Precision Personified – The Films of Minji Kang

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Fikri Jermadi admires the details and layers to be found in the films of Minji Kang.

She steps in front of her father in the darkened room. He is seated on the chair, trembling from the terrifying decision that may come to haunt him for the rest of his days. She opens her mouth, and sings for him a sweet song that pierces deep into his soul. As she did so, a silhouette of the hanging lamp falls on his face. It forms a cross not dissimilar to the cross upon which Jesus of Nazareth was bound.

Such is the experience of watching a Minji Kang film. Though rarely expressed as such in so many words, there’s a different layer of meaning to be uncovered, even if you’re not entire sure that such latent meanings existed to begin with. What’s going on here? Is that meant to be there to begin with? I just saw that… didn’t I?

A big part of this is due to the attention to detail paid to her set designs. This was most evident in her film ‘Requiem for Herstory’. Here, we see our young protagonist Yuri (Ashley Zhang) as she struggles under the great weight of expectations hoisted upon her shoulders by her family (and perhaps by extension, society at large).

There’s a particularly telling scene, where she sits on her bed, holding a stalk of flower. She sees a reflection of herself in the mirror, but this other her was happily peeling away the petals, like she’s playing a game of ‘he likes me, he likes me not’. This could be an internal question, suggesting as it does a desire often unexpressed. Is this image an echo of the past, or a projection of her own wishes? It certainly is a silent moment, made eerier by the haunting soundtrack. Could this mean to say Yuri is haunted by her past/dreams/past dreams?

Not that we have much time to ponder, for the moment is pierced by an ungraceful attempt at playing the violin. I am reminded of the ending to Kim Ji-woon’s ‘A Bittersweet Life’, where our protagonist was enjoying a musical performance key in its character development. However, midway through a note, we are cut to the next shot, as he walks away from the auditorium, taking a phone call. This interruption of his and our enjoyment suggests to me that for him, a life of happiness and satisfaction is not one to be had. Here, I feel a similar fidelity of meaning and application could be seen, as Yuri shatters the mirror, followed by her mother’s own shrieking from outside the room. The happy girl in the mirror is no more.

It is also in ‘Requiem’ that the set design was most prominent in the story’s development. The same applies to the rest of her films, of course, but it is here that it intrudes into the story not just as factor in developing mood, feel and character, but also almost as a character itself. We are transported from gothic bedrooms to haunted, smoky exteriors. A shrouded figure ambles past, before handing Yuri a small Victrola music box. Again, a scene with no dialogue is presented pregnant with tension and meaning. Is it yet another dream sequence? Who is the mysterious figure? What link could be made between Yuri’s own budding music career and the little musical gift? Is it a suggestion that her own renditions, driven only by her family’s narcissism, is as devoid of a musical soul as the versions heard on such boxes?

Am I reading too much into all of this? I may be mistaken in doing so, but I was tempted to do much of the same in ‘The Unpardonable Night’. The story follows Jonathan (Mitchell F. Martin), a young boy living in a big mansion with his family. His parents, Linda (Susan Quinn) and Thomas (Stass Klassen), are well to do, respected professionals who nevertheless seems mysterious not only to us, but to Jonathan as well. The relationships appear to be strained, but there is a veneer of perfectionism that has to be maintained. It is this very ideal that forms the basis for Thomas’ book, which he launched on the night of Jonathan’s fateful exploration of the mansion.

A key scene here is the dinner scene, in which all family members at seated at a large dinner table. Both Thomas and Linda appear to be on different sides of the emotional fence, represented by the physical distance between them as they sit at different ends. This tension is heightened when, at a table seemingly set for four, Jonathan sat down at a place that wasn’t his. Evidently, there is another member of the family who is not around, but his mother wasn’t happy of his decision to sit there. Here, Thomas picked Jonathan’s side. “It wasn’t your fault,” he said pointedly at Linda (plenty of echo chamber for interpretations here). I say ‘at Linda’, but the camera positioned us in that situation as well. Once again, I am reminded of Yasujiro Ozu’s tatami shot, where the camera would be placed on the mat in front of characters taking part in an active conversation. In positioning them centrally, it makes us the centre of their attention. Jonathan himself looks directly at the empty chair, a visual indicator of an absent presence. It is an interaction we are directed to directly partake in. If nothing else, such a technique pierces right through the fourth wall without even acknowledging it. This is nothing new, but it is not seen all that often, making it even more effective.

