Writer-director Shin Dong-il once more shows his gift for turning issue-based stories into character-driven entertainment.

A Bengali migrant worker and a Korean high school girl become friends and more in cross-cultural charmer “Bandhobi.” In his third and finest feature to date, writer-director Shin Dong-il once more shows his gift for turning issue-based stories into character-driven entertainment, and has again come up with one of the best South Korean movies of the year. Foreign festivals and even local auds have yet to discover Shin in any major way — despite good reviews, the movie hardly registered on summer release — but it seems only a matter of time before his work gets the recognition it deserves.

Shin delights in taking characters who, on the face of it, are polar opposites, but who in fact have more similarities than they would like to admit, with both sides learning from each other (but not necessarily shifting positions). In “Host and Guest” (2005), it was a nerdy skeptic and a religious evangelist; in “My Friend” (2006), it was two army buddies who’d taken dramatically different paths in life. The joy of Shin’s movies comes from their sly, humorous dialogue and acutely drawn characters, who register as people rather than as talking points.

“Bandhobi” returns more to the simple, two-hander style of “Host and Guest,” though with a more sophisticated edge to the apparently artless filmmaking. Foreigners are such a rarity in monocultural South Korean cinema that merely making one a leading character is close to revolutionary; to make that foreigner also a colored migrant worker is indeed revolutionary. In other hands, the pic could have been simply a grandstanding sociopolitical tract; here, it’s a touching, often witty tale of two social outsiders finding common emotional ground.

Karim (Mahbub Alam Pollob) is a 27-year-old Bangladeshi working in an industrial laundry. His work permit is about to expire and he’s still owed a year’s pay by a previous employer, Shin (Jeong Dong-gyu), who’s not taking his calls; meanwhile, his wife back home is giving him a hard time about money problems.

Seventeen-year-old high schooler Min-seo (newcomer Baek Jin-heui) is a social loner at odds with her mom, Eun-ju (Lee Il-hwa), who has a jobless, live-in lover, Gi-hong (Park Hyeok-gweon), whom she’s planning to marry.

Karim and Min-seo first meet when he loses his wallet on a bus and she tries to keep it. When they meet again later by chance, he asks her to help him track down Shin, and gradually, a friendship between two needy souls develops. For Min-seo, Karim is initially a convenient badge she can wear in a society she sees herself at war with. But as she lowers her defenses, the relationship touchingly turns into more.

Diminutive newcomer Baek (only 18 during shooting) is aces as the spunky, sulky Min-seo, who’s not afraid — in some of the movie’s best scenes — to give any authority figure a mouthful. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime, star-making role, and Baek rises to the challenge, with the more experienced Alam Pollob content to take a backseat. (Initially a migrant worker himself, he’s had a couple of small film roles and is also director of the touring Migrant Film Festival in South Korea.)

If the film can be faulted, it’s that Karim is an overly nice, passive figure, quietly accepting the quotidian slights that a largely monoethnic society like Korea’s unthinkingly makes. But Shin and co-writer Lee Chang-weon do give him at least one right-on outburst, directed at Min-seo, as he accuses Koreans of being “ridiculous hypocrites.”

Though South Korean society doesn’t come off too well in its attitudes toward foreigners, the pic keeps the focus resolutely on its main characters, and the tone is always lightly humanistic. The film has few real villains, apart from Shin, with life shown as simply a matter of finding common ground. Ending packs a quietly emotional punch.

Often using short sequences separated by fades, helmer Shin turns in an unshowy but good-looking tech package, with regular editor Mun In-dae keeping things tight. “Bandhobi” is Bengali for “Friend.”

Bandhobi

South Korea

Production

An IndieStory release of a KT&G presentation, in association with Cinema Dal and Biashin Pictures, of a Bandhobi Prod. Committee production. (International sales: IndieStory, Seoul.) Produced by Kim Il-gweon, Shin Dong-il. Executive producers, Stanley Kwak, Kim Il-gweon, Jo Yeong-gak, Kim Jo Gwang-su. Directed by Shin Dong-il. Screenplay, Lee Chang-weon, Shin.

Crew

Camera (color), Park Jong-cheol; editor, Mun In-dae; music, Kim Jong-geun; art director/costume designer, Kim Seon-mi; sound (Dolby Digital), Park Jong-geun, Lee Seung-cheol; sound designer, Kim Il-gweon; assistant director, Lee Eun-jeong. Reviewed on DVD, London, Oct. 31, 2009. (In Jeonju Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 107 MIN.

With

Mahbub Alam Pollob, Baek Jin-heui, Lee Il-hwa, Park Hyeok-gweon, Jeong Dong-gyu, Kim Jae-rok, Hyeon Weon-heui, Choi In-suk, Jean Sebastian, Park Yeong. (Korean, Bengali, English dialogue)
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