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Original Title:

South Korea 2009


Park Chan-ok

Lee Sun-kyun
Seo Woo
Shim Yi-young
Kim Ye-ri
Son Kang-gook
Kim Bo-kyeong
Park Jin-su
Song Yo-sep

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Story: Joong-shik (Lee Sun-kyun) is responsible of the tragical accident of his lover's baby. Plagued by his guilty conscience he leaves Seoul and moves to the little town Paju where he teaches children and teenagers religion. One of his students is Eun-mo (Seo Woo) whose sister Eun-soo (Shim Yi-young) is interested in Joong-shik until the two marry, eventually. Eun-mo doesn't like her brother-in-law and thinks that her sister only married him because of money. She runs away from home, but shortly thereafter a tragical event happens. Only years later Eun-mo returns home, but the details that led to the accident some years ago are still in the dark. Slowly, she starts to unravel the truth and together with Joong-shik she also tries to process the past. Meanwhile, he brother-in-law is busy as a squatter to fend off some local gangsters, who want to tear down a building complex by order of municipal authorities. It seems that he is trying so hard to take a stand for others in order to heal his own emotional wounds.

Review: Female director Park Chan-ok needed seven years after her drama "Jealousy is my Middle Name" until she shot her next movie about buried pain and concealed emotions with "Paju". Her newest work is also emotionally more accessable for viewers than her debut, yet especially the introduction already lets us encounter some problems, which derive from the scanty information flow and the at times nontransparent time shifts. But for that "Paju" proves to be surprisingly multi-layered, profound and worthwhile. That is if you are willing to put some effort on your part into the movie as well. Because only if you keep track of events unfolding from the very beginning and work your way through the confusing and scarcely implemented information you will be able to appreciate the movie's true strength. Therefore, "Paju" is a film that won't find fans among wide audiences but offers a nice reward for those who are willing to go with the more interlaced narration of the movie.

Even at the beginning it becomes difficult for the viewer to stay on top of things. Who is important for the story and who's not? This question alone has to be answered during the first half hour until you can even start to put the rest of the information given into context. This gets even more complicated as we are doing jumps back through time and have our hands full distinguishing Eun-mo, whose appearance changes on several occasions, from the rest of the cast. After the first half of the film we have developed a knack for the narration of the movie, though, and after that viewing becomes far less arduous. Still, from time to time it is difficult to get things into the right context, especially since we are not always confronted with facts but with personal truths. Fortunately, there is enough information, though, for us not having to fish in muddy waters all the time, a problem that characterized Park's debut work.

The difficulty to put together all puzzle pieces in the right way also derives from the fact that some characters of the film are withholding certain pieces and have their own reasons for that. The behavior of the two main characters is also only understandable retrospectively or if you put enough effort into the interpretation of the offered material. The complicated relationship between Eun-mo and Joong-shik is always standing in the center of the story and is held together by a tragedy that has direct influence on both their lives. Since the viewer gets to see events from the perspective of both of them he can also put together a more complete picture than the two individuals and that's also why you can't blame Eun-mo and her brother-in-law for their behavior. Especially Joong-shik's behavior is only too easily understandable because of the implementation of his tragic past, and this even though we are convinced that what he does isn't right.

Seo Woo ("Crush and Blush") manages to wander through different life stages while convincingly undergoing certain changes. Her portrayal of a rebellious, yet insecure teenager is as believeable as her hurt but more self-confident self in her later years. Lee Sun-kyun's ("Sa-kwa", "Coffee Prince") acting is more subtle but he carries the drama of the film at least as well. The complex narration of the movie proves to be a plus at the end for all those who have kept track of what happened during the story. The resolution can lead to some surprisingly emotional scenes that can actually touch the viewer. This makes the emotional reservedness of the rest of the film not that bothering anymore, because we get to know that under the cold surface of the film and the characters there is actually a vulcan of feelings seething.

Also worth of praise is the way director Park weaves the topic of gentrification in her movie and at the same creates some more action-loaden moments with it, too, because those scenes astonishingly seamlessly fit into the rest of the film despite the more quite nature of the drama. "Paju" isn't yet a town, but also no village anymore and lies near the Korean border to communist north. Accordantly, most of the town's districts are impoverished and the government is now going against this poverty with a radical resettlement policy. Building the framework for this well-done implementation of a political subject in an otherwise rather subtle drama about human relationships is surely no easy task, but here once again the strength of the complex narration, that at first seemed too complex for its own good, is employed to advantage. For this fact the movie also gets a bonus in the final rating, because even if "Paju" might sometimes look like boring art house cinema with its appealing and quiet pictures it manages to reward the viewer's patience in the end.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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