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Interestingly, an identical set up can be noted in ‘The Loyalist’. Minji’s latest short film tells the tale of a North Korean general (Kwon Hyuk-poong) who intends to bring his daughter, Shilla (Jung Woorim) back from a Swiss boarding school. However, Shilla has different intentions, informing her father of an opportunity at a prestigious school in the United States of America. Once again, we are positioned directly in front of the general as he spews his bile on his daughter’s determination. The final correlation to be made to another text relates to Denis Villeneuve’s short film, ‘Next Floor’. I don’t particularly know why, for this film doesn’t necessarily feature well-off people feeding themselves silly. Rather, it is the imagery of the food. Brief though it may be, it suggested a rather brutal approach to life, with animals treated as little more than flesh for meat. A flashback of the general teaching Shilla how to shoot (“No mercy. Kill it!”) might have helped to set this up; the taxidermy on the wall, with dead antlers and reindeers overlooking the proceedings, hammered this further home.

At its heart, though, ‘The Loyalist’ is essentially a story of a father dealing with his daughter’s flying away from the coop. Again, the film’s fantastically-detailed production design suggests a strong loyalty to his homeland, with North Korean memorabilia adorning the wall, replete with direct references to its various supreme leaders. In this home away from home, though, the fatherland and father’s land is conflated into one, bringing into question what is home for Shilla; if it is where the heart is, then we are on the path to an irreconcilable ending.

We may not see or hear too much of her mother, but there are clear references to another mother. Remember the sweet song I mentioned earlier? It was a version of Ave Maria, a melody singing the praises of the Virgin Mary. Traditionally, communism and organised religion as we understand it do not necessarily go hand in hand. In a bathroom scene, Shilla removes her scarf to reveal a cross necklace. The battle lines drawn, there is a contentious dichotomy between differing ideologies. It is such small but significant details that raises many of the questions I mention earlier. There could be an element of happenstance here, but given the aforementioned precision of production design, I am inclined to believe that anything accidental is limited at best. As an aside, a statue of the Virgin Mary can also be seen outside of the mansion in ‘The Unpardonable Night’.

The focus on strained relationships could also be seen in ‘Like Sugar on the Tip of My Lips’. Here’s a part of the official synopsis found on IMDB: “As Laura (Alexandra Roxo) helps Susi (Erin Wilhelmi) prepare for her first date, we get a glimpse at the distressing obsession that has actualised in Laura.” We should note that the younger Susi is actually blind. Presented as someone relatively naïve, she ask what her experiences on this date might be like. Laura explains them one by one, ranging from the taste of kissing another person (which is where the title comes from) to what sex feels like. “First, it hurts,” she starts, still soaping her little sister in the bath. “Then it becomes like…” She gasped; the soap dropped into the bath, creating a perfect aural sensation to complement and compliment the story and its telling.

What drew me in was Laura’s growing hesitation. “Although the older sister, Laura, is not the blind one,” continues the synopsis, “she cannot see the true reality, and she insists on an inappropriate, possessive relationship.” It is an insistence that is evident from the opening frames of the film. At one point, Susi asks for advice on how to present herself for sex. “I want you,” Laura coaches Susi on what she should say to her date, “and I will do anything for you.” She then insists on Susi repeating those words; on the final attempt, she leans in close to her sister, her ears next to her mouth, with eyes closed to truly live those words. “I want you, and I will do anything for you.” We could argue that such diction is likely to lead a lamb to slaughter (at times it feels like Laura is preparing Susi as a kind of sacrificial offering), but the more accurate and perhaps challenging reading here is that Laura herself is not ready to let her sister go. Intertextually, Alexandra Roxo’s a film director in her own right, and her feature film ‘Mary Marie’ appears to be set on a similar premise. Once again, there is a “what’s going on here?” moment that’s never truly answered.

I suppose that’s probably the best way to really consider the works of Minji Kang. I haven’t even gotten to her other short films (‘Her Smile’ was actually the first of her works I came across, and arguably the most tragic of the lot), while numerous clips of her feature film ‘Actually, Adieu My Love’ certainly did its job in arousing my curiosity without truly satisfying it. The films are stories filled with question marks, because in life we don’t necessarily get a lot of the questions answered in the way we want. It probably helps to explain why, in watching her films again, I detect different layers, subtexts and undertones I did not notice before.

We could say the same for many other films, of course, and once again, some of them may well be unintentional, further emphasising Barthes’ idea of a dead author. The onus remains on audiences to ask such questions to begin with, but over and over there is a precision to her filmmaking that is not only pleasing to note, but suggests that Minji is someone who knows what she wants and how to get it on screen. Questions without answers will always lead to different conclusions. Sometimes I think I am asking too many questions, and at times it feels like I’m not asking enough. Perhaps I am not considering the right questions. Either way, a lot of people will consider such filmic explorations perfect for discourse over coffee after the screening.

If you like that kind of film, then watch and ask away.

You check out more of her works here. Her website has more details on her career, while a brief interview on Viddsee further illuminates the darkness of ‘Requiem for Herstory’. 

Featured image credit: Inc.

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