Han Ka-ram’s “Our Body” – 2019 Hong Kong Film Review

At first glance, Ja-young is an excruciatingly frustrating case study of a NEET (“Not in Education, Employment or Training”) poster child in South Korea.  She’s a decade removed from her university degree with not even an ounce of work experience to show for it, and ageism stares her in the face as her supposed dream of becoming a civil servant slips away.

And yet, it is difficult to feel sympathetic for Ja-young (Choi Hee-seo) and her plight in Han Ka-ram’s debut feature, “Our Body.”  Already lacking a personal, professional and a moral compass, much of her misery at this point appears to be self-inflicted.  Through a tenuous personal connection, Ja-young lands a temp job, but for her a sense of purpose is only reignited when she comes across the enigmatic Hyun-joo (Ahn Ji-hye) on an evening run through the neighborhood.  Intrigued to the point of obsession, Ja-young admires Hyun-joo as the ideal physical embodiment of what she is not, and manages to insert herself as a permanent fixture in the runner’s group practice sessions.  Although this newfound hobby provides Ja-young a fragile sense of purpose, that discipline doesn’t really transfer over to the rest of her livelihood, which continues to be as directionless as ever.  In the office, she must vie with a number of eager, younger female colleagues for promotions.  At home, her disappointed mother constantly berates her for not doing better in life.

A turning point midway through the film destroys any semblance of foundation for Ja-young, and as she struggles to pick up the pieces, she also discovers that she knows Hyun-joo just as well as she knows herself.  In other words, barely at all.  What was quite obvious at the start of “Our Body” becomes an inevitability: that the confused Ja-young has plateaued, stuck in a neverending flatline of lifelong mediocrity.  It’s tempting to yell at the screen and demand that she exert some more effort, or at least foresee the consequences of her pointless actions.  But as the credits roll, the viewer’s related annoyance is slowly replaced by the sinking realization that he or she may personally know many individuals like Ja-young today in similar situations, turning to rather psychologically costly means to create the perfect self when one’s vocation or personal life cannot.

“Our Body” screened at the Toronto, Busan and Hong Kong International Film Festivals.