In the London Korean Film Festival's Indie Firepower strand, a regular section programmed by Tony Rayns, Park Hong-min sits at the front of the selection of new independent films from emerging national auteurs. Given two spots in the lineup, and treated to particularly complimentary, excited notes by Rayns, Hong-min is obviously a favourite. From his first two features - striking and ambitious films that, whilst not without their problems, definitely demonstrate a director with considerable promise - it's not hard to see why.
"You think you're looking for her? You never thought that maybe she is looking for you?" In Park Hong-min's bold and beguiling 2013 debut feature, A Fish, a professor (Lee Jang Hoon) employs screwball private eye (Kim Sun Bin) to help him search for his missing wife (Choi So Eun). Meanwhile, two fishermen-come-philosophers exchange metaphysical discourse on all manner of topics whilst moored out at sea. It turns out, for no explicable reason, his wife has become a shamanist, and the detective seems more unchained sociopath than investigative professional. Oh, and the fish talk aloud to the fishermen, and the whole thing is in 3D. If this sounds puzzling and somewhat incongruous, that's because it is. It's also inventive, brazen and directed with a confidence that is surprising given the inexperience of its director, still a grad student at the time of its making.
A film of ever unfolding mirrors, little that happens stands up to any discernible logic. Characters disappear from scenes to reappear in others, and anything is prone to inversion. Dreams fold, and the line between reality and fantasy becomes ever more blurred. Things happen, conclusions are drawn, but identifying the motivations of the characters and the intention of the director remains difficult. "Dont try to be a philosopher," says one fisherman to the other. The principal philosophy of A Fish is madness. Making any sense of it is somewhat aggravating, but as a mystery unsolved it's not without allure, and as a showcase of a new director's talent and ambition, certainly impressive.
In Hong-min's 2015 follow up feature, Alone, Su-min (Lee Ju-won), whilst making a documentary about a impoverished housing district accidentally records several masked men murdering a girl whilst shooting from the rooftops. Spotted, zoom lens in hand, a chase begins from this Hitchcockian premise; initiating an unending, endlessly collapsing nightmare from which he repeatedly awakens, only to emerge in another dream world. Visceral and agile, the film is shot in spectacular widescreen handheld over prolonged takes. It also makes stunning use of the locations, darting around the winding, densely built slums of Seoul at night, the scenes lit evocatively and the camera mobile and energised. Unfortunately, despite this technical proficiency the appeal wears quickly thin, the repetitiveness of the scenarios and of Su-min's crazed monologues make this feel like a very dynamic short stretched to much more inert feature length.
"At night i stare at these alleyways and this place feels like the inside of my brain," Su-min laments, staring over the M.C.Escher-esque cityscape that imprisons him. Trapped in a punishing cycle of internal digressions into the warped base of his own mind, Su-min darts around this empty urban fortress he remains the mad king and sole resident of, rambling to ghosts of his past and revisiting all of his mistakes. We watch from a distance, tired and after a while, a little bored, powerless to intervene. It's an arresting construct. One that, like A Fish, uses disruption of the form to emphasise the instability of the characters, but also as with that film, one that doesn't quite hold up through it's entirety.
Across two features, Park Hong-min's strengths prove also to be his weaknesses. Both films show a director keen to experiment, to invent and to dismantle structure. For better and for worse, this comes at the expense of more basic elements, of narrative control and coherence. Both films are wandering, ungainly objects - ingenious and frustrating in equal measure. The third feature might realise the greatness his first two contain many suggestions of.