OK. That's some hyperbolic praise. This film blew me away. The funny thing is, though, I'm not sure I really got it, or got all of it. In a nutshell the film is about a thirty years young Korean man in search of his biological mother. With extras.
This film touches on many of the related topics of child abandonment, identity, adoption, loss, and being young and pregnant and alone (not to mention some very pointed exposition on Korean nurseries and clinics) in very powerful ways but it's not a message film nor an after-school special level catharsis. It's way weirder, and more literary, and much more poetic. The film is more like a visual narrative than a story. The second act is pretty much a riff on Albert Camus' Le Malentendu. And what a second act it is. It reaches Shakespearean levels of emotional intensity that are downright scary, getting jiggy with some twisted Oedipal sidewinder concoction. I wouldn't call this an art-house film, though. It doesn't come off as pretentious or intentionally vague even though parts of it might seem random and inexplicable.
So what is it I didn't get? The film opens abruptly with a scene, likely to cause you to recoil in your seat, of young girl in somewhat primitive circumstances having an abortion. It's not explicit, more fly-on-the-wall view, but it's potent. And I think it's an abortion. Could be she is going to deliver the baby and sell it. Given the stage of her pregnancy the latter is more likely, and the film seems to want to ask if there is a difference. [UPDATE: upon a second viewing, it's clearly option #2, but I'm leaving my error because I'm in favor of letting this represent my initial reaction] Either way, she is in full traumatized mode. The confusing part is that this girl continues to appear in the film, pregnant, with ambiguous results in a parallel storyline. I'm not sure if she is to represent the boy's mother or simply another scenario. I'm not sure at what level this film plays with time, reality, representation, or dreams but only my left brain wants to know. There's nothing frustrating or loose-endy about it if you just let it be.
After the first scene the film settles into more standard drama for a bit, with a little cultural essaying and identity politics as it introduces us to the young man who will be our protagonist. He is with his girlfriend who wants to support him but also proposes to him and suggests it might be better if the two of them start their own family instead. The young man says he's not ready for that and abandons her to go find his mother.
The young man was raised in Australia and speaks English. His Korean is broken at best and this adds to the difficult dreamlike second act when he returns to Korea and ends up at a broken down hotel run by two widows, one of whom may or may not be his mother. I'm not even going to begin to try and dissect the second act. Suffice to say, the ambiguity of this film is precise and remarkable. As is the performance of Park Ji-a as the younger of the two women inn-keepers.
Park Ji-a, apparently going by simply ZIA now, is the only person associated with this film that I know anything about. She's been in a few Kim ki-duk films, most notably the lead in Breath (Soom), and I've always liked her peculiar beauty and thin but extremely muscular frame. It's not surprising to see her here as she has always seemed at home in Kim's dreamy structures. A Kim ki-duk directorial comparison is apt here but I can't tell you a thing about the person who directed this movie, Ahn Seon-kyeong.
Park Sang-hun is very good as the young Korean man, and I guess I do know about Park Ji-Yeon who plays his girlfriend. Her role is minimal but she does a fine job. I'm not sure who plays the young pregnant girl (Kim Ye-ri?) but her performance is amazing. She practically steals the show and you will feel very strongly for her.
Things wrap up with a mildly melodramatic resolve but I didn't really care one way or the other about it. The film had to stop at some point. I can't imagine that even if you hate the ending that it would spoil the preceding journey. This is a film that should be seen by anyone interested in good and/or powerful film making. It's not about the story or the message. It's about the colors and the brush strokes. And the meter.