In 1953, Japanese cinema master Ozu Yasujiro gave the world a sentimental and enduring critique of modernity’s erosion of traditional family values in the form of Tokyo Story. The tale of a society unable to accommodate deep-rooted human relationships constituted a new archetypal story for the modern age.

Korean writer-director Jeon Go-woon puts it to good use in Microhabitat (Sogongnyeo / 소공녀 2017), her feature debut, currently available on MUBI. Rather than aging parents who don’t fit in with their children’s fast-paced urban lives, Microhabitat follows the poor yet contented Mi-so (Esom) as she tries to crash with one friend after another while saving up for the security deposit on a new, cheaper rental. Our view of each friend’s life suggests that the critique here is not just of modernity, but of neoliberal patriarchal capitalism, in which everyone is just trying to get by.

Mi-so doesn’t ask for much in life. She makes money by cleaning houses, and spends it on a place to sleep; medicine that keeps her luxuriant, flowing hair from turning white; some Esse cigarettes; a glass of Glenfiddich whiskey every night; and simple dates with her white-collar precariat boyfriend (Ahn Jae-hong), who lives in a corporate dormitory. The tone of the film is set when the price of her cigs goes up, and she has to cut back on one of these few expenditures. She decides to cut back on rent, packs up her stuff, and returns the keys.

Ozu rotates between the grown children, whereas Jeon has Mi-so visit her bandmates from her old college days: bassist, keyboardist, drummer, guitarist, vocalist. (Funny enough, we never find out what Mi-so was.) The bassist (Kang Jin-a) is so busy as a corporate executive that she takes her lunch through an IV tube — and even then gets called away by her boss, so of course she doesn’t have time for Mi-so. The keyboardist (Kim Guk-hee) slaves away in a loveless marriage under the disapproving gaze of her in-laws, and Mi-so doesn’t want to add to her burden.

The drummer (Lee Sung-wook) is utterly heartbroken by his recent divorce and the leftover mortgage; Mi-so could have helped do the chores that he lacks the willpower for, except that her boyfriend objects to the two single people living together. The vocalist (Choi Duk-moon) is an unmarriageable bachelor whose parents lock Mi-so in their house to persuade her to marry him (she escapes). And most pointedly of all, the guitarist (Kim Jae-hwa) has married unhappily into money, and scolds Mi-so for lacking ambition in order to cover for her own insecurities about the kind of person she’s become.


Photo Credit: KwanghwaMoon Cinema

Everyone misses the good ol’ days, but they also fail to see that, by giving up conventional bourgeois materialist desires, Mi-so is still living them. At least, she tries to. The Korean title translates to “the little princess,” an allusion to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic novella. (The English title, changed at the behest of the international distributor, is a pun: The Korean for “microhabitat” sounds like “where Mi-so lives.”)

The film’s strongest critique comes in the fact that this perfect protagonist — happy from moment to moment, kind as an angel, a loyal and obedient girlfriend, a manual laborer contributing to society with her inherent biological existence, an expert in cleaning, and a stellar cook to boot — literally has no place in contemporary urban Korean society.

Esom adds a fine point to it by portraying Mi-so as a saint. No matter how desperate Mi-so’s situation is, she’s always more concerned for those around her, and her face is fixed in a kind regard. Her one-dimensionality plays well against the equally caricatured supporting roles. Like the later Default (2018), this film benefits from a lack of nuanced characters.

And her situation gets increasingly desperate. She and her boyfriend donate blood for film tickets. Then, in the only scene in which Mi-so tries to change someone’s mind, he leaves on extended assignment to Saudi Arabia for hazard pay. And the price of whiskey goes up, too. By the time all of her friends have turned her out, she only has enough money to rent the worst room you could possibly imagine; even prison cells usually have a toilet.


Photo Credit: KwanghwaMoon Cinema

Ozu resolved his film by killing his protagonists, though one death is merely symbolic. Jeon is kinder to hers. She has Mi-so pitch a tent in a riverside park. The evening shot of her warm, yellow lamp shining through the orange tent is representative of the city’s night- and daytime beauty, which cinematographer Kim Tae-soo captures like a whiskey commercial (this is a compliment).

That shot caps a gobsmackingly sublime sequence (edited by Go Bong-gon) revealing just how much Mi-so chooses to forgo. The camera travels the city like a tourist, and at certain moments — on a highway, in a familiar whiskey bar — we catch a fleeting glimpse of luxuriant, flowing white hair. Mi-so the character has become Mi-so the urban legend, the woman with long white hair for whom, through no fault of her own, society had no place.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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