A Korean folk tale is transferred to contempo New York in “Abigail Harm,” an uneven fantasy-flavored art movie toplining Amanda Plummer as a loner whose yearning for love magically materializes in the shape of a handsome young man. The third feature by Korean-American helmer Lee Isaac Chung (“Munyurangabo”) establishes an intriguing ambience, but the original tale’s ruminations on free will and the fundamental need for humans to connect with each other are muffled by a minimalist approach to storytelling. Pic should have a decent future on the fest circuit, but faces a daunting challenge in the commercial arena.
Taking its cues from the story “The Woodcutter and the Nymph,” the screenplay introduces the titular character with a male narrator’s voice adopting the tone of a teller of fairy tales. A timid 50-ish woman who makes her living reading books to the blind, Abigail Harm (Plummer) does not appear to have contact with anyone apart from her listeners, and is so detached from the mainstream that even a visit to her dying father is too much for her to contemplate.
The screenplay constructs an effective air of mystery around Abigail as she reads for clients including Mr. Warren (Burt Young), an oldster who wants her to describe pictures in nudie magazines rather than tell stories. Following a sequence in which Abigail recalls the tale of a woodcutter who rescues a deer and receives a wish in return, she is confronted by an unnamed man (Will Patton, who also provides the narrator’s voice).
With wild long hair and wounds to his abdomen that magically heal as he speaks, the man relates a rambling and repetitive tale about an otherworldly creature that comes to earth wearing a robe containing special powers. Eventually, he says that her desire to love and be loved can be achieved by following his instructions. Abigail does so, which involves going to a vacant old building, where she finds a young man (Tetsuo Kuramochi) taking a bath; she duly takes possession of his bathrobe, which guarantees his love for her, and prevents him returning to the world he came from.
The setup is interesting, but auds seeking to decipher the deeper meanings of this very strange relationship are likely to feel frustrated. Viewers can easily enough appreciate surface messages about loneliness and the need for love, but the two characters subsequently share few words as their emotional and sexual bond takes hold, a barrier to auds trying to connect with them. Though never dull, the result is a curiously distant meditation on intimacy.
A skilled hand at playing marginalized and damaged characters, Plummer impressively invests Abigail with the qualities of a frightened fawn seeking sanctuary in a dark forest. Newcomer Kuramochi is fine as the tentative visitor.
Carrying his own camera, Chung applies a tinge of sepia to widescreen visuals that nicely complement the sense of isolation and disconnection around Abigail. Production design is appropriately bland, and a subtle score contributes to the slightly surreal atmosphere. Other technical work is pro on a tight budget.