A Matter Of Interpretation (Ggumboda haemong)

Korea (2014) Dir. Lee Kwang-Kuk

“I had a strange but lovely time”

Whilst I didn’t fully get what was going on this elliptical tale of dreams, their meanings and how they can influence our lives the above line spoken within is a somewhat accurate way of summing up my feelings towards Lee Kwang-Kuk’s second film.

It begins with frustrated actress Choi Yeon-Shin (Shin Dong-Mi) walking out of a local stage play after nobody shows up to see it. While sitting alone on a park bench, Yeon-Shin recalls the day she dumped her boyfriend Shin Woo-Yeon (Kim Gang-Hyun), also a theatre actor, at the very same spot a few months before.

Back in the present day, Yeon-Shin is admonished) for smoking in a no-smoking zone by Detective Seo (Yu Jun-Sang). He is investigating a suicide nearby and is taking a break, but also claims to interpret dreams, so Yeon-Shin relates a strange dream she had where she attempts suicide in a car only to find the owner locked in the boot, he himself having been in the same situation earlier.

Often on this blog, I’ve been wary of a film from a certain director by his reputation and previous works but in this case, my curiosity and pensiveness is more related to the company Lee Kwang-Kuk keeps – to wit, he is a former assistant director to Hong Sang-Soo, whose singular style and plots don’t really need imitating by his prodigies.

Thankfully, Hong’s influence on Lee’s work is superficial at best, at least judging by this quirky, bordering on abstruse offering, allowing Lee to carve his own niche in cinema without having his mentor’s name around his neck like the metaphorical albatross. Aside from the constant motif of two people who make a living in the arts engaging in verbose philosophical discussions (and the casting of one of his frequently used actors), the Hong similarities stop there.

Free from a script with pretensions of being deep and meaningful that ends up seeming smug and vapid, Lee has his characters caught in a bizarre endless loop of overlapping dreams that uncannily share the same details. Is there a good reason for this? Well, I’m not going to spoil it for you, but a significant clue is in the name of the play Yeon-Shin is starring in – The Influence Of Dreams.

When Yeon-Shin relates her dream of waking up in car in remote location with a bottle of soju, some briquettes, a bottle of pills and a will on the passenger seat, Seo is surprised to learn that this is the exact same scenario of the suicide he is investigating. As Yeon-Shin’s dream continues, the man she releases from the boot (portrayed by Yu Jun-Sang) relates how he got to be in this situation, which is the same as Yeon-Shin’s story.

Don’t worry it is as confusing on screen as it reads but easier to follow when presented visually, but there is more to come as the saga of ex-boyfriend Woo-Yeon is revealed to play out in exactly the same pattern – admonished for smoking where he shouldn’t by a dream interpreting detective who picks apart Woo-Yeon’s fantasy of being stuffed into the boot of his car.

Not quite Groundhog Day but a lot of repetition to endure although the difference here is that we don’t know where this is all going or why. Interjected into this fugue form narrative is Seo’s sister (Seo Young-Hwa), a taxi driver forced to quit after a fall left her an amnesiac. She also has a recurring dream about killing herself on February 7th, a date recommended to her by her late mother in – you guessed it – a dream.

I’ve gone as far as I can with revealing the significant plot points without recapping the entire film, but Lee also throws in the odd rant about people putting money before principle and nurturing artistic aspirations in the young. It seems an incongruous way to vent in relation to the bigger themes on hand, but like that one tiny nut in a construction kit that doesn’t look important, its value is recognised by the end.

Because the cuts between reality and reverie are abrupt and often without warning, our sense of placement in the story’s timeline and our understanding of what is or isn’t real is repeatedly uncertain. This is of course deliberate and Lee offers no apologies for this, because that is how dreams work, and it is only upon reflection that we realise just how astute this representation of the erratic and disjointed narratives our dreams follow is.

Despite the baffling juggling of perspectives on screen, Lee’s script construction skills are praiseworthy for his ability to keep the numerous skeins in check and maintaining the steady flow of the narration. It is very clever too; just when you think you’ve figured something out, the next revelation alters the direction once again, which annoyingly stays true right up to the enigmatic ending.

The characters are quite relatable and likeable in their own way and, unlike in Hong’s films you can root for them. Shin Dong-Mi is a capably charismatic actress carrying the bulk of the film as the world weary but redeemable Yeon-Shin. Yu Jun-Sang is the more recognisable face from his work with Hong and many mainstream Korean movies but is just at home here, providing solid support along with Kim Gang-Hyun.

Whatever Lee learned from working with Hong, he has evidently filtered out many of his mentor’s trademark touches and annoying habits (the sharp zooms and static cameras) and applied the useful elements in a subtle manner to avoid direct comparisons whilst setting the foundation for what should develop into his unique style as a writer and director.  

In concluding as to what the film is all about and what Lee is trying to say, I can only refer to its aptly allegorical title; whether this perkily curious slice of meta cinema confounds or delights really is A Matter Of Interpretation.