Review: ‘A Petal’

This ambitious, intermittently powerful pic re-creates one of the worst events in Korean history: the 1980 Kwangju massacre, in which thousands of unarmed civilians were indiscriminately shot, clubbed and arrested by government troops. "A Petal" has added relevance, now that former president Chun Doo-Hwan has been sentenced to death for his role in the incident, but its storytelling is both too epigrammatic and too heavy-handed to travel well, at least outside the Korean diaspora. Veteran helmer Jang Sun-Woo ("Road to the Racetrack") takes a convoluted trip to the event, moving both forward in time and back before the tragedy unfolded. Tale centers on a nameless, undernourished and seemingly disturbed young woman --- Moon Sung-Kuen could be anywhere from 14 to 24 years old --- who wanders the countryside in search of her brother. Eventually, she finds a rough, temperamental laborer (Lee Jung-Hyun) and follows him home, claiming he's her kin. He responds by raping her and trying to kick her out, but she refuses to go. Meanwhile, real friends of her brother --- who was accidentally killed in military training --- are looking for her, and they encounter various other people who might have seen the near-mute girl.

When we’re not following these two streams — one a claustrophobic psychodrama, the other a political travelogue — there are flashbacks, shot in several styles (there are two startling animated segs), that go back to the fateful day and its equally brutal aftermath, in a quarry where bodies are casually disposed of. Some of this is tough sledding to watch, although the helmer doesn’t dwell on grisly sights for long.

The greater problem is that he travels over the same terrain so many times. This approach wears thin, diluting the effect of initially shocking events. Also, it’s hard to fathom what pic’s two-handed part, with the orphaned girl coming back to life and the cynical worker softening his stance, represents, except as a general symbol of national reconciliation.

Still, expert tech credits help join disparate elements, including some humorous and nostalgic segs, such as a karaoke-like moment of the pre-Kwangju heroine singing a pop tune from that era — a song from which pic’s title was taken.

A Petal

South Korean

Production

A Miracin Korea (Seoul) production, in association with Daewoo Cinema. (International sales: Mayfair Entertainment) Produced by Ahn Byoung-Joo. Directed by Jang Sun-Woo. Screenplay, Jang Sun-Woo, Jang Moon-Il, based on a story by Choe Yun.

Crew

Camera, Yoo Young-kil; editor, Kim Yang-Il; music, Won Il. Reviewed at Vancouver Film Festival, Oct. 19, 1996. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Moon Sung-Kuen, Lee Jung-Hyun, Lee Young-Ran, Sul Kyoung-Ku, Park Chul-Min, Nah Chang-Jin, Choo Sang-Mi.
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