Ode To The Goose (Gunsan: Geowileul Nolaehada)
Korea (2018) Dir. Zhang Lu
As I recall, there is no serenading of any geese in this film from Chinese-Korean novelist turned director Zhang Lu but there is plenty of pathos behind this sprawling tale of identity, the pain of fitting in, and navigating the many problems life throws at us.
The film opens with Yoon-young (Park Hae-il) and Song-hyun (Moon So-ri) finding their way along the eerily quiet streets of Gunsan, having taken a fairly impromptu trip there after a night of heavy drinking. From the advice of a café owner (Moon Sook), the couple seek out a small Japanese style guesthouse whose owner has the reputation of only letting certain people stay.
Fortunately, they are accepted by Japanese-Korean owner (Jung Jin-Young), who lives with is autistic daughter (Park So-dam), usually one for staying out of sight of strangers but make an exception when she sees Yoon-young. However, despite appearances Yoon-youg and Song-hyun are not a couple, though Yoon-young is in love with the recently divorced Song-hyun, who in turn takes a shine to the guesthouse owner.
Before we go any further, this is not a messy tale of doomed love triangles despite how the plot synopsis reads – in fact, there barely a scintilla of romance to found anywhere in this beguiling but bewitching film. Ode To The Goose sounds more appropriate for a Norman Wisdom comedy from the 1950’s not a laconic existential essay on national identity that sets out to make a case for Chinese-Koreans being accepted as the same as native Koreans.
Zhang Lu apparently has a chip on his shoulder about this and has every right to yet this still isn’t even the main thrust of this film – the problem is I doubt there actually is one. As ignorant as this sounds, Lu covers a lot of ground here and makes some vital and pertinent points both on a social and political level, but the overall message or intent behind this work remains rather unclear.
Partly why this comes across as clouded is the askew chronology of the storytelling – the first 80 minutes deal with the trip to Gunsan, the final forty minutes takes us back a few days prior to this to reveal how it all came about, ending literally a few seconds before the opening shot. This is hardly a new concept, but Lu’s only hint he is prepared to give us is the title finally appearing on screen at the 77-minute mark!
So, does discussing any of the major plot points constitute a spoiler for the second half flashback? This is an odd dilemma for this writer since the details pertaining to the first half are only shared during this part of the film, but some points are more in need of clarification than a full explanation. Case in point – the central relationship is clearly platonic yet Yoon-young is keen for it to be more whilst Song-hyun isn’t.
Initially, the lure of Gunsan for Yoon-young is to visit the home of his favourite poet, Yun Dong-Ju (a bio-pic was made about him in 2016), taking in the sights and sounds that inspired him. Gunsan was under Japanese occupation in the 1930s and many signs of this remain to this day in the architecture and landmarks, making it unique amongst the Korean aesthetic.
Yet it is Chinese-Koreans that are viewed with contempt by native Koreans, like Yoon-young’s father (Myung Gye-Nam), blaming the “commies” for everything that is wrong in the country. Lu regularly has people question Yoon-young’s possible Chinese-Korean appearance despite being Korean born and bred, as if to say “what does it matter, we’re all the same”.
None of this has any effect on the outcome of any of the main subplots, like the Autistic girl’s tacit fascination with Yoon-young. Speaking only in Japanese, she watches Yoon-young via the security cameras, occasionally leaving her room to take him dinner. Likewise, Song-hyun and the girl’s father is equally lacking in discernible chemistry between them – him being stoic and taciturn, Song-hyun living it up in the wake of a divorce that doesn’t seem to hurt her, at least until the flashback portion reveals more.
Confusingly, the focus is assumed, maybe deliberately, to be Yoon-young but Song-hyun is more fascinating character of the two and the one who stands out the most. More confident, outgoing, and with the life experiences to match, Song-hyun’s story holds greater interest for the viewer too, the aforementioned divorce scenario bringing out a different side to her character.
This frames Yoon-young as something of an unwilling catalyst for Song-hyun to face up to her own crisis of identity and belonging since he husband has moved on, but this marginalise Yoon-young’s feeling for her which he fails to declare and has to carry as a cross to bear. But again, this ends up unresolved like most of the plot threads anyway, leaving us wondering what the whole point was.
Lu is quite clearly a thoughtful filmmaker; his style is very natural and unfussy yet with a sobering melancholy and pathos behind each scene. Comparisons to Hong Sang-Soo are both inevitable and fleetingly acceptable, though Lu lacks the pretension, repetition, and quick zooms of Hong and can tell a story without burying it under verbose longueurs over drinks and cigarettes.
If Yoon-young was to be the central protagonist then nobody told Park Hae-il, who is amiable enough, if a bit drippy in the role, since like his character he is effortlessly outshone by the peerless Moon So-ri, stealing every frame and expecting her co-stars to apologise for it. Not that the support isn’t capable and everyone plays their part well, no matter how big or small.
But, when the end credits abruptly arrive, there is a lingering feeling that whilst there is a curiously charming and subtly provocative film to found in Ode To The Goose, Lu’s intent to keep its meaning to himself denies the audience the complete satisfaction and fulfilment it desperately craves.