Fukuoka (South Korea/Japan, 2019)

Korean-Chinese filmmaker Zhang Lu’s Fukuoka details two estranged friends, Je-moon (Yoon Je-moon) and Hae-hyo (Kwon Hae-hyo), who have not seen each other for nearly thirty years. They are unwittingly reunited in the titular Japanese city, where Hae-hyo lives, when Je-moon (reluctantly) agrees to travel with So-dam (Park So-dam), a young woman who is one of his neighbours in South Korea and a frequent visitor at his used bookstore. Upon arriving in Fukuoka, subtly and not so subtly egged on by So-dam when not in one of her solitary wanderings, in a series of conversations throughout the city the two men reminisce over the woman with whom they were both in love during their university days and also her disappearance from both of their lives, the catalyst for their respective subsequent life decisions. On paper, Fukuoka as it reads here would certainly qualify to be what I have termed elsewhere a “cinema of conversation,” whereby the main drive of the scenes and film overall is the curious and frail nature of a conversation between two or a small group of people to simultaneously examine and expose social interaction, behaviour, and rituals; the nature of attraction; and the beautiful pointedness of words and language. And, indeed, the film does possess the aforementioned qualities of such a cinema, which also explores the inverse issues of insularity and introspection. Yet vis-à-vis other filmmakers like Hong Sang-soo, Jang Kun-jae, and Jang Woo-jin, whom I have identified as constituting a cinema of conversation, Zhang with Fukuoka demonstrates his unique take and tone on such issues while specifically putting a spotlight here on the bittersweet, isolating burdens of memory.

Zhang places his three main characters whimsically teetering between past and present, the spectral and the real, interior and exterior, light and shadow, here and there, and not to mention several languages, in order to take on the intricate effects of a past that refuses to be let go, particularly in the case of the two men. Ghosts are therefore a significant conceptual motif: Je-moon and Hae-hyo gradually reveal through their unexpected reunion and conversations just how much they are “haunted” by their shared love for the absent Soon-yi, down to the geographical coordinates of their respective establishments. In the process, they both become aware of it, too, with Je-moon admitting at one point, “My body is a corpse these days.”

As for So-dam, her very character is often compared to the ambiguity of a ghost, with So-dam herself at times muttering the liminal feeling of “Sometimes I feel like a ghost, at other times a human” and scenes that call into question her very identity – or even her very existence. For, in truth, nothing is made known about her. Who is she? Why is she doing what she is doing for Je-moon and Hae-hyo? What is she doing with/for them? There is an insubstantiality to her characterization that is clearly intentionally and can be a bit frustrating, especially in comparison to Je-moon and Hae-hyo. In retrospect, despite their age difference, So-dam’s insubstantiality ultimately matches the insubstantiality of the lives that Je-moon and Hae-hyo lead. Correction: the film makes the sole exception of revealing something about So-dam when she speaks of her parents’ relationship to Je-moon and Hae-hyo at the latter’s bar. In speaking of her father as a “good man” but the “kind of guy who feels almost invisible,” she very much describes all three of them. And when Hae-hyo expresses his understanding by adding, “There and not there, like an old tree,” one also glimpses perhaps the crux of the film: the three are poised to either emerge from such phantasmal insubstantiality and isolation with a newfound awareness and shift in perspective of things or remain stuck in their respective insular ways, through their time together in Fukuoka.

On the one hand, the film’s frequent long takes and handheld camerawork ground the characters in an observational documentary reality, creating a tension with the off-kilter qualities of the characters and other elements that occasionally pop up (a doll in a used bookstore, So-dam’s supposed doppelgänger). On the other hand, strategic use of interiors, lighting, and framing choices – sometimes in league with a long take and handheld camerawork – actually draw out the shadowy, spectral, and seeming stagnancy of their lives, thereby infusing a breath of melancholy throughout the film. While not as consistent as one would have liked, with more lethargic moments being greater in number, several sequences/scenes make Fukuoka a highly interesting addition to the cinema of conversation, while upping the ante with regards to the ghostliness of the past and present: the opening low-lit sequences of Je-moon and So-dam in the former’s labyrinthine bookstore in South Korea before their trip to Japan, which notably concludes with the scene of the two walking (and facing the camera) from the bookstore’s location in an underground parking towards the light of day in one take; the long take candle-lit scene at Hae-hyo’s bar during a blackout, during which time the three improvise a scene of the two men reconciling with So-dam as Soon-yi. And, finally, the film’s concluding – and arguably ghostliest– scene is with the camera winding around the filled-to-the-brim bookcases and narrow aisles back in Je-moon’s low-lit bookstore, and ever so casually calling into doubt (and dream?) all that has happened before it.