The South Korean city of Gyeongju is known for its hundreds of burial mounds, making this town with its head in the past a fitting backdrop for director Zhang Lu’s exquisitely observed personal drama. Inspired by an obscene painting the Chinese-Korean helmer once spotted on the wall of a local teahouse, “Gyeongju” follows a young(ish) man’s search for the same naughty artwork — a curious quest with bemusing consequences. Running an unhurried 145 minutes, the poetic pic came and went quietly in Korea earlier this summer, but should court more receptive international audiences thanks to a fest slot in Locarno.
More concerned with immaterial memories than anything that can be directly captured onscreen, this ruminative offering plays almost like an existential ghost story. Returning to his old haunts after seven years, soft-spoken Choi Hyeon (“The Host’s” Park Hae-il) is troubled not by evil spirits, but by lingering questions from his past — subtle, impossible-to-articulate feelings that compel the mild-mannered college professor, who is visiting from Beijing for a colleague’s funeral, to make a one-night detour through nearby Gyeongju.
Like the director himself, Hyeon is a man trapped between two cultures: a Korean living abroad, married to a Chinese woman and fluent enough in Mandarin that the flirty receptionist at the local tourism office mistakes him for a foreigner in his own country. At first, Hyeon appears to be above these come-ons, enduring the hot-blooded gossip of an old friend as the abrasive fellow slurps noodles across the table, as if he were immune to such temptation. But there’s something in the way he fondles an unlit cigarette that suggests a more relatable human fallibility — forbidden to smoke, yet tempted and transported by the way it smells.
Hyeon doesn’t say much, clearly caught up in his own thoughts, which invites audiences to do the same, to lose themselves in whatever personal reflections his unusual mission may provoke. Reaching Gyeongju, Hyeon quietly contacts an old flame, Yeo-jung (Yoon Jin-seo), meeting her at the train station with the clear intention of a quickie for old times’ sake, giving the trip a decidedly less innocent dimension.
When he shows up at the Arisol tea house, which has changed owners since his previous visit, the establishment’s pretty young hostess, Yoon-hee (Shin Min-ah), initially seems harsh for judging him a “pervert” when he inquires about the erotic painting. But it turns out that much of this excursion is a mental vacation from his offscreen wife — a trip down memory lane where things he can’t quite explain (like the startling fate of a mother and child passed along the way) give him reason to question his own life choices.
Though tonally different from Zhang’s other work, “Gyeongju” shares the helmer’s fascination with outsiders. Since leaving Korea for China, Hyeon doesn’t feel entirely at home anywhere, and though many of the cultural nuances will be lost on Western viewers, that sense of dislocation should also serve as an advantage when the pic is exported. Hyeon’s situation invites us to settle into the film’s patiently reflective groove, sitting on park benches to watch a young couple kissing or climbing the tumulus over a royal grave after crashing a drunken fundraising meeting with Yoon-hee and her friends.
Though the camera hovers at a disembodied distance for much of the film, panning slowly from side to side on occasion but seldom pushing in, we’re firmly planted in Hyeon’s head for the entire trip (regrettably shot in digital HD instead of on film). Bathed in radiant sunshine yet not quite impervious to melancholy, it’s a perfectly wonderful place to spend 145 minutes — the cinematic equivalent of a good Haruki Murakami novel, complete with a few delicately supernatural touches.
Zhang fills out the experience, which he likens to the soul-searching walks in “Midnight in Paris” and “Before Sunset,” with a steady stream of observation-based humor, as when Hyeon is mistaken for a movie star by two Japanese tourists (turns out Koreans say “kimchi” instead of “cheese” when posing for photos). The helmer’s natural instinct for rich detail compensates for the fact that his protag’s politely deferential personality keeps him from rushing the investigation, even if that means stopping for bathroom breaks between endless cups of tea.
For Western viewers accustomed to watching action stars race the clock to achieve clearly defined goals, Hyeon’s vaguely defined quest may seem tortuously drawn out. But it’s important to understand that while not exactly a MacGuffin, the erotic painting is just a pretext to delve into his own past. To wit, the pic’s biggest laugh comes at the very end, when Zhang cuts to black at the moment the artwork is about to be revealed, returning seconds later to underscore how the hero’s journey was more important than his destination.