From the reader’s perspective, I imagine the most annoying thing to read in a film review is “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but ...”
Having said that, this is the cop-out I choose in describing Kim Joong-hyun’s “February”: an indie film that shows a lot of promise, great characters jointly created by the actors and the smart director, impressive imagery and controlled emotions, but lacking the critical “it” factor that weaves the narrative together.
The film stars Jo Min-kyoung as Min-kyoung, a young woman with a drunk father behind bars, an ambiguous relationship with a man paying her for sex -- she insists she is not a prostitute because she’s not sleeping with anyone except him for money -- and a former roommate recovering from a botched suicide attempt. Min-kyoung, who is studying to pass the state exam to become a civil servant, also has a tendency toward petty thievery.
Complicating the matter is her tendency to manipulate everything and everyone around her to her benefit, eventually depriving her of any meaningful human relationships and moving her toward what seems to be her inevitable doom.
The film focuses on her path to what appears to be the deliberate destruction of her own humanity, her attempt to cultivate a nonchalant indifference to the rest of the world. Her feigned “evilness,” however, looks like a defense mechanism in a world that holds her in contempt -- or, at best, pities her. And from her perspective, pity is worse.
The film’s title, the director explained, refers to the time of year when the warm embrace of spring feels just around the corner, but it is still freezing cold. It is a “cruel” season that teases you with a flicker of hope before chilling you to the bone.
The leading lady’s performance is off the charts in this aspect. It is unclear whether the realistic nature of her character is due to her lack of acting experience, good directing, good acting or all of the above, but it works. Her character embodies the theme of the film -- the cold, dry sentiment of February that the movie depicts in its bare state rather than sugarcoating it.
While the narrative is focused solely on Min-kyoung, the supporting cast is pretty solid. Lee Ju-won as lover/customer Jin-gyu, Kim Sung-lyoung as the good-natured but scarred soul Yeo-jin and Park Si-wan as Jin-gyu’s son Seong-hun, who prickles the long-lost innocence and caring nature in Min-kyoung, all look and play the part. Their purposefully clunky chemistry works too, because she is supposed to be uncomfortable with them.
On a side note, little Si-wan’s absolutely adorable performance as the calm, precocious 7-year-old will definitely win the audience over in a moment of lightness in this otherwise hard-hitting movie.
The role of Min-kyoung’s sexuality in her thorny relationship with the world is also intriguing. Any interaction she has with other people -- whether it be benign, malicious or even innocent -- hinges on her femininity.
Min-kyoung’s boss -- who is rightfully furious with her for stealing from him -- seems to want sexual favors in exchange for not turning her in. Jin-gyu’s careful attempts to deepen their relationship are possible because she is an attractive woman. Even Seong-hun’s innocent affection toward her derives from his craving for a mother’s love.
The ending and the final image are impressive and will linger in viewers’ thoughts, but I could not shake the feeling that the film could have been more. It seemed to depict a life through Min-kyoung’s character, add the slightest sense of hope and then be done with it.
“February” was a film I liked quite a lot and one that had considerable talent poured into it. What it did, it did well.
But the director could have gone an extra step, taken things a little bit further and created something that went above and beyond.
“February” opens in local theaters Jan. 30.
By Yoon Min-sik