“Star of Ulsan” ( 울산의 별) – 2022 Busan Film Review

Kim Geumsoon in “Star of Ulsan.” (photo copyright Who N You Arts Inc.)

There’s a scene very early on in “Star of Ulsan” where the camera focuses on a world-weary woman, trapped in dark lighting at home. She clearly has a story to tell. And that story becomes very evident when the camera shifts from her worry-etched face to a full-color family portrait of happier times, featuring her husband, young son and herself, pregnant with her second child.

“Star of Ulsan” takes place in the southeastern Korean city by the same name that has seen better days. The shipyard industry isn’t what it once was, and Yunhwa (Kim Geumsoon), the matriarch of this now broken family, has no choice but to make ends meet.  It eventually becomes clear that her breadwinner role was a forced reality given the tragic accident that befell her husband.  Her son is impatiently chasing money by investing in cryptocurrency. Her daughter is also pursuing a seemingly impossible dream by trying to become a beauty influencer and moving to Seoul. When all these characters are written down on paper, it can be very easy to dismiss them as potential stereotypical caricatures of well-worn archetypes. Thankfully, “Star of Ulsan” completely backs away from that approach, instead showing the unraveling underbelly of a struggling family trying to figure out how to make it to the next day.

Kim, the lead actress who plays Yunhwa, very deservedly won the Best Actress Award at the 2022 Busan International Film Festival for her performance in this film. It is absolutely exhausting watching her tear her way through a role portraying an angry, bitter character who always draws the unlucky straw. Yet she, her children and extended family portrayed in this film are shown as very real people, caught between optimism and pessimism, veering more towards the latter. The viewer too is caught in a different way: wondering whether to sympathize with these family members for the cards that they were dealt in life, or whether to fall in step with the very raw emotions that they understandably feel.