Dir: Lee Kwang-kuk | Dragons & Tigers | South Korea | 2015 | 99 mins
Following his directorial debut Romance Joe, Lee Kwang-kuk brings us a whimsical, puzzle-like film where dreams and reality conflate into one strange but satisfying narrative.
A Matter of Interpretation opens with burnt-out actress Yeon-shin (Shin Dong-mi) storming off stage in the middle of a performance, frustrated at the incompetent crew and disheartened by the empty theatre seats. Life seems as washed out as the ethereal Seoul winter lighting, and her prospects as bricked in as the city’s cold stone walls. Finding refuge on a city bench, Yeon-shin encounters detective Seo (Yu Jun-sang), who after reproaching her for defying park rules, offers to interpret her dreams. At first annoyed by the cheeky plain clothes cop who helps himself to her soju (vodka) and cigarettes, Yeon-shin is eventually won over by his light-hearted musings and genuine concern. Thus begins a surreal journey that transports us from lonely park bench to a vast and open dreamscape as these two strangers build a rapport through sharing their dreams. Along the way, we meet Seo’s mentally ill sister and Yeon-shin’s ex-boyfriend, Woo-Yeon (Kim Kang-hyun), a failed actor who champions the artistic talents of his tenant’s son even as he himself succumbs to the pressures of social norms, renouncing the stage in order to find a money-making profession. Individual perspectives begin to blur as characters take on multiple roles in each other’s fantasies, and conversations are repeated under different scenarios.
The brilliance of this film lies in its ability to maintain a dream-like aura while remaining in touch with real life issues. Even as the viewer struggles to tease apart the strands of reality and reverie, the anxieties of ordinary men and women struggling with alienation, work, and family life are artfully articulated and addressed. Only in this surreal space can a taxi driver and her client casually discuss the most auspicious day for committing suicide, or middle-aged women in bright yellow raincoats rescue estranged lovers from the trunk of their car. At times comical and downright absurd, in other moments philosophical and grave, the film never settles on a final conclusion but achieves its balance through a series of tensions and resolutions. An artist waxes eloquent on the value of art only to offend his listeners by ending in an angry outburst. As the youngest character admits, “life is so muddled.”
Lee Kwang-kuk’s cinematography is subtle and refreshing. He pauses to admire the ordinary zooming in on a child’s graffiti or a playground fixture, yet at the same time encourages his audience to expect the extraordinary from the mundane. Car trunks yield kidnapped ex-boyfriends and helium balloons. In keeping with the film’s desire to consider new dimensions of time and space, scenes are shot from weird angles -— focusing on the inside of a car trunk, or the back of a headrest. The perfectly timed soundtrack is a delightful mix of rustling wind and humorous tick-tocking music which never permits a scene to lag.
Delightful and thought provoking, A Matter of Interpretation is a film that invites and charms the audience into contemplation. So, what is the significance of the white hatchback sedan? And is the washing away of a schoolboy’s doodling a visual metaphor for the early smothering of his artistic inclinations, or a graver visual allegory of society’s inability to interpret the “writing on the wall”? And why are the characters sitting all the time? The film provides no clear answer. After all, it’s a matter of interpretation.