The steadfast love a couple showers on their cat and each other underpins “Pascha,” an achingly tender film from South Korean helmer-scribe Ahn Seon-kyoung. Depicting the fragile relationship between a 40-year-old femme and a 19-year-old lad, and how they hold on to each other despite a severe social stigma, Ahn taps into a wellspring of emotions with a fine eye and an exquisitely feminine sensibility. While the result may be too precious and introverted for some, this winner of the Busan Film Festival’s New Currents competition will resonate with cat lovers and female arthouse audiences.
Ga-eul (Kim So-hee), 40, is a struggling screenwriter who gets by making gim-bap (Korean sushi rolls) at a cheap eatery. Her 19-year-old live-in b.f., Dae-hyun (Sung Ho-jun, also the film’s producer), takes odd jobs but can’t hold them down due to his painfully withdrawn personality. But their greatest worry is the illness of their beloved cat Hope, whose veterinarian bills are eating up their savings and driving them to distraction.
Their near-excessive devotion to their pet — shown in a sensuous, poignant yet macabre scene in which they spend the night at a love motel with Hope — hints at the self-enclosed, obsessive nature of their own relationship. Like the stray cats they habitually feed and play with, the protags also live on the fringes of society. Their resolve to be together is tested when Ga-eul discovers she’s pregnant just as Dae-hyun is drafted for military service.
Given how tenderly the protags dote on each other, the intrusion of their respective families feels as rude as a slap in the face. A scene in which vegetarian Ga-eul’s mother (Shin Yeon-sook) harangues her to eat beef segues into a humiliating matchmaking attempt that reflects how little she thinks her daughter’s worth. But that’s just a prelude to the patriarchal despotism of her brother and father, who denounce her relationship as “a crime” and verbally batter her into submission, culminating in a decision that may cause strong audience reactions.
Evoking the couple’s suffering in prolonged fixed frames and uncomfortably tight closeups that magnify their every pained expression, Ahn’s approach is at once self-indulgent and engagingly immersive. Scenes in which the lovers disclose their deepest fears to each other or break down in the face of adversity expose their neediness and lack of fighting spirit, but also underline their total acceptance of each other.
Kim and Sung convey their characters’ deep connection. Androgynous-looking Sung’s timid, gentle demeanor not only makes his dependency on an older woman understandable, but will likely awaken the motherly instinct of many female viewers. Eccentric, neurotic Ga-eul is a bit of a spinster stereotype, but Kim limns her loneliness and desire for tolerance with such honesty and humility that one cannot help but be moved.
The film is set in the dead of winter, and Yu Ji-sun’s limpid, brightly lit lensing conjures a chilly, inhospitable ambience that reinforces the couple’s isolation and melancholy. Though music is barely audible but for a few forlorn piano notes, the romantic strains of a Schumann piano quartet strike a note of modest hope toward the end. Other craft contributions are artfully conceived and exercised. The title reps the Latinized spelling of Passover.