Bang Sangjun’s “Hamba” (함바) – 2019 Busan Film Review


A portrait of grief.  A behind-the-scenes look into a hamba, the Korean term for a “temporary cafeteria for construction sites.”  An exploration into two brothers’ search for meaning through the medium of film.  The documentary “Hamba” (함바) could have taken and run with any one of these angles, but instead spreads its plot too thin in trying to tackle all three storylines.  As such, the lack of a cohesive narrative structure ultimately sinks what could have been a much more tightly edited, focused and effective work – even after clocking in at just 72 minutes.

Director Bang Sangjun films himself, his mother and his aspiring actor brother Taewon as the main subjects.  “Hamba” begins with scenes at 4:30 a.m. one morning not far from the site of the second terminal being built at Incheon International Airport.  This is one of a number of construction sites to which Sangjun’s mom delivers food.  As her hamba business grows, Sangjun reluctantly helps her, partly because he’s simultaneously working on a film (starring his brother that honors their late father) and partly he cannot understand why his mother has chosen a line of work with very little profit margin.  Sangjun switches between on-screen conversations and himself serving as the narrator, all the while musing on his life decisions.  The pictures and the pacing, however, don’t always match the text; quite a few driving scenes, for example, are included presumably to show the hardships of long commuting distances at odd hours, but instead infuse a load of repetitive shots.

What more is there to learn of the ephemeral nature of the hamba, which stops deliveries to certain sites once construction is finished?  It turns out that this isn’t the perspective that Bang is going for, and the most compelling scene occurs when mother and director son have a heart-to-heart talk, during which Sangjun discovers the real reason that she chose this line of work.  By then, this startling revelation occurs a bit too late, and what should have built as a steady crescendo to that moment instead results in a jarring change of pace.

“Hamba” made its world premiere at the 2019 Busan International Film Festival.  It screens on Oct. 9 at 10 a.m. at Lotte Cinema Centum City.