We’ve all been told that the Lorax speaks for the trees, but Dr. Seuss’s mustachioed conservationist has nothing on the fragile, dendrology-fixated protagonist of “Glass Garden.” A pretty, peculiar fable that slowly takes the term “green-fingered” to alarming extremes, South Korean writer-director Shin Su-won’s fourth feature centers on Jae-yeon (Moon Geon-young), a brilliant but unworldly Ph.D student whose innovative research into human photosynthesis leads her on a deranged quest to quite literally become one with nature. It’s a premise that could branch out into any number of fruitful genre directions, from mad-scientist sci-fi to whimsical high-concept comedy to outright body horror. Somewhat frustratingly, it winds up committing to no such identity, though the meandering, melancholic almost-romance we get instead is not without its charms.
Following its unveiling as the opening film of this year’s Busan fest, Shin’s distinctively strange film will receive select festival play, though it’s unlikely to match the profile of her last feature, “Madonna,” which bowed in Un Certain Regard at Cannes. Domestically, the film should benefit from the enduring popularity of leading lady Moon, a former child star once dubbed “the nation’s little sister” — though “Glass Garden” plays on her vulnerable, girlish countenance in unsettling ways.
A social outsider troubled from childhood by a severe leg disability, budding biochemist Jae-yeon has thrown the bulk of her life’s energy into research for a project she terms “green blood”: a way of improving and extending human life by transplanting chlorophyll from plants into red blood cells. It’s an uncertain innovation that she admits to potential investors may be a century away from complete fruition, so is found lacking when a slicker, more glamorous fellow student pinches much of her research for a more immediate anti-aging pitch. Adding insult to injury, Jae-yeon discovers that her lab partner and lover enabled this betrayal; devastated, she leaves Seoul and escapes to the forest, continuing her research in the isolated greenhouse that gives the film its title.
Though Shin’s screenplay turns vaporously enigmatic, this setup is detailed in clean, clear strokes: It’s not hard to envision it as an origin story for a kind of warped arthouse superhero quest. The further the film retreats into the glimmering greenery, however, the more wandering and unwieldy its storytelling grows. Paralleling her narrative is that of ungainly, unpublished novelist Ji-hoon (Kim Tae-hun), who, following his own unhappy experience with creative plagiarism, discovers the young scientist’s story and becomes fascinated by her withdrawal from the outside (or should that be the inside?) world.
Yet as the film adopts Ji-hoon’s perspective on Jae-yeon’s increasingly unhinged efforts to physically blend with the foliage, his own character and motivations remain too watery to carry the film through to its reality-blurring climax. A flicker of attraction between these two outcast souls, meanwhile, never blossoms into a compelling relationship — partly the point in a film that advocates the fundamentally solitary nature of ideas and imagination, though a tough one on which to pin a human drama. Finally, “Glass Garden” may just side with plant life in all respects: “When trees branch out, they try not to hurt each other,” Jae-yeon dolefully muses, “but people are different.” Well, quite.
The trees certainly get all the best shots in Shin’s film, which progressively gains in visual interest what it loses in human connection. Some nifty digital trickery physicalizes Jae-yeon’s ideal of merging human skin and bark; a few stray images evoke an environmentally conscious David Cronenberg. Even as the film’s teased love story dissipates, Yun Ji-woon’s delicately lit lensing makes a romantic playground of our heroine’s verdant hideaway, which may become something of a fantasy realm: Its tangle upon tangle of spring-green branches, alternately laced with mist, moonbeams and dappled sunlight, encroach upon Ji-hoon’s psyche in the real world until, by the ambiguity-laden final act, it truly is hard to see the forest for the trees.