Review: Im Sang-soo’s “The Old Garden”

The Old Garden, based on a novel by celebrated dissident writer Hwang Seok-young, recreates the turbulent period of the 1980’s, represented by the memories of Hyun-woo (Ji Jin-hee), who at the film’s outset has been released from jail after serving a 17-year jail sentence for anti-government activism. He gets out of prison to learn that his lover and the mother of his child, Yoon-hee (Yeom Jung-ah) has died from cancer. This occasions a trip to the place where they met, and also a trip through his memories of their relationship. Yoon-hee, an art teacher at a nearby school, is a disillusioned ex-activist. She nevertheless agrees to hide Hyun-woo, wanted by the government, at her house, because of her outrage at the recent massacre of activists at Kwangju. Quickly they begin a relationship, which is troubled due to Hyun-woo’s insistence on traveling to Seoul to check on his comrades, and Yoon-hee’s feeling that he puts his political convictions above his feelings for her. After Hyun-woo is caught by the police and begins his long jail sentence, Yoon-hee struggles to come to terms with both her anger at him and her still strong feelings for him. She now has a daughter by him, a fact which Yoon-hee hides from Hyun-woo for the rest of her life.

Im Sang-soo revisits a wound which is still fresh on Korean history, much as he did with his previous film, the darkly satirical The President’s Last Bang, which re-imagined the assassination of authoritarian leader Park Chung-hee. The Old Garden examines the era of Park’s successor Chun Doo-hwan, who proved to be just as intolerant of dissent and brutal toward activists, if not even more so, than Park. While the government’s extreme tactics and violence toward the citizenry are vividly captured in the scenes of protest, and of Hyun-woo’s prison torture, the activists themselves are not free from criticism. In an especially barbed scene, the activists’ pompous rhetoric and own authoritarian tendencies are held up for ridicule, with extreme close-ups of the debating mouths spouting empty political platitudes. The film casts a rather jaundiced eye on these idealists who often forced members to sacrifice themselves for the sake of media exposure, and who are now disillusioned and apathetic. The mood of the piece, exemplified by the truncated romance between Yoon-hee and Jung-woo, is one of exhaustion, disillusion, and regret for lost time.

While the film is beautifully shot, especially in its images of rain and snow, the film has considerable weaknesses, the most significant being the muted emotion and schematic quality of its scenario. Im’s previous films excelled in creating vivid, brilliantly drawn characters who felt like fully formed human beings, for example in A Good Lawyer’s Wife, his best film to date. The President’s Last Bang, although pitched in a quite different register than this film, brought its historical figures to life as complex humans. The Old Garden lacks these qualities, and each character seems rather shallow and unformed. This film strives for more dramatic heft than his other work, but the almost mechanical shuttling back and forth between the present and the past prevents us from fully sympathizing with the characters or feeling anything for their tragic fates. This flatness also carries over into the performances. Yeom Jung-ah’s character is the heart of this story, but there is a rather stiff and forbidding quality to her performance that puts us at a remove. Ji Jin-hee is less than convincing in his present-day scenes as the older Hyun-woo, who has survived years of torture and isolation. He looks basically the same, just with grayer hair. These actors have both acquitted themselves well in other films, so the fault must be placed on Im’s inadequately developed script. Also, the wicked sense of humor that existed alongside the more somber elements of his other films is oddly missing here. Im has made a worthy attempt to evoke this painful period of history, but he has failed at making it a compelling vision of this time and in fully conveying the tragedies that were common features of this period.