If you know anything about Korean film and television, you’ve heard of Squid Game and Parasite. You may even have heard of some of the bigger names: Bong Joon-ho, Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sang-soo. But there’s a lesser-known Korean filmmaker doing equally exciting things. Her name is Jeong Ga-young.

Jeong, whose long master shots of drunken conversations have earned her (superficial) comparisons to Hong Sang-soo, appeared on the Anglophone arthouse radar with her third feature, Heart (Ha-Teu / 하트 2019), which played at the London Film Festival and is currently streaming on MUBI. Written and directed by Jeong, who also plays the female lead, Heart opens with Seong-bum (Lee Suk-hyeong) at his studio in the dead of night, when a woman named “Ga-young” suddenly visits. They’re former lovers, but he was already married when she first met him and asked for painting lessons.

Ga-young comes to seek his counsel about her current lover, another married man, whom she calls “the sexiest man alive” (Song Myung-jin later plays him as a buffoon). But since Seong-bum slept with her the day his son was born, whatever advice he can give lacks any moral standing whatsoever. She’s not really here for the advice in any case; she just wants someone to talk to, someone who understands.

Although – does he understand? Their darkly hilarious beer-soaked conversation on Seong-bum’s worn-down brown couch (production design by Park Su-min) is studded with zingers and barbs. He resents her for ghosting him before his mother’s funeral; she, afraid to sleep with her current beau lest she fall head over heels, resents the fact that she and Seong-bum aren’t in the kind of relationship that would conventionally allow for physical intimacy. Yet Ga-young and Seong-bum have sex anyway, twice. The second time is shown onscreen with a notably erotic charge (thanks to its soundscape) – this will become important later.


Photo Credit: Bitchsa

Their long conversation, interrupted once in a while by flashbacks and a couple of bizarre ghost scenes (edited by Gwon Eun-ji), is essentially a showcase for Jeong’s fantastic writing, which perfectly captures the mood of having an ex suddenly drop by for no apparent reason. Bundles of contradictions that they are, the two characters nonetheless feel coherent. And every line of exposition is fully motivated, sometimes thrice-over.

Jeong is no slouch in the acting department, either. Opposite Lee’s nonplussed foil, she turns on a dime from insult to injury, nostalgia to resentment, laughing-with to laughing-at, and back. Her captivating screen presence emerges subtly, in contrast to Lee’s toned-down charisma and intentionally dowdy hair and wardrobe (he’s more charismatic in flashback). But Lee’s acting can be felt in how he makes mutual their unspoken, even reluctant, attraction.

The last two reels of this 70-minute film have a twist: In a naturally lit daytime scene (cinematography by Kim Seon-hyeong), Ga-young discusses her latest film script with a boyishly handsome marquee actor (Choi Tae-hwan) that she wants to cast in the lead role, revealing the past 50 minutes to be a fictionalized version of her own experiences. Unlike in Atonement (2007), the point here isn’t a face-saving change of ending, but the very idea of entering into romantic liaisons mainly to generate creative material.

At the climax of their extended discussion, Ga-young says that she needs the romantic experience to make a film to go to Cannes to become famous, and “that’s how I grow.” The actor counters that she should cast her former lover to play himself, and instead of taking it to Cannes, they should just watch the finished film together. “That’s how you grow.”

It seems like they mean two different senses of “grow”: to grow as a filmmaker and as a person. But aren’t they really the same thing? An artist needs to sincerely engage with the experiences that they put on the page and screen; otherwise, they’re just commodifying them.

Or, in Ga-young’s case, (re)sexualizing them. As Ga-young herself notes, such a young and handsome actor shouldn’t be able to offer such perceptive comments on her script (and her artistry); small wonder she asks for a hug before they part. His soft refusal reiterates his view of her artistry and helps her avoid an ethical can of worms: Imagine him joining her in that erotically charged sex scene. Yes, desire is an intrinsic part of cinema (Jeong’s own 2017 short Love Jo. Right Now. is a standout example), but there’s something icky about the fulfillment of a filmmaker’s deepest desires in a work projected for the world to see.

There’s another, more fortuitous, interplay at work between the film’s two levels. Perhaps Ga-young the ex is so compelling a character because she’s played by Ga-young the writer-director, in full control of both characters’ lines along with the general pacing of the scene. That would be an argument for auteurism. But Ga-young the writer-director, played by the writer-director of Heart, is convincingly hesitant and full of longing. So maybe it’s an argument for authenticity. Or for Jeong’s acting. Not knowing which is part of the fun.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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