The London leg of the 12th London Korean Film festival came to a close this year with The First Lap, the second feature of an up-and-coming South Korean indie filmmaker Kim Dae-hwan, who is being continuously compared to his fellow SK indie filmmaker and film festival favourite Hong Sang-soo – and yet, it is The First Lap that stands to prove that there is no need for such comparisons, even if they both navigate the South Korean arthouse cinema waters with their low-budget, indie productions.
Ji-yeong (Kim Sae-byeok), a worker at a small network enterprise, and Soo-hyeon (Cho Hyun-chul), an art school teacher, are in their early thirties and have lived together for 6 years. Despite her parents’ pressure, they are still unmarried and appear to be stuck in life, in more ways than one, both in their careers and in their personal lives. But each settled-in reality has a wake-up call on the way, and one evening, Ji-yeong tells Soo-hyeon that her period is late. While trying to deal with the situation, they first visit Ji-yeong’s well-off parents in Incheon. This parental visit clashes in great contrast with the later visit to Soo-hyeon’s estranged, working-class parents on the other side of the peninsula, in a small town of Samcheok, any yet certain family issues seem to be universal; both families and their offspring deal with the undercurrents of disappointment and a lack of understanding between family members, which root the fears that have so far blocked Ji-yeong and Soo-hyeon from forming yet another family.
The story we follow paints the picture with the most natural brushes possible – as Kim Dae-hwan himself said in the interview, “this is a movie that is made up of ad-libs.” There are cinematic metaphors aplenty, with the two cities and families being on opposite sides of the Korean peninsula, with the harsh journey in between the two, and with a few surrealistic moments somewhere in the middle and yet, when it all adds up, the experience is not as bitter as you would expect. The filmmaker and his cast managed to create a very realistic situation, with naturally-flowing dialogues and two relatable central characters that in many ways represent the current situation in Korea – and it’s contemporary value is even more reinforced by the smart use of locations, especially the final scenes that take place during the actual candlelight rally that accompanied the autumn 2016 protests against the former South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
The casting was also done with a lucky hand, since Kim Sae-byeok and Cho Hyun-chul managed to not only handle whatever challenge director Kim threw at them to ad-lib, but they successfully portrayed an ordinary couple that has been in a long-term relationship for long enough to substitute the lack of passion with snuggles, and while their future might be uncertain, there is still a bond and an understanding that can help them overcome each other’s shortcomings and somehow build their relationship further. And this message, with this kind of couple in the centre, is exactly why we should avoid throwing Kim Dae-hwan in the same pot with Hong Sang-soo – the difference in the tone of their works is too vast.
Hong Sang-soo deals mainly with relationships between women and men, often with the topic of adultery lurking either in the corner somewhere (Claire’s Camera, 2017) or even taking the front seat (The Day After, 2017), with a dreamlike quality that wraps his stories into cinematic bubbles. On the other side, Kim Dae-hwan focuses on the topic of family, even if it takes only two to form it – family has been the main subject of all of his previous works, including his debut feature End of Winter, and he explores the topic with a direct and honest approach; he allows for the story and the characters to evolve in the most natural way possible.
While comparisons between Hong Sang-soo and Kim Dae-hwan may be uncalled for in many ways given their differing points of focus, there is one line that would be worth keeping an eye out – Hong has been often named as the “king” of the South Korean arthouse cinema, but given the success of the first two films of Kim Dae-hwan and his exponential growth, there might come a day when that crown will sit in a different lap.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © M-Line Distribution