A determined yet incompetent director who won’t take no for answer tries to make a movie in O-Muel’s wonderfully warped comedy, “Pong Ddol.” Like Mack Sennett dropping onto the South Korean island of Jeju, the film’s devotion to absurdist antics and an update of silent comedy makes for a striking contribution to the contempo Korean cinema scene, which could do with more smart satires like this one. Festivals looking for amusing but sharply conceived work should closely ping “Pong,” leading to a lively world tour.
At the same time, given the film’s manifest quirkiness, distribs beyond East Asia will likely think twice about a theatrical strategy, though this truly original new Korean voice is certainly deserving. O-Muel’s sure control of tone is clear from the start, when hapless would-be filmmaker Pong Ddol (Lee Gyeong-Jun) is trying to cast his movie in what passes for his office — a piece of real estate that looks like a bomb dropped on it years ago. In this Beckettian setting, Pong struggles with the doofuses around him, including assistant Jo Chunja (Jo-Eun), who actually believes she can act.
To the surprise of Pong and everyone else, a real actor does appear on the scene: Seung-pil (Kim Min-hyuk), who explains he’s fed up with life and showbiz in Seoul, and has taken to the road for a break from the big city. Korean auds will especially chuckle at this, since Seung-pil couldn’t have ventured further from the capital while staying within national borders; Jeju marks the far southern tip of the country, inhabited by people with such a thick dialect that the film’s Jeju-inflected dialogue requires Korean subtitles.
Seung-pil can’t understand half of what comes out of Pong’s mouth, but desiring to keep his acting chops in shape, he joins the ragtag film crew. Then he discovers Pong doesn’t actually have a script. Ultimately, a curious bonding takes place, resulting in a mood akin to the camaraderie of a Howard Hawks ensemble in service of a postmodern spoof of a no-budget film on the patience of fishing. O-Muel balances each different register, keeping things off-kilter to the final reel.
Lee inhabits his role with an absolute conviction that’s key to making Pong Ddol a memorable portrait of insane determination; this also prevents him from being a satirical punching bag, which would have been awfully easy under the circumstances. Kim is a fine straight man, utterly convincing as a city slicker who’s wandered into a looking-glass world of buffoons. Inserting some ripe comic moments, Jo displays terrific timing.
Part of what makes “Pong Ddol” an ironic pleasure is that O-Muel’s command of all aspects of his filmmaking couldn’t be more in contrast with his subject, supported by Cho Eun’s crisp lensing and a score full of surprising touches by O Ta Yumiko.