The Korea of director Chul-Soo Park's dazzlingly creepy new movie, 301*302, is an upscale wonderland that looks more like a promotion for Poggenpohl kitchens than anything Asian. The city could be Seoul, but the film never says, and it doesn't matter. As if in a play, the picture's action unfolds mainly in two apartments (301 and 302 of a swank urban building), each of which is track-lit and custom-shelved, with stylish wide-plank floorboards, white walls, and lots of high windows.
The two young women whose strange synergy drives the story are equally stylish and Westernized -- as are the pathologies that shape their lives. In Apartment 301 lives the beautiful Song-Hee Kang (Eun-Jin Bang), who makes Julia Child look lackadaisical on the subject of food: She is forever rushing home from produce and meat markets with sackfuls of goodies and big, big culinary plans. She looks most at home not with an Asian-style cleaver but with her Western-style chef's knife, dicing scallions.
Across the hall, in 302, the equally beautiful Yoon-Hee Kim (Sin-Hye Hwang) peers endlessly through ugly, black-framed spectacles at her computer monitor, which displays the text of a book she's writing about sex and eating disorders. It's a subject dear to Yoon-Hee's heart, as Song-Hee discovers when her efforts to befriend her neighbor through lavish gifts of food are rejected.
And rejected graphically. The mere smell of food sends Yoon-Hee retching to the toilet bowl, where Park isn't shy about filming gastric upheaval. Yoon-Hee is like a vampire; she can't eat ordinary food. It would make sense for Song-Hee to offer something a little less ambitious than sauteed prawns in chili-garlic sauce -- a little broth, maybe? Or a glass of blood? -- but in her own way she's as nuts as her delicate neighbor. Good food is extravagant food; more is better.
The film repeatedly folds back on itself with a literary grace, each time revealing a little more of the two women's pasts. Theirs are bizarre, intermittently horrifying stories whose unlikely parallels finally explain the movie's opening riddle: What has happened to Yoon-Hee? She has disappeared, and Detective Choi has come to Song-Hee for a tip as to her whereabouts. The Dahmer-like answer to his questions lies inside Song-Hee's glamorous restaurant-style freezer, but there's no reason to look there, so he doesn't. He cannot begin to suspect what has happened, or why.
Suk-Goon Lee's screenplay fixes on increasingly sensational material as the movie progresses, but the tone of the film, while sometimes lurid, is never exploitational. There is something solemn about Park's direction: Even in the film's many surreal moments, the twisted main characters remain sympathetic. Park understands that they're bonded in their woundedness and that their suffering makes them human.
It is intense suffering, Yoon-Hee's in particular. An extended flashback reveals the source of her difficulties with food: As a teen-ager, she is molested by her stepfather in the back of the butcher shop the family runs. One minute he's trying to stuff food in her mouth, the next he's stealing into her room and pulling off her panties as she feigns sleep, tears running from her squeezed-shut eyes. At one point she eludes him by hiding in the meat locker, crouching among pig carcasses that dangle by hooks from the ceiling.
Song-Hee's problems, told in a parallel flashback, are marital. In an earlier era of her life, she is married to a young man, Joon-Shik Kang (Chul-Ho Park, in a wonderfully irritable performance). They're like a Korean Rob and Laura Petrie: He goes off to work each morning in suit and tie while she plans and prepares the evening meal. When he comes home, she begins to set the various courses before him, always with the question, "Is it good?"
All cooks seek approval, and Song-Hee is no exception. But of course she's asking about more than the food; she wants to know if he still loves her. As in Like Water for Chocolate, food is the means of communication; it's a language of its own. It's also the pillar supporting Song-Hee's rickety self-image, and when her husband merely grunts and nods in response to her anxious inquiries, she starts crumbling.
And eating: She swells up as if stung by a thousand bees. She becomes a frump and a whiner. Their sex life stalls; they fight. He locks himself in his study. She discovers he's having an affair. They divorce.
Park doesn't dwell on his characters' affluence, but all the same it's impossible not to notice it -- and its effects on their psychoses, which seem entirely Western, bourgeois, and up to date. Song-Hee is a classic case of a woman who needs some anti-obsessive drug like Paxil to steady her wild emotional gyrations, while Yoon-Hee is bulimic and in need of psychotherapy for her unresolved memories.
They are recognizable and pitiable, these women, but the fact is that they have enough money, sense of individuality, and leisure time to nurture their distinctive unhappinesses. Psychic misery has always been an upper-middle-class game, whether the "neurasthenia" of Alice James' era or today's diagnosis of "clinical depression."
People who must work all day to subsist -- by carrying water in pails from a well, or tilling fields from dawn to dusk with oxen, as was true in Korea not too many years ago -- don't have time to be as luxuriantly unhappy as these two. Perhaps most striking about 301*302 is its picture of a modern Korea soaring miserably beyond peasantry. Park's two women have every creature comfort, yet in being relieved by machines of so many of life's daily burdens, they do not attain a higher state of contentment. They merely confront, with sharpened awareness, a difficult fact of life: that happiness is not the natural human condition.
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