The impressive graduation project of Korean Academy of Film Arts student Kwon Man-ki, slow-burn psychological drama “Clean Up” potently examines feelings of grief, guilt, and redemption. In the film, the female perpetrator and male victim of a child kidnapping come face to face 12 years after the incident, yielding a penetrating study of human reaction to traumatic events. Well produced on a modest budget and boasting fine central performances by Yoon Ji-hye (“Kundo, Age of the Rampant”) and newcomer Kim Dae-gun, the film deserves the attention of festival programmers and ought to make a mark in local art houses following its world premiere in the New Currents competition at Busan.
The most important task in this tale about the repercussions of a terrible crime is to humanize the perpetrator without showing undue sympathy or approval of the act. Kwon achieves this in opening sections charting the inert existence of Jung-ju (Yoon Ji-hye), an emotionally blank woman in her late 30s. A cleaning company employee living alone in a messy apartment, Jung-ju begins the day with a cigarette, drinks heavily, prays for repentance, and is told by her doctor to consider hormone therapy to arrest the onset of premature menopause. Before specific details of her long-ago crime are revealed, audiences discover that five years have elapsed since Jung-ju lost her young son, Ju-hwan, to a fatal heart condition.
Barely moving a facial muscle as co-workers attempt to engage her in anything beyond basic conversation and to set her up on dates, Jung-ju’s body language changes dramatically when new employee Lee Min-gu (Kim Dae-gun) joins the cleaning crew. Fresh out of jail after serving a year for stealing bicycles, the timid and penniless 21-year-old has been rejected by former friends and is sleeping in a public toilet block.
Kwon’s lean screenplay sets up plausible and suspense-building devices to delay Min-gu’s inevitable realization that his co-worker was his captor all those years ago. Flashbacks to the blindfolded and terrified Min-gu explain his initial failure to recognize Jung-ju, before a cleverly thought-out accumulation of sounds, smells, and half-remembered sights bring the awful truth to light.
Roughly three-quarters of the film is dedicated to observing Jung-ju’s reactions. One of them is sheer panic when her boss, Captain (Kwak Ja-hyung), orders Jung-ju to clean a maggot-infested house with Min-gu. The film draws a strong parallel between such extremely unpleasant work and the clean-up required in Jung-ju’s life when she contacts ex-husband Tae-gyu (Kim Su-hyun). Now settled with a new family, the glib guy thinks they’re in the clear and wants no part of anything. “Don’t call me again,” is all he can offer.
Jung-ju’s tense dealings with Tae-gyu (she lists him only as “Ju-hwan’s father” on her cell phone) spell out details of the kidnapping and provide viewers with critical reasons to invest in Jung-ju’s story. Far from being sickos, the couple were motivated by the most primal instinct of all: saving the life of their own child. The almost unimaginable grief that parents must feel in such circumstances is the driving force of a narrative that takes off in intriguing and disturbing directions once Jung-ju’s initial fear of being exposed has subsided.
From being a silent and aloof co-worker, Jung-ju turns around and befriends Min-gu, eventually offering him shelter and even financial support. Things get progressively weirder and more compelling when details of Min-gu’s tragic, post-kidnapping life emerge and events seem to be heading in a psycho-sexual direction. Nothing’s quite that simple or predictable here, and many viewers should be pleased by a conclusion that’s satisfying in its own right while also inviting speculation on what the future might hold for these two badly damaged souls.
Jung-ju’s all-consuming grief and lack of meaningful human relationships is emphasized by deliberately low-key cinematography and a predominantly gray-brown wardrobe which sees her melding into the featureless walls of offices and houses she cleans. The film’s strong sense of human disconnection is further enhanced by the discordant rumblings and sound loops woven into Ko Kyung-chun’s excellent score.