Despite the complexity of portraying homelessness on screen, filmmakers keep rising to the challenge. The South Korean filmmaker Jeon Go-woon skillfully depicted the subject in her debut feature Microhabitat, in which she also questions different aspects of adult life. The film revolves around the character of Mi-so (Esom: Warriors of the Dawn, The Third Charm TV Drama), a thirty-something-year-old woman who takes odd jobs as a housekeeper, and whose future doesn’t look like a bright field of flowers. When faced with an increase in rent, she decides to leave rather than to pay the extra money – the money that she spends daily on whiskey and cigarettes seems more significant to her than a place to live.
The feeling of uncertainty surrounding Mi-so’s life and her refusal to integrate into the traditional ways of South Korean society are not what they seem. The further the narrative goes, the more the audience learns about Mi-so and her unorthodox decision-making. After leaving the apartment, she seeks support of her high school friends – they used to play together in a band – and while we observe her couch surfing, we start noticing Mi-so’s strong persona. Her encounter with the former bandmates, after years of not meeting them, also allows the viewer to discover the characters’ different ways of living. Her trips from one friend to another do not break Mi-so’s strong spirit, even as at first, she is greeted with open arms, only for them to turn their backs on her later. But with each of her visits to her friends, she brings a smile on people’s faces and somehow leaves a tiny bit of happiness in their lives.
Apart from whiskey and cigarettes, Mi-so holds tightly onto her boyfriend Han-sol (Ahn Jae-hong), who struggles to make a living with his webtoon. He decides that he wants a normal life, a life where he can afford a rent and a decent existence. Will his decision of moving away from Seoul affect Mi-so? Will it break her spirit?
Esom is sublime in the role of Mi-so; she manages to create a real and coherent character who delights the audience with her presence on the big screen; she is deeply committed to her role, which makes her character all the more interesting. Contrary to Mi-so’s former bandmates, she doesn’t live her life by yearning for the past, she seems to live day-to-day and is at peace with herself – Esom transfixes the audience with her excellent performance.
In Seoul, living in a specific place shows one’s position in the society – the director exposes the overpriced and sometimes dangerous housing reality in the capital and shows broader social complexities of Seoul, such as pervasive high rents and difficulties the people face when searching for a decent job. For such a small production, Jeon Go-woon did an impressive job. The film is well edited and Kim Tae-soo’s cinematography is wonderful – he captured the metropolis the way it really is; the audience is not misled with unneeded imagery, there is just the raw, yet beautiful portrait of Seoul, which also plays a role of its own in the film, as the backdrop on which we explore Mi-so’s life. Microhabitat is an immersive, intelligent and thoughtful film that shows the harsh reality of life, with homeless people slowly becoming an invisible community.
Written by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Sanja Struna
All photos © CGV Arthouse