A dysfunctional family's heart of darkness is laid bare in the grimly humorous and then just plain grim meller "Members of the Funeral." Feature bow by Baek Seung-bin heralds a dark wit and sleek intelligence guided by a creatively secure humility.

A dysfunctional family’s heart of darkness is laid bare in the grimly humorous and then just plain grim meller “Members of the Funeral.” Feature bow by Baek Seung-bin heralds a dark wit and sleek intelligence guided by a creatively secure humility. A standout from the substandard HD fodder that generally clogs up Pusan’s New Currents competish and so-called cutting-edge fests, “Funeral” is quietly riveting. A tad too restrained for midnight sidebars or commercial release, pic possesses an intensity that should secure fest berths.

First two reels introduce family members who can’t stand each other attending a funeral. Flashbacks reveal each relative’s earliest association with death.

Husband and dad Woo Jun-gi (Yoo Ha Bok) oversaw the demise of his father 26 years before, which unleashed repressed homosexual yearnings that lead to the death of his first gay lover.

Woo’s wife, Oh Jung-hee (Park Myung-shin), didn’t miss her touring musician parents after they were killed by a North Korean bomb, and could hardly wait for the death of her cruel literary-professor grandfather, who mercilessly squelched her ambitions to be the Korean Agatha Christie.

Finally, their teenage daughter Woo Ami’s (Kim Byul) obsession with death started when she was photographed with a dead cat, prompting a dead-animals scrapbook and culminating in an after-school job cleaning bodies for mourning ceremonies.

At first, pic appears to be yet another free-floating drama about bickering Korean families, but the narrative is anchored by the story of the deceased. Bitter and bitchy interplay between mother and daughter quickly indicate that dead male teenager Roh Hee-jun (Lee Ju-seung) was a buddy of Ami’s, as well as a student in a creative writing class taught by Jung-hee. While each of the distaff characters is unaware of the exact level of closeness the other shared with Hee-Jun, both are completely oblivious to the sugar-daddy role Jun-Gi played.

Dispelling all ideas of coincidence, Roh had submitted stories to Jung-hee and, in her self-absorption, she never realized the outrageous stories were actually about her own family.

Humor falls away, however, as script’s intensity takes over. Film overflows with literary references, but pic still is effectively cinematic.

Perfs are excellent across the board, with Park being a malevolent stand-out as the frustrated writer and unloving mother Jung-hee. Yoo also gives a convincing physicality to the latent homosexual fears/longings that inhabit the Korean male psyche. Younger thesps Lee and Kim are likewise authentic and combined with helmer’s steady hand on his material prevent pic from falling over into farce. Only helmer’s over-reliance on wobble cam mars a stunning debut.

Lensing is as dark as script’s thematic preoccupation with death and deception. Tech credits are a big improvement on the usual lazy digital aversion to professional lighting and sound recording.

Members of the Funeral

South Korea

Production

A Korean Academy of Film Arts production. (International sales: KAFA Films, Seoul.) Produced by Kim Young-hwa. Directed, written by Baek Seung-bin.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Lim Kyung-woo. Reviewed at Pusan Film Festival (New Currents), Oct. 4, 2008. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Lee Ju-seung, Yoo Ha-bok, Park Myung-shin, Kim Byul, Kim Won-sik.

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