There’s not much in contemporary cinema to compare with “The Last Dining Table,” a superbly composed tableau of forgotten and discarded people living on the outskirts of Seoul. With little dialogue and virtually no camera movement, this existential poem by debut helmer Roh Gyeong-tae uses stillness and a hypnotic soundscape to reflect profoundly, and ultimately with hope, on the hardships of those who are detached from the mainstream. An extremely difficult commercial road lies ahead, but fest programmers everywhere should give audiences an opportunity to witness this experimental gem.
The idea that people could find themselves as marginalized as the characters here is planted in the arresting opening image of a well-dressed businessman, who’s never seen again, making a bed in a tunnel populated by the homeless.
Roh’s key artistic decision is to not reveal the connections between his disparate characters until the film has virtually run its course. Instead, he introduces each in still-life portraiture and allows snapshots of their lives to intermingle.
Of the many lost souls drifting in and out of the picture, the most frequently glimpsed are a young man (Oh Heung-ki) who becomes a gay cabaret dancer; a grief-stricken middle-aged woman (Baek Hyun-joo); a love-starved grandmother (Hwang-Bok-soon), and a middle-aged man (Hong Suk-yeon) who’s been chatting on the Internet with a chubby younger woman (Kim Do-yeon).
Moving through the slums and rural hinterlands of the big city, these outcasts manage, by perfectly measured steps to eventually attain some degree of happiness. Given dignity and performed with precision by a uniformly fine cast, the film never wallows in sadness.
Assisted immeasurably by a soundtrack of discordant industrial noises, bass tone rumblings and snatches of unintelligible dialogue that’s sometimes played backward, film exerts a hypnotic effect that not everyone will click with, but for those who do, “The Last Dining Table” will remain steadfast in the memory.
Jung Young-sam’s evocative photography and artful compositions consistently evoke hope in harsh surroundings, and Jaesin Lee’s music rounds out the exceptional sound package. Final pleasure is a beautiful poem by Chung Yun-suk that appears in the end credits.