It might surprise Western viewers watching the raw portrait of youth in Snowball to learn that its writer/director Lee Woo-jung has spent the last decade penning smash-hit K-dramas alongside star producer/director Shin Won-ho. The duo’s television work, like the nostalgic slice-of-life Reply trilogy and their most recent Grey’s Anatomy-styled Hospital Playlist (all available on U.S. Netflix), are slick and heartwarming rating juggernauts in South Korea. Snowball, on the other hand, is sparse and unnerving, calling to mind the stark realism of last year’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always. While it’s common to see K-pop stars populate Lee’s television casts, the presence of Bang Min-ah (better known as Minah of the group Girl’s Day) is yet another surprise, as the singer, whose only other film credit has been the weepy melodrama Holly, delivers a fascinating and nuanced performance in the lead role.
The story is told through flashback, framed by the voice-over narration of high school student Kang-yi (Bang Min-ah) on a lonely train ride, describing her two best friends Ah-ram (Shim Dal-gi) and So-young (Han Sung-min). Fragments showing the three in school give way to them escaping from its strict structures and carousing in the streets of Seoul, renting rooms for the night, or sleeping in the street instead of returning home. On one of these returns, we catch a glimpse of Kang-yi’s homelife, a comfortable middle-class existence with aloof but seemingly well-meaning parents uncertain what it takes to keep their daughter at home. While we never see the other girl’s parents, enough background is dropped for us to get a sense of the dynamics: So-young’s parents coddle her with presents on each return, while Ah-ram is physically abused for it.
Heightened by undercurrents of class consciousness, the girls’ respective situations straddle opposing ends, with Kang-yi’s in the middle; while Ah-ram runs away out of a sense of desperation and the prim So-young does so out of boredom, Kang-yi’s decision is caught in between these two impulses. A moment of sexual experimentation between her and So-young further complicates matters, as the feelings between them oscillate from friendship to desire, and finally into a hostility that threatens to rip their friendship apart. Lee captures the pivotal moment with stunning restraint —the girls sleep on the floor in a sweltering apartment, Kang-yi wakes and walks to the fridge to have some Baskin-Robbins as relief, and when she returns, So-young has taken off her shirt. The sound of the ice cream spoon clacking against her teeth from the previous scene plays over the silence as Kang-yi removes her own shirt and sidles down to watch the beads of sweat cascade down the arc of So-young’s shoulder. Moments like this highlight Lee’s directorial command in a film that doesn’t call attention to itself apart from its mesmeric editing that sharply cuts across days and weeks and months without ever losing cohesion.
Lee’s sparse and intimate narrative of youth on the precipice would make a fascinating double-bill with another fantastic South Korean film: Kwon Min-pyo and Seo Han-sol’s Short Vacation, which played at this year’s Berlinale. While the latter tells the story of middle schoolers finding themselves faced with the transition from childhood to adolescence, Snowball captures the intense growing pains of the transition from adolescence to young adulthood. As the second half of the film pushes towards uncomfortable extremes, Lee zeroes in on a universal brand of teenage alienation, as riveting and elemental as James Dean’s quivering breakdown in Rebel Without a Cause. Much like the Nicholas Ray classic, the film’s effectiveness is tied wholesale to the performance of its lead, with Bang Min-ah’s finely tuned expressions of inner turmoil bringing Lee’s world to life.
Published as part of NYAFF 2021 — Dispatch 4.