The Slug (South Korea, 2020) [OAFF 2021]

The Slug is the English-language title of South Korean filmmaker Choi Jin-young’s debut feature. While it may be a reference to the main character who suffers from excessive sweat, it pales in comparison to the Korean title which loosely translates as “it was good that you were born,” or “thank you for being born.” This positive affirmation is thematically important and something that the film’s protagonist needs to hear as shown in a story that mixes timelines, a tragic background, coming-of-age tropes, and first love as brought together by a fantastical twist to finds hope in an indifferent world.

The film follows the emotional awakening of 30-something woman Chun-hee (Kang Jin-a), who lives in her mother’s childhood home. Through flashbacks we see her move into this place in 1998 as a teenager after her parents’ funeral. This period was the start of her profound existential loneliness, a sense compounded by the reluctant adoption performed by her uncle’s family, all of whom treated her like an outcast rather than a relative, and exacerbated by Chun-hee being regularly embarrassed over the excessive sweat caused by Hyperhidrosis. Despite this, Chun-hee persisted in living positively and doing what she could. Eventually, she was tasked by her cousins to become caretaker of the house. 

As an adult, Chun-hee may smile more but her whole existence is shaped by her background. She makes a modest income selling cloves of garlic and saves the money in the hope of getting treatment for her Hyperhidrosis, all while living alone in a house which has remained mostly unchanged and packed full of miserable memories. These are brought to the present one day when, whilst out walking, she is struck by a bolt of lightning. Although she initially seems to come away unscathed, she finds that she can now see her teenage self (Park Hye-jin) who appears at random moments around the house. Teen Chun-hee immediately becomes an energetic and positive presence who allows the older Chun-hee to face her adolescent traumas and sense of loneliness, all of which resurface after she discovers her cousin plans to sell the house. And so begins a surreal cohabitation that leads to an exploration of the human condition.

Choi keeps a light tone through the film’s non-linear narrative. Most of the heavy family drama is remembered in flashbacks. That one timeline takes place in 1998 is significant across Asia as this was the date of the IMF crisis and a wave of suicides that followed. We can infer that Chun-hee’s parents were victims and she was left behind, hence the reason for her becoming unmoored from others. Further scenes of everyday bullying and fractious family arguments follow and are done realistically and reinforce her alienation.

The more positive aspects of Chun-hee’s growth, from facing her difficult past to a possible romance, are placed in the present-tense timeline. The film can cleanly segues between present and past through little everyday details such as a change in props, like the use of cigarettes and e-cigarettes smoked by an ill-tempered aunt and the house itself which Choi impressively uses to physically and temporally traverse Chun-hee’s history. Crucially, the adult and teenage versions of Chun-hee playfully interact and hand off sequences to each other.

In order to better understand Chun-hee’s development, we see a character who parallels her when she finds a romantic foil in the form of Juh-wang (Hong Sang-pyo), a genuinely sweet man with a stutter whom she meets at a self-help group for people with unresolved trauma. While his romantic insistence might be a mixture of ardour and neediness, their tentative romance is founded on mutual affection. Indeed, the visual motif of hearts is quite common as patterns on clothes or drawings on walls but love for Chun-hee is absent in people’s interactions. While Juh-wang may offer inspiration, any romantic cop-out from meaningful character development is avoided as Chun-hee becomes a much more active agent in dealing with her present.

Anchoring the film are two sympathetic performances from Kang and Park as the adult and teen Chun-hee. Kang displays a veneers of a gentle but worn kindness. When it breaks at her moments of despair over her isolation, the emotion that Kang conveys is moving. Meanwhile, Park is perfect as a teen still too dense to understand she needn’t take every negative criticism to heart. She displays a convincing uncertainty of her place in life and naive optimism which is equally affecting. Knowing who she grows into makes us care more and seeing the two learn to embrace their shared existence is a beautiful moment as, finally, someone thanks her for being born.

The Slug is showing at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 9 and 11.