Viewfinder 경 (Kyung) [2010] • South Korea

Hooray for the new wave of women directors coming up in South Korea. This film, the feature film debut of director Kim Jeong isn't quite the caliber of last year's A Blind River, directed by newcomer Ahn Seon-kyeon, but it's got some fine moments and the overall vision is pretty solid. It shares the same general theme of searching, of someone searching for a lost family member, and also shares the notion that the search is really for the self and that the person searched for isn't really lost as much as not being seen.

I watched both films not knowing anything about them, nor anything about who directed them, and felt pretty strongly that both of them were directed by a woman. These are not chick-flicks, though. Both films are propelled by an almost surreal emotional logic which makes them seem a little difficult at first. Not that men don't make films like this and not that all women do. There's just something peculiarly right-brained and double x-chromosoned at work. This kind of approach doesn't replace traditional linear narrative technique. It accompanies it, fuels it, and might require the viewer to relax their expectations and look at the film from a different perspective.

The two films are also quite different. Ahn Seon-kyeon is a musician and scriptwriter and A Blind River is a more artful film. Kim Jeong teaches at a University and Viewfinder is a bit academic. She has also directed several short films and a documentary trilogy on women's history. Not to slight Kim's artistic credentials, though. Viewfinder is a low budget film but it looks very good and is full of creative photography, capturing both the heavily industrialised and the naturally scenic character of South Korea. And it's got a fantastic soundtrack. I wish I could read Korean so I'd know who performs the songs that sound like Chet Baker meets Lhasa de Sela.

I'm going to cheat here and quote the synopsis from the web site for the International Women's Film Festival in Seoul where Viewfinder premiered:
Viewfinder showcases moments in the lives of several people who meet by accident at the Namgang Rest Stop off a highway in southern South Korea. Kyung is in search of her younger runaway sister. Chang is a computer whiz who had recently lost his job, Kim Vac is a reporter-photographer who frequents the place, and Ona is an orphan media artist who works there, dreaming of New Asia Highway. These four form a loose network of loss and negotiate that loss in the digital age.
That's all fine and good. The film does spend a good amount of time observing people using computers. What's remarkable about it, besides the quantity, or rather, what's remarkable about it in spite of the quantity, is that it all seems very natural. Yes, we live in a digital age but this film isn't about negotiating anything that's peculiar to it. The tools are different than they were a decade or two ago but I think it's a disservice to the film to make it sound like it might be nerdy, or SMS messaging trendy. It's more weird and poetic and the focus is on people and their emotions.

If only it weren't for this program note which follows the synopsis, I wouldn't be concerned:
[...] Following her previous documentary "Koryu", director Kim Jeong tries to catch the motions of people staying and leaving, or the space of constant motion. The camera often follows the people from behind rather than watching them from the front and looks around the scenes, passing outside from the driver’s seat, which gives the audience the feeling of being inside the film. Viewfinder is an independent film with a low production budget. It tells about the communication, loneliness, and the emptiness of people living in the digital environment. The traces of people’s views and the results of their motions are delivered through digital texts. The internal emotions are expressed not on the human faces but on the virtual space generated by a computer window. The camera seems to be attracted to the new scenes created by digital technology and concurrently dreams of the space it cannot reach. Viewfinder is a cinematic exploration about the primal scene in the digital age considerately brought by director Kim Jeong.

I like the bit about catching people in the space of constant motion but the rest of it sends my bullshit detector through the roof. I don't care if its a direct quote from the director's commentary track. "The camera ... dreams of the space it cannot reach". Help! I need a class in contemporary film deconstruction.

Viewfinder is a film about people, not the plague of the digital age. It's about people living their lives, dreaming their dreams, and doing their jobs ... and one of the characters is trying to figure out why everything got a little fucked-up. She gives the film its emotional center. Films have been doing this for a long time. All four characters are portrayed well and are engaging. Choi Hee-Jin, as the photographer is a blast. She's sweet and kind and thoughtful but often makes you wonder if she understands other people's personal space. Photographers are like that. Lee Ho-Young is also good as the guy who finds people without ever leaving his computer and he kind of explains the movie through his philosophical poetry. Newcomer and unknown Moon Ha-in, as the popular Internet blogger who works the night shift at the rest stop where most of the action takes place, is the most intriguing, and probably the most together. She also looks a lot like Lee Yeon-Hee. At first I felt like Yang Eun-Yong, who plays Kyung and is more or less the lead, gave a rather flat performance but her character is supposed to be a little flat. There is a moment near the end which fleshes things out.

This is a film about characters, not tools. It's slow-paced and low-key with a few quirky bits thrown in for spice. There's some surreal dialog, some animation, a breaking of the fourth wall, and a supernatural scene where the subject of a photograph doesn't appear in the picture. It's slightly bizarre but also very down home and it's got a great soundtrack. It's not going to play well at the mall but if you like art films with real emotion it's worth seeking out. 

Director: Jeong Kim
Starring: Eun-yong Yang, Hui-jin Choe, Ho-young Lee, Moon Ha-in

12 International Film Festival in Seoul