Sub-Zero Wind (South Korea, 2018) [NYAFF 2019]
After getting a few shorts under her belt, director Kim Yu-ri is not afraid to aim high in her feature film debut as Sub-Zero Wind tackles a load of heavy issues. On the surface, it’sa film that explores the deleterious effects of selfish and abusive parenting on the lives of children. Its true ambitions run much deeper, however, as the film makes a serious attempt to comment on the nature of religion, complex family relationships, sexual abuse, and the inherent unfairness of unchecked capitalism towards the underprivileged. The result is a deeply provocative, albeit somewhat unpolished, social drama.
The plot of Sub-zero Wind centers on the life of Kim Young-ha across three different time periods of her youth (played respectively by Moon Sang-an, An Jin-hyun, and Kwon Han-sol). The first part opens at a church sermon, after which Young-ha’s mother (Shin Dong-mi), a devout catholic deacon, introduces all her friends and family to her “new husband” (Park Jong-hwan), who in reality is still married to another woman. The couple plan to send Young-ha to live with her biological father, but when he disappears without a trace, they’re forced to take Young-ha back.
A few years later, Young-ha lives a seemingly normal life with her mother and stepfather, sharing the same tiny apartment. She spends much of her time with her cousin, Min-ji (So Eu-jin), whose parents passed away some time ago. While Min-ji lives with her ailing grandmother, her financial situation is handled by Young-ha’s mother, who was entrusted to safekeep the life insurance collected from Min-ji’s parents. We soon learn that Young-ha’s mother has covertly used part of the money to fund her own ambitions of becoming a church minister, leaving Min-ji’s future uncertain. When Min-ji’s grandmother dies, she has no choice but to go and live with her aunt and uncle, while Young-ha’s mother is confronted with her embezzlement.
The third part takes place in Young-ha’s late teens as she prepares to go to university. The Kim family struggles financially, while Young-ha’s mother does everything in her power to become an ordained minister. She expects things to improve once Young-ha moves out of their apartment. Her entire plan falls off the rails, however, when a disturbing incident between Young-ha and her stepfather drive Young-ha, along with Min-ji, to run away from home.
The plot, while not particularly convoluted, is quite hard to follow for much of the time because of the filmmakers’ choice to withhold as much information as possible. The film seems to relish in its own vagueness. Kim Yu-ri’s succinct approach to dialogue and bare-bones visual economy often adds an unnecessary layer of complexity to the film that makes scenes hard to decipher. It’s often difficult to keep up with what’s going on. The film becomes clearer upon second viewing (it is so packed it demands a second viewing), but even then, some questions and plot points remain a mystery.
Nevertheless, in all that clutter the film’s message(s) comes through with surprising clarity. It is her mother’s ambition – driven by the need to survive in a relentlessly hostile environment – that ruins Young-ha’s life. We see the harrowing display of a promising young life slowly decent into hopelessness and uncertainty, with the film ending at the characters’ lowest possible point. This is where Kim Yu-ri’s economy of style works best, as any excess might have made the transformation less realistic. Showing her influence of independent Chinese sixth-generation cinema (with an inevitable pinch of South Korean sentimentality), the writer/director is able to capture the unlikely tragedy of her protagonist in a way that is both believable and relatable.
While not a “message film” per se, Sub-Zero Wind will resonate with audiences as an extraordinary yet all-too-familiar cautionary tale. Characterized by strong performances and excellent craftmanship, it’s unlikely that the careers of the cast and crew will go unnoticed. Of course, it’s hard to fully get behind a film whose plot requires multiple viewings to comprehend, but if you choose to stick with it, Sub-Zero Wind is sure to prove a rewarding experience.
Sub-Zero Wind is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival 2019 on July 6.