Pascha: Busan Review

The feature starts strong but an overwhelming and muddled third act is what lingers.

Ahn Seon-kyoung’s title is a finely etched portrait of a woman living an unconventional but largely fulfilling life.

Women that try to buck the Korean social order and go their own way have been the subjects of countless dramas in the past but Ahn Seon-kyoung’s Pascha is one of the most memorable of its ilk ever to come down the pipeline. Featuring one of the most finely observed female characters in recent memory (in a cinema that could use less machismo), as well as one of the most disturbing single images, Pascha starts strong but an overwhelming and muddled third act is what lingers.

Forty-ish budding screenwriter and cat owner Gaeul (Kim So-hee) feeds the neighborhood strays, doesn’t eat meat and is living with her 17-year-old lover. In itself none of that is remarkable but this is contemporary Korea, where that cocktail of unacceptable behaviors is social suicide. Her boyfriend Joseph (Sung Ho-jun) is a high school dropout working a dead-end delivery service job and hasn’t even completed his mandatory military service. Despite being outcasts and broke, the pair seem truly happy.

Ahn’s feminine touch brings a healthy dose of reality to Pascha and in the film’s first half it is her eye for simple intimacies (a shared bath, reading from a diary) that make Gaeul and Joseph’s relationship recognizable. Kim and So’s dynamic is refreshingly unfussy and sweet, and Ahn allows it to play out organically within her largely still frames. But this is also a melodrama and eventually tragedy strikes and Ahn heaps punishment after punishment on Gaeul. An unplanned pregnancy almost undoes the lovers; it definitely undoes the film. Gaeul’s decision to have an abortion may have been intended as a stark portrayal of an agonizing event, but Pascha steps over the line with a graphic and disturbing post-D&C sequence that flirts with vehement anti-abortion propaganda that wouldn’t be out of place on a pro-life placard.

Kim does a lot to save what emotional goodwill Ahn nearly destroys with a moving and nuanced performance. There’s a slight disconnect in that Gaeul lives an “alternative” lifestyle but resists complete rebellion when confronted by her family. That is however admittedly a common enough pattern in Korea. And though the film resolves on an upbeat note, it’s hard to banish it’s earlier, needlessly sensational moments.

New Currents
Cast: Kim So-hee, Sung Ho-jun, Shin Yeon-sook
Director: Ahn Seonkyoung
97 minutes

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