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South Korea 2009


Shin Dong-il

Mahbub Alam
Baek Jin-hee
Lee Il-hwa
Park Hyeok-kwon
Jeong Dong-gyoo
Kim Jae-rok

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Story: Karim (Mahbub Alam) is from Bangladesh and is working in South Korea for a few years already. He speaks the language, but is still excluded from society. He works in a laundry since all immigrants from Southeast Asia have to do dirty work and he sees himself confronted with Koreans' xenophobia in everyday life. Moreover, his former boss owes him the pay for a whole year.
One day Karim loses his wallet in a bus. The schoolgirl Min-seo (Baek Jin-hee) secretly takes it and Karim has to use force to get it back. He wants to take the girl to a police station but she begs him to let her go. In return she owes him something. Karim takes her up on that offer when they both end up at a police station because of independent arguements with someone else and meet again. Karim wants Min-seo to help him find his former boss. The girl has her own share of problems, though. Her mother neglects her and her grades in school become worse by the day. An unusual friendship between her and Karim starts to unfold.

Review: It was about time that a filmmaker dealt with the topic of xenophobia in South Korea. If you are a westerner, whether being European or American, you are in most cases treated obliging, but you have a bad hand in that matter if you are African or Southeast Asian. "Bandhobi" is character-driven art house cinema that comes along with a subtle note of humor and moreover has the right sensitiveness when it comes to talking about problems that not only concern Korea, but especially there have been neglected as a topic for far too long. The relationship between the two main characters carries the film even over the lengthy passages and more than anything else the detailled drawing of the individuals is appealing. Despite that "Bandhobi" struggles with problems that already weighed down the director's previous works.

Director Shin Dong-il has already confronted two uneven characters in his debut work "Host and Guest". After that followed his slightly thriller-like "My Friend and his Wife". Shin's movies have an unique flair and somehow I always end up watching them, but like back then his movies still lack that special something. There is just a small not easily definable ingredient missing which would make them good movies. "Bandhobi" is once again such a case. Shin's works are oftentimes too much in love with themselves and this even starts with the premise. Why of all people Min-seo is making the first step approaching Karim in front of the police station doesn't get a really satisfying answer. And in general all individuals sometimes act somewhat strange, which stands out even more, because they are otherwise portrayed believeable.

Karim is a nice and patient man, who isn't yet fully embittered about how he is treated by people. It is the small things that are proof of Korean's xenophobia. No one sits down next to him in the bus, he can't even take the bag of someone else to put down on his lap (which is a common gesture of courtesy in Korea) and when he is handed over the change people try not to touch Karim's hand no matter the cost. But the young immigrant doesn't seem to care much about this. Only as the film continues he is allowed to show more of what he really thinks during his talks with Min-seo. Min-seo on the other hand isn't any different from other Koreans. Through her character the director uncovers what kind of prejudices immigrants in Korea are target of and eventually she becomes friends with Karim.

Min-seo has to struggle with her mother and in the end Karim becomes the only individual who she can really talk to. Despite her young age the girl is already experiencing a lot of difficult things but even when she halfway prostitutes herself director Shin always looks out for the movie's tone not to become too serious. He in fact manages to find a good compromise and actress Baek Jin-hee bestows the necessary foul mouth upon her character to hold her ground against others. She is a cheeky girl who naturally only longs for some warmth. While Mahbub Alam (more and more frequently seen in Korean movies) plays his part a bit more introverted, Baek is somewhat of a counterweight without ever becoming a simple comedy figure or take the dramatic aspect off her role.

"Bandhobi", which is Bengali for "female friend", wins you over with good pictures, even though they are shot with a handcamera. However, only seldomly you get to see the typical shaky camera work you are used to see from art house movies. Some scenes are very long shots which give them the needed dynamic. The chemistry between the two characters is good, the supporting characters are interesting as well, the ending delivers a bit more drama without forcing it on us. Sadly, as already stated, the actions of the characters aren't always easy to comprehend and seem to be motivated by the necessity of a cinematic arc alone. "Bandhobi" is most likely Shin's most mature movie and in a well achieved fashion deals with a topic that was long overdue. For this fact alone he would deserve that one turns a blind eye on the flaws, but there is still that last spark missing to make this drama recommendable to everyone.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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