Seen in Jeonju

Metamorphosis (2009)

30th April 2010

metamorphasisAh–My first day at the 11th Jeonju International Film Festival and I couldn’t be happier with the movies I saw. I absolutely loved Metamorphosis although judging by the audience’s reaction, I may be in the minority. I admit that this movie will not be liked by everyone, particularly if you go to the theater to watch a movie, not to read it. The main ..and for 98% of the movie, the ONLY…character loses his ability to speak. The only sounds he can make are barely audible grunts and heavy breathing. However, he does think a lot and we are treated to his thoughts through some very excellent captioning. Both the Korean and English subtitles. They appear slowly and with pauses so we never know exactly what the main character is going to say until he gets to the end of his thought.  Sometimes his thoughts are quite funny as when he mistakes Mozart music for a Girl’s Generation song or when he exclaims to himself, “…my body is jumping around! I’m being transformed into…a hiphop artist!”–which of course, he isn’t.

Metamorphosis is loosely based on Kafka’s work of the same name. However, just as the main character is not transformed into a hiphop artist, neither is changed into a giant cockroach. So what does happen?

In the movie, set inexplicably in 2016, the main character’s parents have been killed in a car accident and he has lost an inheritance dispute with his sister. Although he got none of the cash, he was allowed to keep the house in which he has been living with his parents since the IMF crisis twenty years earlier made it difficult for him to get a job. He admits that he was comfortable with that arrangement and claims to have felt neither embarrassment nor guilt. He recognized though that that in a capitalist society his contentment with being unemployed is akin to a crime.

At one point he considers God is punishing him for his contentment for, one morning, the character wakes up and finds that he is losing all feeling in his limbs while his hearing and voice disappear. Naturally, he initially panics and tries to convince himself that it is only a dream or that it is just temporary. But that first morning stretches into a day, and the day becomes a week. The longer he remains in this state, the more complacent he becomes. Even trips to the restroom become a burden until he finally just gives up. “Don’t pity me,” he thinks to the viewer as he lays in his own filth, “I am satisfied.”

Unlike Kafka story, there is a reason why this has happened, but I will not be revealing that here. Why I think this movie has little chance of a DVD release, you never know. Frankly, I don’t know how well this movie would work on a television screen. Sitting in a dark, hushed theater it was very effective–but on a small screen with distractions, it might not be as good.

The camera for most of this film seems to be worn around the character’s neck, but as the character cannot move much, it means we are treated to a single view of a curtained window for most of the movie–unless the character rolls over. Then we can see the door of his small room, his blankets or, rarely, a part of his body–a glimpse of his face at an akward angle, his hand or his foot. But that’s all we see. Now, personally I did not find this to be dull because his thoughts justifying his life and trying to make sense of his current situation are quite interesting. But I could see that some members of the audience were not happy with this.

This film is the first feature-length work by Lee Sam-chil. Lee had previously worked under Lee Myeong-se as assistant director of The Duelist and his short films have screened at other film festivals. He wrote, directed, performed the cinematography and starred in Metamorphosis. I applaud him for creating something I had never seen before, but I have to say he is going to have to comprise his artistic style a little if he wants to ever become a commercially successful director. Metamorphosis screened as part of the Korean Competition section at JIFF. After the screening, the audience was asked to rate it from 1-5.  I gave it a four.

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