Lucky Chan-sil (South Korea, 2019) [OAFF 2020]

The old adage that it is better to write what you know is perfectly illustrated by director Kim Cho-hee in her sprightly and amusing debut feature film, Lucky Chan-sil. It’s a somewhat autobiographical movie full of wry comedy and existential angst which won both the KBS Independent Film and CGV Arthouse awards at the 2019 Busan International Film Festival.

Kim adapts elements of her own life, from studying French literature to being the producer on ten Hong Sang-soo films, to create the world of the titular Lee Chan-sil (Kang Mal-geum), a forty-year-old indie movie producer who works with an auteur famous for a particular brand of cinema (clearly a reference to Hong). When THE director dies suddenly during a party, Chan-sil is left not only unemployed but seemingly unemployable due to her narrow range of experience. This causes her to enter an existential crisis as she feels she has dedicated her life to movies and is now alone with nothing to show for it. 

Her new situation is stark as she is forced to retreat to living in a cheap room run by a grumpy old woman (Youn Yuh-jung) and working as a cleaning lady for an irrepressibly cheerful actress named Susie (Yoon Seung-ah). Seeming humiliations prove to be good because her landlady’s house hides plenty of movie-related secrets that offers Chan-sil emotional comfort. Also, Susie proves to be a true friend, not least because she ushers Chan-sil into a possible romance with a younger guy who is a part-time French teacher and indie film director. As Chan-sil reorients herself, she works through her angst by looking back on her past while struggling to step into the future by cautiously taking on new opportunities, which leads to some gentle comedy.

When movie people make movies about movie people, the result can turn out be an example of intellectual masturbation, creative self-flagellation or a simple reflexive comedy. Fortunately, Lucky Chan-sil avoids the worst narcissism and triteness and makes itself a pleasurable experience by being a female spin on a formula that Hong San-soo has built a career on.

We get to know and appreciate the main character who is clearly a representation of director Kim Cho-hee. The reference-heavy context will be familiar ground for cineastes, but the story is universal and its enjoyable to see the relationships in the film develop. We come to care and understand Chan-sil as she is forced beyond the idealism of making movies into a period of self-doubt over life choices.

The comedy is organic by being uniquely personal and appropriate to Chan-sil and her situation which gives depth to the gags and drama. Gentle disappointments litter proceedings with social faux pas, relationship misfires, career miscommunication and general confusion plaguing her as digs deep to discover what she wants from life. There is also a touch of the surreal as the film sprinkles the supernatural over scenes with the ghost of the Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung (in his underwear) acting as a life coach to Chan-sil, which is highly appropriate for a woman her age.

A former office worker who took to acting in her thirties, Kang Mal-geum is a revelation in the title role. Alternately maudlin and waspish, she does dry humor perfectly and has the wonderful put-upon air of someone used to carrying others. However, she also opens up emotionally to give a sense of confusion and hope. Her physicality and facial expressions are equally expressive, allowing for comedy to create a complex character we can pity, empathize with and root for. Likewise, the supporting cast, some of whom are Hong San-soo collaborators, provide sparky foils as they help shape Chan-sil’s journey.

This is a talky picture but still cinematic as tones shift from dramatic to comedic to dreamlike with changes in lighting and camera angles altering perspectives and varying emotions within scenes. Some adroit camera movements and edits defy the static camera set-ups that are typical of this type of film, setting up set sight gags or picking out details and character reactions that add textures to the relationships. All of this signals that Kim is a directing talent who has learned a lot from her collaborators but also has something of her own to say.

When Chan-sil comes to her realization of what she wants in life, it is a really inspirational moment, a reminder of why people love films and congregate around them. Chan-sil’s journey should provide comfort for all audience members, regardless of how settled they are in their lives, as they will be able to understand Chan-sil intimately and cheer her on.

Lucky Chan-sil is showing at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 9 and 14.