THIS CHARMING GIRL (2004)
An absorbing portrayal of a forbearing post office worker and the reasons for her self-imposed societal isolation
The cinematic character study, so often the source of focus in Korean cinema, is perfectly pitched here as we become deeply entwined in the fortunes of the cherub-faced Jeong-hye (Kim Ji-soo).
While this character study builds we are led towards notions of the romance arch, but are also shown towards understanding how Jeong-hye’s past has shaped her current demeanour.
However, this romance misdirection might be more to do with the English language title, where the Korean translation is either ‘Woman, Jeong-hae’ or ‘Girl, Jeong-hae’, a much better indication of the film’s focus on the title character than her love life.
We are gripped by better understanding her past events by the connection the film builds between us and Jeong-hye. You find yourself so deeply invested in understanding why this hushed 30-something has placed herself in exile. What are the sliding door that led her to such a life?
Work is the central hub to Jeong-hye’s life where she is a front desk employee at a post office, occasionally eating with fellow workers at lunch. She is more regularly found at home, tending to her plants and avoiding the bustle of the outside world. A monotonous life, but one that she has carefully cultivated.
When a writer (Hwang Jung-min), who frequents the post office, comes in one day it seems Jeong-hye is finally making the plunge to make a connection and asks him to dinner. He accepts, but fails to show, leaving her to ponder another night alone.
Alongside this we are given various flashbacks, often very brief in nature, showing Jeong-hye’s past, including some of the difficulties which has cast this hermit spell over her.
Jeong-hae’s fortunes are our own by this point. Even without understanding what these past events are, we feel the pain of her isolation. We see her search for happiness and the restraint she places upon herself. Beyond interest in her fortunes, it is hard not to feel almost protective of her too.
While the film is subtle and tempered, it also contained passages of tension building. We see flickers of anger and frustration bubble under the compliant façade that she displays.
Kim Ji-soo also offers a restrained performance, often communicated through her gentle expressions and humble outlook.
In terms of Lee Yoon-ki’s direction, much of the film is shot on a handheld, often following Jeong-hae from behind or bobbing between products in the supermarket. This approach allows a more intimate connection with our character, as if we are following them, but more as a personal champion or guardian than a mere voyeur.
The film is melancholic and effecting, but it is also one of the best examples of the power of cinema to draw us into the life of a character and find ourselves so deeply invested in their dark past, searching current, and (we hope) a brighter future.