Dust and Ashes (South Korea, 2019) [Reel Asian 2020]
South Korean filmmaker Park Hee-kwon marks his feature directing debut with Dust and Ashes, a study of an impoverished young woman struggling to make ends meet in the wake of personal tragedy. Produced on a visibly tight budget, and dominated by hand-held photography and long takes, it joins a crowded landscape of similarly small, bleak independent dramas that vie for release in North Asia every year. The film combines a slow pace with a comparatively short running time which will likely stymie its chances of critical and commercial success. It always feels unnecessarily dismissive to write this, but Dust and Ashes is a rather boring film.
This is not to claim that the film is entirely without merit. It is clearly produced with a strong social context, and travels similar terrain to Bong Joon-ho’s blockbuster Parasite (2019). While that film commented on the divide between rich and poor in a satirical fashion, Park’s film presents pure character drama: a character in a terrible situation, forced to undertake an illegal deception to ensure their own survival.
Ahn So-yo plays Hae-su, a young woman who works two jobs to get by. During the day she works in a dust-filled factory. The audience is not privy to the details of what precisely the job entails, but she and her co-workers wash their uniforms with enough diligence to suggest it is nothing safe or healthy. In the evenings Hae-su works at a small restaurant, hiding each night’s salary away in her bedroom. Again the film is low on specifics. She is saving for something – a future – but the lack of detail keeps events stripped-down, simple, and aggressively efficient. Ahn’s performance capitalises on the simplicity of the storytelling, and uses long silences and limited dialogue. She is the core focus of the film, and acquits herself well.
In her tiny apartment’s other room lies a dead body. Its identity, and the circumstances of the person’s death, creates Hae-su’s central conflict. In terms of tone it creates a slow tension as Hae-su lies about what has happened, and the viewer begins to fear she will be discovered. In terms of plot it leads the film to meticulously go through the process one must go through to report a death and legally dispose of the body.
This is, in a nutshell, the problem with Dust and Ashes. It is low on specifics and largely silent, even lacking a musical score to emphasise the emotional stakes. While there is a genuine threat to its protagonist that runs through the film, it is not emphasised enough to sufficiently raise the stakes. Everything else that goes on is essentially government administration: meeting by meeting, form by form, and one soul-crushing problem after another. Park’s film clearly is aiming for bleak realism. It misses its target and lands on dull tedium.
The execution kills the film’s chances stone-dead. Despite strong performances (Lee Kang-ji is very good as Hae-Su’s irresponsible brother) and a potentially good subject matter, Dust and Ashes simply feels under-developed and ordinary. Feature films today exist in a hugely competitive environment: there have never been so many movies available to audiences around the world, and with a sheer lack of time audiences have to pick and choose to find the best and most entertaining works to experience. I cannot see Dust and Ashes making the grade for many viewers. There is quite simply too much out there more interesting, more energetic, and considerably more entertaining available.
Dust and Ashes is streaming as part of the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival from November 12-19.