Lee Wan-min is a young South Korean filmmaker. She directed several shorts, including Chima (2006), Mensrea (2008), Sang (2009) and Mock or Die (2010), and in 2016, she presented her first feature, Jamsil (2016), which she both wrote and directed, at the 21st Busan International Film Festival; this year, the film was screened in the Women’s Voices strand of London Korean Film Festival.
Jamsil-dong is one of Seoul’s east neigbourhoods, and used to be one of silkworm-breeding hubs of Joseon dynasty – that is also where it got its name. Today, with its Lotte World and Lotte World Tower, it is quickly becoming one of the trendiest locations in Seoul – one of those places that you might want to avoid on the weekend since it gets so swamped by visitors, especially when the weather is nice. But despite its title, Jamsil, Lee Wan-min’s debut feature, pushes the neighbourhood into the background and mutes its colourful identity into the low-saturated hues of gray, black and white – with the exception of rare moments when we either witness a memory or a dream.
Thirty-something Mi-hee’s (Lee Sang-hee) life is in ruins; she has failed to pass the bar exam, her boyfriend has dumped her and she was forced to move – her new place is small and lonesome, an epitome of everything that went wrong in her life. One day, she shows up on the doorstep of the forty-something Sung-sook (Hong Seung-yi) and breaks down, claiming to be Sung-sook’s best friend from high school, even though there is a clear ten-year age gap between the two women. Somehow, Sung-sook invites her into her home and her life.
Sung-sook and Mi-hee grow closer and tentatively build a friendship, but not before long, Mi-hee and Sung-sook’s live-in boyfriend Ik-ju (Im Hyeong-gook) have an affair, while Sung-sook finds herself drawn to a younger man, a journalist Oh Doo-min (Lee Sun-ho). The present and the warm-coloured past shake hands as the story slowly moves forward, to the finale that leaves the audience with a few questions too many.
Jamsil has a strong cast, and especially Hong Seung-yi really delivered with her portrayal of Sung-sook. It is not, by any means, a bad film, but Lee Wan-min’s debut feature suffers from a story that gets too drawn-out and is sometimes confusing; the film would have been much better if it was made as a short, or even if it was just a half hour shorter. The film was object to financial limitations, but there were still a few wrinkles that could have been smoothed out – it digs into the complexities of female friendship, which is a welcome, if sadly vastly overlooked topic, but it at times feels a bit underdone, and the character of Mi-hee occasionally comes off as too one-dimensional. Still, as a debut feature, it shows promise for Lee Wan-min, who is now officially battling the waves of the male-dominated South Korean film industry.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © Keystone Films