Microhabitat (South Korea, 2017) [NYAFF 2018]

Miso (Esom), a woman in her early 30s, cleans other people’s fancy homes, but lives herself in a non-heated one-room apartment, which is too cold to have sex with her boyfriend, Han-sol (Ahn Jae-hong). Yet, after New Year, Miso does not have enough money for accommodation once her landlord raises the rent, while the price of her favorite brand of cigarettes also goes up. So, she decides to give up her apartment and stay temporarily at the homes of her college friends, with whom she used to play in a band. However, she finds it difficult to find shelter due to everyone being so immersed in their lives that they give little thought to Miso’s predicament.

The film’s tour around her former friends’ places shows them all settled in some family or work responsibility. The bassist is on a career track in a big company, which takes all her energy. She compensates for it through medication and energy boots shots. The keyboardist is married, living the life of a serving housewife in the working class area. The drummer’s wife has left him, and he grieving. The former vocalist still lives with his parents, who see in Miso a possible wife for their son. And finally, the former lead guitarist is living a middle-class life, hiding her former wild youth from her husband and mother-in-law – a life of which Miso is a not so welcome reminder. Even Miso’s habit of smoking is for some of them a sign of her remaining in their college days, while they lead responsible and healthy adult lives. But there is something endearing about Miso’s minimalist lifestyle.

‘Microhabitat’ as a biological term meaning a habitat of small or limited extent. It differs in character from its surrounding, more extensive habitat. Miso’s life, as compared to her former friends and employers, is based on being somewhat dependent on them but trying to keep her distance and independent spirit separate from them. Her lifestyle is temporary, based on the small joys of smoking cigarettes and having a good whiskey at her regular bar. In spirit, Miso never left her younger band days, but all her friends did. They have settled into a regular lifestyle, busy managing a household, having jobs, or stagnating in their parents’ house. The only one trying to keep up youthful dreams is Miso’s boyfriend, who is aiming to be a cartoonist and seems to be the only person who truly understands Miso’s tough, independent character. But even he eventually has to give up.

Miso, trying to compensate for her dependence on others, is not a bad friend: she listens to their sorrows, cleans their houses, and cooks meals for them. Her female employers open up to her about their troubles. The eggs that she carries around are a visible sign of her nurturing side. Esom creates in Miso a memorable portrait of a young woman, who is not willing to give up her way of life to compromises.

The locations form another interesting chain in the film. The cold, stark outdoors underlines the difficulty of living in a modern expensive city without a regular income or a family to depend upon. Each of the apartments, be it the polished mansions Miso cleans, or the different homes of her friends, connect to the persons inhabiting them, depict their social conditions within the contemporary Korean society, and form the growing ground for these different character types. Though keeping the narrative and camera style on everyday realism and its hard realities, Jeon also creates some mildly amusing and eccentric scenes, and keeps the general tone light. Hence, Microhabitat differs from other low-budget South Korean indies, which often dwell too much on the dark side.

Director Jeon Go-woon made this debut feature within the independent production outlet Gwanghwamun Cinema, founded in 2013, which brought together Korean independent filmmakers who want to make films outside of big production conglomerates. Jeon is the first female director to complete a feature within the group. Microhabitat received a lot of positive attention at the 2017 Busan International Film Festival, and this reviewer is eager to see her next film.

Microhabitat is showing on July 10 at the New York Asian Film Festival.