A Chinese-Korean coping with a paralyzed father forms a flirtatious quintet alongside her epileptic landlord, a bipolar North Korean defector, a small-time gangster, and a lesbian tomboy in “A Quiet Dream.” The 13th film by Chinese-Korean writer-director Zhang Lu, this quirky slice of fringe existence on the grungy side of Seoul is nowhere near as miserabilist as it sounds. Quite the contrary, it’s a whimsical, frequently poetic urban rhapsody buoyed by its deadpan dropout protagonists. Perhaps a slight choice as the Busan Film Festival’s opener, it should nonetheless leave a pleasant enough impression to travel further at other festivals.
Zhang’s earlier works, including “Grain in Ear” and “Dooman River,” brought lyrical realism to the hardscrabble existences of Joseon-jeok (Chinese-Koreans) at the North Korea-Chinese bordertown of Yanbian. Ever since settling down in Seoul in 2012, he has shifted his interest to the émigré experience, first with the documentary “Scenery” then with “Gyeonju,” in which the protagonist recognizably serves as the director’s alter ego. Like “Gyeonju,” “Dream” avoids the predictable tactic of decrying discrimination or exploitation. Instead, artily shot in black-and-white, the film portrays a diverse group of misfits, exploring their ennui with a playfully philosophical tone.
However, the director’s background as a professor of Chinese literature finds it way into the narrative via mannered literary references to poetry. And although his meta-filmic devices are nowhere near as pompous or jejune as in his last (and worst) film “Love and…,” they don’t add up to the sum of the project’s artistic parts. In-jokes like having his three male leads (Park Jung-bum, Yang Ik-june, and Yoon Jong-bin) embody characters similar to roles they played in their own directorial debuts (“Journals of Musan,” “Breathless,” and “Unforgiven,” respectively) get in the way, as do the characters’ trips to the Korean Film Archive, which add nothing to the plot.
Ye-ri (Han) is an ethnic Korean who was born out of wedlock and grew up in Yanbian, China. At her mother’s urging, she came to South Korea in her teens to reunite with her father, but within a few years, he had fallen sick and became wheelchair-bound. She runs a bar in a tent outside her apartment and kills time hanging out with three men as aimless and rootless as herself. All of them are in some kind of trouble: Ik-june (Yang) is a smalltime hood trying to go straight; Ye-ri’s landlord Jong-bin (Yoon) is epileptic. Of the lot, Jung-bum (Park), who suffers from bipolar disorder, is the one knee-deep in it, being fired for his “sad eyes” and then owed six months’ salary.
Yet, instead of wallowing in self-pity, they tease each other good-naturedly, and despite their boyish competition for Ye-ri’s favor, none forces himself on her. The foursome spend all hours drinking, reading poetry and roaming their downscale neighborhood. Occasionally, a tomboy crosses their path and makes a pass at the Ye-ri, who deflects the attention tactfully. Unlike many Korean films with a similar scenario, there’s no testosterone overkill bubbling over into macho brawling or sexual harassment. Thus, the helmer gets a chatty, nonchalant rhythm going, even though there’s hardly any advancement of plot.
Even Jung-bum’s labor dispute couches social outrage in dry humor. For example, his daily attempts to petition his boss with 180-degree bows in clockwork motion approach Chaplinesque absurdity, while attempts by his friends to make the boss cough up the money yield an unexpectedly droll outcome.
Han has played outlier characters before, among them the Chinese-Korean refugee in “Haemoo” and a North Korean ping-pong champion in “As One.” Here, despite reciting a poem on homesickness by Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai, she moves around the city and its motley residents without looking out of place. The actress is not a bombshell but she’s got an entrancing air about her, making one long to get under flawless skin. Being so caught up with caring for her dad, her daily drudgery takes on unwholesome implications. Although she seems to hold out well under the circumstances, a sense of foreboding descends after she consults a fortune teller.
The film takes on a gloomier shading as snippets of the male protagonists’ past are revealed, such as Jung-bum’s internment in a camp back in North Korea (a possible cause for his mental disorder), or Ik-june’s temptation to slide back into crime. A running joke about the latter’s hottie ex-girlfriend culminates in a reunion that’s quietly heart-breaking. Zhang claims everything that happens could be a dream, and the mild touches of fantasy — as well as Ye-ri’s sudden impulse to dance — all contribute to the mood of gentle reverie, as the film segues into a bittersweet epilogue with a neat visual surprise.