The opening shot of Kim Dong-hyun’s third feature, The Dinner, set in Seoul, announces the film’s subtle emotional undertones and character studies quietly, setting the scene for almost 2 hours of human struggle in the face of fateful circumstances.
On the face of it, the narrative seems extreme. Daughter Gyeong-jin (Lee Eun-joo) abandoned by her lover, has just given birth to their baby son Jay-hyeon. Her brothers, older In-cheol (Jung Eui-gap) and younger In-ho (Jeon Kwang-jin) debate whether to put the child up for adoption or not. Cut to years later and we are with the elderly grandparents, who look after Jay-hyeon whilst Gyeong-jin goes out to work. Older In-cheol is made redundant, but, having a sick wife Hye-jeong (Park Se-jin) to support, soon finds himself evening work as a ‘chauffeur’ for city workers too drunk to drive themselves home. It also happens to be younger In-ho’s job too and it is he, accidentally making himself responsible for the death of a client, who eventually brings final tragedy upon the family- coming as it does after Gyeong-jin dies from a heart condition.
Some critics have found fault with the rather hyperbolic and fateful narrative but, given the time cuts, I find it realistic. I found myself enjoying watching a film daring to focus on its characters over a number of years and, as realistically as possible, chart their ups and downs. And whilst it’s true that perhaps the wide scope of Kim Dong-hyun’s lens has an adverse effect on the depth of character, I think it is made up for by the narrative ambition of the film, which is almost Bildungsroman in structure.
In fact I found myself thinking of Chekhov and making comparisons with Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet, Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman and even Vojtech Jasny’s All My Good Country Men, although this is a much longer film and is the focus of Czechoslovakia during a time of political upheaval and spanning at least ten years. And surely the closing shot is a passing nod to Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees, as, as in that film, we can only guess at the outcome of the last scene, which, by proceeding events, we know can only be resolved in a particular way. However, like Kiarostami, Kim Dong-hyun’s genius is to play with the passing of time through the use of a static camera, so that we become hypnotized by its paradoxical stillness and therefore maintain the hope that we, the director and the actors can change the course of events that must surely take place. And although there is nothing Pirandellian about The Dinner, or any suggestion that art mirrors life, the occasional long static shot, the time allowed for the camera to record the passing of the seasons, is itself a reflection of how time passes for our characters- and how their dreams and prospects change in a cyclical movement. It had me thinking of Tokyo Sonata by Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
It might be said that there are some narrative inconsistencies. For example, young In-ho has a break down and ends up in a mental hospital. Cut to a year later or more, and he is suddenly well and in the interim, his girlfriend has mysteriously disappeared from our screens with no narrative explanation- we are left to assume she has dumped him. The previously uncaring father reclaims Jay-hyeon after his mother’s death, only to be inexplicably returned by him to In-cheol in the third act. These can either be taken as character inconsistencies and narrative flaws, or as an attempt to portray the little anomalies and incomprehensibilities that frequent our every day lives. I prefer to think of it as the latter.
Because this film seems to be more a chronicler of every day life, albeit with a slightly melodramatic narrative, Kim Dong-hyun seems more a documenter than a fiction film director. There are times when the camera seems to have that meditative quality that can be found in the documentary work of Gideon Koppel (Sleep Furiously) and there is an attempt to depict the everyday through mundane conversation and activities- the elderly father’s daily trek into the mountains for example, or his wife’s visits to the temple. At times this makes for an uneasy style- the editing in the opening shots is quick, as if the director does not want us to linger on ‘setting the scene’ cityscapes. But at other times the camera is allowed to run and we forget about the hand of the filmmaker. What this does is provide an uneasy relationship between fiction and an attempt at a kind of documentary truth behind that fiction.
To this end, memorable performances are given by Jung Eui-gap especially.
The film recently premiered in the UK at the Korean Film Festival and was the Busan International Film Festival closing film. There are no plans for a UK release, but the Korean Film Festival will tour more cities in Britain soon after its London run.