A swirling fog permeates many scenes in Park Chan-ok’s masterful, audacious and heartbreaking new film, “Paju.” This fog is a physical manifestation of the hazy motivations of most of the characters, whose reasons for doing things are initially mysterious to the viewer, and often to the characters themselves.
Fugitive activist Joong-shik (Lee Sun-kyun) flees Seoul after an accident involving his girlfriend Ja-young (Kim Bo-kyung). He arrives in the titular city of Paju, where he works at a church run by his priest cousin (Lee Dae-yeon). While there, Joong-shik begins a romance with Eun-soo (Shim E-young) which is complicated by her mistrusting, resentful younger sister Eun-mo (Seo Woo). Joong-shik and the three women in his life are intertwined by both their destinies and the film’s intricate and complex narrative structure, which jumps back and forth in time across eight years up to the present.
Eun-soo’s death is the major mystery at the heart of “Paju,” which Park’s time-hopping structure enhances, drawing us further into the narrative as pieces of the story are slowly revealed. And while this mystery is solved well before the conclusion, an even deeper, perhaps unsolvable mystery emerges: the real motivations behind Joong-shik’s activism. To the end, what drives Joong-shik is as difficult to see as objects behind Paju’s fog. At one point near the film’s conclusion, Eun-mo tells Joong-shik, “I don’t understand you.”
And indeed, he seems to not fully understand himself. He assiduously constructs an exterior of political righteousness, but behind that wall lie confusion and a lack of real emotional commitment to his causes. Joong-shik has a long and rather shadowy history of student activism, which makes him permanently on the run from the authorities. He often uses women as a physical and emotional refuge from his self-doubts and political peril. Joong-shik proves to be a tragic character, who strives to help people in various ways – besides housing activism, he also helps North Korean refugees – but in the end brings destruction and death, however inadvertently, to those closest to him.
“Paju” is named after a city in South Korea; for people in Korea, this place has a very specific meaning, one very important to fully understand this film. Paju is very close to the demilitarized zone separating North Korea from South Korea, and vestiges of the Korean War which separated the peninsula are still very much evident in certain sections of the city. U.S. army bases are also stationed in the city because of its close proximity to the DMZ. In the film itself, another sort of war is taking place between a group of housing activists led by Joong-shik and construction firms who are forcing residents to move out of the area to make way for development. Park makes the war analogy explicit in a stunning passage in which Eun-mo makes a slow-motion trip through the aftermath of a battle between the activists and riot police; the crumbled buildings and wounded people would not be out of place in any war picture. This is the situation Eun-mo confronts when she returns to Paju after a three-year absence when she fled her home shortly after the death of her sister Eun-soo to go to India, a place as different as possible from Paju. Eun-mo has returned to Paju for two distinct, yet related reasons. The first is to learn the full truth of the circumstances of Eun-soo’s death, which she suspects Joong-shik had something to do with. The second is to work out her complicated romantic feelings toward Joong-shik, which were inchoate before Eun-soo’s death, but became much more pronounced afterward.
Park Chan-ok invests “Paju” with penetrating psychological acuity (quite rightly termed “Bergmanesque” by Variety), political astuteness and intense emotion. She is greatly aided by a brilliant cast, beautifully impressive across the board. Two actors must be especially singled out. The first is Lee Sun-kyun (“My Mother the Mermaid,” “R-Point,” “Night and Day”), who compellingly embodies a character who is an enigma to everyone, including himself, and handles his time-traversing role with unerring believability. But as impressive as Lee is, the true heart of the film is the astonishing young actress Seo Woo, whose character Eun-mo emerges as “Paju” ’s central figure. To return to the Bergman analogy, Bergman famously stated, “For me, the human face is the most important subject of cinema.” This quote is perfectly illustrated by Seo’s face in “Paju,” a mesmerizing vessel for her character’s shifting emotional states. “Paju” begins and ends with intimate close-ups of her face, and in between, she never fails to completely command our attention. Seo’s breakout role was as the high-school outcast in Lee Kyoung-mi’s deliciously caustic “Crush and Blush” (2008), and as great as she was there, this barely hinted at the amazing depths (and heights) she reaches in “Paju.” Seo has the trickiest role, having to convincingly portray the complicated passage from teenager to young woman, and here she comes up all aces, proving that in a very short time, she has become one of Korea’s finest actresses.
“Paju”’s non-linear style demands an audience’s full attention, but Park’s confident authorial control and consistency of performance and mise-en-scène greatly aids viewer orientation and has beautifully elegant formal qualities. It has been seven years between “Paju” and Park’s debut, 2002’s “Jealousy is My Middle Name,” and she has no doubt used this extended period to refine her material into what I do not hesitate to call a masterpiece.