Dear Dolphin (Hwansangsokui Geudae)
Korea (2013) Dir. Kang Ji-Na
When Cha-Kyung (Han Ye-Ri) is killed in a traffic accident one summer’s night, the two most affected people are her boyfriend Hyuk-Guen (Lee Hee-Joon) and her former flatmate Ki-Ok (Rie Young-Zin). One year on and Hyuk-Guen is still not over Cha-Kyung’s death and while Ki-Ok tries to help, she keeps her long standing tacit love for Hyuk-Guen secret from him. Then Hyuk-Guen starts having vivid visions of Cha-Kyung in his every day life.
Grief affects us all in different ways which is the basis of female director Kang Ji-Na’s esoteric supernatural love triangle drama Dear Dolphin. It may not be that unusual a mix of genres but the end result is one that boldly defies the usual conventions, which is both a strength and a weakness. While not strictly a horror film it definitely possesses some haunting qualities beyond the spectral appearance of the deceased Cha-Kyung, largely born out of the trauma suffered in the fall out of her death by Hyuk-Guen and Ki-Ok.
The mutual bond shared between the grieving pair is the happiness and devoted companionship they got from Cha-Kyung, a lively young woman who was training to be a florist. On the night of her death, Ki-Ok called Cha-Kyung out to deliver some flowers to her interrupting an intimate night with Hyuk-Guen. To get home quicker Cha-Kyung borrows Ki-Ok’s bike but the brakes are faulty which forms the foundation for Ki-Ok’s guilt. She is also openly antagonistic towards the relationship between Cha-Kyung and Hyuk-Guen but it is left a little ambiguous as to whether this is jealousy towards Cha-Kyung for being in a happy relationship, or for having the guy she likes or maybe it is anger towards Hyuk-Guen for taking her best friend away. Whatever it is it is something Ki-Ok doesn’t know and struggles with on a daily basis.
For Hyuk-Guen this signals the beginning of a major mental and emotional downfall. He is unable to sleep, unable to concentrate on his job (he’s an assistant nurse at the local hospital) and his behaviour becomes more erratic on a daily basis. He has a one night stand with Ki-Ok but immediately regrets it, fleeing almost as soon as they finish, leaving Ki-Ok confused as to the nature of this physical union – an addled sympathy bonk or maybe he likes her? For Hyuk-Guen it is the former and he can’t make his adverse feelings for Ki-Ok any clearer while she continues to pine for him. Compounding the problem is the all too real reappearance of Cha-Kyung in his life. He can touch her, hold her, hear her, talk to her and feel her but her response is to point out the obvious – that she is dead.
Kang Ji-Na however is not so forthcoming with the obvious and leaves it up to the viewer to ascertain what is driving their grief, with the scene jumping from a flashback to a surreal vision then back to “real time” on a whim, taking us deep into the tortured psyche of our suffering couple. This disjointed narrative helps create world of bleak and jarring episodes in which Kang ensures the character’s emotional cards are kept infuriatingly close to their chests towards each other while their mental states are clearly unravelling before our eyes. With Hyuk-Guen unable to tell what time of day it is, Ki-Ok’s quest to find out where his heart lies is an uphill journey on an icy slope which isn’t helped by her paranoia that Hyuk-Guen blames her (and her bike) for Cha-Kyung’s death.
What may have been a deliberate ploy, Kang has chosen two rather unassuming and physically slight actors for the roles of Hyuk-Guen and Ki-Ok. This normally wouldn’t matter but their gaunt looks lend themselves to depicting the suffering their characters endure. Lee Hee-Joon’s bony frame allows him to contort his body and facial features in an unusual and unnerving manner, as though he was a man possessed, his grief eating him up from inside. So convincing is his distracted appearance that on first sighting, one might think he was mentally handicapped. Ki-Ok on the other hand is portrayed as something of a bunny boiler and is the less likeable of the two, yet Rie Young-Zin is able to bring a vulnerability to the role to help the audience come around to her side as she seeks to help Hyuk-Guen back to normality.
The ostensible piggy in the middle is Cha-Kyung who is played with an impish charm by Han Ye-Ri, whose boundless energy and cheerful demeanour is a much needed beacon in this dark story. Possibly the perkiest ghost you’ll ever see on screen, we conveniently forget that Cha-Kyung was once a loving human being and it is with some irony that a stark reminder of this comes during a particularly unsettling visit from the afterlife, in which Han’s dramatic acting chops are given a chance to shine. But she gets arguably the best job of the film for the beautiful closing credits scene involving the titular dolphin(s).
Dear Dolphin isn’t immediately accessibly and takes a while to warm up after the initial pre-credits shock of Cha-Kyung. It’s quirky approach to its subject and jaunty narrative will make this a dense viewing experience for some. Conversely it is this individual take on a familiar premise that will win Kang some fans among the arthouse crowd and those who tire of the norm.
Kang certainly has a unique voice and plenty of fresh ideas but needs to know when too much is enough. However with female directors being quite rare in Korean cinema, this is a promising indicator that there is a chance Kang Ji-Na will be a leading light for a new generation of female filmmakers.