An unconventional cross-cultural love story with a sharp social sting, “Mai Ratima” tells of a runaway Thai immigrant and a small-town drifter lost in the bright lights of Seoul. But despite the film’s polished tech package and strong denunciation of racial discrimination in Korea, “Old Boy” thesp-turned-helmer Yoo Ji-tae overreaches, swamping his feature debut with fancy film techniques that run counter to the edgy, docu-like realism he’s striving for. Yoo’s name could lend the pic extra marketing muscle in local alternative-cinema circles and land a few festival slots abroad.
To support her sister and Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother back in Thailand, Mai Ratima (Park Ji-soo) enters into an arranged marriage with mentally challenged Sang-pil (Lee Jun-hyuk). Stuck in the drab seaside town of Pohang, she endures the daily harangues of her mother-in-law and sexual harassment by her brother-in-law Sang-rim (Kim Kyung).
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Mai’s woes are exacerbated when her visa renewal comes up, but she narrowly escapes deportation thanks to the spur-of-the-moment kindness of Soo-young (Bae Soo-bin), a social outcast who can’t even afford to renew his national ID. They run off to Seoul and inevitably drift into a relationship, but the corruption and callousness of the big city leave them bruised and jaded.
The litany of racist abuse Mai suffers as a Third World immigrant is not an exclusively South Korean problem, and other films from the peninsula, such as “Bandhobi” and “Punch,” have explored the sufferings of foreign workers with greater sophistication and less melodrama. Still, Mai’s plight retains the power to disturb and enrage, anchored by Park’s harrowing perf. Although she isn’t perfectly convincing as a Thai woman, the South Korean thesp wholly immerses herself in the role on an emotional level. Quivering with the constant anxiety of a hunted animal, she renders Mai by turns bitter, patient and exceptionally sensuous.
Running parallel to Mai’s marginalization is the snobbery Soo-young encounters as a migrant worker. His descent into the world of escorts and hoods after he becomes entangled with bar hostess Young-jin (Soh Yoo-jin) not only serves as a devastating example of dented male ego and tarnished dreams, but also demonstrates the fragility of love in a cold economic climate. Embodying the contradictions of someone willing to risk his life for a female stranger even as he impulsively discards lovers like clothing, Bae makes Soo-young flawed but never despicable.
Im Sun-ae’s solid script is packed with incident, but the middle act becomes as listless as the protags, as the focus alternates too frequently between them. The elaborate score, excessive cutting and other stylistic diversions, including fantasy sequences, actually diminish the raw power of the fluid, frequently handheld lensing and the actors’ finely tuned naturalism. Otherwise, tech credits are aces.