A rumination on grief, guilt and gentrification in this time-jumping tale of a young girl’s complex relationship with her sister’s husband
Some films can skim over the psychological complexity of its characters to ensure the safe passage of its narrative arch instead. Humans are bags of conflicting emotions and vacillating motivations, and establishing much of that in under two hours is challenging.
Following up her successful 2003 outing ‘Jealousy is My Middle Name’, Park Chan-ok manages here to progress her story, jumbling the time passages we see in the process, while chiefly focusing on the cerebral aspects of our characters’ fortunes. She inverts notions of skipping any psychological aspects, instead placing such angst front and centre.
Beyond this, we also peer into the lives of the inhabitants of the title city Paju – located on the North/South Korean border – and facing forced gentrification and aggressive development.
After his unintentional involvement in a tragic domestic accident, Joong-shik (Lee Sun-kyun –Nobody's Daughter Haewon, Parasite) moves to Paju and attempts to dull his guilt as he teaches religious classes to schoolgirls.
One of his students Eun-mo (Seo Woo – The Housemaid) has an older sister, Eun-soo (Shim Yi-young – Cruel Winter Blues), who catches the eye of Joong-shik and the pair get together.
However, Eun-mo despises the relationship and attempts to drive a wedge between her teacher and older sister. What unfurls from here is filled with tragedy and regret, as Eun-mo and Joong-shik are forced closer together through bitter circumstance.
As such, their relationship evolves and thaws, producing a complex bond that leaves both unsure of their feelings and future.
The underplayed emotive nature, character development and Park’s direction makes Paju eminently watchable, but it might be the most quintessential example of a film that demands a second viewing. This is partly because the timeline jumps around so readily, but mainly because the emotional subtleties demand a repeat comprehension. Time consuming perhaps, but rewarding.
There is still plenty to ponder from an initial viewing of course. Grief, so often the topic of horrors and drama such as this, has an unstoppable ability to follow us around. Time, location and the company you keep can change, but the emotional baggage of grief will follow us anywhere.
Paju also comprehends how misfortune – the random generator of fate that can impact our lives at any moment – can suddenly rear its head to remap our destinies. Our characters suffer difficult lives as a result of such sliding doors sending them down another painful path.
This is a complicated piece of filmmaking from Park, as scenes across various time periods need to be managed and it highlights her talents that everything worked so well. It provides a rich tapestry of events, a quilted blanket of junctions.
As always with films that focus on the character study elements, the performances are key, with Lee Sun-kyun and Seo Woo establishing mood and portraying sentiment with subtle craft.
Paju is an emotionally profound and smartly layered outing, exposing our vacillating natures and how loss can change us in ways we find hard to comprehend.