South Korean filmmaker Shin Su-won is one of those rare female Asian filmmakers that have managed to break through the male-dominated walls of the industry to not only get noticed, but acknowledged. Her debut, self-produced feature Passerby #3 managed to immediately snag both domestic and international attention – it even won the Best Asian-Middle Eastern Film award at the 2010 Tokyo International Film festival. She followed up this success with Pluto in 2012, while her mystery-drama Madonna got screened at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Shin Su-won’s continuing success is reflected in the fact that her newest feature, Glass Garden, received its world premiere as the Opening Film of the 22nd Busan International Film Festival.
There is a mystery and an aesthetics to Glass Garden that almost make it into a scarier, adult version of Agnieszka Holland’s 1993 Secret Garden (based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel of the same name). But instead of an inquisitive girl and her invalid cousin, we are met with two adults in reverse gender roles and a lot of baggage. The first is Jae-yeon (Moon Geun-young), a withdrawn, brilliant researcher. Despite her disability (her left leg is underdeveloped, causing her to have a bad limp), she works hard to create what she calls “green blood”: she works on transplanting chlorophyll from plants into red blood cells, which would ultimately extend human life. Her research is promising but would take years to bear fruit; human greed drives her colleague Soohee (Park Jisoo) and Jae-yeon’s boss and lover, Professor Jung (Suh Taiwha), to steal her research, using it to create a cosmetic money-maker. Betrayed and abandoned, Jae-yeon leaves her job and her run-down rooftop apartment and moves back to her childhood home – a forest with a run-down glasshouse.
At the same time, just across the street, the life falls apart for another person – novelist Ji-hoon (Kim Tae-hun) has a spat with a famous novelist over plagiarism that effectively shuts down any dreams of him becoming a successfully published author; not only that, he learns that due to a genetic mutation, one of his carotid arteries is blocking oxygen delivery to his brain, a condition that will only worsen with time and along the way stiffen his limbs. Ji-hoon slowly becomes interested in Jae-yeon, even more so after he inexplicably decides to move into her old apartment after she leaves; there, he discovers remnants of her research and a painting that brings out his rusty, undernourished inner storyteller.
With a stalkerish behaviour, Ji-hoon tracks down and makes contact with the now entirely shut-off Jae-yeon. As he uncovers the layers of her personal story and her fantastical affinity for trees and plants, his story gets poured onto pages of a soon uberly-popular, anonymous webnovel. With each chapter, the lyrical, romantic interpretation of snippets that Ji-hoon observed and/or stole from Jae-yeon’s life engulf the writer; but the beginnings of a romantic forest fantasy in green between a girl who loves trees and man who by his own words is “stiffening into a tree” get disturbed by a dark secret, lurking in Jae-yeon’s forest.
The story, building also on the Buddhist mythology of being reborn as a tree, has a lot of potential at first and its beginning pace and build up are well-executed, but, as one of the characters states in the film, “pure things contaminate easily”. Towards the end, the moments of clear narrative are disturbed by the erratically fast escalation of things – there is a fast overflow of major, plot-shifting events. Adding to that, one of the plotlines is very predictable, though it remains unclear until the very end which ending Shin Su-won chose for her characters. The acting has both good and bad moments; to those not accustomed to Korean cinema, Moon Geun-young’s almost expressionless (save for the perpetual deer-in-the-headlights look) acting might be a bit underdone, but it will probably satisfy the domestic audience. Kim Tae-hun’s character is the one that bodily expresses the madness from within, and his acting is quite solid.
It honestly cannot be said that Glass Garden, Shin Su-won’s most expensive film to date, is not a good film, but it definitely belongs into the drawer with the odd, slightly lacking bunch of Korean cinema. Should the director, the famous cast and the intriguing trailer lure you in, keep it in mind that you should definitely see it on the silver screen – the stunning visuals that bring so much to the film will probably lose much of their power on any screen with a size under 24 inches or so.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © LittleBig Pictures