The health of the Korean film industry, to an outsider’s eye, can hardly be in doubt, as it’s one of the rare national cinemas that finds international acclaim for a broad spectrum of offerings that range from festival darling Hong Sang-soo to genre auteurs Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho. The trickle-down effect has recently seen the more lo-fi end of that spectrum yield some promising titles, such as Kim Dae-hwan’s delightful quasi-mumblecore “The First Lap.” And now, with “Our Body,” first-time director Han Ka-ram goes even lower-key, so much so she almost slides off the keyboard altogether, examining contemporary Korean social issues with committed but also frustrating fidelity to the unpatterned, episodic langor of real life. Her drama about the revitalizing effects of running is infected with the lethargy of the couch potato.
“You get on top,” Ja-young (Moon Choi), the film’s disaffected early-30s protagonist, is instructed during a casual sexual encounter, shot with unprudish, unromantic realism. It perhaps serves as a metaphor for a patriarchal society that only allows women to rise on its own terms, but mostly it is our introduction to the passionless life of Ja-young, a kind of Korean anti-Frances Ha, who even during sex appears to be going through the motions rather than actively pursuing her own desires. Ja-young is not only unmarried, which at that age is already a major barrier to social betterment for women in Korea, but wholly directionless, suffering a sudden complete failure of ambition just before the civil servant exam for which she had been studying for years.
Late one night, on her way back to her dingy one-room apartment carrying plastic bags of take-out food, she stops to rest heavily on a flight of stairs and a can of beer rolls out of her bag. It’s picked up and returned to her without a word by a Hyun-joo (Ahn Ji-hye), a young woman of similar age to her, nimbly running up the same steps that caused Ja-young such struggle. Ja-young is instantly transfixed by the fit, lycra-clad Hyun-joo, who indeed in that moment of meet-cute does seem to represent everything dynamic and disciplined that Ja-young lacks. She starts running herself, and soon engineers a meeting with Hyun-joo. But their friendship takes on an unhealthily obsessive undercurrent, while at the same time Ja-young again finds herself competing professionally when the company she’s started working for offers a coveted internship to the best-performing of the new recruits.
There is a touch of the exotic in those midnight moments when Ja-young and her running partners are free to jog around hilly deserted parks and low-lit streets. But by day, DP Lee Seong-eun dulls down the camerawork to tones of pallid disaffection, with Seoul depicted as wholly soulless, a drab place of gray-box offices and apartments that still look unfurnished after they’ve been occupied for years. Against this unlovely backdrop, the ageism and sexism of this hierarchical society are so ingrained that even its dropout members have internalized those judgments. Ja-young — slim and pretty if schlubbily dressed — examines herself in the mirror disconsolately and finds her eye drawn almost leeringly to Hyun-joo’s trimness. When the beginnings of a lesbian affair are hinted, it’s unclear if Ja-young wants to be with her or to be her — or at least to occupy Hyun-joo’s body as though it were her own, as though it were “our body.”
Up to this point the film is an interesting if sedate examination of tentative self-determination and liberation from the claustrophobic expectations of an oppressive social order. But having carefully gathered these knotted strands together, Han lets them loose again in a third act that introduces some melodramatic complications that have the effect of de-emphasizing themes that were only just beginning to come into focus. And with the imagery and mise en scene restrained to the point of blandness, coupled with a barely-there score from Lee Soo-yeon and Lee Hae-in and a necessarily vacant performance style from Moon Choi, there’s a strong danger that the character’s dissociation can transmit itself to the viewer. More’s the pity because there are moments in this promising but almost willfully obscure debut that graze against insights that have broader generational relevance even beyond Korean culture, about women and competition and ambition, and the unpleasantness of being forced to race when all you really want to do is run.