KOFFIA 2012 Review: Geriatric Romance Done Right in LATE BLOSSOM

One of the films playing at the 3rd Korean Film Festival in Australia.

It's easy to forget sometimes how rigid the rules can be concerning the technical aspects behind the making of a film. When done right, everything you see on screen (or hear) is exactly so for a reason. The rich tapestry of mise-en-scene (basically everything but the dialogue) captures our attention by cleverly drawing us to certain pieces of information. Through cinematography, sound, production design, costumes and editing it seeks to tell us a story. It is the difference between a novel, in which we must imagine all these details, and a film, which seeks to show us a world conceived by its filmmakers.
 
If you take the time to consider what shots are used in a film, you can see (most of the time) a reason behind their selection. These little parcels of visual information tell part of the narrative. There are many choices a director or cinematographer can make when framing a shot and each of these decisions will affect how the story is told. An example of this is from what angle to frame a character: you can shoot from above, from below or straight on. In Late Blossom, which features some exceptional photography, this choice is an important one. It says a lot about how the film views its characters, the majority of which are senior citizens.
 
Shooting from high up makes a person look smaller and can infer that he or she is timid, lacking in confidence or occupying a lower social strata. Conversely, low-angle shots make characters look dominant, authoritative or heroic. Late Blossom's principal protagonists are frequently filmed from low angles. In this instance, the choice is a mark of respect, as the films seeks to venerate its elderly characters. Here, the formal structure of the film and its choices echo the rigid framework of a hierarchical society, although perhaps one that is steadily shying away from its outmoded confucian values.
 
At a time for Korea when things are rapidly changing and its film industry manifests the latest trends and embraces the newest fads, Late Blossom is something of an anomaly. Its focus is on a way of life that is being passed over for globalized cosmopolitanism. It is fixated on the present but only because it has allowed the past to be forgotten. The characters who we follow live in the world's second largest metropolis, yet they seem alone and abandoned. The rapidly-evolving society which they inhabit no longer has any space for them, but still they live on, foraging in the modern urban landscape.
 
Late Blossom follows the lives of four elderly people in a rundown neighbourhood in Seoul. Kim Man-suk (Lee Soon-jae) delivers milk and crosses Ms. Song (Yoon So-jeong), who scrapes by by selling scrap paper. They feel something towards one another and gradually seek respite from the loneliness of their lives. Meanwhile, Jang Kun-bong (Sung Jae-ho) takes care of wife (Kim Soo-mi) who suffers from dementia.
 
Rather than follow a plot-based path, the narrative invites us into the lives of its four protagonists as they struggle to live in modern Seoul. The film is meditative, sweet and enormously rewarding. It is also deceptively simple. One of those examples of something that seems perfectly effortless while in actuality demonstrating an enormous amount of skill, attention to detail and artistry.
 
Aside from visual metaphors (such as pathetic fallacy) and social awareness, Late Blossom succeeds in the technical department. It features some of the most wonderful camerawork I've seen all year. While the lensing is clearly beautiful, it is also intelligent, each shot has a purpose and advances our integration into the story. One particularly pleasing element of the cinematography were the scenes with snow. As the snowflakes drift across the urban landscape, those that come closest to the camera float by as large out-of-focus white dots. It's very engrossing and adds a huge amount of depth to the world we are invited to discover.
 
The film begins as we follow Man-suk on his scooter doing his early morning routine. The first time we see his face is from behind a gate. In effect we are spying on him. There is a tacit acknowledgment, on the part of the filmmakers, of the scopophilia that we the audience must naturally engage in as we invade the private lives of the protagonists. Rather than immediately launch into close-ups, for a long time we see everything that unfolds from a distance. The effect of peering in is reinforced by the landscape of the neighborhood. The composition of the shots reflects the sinuous roads and paths as they wind their way up and down hills. This style of shooting becomes very intimate when we follow the characters through the ordered chaos of their local society. The location is very much a part of the story, it is omnipresent as Man-suk and Ms. Song make their living traveling its streets.
 
Many themes are explored during the film, mostly examing how society has changed in its treatment of elders. In one sequence, Song visits the civic office where Man-suk's daughter works to register for an identity. She is excessively grateful and obsequious towards its young employees, a reminder of a bygone era when an autocratic administration ruled with an iron fist. Conversely, the youthful staff are pleasantly surprised to be treated so respectfully and reciprocate by expediting her needs. While this may be a sign of positive change, representing the evolution of authority in modern Korea, it also alludes to the fact that people are often less than gracious when dealing with civil matters in modern society. You may also notice certain compositions in the film which place younger characters looking down on the elder protagonists from higher vantage points. They have moved forward, or up, with time and peer down almost quizzically at those who paved the way for them. What is the difference between respecting authority and respecting your elders?
 
The anchor of the film is its great lead performers. Lee Soon-jae, Yoon So-jeong, Sung Jae-ho and Kim Soo-mi are all fantastic. It is impossible not to feel all their joy, disappointment and heartache. It is as if it were your own. I was completely taken in by Late Blossom, especially by it's fantastic leads, involving mise-en-scene and infectious sweetness. All but the coldest hearts will be melted by it.
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