South Korean helmer Park Suk-young continues his focus on troubled young women in “Steel Flower.” An encouraging step in the right direction following his overcooked 2014 debut, “Wild Flowers,” this is an absorbing if somewhat repetitious portrait of a homeless girl who becomes fascinated by tap dancing while eking out an existence in the seaside city of Busan. A fractured fairy tale with little dialogue and a central character whose never-explained background may frustrate some viewers, the pic offers an outstanding lead performance by Jeong Ha-dam (“Wild Flowers”) and packs real emotional punch in its final chapter. It will not be easy for this low-budgeter to find commercial berths following its Busan world preem, but fest programmers should take a look.
Whereas “Wild Flowers” heaped misery and appalling abuse upon a trio of lost and frightened girls, Park’s follow-up is a far less grueling and much more satisfying experience. His focus on vulnerable young women who’ve fallen by the wayside remains, but there’s a pullback on shock tactics and a welcome note of cautious optimism this time around. It will be interesting to monitor his progress from here.
While nothing’s ever known about the past of Ha-dam (Jeong), her present is vividly established. The film’s opening images are of her pitiful belongings lying scattered by a roadside. After stuffing them into a battered suitcase, she winds up at a rusty old pier near Sungjeong beach in Busan. For the next 15 dialogue-less minutes, Ha-dam wanders around downtown Busan at night, stealing leftovers from a restaurant table and looking for a place to sleep. Her long search ends with breaking down the door of a filthy derelict house on a dirt road in the city’s outlying Bae-san district.
What’s already a desperate situation becomes worse when Ha-dam attempts to find work. Applying for positions at a succession of businesses she’s met with the same response: Without a permanent address, ID card and cell phone, there is no possibility of employment. As her downward spiral escalates, Ha-dam lashes out at a Japanese restaurant owner (Kim Tae-hee) and a woman (Yu An) who fails to pay up after “hiring” Ha-dam to hand out advertising leaflets. Things appear to take a turn for the better when a seafood restaurant owner (Park Myung-hoon) hires Ha-dam as a dishwasher. This, too, ends with her being exploited and then involved in an ugly physical confrontation with a woman (Choi Moon-su), whose relationship with the restaurant owner and reason for attacking Ha-dam is not satisfactorily explained and contributes nothing to the overall story.
Just as Ha-dam’s cycle of disappointment and dejection begins to feel slightly monotonous, Park’s screenplay throws a most agreeable curveball. While passing a dance studio one night, Ha-dam becomes entranced by the sound of tappers doing their thing. What follows is an unpredictable and ultimately uplifting series of incidents in which the wonderful sound of tap slowly begins to affect Ha-dam’s outlook. Park wisely doesn’t undercut what’s come before by turning tap dancing into a magic cure for Ha-dam’s woes. It’s a small and believable light that starts to flicker on what’s been a very dark horizon.
The film relies heavily on the ability of audiences to form an emotional connection with a difficult character who’s alienated from society, speaks little and is subject to outbursts of anger. Jeong succeeds marvelously with a compelling and sympathetic performance as the lost and badly damaged soul. Her bravery is also worth a special mention: In a beautiful second sequence filmed on Sungjeong pier, the actress is clearly at some risk of being swept into the ocean by rough seas but never misses a beat.
Steady handheld lensing by co-cinematographers Park Hyeong-ik and Oh Tae-seung is simple and effective, with some nicely framed high-angle shots of Ha-dam drifting through Busan’s brightly illuminated Haeundae district emphasising her isolation and loneliness. All other technical contributions are on the money.