Korean auteur Jeon Kyu-hwan successfully harnesses the fragmented narrative style of films such as “Babel” and “21 Grams” in “From Seoul to Varanasi,” a tantalizing tapestry of troubled relationships. While the pic will provoke headscratching from some auds, Jeon adroitly establishes a sense of foreboding and dispenses the requisite narrative details in this ambitious drama about a philandering publisher, his cowed wife and their eventual journey to India. Given the repthe helmer established with his “Town” trilogy, pic should ready its passport for fest travel, though its frank nudity will confine domestic biz to South Korea’s indie fringe.
Like the aforementioned films scripted by Guillermo Arriaga and helmed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, “From Seoul to Varanasi” offers a kaleidoscopic introduction to its protagonists. In seemingly random but actually calculated and judicious fashion, Jeon quickly presents book publisher Yeong-woo (Yoon Dong-hwan) having sex in various hotels with his mistress, Su-yeon (Shin Ye-an), a writer for his publishing house. Audacious glimpses of full-frontal nudity are juxtaposed with scenes of another woman, later revealed to be Yeong-woo’s wife, Ji-yeong (Choi Won-jung), seen variously walking the streets of Indian holy city Varanasi (in flash-forward) and attending what looks like a yoga class in Seoul (in the present).
Other faces include Kerim (Nollaig Walsh), a Lebanese waiter in an Indian restaurant; his sibling, yoga teacher Samira (Cassandra Holmes); and a glaring, bespectacled man of unknown origin (Nigel D’Sa). Before it becomes clear who’s who, the helmer gently familiarizes auds with each character’s presence, like a chef stirring together subtle ingredients to create a potent brew.
While exiting a car park, Ji-yeong damages a curbside sign for the Indian eatery where Kerim works, and supplies her phone number so she can be billed for repairs. Later, Kerim is rushed to the hospital after collapsing in the street; since Ji-yeong’s phone number is in his pocket, the hospital staff call her. Ji-yeong is intrigued and attracted not only to Kerim, but also to the wider world he represents, and the film deftly demonstrates how, as Yeong-woo’s wife withdraws, his affair with Su-yeon becomes increasingly troubled.
The script falters when a subplot about Islamic terrorism comes to the fore; while Jeon deals astutely with relationship terrain, his grip on geopolitics seems less certain. As the film reaches its India-set conclusion, it undermines itself by remaining unclear about what it intends to achieve once most of the characters have made it to Varanasi.
On the whole, perfs are superb. Physically towering over everyone else with his polished scalp, Yoon is an unusual male lead for a Korean film, backing up his striking appearance with a fiery screen presence as natural as it is intense. Shin nails the challenging role of a woman realizing her b.f. and boss is drifting away from her, while Choi, somewhat overshadowed, is appropriately low-key as the housewife looking for love and for herself. While the non-Korean thesps mostly communicate in English, Walsh is equally convincing in his Korean-language scenes with Choi. Burdened with the script’s most cliched character, D’Sa is distinguished only by his glazed stare.
Digital lensing is on the grainy side, but Jeon makes this low-budget look work for him, creating the cool impression of a scientist examining his specimens. In tandem with this detached, almost clinical approach, the foreboding score by Choi In-yang and Kim Soo-hee continually and effectively works to sharpen audience curiosity.