Jang Woo-jin’s “A Fresh Start” – 2014 Jeonju Film Review

“A Fresh Start” is the title of Jang Woo-jin’s debut feature, but this proves to be a rather ironic one, since a fresh start is exactly what eludes most of the film’s characters. Many films have been made about aimless, misdirected youth, struggling to find a place in the world and figure out the paths their lives will take, and “A Fresh Start” fits solidly within this rubric. While it can’t claim to add anything particularly novel to this subject, the film does impress with its low-key, decidedly non-melodramatic, and almost documentary-like uninflected looks at its characters and their struggles. It also benefits greatly from the naturalistic playing of its performers, and an especially impressive performance by the young actress Lee Hye-rin, who plays one of “A Fresh Start”’s central characters.

The film begins by centering on Ji-hyeon (Woo Ji-hyeon), who has recently returned from his mandatory military service, and is working at a 7-11 to pay his way through college. He faces a number of financial and family problems. His mother – whom we never see or hear; her presence is represented through Ji-hyeon’s phone conversations with her – has incurred a large debt to a loan shark. Ji-hyeon is a Korean literature major, and there are rampant rumors throughout campus that his university will shutter the department, since this discipline is considered impractical with little potential for a career. On top of all of this, his girlfriend dumped him while he was in the military.

Ji-hyeon meets up with a number of friends and other classmates from the same major, and this is where he meets Hye-rin (Lee Hye-rin), another Korean literature major who has similarly difficult life issues as Ji-hyeon, but who is more serious about her literary pursuits, keeping a notebook where she writes stories and begins a novel. The Korean lit majors have club meetings on campus, but instead of discussing books or poetry, they spend their time getting drunk, and airing their frustrations and anger about the talk of eliminating their major.

Even though Ji-hyeon and Hye-rin are initially awkward around one another and don’t have a great deal of conversation between them, nevertheless they soon end up having sex. After this happens, they don’t pursue a relationship, but go back to having awkward, non-communicative encounters. Later, Hye-rin discovers she’s pregnant and tells Ji-hyeon. Angered by Ji-hyeon’s initially indecisive response, she storms away from him, but they eventually get back together and decide to have Hye-rin’s baby aborted. They travel to another city on the east coast to have the abortion, but their lack of financial resources preclude their ability to do so, and the delay makes it increasingly difficult, and therefore more expensive, to find a doctor willing to perform the procedure.

The two then decide to wander around the city, settling on a plan to have some sashimi and go to the beach. But even this simple plan is fraught with difficulty for them. Hye-rin loses her handbag containing her notebook, which is her only copy of the novel she’s writing. Later, when they visit an ancient cave, Ji-hyeon starts an argument with Hye-rin, saying he can understand why their university is discontinuing their major, because “there’s no money in Korean literature.” Hye-rin eventually storms away from him in anger, and a contrite Ji-hyeon searches frantically for her in the vast expanse of the cave.

The drifting, nearly plot-less nature of the film’s structure matches the aimlessness and depression of the characters, who are faced with a merciless, uncaring world, but who are at a loss as to how to improve their circumstances. Jang also often views his characters through opaque obstructions, such as glass or curtains, a symbolic expression of how these young people’s futures are obscured and hidden from their view, as they are forced to wander through their lives with no clear path in front of them. Even some of the more dramatic scenes – a brawl in an eatery started by one of Ji-hyeon’s friends who’s insulted by overhearing someone call lit majors “future bums”; or a later scene of Hye-rin weeping in an all-night spa where she and Ji-hyeon stay after they miss the last bus back to Seoul – are shot through these visual obstructions.

“A Fresh Start” won the Grand Prize in the Korean Competition at this year’s Jeonju International Film Festival. While this rather unassuming and subtly observational film isn’t an obvious prize winner, it does possess some very admirable qualities, such as the nicely played performances by its two central actors, and a very well-written screenplay by Kim Da-hyeon that skillfully develops its characters by gradually revealing details about their lives at just the right moments.