong-gu (Kim Youngwoo). It’s the home Sohyun never had (we can assume), and she finally feels safe, welcomed and valued. Of course, the happiness ends when Jane suddenly dies (natch) and Sohyun is out on the streets again. Her next “family” isn’t as inclusive, and she’s ostracized, belittled and intimidated — until Jisu, Dae-po and Jjong-gu reappear. Family number two also ends in tragedy, but it raises the question: Which family was real?

From minute one, Jane makes it clear that Sohyun is not to be trusted. She freely admits in the letters she reads from that she “conjured” Jane when she needed her, and that she tends to untruths. Or maybe not. Places and events recycle and people previously on the periphery of Sohyun’s story move to the fore in different iterations of that story. But all of that ultimately feels like a gimmick — a seemingly endless one — that provides no context for Sohyun’s situation. As a character, she’s alternately manipulative, weak, pathetic or frustrating, which would be fine if we knew more about her. Sohyun's (and Lee's) most affecting moment comes when she admits to Dae-po that she "doesn't know how to be with people," the sincerity of that sentiment collapsing when we learn she's spitting out someone else's words. It's a nice moment of introspection that distills the essence of the character.

It doesn’t help that the story is a familiar one, loaded up with all manner of rote miseries seen in street-kid dramas from every corner of the globe: Sohyun’s second family is ruled with the same kind of fear its members fled, a sad irony; life on the streets inevitably leads to prostitution; kindness does you no good; and so on. The one bright light in Jane is Jane. Magical sage clichés aside, Gu’s performance is engaging from the moment we see Jane peeking in Sohyun’s door, and never tips over into mannered femininity. Jane’s nightclub speech about living inauthentically is quietly moving, and ties the film’s themes together. It’s just too little, too late.

As it stands, Jane would make a better short film, with more focus on a single, sad moment in Sohyun’s life rather than a protracted drama that sees her ending up where she began. The feature is in Jane herself, in a thoughtful story about being transgender in Korea, an opportunity Cho missed in favor of dancing between fantasy and reality to no real purpose.

Venue: Busan International Film Festival
Production company: House in Seoul
Cast: Lee Minji, Gu Gyohwan, Lee Juyoung, Park Kangseob, Kim Youngwoo, Lee Sikhyeong
Director-screenwriter: Cho Hyunhoon
Producer: Baek Jaeho
Director of photography: Cho Youngjik
Production designer: Lee Heejung
Costume designer: Yang Hyeonseo
Music: flash flood darlings

In Korean

Not rated, 104 minutes