Cassiopeia

Korea (2022) Dir. Shin Youn-Shick

Health issues, contrary to what we may believe, are not governed by age – in other words, ailments that might be found in the old are exclusive to them and could easily blight the young as well. Over the past few decades, Alzheimer’s and dementia, mostly associated with senior citizens, have been found in the younger generation.

Su-jin (Seo Hyun-jin) is a successful self-made lawyer, and single mum to Gina (Joo Ye-rim), whose father moved to the US after the divorce. Forced to fire her babysitter, Su-jin calls on her father In-woo (Ahn Sung-ki) to look after Gina for her. Everything is fine until Su-jin begins to show signs of forgetfulness over tiny things, making her short tempered when contradicted about them.

One day whilst on the phone to In-woo, Su-jin panics over a silly misunderstanding and rushes home, crashing her car in the process. The hospital check up reveals the onset of Alzheimer’s, which, as a woman in her 30s, Su-jin refuses to accept. However, it isn’t long before its grip takes hold, requiring significant changes to Su-jin’s personal and professional life.

Films primarily exist to entertain us, a sentiment not everyone agrees with, particularly filmmakers who prefer to explore pertinent issues to educate, empathise with, and pass comment on. Both attitudes are valid, but usually what we see on screen doesn’t always reflect on our lives – until it does. To wit: my father has dementia, and watching films about it is harder for me now from being relatable.

Not that I am incapable of watching them with an open mind, perhaps a morbid curiosity and quiet dread of seeing what is to come. Cassiopeia has the unique distinction of falling into this remit whilst approaching the subject from a different yet still upsetting angle. The fundamentals are the same, only the situation is different, whilst the effect is nonetheless personally challenging.

Reportedly, around 3.9 million people worldwide get dementia in their 30s – a small number perhaps, but as with most ailments, one bound to grow in time to come, since dementia is incurable. For Su-jin, this means the end of her career and essentially her life as an active, independent adult, mother, and daughter. It’s as cruel as sudden death, maybe crueller for Su-jin and her family

Like a hurricane, Su-jin is a formidable figure in her chic business attire, steely glare, and confident power walk. Her words burn like acid if you cross her, letting her down is not an option, nor is pushing her around – ideal qualities for a lawyer, not so much for a single mother. This isn’t to suggest things are fraught between Su-jin and Gina, but work pressures are often brought home with Su-jin and she can spot when house rules have been broken.

Grandfather In-woo, like most grandparents, is more lenient towards Gina – complicit in her insubordination, yet wise enough to know when to hold his opinion on how Su-jin’s parenting. The irony of Su-jin, who built her own success, needing to rely on her father in the wake of firing her babysitter is unbeknownst to her, as is this being a presage for the future.

At first, Su-jin forgets small things, which before long become important. Eventually she is forced to admit her problem after arriving at work without her skirt. The timing is inconvenient as her law firm is under investigation and Su-jin is one of the key defence witnesses. Su-jin does make it to the stand with disastrous and embarrassing results related to her condition.

Meanwhile, In-woo looks into dementia support groups and care homes. Given his age, everyone naturally assumes In-woo is either patient or his wife is – the shock when they are told it is his 30-something daughter is barely disguised. True enough, when Su-jin and In-woo attend the group sessions everyone mistakes the patient/support role in this coupling since the standard dynamic is represented among the other pairs.

The script plays it safe in not overdoing the indignity dementia brings to sufferers as their mental and motor skills falter, and their bodily functions take on a life of their own. Instead, they are shown frankly as the reality of the situation, exposing the lack of tact of others. Su-jin later regresses to a child-like mental state, taking to eating paper and moaning instead of talking, then finally settling into a blank stare catatonia.

Emotionally, the film appears to peak with a devastating scene in which a hysterical Su-jin has a break down in the car with In-woo sitting helplessly beside her. It is too easy to dismiss this as overacting if you look at it superficially, but given this occurs shortly after the diagnosis, it is a heartbreaking to watch this once indomitable woman reduced to a wailing, tearful, and frightened wreck.

Director Shin Youn-shick plays with melodrama conventions a little too closely in the third act, before rebounding with a denouement to pierce the hardest of hearts, a moving and tender moment that may reek of manipulation but is too damn sweet to fault it. Like the whole the film, it rests on the exceptional performance from Seo Hyun-jin as Su-jin, contextually different from Anthony Hopkins in The Father but equally as heartbreaking, whilst support from veteran Ahn Sung-ki as In-woo can’t be understated.  

Whilst the film’s content and intentions speak for themselves, the title may be enigmatic but incongruous. It is in fact symbolic of relationships separated by distance, in this case Su-jin’s with her family. Cassiopeia is the brightest constellation which surrounds the North Star – the idea is one can look for Cassiopeia to find the North Star then follow that to find their way to their destination. It makes sense when you see the film.

Cassiopeia might be a glossier more direct Korean cousin to The Father as a film about dementia but hits just as hard with its poignant message that we can’t take anything in life for granted.  

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