Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) is divided into several sections; among these, the international competition “New Currents” section holds the most importance for the new and emerging Asian directors; each year, only the select promising directors with their first or at most second features can take part in the competition to win the prestigious New Currents Award (or awards; there were years when not 1, but 2 films won the award) – and with it, international recognition that can pave the way to their future success.
At the 21st BIFF, 11 international Asian productions were in the running – including In Between Seasons, the directorial debut of Lee Dong-eun, which ultimately did not win the New Currents award, but did win the KNN award as the film that achieved the highest acclaim by the festival audience among the films in the New Currents section.
The story of In Between Seasons was always intended for the silver screen but found its way to it only after its creator Lee Dong-eun, who first majored in economics and journalism, won a literary contest award in 2015 for another graphic novel, titled “My Other Mother”; riding on that success, he joined the students of the first generation at the Myung Films Institute and adapted his first graphic novel “In Between Seasons” into a film during the two years of the programme, with it being the first film ever produced by Myung Films Institute.
While In Between Seasons includes many sweet and lighthearted moments with a generally poignant mood, it starts on an ominous note – there is a car crash, but the story pulls us four years into the past before we learn who was involved. From this point on, the story revolves around three people – the center being Mee-kyung (Bae Jong-ok), a middle-aged woman whose husband is working overseas while she’s raising their son. While still in high school, Mee-kyung’s son Soo-hyun (Ji Yoon-ho) brings home his friend Yong-joon (Lee Won-geun). Mee-kyung quickly warms up to the shy and polite Yong-joon who is apparently going through a hard time, effectively becoming his second mother. We can see that throughout their high school and college years, Yong-joon more often than not acts as a bridge between the natural mother and son, taking on the role of a mediator between the often closed-off Mee-kyung and the free-spirited Soo-hyun, even taking Mee-kyung to visit Soo-hyun during his stint in military. The story continues with shifts back and forward – in the present, we learn that it was Soo-hyun and Yong-joon who were involved in the accident, with Yong-joon injured and Soo-hyun left in a vegetable state – and this is where the core story actually begins.
As viewers, we have for a while suspected that there is more to Soo-hyun’s and Yong-joon’s relationship than mere friendship – something Mee-kyung learns while going through her son’s camera after the accident: Soo-hyun and Yong-joon have been lovers since their high school days. This makes Mee-kyung, who was prone to battling the world by herself before, push Yong-joon away completely, and then take additional steps by sending (as we learn) her cheating husband packing as well – she gets a divorce and effectively isolates herself and the comatose Soo-hyun from the rest of the world by moving them both into a nursing home somewhere in the countryside, her sister being the one person whose presence she doesn’t seem to mind. The triangle takes on a more two-sided aspect, with Mee-kyung who has bottled up all of her pain and is living an almost robotic life in one corner, and Yong-joon who has – with Soo-hyun – lost his whole world and who now desperately tries to find them, in the other. Can the two find a way to connect again and to push their lives forward, through all the pain and the grief?
What gives In Between Seasons its true value is that – instead of searching for a scandalous edge, instead of dwelling too long on the gay or homophobic aspects that too many a film within the LGBT sphere take on – this film zooms in to a totally different emotional scope: it is about two people who lost a lot and are going through a hardship with a centre they have in common; who are very different, but at the same time, very similar – in fact, in many aspects, Mee-kyung and Yong-joon are more similar to each other than the actual mother and son. The film deals with the basic human need to connect even when on the surface, connection is rejected; it is about finding solace in places that before offered only pain. As the director himself said in his interview for View of the Arts, “it is about how one can get hurt, and about how one can console another person.” The gay aspects are approached mostly through shared memories of Yong-joon and Soo-hyun; most of them are heart-warming and very sweet.
LGBT community in South Korea exists almost entirely out of the public eye, with only a few films and TV dramas that dared to approach the topic. But by not being too sensationalist about it, In Between Seasons actually treats the relationship between the two as something that may not be common, but is en entirely normal thing – as it should be. Somewhere along the film, the society’s outlook on gay relationships is embodied in Yong-joon’s family’s rejection of him and his lifestyle, but that is treated more like extra information than an actual storyline. Also, it may be that Mee-kyung at first rejects the idea of a relationship between the two, but we quickly understand that she is pushing Yong-joon away mostly because she is pushing away the world of pain itself – along with the person that was involved in the accident. But she lets Yong-joon back when she realizes that his love and his pain, as well as his selfless devotion to Soo-hyun, in many ways mirror her own.
Bae Jong-ok, a seasoned actress with an impressive filmography under her belt, excels in the role of Mee-kyung – each of the emotions her character goes through is portrayed with a timeless elegance, but also a rawness that only someone of Bae’s caliber could convey. It is easy to understand why director Lee envisioned her for the role of Mee-kyung in the first place. Casting Lee Won-geun as Yong-joon despite the initial reservations also turned out to be a brilliant thing – the actor might be almost too good-looking, but his talent shines in this role – his natural innocence adds to the role as much as Bae’s experience adds to hers. This is an actor to look out for – despite his young age, he also appeared in Kim Ki-duk’s The Net this year – for now, he apparently excels in sympathetic roles. Lee Won-geun and Ji Yoon-ho deserve praise also for their believable portrayal of the young lovers.
Even though In Between Seasons has many positive aspects, it must be said that this is not a film for viewers who like their films fast-paced. The tempo of the film in the second half is more meditative than not, and the focus is on the gradual re-build of the relationship between the mother and her son’s (boy)friend. Some of the passages between scenes could have been smoother, and in terms of the topic, it is not as original as it is general – but still humanist enough to deserve attention. All in all, it will be interesting to see what topic director Lee will choose to tackle next.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © Myung Films Institute