'The Uncle' ('Sam Chon'): Film Review | Filmart 2019
A young woman paralyzed by trauma finds a new lease on life with help from a mysterious relative in Kim Hyoung-jin’s debut feature.
Predatory human behavior and the impact of trauma are at the heart of debuting writer-director Kim Hyoung-jin’s heavily symbolic curiosity The Uncle, an often bracing examination of the cycles of abuse, power and social hierarchy we subject each other to that throws in a touch of revenge thriller for good measure. In some ways a rallying #MeToo drama, the story frequently goes off in some odd directions, most times effectively so, and toys with character development just enough to remain engaging throughout. There are admittedly a few sequences that raise the question of whether or not Kim is indulging in the exploitation he’s ostensibly criticizing, but for the majority of the film’s run time it’s an affecting look at the shameful side of human nature. Festivals, especially Asia-focused events, will sit up and take notice. Mirovision is handling sales at Filmart.
Due to some unknown emotional or psychological trauma, 19-year-old Ipse (Jung Woo-rim) spends her days mostly bedridden in her home in a small Korean village, either lying there silently or watching NatGeo nature docs. Both her parents are dead, and she’s a ward of the state in every way imaginable. She’s not completely immobile; she can use her arms, and she speaks if she’s motivated to, but that’s a rarity given her predicament as the town “freak.” The elders shriek at her about being a “whore” and disparage her dead mother as one, too. Teenage boys taunt her from outside her window when they’re not breaking in and using her home as their own personal garage space for band practice. She’s regularly molested by one of the group as well as by the city’s social services boss, Mr. Kim (Go Gyu-phill). Mr. Kim’s girlfriend, of a sort, is Ja-young (Na Ji-you), her caseworker and primary care provider, who abuses Ipse verbally and physically, simply because she doesn’t like her. She’s also unhappy with herself.
For the first half hour of The Uncle, it’s hard to fathom why Kim is subjecting Ipse to this horror show. Her debasement is constant and the town priest (Kang Shin-chul), who claims to be doing the right thing for her, is utterly useless. Ipse’s opening meditation on reality and identity becomes even more poignant when we see what her life has been reduced to.
But then her uncle, Gang-sik (Kang Shin-hyo), shows up out of the blue and moves into the house. He’s a convicted rapist and murderer — the victim was Ipse’s mother — but for some reason the two form a tight bond and he manages to bring her out of her shell. This despite the fact that he is no longer able to speak, and seems to have only one outfit (lovely hipster-chic shredded jeans paired with a slouchy-cool tank top) to go with his shaggy male model hair. He watches porn all night — loudly — and is a devoted practitioner of tough love. Ipse’s sitting at the dining table whether or not she likes it. Most crucially, he defends her from her abusers, if (at first) merely by being in the house. While some of Gang-sik’s chivalry is admirable, just as much is troubling. Having him intimidate a woman (Ja-young) who knows he’s a convicted rapist is just not on, regardless of the message Kim thinks he’s sending. This being a Korean film, naturally Gang-sik’s defense turns violent, but ultimately his actions leave Ipse with a new lease on life.
Kim is clearly fascinated by how easily any of us can slip into animalistic cruelty when faced with weakness, almost gleefully so, and he’s just as fixated on male privilege. While Ja-young is also in a position of powerlessness (when her reckoning comes she appeals to Ipse’s sense of sisterhood), all the men Ipse is surrounded by feel entitled to her body. It’s a cycle that led to her mother’s death and is repeating with her.
While the storytelling in The Uncle is refreshingly odd and Kim allows cinematographer Lee Jae-pil to let loose with tilted camera angles, dark spaces and scads of close-ups, it’s really Jung who holds the film together. Her performance balances fury, fear, despair and plain old-fashioned sorrow in perfect proportion, injecting Ipse’s growth with much more density than can be demonstrated by plants seeding and blossoming (in fine Filmmaking 101 form, “ipse” is the Korean word for leaf) and through the nature documentaries she watches with Gang-sik.
Production company: Jin Film
Cast: Kang Shin-hyo, Jung Woo-rim, Kang Shin-chul, Go Gyu-pil, Na Ji-you
Director: Kim Hyoung-jin
Screenwriter: Kim Hyoung-jin
Producer: Park Hae-oh
Director of photography: Lee Jae-pil
Production designer: Lee Shi-hoon
Editor: Park Chan-wook
Music: Lim Min-ju
World sales: Mirovision
No rating, 100 minutes