What if a new wave of Korean cinema would focus on nuances? It would be good news for cinema itself, because a caress is more touching than a punch, in cinema too. Subtly exploring the nuances of the feeling of loss, «Mimang» is both a playful and existential drama of orientation.
Text: Giuseppe Di Salvatore
For the European premiere of Taeyang Kim’s first feature at the Zurich Film Festival, the audience had to “suffer” the screening of the festival trailer, a “vulgar accident” I would say – something between a pornographic pamphlet for human rights and a bad taste carousel of violence (because “cinema is emotion!”) – which did but finally let the delicate atmosphere of Mimang blossom as a gracious present.
A poetic accident this time – two old friends meeting on the streets of Seoul – is the trigger of the narration that slowly develops like a spider web. A web of relationships, where each character is searching for another without really reaching her/him, according to the most classical pattern of unmatched hunting love (think of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, for example). Therefore, a web of delays, which refers back to a web of mistakes and forgetting. Through the complications of this web, we can approach its centre, that being a certain feeling of loss. The specific status of this feeling seems to be the fact that the protagonists – and we with them – are not necessarily aware of it. The film thus appears as the process of making this feeling visible, sensible, through the unfolding of the intricate story of the connected relationships. This is exactly the process of making the meaning of the Korean word “mimang” explicit, somehow beyond its usual meaning as “widowing”. Taeyang Kim has found himself three aspects or nuances of its meaning, which constitute the titles of the three parts that structure the film.
In the first two parts, mimang takes the form of a subtle drama of orientation, both literally and existentially. The camera follows the characters – no more than two at once – walking on the streets of the centre of Seoul. Their small talk mainly concerns the directions, and we will be slowly able to draw an urban cartography that reveals itself to be reduced to some hundreds of meters. The only certain landmark is the statue of Admiral Yi, whose story is constantly recalled by the characters, but will express nothing but uncertainty – between history and legend. The geographic centre of the film thus is nothing but the ambiguity of reality and fiction.
Admiral Yi’s story is not the only repetition for Taeyang Kim displays a repeating series of details – words, stores, crossings, the rain, etc. – that in our perception of the film will rise as meaningful hints. Mimang is a formidable exercise of focussing. The strong zoom flattens the protagonist in the streets of Seoul that has to be reconstructed through their words, while the short depth of focus selects them out of the urban space. However, the details in the background appear as more and more important, and will finally overturn the relation between centre and periphery. Watching Mimang becomes a sort of orientation game along the walking line of the characters, and through the repetitions of details: the ambiguous centre (Admiral Yi’s statue) and the circular movements create a sense of suspension, which resonates with the suspense in waiting for a love matching that is constantly delayed.
Mimang [shows] how an almost impalpable moment of hesitation can transform into an irreversible fact.
This game could continue indefinitely, but the third part of the film introduces a quite different setting. The time of courting seems to be over, the poetic accidents in Seoul are now substituted by the death of a friend in the countryside, the loss is tangible, heavy talk prevails on small talk, driving replaces walking. Moreover, through the gathering of the three friends in the favourite bar of their past, time seems to be no more the matter of possibilities or ephemeral projections. The past is no more blurred or half-forgotten, and the feeling of loss becomes conscious: it takes the shape of the missed chance that the two main characters cannot but mourn. The third nuance of mimang has the hardship of reality, of irreparability. We could rewind the story and find a lack of courage in them coping with their desires, which seemed to be drowned in that mixture of hesitation and politeness that marks the first part of Mimang – and the first nuance of mimang, but the film does not appear to judge or moralise; it simply presents facts, or how an almost impalpable moment of hesitation can transform into an irreversible fact.
Mimang is a road movie without adventure but the little adventures and misadventures of daily life that are still able to mark life deeply. Small talk connects people, whose moments of hesitation are windows thrown wide open to their existential abysm. If this seems to recall Hong Sang-soo’s deflationist style, Taeyang Kim’s cinema is not minimalist but makes use of all the complexity of cinema tools: his camera builds a psycho-geographical landscape and his polyphonic narration constantly plays with time projections. Not far from Lee Chang-dong’s preference for existential themes, he sharply deviates from the epic flair that has connotated a recent current of Korean cinema, from Park Chan-wook to Bong Joon-ho, and Lee Chang-dong included. Moreover, in a film like Mimang there is no concession to the use (and abuse) of the bombastic violence that is so common in Korean commercial cinema. Contrary to this last one, and to the Zurich Film Festival’s trailer, Taeyang Kim’s first feature is the demonstration that the intensity of emotion, in cinema, does not need any explicit violence. His young age notwithstanding, he has probably just understood that a caress is more touching than a punch. Which is a very good news for the cinema of the future.
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Mimang | Film | Taeyang Kim | KOR 2023 | 92’ | Zurich Film Festival 2023
First published: October 17, 2023