A family disintegrates after dark secrets come to light in this occasionally eerie slow cinema Korean indie…
Writer director Yoon Seo-jin makes his debut with Chorokbam, a dark slice of family drama dealing with loss and existential angst. One of the more acclaimed South Korean indies of late, the film won several prizes at the 2021 Busan International Film Festival, including the CGV Arthouse Award and the Citizen Critics’ Award for Yoon.
The film opens outside an apartment complex, with an elderly security guard (Lee Tae-hoon) going about his nightly duties, coming across an unfortunate cat that someone has hung in the child play area, which he cuts down and buries in the nearby woods. From here, we meet his wife (Kim Min-kyung), who seems to be on the verge of constant exasperation due to his annoying habits, and then his son (Kang Gil-woo), who works as a driver for the disabled while trying to figure out whether he wants to marry his girlfriend (Kim Gook-hee) during their meetings in motel rooms. After a death in the family brings them together with other relatives, arguments bring forth dark secrets and long-harboured grudges, leading to more misery and moping.
The title Chorokbam translates into English as Green Night, and the film starts in promising fashion, the opening scenes with the guard wandering the complex at night, lit mainly by green streetlights, being wonderfully eerie and atmospheric, Yoon Seo-jin foretelling the doom to come. From there though, despite it being variously described as an ‘existential horror film’ or as a ‘poetic sentiment of blues and depression’, the film quickly moves into traditional slow cinema territory, with lots of long scenes of the characters sitting around in silence in dark rooms or carrying out strained, possibly meaningful conversations together. As usual for his kind of film, the pace is glacial, and despite the short running time it will challenge the patience of viewers who are not fans of the form or who like their cinema to be a little less dedicated to wallowing in obscure unhappiness – the term ‘slow burn’ really doesn’t go far enough in describing Yoon’s approach.
To be fair, unlike some slow cinema directors, Yoon Seo-jin does attempt to weave a plot and some drama around the hushed ambiguity, and in this respect Chorokbam in places recalls the work of Tsai Ming Liang. Although there are multiple meanings which could be gleaned from the ways in which the characters interact, and from the half-heard and incomplete conversations which make up the generally minimalist script, the film is perhaps simply best taken at face value as a portrait of a family quieting disintegrating under the weight of what could be either or both internal and external forces. Viewed as such, there’s something to be said for Yoon’s approach, which eschews anything hysterical or artificial, and the film does have a few effective emotional beats that come out of moments of often silent revelations, as well as an ominous air and a couple of scenes which might disturb some audiences, even if solely down to the surprise they bring at something actually happening.
While this might sound a little harsh, Chorokbam is mainly a film for slow cinema purists, and on that score it’s generally a well-made, at times visually impressive example of the genre, with a bit of drama and plot thrown into the abyss of ponderousness and introspective miserabilism. Anyone expecting a more traditional bit of filmmaking will likely feel frustrated and disconnected with the characters after the first quarter of an hour or so, and while Yoon may well have been aiming for quiet detachment, there’s not really enough here to actually engage, only to mesmerise.