Radical politics offer no place to hide from guilt and shame in the superior Korean mystery meller “Paju.” Park Chan-ok’s long-awaited follow-up to her celebrated 2002 debut, “Jealousy Is My Middle Name,” reveals the helmer has retained her powerful ability to depict the burning passions that can make relationships searingly painful. Complex narrative will make this emotionally intense pic a tough sell at Korean arthouse venues, and fest auds also will need patience to fully absorb Park’s dense storyline, but perseverance will be rewarded.
Twentysomething Eun-mo (Seo Woo, “Crush and Blush”) listens to a taxi driver drone on as she rides down a foggy highway. The story then cycles back eight years earlier, when a lustful Joong-shik (Lee Sun-kyun) accidentally causes a woman to neglect her baby with disastrous consequences. Ashamed, Joong-shik goes on the lam and holes up in the titular city of Paju near the North Korean border. Teaching religious classes to the town’s schoolgirls, Joong-shik captures the heart of local house owner Eun-soo (Shim Yi-young), despite the protestations of her pubescent younger sister and Joong-shik’s student Eun-mo.
Back in the present day, Joong-shik is now the ringleader of a political protest group whose interests run from obstructing the city’s plans of gentrification to strengthening relations with North Koreans. Squatting in Paju’s derelict apartments, the group is under siege from an unidentified property developer who has engaged goons to bulldoze the buildings. With only the briefest of hints as to what has transpired, Eun-soo is nowhere to be seen and Joong-shik and Eun-mo are clearly at odds. Narrative flashes back twice more to sparingly fill in the gaps on their shifting lives.
An unusual structure and deliberately opaque transitions require auds to work hard, but each installment smartly sets up sufficient story hooks to keep the viewer engaged. Though it works primarily as a meller, the story also has some action and mystery elements that make it function like a Bergmanesque thriller. A final extended flashback successfully draws myriad threads together to reveal truths avoided by the participants and deftly alluded to by the filmmaker.
Helmer-scripter Park has a strong grip on her material and rolls it out with confidence in the audience’s ability to handle narrative complexity. With equal confidence, Park has clearly given precise instructions to her thesps, but leaves them plenty of room to breathe.
Perfs are riveting and pitch-perfect. Woo convinces in each stage of Eun-mo’s life, from immature, jealous schoolgirl to rebel whose cause is to unravel the circumstances around her sister’s fate. Lee’s changes are less pronounced, but the thesp is also versatile in his portrayal of Joong-shik. Supporting cast is flawless.
Grainy blue-gray lensing by Kim Woo-hyung (“A Good Lawyer’s Wife,” “Resurrection of the Little Match Girl”) adds a docu feel and acts as a metaphor for the murky secrets at the yarn’s heart. Other tech credits are pro.
Despite powerful content, the uninformative title — though instantly evocative for Korean auds — may compound the pic’s commercial obstacles abroad.