Ode to the Goose (South Korea, 2018)

After spending most of his directorial career focusing on the lives of Koreans living in China, as well as questioning the Korean identity, Zhang Lu redirected his attention and energy to a different sort of modern dilemma for his 2018 picture Ode to the Goose. Packed with a talented cast headed by Park Hae-il and Moon So-ri, Lu’s film focused more on the breakdown and absence of substance and communication facing contemporary relationships of all varieties. Despite all its efforts in presenting a jarring yet truthful portrait of modern life, Lu’s film hits as many marks as it does miss them – when it misses it does so by a mile.

Opening as our two leads wander the sleepy town of Gunsan Ode to the Goose fixates itself on Yoon-young (Park) and Song-hyun (Moon) and the misunderstanding of just what their relationship is. After finding a place to eat the two set out to locate a BNB, they find one owned by a middle-aged Japanese man (Jung Jin-young) and his autistic daughter (Park So-dam) As Yoon-young confesses his feelings for Song-hyun their trip descends into bitterness with the pair growing closer to their hosts as if to spite each other. But as Song-hyun and Mr Lee open themselves to one another things take a slightly darker path between the other two.

What projects itself to be an intimate portrait of mixed signals, flirtation, and blatant misunderstanding instead reveals a passive-aggressive, at times lifeless, character study of flawed human beings; audiences get the luxury of watching Park spending most of his screen time in the first 75 minutes forlornly moping about as if in some depressive episode. Instead of this coming across as contemplative, hopeless, or even poignant it’s juvenile and pathetic. Though the scenes shared by Song-hyun and Mr Lee offer some sort of emotional depth the constant cuts to Yoon-young stalking her and, frankly, being plain creepy offer nothing except a test of the audiences’ patience. Lu hints at something sinister across this main arc – cameras planted across the motel leave us wonder who is really watching for example – but this is just as cosmetic and one-dimensional as the rest of the film.

Despite it’s lacklustre surface detail Lu excels in unravelling his characters’ complicated links and exposing their vulnerabilities – the father-daughter relationship is surprisingly effective at this – showing that no matter how much (or little) we know someone we will never truly know them. With a looping, cyclical narrative structure finding out just who Yoon-young and Song-hyun are to each other remains the spectacle of this picture. Wider themes of xenophobia and mixed-race identities are explored here but not to the same effect; instead, they are deployed to highlight the Yoon-young’s one-note nonchalance and social awkwardness and merely come across as superfluous details.

Moon herself is a delight to watch, especially as Song-hyun drinks herself into a stupor most nights and unleashes a promiscuity many would relish. The same cannot be said for Park: though he plays his character unsettlingly well it’s simply hard to watch a grown man act the way his character does; one is left frustrated with head buried in hands as he cloys for the attention he so demands from his love interest. It’s the equivalent of watching a spoilt teenage boy react to being “friendzoned” minus expressing any relatable emotion. No matter how many positive things can be taken from this experience it’s unforgivably soured by this self-absorbed obsession.

Ode to the Goose suffers as much from its story as it does from its editing. It’s not a terrible thing to cut the film with the spontaneity the characters live by but here it is so fragmented it gives the audience a near-constant whiplash. Cho Young-jik’s cinematography does however make up for this with immaculate framing and stunning camera work. Visually this makes the film worth the watch even if it is mired by a slow, monotonous pacing. Shots of Seoul at night are lit up like faces after plenty of soju whilst desolate scenes in the seaside town of Gunsan do well to reflect the numbing emptiness harboured by the main cast. It’s the most touching element of what is otherwise a very drab film.

Comparisons have been made between this and many a film by Hong Sang-soo yet this is by all means an over-exaggeration. There’s little harmony to be found here and just as much likability in its characters. Ultimately it is a film that tries too hard to be poignant and deeper than what it really is, evident in its dialogue and dependence on alcohol – the only real connection to be held with Hong’s films. It’s such a shame as on paper this should work; it bears the hallmarks of a thought-provoking meditation on modern relationships but instead feels like a non-existent tantrum.