From an aesthetic standpoint, there’s nothing particularly extraordinary or ambitious about Kim Ji-young, Born 1982. It’s a work that could just as easily function as a typical TV domestic drama or a blandly straightforward adaptation (here, of Cho Nam-joo’s controversial bestseller of the same name), even if some visual strategies (specifically, in some camera angles and framings) are frequently offbeat and perhaps feel ill-fitted to the material. Narratively, it’s the same deal: the plot revolves around a more-or-less familiar story, following its titular female protagonist as she confronts past memories (in scattered flashback) and everyday life as both a mother and a wife in a modern-day South Korea that still suffers from casual misogyny. So on the surface, Kim Do-young’s directorial debut feature embraces an unassuming and arguably unchallenging middle ground for its foundation, but one shouldn’t mistake the restrained visuals and easygoing atmosphere as banality or simplicity — indeed, there are still many powerful undercurrents flowing beneath the surface that elevate the film to something far more interesting that its initial temperance suggests.
A good deal of this power stems from how Do-young directs her acting ensemble, and particularly accentuates the presence and performance of Jung Yu-mi (best known for works such as Our Sunhi or Train to Busan), with great harmony and cohesion. Do-young commits her camera to a certain intimacy with Kim, most notable in silent moments and when she’s alone, a strategy largely accomplished through a contrast between foreground and background. Do-young is conscious not to overemphasize Kim’s surroundings, instead attending to and exploring the truth of her interiority. It’s a welcome narrative approach, one that allows Do-young to meticulously observe both character and circumstance without giving in to any facile victimizing or cartoonish villainizing, and which prevents the film from falling into the common trap of either sentimentalism or miserabilism. In this sense, Do-young’s work is indebted to a mood of controlled humanism, and there is a delicateness that comes to envelop the film; the natural light of late autumn frequently fills the screen, and the director’s keen grasp of the source material lends a certain tranquility and quiet confidence to its adaptation here. It’s this attention and dedication to minutiae that allows Do-young to inject some emotional heft into her quiet human drama. If the result doesn’t quite wrench the soul, it at least succeeds in warming the heart.
Published as part of NYAFF 2020 — Dispatch 1.