Microhabitat (2017) **** London Korean Film Festival 2018
Dir.: Jeon Go-woon; Cast: Esom, Ahn jae-hong, Choi Deok-moon, Kang Jin-ah, Kim kuk-hee, Kim Jae-hwa, Lee Sung wook; South Korea 2017, 104 min.
Jeon Go-woon’s spirited road movie sees a city girl determined to keep her independence while her friends cow-tow to tradition in contemporary Seoul. The original title ‘Little Princess’ better describes this thoughtful story of materialism versus spiritualism.
Miso (a brilliant Lee Som) may be getting on a bit, but can’t afford to heat her tiny studio flat, on her salary as a housemaid. When the rent goes up together with the price of cigarettes, she makes a dramatic decision: to move out and indulge in her favourite brand of whisky, and to keep on smoking. But what price freedom? Her boyfriend Hans-sol (jae-hong) lives in a male-only dormitory, so she can’t go there – they even have to give up having sex. Schlepping around with her belongings, like a bag lady, Miso asks her former band members for help. First off is ambitious office worker Moon-yeong (Jin-ah). She is curt and unapologetic: “I am too irritable to lie with someone”. Next is former vocalist Roki-i (Deok-moon), who now lives with his old-fashioned parents. His mother is keen on the idea. Clearly Miso is the just the right match for her son: “she can clean, and that’s all a woman needs to do”. Roki-i’s certainly keen on Miso. But she can’t deal with being hemmed in with his family, so once again it’s time to move on. The next port of call is her girlfriend Hyeon-jeong (Kuk-hee) whose husband tells his wife “to shut up and cook”. And so it goes on.
Go-woon’s refreshing debut is very much a riff on the traditional versus the modern way of South Korean life. It contemplates the difficulties and isolation of the spiritual way of life, in contrast to the more easier and socially acceptable option of materialism. Freedom may be more nourishing for the soul, but is tough on the body: It’s all very well following your heart in your twenties, but the process becomes tougher as the years go by, and when old age looms around the corner. Esom’s former band-members had their flings with music in their twenties, but they have given up on an inner life, swapping it for opportunism – with different degrees of success.
DoP Tae-soo Kim’s images of Seoul are just breathtaking: the city glitters at night, but during daytime it looks rather drab – just like Miso’s former friends. Shot in fifteen days, with a rather loose script – Go-woon wanted to convey the humour and absurdity during of the shoot. Microhabitat is a little gem: fast moving yet imbued with gentle insight. This intimate picture of a woman’s determination to follow her dreams at all costs is full of humour and irony. AS
MICROHABITAT OPENED THE LONDON KOREAN FILM FESTIVAL 2018