‘There is more to this world than is safe to know’:
Lee Su-yeon’s The Uninvited (2003)

Synopsis: Uijeongbu, the present. Interior decorator Kang Jung-won begins the long journey home on the Seoul subway. As he sleeps, a single mother and her two daughters board, seating themselves nearby. At the last stop, he wakes to find the girls are dead and their mother missing, but in his panic does nothing; the train drifts away into the night. Safely home, he chats briefly with his fiancée, Hee-Eun, who in his absence has installed a showpiece dining table. She insists that it will be a locus for the family despite appearances: “it’s for each person to sit and talk at as if an actor onstage.” The next evening, when Jung-won is alone in the apartment, the two girls appear to him, slumped at the table . . .

There is a scene midway through The Uninvited, Lee Su-yeon’s cheerless but distinguished portrait of life in modern industrial Korea, that is as chilling and unexpected as it is elegant. A young woman, Yeon, is curled tightly on the sofa in her comfortable high-rise apartment. An incessant whine on the soundtrack shifts register, pulling from nowhere the memory of a crying child; then Yeon intones softly in voice-over: “My mother told me that you shouldn’t keep cats as pets because they take revenge: ‘Unlike other animals, cats have souls.’ But I don’t believe that. I just don’t like their cries.” Moving to the balcony where she stops to admire the rain, Lee’s camera finds a bleak, concrete landscape. Yeon reaches out her hand; sunlight appears through the cloud; and a body falls from above. In an impossible twist of fate the eyelines of both the falling woman and Yeon cross, and Lee’s camera goes in close, matching their reactions in identical shots. When the spell is broken (and it happens quickly and with economy), both women fall out of frame together. This sublime sequence, in a sense the trompe l’oeil of this her debut film, is one example of the often graceful sometimes obvious invention of Lee’s directorial style, and it goes some way to substantiating her preoccupation here with vision, imagination, and with the nature of “experience.”

Using unusual angles (one monologue begins with the seemingly wayward camera focused on the ceiling), some long floor-hugging tracking shots and uncanny digital composites, Lee’s finely nuanced staging and fluid photography necessarily lifts the tone. In this sense, she is also well served by the many residential complexes that have radically transformed the Seoul metro area, including Seoul-dependent wards such as Ilsan. Designed to be self-contained, these “new town” projects feature prominently in the Korean cinematic landscape, either as small builds or as fully autonomous, residential-commercial constructions. Films such as Kim Jee-woon’s Memories (which later shared a D.V.D. release with The Uninvited on the Korean issued The Horror Film Collection Vol. 1), Han Jae-rim’s The Show Must Go On (2007), and Kim So-yong’s Treeless Mountain (2008) make the most of the limitless lines and orderly quality of new town space. For its part, The Uninvited draws attention to itself by scaling architecture and finding alternative perspectives; owing an unremarkable debt to the stylistic mannerisms of Hitchcock (circa-Psycho), the film is arguably most successful when the camera is passing through open windows and gliding down building fronts.

Lee uses these residential builds, variously haunted by death and by dying, to comment more purposefully on the fates of her characters. When we’re first introduced, Jung-won (Park Shin-yang), the affluent, middle-class protagonist of Lee’s story, is caged in a different kind of tower on Seoul’s Line 7 subway, a journey which literally takes him to the end-of-the-line. Though we follow him for most of the film — at work, in the jeep running errands, huddled over blueprints at home — Jung-won remains a particularly sketchy protagonist. He is a timid pooch, this is clear, favouring the traditional family home with his religious father and sister, and genuinely looking flummoxed whenever hot-headed fiancée Hee-Eun springs new ideas on him. He takes a knock to the head one day in the workplace and the shock is enough to keep him second-guessing the origins of his own supernatural “visions”; yet it seems fair to say, based on the prologue alone, that his general misfortune has something to do with spiritual impurity and his ambivalence towards the family religion. In contrast to her fiancé, the materialistic Hee-Eun (Yoo Seon) bounces through the plot hounding her betrothed about wedding invitations and unsuccessfully trying to snap him into action. The mismatch is well emphasised by the variation in the performers’ acting styles, with Park playing the remorseful pup to Yoo Seon’s au courant tigress.

It is possible to glean from Yeon’s subtle reaction a sense of the ignominy that Korean society imputed on women of her position, a point which the film underscores as literally every one of her friends and acquaintances grow to disbelieve her

Jeon Ji-hyun (her screen name later changed to Jun Gianna) takes the other lead role as Yeon. A narcoleptic, and now grieving young mother, her only child was thrown from an apartment balcony in a fit of despair by depressed friend Jung-sook (Kim Yeo-jin). The symptoms of her narcolepsy are the one constant in the film: the dreamy hallucinations, the incidents of cataplexy that floor her without warning, and, naturally, the drowsy crawl of her shell-shocked delivery (even simple conversation is an imposition). The signs suggest that Jung-won himself shares with Yeon a similar if less chronic form of the disorder, but the film defers to a more supernatural mode as Yeon assumes a prophetic role in the narrative. In recovery from a second sleep attack, she explains that her late mother was in fact a shaman. Though Lee doesn’t define their relationship clearly enough, it is possible to glean from Yeon’s subtle reaction a sense of the ignominy that Korean society imputed on women of her position, a point which the film underscores as literally every one of her friends and acquaintances grow to disbelieve her. Just how her psychic visions fit into this (largely unexplored) domain of religious practice — a folk religion remember in Korean history — is similarly left unclear (there’s never any suggestion, for instance, that she is dealing with gods, or that spirits call upon her to conjure visions). Yet by leaving out so much of her semireligious backstory, Lee pares away the social comment.

