A landmark perf by Ra Mi-ran helps put Korean indie streets ahead of other less-accomplished digital festival fillers.
A landmark perf by Ra Mi-ran helps put Korean indie “Dance Town” streets ahead of other less-accomplished digital festival fillers. Following “Mozart Town” and “Animal Town,” the third entry in Jeon Kyu-hwan’s loose trilogy of grim city tales reps a step up in script and execution for this steadily improving Korean auteur. Result is a satisfying if confrontational slice of urban life that plays like a blend of John Cassavetes and Ken Loach with a sharp kimchi taste. Pic is obvious fest fare, but hints at the helmer’s potential to reach a wider arthouse audience. After a gimmicky flashback opening, Pyongyang couple Jung Man-il (Lee Yong-ju) and his wife, Jung-nim (Ra), are shown scheming to take their affinity for South Korea further than contraband DVDs and cosmetics. However, their defection plan goes awry, and Jung-nim is forced to escape North Korea alone. Across the border, South Korean officials seem sincere and welcoming, but Jung-nim remains ill at ease. Script plays on the suspicion that the Northerner is just experiencing post-communist alienation before revealing that Jung-nim’s every move is being monitored by South Korean government agents. Oblivious to the surveillance and told to forget her North Korean husband, Jung-nim does her best to adapt. Living in a bare apartment supplied by the government, she lands a menial job in a large dry-cleaning facility and cautiously accepts invitations to socialize with the locals, including a lascivious cop (Oh Seong-tae). Narrative’s final third pulls all the strands together as Jung-nim plunges into a Stygian spiral of misery. In his earlier, less disciplined, efforts, Jeon favored narrative crisscrossing; here, he keeps a tighter rein. He still offers sideways glances into lives touched by his central protag, but they serve as tantalizing asides rather than overblown narrative detours, apart from a stray strand that focuses on a pregnant schoolgirl (No Seul-gi). One unintentional effect of this superfluous subplot is to distract from the central drama’s genuine wallop. While the script is Jeon’s best yet and the helming reps his most cohesive effort to date, pic’s ace card is the riveting perf by Ra. Swinging from resilience to fragility, she commands attention throughout in a consistent and authentic turn. Other perfs are also strong, including youngster No, even if her character belongs in another film. Seoul-based academic and former Variety reporter Darcy Parquet cameos as a Korean-speaking American missionary. Widescreen HD lensing by Choi Young-san is appropriately bleak, evoking a docu-like tone. All other tech credits are pro.