One of Fantasia’s 2023 archival presentations is Jeong Jae-eun’s 2001 coming-of-age ensemble film Take Care of My Cat. The movie was a critical hit when it premiered in 2001, playing on the festival circuit at a time when Korean cinema was just beginning its international breakout. Though not a commercial hit at home, it did help launch star Bae Doona’s career, alongside her work for Bong Joon-ho in Barking Dogs Never Bite and Park Chan-wook in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Bae has since become one of the great stars of world cinema, with classic films in Japan (Linda Linda Linda, Air Doll), the U.S. (for the Wachowskis in Cloud Atlas, Sense8, and Jupiter Ascending), and at home (The Host, Chang-Ok’s Letter, A Girl at My Door, Broker). She leads the ensemble here — a group of five young women, friends from high school who, a year after graduation, find themselves growing apart as they have various troubles adapting to adult life. Each, in turn (although some more briefly than others), will be the caretaker for a small kitten, giving the film its title and the chance to be described, more or less misleadingly, as “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, but where the pants are a cat.”
Bae plays Tae-hee, who has spent the last year working for no pay at her father’s hot stone massage spa. Hae-joo, played by Lee Yo-won, is the only one of the group to have a real job, working at a brokerage firm, albeit as an assistant. Ji-young (Ok Ji-young) is a fine artist, but is unable to find paying work and lives with her grandparents in a crumbling shanty town. Twins Bi-ryu and Ohn-jo live happily together and sell homemade jewelry on the street; they seem to be doing well and mostly hang around the edges of the film, stepping up when necessary for some comic relief or to offer a dose of stability. The class separation between Yo-won and Ji-young provides the film’s central conflict, and its correlation to the disconnections in Korean life is hard to miss, both generational — the grandparents and their peers who grew up during the various mid-century wars versus the children in a time of post-martial law economic expansion — and economic — the widening class differentials that occur when a country modernizes under capitalism, enriching some, but definitely not all, of a populace.
But more than that, Take Care of My Cat is about these specific women and the strategies they employ to cope with the changing world around them. Yo-won, increasingly hollowed out and made shallow by the trappings of her success, becomes more and more cruelly indifferent to Ji-young’s suffering, while Ji-young retreats further and further into herself, eventually shutting down entirely (and finding herself in jail because of it). Tae-hee, for the most part, navigates between them both. She isn’t as greedy as Yo-won, but she’s dissatisfied with her family’s expectations that she work for free (and the fact that they seem to expect her, as a woman, to serve the men — her father and brothers, who, unlike her, are given the opportunity to go to college). A bold woman with an independent streak, she considers running away to join up on a merchant ship, like a Korean Melville. Meanwhile, she spends her free time also volunteering as a typist for a poet with cerebral palsy. He doesn’t use a computer, but rather an old typewriter which, as Tae-hee notes, gives the words a satisfying clickity-clack.
Text surrounds our heroes: as early adopters of SMS technology, they’re constantly sending each other text messages, visualized by Jeong as characters superimposed on various surfaces (walls, desks, buildings) that make up their environment (it’s hard to recall a film made prior to this that displays text messages so creatively). This was also the first generation to come of age when the boundaries between the physical and digital were porous, where friendships could be built up and broken apart through words on screens as easily as in-person interactions. But the things breaking them up — class differences, family pressure, work commitments, betrayal of once-cherished values — remain depressingly familiar today.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2023 — Dispatch 4.