In My End Is My Beginning (Kkotgwa sijak)

Korea (2013) Dir. Min Kyu-dong

Question: When is new film not a new film? Answer: When it is an extended version of a short film which has already been sitting on the shelf for four years.

That is the basic deal behind this pseudo-erotic melodrama from Korean director Min Kyu-Dong, which despite a festival debut in 2009, it wasn’t until 2013 it finally got a full theatrical release. There doesn’t appear to be any recorded explanation for this delay, but it will either be along awaited pay off for anyone who saw the original compendium movie it first appeared in, 2009’s Five Sense Of Eros, or 88 minutes of tease and unfulfilling titillation for others.

Taking a slightly askew approach to the love triangle premise, the story involves Lee Jung-ha (Uhm Jung-hwa) whose husband Min Jae-in (Hwang Jung-min) is a novelist struggling to write his next work. He receives inspiration from his younger lover and muse Kang Na-ru (Kim Hyo-jin) whose propensity for kinky sex provides many ideas. Unfortunately it is this thrill seeking which results in Jae-In’s death thanks to the frisky couple’s ill-advised idea of bonking while driving.

A battered Na-ru shows up at the funeral and gets a naturally frosty reception from Jung-ha then later shows up at her house begging to stay at the house, even as a slave if necessary. Jung-ha is initially resistant but eventually caves in when she finds Na-ru has already sneaked in, and relishes in the mileage of retribution she can mete out on her love rival. But as time moves on, the frosty barriers dividing the grieving duo gradually begins to thaw.

As you may have surmised by now, the film spends the most of its time building up to a possible Sapphic conciliation between our feuding fillies which may or may not have been in the original short (I’ve not seen it – yet). It does so however in a testing but endurable way, not pushing the audience too far while establishing the reason why Jung-ha has every right to be hesitant and hostile towards Na-ru.

Min Kyu-Dong throws in a slight supernatural edge by having Jae-In appear by Jung-ha’s side, entering into conversations with each other, with him often taking Na-ru’s side when she begs to move in. To confuse matters further Min runs a concurrent flashback of Jae-in relating his new story ideas to Jung-ha, in which this sexual action he describes is acted our for the viewer by him and Na-ru. We know Na-ru was a direct inspiration for his writing but this throws a new light of ambiguity over these fantasies as to how much was his own imagination and how much was from experience.

Similarly further esoteric moments add to this fantasy aspect, including a recurring motif involving plants. Beginning as an innocuous thread concerning Jae-in’s need to quit drinking because of a liver problem, for which his doctor gives him a plant as a reminder to say no, numerous asides are built around needing to water plants to allow something special to grow from them. In one instance, a plant sprouts some leaves which eventually turn into Na-ru!

It sounds poetic and wonderfully metaphoric for more discerning film fans to decipher but the central conceit is the bizarre relationship between Jung-ha and Na-ru. Much of the sexual tension is largely inferred although Min uses simple moments like Na-ru sensually washing Jung-ha’s hair into a state of relaxation as an effective tease.

What shines through with more potency is the stealthy manipulation of the audience’s sympathies, leading us to shift them from Jung-ha, who is the nominal aggrieved party here, to Na-ru who suffers greatly at Jung-ha’s vengeful hand. From having food tipped over her head to being forced to eat a mini DV tape of her and Jae-in going at it, we forget Na-ru is suffering too and things are steered towards us feeling sorry for her as she is trying to atone for her actions.

I won’t reveal if the two ladies do get together or not since that is the hook (at least for the male viewers) upon which our interest hangs for the duration. To his credit Min successfully keeps us in enough suspense and throws plenty of misdirection to ensure that the outcome isn’t as inevitable as you might think.

The original short film was only 28 minutes long and considering this version contains an extra hour of material, it still leaves a few questions unanswered and some areas under developed; the original must have been very confusing! Despite this, Min tells a decent and engaging story which is well paced, if a little disjointed at times due to the dual narratives. He straddles a competent fine line between melodrama, erotica lite and supernatural chiller without having one overlap the others or feel like an over crowded mish-mash of styles.

Hwang Jung-min as Jae-in may be the man in the middle but he really has a relatively easy gig here sharing cosy moments with our two luscious leading ladies. Uhm Jung-hwa has seen her stock rise after this film via violent shocker Princess Aurora and psychological thriller Bestseller, and shows the foundation for both these performances here as Jung-ha. Her transformation from distraught widow to devilish bully is deftly handled while Kim Hyo-jin manages to retain a sexy mystique at every stage of Na-ru’s journey, her changes are more subtle but just as effective.  

The title In My End Is My Beginning may have been pinched from a poem by T.S Eliot about the merits of science vs religion but the ambiguous but fairly definitive conclusion to this film makes it apposite, even if it seems too obscure and possibly even a tad lofty for a steamy drama. Its brief run time, appealing leads and quirky story make this a perfectly acceptable tale of burgeoning sexual frisson but anyone expecting something substantially raunchier will be disappointed.