Maggie (South Korea, 2018) [OAFF 2019]

Winner of the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2019’s Grand Prix (Best Picture Award) as well as the Busan International Film Festival 2018’s CGV Art House Award and Citizens’ Critic Award, Maggie heralds a new directing talent in Yi Ok-Seop. She brings a lively verve to this examination of how doubt can infect everything and how such an infection can only be cured by seeking the truth. It’s a large topic tackled with a disparate range of elements from a talking catfish to mysterious seismic activities. Audiences will be forgiven for having doubts of their own as to how whether everything will come together in a satisfying matter, but it works in the end.

The titular Maggie is the aforementioned talking catfish. She narrates throughout the film and can also predict seismic disasters. We discover this just as Seoul is hit by a wave of sinkholes but main protagonist, nurse Yoon-young (Lee Joo-young), has bigger fish to fry. She doesn’t know the catfish can talk and the sinkholes aren’t her problem. That’s something her layabout boyfriend Sung-won (Koo Kyo-hwan) has to deal with as he finally gets a job filling them in. Yoon-young’s more concerned about keeping her own job because an x-rated x-ray of a couple having sex is making the rounds through the wards of the hospital she works at and the management have suspicions that it is her. She has her doubts as to whether it is her and Sung-won playing doctors and nurses but she decides it is better to quit than face censure. However, just as she is about to resign, her boss, Dr. Lee (Moon So-ri), experiences a crisis of faith in humanity as nearly the entirety of the hospital staff have called in sick and she suspects they are lying. Dr. Lee has doubts so Yoon-young convinces her to check out a few of the staff to see if they are telling the truth. Yoon-young gets Dr. Lee to agree to make a deal to trust everyone and everything from that day forward if the staff have genuinely come down with an illness en masse. What Yoon-young doesn’t expect is to have to question her trust in her boyfriend.

This synopsis doesn’t spoil much because the film is split into multiple vignettes that seemingly go off on tangents before everything comes back together in an examination of its central themes and it sort of works. It never feels cohesive especially as the pacing between sections varies and things go slack during the meandering middle section when Sung-wan’s boyfriend becomes the focus of the narrative. The early and late sections are definitely the highlight as a sprightly pace is maintained through various quirky misadventures and quirk is what makes everything hang together as the performances and atmosphere are whimsically odd with characters increasingly driven by various instances of needling doubt that balloon out of proportion.

This is a character-driven piece full of confident performers taking characters to a heightened place somewhere joyful between philosophical and silly and the actors become foils for each other. The strongest parts of the film involve the charismatic Lee Joo-young as nurse Yoon-young whose low voice and laid-back demeanour hide a rebellious character. Acting as a contrast to the nurse wanting to trust is the more experienced Moon So-ri as Dr. Lee, an acerbic and doubtful presence who finds herself pulled along into situations she doesn’t want to be in by her younger co-worker. She always has a funny cynicism that is a great contrast to the proposed idealism. Koo Kyo-hwan, also the film’s producer, has an easy energy that makes him seemingly sweet natured and even charming but, as the vignettes unfold, we discover that this could hide a rather dubious layer which plays into the themes of doubt.

Despite story and pacing issues, Yi shows her skill by using the full range of cinema to ensure the atmosphere is consistently stylised and whimsical, creating a world one-step removed from our own. Within the opening 30 minutes, I was enjoying everything she was throwing at me and felt delighted through most of the narrative. The soundtrack runs counter to the scene to offset audience expectations and the physical movement of camera and actors, the framing, staging, quick cuts all act as a springboard for great punchlines so it’s quite common to get a laugh as things pop into frame or a chuckle from a pan or cut to another camera angle to reveal the whole of a scene. In Yi’s world, even the most mundane objects and sequences take on great import and get cinematic treatment and that makes the film fun to watch as she plays with and subverts expectations.

Overall, Yi’s directorial sensibilities and her cast make this film a charmingly offbeat analysis of doubt. They connect random story elements to create a film that is unique and delivered with a wry sense of humour and visual style even if it is rather uneven.

Maggie was shown on March 13 and 17 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival.