Hana (South Korea/Japan, 2018) [OAFF 2019]

Hana is a Korea-Japan co-production from newbie director Mai Nakanishi. Originally from Tokyo, she has spent much of her career abroad working in various roles on a wide range of international projects including working as an assistant director for Eric Khoo and as producer for Sion Sono. Most tellingly, Nakanishi has also worked as producer on the Japanese segments for the horror anthology ABCs of Death 2 (2014). She is a horror fan and when she was selected by the Busan International Film Festival to be a fellow at the Asian Film Academy 2016, she produced this short film under the mentorship of the world-renowned Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-Liang. The final product is very much rooted in horror, her favourite playground, and is an effective short.

A home is a reflection of who lives there and how it is decorated and lived in says a lot about a person which is why it can be terrifying entering one if you stop and think about it long enough. Even more terrifying is the idea we don’t know who we’re dealing with and someone seemingly normal can actually be stranger than imagined which is what happens in this neat horror short.

At first glance, the apartment that Sujin (Jeson Hee-jin) a babysitter, enters seems innocuous enough. White walls, spartan in terms of furnishings, clean, a few pieces of high-end furniture. Blank. It’s perfect for some executive who spends more time in the office and her client is a businesswoman. However, this is the place where she has gone for a part-time babysitter interview so eagle-eyed audience members may wonder where is the child’s presence?

The first person Sujin meets is Mrs. Lee (Lee Jeong-bi), a hard-working single mother who needs a babysitter to look after her 4 year-old daughter Hana. She is desperately looking for someone to take care of her child. Mrs. Lee is dressed in a fancy suit and her manner is all brusque and business-like, something probably honed from her life being a constant whirlwind of activity. She is in a rush so Sujin is hired on the spot to start right away and, despite a strange warning from Mrs. Lee, everything seems normal but soon after Sujin is left alone with Hana (Kim Do-eun), spooky things start to happen…

The best way to describe this film is to use the word austere. OAFF 2018 screened Ordinary Everyday (2017), which was a fulsome experience where every aspect of sound and visual design was used to maximum effect to create a unique psycho-thriller. Hana is the opposite as it works with a minimalist set, sound-design and visuals so this modern apartment, seemingly visited by de-cluttering expert Marie Kondo, becomes alien through slight changes to the environment. Like a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, Nakanishi focuses on her controlled use of camera placement and keen observation for effect and these are enough to raise the level of creepiness as they capture things happening around the protagonist. A door swings open, a creepy illustration on Hana’s bedroom wall, the sound of a child on the move, a bed sheet with a human shape etc.

Nakanishi’s script has Sujin run after Hana and investigate and gives the character believable behaviour in such a situation. The film is very controlled in its initial storytelling but eschews screams for pathos at the end as it offers a pointed commentary on parenting in competitive capitalist countries like Korea where, in order to get ahead, one must cut ties to anything that gets in the way of a career. Perhaps the scariest thing about the film is how mother and child cannot be together…

Whatever the case, this is good for 15 minutes with a satisfying gauntlet set up in the environment and a fitting denouement but Nakanishi is currently working to turn Hana into a feature with prominent art-house auteur, Eric Khoo.

Hana is showing on March 10 and 11 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival.