Yoon Dan-bi’s debut is a consummate portrayal of loss in a family at a crossroads…
I’m starting to worry that each time I watch a new film, I start to retread familiar territory when asked to describe or review it. It’s not just the fact that a film being ‘quiet’, ‘complex’, or ‘in your face’ can mean totally different things to different people, one fears that the only reference points they have when describing something are simply rehashes of what have already been said.
This is part of the joy of the festival film. We are at the very least free from the confines of what others may have said about the film. This is the theory, at least, as the rise of the online film festival, as well as online engagement with the films showing at each festival means that the information is out there for the taking if you want to know more than just a title and vague synopsis.
And so it goes, I check the listing for Yoon Dan-bi’s Moving On on Letterboxd, to see the top review directly comparing it to the work of Hirokazu Koreeda. I did my best not to let this colour how I viewed the film, and having seen it now, it illustrates just how damaging direct comparisons can be. To refer to Moving On as Koreeda-esque is not only a lazy reach to find an East Asian director known for domestic dramas, but it undercuts the unique excellence of Moving On, that it ultimately deserves on its own terms.
The power of Moving On comes through interiority. It’s not just each and every character holding secrets, closing up as a defense mechanism, it’s the physical interior of the house. A father and his two children, Okju and Dongju, return to the family home to help his sister with their ageing father. There are signs that the father is recently divorced, and he does his best to remain a suitable paternal figure for his two children as he tries to navigate a loss of his own with his sister.
Ultimately, Moving On gives up nothing for free. There is no flagrant exposition, no single scene that alerts us to anything that has happened beforehand. Instead, we are just given a family unit in a time when it is in a knot. We assume it was not so previously, and it may get untangled after the film ends, but the only things we know for sure are the basic set of interactions that make up the films 104-minute runtime. Its propensity to show rather than tell is a breath of fresh air, because it puts to rest any thoughts that the script is simply there to explain a narrative to an audience. The characters become richer because they talk like how we understand people to talk, rather than mere plot devices, orating to a crowd beyond a screen.
Indeed, though the house feels so quiet, its interiors speak to generations of family history, of which we are only privy to a very small part. The way that Yoon and her cinematographer Kim Gi-hyeon shoot the rooms make it feel effortlessly familiar, yet still somehow uncomfortable. The grandfather watering the garden shows itself to be verdant and gorgeous, when we see it later without anyone tending to the plants it starts to feel cold, a memory of a joyous past. The house is visibly large, but cramming three generations into a single space is always going to result in an uncomfortable stifling feeling. Once again, Yoon’s ability to create such a feeling wordlessly is among the film’s greatest strengths.
Interiority and atmosphere is primarily curated in how the film is shot, and its relatively sparse script. It is aided in no small part by how the actors all felt as if they were on the same page. At no point do you doubt a performance or feel as if a choice was unnecessary. Okju feels as if she may be the centre of the film, and while some will unfairly read her desire to use money for double-eyelid surgery while financially, her family is in dire straits as facile and whiny, in Choi Jung-woon’s performance there is a genuine sense of adolescent confusion; a hollow wish that cosmetic surgery was the height of her concerns to distract herself from the fact that her family is collapsing around her. It’s an astutely written character performed excellently, showing how grief is not a solely direct emotion, and it reaches its tendrils out to tarnish all parts of life.
All this, and Moving On isn’t a downer particularly. At its core, I respected its honesty, and there was such a beating heart of love between the father, his children, and his sister in even the most quotidian actions. Though we can’t say for sure what would happen to the family after the camera stops shooting, I truly believe they remain close. They have to, the central thesis of the film is that weathering a storm is a terrible experience, but it doesn’t have to destroy you, and you needn’t suffer alone. The film’s deafening silences will certainly turn some off, and they are so pervasive that it can feel like a slog to get into it, but I think that patience will definitely pay off.
Yoon Dan-bi deserves so much more than being compared to established filmmakers as a route into her debut work. Moving On is not a great film because it reminds me of watching Still Walking, it’s a great film because it deftly portrays cross-generational loss in such a warm and caring fashion. In years to come, Yoon may herself become a touchstone for us to use to lazily describe the work of another up-and-comer, but before then we can simply appreciate the singular beauty of Moving On, even if we may have used to same words to describe other films.
Moving On screens as part of the 19th New York Asian Film Festival 2020, streaming online in the US via Smart Cinema app from August 28 to September 12.
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