It’s a small shame because the effort has been made here to touch on the effects of socioreligious changes in modern Korea. For one, Lee strikes an effective balance with her secondary Christian characters. Jung-woon’s father, Kang Jae-sung (Jeong Wook), has settled in Ilsan where (for the first time in his life) he has built his own Christian church. A pastor and single-parent, he now finds it impossible to work up much enthusiasm to continue ministering — and perhaps one reason for this is that he fears the stigma of personal failure (he staves off an unfolding economic nightmare by tending day and night to a small number of growing devotees). His general guardedness in the company of his daughter, the person to whom he is presumably closest, indicates that this time he may well have overextended himself. Actor Jeong Wook’s finely pitched performance is often characterised by distraction and sombre introspection; even with the devotion of his congregation, it seems Jae-Sung is unsure about the church’s role in local life. His daughter Young-Suh (Kang Gi-hwa), on the other hand, is bright and perhaps more brittle. She manages the new converts as administrator pro tempore and beams with personal satisfaction at the church’s growth in membership — at one point she is seen liaising with women who have travelled from Mokdong (a flourishing province just south of the Han river) and we sense in that broad smile her intense pride in the moment.

Yeon (Jeon Ji-hyun) surveys her concrete neighbourhood in The Uninvited (2003)

While the film observes both characters in a church environment, the scope is limited to their everyday lives behind the scenes; there’s nothing here resembling, for instance, the explicitly theological nature of Secret Sunshine (2007), Lee Chang-dong’s brilliant but punishing melodrama which takes to task the unashamedly materialistic slogan of modern-day Evangelism. By contrast, Lee’s view on Christianity as a now firmly established religion within Korea, indeed her feelings on the so-called Christian “success story” (specifically Protestantism), remains opaque. Again, it is a shame because once we learn of Yeon’s shamanistic heritage Jung-won’s Christian identity takes on a greater edge. Lacking this perspective, a few of her secondary characters feel a bit syrupy. When Hee-Eun witnesses a congregation scatter for their cars in a sudden downpour she uses the moment to convince Jung-won of the rightness of her own faith; it is a smug and obsequious scene that provides a sentimental counterpoint to two earlier exchanges, one in which Hee-Eun borrows Jung-won’s only umbrella, and another in which she begins to suspect Jung-won’s infidelity. Lee seems so compelled to hold on to this moment of poetic reflection that the finer point of the scene (that Hee-Eun prays for the conviction to end their relationship rather than for forgiveness or understanding) is nearly lost.

Yeon describes her narcolepsy to Jung-woon (Park Shin-yang)

Since one assumption of the film is that peoples’ lives can be saved if only someone else will listen, the characters’ happiness rests largely on their ability to communicate; secondary characters make war needlessly upon themselves and others, while the more emotionally complex and introspective Yeon and Jung-won, destined it seems to suffer unbearably grim lives outside society, show little resistance. Ultimately it’s impossible to feel much on this (perhaps preordained) downward spiral when miscommunication and unwarranted conclusions predominate. Any suggestion, for example, of a sexual bond with Yeon would be just about unthinkable for Jung-won given her psychological volatility and her emotional dependency, yet their respective spouses (Park Moon-sub, played here by Park Won-sang, and Hee-Eun) seem to think the pair are going at it like some Bergmanian couple in A Lesson in Love. Still, with assured cinematography, some potent themes and, particularly, its thoughtful stab at rethinking cinematic perspective, The Uninvited is an exceptional calling card. After a quick glance, however, at Lee’s filmography — a range of shorts, including La (1998), The Goggles (2000), which is included in the Korea Short Film Collection: Episode 1 (1998), Twenty Questions on the digital shorts omnibus Twentidentity (2004), and the 21 minute short The Rabbit (2008) which was produced for the 10th Women’s Film Festival in Seoul — you’re left wondering if she will return to feature production any time soon.

Disc: A good transfer but, quite unusually for a Tartan release this late in the game, no extras. They do exist in the form of interviews, music featurettes and production notes on the Korean special edition, but alas we haven’t earned them yet. Some sleeve notes would have been welcome but as it is, the film looks splendid and thankfully the D.T.S. showcases its often damned impressive sound design.

This review was originally published by New Korean Cinema.
24 February, 2011


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