Director Minji Ma’s opening scenes, time-lapsed panoramic shots of downtown Seoul, South Korea, suggest a humming and pristine prosperity full of kinetic energy, but the forward momentum of her images is halted only by her blunt narration: “this city made my family a fortune and then made us lose it all.” This stark contrast thus sets up the intensely personal Family in the Bubble, a film at the intersection of documentary and memoir. While one may remember that South Korea was among the second tier of high performing Asian economies until the crash of the late 1990s, economics alone fails to tell the human consequences. Ma personalizes the principles, weaving the wider story of development with her family’s travails under boom and bust.
Ma’s first person storytelling reveals her perspective at the outset, critical of her parents’ refusal to give up their home in a middle-class Seoul neighborhood when they can no longer afford it. Her clean, extra-wide, and aerial shots show the audience the grandeur of Seoul’s massive infrastructure projects and gorgeous landscapes. As the scenes transition from the outer urban world to the inner world of Ma and her parents, the facade of progress falls away.
From Ma’s perspective, the bubble has multi-layered symbolism and meaning, both in her building an independent life away from her family and in the idea that Seoul is a macrocosm of her personal story. Her own uncertainty is reflected in the question of what comes next for her nation. She came of age after the great catch-up and convergence of the late 20th century, the milieu of the previous generation when growth was assumed, when it was believed that nothing could stop that momentum and everyone could get rich.
The landmark events of her life shadow and contextualize the national story. Ma uses archival clips from the time of the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, a coming out party for South Korea as the 1964 Olympic Games were for Tokyo, as a bookend. Between the gaudy 80s colors and the images of massive high-rise residential towers clumped together in downtown Seoul, the shots make clear that capitalist values, previously only the ethos of the urban-born elites, diffused widely, everyone chasing the “Korean dream.” This is world Ma was born into, a self proclaimed “upper middle class apartment kid,” a status that lasted from her birth in 1988 to the crash of 1997.
The subsequent downfall from prosperity for Ma’s parents turns out to be a catalog of financial illiteracy and delusion. The camera acts like a tool of interrogation as she captures her parents at vulnerable moments. The dynamics of her relationships with her parents is spontaneous and candid. She allows an intimacy between the lens and her family that is charming, repulsive, embarrassing, sentimental, but also loving, the relatable melange of most parent-child relationships.
Technically, the film modulates between two different sub-genres of documentaries, a voice over narration and cinéma vérité. In the former, Ma provides a voiceover, and in the latter style she’s a direct participant in the ongoing family drama. The plotting of the stories, both personal and collective, intermittently move from the present to the past and back again. These often contrasting modes create a film that feels surprisingly cohesive. Mostly, one feels the sense of anxiety that comes from the pathos of senior citizens observed living in financial and emotion ruin. The camera borders on stalking, observing them trekking around Seoul searching for the future that slipped through their fingers like grains of fine sand.
One clip of a television spot highlights the selling of empty promises to the credulous. In it middle age men clumsily imitate a K-pop dance routine while singing simplistic steps about how to make money on real estate. Ma highlights the absolute absurdity in the culture around such glibs ways of the earnest of handling one’s money. Regarding her own nation’s deficiencies, Ma’s framing of South Korea’s economic bubble presents the impressive physical structures of progress, including cranes, sleek skyscrapers, vast urban landscapes, but such images contrast with the strikingly unsophisticated empty promises and humorous sales pitches.
Minji Ma is both a sociological critic and also a filial daughter, ultimately understanding that her parents were one of many caught in a game and destined to failed under a system with “the rules set by the big guys.” Family in the Bubble offers a fresh perspective from a young and wise filmmaker. Her gorgeous cinematography and deft stylistic synthesis are sure to impress. The fragility of living with economic uncertainty is a universal challenge in the developed world, one that will resonate with festival goers of all generations.
Family in the Bubble is showing on November 11 at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival.