“Eyelids” begins with an invocation of the monk Bodhidarma, who cut off his eyelids to stop himself from dozing off during meditation. Audiences may want to do the same as they sit through this soporific requiem on South Korea’s Sewol ferry accident, but those able to lose themselves in the hypnotic cinematography may be blown away by helmer O Muel’s mystical interpretation of a human tragedy. Still, the pic’s esoteric, strictly arthouse approach to the controversial incident is unlikely to garner as much Western recognition as the helmer’s overtly political Sundance 2013 prizewinner, “Jiseul.”
On April 14, 2014, the ferry Sewol capsized en route from Incheon to Jeju Island, causing the drowning of 304 out of its 476 passengers, most of them high-school students on a field trip. The tragedy sparked nationwide outrage over accountability on multiple levels. While documentaries such as last year’s “The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol” confronted political issues head-on, “Eyelids” explores death from a metaphysical perspective, just as “Jiseul” depicted the South Korean army’s massacre of civilians on Jeju Island in 1948 as an impressionistic tone poem.
The universe O conjures in “Eyelids” is a sparse and elemental one. A grizzled, middle-aged man (Moon Seok-beom) leads a hermit’s existence on the island of Mireukdo, a tourist hot spot that the filmmakers have convincingly made over into rugged, seemingly uninhabited terrain. In between a daily routine of meditation and hiking, the man makes deok (Korean sticky rice cakes) for shamanistic funereal rituals.
The opening shot — a nearly four-minute long take of the sea — sets the film’s abstract, painterly tone, but here and elsewhere, tantalizing details are sprinkled throughout the artfully composed extreme closeups and long shots (by O and his co-lenser, Sung Min-chul). Moving with a languorous cadence that gently rocks viewers to sleep, the film unfurls a speckled natural canvas — rocks girding the ragged coastline, a grove of swaying bamboo trees, an old goat with a furrowed brow, a restless beetle. A snake that keeps hogging the protag’s telephone, to his chagrin, delivers a smidgen of humor amid the general air of cosmic indifference.
At least 40 minutes trickle past before this unperturbed cinematic landscape stirs with the arrival of a rat from distant seas. When it scurries into the man’s giant, urn-like mortar, he flies into a rage, but no matter what, the rodent evades his assault. The mood becomes more disquieting with the landing of a teacher (Lee Sang-hee) and her two high-school students, all craving deok.
The beguiling simplicity of the narrative and the characters’ enigmatic presence invite all manner of figurative interpretations. The island could symbolize the limbo in which the newly deceased find themselves, a sort of Stygian pit stop for journeying souls. The protag ushers the dead into the other world by providing deok, spiritual sustenance essential to the religious rites that send them off. His anguish can be understood as a reaction to the sudden, overwhelming number of deaths caused by the ferry accident, while the teacher and students represent victims whose bodies have not been found, their souls unable to reach yonder shore. And the rat that taints and wrecks the mortar has been associated with a certain Korean politician, but it could also be a metaphor for any pestilential influence.
Whatever meaning one attributes to this allegorical puzzle (why, for example, do none of the protag’s flipflops match?), “Eyelids” taps into a subliminal sense of loss and mutability, evoking pathos with a few still shots of the teacher’s alabaster face. Craft contributions (mostly by the multitasking O) transcend the budget to create much to admire visually, especially the CGI in the final underwater scene, which imparts its spiritual message with bravura effect. While nature sounds prevail with almost threatening power, occasional strains of Baroque chamber music in Chung Chae-woong’s pensive score also reverberates with lyrical effect.